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Synthesis/Regeneration 42   (Winter 2007)


Chomsky’s Anarchism

by R. Burke

Chomsky on Anarchism, Selected and Edited by Barry Pateman, 2005, A.K. Press, ISBN: 1-904859-20-89781904859260.

Noam Chomsky has been one of the foremost critics of US foreign policy and establishment media coverage since the 1960s. His work has been guided by an anarchist and libertarian socialist vision which might not be immediately apparent to the casual reader. In Chomsky on Anarchism, editor Barry Pateman has collected a series of articles and interviews in which the great linguist spells out the larger visions which motivate his criticism.

The first and longest essay is the classic “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship,” first published in 1969. Here Chomsky exposes the way in which a language of objective expertise is used to mystify and conceal what is in effect the agenda of powerful vested interests. In particular he focuses in on liberal historian Gabriel Jackson’s study of the Spanish Civil War and his treatment of the Anarchist Movement which played such an important role in that conflict. Far from being impractical dreamers or inefficient organizers, the Anarchists showed themselves to be capable and competent in Chomsky’s investigations.

Drawing on documentary sources largely overlooked by Jackson, he shows that it was precisely the practical and efficient organization of a libertarian socialist alternative which most disturbed the capitalist democracies and the Stalinist apparatchiks. Indeed both were quite similar in attempting to dismiss the efforts of ordinary people to self manage their own affairs, contradicting Lenin’s claim that the working class, left to itself, could only attain a “trade union consciousness” without a vanguard party. Such claims are exposed as the result of the will to power of a managerial class attempting to justify its own domination. What is striking for Chomsky is the similar claims made by technocratic experts within capitalist societies. Hence we can hardly be surprised by a piece of scholarship which attempts to validate such claims.

In the essay “Language and Freedom,” Chomsky’s point of departure is his work on linguistics. Here he shows himself courageous enough to pass beyond the boundaries of rigorous science into philosophical speculations on human nature and its need for freedom. Drawing primarily on the work of 18th century Enlightenment thinkers, he contemplates the connection between the human instinct for acquiring and using language and the necessity of freedom for the full self-development of human capacities.

Echoing the ideas of Bakunin, Professor Chomsky elaborates on how the concept of laws intrinsic to our nature provides the basis for free expression to an infinite extent. Without such a basic human nature, we become subject to endless manipulation. For Chomsky, it is precisely the aim of Anarchism to provide the social environment for the free unfolding of human potential.

“Notes on Anarchism” is a revised version of the original essay that serves as the introduction to Daniel Guerin’s classic study Anarchism, From Theory to Practice. Chomsky approvingly quotes the anarcho-syndicalist thinker Rudolf Rockers’s statement to the effect that Anarchism is a tendency rather than a fixed system; one which attempts to provide for “the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life.” Recognizing the vagueness of such a formulation and the temptation to dismiss it as purely “utopian,” Chomsky argues instead “that at every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to — rather than alleviate — material and cultural deficit.”

For Chomsky, it is precisely the aim of Anarchism to provide the social environment for the free unfolding of human potential.

Chomsky emphasizes that the “consistent anarchist ... should be a socialist, but a socialist of a particular sort.” He notes that anarchist thought, particularly Anarcho-Syndicalism, merges with the current of left Marxism as exemplified by figures such as Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek. Both approaches show a concern for the management of public enterprises by workers’ and consumers’ councils rather than by state-appointed managers. Guerin’s attempt to rehabilitate anarchist thought meets here with approval from Chomsky, who sees him as selecting “from the broad back of anarchism ... those ideas and actions that can be described as libertarian socialist.”

In the essay “Goals and Visions,” Professor Chomsky raises what is undoubtedly a point of controversy for many Anarchists. Here he distinguishes between long-term strategic “visions” and more short-term tactical “goals.” Chomsky raises the issue that, in a period in which corporate power is ascendant and attacks are being made on the welfare state, it is in the interest of Anarchists to defend and extend that aspect of the State against corporate domination. He does not contest the illegitimate nature of state power but asks us to recognize that there are forms of authority potentially worse.

Chomsky on Anarchism contains a few interviews in which he states his views on forms of possible alternatives to current society. While he is sympathetic to attempts to envision alternative models, he feels that a certain amount of skepticism is also called for. A repeated theme of his is the lack of knowledge we actually have about human nature and the caution called for in prescribing blueprints. There is a great deal of wisdom in what Chomsky says on this matter.

His idea that there is no single correct way to reorganize society is important. Ultimately, we will have to be guided by concrete situations and actual lived reality in any truly worthwhile social revolution. There is, nonetheless, a place for utopian thinking in attempts to envision a possible future society. Without some vision of what the political economy of a more desirable form of social organization might be, there are unlikely to be any actual measures taken to transform society.

Noam Chomsky is always a challenging and thought-provoking commentator. He has helped us to dispel illusions and develop means of intellectual self-defense against the mouthpieces of established power. Chomsky on Anarchism provides a glimpse into the libertarian visions that animate his thinking.

Richard Burke is an artist and teacher. He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Surrealist Movement.

[24 feb 07]

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