Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm.

By Murray Bookchin

APP Editors’ Note:

This is the seventh in a series on the historical and philosophical foundations of anarchism and socialism, with special reference to social anarchism (aka “anarcho-socialism,” “libertarian socialism,” etc.) and democratic socialism.

We decided to devote the first five installments of the series to the Democratic Socialists of America, aka the DSA, and the Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation, aka the BRRN, for three reasons:

first, to highlight the recent emergence of the Democratic Socialists of America as a significant political movement in the USA,

second, to stress the fundamental convergences, parallels, and shared ideals between contemporary social anarchism and democratic socialism in the USA, and

third, to point up the burning contemporary need for a “borderless,” constructive, cosmopolitan coalition of all serious leftists and progressives everywhere.

And then go on from there, to a critique of so-called anarcho-capitalism in the sixth installment.

In this this installment, we’re re-winding 25 years to the mid-1990s, and the work of Murray Bookchin.

Bookchin’s essay, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm (San Francisco, CA: AK Press, 1995), is a classic, compact, and compelling statement of the nature of social anarchism, in sharp critical contrast to egoistic, individualist, or “libertarian” (in the recent and contemporary American, not classical, sense of that term) anarchism, which Bookchin collectively dubs “lifestyle anarchism.”

Below, we’ve extracted the pith-&-marrow of Bookchin’s essay; but for those interested in reading the complete text, you can download it HERE.



A Quick Explanation of Why Anarcho-Capitalism Is Not a Real Thing.

The Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation: Our Politics.

Who Are the Anarchists, and What is Anarchism?

Resistance Rising: Socialist Strategy in the Age of Political Revolution.

Towards Freedom: Democratic Socialist Theory and Practice.

A Brief History of the American Left.


For some two centuries, anarchism -a very ecumenical body of anti-authoritarian ideas-developed in the tension between two basically contradictory tendencies: a personalistic commitment to individual autonomy and a collectivist commitment to social freedom. These tendencies have by no means been reconciled in the history of libertarian thought. Indeed, for much of the last century, they simply coexisted within anarchism as a minimalist credo of opposition to the State rather than as a maximalist credo that articulated the kind of new society that had to be created in its place.

Which is not to say that various schools of anarchism did not advocate very specific forms of social organization, albeit often markedly at variance with one another. Essentially, however, anarchism as a whole advanced what Isaiah Berlin has called “negative freedom,” that is to say, a formal “freedom from,” rather than a substantive “freedom to.” Indeed, anarchism often celebrated its commitment to negative freedom as evidence of its own pluralism, ideological tolerance, or creativity — or even, as more than one recent postmodernist celebrant has argued, its incoherence.

Anarchism’s failure to resolve this tension, to articulate the relationship of the individual to the collective, and to enunciate the historical circumstances that would make possible a stateless anarchic society produced problems in anarchist thought that remain unresolved to this day. Pierre Joseph Proudhon, more than many anarchists of his day, attempted to formulate a fairly concrete image of a libertarian society. Based on contracts, essentially between small producers, cooperatives, and communes, Proudhon’s vision was redolent of the provincial craft world into which he was born. But his attempt to meld a patroniste, often patriarchal notion of liberty with contractual social arrangements was lacking in depth. The craftsman, cooperative, and commune, relating to one another on bourgeois contractual terms of equity or justice rather than on the communist terms of ability and needs, reflected the artisan’s bias for personal autonomy, leaving any moral commitment to a collective undefined beyond the good intentions of its members.

Indeed, Proudhon’s famous declaration that “whoever puts his hand on me to govern me is an usurper and a tyrant; I declare him my enemy” strongly tilts toward a personalistic, negative freedom that overshadows his opposition to oppressive social institutions and the vision of an anarchist society that he projected. His statement easily blends into William Godwin’s distinctly individualistic declaration: “There is but one power to which I can yield a heartfelt obedience, the decision of my own understanding, the dictates of my own conscience.” Godwin’s appeal to the “authority” of his own understanding and conscience, like Proudhon’s condemnation of the “hand” that threatens to restrict his liberty, gave anarchism an immensely individualistic thrust.

