Anarchism, Marxism and Hope for the Future

Noam Chomsky

[First published in Red & Black Revolution, No.2, 1996; reposted from the All about Anarchism page]

Noam Chomsky is widely known for his critique of U.S foreign policy, and for his work as a linguist. Less well known is his ongoing support for libertarian socialist objectives. In a special interview done for Red and Black Revolution, Chomsky gives his views on anarchism and marxism, and the prospects for socialism now. The interview was conducted in May 1995. By: Kevin Doyle.

RBR: First off, Noam, for quite a time now you've been an advocate for the anarchist idea. Many people are familiar with the introduction you wrote in 1970 to Daniel Guerin's Anarchism, but more recently, for instance in the film Manufacturing Consent, you took the opportunity to highlight again the potential of anarchism and the anarchist idea. What is it that attracts you to anarchism?

CHOMSKY: I was attracted to anarchism as a young teenager, as soon as I began to think about the world beyond a pretty narrow range, and haven't seen much reason to revise those early attitudes since. I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations (the basic moral imperative behind the environmental movement, in my view), and much else. Naturally this means a challenge to the huge institutions of coercion and control: the state, the unaccountable private tyrannies that control most of the domestic and international economy, and so on. But not only these. That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met. Sometimes the burden can be met. If I'm taking a walk with my grandchildren and they dart out into a busy street, I will use not only authority but also physical coercion to stop them. The act should be challenged, but I think it can readily meet the challenge. And there are other cases; life is a complex affair, we understand very little about humans and society, and grand pronouncements are generally more a source of harm than of benefit. But the perspective is a valid one, I think, and can lead us quite a long way. Beyond such generalities, we begin to look at cases, which is where the questions of human interest and concern arise.

RBR: It's true to say that your ideas and critique are now more widely known than ever before. It should also be said that your views are widely respected. How do you think your support for anarchism is received in this context? In particular, I'm interested in the response you receive from people who are getting interested in politics for the first time and who may, perhaps, have come across your views. Are such people surprised by your support for anarchism? Are they interested?

CHOMSKY: The general intellectual culture, as you know, associates 'anarchism' with chaos, violence, bombs, disruption, and so on. So people are often surprised when I speak positively of anarchism and identify myself with leading traditions within it. But my impression is that among the general public, the basic ideas seem reasonable when the clouds are cleared away. Of course, when we turn to specific matters -- say, the nature of families, or how an economy would work in a society that is more free and just -- questions and controversy arise. But that is as it should be. Physics can't really explain how water flows from the tap in your sink. When we turn to vastly more complex questions of human significance, understanding is very thin, and there is plenty of room for disagreement, experimentation, both intellectual and real-life exploration of possibilities, to help us learn more.

RBR: Perhaps, more than any other idea, anarchism has suffered from the problem of misrepresentation. Anarchism can mean many things to many people. Do you often find yourself having to explain what it is that you mean by anarchism? Does the misrepresentation of anarchism bother you?

CHOMSKY: All misrepresentation is a nuisance. Much of it can be traced back to structures of power that have an interest in preventing understanding, for pretty obvious reasons. It's well to recall David Hume's Principles of Government. He expressed surprise that people ever submitted to their rulers. He concluded that since Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. 'Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. Hume was very astute -- and incidentally, hardly a libertarian by the standards of the day. He surely underestimates the efficacy of force, but his observation seems to me basically correct, and important, particularly in the more free societies, where the art of controlling opinion is therefore far more refined. Misrepresentation and other forms of befuddlement are a natural concomitant. So does misrepresentation bother me? Sure, but so does rotten weather. It will exist as long as concentrations of power engender a kind of commissar class to defend them. Since they are usually not very bright, or are bright enough to know that they'd better avoid the arena of fact and argument, they'll turn to misrepresentation, vilification, and other devices that areavailable to those who know that they'll be protected by the various means available to the powerful. We should understand why all this occurs, and unravel it as best we can. That's part of the project of liberation -- of ourselves and others, or more reasonably, of people working together to achieve these aims. Sounds simple-minded, and it is. But I have yet to find much commentary on human life and society that is not simple-minded, when absurdity and self-serving posturing are cleared away.

RBR: How about in more established left-wing circles, where one might expect to find greater familiarity with what anarchism actually stands for? Do you encounter any surprise here at yourviews and support for anarchism?

