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Destroying capitalism: Lordon and Bookchin, a cross-examination

Victor Cartan considers the work of Frédéric Lordon and Murray Bookchin together in this essay.

Victor Cartan 5 March 2024

Destroying capitalism: Lordon and Bookchin, a cross-examination

This article was originally published by Ballast on 26 April 2023.


Two thinkers: Murray Bookchin and Frédéric Lordon. The former, from the United States, devoted his life to developing ideas on communalism and social ecology; the latter, in France, is working to revive the term ‘communism’ and thinking about what a society free of capitalism might look like in concrete terms. Bookchin, a worker and then a philosopher, died in 2006 without knowing that his theory would inspire one of the rare revolutions of the contemporary era – that of Rojava, at the heart of the Middle East – as well as a wing of the gilets jaunes. Lordon, an economist and then a philosopher, is one of the leading voices in the French critical field and champions the idea of a national and international revolutionary break. Putting these two names together may seem incongruous, but only at first sight. For Frédéric Lordon has been discussing Bookchin’s and other communalist ideas for over four years. In a more or less fragmentary way, it is true, but with a regularity that no longer leaves room for doubt: the two thinkers should be discussed together.

We can start by laying down a few markers. After successive periods in the ranks of the Communist Party, Trotskyism and anarchism (with which he also broke), Murray Bookchin, born in 1921, established himself as the international spokesman for a political strategy that he considered to be his life’s work: ‘communalism’, which he also called ‘confederal municipalism’ or ‘libertarian municipalism’. These three formulations are part of a little-known tradition that borrows from both communism and anarchism: libertarian communism. While this project for a post-capitalist society did not emerge fully-armed from the American’s head,[1] while there are other ‘municipalists’ independent of the Bookchinian current (reformists and ‘citizenists’, for the most part), and, while we may well find a few ‘communalists’ today who are far removed from it, there can be no question that, while following on from the work of Proudhon (a federal system), Bakunin (a federation of free autonomous communes) and Kropotkin (a free federation of popular forces), Bookchin recoded, and therefore annexed, all these terms.

Frédéric Lordon has spared us such a hotchpotch of names. Initially appearing on the French intellectual scene as a heterodox regulationist economist, Lordon, born in 1962, has successfully proclaimed himself to be a heretical Marxist, a communist and, since 2021, even a neo-Leninist. But the communism he champions is atypical, to say the least: a critical but assiduous reader of The Invisible Committee, a perplexed voter for La France Insoumise and an assertive supporter of the young Trotskyist organisation Révolution Permanente, with a definite interest in the experiences of Italian autonomistas, the Zapatistas of Chiapas as well as Rojava in Syria, Lordon is not far from describing himself as a ‘libertarian communist’[2] and promises that his ‘neo-Leninist’ proposal must be ‘detached from the historical conditions of its appearance’.


A distant proximity

Since 2018, Frédéric Lordon has regularly mentioned Murray Bookchin and communalist thought. Referring in the columns of this publication to the Bookchinian possibility of ‘emptying the state’ by building a parallel counter-power, he wrote: ‘Excepting a generalised return to a self-sufficient vegetable economy, I can’t believe it. At some point, you have to get your hands back on the means of production. [...] So we will either have isolates or a revolutionary gigantomachy.’ The following year, he made a thinly veiled reference to Bookchin in the pages of his book Vivre sans?, writing: ‘I do not believe that capitalism will fall by a continuous flight into communes that would strip it of its substance and leave it as a hollow shell, ready to collapse on its own [...].’ On the question of the spread of confederated communes in the shadow of the state, Lordon explained to L’Humanité: ‘That’s a Bookchin scenario, and I don’t believe in it for a second.’ At the same time, responding to the remarkable absence of the communalist theorist in the bibliographical references for his book, he explained: ‘Bookchin’s ideas strike a very strong chord with me. His confederal structures are, a priori, an extremely interesting form to study. Where I differ from him is in his strategic thinking, his thinking about the dynamics that could lead us to a complete Bookchinian state, a complete libertarian municipalism… I don’t believe it for a moment... Statocapitalist power won’t let that happen.’ In May 2020, questioning the hypothesis of a revolutionary transformation without going through the state, he asserted: ‘You can’t remake an economy – since it’s not a question of getting out of it but of remaking it – by juxtaposing communes. The communalist movement will fail if it does not think about the division of labour.’ Summarising his position a few days later, he added: ‘My only disagreement with Bookchin lies in the process of conquering hegemony; there, I think he’s absolutely dreaming. But for the rest, I feel very close to him.’[3] In 2021, he devoted a few pages to Bookchin and communalism in Figures du communisme, presenting the same arguments, and then, in May 2022, declared in an exchange with Éditions Sociales: ‘I doubt that, in the form Bookchin ultimately gave it [...] [the communalist structure] alone can support an overall social formation.’ Finally, a few weeks later, he associated the American thinker’s strategy with gradualism, in other words, gradual change.

