Bases for Communalist Programs – Eirik Eiglad

Theory does not hold a high status in current radical movements. (1) “Don’t theorize!” seem to be the watchword of many self-designated radicals today, instead emphasizing activism and protest. Not only does much of what currently passes for the Left have a strong anti-theoretical thrust, but some new social movements even promote irrationalism as a virtue. Consequently they are embedded in a quagmire of pragmatism, lifestyle orientations, and apolitical attitudes. Alternatives to this intellectual degeneration are direly needed. Social ecology and its communalism stand out in this respect with a coherent political philosophy and a revolutionary approach. (2) 

The Emergence of Social Ecological Communalism

Social ecology emerged in response to the decline of a traditional radicalism that had been based exclusively on the struggle between wage labor and capital. After the Second World War, radically new developments in capitalism diminished the numerical size of the proletariat. At the same time the success of social-democratic parties in several parts of the Western world relieved some of the most immediate economic and social problems created by the market economy, leading to a close collaboration between trade unions and governments in making capitalism more palatable. In the following years, despite the claims of Marxists, it became clear that the workers’ movement did not constitute the hegemonic force for social change.

In the early 1960s a new radicalism developed around new issues that burst onto the social agenda. Women’s oppression and ecological devastation, racism and the Vietnam war led to strong new social movements, along with a variety of citizens’ initiatives – none of which could be encompassed by movements based on factory-oriented issues. These radical tendencies greatly influenced popular attitudes. But regrettably, their movements had strong limitations and did not actualize their potentialities to become truly liberatory social forces.

In fact, they remained fragmented and were often appropriated, in an eclectic manner, by the existing culture. This resulted in an upsurge of “identity politics” and the decline of coherent radical approaches that call for fundamentally altered social relationships. Several struggles were melded with existential and even personal issues, dismissing the need for more in-depth theoretical inquiry, and their organizations became strictly issue-oriented and of an ad hoc nature. This development within the “new social movements,” as they were to be called, was coupled with developments within the universities: after the failure of the Left to implement a liberatory and cooperative society, hundreds of disillusioned radicals swarmed into the universities and, in the name of anti-totalitarianism, started an academic crusade against the objectivity of the revolutionary project. (3)

Disgusted by the dogmatism and authoritarianism of the established workers’ parties, which had led to Stalinist totalitarianism in the East and social conservatism in the West, these academics did not stop by criticizing vulgar Marxism and authoritarian forms of organization. In the name of postmodernism, ethical relativism, and “social deconstructionism,” they pursued their opposition to totalitarianism in a paranoid manner. Progress was dismissed as an illusion, education was depicted as authoritarian, ideology was considered dogmatic, and reason itself was dismissed – features that define any meaningful social theory. As they withdrew from the public sphere and into universities, they disdained even the very values that had inspired revolutionaries for more than a century and a half. Instead of redefining the revolutionary project, these former radicals essentially abandoned it wholesale, at most engaging in ad hoc criticisms of certain features of the existing society.

But the basic relationships that make up this society still have to be fundamentally altered. Not only does the social problem of exploitation still exist, but other forms of alienation and oppression demand our attention as well, like growing centralization, social homogenization, and the commodification of ever-greater spheres of cultural life. Furthermore, ecological imperatives make it necessary for us to reconsider society’s role in the biosphere. The roots of these evils are basically located in social structures of domination and particularly in the economic system of capitalism. The dynamic of the market economy and its competitive imperatives will continually reap profits at the expense of human beings and the biosphere. A revolutionary social approach is obviously needed to do away with capitalism and hierarchies once and for all. Such an endeavor must transcend traditional forms of socialism and anarchism, and certainly everything that passes for “leftism” or “radicalism” today. Nonetheless we must retain the best features of the traditional Left, like its commitment to reason, its constructive utopianism, its class analysis, and its participation in public life and social struggles – while broadening them. We cannot allow our politics to be arbitrary; rather, we must ground it both ideologically and historically in radical social theory and the revolutionary tradition.

