Reply to Hart and Melle by Janet Biehl


Paradox is an essential component of the mystical experience. For as long as the mystical tradition has existed, people have reported that at the blinding moment of their epiphany, they perceived an inexplicable contradiction, an irreconcilable conjuncture that defies their powers of speech and reason to describe.  The adept is pervaded with an ineffable feeling of awe before an unexplained and inexplicable sublime, which may denominated by any number of names, like "god" or "nature."

Such experiences may give an individual a certain amount of personal satisfaction, but they are alien to matters political. Political reasoning depends, not on ineffable and incommunicable individual experience, but an on a shared perception of a common public problem or issue, whose causes and solutions are rationally discussed and agreed upon by a group of people who propose to do something about it.  Politics requires the clear statement of common aims, clearly understood by all members of a political movement, whose actions in the political action in the public realm are undergirded by that common understanding.  In politics, people make stated agendas, concertize them in programs, and advance those programs among their fellow citizens. No mystical experience, limited as it is to individuals, can provide this shared public understanding.

Paradox also plays a role, albeit of a somewhat different sort, in psychology, or rather in psychology's account of human motivation and behavior. It is the task of the psychologist to search for the deeper meanings and motivations that underlie a patient's conscious self-presentation even if, and sometimes especially if, those motivations are at variance with the patient's openly stated aims. Thus, a patient who consciously articulates emotion X may be found actually to be driven by its opposite, emotion Y.  One who outwardly expresses hatred for his father may actually be yearning for his father's love, and so on. Such contradictions between appearance and underlying psychic reality another kind of paradox typify the psychological account of human behavior.

But this paradoxical account, too, is incommensurable with political concepts and action. The public sphere and common political action require a shared understanding of programmatic aims. Psychological approaches can play little role here, since if stated political intentions cannot accepted at face value, then they lose their significance.

In general, politics is a public experience, while mysticism and psychology are quintessentially private and personal. Mysticism, with its embrace of the inexplicable paradox, and psychology, with its search for underlying motivations, contradict the very premises of political reason and action. This is one reason that social ecology, with its calls for the strengthening and expansion of the local political realm, rejects mystical and psychologistic approaches in favor of political and social ones.

Insofar as Rudolf Bahro views politics through the prisms of mysticism and psychology, he wreaks havoc on political reason and intentionality. For Bahro, it seems, the stated aims of political actors are not to be accepted at face value; on the contrary, their underlying motivations are what counts, even and perhaps especially when they are the reverse of what is stated.

Thus, in Avoiding Social and Ecological Destruction (ASED) (the heavily abridged and revised English translation of his 1990 book Logik der Rettung [LDR]), we learn that people who state antifascist aims are actually, indeed paradoxically, making possible the return of fascism; while those who try to "redeem" fascism are somehow the better antifascists.  Antifascists, we are told, are motivated, not by the desire to avoid a genocidal dictatorship, as they publicly claim, but, paradoxically, by unresolved personal issues:  "Even now Hitler is the great excuse of those who fear their own subordination" (254 ASED).  Indeed, as Hart and Melle would have it, insofar as we participate in the existing social order, "we are potential fascists."

Nor is the subversion of stated antifascist intentions the only instance of paradox in Bahro's book. Contrary to conventional political understanding, individualism actually leads to totalitarianism.  ("If individualism remains dominant, it can only bring about a totalitarian 'solution'"[177 ASED]). Contrary to conventional political understanding, resistance to tyranny is paradoxically! part of the pathology of individualism.  ("It is only western individualism which here fears so much the tyrant, because paradoxically they belong together" [255 ASED]).