It is this tension – clearly irreducible – that should hold our attention. Let us discuss, on the basis of their respective works, two of the most stimulating contemporary revolutionary strategic proposals.


The ABCs of communalist revolution

After betting on Europe (and Germany in particular), then counting in vain on his native Vermont, it was finally in northern Syria that Bookchin would see his name associated with a major political upheaval, albeit from beyond the grave. The Rojava revolution, launched in the summer of 2012 following the departure of the Assad government’s armed forces,[4] gave him posthumous status as a theorist of emancipation and the inspirer, after Marx, of a genuine revolution. Through Abdullah Öcalan, co-founder of the PKK, detained in Turkish jails since 1999 and a self-proclaimed disciple of Bookchin, US communalism was deployed in Rojava under the name of ‘democratic confederalism’ – an adjustment designed to respond to Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian sensibilities.[5] Having turned its back on its original desire for state independence – which had become, in Öcalan’s words, a petty-bourgeois utopia[6] – the PKK thus promoted a ‘new socialism’:[7] post-Leninist, communal, federal, based on the emancipation of women and ecology. It was no longer a question of building a new state (a Kurdish one, in this case, which would only ‘reinforce injustice’[8]); for the revolutionary forces in the four parts of Kurdistan, it was a question of working towards a decentralised, multicultural ‘democratic nation’ free of capitalism.

What exactly was Bookchin’s proposal? We can sum it up in a few lines: authentic democracy can only be local, in other words, on the scale of people’s living space; communalism must bring about the emergence of non-representative democratic assemblies (villages, neighbourhoods, towns) and then, by means of municipal elections,[9] allocate full powers to these in order to radicalise, in each of the daily spheres of existence, what is already democratic. This proliferation of communes (sometimes called ‘ecocommunities’[10]), conceived as an ‘almost cellular growth’,[11] would give rise to a solidly structured counter-power, a vast national network coordinated in parallel with the existence of the state. A country within a country, in short. The communes, which are not autonomous, would be linked together, administered from the bottom up by a non-professional mechanism of revocable delegation. A higher authority, the ‘Congress of Delegates’ (also known as the ‘Federal Council’ or the ‘Commune of Confederated Communes’), would oversee the whole. This central power would take charge of what needs to be done at national level. At the same time, it would become part of a new International. We can only think of the system proposed by the philosopher and economist Cornelius Castoriadis, also built on ‘vertical and horizontal cooperation’[12] around councils synchronised by a central council.

Lordon is too quick, in Figures du communisme, to associate communalism with localism and, ‘to put it simply, [with] ZADs and allotments’.[13] For Bookchin’s point is unequivocal: communalism aims to abolish the capitalist mode of production in order to establish a just society, through the municipalisation of the economy, i.e. the expropriation of owners and the pooling of private property and means of production. There can never be any question of being satisfied with a handful of liberated communes or a few invested town halls. Even less so, to confine ourselves to what, at the time, were not yet called ‘ZADs’, but, in the words of the anarchist Hakim Bey, ‘TAZs’ (‘temporary autonomous zones’) or ‘fortified oases’.[14] Communalism is by no means a matter of refractory islands, separatist focos, fragmentary secessions, insular emancipations, pockets of resistance destined to remain as such. ‘Municipal tribalism’ – as we read in The Politics of Social Ecology, the quasi-official breviary of communalism written by Bookchin’s comrade and companion, the author Janet Biehl – is denounced as a real danger .[15] In an interview in 1992, Bookchin insisted that communalism was not about localism (nor, as he put it elsewhere, a contractual arrangement between supposedly ‘free’ individuals). Factories, modern technological infrastructure and mass agriculture will be maintained, but, of course, reconfigured according to new ecological and socialist standards. Such a social architecture, Bookchin argued, had never before existed in human history, even though it had been inspired by numerous historical experiences.

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But when the state bites back...

‘Why would [the bourgeoisie] let capitalist society be destroyed, since capitalist society is designed for them?,’ Lordon asked in Figures du communisme.[16] He raises three objections to communalism: 1) the state will prevent communalist advance; 2) communalism ignores the division of labour; 3) anti-statist communal federalism will lead back to the state it claims to destroy. The first objection, then, is that the state will never allow a communal counter-power to spread and a broad anti-capitalist structure to be woven together step by step, from the grassroots cells to the future Federal Council. The state, Lordon emphasises, will do what it has always done: hinder, beat and then kill. As it did in 1848, as it did in 1871, as it did in Chile under Allende. Just as, under Macron’s reign, it bludgeons, blinds, rips hands off or plunges insubordinate citizens into a coma. ‘The state of capital will not allow its territory to be covered with nice communalist enclaves. After a while, it will send in the prefects, then the CRS, and then…’[17]