Social ecology, responding to this challenge, has come up with a coherent political philosophy. Initially launched in 1964 by the radical American thinker Murray Bookchin, this approach united the liberatory ideas of social anarchism with ecological issues and still managed to retain the best of the Marxist tradition, especially its critique of capitalism. (4) Its project for revolutionary social change took the form of libertarian municipalism. The creation of an ecological society requires a large-scale decentralization of social life to a human scale and a transition to ecological forms of production. According to this social ecological analysis, capitalism and the state are essentially the main causes of the present social and ecological crisis and must be eliminated, along with all forms of hierarchy and domination. Radical activists have to create new liberatory social relations and institutions. The fundamental solution to our social and ecological problems is to empower the people and to create a libertarian socialist society.

Social ecology led to the development of a communalist ideology – maintaining this fundamental analysis – that gives us a vision of a rational ecological society, as well as a tangible framework for radical social and political practice. The politics of communalism – libertarian municipalism – defines an attempt to strengthen and restructure the municipalities at the expense of the centralized state. It aims at creating and empowering popular assemblies in the municipalities and making them forums where all citizens collectively can participate in shaping their own future. These popular assemblies will decide upon all important community issues, like education, defense, health care, production, and distribution. The democratic municipalities will unite and form confederations, a form of interregional organization, in which individual members of a confederal council are mandated and recallable by their respective popular assemblies.

Communalists make a clear distinction between the democratic assemblies, which make all policy decisions, and councils and committees, which undertake administrative and coordinative functions. These municipal confederations must challenge, confront, and ultimately replace the state and centralized power as such. Communalism will furthermore replace capitalism with a municipalized economy, guided by principles of sharing and solidarity. Democratized municipalities will be carefully tailored to their natural surroundings, by means of ecological technologies and knowledge, trying to create an ecological balance between land and city.

Although libertarian municipalism has been consciously articulated through social ecology circles the last thirty years, it nonetheless has deep roots in social struggles. Historically, communalist politics is anchored in the age-old struggle between the independence of the cities and the imperialistic ambitions of the state. On the one hand, citizens in the past fought to preserve and expand civic virtues and municipal freedoms, and on the other, nobles, kings and emperors made every effort to suppress local autonomy and confederation. (5) This tension has exploded from time to time in bloody civil wars and revolutionary upheavals, most notably in the Great French Revolution of 1789-94 and in the Paris Commune of 1871, wherein citizens of Paris demanded the replacement of the French state by a confederation of municipalities. (6)

Communalism as a Dialectical Approach

While postmodernism and its philosophical and ethical relativism have focused their attention on the ideological legitimation of the status quo, social ecologists launched a feasible alternative for a revival of a radical Left with a view toward fundamentally altering this society. (7) Nevertheless, communalism is more than the political theory and practice of libertarian municipalism. One has to explore communalism as a coherent political philosophy to be able to fully understand its revolutionary social approach. It contains not only a libertarian politics and a nonhierarchical social analysis but also a philosophy that give communalism its developmental and ethical thrust – namely, dialectical naturalism.

Dialectical naturalism is a way of understanding society and the natural world by explaining them as developmental phenomena. (8) In this respect nature is its own evolution, just as society is its own history. Biological or cultural phenomena cannot be properly explained merely in terms of their fixity, their form, or their factual existence; they must be cumulatively connected to their past and their future. A naturalist dialectics must explore their potentialities and their internal logic, in order to educe what they should become if reason is to prevail. The ethical “should be,” which can be objectively grounded, must always be a guideline for challenging and correcting the existing state of affairs, and to guide us beyond the reformism, pragmatism, and subjectivism promoted by radicals today. Such a dialectical understanding, with its tremendous ethical implications, is indispensable to an explanation of the political dimension of communalism.

First of all, dialectical naturalism anchors the struggle for a rational society in humanity’s long and painstaking development towards more expansive forms of social consociation and human subjectivity. More specifically, it places this struggle in the context of society’s potentialities for cooperation, freedom, and self-consciousness. Since history has not been a unilinear expansion of freedom and self-consciousness, humanity should seek to consciously develop cooperative and libertarian institutions that further its own development. (9) Thus, a libertarian socialist society is not a personal choice or an “imaginary” (as advanced by certain recent social ecologists) but is to be regarded, after thorough studies of the emergence of human culture and its social institutions, as social organization in its most rational form. Communalists consider the present society as irrational and seek out what is rational in human history in an attempt to improve the human condition, and to remake our relationship between society and the natural world. Such a dialectical analysis negates the apparent “reality” of global state capitalism, as well as the pragmatic “realism” of reformist politicians, lobbyists, and activists, for the actualization of humanity’s potentialities for social freedom and rationality. (10)