It is commonly understood that when spiritual experiences are made part of politics, the intuitionism that is essential to spirit can easily produce authoritarian implications. Yet for Bahro spirituality is not a wellspring to fascism but again, paradoxically its antidote. ("Hardly anything can lead away from fascism more effectively than the therapeutic and spiritual movement, because it works on aggressions and resentment, makes them conscious, and reduces them" [247 ASED].) Moreover, where conventional wisdom considers charisma in a political actor to be problematic at best and dangerous at worst, Bahro asserts that making a critique of it somehow, paradoxically, perpetuates the problem. ("Whoever makes the assumption that charismatic potency is incompatible with enlightenment or critical ability helps to reproduce a constellation in which such a false polarity can manifest itself again" [254 ASED].) To those who criticize Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, for whom Bahro once harbored an enthusiasm, he asks: "In view of the way you see him, is it possible that Baghwan is your own shadow?! That you are perhaps not anxious about your Cartesian fortress, perhaps preventively defending the collected substance of your existence?"  (ASED 316)

Readers will find more instances of paradoxical reversals in Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster. Such pronouncements issued ex cathedra, underpinned by no substantive argumentation bring to mind the classical case of manipulation in psychoanalysis, in which the patient's objections to the process are diagnosed by the analyst as "resistance" a symptom of the patient's problem and bereft of any further significance, especially such as might challenge the process.  In fact, those who criticize Bahro's own ideas only do so, of course, because of the contradictions in their own nature: "Whoever takes a critical attitude to the idea [i.e., to Bahro's project] from the start is altogether right in fearing social power, in fact any form of government, but contributes at the same time to their [its?] repressive character" (343 ASED). In other words, those who criticize Bahro's authoritarianism are authoritarians themselves. If such inversions are to be accepted, then mysticism and psychology have stripped politics of conscious intentionality--and destroyed the possibility of politics.

[HEAD] Replacing Politics with Meditation

Bahro wants not merely to introduce mysticism and psychologism into politics, as Hart and Melle's synopsis makes clear--he wants them to replace politics as such, including, presumably, politics understood as community self-management.  He urges his followers to reject politics, to withdraw from it. "Politics is mere politicking, and becomes more and more a part of the problem instead of a solution" (258 ASED).  We should reorient our energies "from predominantly outer to predominantly inner activities" (14 ASED) and focus on the self:  "Above all things, we must learn to direct our awareness to ourselves, rather than to the world we have created" (14 ASED). "The most important political discipline is . . . the seeking out of the truth about ourselves" (15 ASED), and "a praxis of human self-transformation is the basic political issue." (156 ASED)

Our understanding of society and politics and even history is reduced to psychologistic categories "History is psychodynamics" (80 ASED) while the ecological crisis is the result, not of social relations like capitalism, but of "a sickness of the human spirit, of our collective psychodynamics" (81 ASED). For Bahro, the praxis by which we can resolve the problem is religious:  "Because the human being can only begin with him/herself and not with the world, . . . meditation is the axis of the path to salvation" (227 ASED). Indeed, meditation is "the royal road to salvation" (227 ASED).

Bahro's prescriptions for a meditative praxis and psychologistic understanding vitiate precisely the faculties, skills, and virtues that are necessary for political participation and that should be fostered if we are to recreate a politics in the sense of self-management, such as Bookchin argues in his libertarian municipalist writings. Vitiating those faculties and virtues can only result in passive, docile individuals who more concerned for their personal psyches and spiritual paths than for the world around them--and who are amenable to domination by larger social powers.

Indeed, even as Bahro's self-transforming meditators are being depoliticized, the state is being strengthened:  Bahro would "propose a new state, indeed . . . conceive the state anew" (267 ASED). Not surprisingly, this new "conceiving" is at least partly psychologistic:  "What we need . . . is a good, strong, and rigorous popular government, a parentally-lovable government, which actively organises consent for the necessary measures" (323-24 ASED). Rebellion is a juvenile psychological syndrome: To take a "negative posture toward authority," we learn, is "an adolescent posture of no toward father" (ASED 344).

The state will be not only paternal but "divine" (237 ASED) and its rationale is the ecological crisis itself. The ecological crisis "requires such a strong authority for society as a whole, such a mighty sphere of law, that the appropriate solution will be justified, possible and lasting only if its institutions stand in the light of a new Civitas Dei (divine civil order)" (237).