Bookchin certainly anticipated state repression and capitalist power. The bourgeoisie will not abdicate, he explicitly wrote. The people will have to form armed communal self-defence units (or ‘civic guards’); if the state attacks, communal power must be able to fight back. Arming the people is the sine qua non of communalism. But Bookchin’s wager – for it must be admitted that it is a wager – to prevent the situation on the ground from turning to the disadvantage of the emancipated population is that the communalist revolution will have won over the minds of so many that the state, de-legitimised, disavowed and desacralised, would be weakened to such an extent that the final, violent confrontation between communal power and state power could hand victory to the former – just like the collapse of tsarism at the beginning of 1917. Thus, by dint of patience and organisation, the people would succeed in ‘overthrowing the state and replacing it with a libertarian communist society’.[18]

We should of course dwell for a moment on the question of weapons. Large sections of the socialist tradition have long defended the arming of the people – Rosa Luxemburg called for the arming of the male proletariat, and Spain in the 1930s had a number of revolutionary militias. This tradition has been lost. It could be argued that Chiapas and Rojava are now inseparable from their self-defence military forces, and the objection would be perfectly valid. But Lordon rightly notes that, in contemporary France, ‘it’s not clear who feels like seizing weapons’ (adding: ‘in many ways that’s all to the good’[19]).[20] We also know the singular cultural link that the United States has with personal firearms. Murray Bookchin himself owned several guns (can you imagine Jacques Rancière with a rifle?). The Spanish author Floréal M. Romero, a contemporary thinker on communalism inspired by Chiapas and Rojava, offers a two-stage response here: first, network the territory non-violently and, then, prepare for the ‘inescapable confrontation between two powers’. And Romero contrasts Lordon’s ‘point L’ (for ‘Lenin’) with a ‘moment M’ (for ‘movement’): the moment when communal power will once and for all confront capitalist state power.

Lordon also predicts a ‘terminal, resolving, decisive confrontation’[21] with capital (and ‘capital’ here means its armed forces, its media, its finance and, possibly, its foreign backers), but he does not believe, as Bookchin maintained during a debate in 1989, that it is possible to ‘extract major and immediate concessions from the existing [state] system in order to end up supplanting it’.[22] The contemporary capitalist state, in the grip of ‘proto-fascist’[23] and even totalitarian impulses, will impede communalist progress as soon as this makes headway: it will be nipped in the bud. As Lordon puts it, contemporary capitalism no longer allows the slightest room for manoeuvre, the least effective breach within it. The social-democratic option is closed. Compromises are impossible. ‘Gradualist solutions no longer exist. I don’t believe in the gradual installation of communism’,[24] he notes in En travail. To bring down a titan, you have to pit another against it. And the former economist drew the following conclusion: since we don’t want to flee and leave the majority to face the system alone, and since we can’t dismantle capitalism step by step, all that remains is to seize state power and then, both from above and from below, with the support of the masses, set in motion a revolutionary overhaul. In other words: a ‘Big Bang’. Lordon is well aware of the provocative nature of this formula – which he had disputed in Capitalisme, désir et servitude – but we would be mistaken to see it as simply provocative: ‘I think it’s a category that has lost none of its relevance.’[25]

It should be pointed out that the period in which Lordon’s thinking is set is that of France from 2000 to 2020 – and, to a lesser extent, that of the Western capitalist area in the same years (consider his analyses of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain). A period he sees as ‘an ascent to extremes’.[26] So it was in this context, necessarily unfamiliar to Bookchin, that he questioned the feasibility of the communalist proposal and, in mirror image, developed his own communist proposal, developed over the years and undergoing inflections and shifts. The Lordon of 2010, for example, is contradicted by the Lordon of 2021, when the latter takes issue with that ‘thinnest of formulae’[27] which is the famous Marxist definition of communism – ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’ – a sentence which Lordon had previously celebrated on the grounds that the perspective of communism should not be hemmed in by ‘a list, a plan or a defined programme’.[28]


And yet: Chiapas and Rojava

During a debate organised by Éditions Libertalia in October 2019, the experiments conducted in Chiapas and Rojava were adduced as counterexamples to Lordon, contemporary successes able to free themselves here and now, democratically, from Marxist, Leninist or Maoist schemes – obsolete in the eyes of his debaters.

On 1 January 1994, the day on which the NAFTA free trade agreement between Mexico, Canada and the United States came into force, the Chiapas rebellion broke out after a decade of clandestine organisation. War was declared on the federal government. Two years later, agreements were signed between the two parties, which were soon trampled underfoot by the state. In response, the Zapatistas set up some thirty autonomous municipalities. ‘Rebellion,’ they said, not ‘revolution’. Subcomandante Marcos (now Galeano) explained this in 2001: ‘We defined ourselves more as a rebel movement demanding social change. The term revolutionary is not appropriate, because any revolutionary leader or movement tends to want to become a leader or a political player. [...] The revolutionary says to himself: I’m taking power and from on high I’m transforming the world. The social rebel acts differently. He organises the masses and, starting from below, gradually transforms things without asking himself the question of taking power.’[29] In 2012, 40,000 Zapatistas left their mountains and forests to march silently through the streets of Chiapas; seven years later, they celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of their uprising after calling for ‘a global network of rebellion and resistance against the war which, if capitalism triumphs, will mean the destruction of the planet’. There are now 43 autonomous municipalities.

