ISBN 978-0-241-96960-1. “On Anarchism” by Noam Chomsky was published by Penguin Books in 2013. Yet another collection of Chomsky’s earlier works this one with an introduction by Nathan Schneider. Chomsky is so often associated with the concept of Anarchism yet you rarely writes or talks about the matter. This collection of five essays in quite a short book serves to answer the question as to what Chomsky thinks about the topic. The collection is diverse and occasionally off-topic (maybe smacking a little of desperation at times) but it represents a good round-up never-the-less. The writing was originally done on three of the essays in 1967 to 1970 with the other two falling in 2002. Remarkably the three decade gap is almost un-noticeable as some updating has been done at a later time. Apart from the occasional mention of events in South East Asia in the 1960s the real-world subjects tend to be focussed on Spain in the 1930s. From this Chomsky leans on the work of George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” that will be the subject of our next book review.
We kick off with Schneider’s introduction. Nathan is a published author writing on the topic of Anarchy (and related topics) – so may well have written more on this topic than Chomsky. He places Chomsky’s essays in the context of the Occupy Movement in 2012 and points out that every generation thinks it is the first to invent anarchic concepts. The anti-World Trade organisations of the 1990s differed little from Occupy in concept and design yet both thought they were on the cutting edge of reform. All owe their origins to the thoughts and works of the great Anarchists dating back to the 19th Century. From Schneider’s experience he suggests:
“Anarchism, then, is a corner backed into rather than a conscious choice – an apophatic last resort, and a fruitful one.”
It calls to mind Churchill’s remark about the Americans finally doing the right thing after they have explored every other option. Anarchism simply could mean the failure of all reasonable alternatives. Many would argue (myself included) that we are far from the point of exhausting the other avenues and that Anarchism is not some historical destiny to which we shall all inevitably be drawn. However from it we can learn a great deal hence it represents a reasonable opinion in a society that should better embrace pluralism and reject this one-size-fits-all economic and democratic ideology that is the form these days.
Chomsky kicks off with “Notes on Anarchism” which he wrote at the time of the Vietnam war. It is an academic work that describes what Anarchism is. He writes:
“..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.”
As such he describes Anarchism as a reaction to unnecessary authority that Anarchism, in itself, does not necessarily represent a fully formed alternative.
“..many commentators dismiss anarchism as utopian, formless, primitive, or otherwise incompatible with the realities of a complex society.”
All though we choose not to see them there are example of Anarchist ideals all around us. Whenever you step inside a shop that is a worker’s co-operative you are participating in a tiny piece of living Anarchist theory – that workers should own and control their own workplace. Nowadays it is common for communities to come together and establish co-ops or non-profit organisation based upon democratic ideals that in no way differ from Anarchist principles. However the Anarchism brand itself is tainted. Its place in history has been permanently smudged and distorted by propaganda – both Liberal and Conservative – to the point where we no longer recognise its real (and very non-utopian) role in contemporary society.
The second Chapter is culled from a public Q&A session with Chomsky originally published in “Understanding Power” which we originally reviewed way back in 2007. From this we gather a useful definition of American “libertarianism” versus genuine Anarchism. The US re-invention of “liberty” is that is should serve capital, money and power which is a far cry from the levelling that Chomsky describes:
“The American version of “libertarianism” is an aberration, though – nobody really takes in seriously. I mean, everybody knows that a society that worked by American libertarian principles would self-destruct in three seconds.”
Indeed the US brand is a call for utter anarchy – the chaos that many people associate the word with. For Chomsky the US brand is unthinking ideology – people say they are against tax yet want all the things tax pays for.
“Now, there are consistent libertarians [..] if you read the world they describe, it’s a world so full of hate that no human being would want to live in it.”