This divine, paternal state will be no mere nation-state but a "world government" (p. 341). It will be coercive, indeed "selectively repressive, suppressing specific bad old habits" (333). Presumably its repressions will follow Bahro's imperative that "we must ration what we eat and consume, and we must limit our numbers" (262 ASED).  Only an extremely powerful state could impose such changes in individual habits one that is, in fact, totalitarian. Those who would like a "divine" world government to dictate what they can eat have found their man in Rudolf Bahro.

[HEAD] Unity of Green and Brown?

Sooner or later theorists of ecological politics must address with the fact that some portions of the National Socialist movement and party made professions of concern for ecological problems.[1] Even more, those whose ecological thinking sees modernism and cultural homogeneity as productive of or associated with ecological devastation must address the overlap between their ideas and those of fascists in this century. An honorable way to address this problem is to recognize that neither National Socialism nor the volkisch movement had the last word on how to conceptualize the ecological crisis in political terms. If anything, the National Socialist use of "ecology" stands as a lesson in the potentially harmful ways of conceptualizing political ecology, and studying them can help us avoid the emergence of dictatorship in the name of ecology. Thus, the theorist of ecological politics should positively distinguish his or her ideas from that which is associated with the National Socialist catastrophe and be clear about those differences.

Social ecologists try to do this when they object to the aspects of deep ecology that appear to echo National Socialist "ecology," such as its intuitionism and mysticism (with their authoritarian implications), and its devaluation of human life (in favor of nonhuman life, in the case of deep ecology). Social ecologists also identify the causes of the ecological crisis as social in nature capitalist and hierarchical society precisely in contradistinction to fascist ideology, which roots those causes in religious worldviews and in such factors as reason, technology, and population.

Faced with the National Socialist use of "ecological" ideas, Bahro does not make such distinctions. On the contrary, he looks for further similarities between his ideas and fascists indeed he opens his mind to "Brown" ideas.  For Bahro, the common issue of ecology and vaguely associated critiques of modernization, urbanization, and so on seems a warrant for exploring further similarities of ideas. Thus, the "Nazi movement" made "'a widespread criticism, supported by immediate raw experience, of conurbation, mechanization, rationalisation, and the putting of everything into a scientific mould'" (281 ASED), Bahro tells us approvingly.

Not only are we to seek similarities, but Bahro thinks we can "learn" from National Socialism.  In a passage in the original German book that was omitted from the English translation, Bahro says, "I consider it an enlightened necessity to ask about the positive things that perhaps were dormant within the Nazi movement and that then were fundamentally perverted, because otherwise we remain cut off from our roots, out of which something redemptive could grow.  Antifascism, which is nothing more than a defense mechanism, mainly means cutting ourselves off from the greater part of this potential and surrendering it" (LDR 461). Or, as he says in still another passage omitted from the English translation, "'Brother Hitler' is waving to us from hell and has something for us to learn, something for us to do" (396 LDR; the appellation is quoted apparently approvingly from Rainer Langhans).

For Bahro, the supposed ideological similarities between ecological thought and National Socialism are a cue not only to explore further continuities but even to claim unity with National Socialists ("Browns"), as part of the same movement as the Greens.

We must think of the [ecological] movement as an ellipse whose axis has two poles, Brown and Green.  In itself Brown is not less radical, but radical in a different sense from the Green.  By any reckoning there is no more stupid strategy for handling the opposite pole than fear of contact driven by our own defence mechanisms, and the denial of its presence in our own psychic constitution.  On the contrary we have everything to gain if we make use of our minority Brown components as antennae to open up to us, via the corresponding positions in the opposite pole, an access to the Green components there--and they are certainly present! . . . The mistake lies in not seeing the Green-Brown polarity as inside the one phenomenon, "social movement."  The postulate that there are two social movements, one Green and one Brown fails [OMITTED FROM TRANSLATION:  to see that in the twentieth century there has been only one movement, which was simultaneously Green (which predominated before 1914) and Brown (which predominated after 1918), and] to assume the "necessary" place for an independent, consistent Brown movement opposite us.  (ASED 281-82; LDR 398-400)