The Zapatista army, the EZLN, which had a Marxist-Leninist and Guevarist background, gradually broke away from this ideology when it came into contact with the indigenous population. As Marcos/Galeano explained, this encounter gave rise to ‘something new’:[30] a hybridisation, a synthesis, a ‘cocktail’.[31] Appealing to civil society, refusing to seize central power or (until recently) to take part in elections, the Zapatista movement champions the autonomy and self-organisation of those below. It does not oppose parties, electoral processes, government or the state as such (‘we want the state to do its job’);[32] it organises itself alongside them. This experience, valuable as it is, nevertheless needs to be looked at with a clear eye. The Zapatistas themselves admit that they remain alone and, as Marcos/Galeano frankly admitted, incapable of linking up with the urban proletariat. ‘Zapatismo has trouble connecting with the workers’ movement in general, not just the maquiladoras. It has had a big impact in Indian communities, among employees, teachers, intellectuals and artists, but not on the Mexican working class [...]. That’s an evident failure.’[33]

Zapatismo rose up with a bang against the neoliberal order, raising the anti-capitalist flag from the ruins of state communism: its longevity is impressive and inspiring. The positions it has taken (feminist, environmentalist and pro-LGBT) and the secessionist practices it has adopted are readily embraced in France by autonomous, zadiste and ‘situationist’ groups (sometimes at the cost of creating an imaginary Zapatism, expunged of some of its properties: strong Mexican patriotism, the importance of ethnic unification – what Marcos/Galeano called ‘that great Indian esprit de corps’[34] -- the ‘pyramidal structure’[35] of the army, strict control over the movements of individuals outside the community, an absolute ban on alcohol, and so on). It is not illogical that the historian Jérôme Baschet, an outspoken supporter of autonomy and a firm critic of Lordon, is one of the main intellectual spokespeople of Zapatismo in France. In his view, state power has become ‘microscopic and largely impotent’[36] in the face of globalised capitalism. Pitting localist isolationism against Leninism, the solution for him lies in the construction of liberated spaces.

‘The Indians of Chiapas, like the Kurds of Syria, are not asking for independence, but for autonomy, the right to govern themselves within a federalist framework, within the borders of Mexico and Syria,’ as the author and anarcho-syndicalist Pierre Bance has correctly summed up. And, in fact, Rojava and Chiapas support each other. Rojava (better known as AANES, for ‘Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria’) is the most recent successful revolution. Predominantly Kurdish, the AANES champions – not without conflict at times – a multicultural project and represents one of the main emancipatory voices in the Middle East, and indeed in the world. As one volunteer in its self-defence forces (YPG) puts it, this experience belongs ‘to the world heritage of revolutionaries’[37] – alongside the Russian and Spanish revolutions and the liberation struggle in Vietnam. But, here again, our support should be clear-sighted: Rojava has not settled the question of the state or generalised socialism; ‘a proto-state administration and a party have found themselves hegemonic’;[38] it has been forced, in order to survive in the face of Turkish, Islamist and jihadist forces, to negotiate with the United States (which has set up bases in its midst) and the Assad dictatorship (with which, despite several deadly confrontations, a kind of non-aggression pact has been concluded); it remains, month after month, subject to the whims of the Turkish fascist regime, which never ceases to threaten Rojava with a new ground assault; it is currently undergoing a period of stagnation and bureaucratisation as a result of military dominance and the liberal pressures exerted by NGOs.

As we have said, Lordon has followed these two radical breaks with enthusiasm. In Figures du communisme, he describes them as ‘authentic democratic experiments’.[39] So why doesn’t he take them as models? While he admits to drawing ‘pleasure, energy and a sense of direction’[40] from them, he doubts that they could be transposed to the West and, even more so, to France[41] (experiences that are ‘hardly reproducible’,[42] he notes in Vivre sans?). Lordon aspires to a comprehensive, total, macroscopic overhaul – on a national, then eventually an international scale – capable of involving very great numbers, the mass of ordinary people. For some time now, Lordon has been linking this overhaul to the communist proposal put forward by the economist and sociologist Bernard Friot, leader of the Réseau Salariat: a basic income (renamed by Lordon a ‘general economic guarantee’), i.e. introduction of a wage based on personal qualifications conceived as a ‘political right’ for all adult citizens (on a scale of 1 to 3); abolition of the labour market; abolition of landlord property. But to do this, you need the state.


And so, Lenin?

