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Free Minds & Free Markets

Interview with Murray Bookchin

A controversial anarchist talks about government, the Libertarian Party, Ayn Rand, and the evolution of his own ideas.

There's certainly nothing precedent-shattering about the thought of a speaker at a national Libertarian Party convention stirring up controversy within the libertarian movement. Timothy Leary did it in 1977 at the national convention in San Francisco. And it had been done more than a few times before that. But for a speaker at a national LP convention to stir up the movement before he's even assumed his position on the speaker's platform, before the convention he's addressing has even convened—now, that's no mean feat. And Murray Bookchin, the man who did it at the 1978 convention in Boston, may well have shattered a precedent or two in the process.

Actually, no role could possibly have made Bookchin more comfortable at the Boston convention than that of precedent shatterer: it's a role he's been playing for the past quarter-century. In 1951,11 years before the publication of Rachel Carson 's celebrated Silent Spring, the book that is usually credited with launching the ecology movement, Bookchin published an article on the environment called "The Problem of Chemicals" in the English socialist magazine Contemporary Issues. In 1965 he anticipated dozens of later, more influential books on the plight of the metropolis by publishing his own: Crisis in Our Cities.

Ironically, it was neither Bookchin's views on ecology nor his views on the cities that touched off instant controversy upon announcement of his inclusion in the tentative program for the 1978 convention. Rather, it was his views on organization, and specifically on political organization. According to his critics, Bookchin opposes all hierarchy—all organization in which some carry out the orders and plans of others—as inherently unlibertarian. He also regards political parties, they said, as inherently unlibertarian. How could such a person be invited to speak at a convention of the Libertarian Party?

More or less formal protests were lodged against Bookchin's appearance by prominent and influential libertarians. But Bookchin was also used to being opposed by those whom he considered his allies—in the American labor movement of the '30s, in the American Communist movement of the late '30s and early '40s, even in the New Left movement of the '60s, where his famous pamphlet, "Listen, Marxist!" was widely regarded as heretical and blasphemous. But however much opposition he had encountered, through all his many changes in political direction, he had always managed to have his say. And he managed to have it again at the 1978 LP convention in Boston.

The convention was conveniently located for Bookchin, who lives these days between two homes: one in New York City, where he was born 58 years ago and has lived most of his life; and another in Vermont, where he teaches at Goddard College. He addressed a Saturday morning breakfast crowd of about 150 conventioneers and won a standing ovation for his remarks, titled "Nonauthoritarian Forms of Organization." Then he retired to the press room for interviews. REASON's interviewer Jeff Riggenbach was first in line, eager to learn more about this latest wrinkle in the unpredictable career of this Marxist-turned-anarchist. He had integrated, or claimed to have integrated, his anarchism with ecology and urban sociology. Had he now also achieved an intellectual rapprochement with the positions of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard? Riggenbach led off with a question about the issue at the root of it all: the issue of government.

REASON: You've said you consider the word libertarian and the word anarchist to be interchangeable, yet there are people who call themselves "limited-government libertarians." How does that idea strike you?

BOOKCHIN: I think they probably have not followed the logic of their premises through to their conclusions. The real problem is that "limited government" invariably leads to unlimited government. If history is to be any guide and current experience is to be any guide, we in the United States 200 years ago started out with the notion of limited government—virtually no government interference—and we now have a massive quasi-totalitarian government. I think that people who believe in limited government would benefit greatly by studying the logic in government itself and the role of power as a corruptive mechanism in leading finally to unlimited government. I feel that if people investigate the emergence of government, of State power—if they examine the logic of State power historically, and more specifically in the United States—they will find that the concept of limited government is not tenable once they adopt some type of libertarian principle.

REASON: Some advocates of libertarian limited government say that they are talking about something that hasn't ever existed historically. They say, for example, that their limited government would not have the power to tax but would have to run lotteries and solicit contributions and that anyone who wanted to, in Herbert Spencer's phrase, ignore the State, could do so.

BOOKCHIN: In which case they would have abolished the State. That's the reality of the situation. If the State does not enjoy a monopoly of violence, which then gives it the power to order people's lives and to compel them to obey decisions over which they have no control, or just limited control, then I think you have a consistently libertarian society.

REASON: Do you see a fundamental inconsistency in working toward libertarian ends by means of a political party?

BOOKCHIN: I think there is an inconsistency there, but I believe that people have to explore that inconsistency themselves. I'm not sitting in judgment on whether or not libertarians can participate in a political process whose very nature they oppose.

Look: the State is a professional apparatus that sets itself apart from the people and apart from the institutions that the people themselves create. It's a monopoly on violence that manages and institutionalizes social activities. The people are perfectly capable of managing themselves and creating their own institutions. They have done so from time immemorial. The State always opposes these institutions. A bureaucracy opposes a village council or a village assembly or a town meeting. It tries to usurp their powers.

And my personal feeling is that when one tries to function within the State apparatus in trying to deal with it, take it over, one tends to build one's own structure in a fashion that replicates the State. And one does this almost unknowingly. One is gradually seduced into creating an executive such as the State has, a legislature such as the State has, a national bureaucracy such as the State has. Take a very striking case in point: the Russian Bolsheviks. Lenin created an alleged workers' party, which in every way reflected the Czarist machine, in order to deal with Czarism. And the danger and the hazards of trying to accommodate libertarian principles to the political process as we know it today is that one begins to dissolve the libertarian principles. So I would say that there is an inconsistency there that should be explored.

But this does not mean that I believe libertarians should not get involved in one or another level of the political process. They should. I find it perfectly consistent for libertarians to operate on the municipal or county level, where they are close to the people and where they may have a party or a federation that is made up of the social institutions, the residual social institutions that still remain, over and beyond what the State has managed to preempt and absorb.

I find it exciting, for example, that candidates for the Amsterdam City Council back in the '60s based their so-called party structure on neighborhood associations, food cooperatives, communes. Their "party," as it were, was built on neighborhood structures. It was not built from the top down—the national committee, the state committee, the local committee, the various bureaucracies, the salaried officials—but organically, from the bottom up, on the basis of institutions that already existed in the neighborhoods: child-care centers, people's markets, farmers' markets. It then coalesced organically, like an embryo in the womb of the mother, into a nationwide confederation—and, in Amsterdam, a very effective political structure. This is all-important in my opinion, because if people do not organize in this way, they will not develop the habits, the state of mind, the character structure, that will make it possible for them to finally create a libertarian society.

REASON: If the State disappeared tomorrow, would there be "chaos"?

BOOKCHIN: Yes, utterly. I say this ironically, not because I favor the State, but because people are not in the state of mind right now where they feel that they can manage themselves. We have to go through an educational process—which does not involve, in my opinion, compromises with the State. But if the State disappeared tomorrow by accident, and the police disappeared and the army disappeared and the government agencies disappeared, the ironical situation is that people would suddenly feel denuded.

REASON: Would you say that libertarians are right-wingers? A great many people in the national media and in national politics continue to regard libertarianism as some sort of splinter group of the William Buckley-style conservatives.

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