Second, a dialectical approach is necessary to understand the latent tension between the state and the municipality. This historical conflict is in its essence antagonistic, and a revival of community life and municipal democracy can be actualized only with the destruction of the state. In contrast to the municipality, which potentially and in its full actualization is a vibrant direct democracy, the state, a centralized and professionalized apparatus with a social monopoly of violence, is by virtue of its internal logic never democratic but totalitarian, as the last century has shown. From time to time this latent tension between the municipality and the state bursts out in ravaging social conflicts, but mostly the conflict is a silent one, in which municipal freedoms steadily lose ground to professional statist elites. There can be no compromise with the state in creating a libertarian and ecological society, because all power that municipalities achieve will be at the expense of state power, and vice versa. This recognition is one of the main features of libertarian municipalism and defines its proper historical role.

Finally, communalists bring this dialectical approach into the sphere of activism. Communalism declares that confederations of democratic municipalities make up the institutional framework of a rational and ecological society. The revival of the public sphere would provide a vast scope for radical activists. Communalists, to be sure, must develop clear programs for how they can gradually make this vision come true. The social revolution we yearn for involves a long and uneven process. Carefully elaborated programs are therefore essential and constitute a dialectical moment of our activist work. Ultimately calling for a total remaking of society along libertarian and egalitarian lines, our programmatic demands help us to act as revolutionaries in a period of reaction. In fact, communalist programs are the link between our ideals and the reality in which we live. These programs make it possible for us to retain our utopian aspirations while we engage in practical politics and activism.

This capitalist society obliges communalists to take the most committed stance against it, yet everyone has to acknowledge that revolutionary change involves a process of maturation. A social revolution will not be the result of someone snapping two fingers or throwing a brick, especially today, when we are not likely to mobilize great masses of people under the banners of municipal democracy and social revolution. (11) The Great French Revolution was itself the result of a long social maturation by the citizens of Paris and became possible only after nearly a century of Enlightenment social thought and philosophy.

This is not to say that we are obliged to wait until the population spontaneously rises, or confine ourselves to merely spreading ideas. Communalism advances a politics that aims at mobilizing, educating, and empowering the people through the establishment of popular assemblies and the introduction of a radical social agenda. (12) In this respect, the social revolution will be the “final conflict” that defeats capitalism and the state once and for all. Insofar as social processes are not predetermined, the creation of a rational society must be the most conscious endeavor on the part of radical activists: “The world of facts is not rational but has to be brought to reason.” (13) Radicals have to bring a rational society to its actualization by rational insight and purposeful will, for which a dialectical approach and organized human agency are indispensable.

Communalist Programs

Karl Marx clearly understood this responsibility when he stated that we should seek not only to understand the world but also to change it. (14) Communalist organizations must develop programs and thereby bring their philosophical approach from the realm of social analysis and theory to the realm of political activism. Programmatic demands can present radical municipalist ideas in a clear and concise manner. More specifically, those demands must range from our ideal of a future society to our most immediate concerns. In revolutionary theory this escalation has been properly designated as maximum demands and minimum demands, as well as the necessary transitional demands. The idea of maximum and minimum programs was first consciously developed by the Socialist International and still has considerable validity today. A programmatic practice helped the growth and influence of many socialist parties and radical organizations, but alas, their limited understanding of the state led not to a socialist society but to their own eventual degeneration and cooptation.

Communalists must draw from this programmatic approach to create the most adequate revolutionary practice suited to our time. It is obvious that communalists should engage in everyday social struggles and participate in everyday political life. In this respect communalism adds a new dimension to traditional anarchism and socialism, because it recovers political life as an authentic sphere of revolutionary activity. Engagement and participation need not take the form of liberal reformism if we visualize our long-term aims by radicalizing all our demands at every phase along the way. Communalist demands must place immediate struggles within the context of more profound social questions and make the need for a revolutionary change more urgent in the consciousness of the people. There are material, cultural and psychological needs which have to be met before a revolution will be successful, and communalists respond to this with their programs and activities.