In his youth, Bookchin described himself as a ‘Bolshevik’. Later, breaking with orthodox communism and then Trotskyism, he became critical of Lenin. In Post-Scarcity Anarchism, he wrote of the Bolshevik crushing of the (revolutionary) Kronstadt sailors in 1921: 

[T]he Bolshevik Party reached its maximum degree of centralization in Lenin’s day not to achieve a revolution or suppress a White Guard counterrevolution, but to effect a counterrevolution of its own against the very social forces it professed to represent. Factions were prohibited and a monolithic party created not to prevent a “capitalist restoration” but to contain a mass movement of workers for soviet democracy and social freedom. The Lenin of 1921 stood opposed to the Lenin of 1917.[43]

If Zapatism is the strategic name for the non-state construction of an emancipated territory, zadisme for self-managed oases, and communalism for a national coordination of communes, Leninism is the name for the seizure of state power by a disciplined, centralised vanguard party ready for armed confrontation.

The autonomist magazine lundimatin was astonished by the ‘outdated’ character of Lordon’s neo-Leninist proposal. But Lordon is not alone in his desire to resurrect the name ‘Lenin’; consider the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, keen to ‘renew the same [Leninist] impulse in the current configuration’,[44] the Swedish ecologist Andreas Malm, certain that ‘the Leninist gesture is the only one that can indicate the escape route’, or the Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou, who in April 2023 called for the re-founding of an ‘authentic Leninism’. But what is this ‘neo-Leninism’? Lordon is not inventing the term but reformulating its meaning: ‘Detached from the historical conditions of its emergence in order to draw out its generality, a possible definition of neo-Leninism could be as follows: Leninism consists of 1) an aim, 2) that is macroscopic, and 3) an explicit imperative of strategic coordination in an adequate form.’ For him, it is not a question of replaying the years 1917-24 (‘vintage Leninism’) or of wholesale rehabilitation of the thought and action of the Marxist revolutionary. ‘The last people to point the way to revolution were the Bolsheviks, and we don’t want any more of them. It’s true that we no longer want the Bolshevik way and what followed it,’ he stresses. ‘Among the painful lessons of historical Leninism, the annihilation of all autonomous local life was one of the disastrous correlates of totalitarian state centralisation – a kind of model of what must not be repeated.’ And he goes even further: everything that history has known as ‘communism’ was not communism. 

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Lordon’s ‘neo-Leninism’, then, has the value of a quasi-historical concept. It is synonymous with assertiveness, positivity, national leadership, organised voluntarism on a grand scale. Perhaps, formulated in this way, it even opposes more than it proposes. Against what? The current climate of the far left (and therefore the response that a large part of this has formulated in order to confront the failure of state communism and the impasse of parliamentarianism). His neo-Leninism is trying, with great fanfare, to find its way among localism, zadisme, and invitations to desertion, defection, ungovernability, the ‘dissolution of power’,[45] escaping, stealth and archipelagisation, all of which are dear to many contemporary radicalisms. Let us be clear: Lordon does not decry these paths as such (this is a widespread misunderstanding); he even praises them. At a conference in Switzerland, he said

ZADs are absolutely indispensable. Why is that? Because the ZADs are places, among others, where the practice of communism is experimented with. And that’s very, very important to me. Because communism is not just defined as a mode of production, a certain arrangement of institutions, structures or social relations; communism also requires – and perhaps even as a precondition – its particular habitus. That is, habituation to a certain practice. So all the places, however modest, where this practice of communism develops are places where communism is being prepared as a political formation after capitalism has been wiped out.[46]

Lordon challenges these interstitial, fragmentary, minority or molecular arrangements only so far as they are posited as an end, an ambition for emancipation or an ideal of anti-capitalist struggle. You might think you were reading Bookchin himself – and this is odd only if you misjudge communalism: ‘No, I’m not opposed to co-operatives on principle. They are invaluable, especially as schools for teaching people how to cooperate. I have only tried to show that they are not capable of eliminating capitalism by colonising it through the multiplication of cooperatives.’[47] 

In 2006, the Marxist philosopher Daniel Bensaïd proposed a way of responding to contemporary demands (for democracy or feminism) without giving in to the needs of a certain form of centralisation, a path which today is reminiscent of Lordon’s: ‘the hypothesis of a libertarian Leninism continues to be a challenge of our time’. Bensaïd, however, was a more orthodox Leninist. Then let’s ask ourselves: is the signifier ‘Leninist’, even if rounded off with the prefix ‘neo’ and conceptually refreshed, capable of inspiring the young insubordinate population, who are at the very least attached to democratic considerations and entirely shaped by struggles, disputes, and referents which, however much one might deplore it, hardly have anything in common with the Soviet epic? In view of what Lordon concretely foresees, isn’t the weight of such a signifier too high a price to pay? (Remember Rosa Luxemburg, whom one can hardly suspect of anarchism, reproaching Lenin and Trotsky for the ‘fundamental error’ of having trampled on popular democracy in favour of a ‘dictatorship of a handful of people’.)[48] 

