The political ideology of primitivism is experiencing something of a revival, but because it has included so many elements and ideas, it is sometimes hard to parse what the term signifies. Here I outline, in rough form, the boundaries of the primitivist tradition, with specific comments on a distinct strain that has been responsible for the tradition’s revival.
What Is Primitivism
Primitivism in its most abstract, universal form is a philosophical critique of civilization based on the value of primitive conditions and qualities that are being lost. This includes the primitive qualities of culture, human nature, and non-human nature. The basic idea is that the development of civilization — progress — necessarily entails destroying or modifying the primitive to suit its own demands, a mostly irrefutable idea, and one that can be (and has been) approached from many angles, from history to psychology to biology. Even progressivists basically accept this understanding of civilization. A primitivist is made only when the individual ascribes some kind of value on the lost primitive, hoping to either preserve it against the onslaught of civilization or re-integrate it into society.
Much has been made of the nomadic hunter/gatherer ideal as a distinguishing feature of primitivism. But the hunter/gatherer has been used in a wide variety of philosophical traditions to understand civilization. Almost all of the classical Enlightenment figures employed it as a pedagogical device, including Locke, Hume, Hobbes, Paine. The latter explains, “To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man.” In recent years the same role has been granted to hunter/gatherers by various strains of ecology and biology, which see man’s primitive condition as providing unique insights into human nature and the prospects of civilization. Primitivists, then, are not unique for their emphasis on the hunter/gatherer way of life; they are unique only in the value they ascribe to it, and their tendency to use it to critique rather than legitimize civilization.
It helps to imagine a spectrum, where, on the one hand, primitivism is the impulse to conserve man, culture, and nature; on the other, progressivism is the impulse to remake them. Arguably this is the new dividing line in politics, much more relevant than the old and sterile divide between right and left. But, like that old spectrum, individuals can have a little of either impulse in practice; the categories exist only to communicate the general sympathies, the side of the divide one is most dedicated to.
Conflict Over Human Nature
Two main conflicts recur throughout the history of the primitivist tradition. The first is a debate over actual qualities of man’s primitive condition. Primitivist and proto-primitivist sentiment before the Industrial Revolution tended to emphasize and reappraise the savage qualities of man. The literary and philosophical movements of the Industrial Revolution, especially the Romantics, usually represented a softer vision of primitive life, the “noble savage” idea. That basic conflict has carried on into the present day, with cultural anthropologists like Mead, Boaz, and Sahlins representing a more “noble savage” perspective, while biological anthropologists represent the harder, less appealing visions.
For obvious reasons primitivism is usually associated with the noble savage variant: its vision of the primitive is, after all, closest to what the modern individual already values, such as peaceableness and equality. For the same reasons sociobiological perspectives tend to be associated with the more Hobbesian perspective, that man’s basic impulse is to escape his natural condition. But, while the dominant state of affairs, there have always been exceptions. Notably, primitivist sentiment in the pre-1960s wilderness movement was often associated with harsher ideas about primitive life; in their opinion, modernity’s basic problem is precisely that it lacks the harshness, struggle, and violence of a more natural condition. Even many Romantics noted that toil and the meaning that comes with it are some of the most desirable qualities of primitive life.
Conflict Over Political Action
The second conflict that reappears involves prescriptions for political action. The most famous examples of primitivist sentiment are not strongly political at all; they are mostly philosophical and literary devices for critique, nothing more. Still, the tradition has accumulated a few kinds of practice over the past two hundred years. The first, most obvious practice was to attempt to escape civilization. In the mid-1900s this practice would develop into the “back-to-the-land” movement that, while not entirely so, was mostly primitivist in character.
When the desire wasn’t to escape civilization, the primitivist impulse was to, in some way, reintegrate the primitive back into civilization. Predominantly the ideas involve reforms to education and medicine, a shift to local-scale communities, or economic processes of degrowth or de-industrialization. Rousseau, Ivan Illich, the short-lived “neo-luddite” and “appropriate technology” movements of the 90s all belong to this mode of political thought.
