here’s my Intro to DW’s BB

Beyond Bookchin: Preface for a Future Social Ecology
By David Watson. Autonomedia Press, 1996.

Introduction by Steve Welzer

In his extensive writings on ecology and anarchism, Murray Bookchin tried to take us beyond Marx toward a more fundamental critique, a holistic rationality, a deeper freedom. Under the watchword of “coherence,” Bookchin sought nothing less than the full explanation. David Watson shows in the following text, however, that Bookchin’s work ultimately falls far short of its pretensions, and thus fails to guide us toward the promised “pathways to a green future.”

Bookchin’s stature as a significant utopian theorist of our times is not entirely undeserved; his work is often stimulating, suggesting interesting avenues of thought. During the 1960s and 1970s he gained a reputation for prescience with his recognition of the centrality of the ecological critique and his understanding that the New Left’s vision of a participatory democracy could only be realized under conditions of radical decentralization. In developing what he would call social ecology, Bookchin had come a long way from his early “Marxian intellectual training.”[1]

Murray Bookchin came of age politically in New York City at the height of the Depression-era radical ferment. Disdaining armchair radicalism, he became a Marxist militant and union organizer. Many of his cohort of New York-based radicals would “stick with the union” movement for life. But Bookchin’s intellectual development took an interesting turn during the 1950s. He began to examine issues that mainstream leftists tended to regard as peripheral, such as environmental degradation and cultural dissent. In 1952 he published “The Problem of Chemicals in Foods” and was nearing completion of his first comprehensive ecological tract, Our Synthetic Environment, when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appeared in 1962.

As early as 1966–69, Bookchin’s work gained recognition within those currents of “The Movement” that were the first expressions of an emerging post-Marxist radicalism. His essays from that period were collected in an influential volume, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971), excerpts of which immediately and repeatedly appeared throughout the thriving alternative press of that era. Bookchin moved the ecological critique front and center at a time when most leftists continued to view it as merely a subset of the analysis of capital’s drive to minimize costs and exploit resources. His treatment of the subject was more sophisticated, and when activists (notably those associated with the American Clamshell Alliance and the emerging European Green Parties) acknowledged Bookchin’s theoretical influence, more serious attention was given to his writings, especially early essays such as “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” (1964). Clearly inspired by the attention, Bookchin set out to codify his ideas into a new system. Standing on the shoulders of Hegel and Marx, he felt he could see all the way to the horizon, beyond Class to Hierarchy, beyond Exploitation to Domination, beyond Justice to Freedom, and beyond Historical Materialism to Dialectical Naturalism.

It is instructive to compare Bookchin’s elaboration of social ecology in his best known work, The Ecology of Freedom (1982), with other post-sixties efforts to extend the domain of theory.[2] Most of the latter did little but de-center the “class contradiction” by incorporating feminist, nationalist, and/or ecological perspectives. Bookchin’s work, to his credit, was self-consciously part of a more profound transition of thought, from a “red” to a “green” analysis and critique.[3] Yet, despite his pivotal role in the initiatory phases of that process, it would turn out that Bookchin had opened doors through which he could not pass. It would be left to others to explore the full implications of the emerging ecological-communitarian radicalism.

During the period that Bookchin was writing The Ecology of Freedom, a group of activists publishing the Fifth Estate (FE) newspaper in Detroit was also addressing the question of a post-Marxist radicalism. Their attention was drawn to alternatives such as eco-anarchism (several pieces by Bookchin were reproduced in FE with positive commentary), council communism, and situationist theory.[4] When they “liberated” (re-radicalized and re-invigorated) the failing weekly in 1975, the Fifth Estaters were prone to call themselves “libertarian communists.” But the group was exploring critiques from disparate sources and, as staffer Peter Werbe recently wrote, “. . . we decided the dictum, ‘All isms are wasms’ was correct and began extending the anti-authoritarian critique beyond the obvious oppression of capitalism and the state to uncover deeper roots of the repression of the human spirit and the biosphere.”[5]

In 1986 Mark Satin, an early chronicler of the American movement for green politics, wrote about Rudolf Bahro, another theorist whose work occasionally appeared in the pages of the Fifth Estate, that “he takes the dreams and ideas that were original to our generation and welds them into a powerful and semi-coherent whole, so we can finally begin to see them as an alternative to traditional socialism and not as a mere appendage to it. He has the potential to make ‘holistic, post-material, post-socialist’ thinkers out of even the most tough-minded radicals.”[6] This appraisal could apply as well to David Watson, perhaps the most prolific writer of the Fifth Estate core group.

