Querying young Chomsky


Noam Chomsky PHOTO/Duck Duck Go

[Eight years ago Michael Albert wrote an essay addressing the anarchist views of Noam Chomsky. Disagreements largely addressed matters of participatory planning versus certain anarchist themes, so we rerun it to accompany the series of essays on socialism now appearing on ZNet.]

In 1976, looking a bit like Buddy Holly, Noam Chomsky gave Peter Jay what I think may be his most extensive interview regarding what a desirable society might look like. I believe the views he offered are still dear to him as well as to many other anarchists. They are dear to me, as well, and have influenced my own commitments, albeit with some changes.

Chomsky offers his observations as part of the heritage of “libertarian socialist or anarcho-syndicalist or communist anarchist views,” following “in the tradition of Bakunin and Kropotkin and Anton Pannekoek” favoring “a society organized on the basis of organic units, organic communities.”

Chomsky adds that he means “that the workplace and the neighborhood,: are central, and that “from those two basic units there could derive through federal arrangements a highly integrated kind of social organization which might be national or even international in scope.”

Chomsky adds that “decisions could be made over a substantial range…by delegates who are always part of the organic community from which they come, to which they return, and in which, in fact, they live.” While some anarchists entirely reject the idea of representation, clearly Chomsky doesn’t, nor would I.

Chomsky also clarifies that “representative democracy, as in, say, the United States or Great Britain, would be criticized by an anarchist of this school on two grounds. First … because there is a monopoly of power centralized in the state, and second… because the representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere.”

Thus Chomsky’s, Kropotkin’s, Bakunin’s, and Pannekoek’s liberated society doesn’t reject institutions. It does, however, reject political or economic entities that are divorced from and rule over the population.

Chomsky adds, that “anarchists of this tradition have always held that democratic control of one’s productive life is at the core of any serious human liberation, or, for that matter, of any significant democratic practice.” He continues, “as long as individuals are compelled to rent themselves on the market to those who are willing to hire them, as long as their role in production is simply that of ancillary tools, then there are striking elements of coercion and oppression that make talk of democracy very limited, if even meaningful.”

I think pretty much all anarchists and indeed anti capitalists of all types would agree. However a question arises. How does one organize an economy in accord with the need for “self-management, direct worker control, … personal participation in self-management.”

Asked for an example, Chomsky replies “A good example of a really large-scale anarchist revolution… is the Spanish revolution of 1936….” which was “in many ways a very inspiring testimony to the ability of poor working people to organize and manage their own affairs, extremely successfully, without coercion and control,” though, “how relevant the Spanish experience is to an advanced industrial society one might question in detail.”

For himself, Chomsky thinks that “self-management … is precisely the rational mode for an advanced and complex industrial society, one in which workers can very well become masters of their own immediate affairs, that is, in direction and control of the shop, but also can be in a position to make the major, substantive decisions concerning the structure of the economy, concerning social institutions, concerning planning, regionally and beyond.” But he adds that, “at present, institutions do not permit workers to have control over the requisite information and the relevant training to understand these matters.”

And so again an obvious questions surfaces, how does one structure an economy so it conveys the “requisite information” and “relevant training”?

Asked to switch fill out his vision of anarchism, Chomsky replies, “Let me sketch what I think would be a rough consensus, and one that I think is essentially correct. Beginning with the two modes of organization and control, namely organization and control in the workplace and in the community, one could imagine a network of workers’ councils, and at a higher level, representation across the factories, or across branches of industry, or across crafts, and on to general assemblies of workers’ councils that can be regional and national and international in charter. And from another point of view, one can project a system of government that involves local assemblies — again, federated regionally, dealing with regional issues, crossing crafts, industry, trades, and so on, and again at the level of the nation or beyond.” I agree with Chomsky that this is likely a rough consensus among anarchists, and rightly so, in my view.

Chomsky continues, an “idea of anarchism is that delegation of authority is rather minimal and that its participants at any one of these levels of government should be directly responsive to the organic community in which they live. In fact, the optimal situation would be that participation in one of these levels of government should be temporary, and even during the period when it’s taking place should be only partial; that is, the members of a workers’ council who are for some period actually functioning to make decisions that other people don’t have the time to make, should also continue to do their work as part of the workplace or neighborhood community in which they belong.” Again, this is unobjectionable.

Then, however, comes a point of possible concern. Chomsky says, “As for political parties, my feeling is that an anarchist society would not forcefully prevent political parties from arising. In fact, anarchism has always been based on the idea that any sort of Procrustean bed, any system of norms that is imposed on social life will constrain and very much underestimate its energy and vitality and that all sorts of new possibilities of voluntary organization may develop at that higher level of material and intellectual culture.” So far so good, though the minimal not “forcefully prevent” formulation foreshadows what follows when he adds, “but I think it is fair to say that insofar as political parties are felt to be necessary, anarchist organization of society will have failed.”

Why would people forming a political party be a sign of failure?

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