Another practice to develop, and the dominant political practice associated with the tradition until recently, was wilderness conservation. Earlier in the 1800s individuals hoped that preserving land in its primitive condition would give man temporary, necessary escapes from civilized life. Benton McKaye, for example, in his proposal for the Appalachian Trail, explained:
We civilized ones also, whether urban or rural, are potentially helpless as canaries in a cage. The ability to cope with nature directly — unshielded by the weakening wall of civilization — is one of the admitted needs of modern times. It is the goal of the “scouting” movement. Not that we want to return to the plights of our Paleolithic ancestors. We want the strength of progress without its puniness. We want its conveniences without its fopperies. The ability to sleep and cook in the open is a good step forward. But “scouting” should not stop there. This is but a feint step from our canary bird existence. It should strike far deeper than this. We should seek the ability not only to cook food but to raise food with less aid — and less hindrance — from the complexities of commerce. And this is becoming daily of increasing practical importance. Scouting, then, has its vital connection with the problem of living.
As industrial development advanced, primitivism became associated with more radical ideas. By the 80s the wilderness conservation movement realized that its vision of preserved blocks of wilderness did not adequately address the ecological problems caused by technological civilization. Legislating for wilderness was a constant battle, sustained mostly by grassroots volunteers, and in perpetual conflict with powerful resource extraction industries. We see, then, developments in radical environmentalism like Earth First!, which campaigned to preserve greater portions of wilderness and, importantly, to restore land to its primitive condition. Still while wilderness protection might have been able to guard against extraction, it could not guard against global ecological issues like climate change and pollution. Meanwhile, the back-to-the-landers encountered certain insurmountable hurdles to their own vision. Apart from the inherent difficulty of creating human communities, they ran into intractable problems around ecological devastation, overpopulation, and property laws.
The cumulative effect was a more radical turn in primitivist politics, which became more associated with strains of anarchism and radicalized large portions of the environmental movement. By the 90s certain members of the green movement were unabashedly calling for the collapse of the whole industrial system. The most famous of these include Ted Kaczynski and the green anarchists of the 1999 Seattle Riots.
Two Distinct Strains
Although primitivist sentiment has been present at least since the Middle Ages, it didn’t acquire an identity as a political tradition until the late 1900s. Identities formed around two distinct groups, roughly in line with the two visions of human nature. The first group was a ragtag collection of disillusioned Marxists and anarchists who gathered around the journal The Fifth Estate. There they attempted to move beyond traditional Marxism’s class conflict by insisting that the primary battle was no longer between upper and lower classes, but between humanity and a technological civilization that had escaped human control. Instead of trying to seize the mode of production to institute a socialist society, then, the only path forward was to reject industrial civilization completely and return to nature.
The second group came from the wilderness movement: the early members of Earth First! They tended to hold the more conservative, pessimistic vision of human nature, but nevertheless advocated a return to nature, primarily on the basis of the value of non-human life. Instead of Marxist materialism, their theoretical backbone was ecology; in fact, they rather frankly rejected the humanist nature of Marxism and its related ideologies.
Later in the history of Earth First!, there was a dramatic conflict between the two primitivist factions, splitting the organization in two. The split was relevant to the environmental movement as a whole. Sessions explains:
The schism between the Foreman ecological faction and the Roselle social justice faction that tore Earth First! apart is part of larger anthropocentric/ecocentric conflicts that have existed throughout the history of American environmentalism. During the 1960’s, as Stephen Fox has pointed out, “newer man-centred leaders” arose in the environmental ranks, such as the socialist/biologist Barry Commoner and Ralph Nader, who saw industrial pollution as the essence of the environmental problem, while viewing wildlife and wilderness protection with disdain. By Earthday 1970, the environmental movement had essentially split into an anthropocentric urban pollution wing, led by Commoner, Nader, and Murray Bookchin, and an ecocentric wing concerned primarily with human overpopulation and protection of wilderness and the Earth’s ecological integrity, centred around Brower, Paul Ehrlich, and most professional ecologists.
Since the 2001 terror attack and the decline of the anti-globalization movement, primitivist sentiment has mostly disappeared from the public discourse. Nearly twenty years later, however, it is seeing something of a revival.
Much of this is due to the increasing popularity of Ted Kaczynski and my own work to define the primitivist tradition. In 2015 I involved myself in antimodern factions of anarchism, becoming introduced to the contemporary Earth First! organization and green anarchist communities involved in a number of radical environmental efforts. During this time I was introduced to the works of Kaczynski and began corresponding with him and other members of a letter-writing circle. One of these, Ultimo Reducto, a biologist in Spain, organized a handful of people to engage in research on environmental ethics, wilderness conservation, and the technology problem. Since then, the group has broken apart, but out of its discussions and essays a new primitivist tradition has formed.