The dialectics of communalist programs lies in their developmental intention, in the radical escalation of demands. During the Great French Revolution of 1789-94 there was a tide of new revolutionary institutions, many of which – ironically – were created by the monarchy and the national assembly but were mutated by the people to meet their growing needs and democratic aspirations. The Parisian sections, for example, were constructed out of the district electoral assemblies that were established by the monarchy to choose deputies to the Estates-General. With the establishment and empowerment of the sectional assemblies, the opening of these sections to the most impoverished segments of society, and the election of a large number of committees that undertook various responsibilities, this revolution reached sweeping proportions and even threatened the Jacobin state itself.

Unfortunately the revolutionaries failed to secure their sectional democracy and the revolution itself, largely due to their lack of organization and their failure to develop a coherent theory to guide their practice. Revolutionaries today cannot afford to let events blindly overtake the course of social revolution but must learn about the accomplishments, defeats, and shortcomings of past revolutions from careful historical studies. Communalism unites libertarian aims with libertarian means, and radical activists should work to introduce and gradually develop revolutionary institutions, as well as foster a new Enlightenment. Preparation and organization are crucial for the revolutionary project and the transition to a libertarian and ecological society. Radicals should use programmatic formulations and presentations as an indispensable key to this transition.

Nonetheless, I must emphasize that communalist programs are not intended to provide a blueprint for social reorganization. The utopian dimension of the revolutionary project is necessary to preserve the vision of a rational future. Above all, we have an ethical commitment to render the world rational, and no program or plan can ever be a substitute for this dialectical understanding. Rather, it complements it with practical action and democratic forms of organization.

Potentialities and the Need for Programmatic Change

A liberatory political movement must educe potentialities in communities and cultures, and these moments must be captured in its programs. These programs have to be flexible and adapted to local situations, addressing the pressing needs of the time by offering radical solutions to immediate problems. But although the minimum demands must be applied locally and regionally, certain maximum demands are required if the program is to remain communalist, such as the abolition of all forms of hierarchy and domination, the establishment of municipal confederations, and the implementation of a new system of moral economics. In short, communalists will fight for these demands with the intention of finally destroying the limits that capitalism and the state impose upon us and of actualizing a rational society.

The content of these programs can be educed from the liberatory potentialities latent in local traditions, institutional structures, social struggles, cultural traits, and especially human history itself. (15) To facilitate their actualization, communalists must give these programs a coherent and articulated form. Almost daily, issues come up that call for public attention, such as the closing of a school, the pollution of a river, racist attacks on immigrants, or the building of a shopping mall. When such issues arise, communalists should voice their opinion everywhere and relate particular issues with more general ones.

Consider, for example, a social problem such as the current attack on public services. In many parts of the industrial world, neoliberal capitalism is ravaging the welfare gains that once helped capitalism survive past crises. In Norway today, public services are gradually being destroyed in the name of privatization and rationalization, as if people, community life, and culture were expendable products to be abandoned or even sold in the marketplace. Many people clearly understand this, but they find it difficult to act against this process or even voice their opinions on the matter. Popular resistance to this policy is usually limited to working within the capitalist framework. In this respect, communalists have a great deal to offer with their ideas on municipalization, confederalism, and the establishment of popular assemblies. One may take nearly any kind of social or ecological problem, restate it in terms of a communalist program, and thereby seek to direct popular attention to the cause of a problem and not merely its effects.

In contrast to postmodernism and post-structuralism, communalism advances a coherent set of ideas that are socially relevant and applicable to our times. Its fundamental aim is to eliminate this bourgeois social order that impoverishes society and destroys the natural world. Once a true social force, the Left has now lost ground to an array of individualistic “imaginaries,” mysticism, various spiritualisms, and particularistic identities, or through personal rebellion. Capitalism and the state seem to be thoroughly entrenched and self-confident, and it will require a serious response – ultimately a determined, organized, and truly political movement – to shake their foundations. These institutions will not disappear of themselves, or because of changes in personal behavior or benevolent communitarian enterprises – an empowered people must overthrow them. This is not a game, an academic exercise or a theatrical act, and radical activists cannot do without the theoretical, political, and lived practice involved in social change – all united in a body of coherent political ideas.