For if, as Lordon has argued in our columns, we are aiming for an ‘successful 1936’, that is to say a revolutionary 1936 which this time, through the unprecedented combination of an electoral victory (yesterday the Popular Front, today La France Insoumise/NUPES) and an immense popular movement (‘a gathering of absolutely considerable forces’) would force the government to cross the Rubicon and declare a war to the death against capital – in other words, if that’s what we’re talking about, we might well ask ourselves whether ‘neo-Leninism’ is the right and desirable name for a strategic proposal that is ultimately very far removed from Lenin. All the more so since Lordon only seems to exalt the first year of the Russian Revolution: ‘Kronstadt symbolises the end of the constituent power of the soviets (an end which in fact came as early as 1918)’.[49] So yes, Lordon’s gesture has the value of constructive bravado. It is a missile word. By summoning up the Russian spectre, Lordon hopes to make it clear that neither electoral routes (alone) nor ‘ungovernable’ routes have a future; that, to turn the page on the ecocidal capitalist mode of production and the financial order, we need, like the electoralists, to capture the state, but to steer it in a completely different way – via a permanent movement between an active popular base and a democratic summit, a federal framework, a territorial network and a real consideration of the local form (an ‘excellent thing’[50] in itself). 

The state as a lever for macroscopic emancipation, then. And therein lies his second objection: a modern society cannot abolish the division of labour, or, in other words, the complex economic organisation designed to distribute the performance of highly specialised tasks (you may be reading this article on a smartphone: how, in a post-capitalist society, can we continue to produce and distribute a simple battery made of cobalt and carbon graphite?) While it’s clear that a wholesale zadiste resettlement would no longer allow such production (unless supplies were obtained from outside, which would therefore remain capitalist), communalism, it seems to us, is far more resistant to the objection. Bookchin himself felt that localism was ‘economically impossible’.


State or ‘État général’?

What then links Bookchin and Lordon? The same ambition to put an end to capitalism, the same concern to think about institutions and power (both insurmountable), the same desire to formulate a global positive proposal, the same rejection of ‘lifestyle’ radicalisms,[51] the same return to the well-known alternative posed by Engels and then Rosa Luxemburg – socialism or barbarism.[52] To which should be added (whatever the philosopher Pierre Charbonnier may say about it, claiming that the climate question ‘disgusts’ Lordon[53]) the ecological issue, now essential to the former economist and, of course, central to the pioneer of political ecology that was Bookchin’s. ‘The reality,’ wrote Lordon in 2018, ‘is that to act with the urgency that would prevent us all from burning up, we’re going to have to go over the bodies of some guys. They have devoted their money, their power and ultimately the meaning of their entire existence to the very game that is destroying the planet. And as they won’t let go of the business of their lives on their own, we’re going to have to make them let go.’ Against the capitalist destruction of human and non-human existence, Lordon invites us to collectively grasp an idea. A clear-cut idea, as we all know: communism. ‘It’s a race against time, because the planet only gives us a limited amount of time. At a time when its limits – meaning anthropocidal thresholds – are being blithely crossed one after the other, the race has only one goal: the collective acquisition of the idea before it’s too late.’ Hence the implacable struggle against consensual, media-driven, cultural, aesthetic and bourgeois modalities of ecology. Half a century earlier, Bookchin had already used the term ‘environmentalism’ to castigate the inconsistency of ecologists who were anxious to combat pollution and the ravaging of nature while dismissing the remedy for these evils: revolution. Without it, ecology is no more than a ‘safety valve for the current system of exploitation of nature and mankind’.[54]

What separates them? And here we come to the third and final objection: the abolition of the state. Marx and Engels called for its gradual ‘withering away’ through the establishment of a transitional phase, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’; most anarchists called for its immediate destruction for fear that the transition would last longer than necessary. Faced with the neoliberal mutation of capitalism, however, some revolutionaries amended their critique. Noam Chomsky, for example, endorses the apparent contradiction: ‘My immediate objectives have been and still are to defend and even strengthen certain elements of state authority that are currently under severe attack. [...] The dismantling of the state system is a much more distant objective.’[55] An adjustment rejected by Bookchin, for whom the state ‘marks the apogee of the institutions of masculine civilisation’[56] and proves to be, in its very nature, a coercive force and a ‘distinct apparatus [...] rooted in class interests’.[57] Targeting Chomsky, Bookchin maintained in a 1996 interview[58] that neoliberalism did not invalidate this old anarchist and communist aspiration. Two years later, Janet Biehl wrote that communalism was even ‘the antithesis of the state’.[59]

