Chomsky on Anarchism

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by Noam Chomsky

The purpose of this volume is to present some of Noam Chomsky’s ideas and thoughts on anarchism. Chomsky is regularly identified by the media as a prominent anarchist/libertarian communist/anarcho-syndicalist (pick as many as you like). More importantly he places himself within this political spectrum. Regardless of whether any of these labels fits him perfectly, there can be no doubt that his ideas on social change and the re-structuring of society are wor­thy of consideration and discussion. We have selected a variety for the reader to consider and, through which, to hopefully gauge both Chomsky’s contri­bution to anarchism and anarchism’s contemporary relevance as a means of interpreting and changing rthe world.

Some of these talks and interviews are published here for the first time and, combined with more familiar material, they reinforce and elaborate Chomsky’s sense of what anarchism is and what it could be. Inevitably, there is some rep­etition among the pieces, specific themes and theorists to which Chomsky often returns. Trying to get the same message across tends to make one repet­itive! That said, though, as each idea is revisited, both clarity and nuance are added to some challenging ideas.

Chomsky’s introduction to Daniel Guerin’s Anarchism (1970), which he later revised for publication in for Reasons of State (1973) as “Notes on Anarchism,” is important in crystallizing his sense of anarchism as both an historical force and a way of bringing about contemporary social change. It was an essay that was criticized by some anarchists. George Woodcock, an anarchist historian, argued that it was one-dimensional. Chomsky, said Woodcock, was a left-wing Marxist (as was Guerin) who wished to use anarchism to soften and clarify his own Marxism. His work was mired in the nineteenth century language of anarchism. At best it was anarcho-syndicalism; at worst simple economic determinism. There was no reference to Kropotkin, Malatesta, Herbert Read. For Woodcock, Chomsky equates anarchist struggle with a single class and fails to see that anarchism appeals to “those people of all classes who seek a society where the potentialities of existence are varied and liberated, a society to be approached by lifestyle rebellion as well as economic struggle.”

Woodcock’s criticisms are interesting and not without their ironies. To be sure, there is in Chomsky’s work a certain blurring of terms, as well as the sug­gestion that left-wing communism, council communism and anarchism have much in common as tools with which to critique state socialism and capital­ism. This idea is repeated in varying forms throughout this book. Chomsky remains as equally impressed by Pannekoek as by Rudolph Rocker or Diego Abad de Santillan. In his interview with Barry Pateman in 2004, he argues that there are differences between this left strand of communism and anarchists, but that “they are the kind of differences that ought to exist when people are working together in comradely relationships.” Equally important is Chomsky’s perception of class as the central tenet of anarchism. It’s a theme he will keep returning to and a theme that is out of synch with both Woodcock and some elements of contemporary anarchism. For Chomsky, it is quite straightfor­ward: within modern capitalism we see matters of class arising all the time. To deny or minimize them is nonsensical. Such a position can lead him to harsh criticisms of anarchists like Stirner, primitivists, and all those who cannot see the importance of solidarity and community in a class-based way.

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