CHOMSKY: If I understand what you mean by established left-wing circles, there is not toomuch surprise about my views on anarchism, because very little is known about my views on anything. These are not the circles I deal with. You'll rarely find a reference to anything I say or write. That's not completely true of course. Thus in the US (but less commonly in the UK or elsewhere), you'd find some familiarity with what I do in certain of the more critical and independent sectors of what might be called established left-wing circles, and I have personal friends and associates scattered here and there. But have a look at the books and journals, and you'll see what I mean. I don't expect what I write and say to be any more welcome in the secircles than in the faculty club or editorial board room -- again, with exceptions. The question arises only marginally, so much so that it's hard to answer.

RBR: A number of people have noted that you use the term 'libertarian socialist' in the same context as you use the word 'anarchism'. Do you see these terms as essentially similar? Is anarchism a type of socialism to you? The description has been used before that anarchism is equivalent to socialism with freedom. Would you agree with this basic equation?

CHOMSKY: The introduction to Guerin's book that you mentioned opens with a quote from an anarchist sympathiser a century ago, who says that anarchism has a broad back, and endures anything. One major element has been what has traditionally been called 'libertarian socialism'. I've tried to explain there and elsewhere what I mean by that, stressing that it's hardly original; I'm taking the ideas from leading figures in the anarchist movement whom I quote, and who rather consistently describe themselves as socialists, while harshly condemning the 'new class 'of radical intellectuals who seek to attain state power in the course of popular struggle and to become the vicious Red bureaucracy of which Bakunin warned; what's often called 'socialism'. Irather agree with Rudolf Rocker's perception that these (quite central) tendencies in anarchism draw from the best of Enlightenment and classical liberal thought, well beyond what he described. In fact, as I've tried toshow they contrast sharply with Marxist-Leninist doctrine and practice, the 'libertarian' doctrines that are fashionable in the US and UK particularly, and other contemporary ideologies, all of which seemto me to reduce to advocacy of one or another form of illegitimate authority, quite often real tyranny. The Spanish Revolution.

RBR: In the past, when you have spoken about anarchism, you have often emphasised the example of the Spanish Revolution. For you there would seem to be two aspects to this example. On the one hand, the experience of the Spanish Revolution is, you say, a good example of 'anarchism in action'.On the other, you have also stressed that the Spanish revolution is a good example of what workerscan achieve through their own efforts using participatory democracy. Arethese two aspects --anarchism in action and participatory democracy -- one and the same thing for you? Is anarchism a philosophy for people's power?

CHOMSKY: I'm reluctant to use fancy polysyllables like philosophy to refer to what seems ordinary common sense. And I'm also uncomfortable with slogans. Theachievements of Spanishworkers and peasants, before the revolution was crushed, were impressive inmany ways. The term'participatory democracy' is a more recent one, which developed in adifferent context, but theresurely are points of similarity. I'm sorry if this seems evasive. It is, butthat's because I don't thinkeither the concept of anarchism or of participatory democracy is clearenough to be able to answerthe question whether they are the same.

RBR: One of the main achievements of the Spanish Revolution was the degreeof grassrootsdemocracy established. In terms of people, it is estimated that over 3million were involved. Ruraland urban production was managed by workers themselves. Is it a coincidenceto your mind thatanarchists, known for their advocacy of individual freedom, succeeded inthis area of collectiveadministration?

CHOMSKY: No coincidence at all. The tendencies in anarchism that I've alwaysfound mostpersuasive seek a highly organised society, integrating many different kindsof structures (workplace,community, and manifold other forms of voluntary association), butcontrolled by participants, not bythose in a position to give orders (except, again, when authority can bejustified, as is sometimes thecase, in specific contingencies). Democracy

RBR: Anarchists often expend a great deal of effort at building upgrassroots democracy. Indeedthey are often accused of taking democracy to extremes. Yet, despite this,many anarchists wouldnot readily identify democracy as a central component of anarchistphilosophy. Anarchists oftendescribe their politics as being about 'socialism' or being about 'theindividual'- they are less likely tosay that anarchism is about democracy. Would you agree that democratic ideasare a central featureof anarchism?

