RA-L rebuttal of Bookchin and Biehl.

By John Rapp
1st message, Oct. 4, 1998

I would like to respond to one part of Janet Biehl and Murray
Bookchin's critique of John Clark's ideas, specifically their views on
Daoism. I only want to make some basic points here; for my larger argument
please see my forthcoming article, "Daoism and Anarchism Reconsidered" in
the next issue of <<Anarchist Studies.>>

The first point that Biehl and Bookchin seem to be trying to make is
that the <<dao> of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi is not only a mystical but a
supernatural God-like entity and thus very easily a form of authority to be
used over people. I think this relfects a fundamental misunderstanding of
Daoism on their part. I would argue instead that the Daoists were saying
only using the <<dao>> as a metaphor for the universe, of which we are all a
part. Logically one cannot understand a whole by being apart from it looking
at it from outside; otherwise it would no longer be a whole. Recognizing
the impossibility of grasping the whole objectively does not create an
artifical authority but instead is meant to satirize ruling elites who would
impose their various types of authority on the world.

This interpretation would also help clear up Bookchin/Biehl's
confused view of Daoism as a mystical anti-scientific doctrine. Daoism in
fact does not preclude scientific thinking. Indeed, Joseph Needham, the
great historian of Chinese science, argued that the Daoists were China's
first proto-scientific thinkers. Bascially the Daoists were telling people
not to accept as dogma the ideas of morality and goodness of the Confucians
or the ideas of standarized rules and regulations of the Legalists (to name
just two statist philosophies the anti-imperial and anti-feudal Daoists were
competing against--if one genuinely starts to put Daoism in the
social/historical context that Bookchin asks for). Instead the Daoists
tried to get people to look at those doctrines as artificial attempts to
order the world on behalf of either old feudal or rising new imperial
privileged elites. To observe the universe without preconceived notions, or
in other words to discard all authority that cannot be questioned, is after
all the basic idea behind the true scientific method (of course, as Bakunin
and others have long warned us, science itself can all too easily become an
authority if we start to worship it too much, and even some socialists and
anarchists have often become scientistic in their thinking, as many have

Returning to Bookchin and Biehl's idea of <<dao>> as an authority,
now with the understanding of Daoism as a proto-scientific doctrine, we can
see that <<dao>> refers not to any kind of supernatural entity but only
to something in the West more inadequately termed natural law. To say that
there are natural laws which we cross at our peril is not to say that any
human authority can necessarily call us into account based on those laws.
Bookchin/Biehl's rather positivistic idea of science is itself after all an
appeal to natural law, which in their case seems even more easily able to
degenerate into a scientistic authority than the idea of <<dao>>. Shorn of
this potential, perhaps William Godwin's faith in Reason as the ultimate
guide and link between humans is a Westernized version of what Lao Zi was
getting at.

What Lao Zi was doing, in my opinion, was warning us that the
attempt to impose absolute standards on people, whether standards of
morality or standards of laws and punishments, would not achieve order and
peace but only justify the rule of a few, which in the end would only divide
people more and lead to a violent reaction of nature in which many would perish.

The idea that the whole of nature inevitably wreaks retribution on
those who would artificially divide it is of course why Daoism is so
appealing today to ecological thinkers like Clark. To say that we cannot
conquer nature is not to make nature an authority over us but only to
recognize that everything that exists is interconnected and part of a larger
whole, and that all attempts at domination are inevitably destructive of
humanity. Thus, versus Bokchin's view, I would argue that Daoism is indeed
a humanstic doctrine, one which tells us to `treat people as straw dogs'
only in the sense that we should not be paternalistic toward each other
(this advice of Lao Zi is recognized even in Arthur Waley's `mystical'
interpretation as a "bait for Legalists" who would try to impose harsh laws
on people). It is those who claim to be able to categorize all of nature or
who maintain an old-fashioned view of the scientific method as a Newtonian
billiard ball concept of looking for the first cause who in fact are
appealing to a supernatural authority that must regulate our lives.

In his larger diatribe against Clark's Daoism published in the
Anarchy archives, Bookchin makes several inaccurate generalizations and
assumptions about
Daoism. First, he assumes that Daoism is inherently a matter of faith and
thus religion and denigrates those who distinguish between Daoist philosophy
and religion. In fact this is a distinction long maintained by Chinese
themselves, with the Daoist relgion post-dating the philosophy by hundreds
of years. The advocates of Dao-zhao (Daoist teaching or religion) combined
study of the <<Daode Jing>> (Tao Te Ching in the old romanization) with
worship of traditional deities in the 3rd century CE, and even started out
worshipping Lao Zi and the mythical Yellow Emperor as a combined God,
chanting the <<Daode Jing>> as a holy text, ignoring its meaning. Even though
religious Daoism actually started as an egalitarian peasant ideology of the
Yellow Turban rebellion against the Han dynasty in the late 2nd century CE,
and was opposed to the prevailing Confucian doctrines used to justify the
rule of landlord families and/or central bureaucrats, the rebels built up
political hierarchies of their own and their descendants believed in
bureaucratic hierarchies in Heaven and acccepted official status within
various later imperial dynasties. This is all quite apart from those
advocates of <<daojia>> (Daoist philosphy), who denied and opposed all

Bookchin, seemingly using only on Max Weber as his Sinological
authority, assumes that these exponents of <<daojia>> always advocated a
passive acceptance of mystical authority and laid the groundwork for the
later Daoist religion. In fact, a strong tendency among advocates of
<<daojia>>, from the classical period of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi (c. 300 BCE),
to the Wei-Jin period (c. 300-400 CE) and beyond was a very definite
anarchism, in the case of the Wei-Jin an anarchism even more explicit than
even that of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, if firmly based on their writings (again,
see my forthcoming article in <<Anarchist Studies>> for details of these
later Daoist anarchists).

Given that Bookchin in his long polemic against Clark was able to
recognize that some Christian mystics, such as Thomas Muenzer, reinterpreted
Christianity so that it could serve as an ideological tool against certain
forms of state oppression (one alsocould note in this regard Gerard Winstanley
and the Diggers of the English Civil War), it is unfortunate that he seemed
totally unable to recognize how Daoism too, even more easily, could be a
tool not of those preaching passive acceptance of authority, but of people
trying to break the confidence of intellectual and state elites. In fact, I
argue, the Daoist anarchists were in fact trying to undermine all existing
principles of political authority in pre-imperial and imperial China.

Lastly, I would only ask that those interested in opening up
anarchism to new ideas, on whatever side of the (to me otherwise) mystifying
debate between the contemporary variations of eco-anarchism, not dismiss
Daoism based on inaccurate comments, either of Westerners who have no real
idea of what Daoism is about, or of liberal and conservative China scholars
who have no real understanding of or sympathy towards anarchism.

--John Rapp, Beloit College, Wisconsin, USA


Rejoinder to Bookchin/Biehl on Daoism, Oct. 26, 1998

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