As in the case of the Fifth Estate group and the early members of Earth First!, there is not universal agreement on all aspects of this revived primitivism, but the basic concepts tend to be the same. Here I can only speak for my own articulation, which I think has the potential to unify the main concerns of the two historical factions.
Like the post-Marxists, I begin with the assumption that politics is about human interests, so a critique of an out-of-control technological civilization takes center stage. The difference here is that opposition to technological society is not based on its violation of the principles of equality or justice, but on an ecologically rooted conception of human nature, which ends up being more conservative and non-utopian. Like the early Earth First!ers, then, I take ecology as my theoretical backbone, and continue to emphasize land preservation as a result. The difference here is only that I do not justify land preservation on the moral status of non-human life. Instead, the logic is economic: if humans must abandon technological civilization, then their only alternative is to rely on wild nature. Earlier I considered the possibility that this could be done through escape; today I mostly agree with Kaczynski that the only viable solution to our problems is an organized political movement.
This roughly approximates what Ultimo Reducto and the Spanish group have devised, but there are differences even among them. Ultimo Reducto, for example, has at times espoused a biocentric ethic, and at other times bases his politics on an idiosyncratic, pessimistic moral philosophy that believes there is only moral evil in the world, not moral good. The movement for which he has the most sympathy is a sect of conservation. He believes that a rather terrible, catastrophic disaster will be necessary to take us off our current path and disagrees with Kaczynski’s belief that this can be done through a mass movement.
Others within the group espouse a spectrum of variations on these themes, but have not taken as public a stance as either me or Ultimo Reducto.
On the other hand, primitivist thinkers of the 90s, like John Zerzan and Kevin Tucker, have also revived their activity. Tucker, for example, is again publishing essays and a journal called Wild Resistance. Both thinkers remain loyal to more cultural conceptions of human nature inspired by the radical anthropology group, Sahlins, Mead, Boaz, etc. In the main their argument for a return to the primitive is based on the idea that hunter/gatherers exhibited qualities like egalitarianism. Tucker, in particular, is strongly opposed to a revolutionary political program and advocates indigenous resistance as a political response to industry.
Meanwhile in the UK, primitivist sentiment is mostly represented by Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain Project. Theoretically they are most informed by thinkers like Ivan Illich and Lewis Mumford, which, though idiosyncratic, have more in common with post-Marxist strains of primitivist critique. Unlike either the Tucker-Zerzan group or the various Kaczynskians, Dark Mountain’s prescription for action largely centers around escape from civilized institutions and the formation of alternative communities.
There are signs that the primitivist tradition is significantly less hampered by the dividing lines that hampered it in the 80s and 90s. Although the divide regarding human nature is still present, it is largely becoming irrelevant in light of the overarching need to combat a common enemy. There is, as well, more general agreement on the idea that individuals will have little power to rationally create the kinds of communities they would like to see in the wake of the decline and collapse of industrial society. Finally, although each strain differs on precise prescriptions for political action, nearly all of them are beginning to agree that rather radical action will be necessary to take technological development off of its current path.
Primitivism is a diverse tradition that draws a new dividing line in politics: do we wish to preserve nature, including human nature, or do we wish to remake it? The main conflicts in the tradition center around conceptions of human nature and prescriptions for political action. These remain major points of discussion today. In its present-day revival, the fault-lines within the tradition center around an ecological or post-Marxist conception of human nature, and on the choice between escape from civilized institutions or combative political action. It remains to be seen whether the new primitivists can overcome the conflict that tore them apart in the 80s, but there is a possibility that theoretical conflicts will recede to the background as the need for responding to industrial development becomes more pressing.
- Earth First!: Environmental Apocalypse, Martha E. Lee
- The Idea of Biodiversity, David Takacs
- “The Origins of Primitivism” Set (1977-1988), Various
- Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash
- “Ted Kaczynski and Why He Matters,” John Jacobi
- “Apostles and Heretics,” John Jacobi
- “The History and Impact of Earth First!,” John Jacobi
- “Preface” in Repent to the Primitive, John Jacobi
- “Dark Ecology,” Paul Kingsnorth
- Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine
- Ultimo Reducto Salvaje, Ultimo Reducto
- Naturaleza Indomita, Various
- Earth First! Movement Writings, Environment and Society Portal
- The Talon Conspiracy
- “From Whiteaker to the Woods: The Rise of the ‘Eugene Anarchists,’” Its Going Down