CHOMSKY: Criticism of 'democracy' among anarchists has often been criticismof parliamentarydemocracy, as it has arisen within societies with deeply repressivefeatures. Take the US, which hasbeen as free as any, since its origins. American democracy was founded onthe principle, stressed byJames Madison in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, that the primaryfunction of government isto protect the minority of the opulent from the majority. Thus he warnedthat in England, theonly quasi-democratic model of the day, if the general population wereallowed a say in publicaffairs, they would implement agrarian reform or other atrocities, and thatthe American system mustbe carefully crafted to avoid such crimes against the rights of property,which must be defended (infact, must prevail). Parliamentary democracy within this framework doesmerit sharp criticism bygenuine libertarians, and I've left out many other features that are hardlysubtle -- slavery, to mentionjust one, or the wage slavery that was bitterly condemned by working peoplewho had never heardof anarchism or communism right through the 19th century, and beyond. Leninism

RBR: The importance of grassroots democracy to any meaningful change insociety would seem tobe self evident. Yet the left has been ambiguous about this in the past. I'mspeaking generally, ofsocial democracy, but also of Bolshevism -- traditions on the left thatwould seem to have more incommon with elitist thinking than with strict democratic practice. Lenin, touse a well-knownexample, was sceptical that workers could develop anything more than tradeunion consciousness-by which, I assume, he meant that workers could not see far beyond theirimmediate predicament.Similarly, the Fabian socialist, Beatrice Webb, who was very influential inthe Labour Party inEngland, had the view that workers were only interested in horse racingodds! Where does thiselitism originate and what is it doing on the left?

CHOMSKY: I'm afraid it's hard for me to answer this. If the left isunderstood to include'Bolshevism,' then I would flatly dissociate myself from the left. Lenin wasone of the greatestenemies of socialism, in my opinion, for reasons I've discussed. The ideathat workers are onlyinterested in horse-racing is an absurdity that cannot withstand even asuperficial look at labourhistory or the lively and independent working class press that flourished inmany places, including themanufacturing towns of New England not many miles from where I'm writing --not to speak of theinspiring record of the courageous struggles of persecuted and oppressedpeople throughout history, until this very moment. Take the most miserable corner of this hemisphere, Haiti, regarded by the European conquerors as a paradise and the source of no small part of Europe's wealth, now devastated, perhaps beyond recovery. In the past few years, under conditionsso miserable that few people in the rich countries can imagine them, peasants and slum-dwellers constructed a popular democratic movement based on grassroots organisations that surpasses justabout anything I know of elsewhere; only deeply committed commissars could fail to collapse with ridicule when they hearthe solemn pronouncements of American intellectuals and political leaders about how the US has toteach Haitians the lessons of democracy. Their achievements were sosubstantial and frightening to the powerful that they had to be subjected to yet another dose of vicious terror, with considerably more US support than is publicly acknowledged, and they still have not surrendered. Are they interested only in horse-racing? I'd suggest some lines I've occasionally quoted from Rousseau: when I seem ultitudes of entirelynaked savages scorn European voluptuousness and endure hunger, fire, thesword, and deathto preserve only their independence, I feel that it does not behoove slavesto reason aboutfreedom.

RBR: Speaking generally again, your own work -- Deterring Democracy,Necessary Illusions, etc.-- has dealt consistently with the role and prevalence of elitist ideas insocieties such as our own.You have argued that within 'Western' (or parliamentary) democracy there isa deep antagonism toany real role or input from the mass of people, lest it threaten the unevendistribution in wealth whichfavours the rich. Your work is quite convincing here, but, this aside, somehave been shocked byyour assertions. For instance, you compare the politics of President John F.Kennedy with Lenin,more or less equating the two. This, I might add, has shocked supporters ofboth camps! Can youelaborate a little on the validity of the comparison?

CHOMSKY: I haven't actually equated the doctrines of the liberal intellectuals of the Kennedy administration with Leninists, but I have noted striking points of similarity -- rather as predicted by Bakunin a century earlier in his perceptive commentary on the new class. For example, I quoted passages from McNamara on the need to enhance managerial control if we are to be truly free, and about how the under management that is the real threat to democracy is anassault against reason itself. Change a few words in these passages, and we have standard Leninist doctrine. I've argued that the roots are rather deep, in both cases. Without further clarification about what people find shocking, I can't comment further. The comparisons are specific, and I think both proper and properly qualified. If not, that's an error, and I'd be interested to beenlightened about it.

[SNIP]More than ever, libertarian socialist ideas are relevant, and the population is very much open tothem. Despite a huge mass of corporate propaganda, outside of educated circles, people still maintain pretty much their traditional attitudes. In the US, for example, more than 80% of the population regard the economic system as inherently unfair and the political system as a fraud, which serves the special interests, not the people. Overwhelming majorities think working people have too little voice in public affairs (the same is true in England), that the government has the responsibility of assisting people in need, that spending for education and health should take precedence over budget-cutting and tax cuts, that the current Republicanproposals that are sailingthrough Congress benefit the rich and harm the general population, and soon. Intellectuals may tell adifferent story, but it's not all that difficult to find out the facts.