Daoism and American Radical Thought: Is the Daodejing Anarcho-Primitivist?

Written c.Spring 2004

While studying the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, I noticed many parallels between these works and contemporary primitivist writers. I thought it was an intriguing connection between two very disparate literary genres, which led me to ask: “Is there anything in the Daodejing and Zhuangzi that is applicable to a 21st century critique of civilization?” An analysis of philosophical Daoism in comparison to modern radical thought on issues like language, government, and nature might deepen the understanding of both philosophies. The search for the primitive common to these two genres is both the longing for tranquility and, in the opinion of Claude Levi-Strauss, the quest for “a kind of wisdom [the primitive peoples] practiced spontaneously and the rejection of which, by the modern world, is the real madness.”[1]

To begin, I would like to introduce Benjamin Schwartz’ point that even thought the Daodejing may appear to be critical of authority, a lot of the advice in it is directed towards rulers.[2] This type of contradiction can be seen in the anarchist movement of today, which rallies behind a red and black flag of today in opposition to all flags. Perhaps this is because it is difficult to negate without some sort of positive referent. Laozi believes that only a sagely person will be able to return humanity to a pristine existence; “The restoration of the primitive must be a conscious product.”[3] As can be seen in the following passage, the sage-ruler is expected to abdicate all influence on his subjects at the point that he returns them to the Dao. “The sage is to refrain from meddling in the lives of the people, give up warfare and luxurious living, and guide the people back to a state of innocence, simplicity, and harmony with the Dao.”[4]

The Daodejing opens with a brilliant description of the Dao, what the heart of its philosophy is searching for, “The name that can be named is not the constant name.”[5] Contained inside this line is the assertion that not only can words fail to describe the infinite universe, but that the unnamable is precisely the goal we should have in mind when employing names. Words are only representations of direct experience. They are created by humans, thus do not exist independently of humans, and since human experience is limited, words are a barrier to understanding the infinite. Again, the Daodejing reinforces its position, “Those who know do not speak; Those who speak do not know.”[6]  The critique of symbolic thought found throughout Daoist philosophy still echoes in the words of John Zerzan when he rephrases the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about language. “…It is evident that “freedom of speech” does not exist; grammar is the invisible “thought control” of our invisible prison. With language we have already accommodated ourselves into a world of unfreedom.”[7] It is not clear whether Daoism, or even modern critiques of symbolic thought, advocate the abolition of language, but at the same time, they try to expose its weaknesses.

Daoist longevity practices such as abstinence from grains hints at a critique of agriculture. As for modern primitivists, John Zerzan states that, “As the materialization of alienation, agriculture is the triumph of estrangement and the definite divide between culture and nature and humans from each other.”[8] Modern proponents of the “Paleolithic diet” believe that since grains, among certain other vegetables, are not edible when raw, they should be left out of the human diet. The philosophy behind this diet today is based on the assumption that is healthier to eat food that we are genetically designed for instead of foods that became integrated into our eating habits through artificial processing. The theory of the “three worms,” which are the causes of illness found in grains, can be seen as correlating to “…the “diseases of civilization,” as discussed by Eaton and Konner in the January 31, 1985 New England Journal of Medicine….” While Zerzan believes these diseases “underline the joyless, sickly world of chronic maladjustment we inhabit as prey of the manufacturers of medicine, cosmetics, and fabricated food,”[9] in the Daoist tradition, someone who does not eat grains can achieve the status of immortal.

Since primitivism was searching for the state of humanity before civilization existed, man’s place in nature is integral to a conception of an ideal government. The general contentedness and self-assurance, family connections and community-based cooperation in primitive societies have been documented extensively. The writer of the Daodejing believes that a sage-ruler can return people to this natural and pristine state. The paradox about this vision is that it is both anarchy and harmony; it is the natural order of things. The parable of Two Kings and No-Form ends with the pronouncement, “to organize is to destroy.”[10] Zhuangzi shows his bias toward the chaotic rather than the structured. When life is structured, it loses its enchantment, without which, there becomes less and less to live for. To Zerzan, time “can be seen as the master and measure of a social existence that has become increasingly empty and technicized.”[11] Time is expressed as history, which also limits humanity. Oswald Spengler laments that at this point, “History is eternal becoming and therefore eternal future; Nature is become and therefore eternal past.”[12]

Zhuangzi exhibited a healthy disdain for logic and believed people should distrust ethical and political schemes and follow their instincts. Zhuangzi’s outlook on pre-civilized existence is very similar to any modern primitivists today. People “live the same as birds and beasts, grouped themselves side by side with the ten thousand things. Who then would know anything about “gentleman” or “petty man? Dull and unwitting, they had no wisdom, so their virtue did not depart from them….”[13] I believe that the lack of knowledge that Zhuangzi is searching for is more specifically a lack of structured knowledge; it is a process of forgetting certain things. Time, social hierarchy, and history are all included in the list of civilized developments to be discarded. Zerzan says, “…The regulation of time is the primary attribute of government. But the very movement from community to civilization is also predicated there.”[14] So what then, is the Daoist solution to these problems? How do a domesticated people un-civilize themselves? The Daodejing seems to prescribe this utopian vision:

Let the state be small and the people be few.
There may be ten or even a hundred times as many implements,
But they should not be used.
Let the people, regarding death as a weighty matter,
Not travel far,
Though they have boats and carriages, none shall ride in them.
Though they have armor and weapons, none shall display them,
Let the people return once more to the use of knotted ropes.
Let them savor their food and find beauty in their clothing,
Peace in their dwellings and joy in their customs.
Though neighboring states are within site of one another,
And the sound of cocks and dogs audible
From one to the other,
People will reach old age and death
And yet not visit one another.[15]

Zerzan also believes in a “future primitive,” which shares some similarities with the Daodejing. “Zerzan argues that in understanding the primitive past we take the first step toward rejecting the pathological present….”[16] In both of these visions, there seems to be a notion that the potential for technological advancement exists, but it will be forgotten favor of a simpler existence.


Laozi. “The Way of Laozi and Zhuangzi.” In Sources of Chinese Tradition, volume I. Ed. deBary and Bloom. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Merton, Thomas. The Way of Chuang Tzu. New York: New Directions,

Schwartz, Benjamin. “The thought of the Tao-te-ching.” In Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. Ed. Kohn and Lafargue. New York: State University of New York Press, 1998

Zerzan, John. Elements of Refusal. Columbia: CAL Press, 1999.

Zerzan, John. Running on Emptiness. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2002.

[1] Claude Levi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning (London: 1978), quoted in Zerzan (2002), 16.

[2] Benjamin Schwartz, “The thought of the Tao-te-ching,” in Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching, Kohn and Lafargue, ed. (New York: State University of New York Press, 1998), 203.

[3] Shwartz, 206.

[4] Laozi, “The Way of Laozi and Zhuangzi,” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, volume 1, ed. deBary and Bloom, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 78.

[5]Laozi, 79.

[6] Laozi, 90.

[7] John Zerzan, Elements of Refusal (Columbia: CAL Press, 1999), 34.

[8] Zerzan (1999), 73.

[9] Zerzan (1999), 83.

[10] Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New York: New Directions,
1969), 66.

[11]John Zerzan, Running on Emptiness (Los Angeles: Feral House, 2002), 41.

[12] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, vol. 1 (New York, 1926), p.131, quoted in Zerzan (1999), 15.

[13] Chuang-tzu, quoted in Schwartz, 203.

[14] Zerzan (1999), 15. citing Elias Canetti.

[15] DeBary, 94.

[16] Theresa Kintz, Introduction in Zerzan (2002), xviii.

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