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In 2016, Radio Libertaire denounced Frédéric Lordon’s ‘national-statism’. This accusation against him is commonplace. Yet you only have to read him, word for word, to be sure that one thing he is not is a defender of the state. ‘It is better to be the worst child murderer than an enemy of the state’,[60] he sarcastically writes in Imperium. And it all adds up to the same thing: the state, like all institutions, is ‘shit’. So, what do we do? Based on a reading of Spinoza, Lordon effectively breaks with the usual analysis of the state as a power apparatus dissociated from society. He proposes to think of the state at ‘a high level of generality and abstraction’, in other words to understand it conceptually as an ‘État-général’. Beyond its many secular transformations, the state (feudal, bourgeois, capitalist, police, totalitarian, etc.) is never more than a historical variation of the generic state. The generic state is therefore ‘the structure from which all institutional politics is born’, ‘the elementary structure of politics’.[61] It follows that all the institutional political formations that sovereign human communities create are states (the Paris Commune was a state, Zapatista Chiapas is a state, Rojava is a state). In Les Affects de la politique, he even proclaims: ‘The state is us.’[62] Which is why we can only witness its ‘eternal recurrence’;[63] and is also why we should put an end to ‘

deluded pretensions to doing away with the state’.[64] Lordon, we suppose, would argue that Bookchin urges the abolition of the state but proposes nonetheless, unwittingly, to bring it back – but in a different way (under the name of a ‘Federal Council’). And it is precisely the adverb ‘federal’ which, for Lordon, makes all the difference: the emancipatory difference.


In these times

‘How then, in the present conditions, can we redefine a revolutionary perspective?’ asks Slavoj Žižek in his book The Relevance of the Communist Manifesto.[65] After a long ‘eclipse of strategic debate’,[66] the question of questions, ‘What is to be done?’, is back again. Proposals for concrete transformations take up more and more space on bookshop shelves and the desks of militants. Communalism and communism have pride of place here. While the former focuses primarily on the local seizure of power and the latter on the seizure of the state apparatus, they cannot be seen as two entirely antagonistic models: we have indicated both the differences and the areas of contact. It remains to be said that the time is not yet ripe for revolution in France. Yet everything points to the need for it. Communalist attempts remain marginal (the L’Offensive initiative, the short-lived Faire Commune or the small town of Commercy), and the current protest against pension reform, massively rejected by the population, have all proved incapable of bringing the country to a standstill and shaking a regime so copiously hated. 

We have to end the dictatorship of capital; the lives of humans, animals and ecosystems depend on it. But these days for this are slow in coming. Let our ‘slow impatience’[67] not be in vain: when those days come, we need to have some clear ideas. We’re not the ones saying it: ‘We believe organisation depends on good ideas. In other words, we need theory, critical thinking’[68] -- Subcomandante Marcos/Galeano, from the mountains of south-east Mexico, April-May 2015.

Translated by David Fernbach


[1] Ever since Proudhon, the anarchist movement has been engaged in intense reflection on the federal and communal question. See, for example, the essays by Édouard Jourdain published in this periodical: ‘Proudhon en gilet jaune’ (2019), ‘La part anarchiste des communs’ (2020), and ‘La Commune et ses usages libertaires’ (2021).

[2] ‘It seems a pretty good synthesis.’ Listen to episode 5 (‘L’utopie et la question de l’art’) of the interview ‘Le capitalisme nous détruit, détruisons le capitalisme! Ben oui, mais comment?’ on Là-bas si j'y suis, broadcast in September 2022.

[3] Private correspondence, May 2020.

[4] For the most detailed account in French, see Enguerran Carrier, Kurdistan: il était une fois la révolution (Paris: Syllepse, 2022).

[5] For a precise examination of the two theoretical conceptions, see Pierre Bance, Un autre futur pour le Kurdistan? (Paris: Noir & Rouge, 2017).

[6] See Abdullah Öcalan, The Road Map to Negotiations: Prison Writings III (International Initiative, 2012).

[7] According to PKK cadre Cemil Bayik. La Commune du Rojava. L’alternative kurde à l’État-nation (Paris: Syllepse, 2017), p. 70.

[8] Abdullah Öcalan, La Révolution communaliste (Montreuil: Libertalia, 2020), p. 86.

[9] This point is now disputed by a Spanish thinker on communalism: Floréal M. Romero, Penser l’écologie sociale de Murray Bookchin (Rennes: Éditions du commun, 2019).

[10] Murray Bookchin, ‘Power to Destroy, Power to Create’, in Ian Barbour (ed.), Western Man and Environmental Ethics (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1973).

[11] Murray Bookchin and Dave Forman, Defending the Earth: A Debate,

[12] Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘Le contenu du socialisme, II’, Le Contenu du socialisme (Paris: 10/18, 1979), p. 181.

[13] Frédéric Lordon, Figures du communisme (Paris: La Fabrique, 2021), p. 93.

[14] Hakim Bey, TAZ (L'Éclat, 2011), p. 25.

[15] Janet Biehl, Le Municipalisme libertaire. La politique de l’écologie sociale, Écosociété, 2013, p. 110.

[16] Frédéric Lordon, Figures du communisme, p. 181.

[17] See the lecture ‘Vous avez dit communisme?’, 28 June 2022 [1'07'45].