Such Libertarianism is a world without cooperation for anything other than profit. Chomsky asks: who would want to live in a world like that? Of course this represents an implicit ideology all of its own. Many Randians would describe this as their utopia and consider it very practical. But Chomsky is right. Our road to civilisation has represented higher and higher levels of organisation and cooperation. Such chaos does not represent a world that most people are used-to in terms of our definition of a civilised culture.
In Chapter 3 we take on the objectivity in liberal scholarship – a favourite topic for Chomsky to attack. His target is Gabriel Jackson’s “The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931 – 1939” (published in 1967 by MIT Press). Although he concludes that Jackson has the right to his opinion he shows how opinion it is: not an objective review of the facts. He writes the same of Eric Hobsbawm. The Liberal scholarship tradition has it that the Spanish experiment in Anarchism in the 1930s (during the period of the Civil War) was a “disaster”. In fact what happened in Spain at that time is horribly complicated and defies traditional intuitive logic. Since Anarchism is so often confused with leftist politics it is easy to conclude that the war concerned a left versus right conflict: Franco backed by Monarchist Fascists and the Government loyalists backed by Communist Russia. In fact it was more a three way fight with Anarchism losing out by being crushed by both the Communists and the Fascists.
How is this so? Well the Communists were playing the long game. They were not exporting revolution, they just wished for power and influence and were prepared to do anything to get it. In the case of Anarchism the Communists were not in control hence they had to destroy it. It lead to bizarre alliances within which the Communists destroyed the Collective Farms that the peasants had created. For them there was no partnership with the Anarchists based upon common ideology. Thus, as relayed in Pravda in 1936:
“So far as Catalonia is concerned, the cleaning up of Trotzkyist and Anarcho-Syndicalist elements there has already begun, and it will be carried out there with the same energy as in the U.S.S.R.”
Hence it was ruthlessly purged. So much so that reserves were held back from the front to do so. It gave Franco all the space he needed to win the war. Imagine if the Communists had actually decided to fight the war rather than crush the Communes? “Communist” in nether name nor nature. It wasn’t Communism, it was Russian self-interest. They feared the a bottom-up success of the anarchists in Spain would send the wrong example to their own people who had endured the top-down authority of the communist autocracy… then Stalin’s purges. Chomsky points out that the Western mind is written my Cold War propaganda hence finds it inconceivable that the USSR would NOT export Communism. It simply does not compute that Russia would act to protect itself with the aid of Western Governments instead of the more familiar tale of the USSR on the attack. We shall return to this topic at length when we review Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”.
This section on the Spanish Civil War takes up by far the largest portion of the book and goes into quite some detail. It serves as a useful intro to the work of Orwell even though it might be better to read “Homage…” first as Orwell’s appendices actually serve as a better intro to the internecine battles amongst leftist forces. Western Governments did not, as Russia wished, come to the aid of the Spanish Government. Instead they implicitly backed Franco and, ironically, drove the loyalist forces into the arms of the USSR. The French and the British specifically blocked help to the anti-Franco forces. In 1934 Lloyd George was on record as saying that Britain looked towards Germany as being a “bulwark against Communism in Europe“. Germany was “our friend“. Chamberlain “saw nothing disturbing in the prospect of an Italian and German victory” whilst Churchill stated that a Franco victory would not harm British interests… How quickly we forget our own duplicity in the suffering of the Spanish people. The USA was also involved with explicit measures to block oil shipments to the Government whilst diverting the same said shipments to Franco.
America still defended its pro-Franco stance even after it became indefensible. Chomsky writes sarcastically in 1970:
“Upon criticism, [US Secretary] Rusk was defended by the American ambassador [in 1961] to Madrid, who observed that Spain is “a nation which understands the implacable nature of the communist threat,” like Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, and selected other countries of the Free World.”
We forget now that the Cold War started very early in the twentieth century and it was created by utter Western hostility to communism and social revolution of any kind. Chomsky regards what happened in Spain in the 1930s as constituting “one of the most remarkable social revolutions that history records“. The trouble is that the scholars now writing about these times consign what actually happened to the dustbin as their own prejudices will not allow them to weight up the evidence fairly.