Compelling as such declarations may be–and in the United States they have won considerable admiration from the so-called libertarian (more accurately, proprietarian) right, with its avowals of “free” enterprise–they reveal an anarchism very much at odds with itself. By contrast, Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin held essentially collectivist views–in Kropotkin’s case, explicitly communist ones. Bakunin emphatically prioritized the social over the individual. Society, he writes,

antedates and at the same time survives every human individual, being in this respect like Nature itself. It is eternal like Nature, or rather, having been born upon our earth, it will last as long as the earth. A radical revolt against society would therefore be just as impossible for man as a revolt against Nature, human society being nothing else but the last great manifestation or creation of Nature upon this earth. And an individual who would want to rebel against society . . . would place himself beyond the pale of real existence.[i]

Bakunin often expressed his opposition to the individualistic trend in liberalism and anarchism with considerable polemical emphasis. Although society is “indebted to individuals,” he wrote in a relatively mild statement, the formation of the individual is social:

even the most wretched individual of our present society could not exist and develop without the cumulative social efforts of countless generations. Thus the individual, his freedom and reason, are the products of society, and not vice versa: society is not the product of individuals comprising it; and the higher, the more fully the individual is developed, the greater his freedom–and the more he is the product of society, the more does he receive from society and the greater his debt to it.[ii]

Kropotkin, for his part, retained this collectivistic emphasis with remarkable consistency. In what was probably his most widely read work, his Encyclopaedia Britannica essay on “Anarchism,” Kropotkin distinctly located the economic conceptions of anarchism on the “left-wing” of “all socialisms,” calling for the radical abolition of private property and the State in “the spirit of local and personal initiative, and of free federation from the simple to the compound, in lieu of the present hierarchy from the center to the periphery.” Kropotkin’s works on ethics, in fact , include a sustained cri tique of liberalistic attempts to counterpose the individual to society, indeed to subordinate society to the individual or ego. He placed himself squarely in the socialist tradition. His anarchocommunism, predicated on advances in technology and increased productivity, became a prevailing libertarian ideology in the 1890s, steadily elbowing out collectivist notions of distribution based on equity. Anarchists, “in common with most socialists,” Kropotkin emphasized, recognized the need for “periods of accelerated evolution which are called revolutions,” ultimately yielding a society based on federations of “every township or commune of the local groups of producers and consumers.”[iii] (pp. 4–6)

Social anarchism, in my view, is … heir to the Enlightenment tradition, with due regard to that tradition’s limits and incompleteness. Depending upon how it defines reason, social anarchism celebrates the thinking human mind without in any way denying passion, ecstasy, imagination, play, and art. Yet rather than reify them into hazy categories, it tries to incorporate them into everyday life. It is committed to rationality while opposing the rationalization of experience; to technology, while opposing the “megamachine”; to social institutionalization, while opposing class rule and hierarchy; to a genuine politics based on the confederal coordination of municipalities or communes by the people in direct face-to-face democracy, while opposing parliamentarism and the state. (pp. 56–57)

I would be the last to contend that anarchists should not live their anarchism as much as possible on a day-ta-day basis — personally as well as socially, aesthetically as well as pragmatically. But they should not live an anarchism that diminishes, indeed effaces the most important features that have distinguished anarchism, as a movement, practice, and program, from statist socialism. Anarchism today must resolutely retain its character as a social movement–a programmatic as well as activist social movement– a movement that melds its embattled vision of a libertarian communist society with its forthright critique of capitalism, unobscured by names like “industrial society.”

In short, social anarchism must resolutely affirm its differences with lifestyle anarchism. If a social anarchist movement cannot translate its fourfold tenets — municipal confederalism, opposition to statism, direct democracy, and ultimately libertarian communism — into a lived practice in a new public sphere; if these tenets languish like its memories of past struggles in ceremonial pronouncements and meetings; worse still, if they are subverted by the “libertarian” Ecstasy Industry and by will have to be restored under a new name.

Certainly, it is already no longer possible, in my view, to call oneself an anarchist without adding a qualifying adjective to distinguish oneself from lifestyle anarchists. Minimally, social anarchism is radically at odds with anarchism focused on lifestyle, neo-Situationist paeans to ecstasy, and the sovereignty of the ever-shriveling petty-bourgeois ego. The two diverge completely in their defining principles — socialism or individualism. Between a committed revolutionary body of ideas and practice,::on the one hand, and a vagrant yearning for privatistic ecstasy and self-realization on the other, there can be no commonality. Mere opposition to the state may well unite fascistic lumpens with Stirnerite lumpens, a phenomenon that is not without its historical precedents. (pp. 60–61)


[i] M. Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, ed. G. P. Maximoff (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1953), p. 144.

[ii] Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 158.

[iii] P. Kropotkin, “Anarchism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, in P. Kropotkin, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, ed. Roger N. Baldwin (New York: Dover Publications, 1970), pp. 285–87.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Saturday 20 October 2018

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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