[18] Janet Biehl, Le Municipalisme libertaire. La politique de l’écologie sociale, op. cit., p. 160.

[19] Frédéric Lordon, Figures du communisme, pp. 190-191.

[20] However, he does not rule out the idea of arming the people, as he casually said in a lecture [59′]

[21] See the lecture ‘Vous avez dit communisme?’, 28 June 2022 [1'08'50]

[22] Murray Bookchin and Dave Forman, Defending the Earth: A Debate.

[23] Frédéric Lordon, Vivre sans? Institutions, police, travail, argent..., (Paris: La Fabrique, 2019), p. 171.

[24] Frédéric Lordon and Bernard Friot, En travail. Conversation sur le communisme, (Paris: La Dispute, 2021), p. 210.

[25] Frédéric Lordon, Vivre sans?, p. 247.

[26] Frédéric Lordon and Bernard Friot, En travail, p. 208.

[27] Ibid, p. 69.

[28] Frédéric Lordon, Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire (Verso, 2014), p. 134.

[29] Ignacio Ramonet, Marcos. La dignité rebelle. Conversations avec le sous-commandant Marcos (Paris: Galilée, 2001), pp. 50-51.

[30] Quoted in Jérôme Baschet, La Rébellion zapatiste (Paris: Flammarion, 2005), p. 53.

[31] Subcomandante Marcos and Yvon le Bot, Le Rêve zapatiste (Paris: Seuil, 1997), p. 165.

[32] Ibid, p. 240.

[33] Ibid, pp. 252-3.

[34] Ibid, p. 169.

[35] According to Marcos/Galeano. Quoted in Orsetta Bellani, Indios sans roi. Rencontres avec des femmes et des hommes du Chiapas (Lyon: Atelier de création libertaire, 2017), p. 38.

[36] Jérôme Baschet, Basculements. Mondes émergents, possibles desirables (Paris: La Découverte, 2021), p. 188.

[37] Enguerran Carrier, Kurdistan, p. 294.

[38] Pierre Crétois and Édouard Jourdain (ed.), La Démocratie sous les bombes. Syrie-Le Rojava entre idéalisation et répression (Lormont: Le Bord de l’eau, 2022), p. 42.

[39] Frédéric Lordon, Figures du communisme, p. 189.

[40] Ibid., p. 190.

[41] Asked whether, as in Chiapas and Rojava, a revolution could take place in France without an ‘ultimate convulsion’, Lordon replied during a conference, ‘Sadly I don’t believe so.’ [25'38′]

[42] Frédéric Lordon, Vivre sans?, p. 213.

[43] Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1971) accessed at:

[44] Slavoj Žižek, La Révolution aux portes. Sur Lénine, Le Temps des Cerises, 2019, p. 18.

[45] John Holloway, ‘Twelve theses on changing the world without taking power’,

[46] See from 1'01'02.

[47] Janet Biehl, Le Municipalisme libertaire. La politique de l’écologie sociale, op. cit., p. 176.

[48] Rosa Luxemburg, ‘The Russian Revolution’ [1918], in Peter Hudis & Kevin B. Anderson, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), p. 307.

[49] Frédéric Lordon, Vivre sans..., p. 197.

[50] Frédéric Lordon, La Société des affects. Pour un structuralisme des passions (Paris: Seuil, 2015), p. 286.

[51] Murray Bookchin, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism;

[52] Even if Lordon replaces the first of the two terms with ‘communism’.

[53] Tweet of 3 December 2019.

[54] Murray Bookchin, ‘Power to Destroy, Power to Create’.

[55] Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (New York: The New Press, 2002), p. 344.

[56] Murray Bookchin, Remaking Society (AK Press: Stirling, 1990).

[57] Ibid, p. 68.

[58] This is published as an appendix to Libertarian Municipalism.

[59] Janet Biehl, Le Municipalisme libertaire. La politique de l’écologie sociale, op. cit., p. 36. However, Biehl goes so far as to defend the hypothesis of a communalism linked to the existence of a regulatory state; Janet Biehl, Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (New York: OUP, 2015).

[60] Frédéric Lordon, Imperium: Structures and Affects of Political Bodies (Verso, 2022), p. xxvi.

[61] Ibid, p. 81.

[62] Frédéric Lordon, Les Affects de la politique (Paris: Seuil, 2016), p. 108.

[63] Frédéric Lordon, Imperium, p. 226.

[64] Ibid, p. 252.

[65] Slavoj Žižek, The Relevance of the Communist Manifesto (Cambridge: Polity, 2019).

[66] Daniel Bensaïd, Penser agir (Fécamp: Lignes, 2008), p. 163.

[67] The original title of Daniel Bensaïd’s memoir An Impatient Life (Verso, 2011).

[68] Commission Sexta de l’ EZLN, Pistes zapatistes. La pensée critique face à l’hydre capitaliste (Paris: Albache, nada, Solidaires International, 2018), p. 443.

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