Moving on to Chapter 4 we fast forward to 2002 and an interview with Chomsky by Harry Kreisler culled from “Political Awakenings”. It actually delves into Chomsky’s own family history to reveal the origins of his anarcho-syndicalist leanings. He wrote his first essay on the Spanish Civil war aged ten and he used to hang around anarchist book stores in New York when staying with his Uncle and Aunt. This exposed him to the debate that was to form his views through life. The chapter then turns to anarchist history in the USA of which Chomsky observes:
“The United States has a very violent labor history, much more so than Europe.”
He goes onto describe the reason why he rarely gets into the mainstream media. It comes down to the fact that his ideas are sophisticated and hard to summarise into the sort of succinct sound-bites that the modern media demands. Since his ideas are so outside of mainstream-thought-patterns, the system demands that he supplies evidence for them. Although he is happy to do this, it makes explaining these fact cumbersome. However if your opinions run with the stream of the mainstream media then the level of evidence required is much lower. People simply believe what they are told since it is plausible within the narratives of the dominant culture and ideology. Chomsky concludes:
“I think that’s a terrific technique of propaganda. To impose concision is a way of virtually guaranteeing that the party line gets repeated over and over again, and that nothing else is heard.”
True but that is the manner of things as true as water runs down hill. Politics always engages when it is simplified to logos and chants. People are unsophisticated and easily lead into irrational thought through appeals to gut instinct. The Right are simply more entrenched than the Left hence have the upper hand. To describe this as “technique” is to grant it a methodology that it really does not possess. Our culture demands that ideas are simple enough for most people to understand. To go against the prevailing doctrine is tough because changing people’s minds is hard. We simply need better truths to be self-evident.
Finally we turn to Chapter 5 “Language and Freedom” derived from a lecture presented to the University Freedom and Human Sciences Symposium, Loyola University, Chicago in January 1970. Chomsky was given wide freedom in interpreting what contents would be appropriate under such a title. As he is a linguistics Professor at MIT he is clearly in his element. Unfortunately it descends into pretty impenetrable academia. It is actually really hard to describe the evolution of “freedom” through the study of linguistics. Chomsky has much to say then admits he hasn’t really succeeded to shed much light. He does manage to deliver some thoughts on the evolution of freedom as a philosophical concept through history. On the way he takes in the work of Rousseau and Humboldt. Maybe anarchism is the ultimate freedom that mankind must strive for? Maybe it is the next evolutionary stage for industrial society? What Chomsky suggests is that mankind has reached a stage in its development
“..when it is possible to think seriously about a society in which freely constituted social bonds replace the fetters of autocratic institutions..”
…but since this was written 45 years ago it seems that few shared Chomsky’s view. From that point on the Right took up the reins of power with a US-“libertarian” view of freedom that owes more to Darwin than Humboldt. Hence it remains a romantic view if not utopian to believe that we can evolve to a more free and equal society. Nonetheless it is an ideal to be strived for as a better replacement for the horror that we invented in the dying years of the twentieth century.
..and that’s a wrap. Another little gem that captures Chomsky bite-sized. It is a well rounded collection and we can only bemoan the fact that this is yet another collection of old works. We long for new work from this great and noble gentleman of modern philosophy.
So: Anarchism in a nutshell? Today it still struggles to seem relevant with Spain and the Co-operatives movement remaining the biggest lessons. Anarchism seems great as a concept as long as mankind can evolve slowly towards it, as an objective that yields greater freedom from oppression, rather than chaos and decay. Greater freedom is always a higher purpose but it cannot be gained through bloody revolution. It has to demonstrate its superior character. That is pretty hard in a media that demand “concision” and amongst scholars who cannot even comprehend that anarchism could be a genuine operating model for modern society. The jury will always be out but our society must always have this option on the menu. To ignore the lessons of anarchism is to stop striving for freedom. And that we can never do.