In the late 1980s, when Watson wrote several essays critical of deep ecology,[7] it was widely assumed that he must be a Bookchinite. In fact, those who read the essays carefully could see that Watson was far from sympathetic to Bookchin’s alternative to deep ecology.[8] In a footnote to his essay, “Return of the Son of Deep Ecology,” Watson pledged that he would examine Bookchinism in depth at a later time. The current volume fulfills that pledge.

The idea of “liberating theory” is an entirely appropriate one for our time. But those who thought they could find a way forward through the “coherence” of Bookchin’s social ecology have either been thoroughly disillusioned or have learned to tolerate a very uneven and idiosyncratic stream of work from an increasingly cantankerous pen. In the current essay, Watson expresses the hope that a viable, healthy, open social ecology, beyond Bookchin, may yet be realized. What’s clear is that it will have to emanate from a chastened perspective, one willing to “look with new/old eyes” right through the mystique of progress, in order to confront the complexity of the human heart and its mis-strivings for freedom within the experiment called civilization.[9]

Murray Bookchin’s wide ranging work has prompted important discussions in new left, countercultural and ecology circles about technology, the nature of rationality, and the prospects for social transformation. But David Watson demonstrates that Bookchin has been far too much the modernist to comprehend the implications of the “holocaust of holocausts” unfolding in our time.[10] For this reason, social ecology itself must be liberated from Bookchinism. Anyone genuinely interested in the fate of the planet will welcome the fresh and diverse voices affirming that such a project is worthwhile. Radical ecology will flourish thanks to them.


1. Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom (Palo Alto, CA: Cheshire Books, 1982), page 1.

2. Michael Albert, et. al., Liberating Theory (Boston: South End Press, 1986); or Stanley Aronowitz, The Crisis in Historical Materialism: Class, Politics and Culture in Marxist Theory (New York: Praeger, 1981).

3. “Ecological thinking, today, can provide the most important synthesis of ideas we have seen since the Enlightenment, two centuries ago” (Murray Bookchin, Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future [Boston: South End Press, 1990], page 18)

4. Through Fredy Perlman, who was living in Detroit at that time and contributing articles occasionally to the paper, the Fifth Estaters had direct contact back to the 1968 events in Paris. See Lorraine Perlman, Having Little, Being Much: A Chronicle of Fredy Perlman’s Fifty Years (Detroit: Black & Red, 1989).

5. Peter Werbe, “History of the Fifth Estate, Part I: The Early Years,” in Fifth Estate, Volume 31, Number 1 (Spring 1996), page 9.

6. Back cover blurb to Rudolf Bahro, Building the Green Movement (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1986).

7. David Watson, How Deep Is Deep Ecology? (Ojai: Times Change Press, 1989), and “Return of the Son of Deep Ecology: The Ethics of Permanent Crisis and the Permanent Crisis in Ethics,” in Fifth Estate, Volume 24, Number 1 (Spring 1989), both written under the pseudonym George Bradford.

8. From “Return of the Son of Deep Ecology” (page 31): “. . . if anything is ‘utterly regressive’ it is [Bookchin’s] dismissal of the concept and critique of the technological system by reverting to Marxist ‘economic factors.’”

9. David Watson (George Bradford), “Civilization in Bulk” in Fifth Estate, Volume 26, Number 1 (Spring 1991) page 10.

10. Reference in David Watson (Lewis Cannon), “Earth Day? We Want a Festival of the Oppressed!” in Fifth Estate, Special Earth Day Issue, Spring 1990, page 1.

A co-editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a Green movement activist for almost thirty years.