Apparently a thriving neo-Nazi movement is not only necessary for a Green movement but an essential component of it, for in the next sentence (in the German original only) Bahro demands "that we reject this dichotomy [i.e., between Green and Brown], and discard the past-fixated anxiety which governs that dichotomy" (LDR 400). That is, we have to recognize that today's ecology movement is part of the same movement as the National Socialist movement.

Even though they regard my discussion of Bahro as "scandalous," Hart and Melle's defense of Bahro actually does much to corroborate my argument by highlighting some of the authoritarian aspects of Bahro's work.  But most of all I share Hart and Melle's disappointment that only this abridged version of Logik der Rettung was translated rather than the entire book.  Much as the title change suggests, Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster is a whitewashing of Logik der Rettung, (which actually means "The Logic of Salvation"). I have already mentioned a few passages that were altered for the translation, but other instances where Bahro has been "cleaned up" abound.  For example, in the English version, we read the following passage:

There is no more objectionable thought than that of a new 1933! Yet precisely this can save us. The ecopax movement is the first German people's movement since the Nazi movement. It has to redeem Hitler too--the psychological tendency through which he, though weakened, is still in us (248 ASED).

Lest English-speaking readers be alarmed by the thought of "redeeming Hitler," the editors have interpolated, a few lines later, the sentence: "Each nation has its own ghosts to deal with, and this is Germany's ghost." This sentence did not appear in the original German.  Instead, Bahro took that occasion to praise someone for meeting with Michael Kuehnen, a virulent neo-Nazi who later died of AIDS the meeting, he said, gave "the right signal" (347 LDR). That is, the "ghost," far from being "dealt with" or exorcised, became a participant in a political dialogue.

One might suppose that Bahro is writing of "Brown" as a phenomenon of the political right, in contradistinction to his Green, which would be of the political left. Thus, even in a movement that unites Green and Brown, the Left-Right distinction might still preserve the barrier between them.  But Bahro repeatedly rejects distinctions between Left and Right as part of "our compartmentalisation and our prejudices, prejudices which locate us on the left-right axis" and must be dropped.  Instead we have to direct our thinking toward "one 'sovereign of the ecological turning point'" (330 ASED). Without a Left-Right boundary, we are left with a merged Green and Brown that is, with eco-fascism. (Indeed, for someone who wants to transcend these categories, Bahro seems far more critical of the Left than of the Right.)  Further, by discrediting antifascism as a leftist neurosis, Bahro leaves the Green movement with no shared political means to combat fascism.

To those who worry about the emergence of a "Green reich," however, Bahro offers warm reassurance that such fears are unwarranted: "In all probability [sic] we shall neither have to set up concentration camps nor persecute Jews or foreigners, nor even make warbut who knows what we shall do as alternatives to these things!" (282 ASED). The mind reels. One can only wonder what circumstances, however "improbable," would induce Bahro to set up concentration camps and persecute Jews again.

One may recognize that ecology is an issue of concern across the political spectrum without embracing National Socialism as part of one's ecology movement.  Hitler criticized parliamentarism in [ITAL] Mein Kampf, [ital] but anarchists do not recommend that we learn from Hitler. On the contrary, their antifascism is a statement of their unrelenting opposition to fascist notions and practices. The ecology movement should do no less it should regard National Socialism as a lesson in what not to do, rather than as an occasion for an appalling rapprochement.



[1] See Peter Staudenmaier, "Fascist Ideology: The 'Green Wing' of the Nazi Party and Its Historical Antecedents," in Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience (Edinburgh and San Francisco: A.K. Press, 1995)