Communalist programs can be formulated and presented differently, but they ultimately rest on the stamina and long-range commitment of the organizations that present these demands. Revolutionary communalists must build strong organizations that will energetically voice their demands and seek to expand social consciousness, as well as participate in restructuring municipalities. All countries and regions have their own specific traditions for popular government, while they share universal potentialities for citizenship and social revolution. Much depends on whether revolutionaries are able to take advantage of these possibilities, with education and empowerment, in order to bring humanity into a new historical stage of development.


1. This essay was originally published in Left Green Perspectives # 40 (February 1999). It has been slightly revised for publication here. (It was written a year before the resurgence of worldwide radical protests against “globalization,” marked by the large demonstrations in Seattle, November 1999, but has by no means lost its relevance.)

2. For a general overview of social ecology and communalist politics, the reader should study at least Murray Bookchin’s Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989), and Janet Biehl’s The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1997).

3. This academic current became widespread in France after the failure of the May-June events in Paris 1968.

4. Murray Bookchin’s “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” was first written in 1964 and was republished in Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1986). The first time libertarian municipalism was advanced was in an editorial by the Anarchos Group, “Spring Offensives and Summer Vacations,” Anarchos, no. 4 (June 1972), also written by Murray Bookchin.

5. For a thorough study of the historical and theoretical foundations of libertarian municipalism, see Murray Bookchin, From Urbanization to Cities: Toward a New Politics of Citizenship (London: Cassell, 1995).

6. Marxists and anarchists alike have cherished this political legacy, but it is only with libertarian municipalism that this “assemblyist” and “communard” tendency has received a careful theoretical, historical, and programmatic consideration.

7. Several radical theorists have tried to ground the struggle for a democratic politics on “social imaginaries” (Castoriadis) or a “democratic relativism” (Fotopoulos), but their categories tend to dissolve into the subjectivist arbitrariness of postmodernism, and they fail to explain why we should choose certain “imaginaries” or political approaches over others.

8. For a further elucidation of dialectical naturalism, see Murray Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays on Dialectical Naturalism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, rev. ed. 1995), as well as Janet Biehl, “Dialectics in the Ethics of Social Ecology,” in Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1991). Bookchin’s Re-enchanting Humanity: A Defence of the Human Spirit Against Antihumanism, Misantropy, Mysticism, and Primitivism (London: Cassell, 1995) gives these philosophical ideas a historical embedding.

9. For a discussion of the difference between our human potentialities for creating a libertarian society and our capacities for building totalitarian regimes, see “History, Civilization and Progress” in Bookchin, Philosophy of Social Ecology, pp. 159–161.

10. The distinction that Hegel made in Science of Logic between “reality” (Realitaet) and “actuality” (Wirklichkeit) is fundamental to what we regard as the “real.”

11. The recent protests in Seattle, Prague and Genoa has certainly been massive mobilizations, but their contents have been vague, and – instead of producing a mature form of political creativity – are limited to mere acts of protesting. The struggle for a rational society must be a process of popular enlightenment and radical organization.

12. The popular assemblies will themselves be the most appropriate institutions to introduce and fight for our programmatic demands. (They will certainly be arenas for class struggle, as the demand for an end to exploitation is a crucial component of a communalist agenda.)

13. Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (Boston: Beacon Press, 1941), p. 156, emphasis in original.

14. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1972), p. 145.

15. See Dan Chodorkoff, “Social Ecology and Community Development,” in Society and Nature, vol. 1, no. 1 (1992); and Janet Biehl’s “The Revolutionary Potential of the Municipality,” speech delivered at the Libertarian Municipalism Conference in Plainfield, Vermont, 1999 (Unpublished manuscript); and particularly Murray Bookchin’s “The New Municipal Agenda,” pp. 201–245, in From Urbanization to Cities

From the previous website ISSUE # 6 MARCH 2005


July 29, 2010 - Posted by | anti-endustriyalizm, anti-kapitalizm, ekolojist akımlar, ekotopya heterotopya utopyalar, komünler, kolektifler, kooperatifler vb modeller, ozyonetim, sistem karsitligi




    Comment by Dea Lae | May 7, 2021 | Reply

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