Anarchism Interview

by Noam Chomsky and Ziga Vodovnik; December 06, 2004

July 14, 2004 in Cambridge, MA.

Ziga Vodovnik: When somebody declares himself as an anarchist, he basically tells very little about his inspirations and aspirations - about the question of means and ends. This only confirms an old truth that we can not define anarchism as self-sufficient dot, but rather as a mosaic composed of many different dots or political views (and aspirations): green, feminist, pacifist, etc. This question of means and ends is part of a fascination of anarchism in theory but sometimes part of frustration in practice. Do you think that this diversity makes anarchism ineffective and an inconsequential body of ideas, or rather makes anarchism universally adaptable?

Noam Chomsky: Anarchism is a very broad category; it means a lot of different things to different people. The main strains of anarchism have been very concerned with means. They have often tended to try to follow the idea that Bakunin expressed, that you should build the seeds of the future society within the existing one, and have been very extensively involved in educational work, organizing and forming collectives, small collectives and larger ones, and other kinds of organizations. There are other groups that call themselves anarchist, who are also mostly concerned about means; so, what kind of demonstrations should we carry out, what sort of direct actions are appropriate and so on and so forth. I don’t think it is possible to ask whether it is effective or not. There are different ways of proceeding, effective in different circumstances. And there is no unified anarchist movement that has a position to talk about. There are just many conflicting strains that often disagree quite sharply. There have never been many anarchists, as far as I know, who object to carrying out what they call reformist measures within existing society - like improving women’s rights, worker’s health. There are other anarchists whose positions are primitivist, who want to eliminate technology and return to the soil.

ZV: In theoretical political science we can analytically identify two main conceptions of anarchism: a so called collective anarchism with Bakunin, Kropotkin and Makhno as main figures and which is limited to Europe, and on another hand so called individualistic anarchism which is limited to US. Do you agree with this theoretical separation, and in this perspective, where do you see the historical beginnings (origins) of anarchism in the U.S.

NC: The individualistic anarchism that you are talking about, Stirner and others, is one of the roots of -- among other things -- the so-called “libertarian” movement in the US. This means dedication to free market capitalism, and has no connection with the rest of the international anarchist movement. In the European tradition, anarchists commonly called themselves libertarian socialists, in a very different sense of the term libertarian. As far as I can see, the workers’ movements, which didn’t call themselves anarchist, were closer to the main strain of European anarchism than many of the people in the US who called themselves anarchists. If we go back to the labor activism from the early days of the industrial revolution, to the working class press in 1850s, and so on, it’s got a real anarchist strain to it. They never heard of European anarchism, never heard of Marx, or anything like that. It was spontaneous. They took for granted wage labor is little different from slavery, that workers should own the mills, that the industrial system is destroying individual initiative, culture, and so on, that they have to struggle against the what they called “the new spirit of the age” in the 1850s: “Gain Wealth, Forgetting all but Self”. Sounds rather familiar. And the same is true of other popular movements: let’s take the New Left movements. Some strains related themselves to traditional collectivist anarchism, which always regarded itself as a branch of socialism. But US and to some extent British libertarianism is quite a different thing and different development, in fact has no objection to tyranny as long as it is private tyranny. That is radically different from other forms of anarchism.

ZV: Where in a long and rich history of people’s struggles in the US do you see the main inspiration of contemporary anarchism in the U.S.? What is your opinion about the Transcendentalism as an inspiration in this perspective?

NC: Maybe you’ll discover something in your research on this topic, but my feeling is that the Transcendentalist movement, which was mostly intellectuals, may have had some influence on individualist anarchism, but didn’t connect, to my knowledge, in any significant fashion with the working class popular movements, which much more resemble the anarchism of Bakunin, Kropotkin, the Spanish revolutionaries and others.

ZV: Most of the creative energy for radical politics, for the new movement of movements or so-called anti-capitalist, even anti-globalization movement, is nowadays coming from anarchism, but only few of the people involved in the movement actually call themselves “anarchists”. Where do you see the main reason for this?

NC: I think it has always been true. Most activists, people in human rights struggles, women’s struggles, labor struggles, and so on, didn’t call themselves anarchists, they didn’t draw from any knowledge or understanding of anarchist tradition. Maybe in the US they heard of Emma Goldman, but they just developed out of their needs, concerns, instincts, natural commitments. I don’t think we have to work very hard to bring ordinary people in the US, who never heard of authentic anarchism, to help them come to the kind of understanding that young women from the farms and workers from the urban slums had from 1850s, also on their own. In the mid 19 century when the workers in the mills, in Lowell and in Salem, were developing a very lively and active working class culture, I doubt that they knew anything about the Transcendentalists, who were right from the same neighborhood and about the same period.

ZV: Ordinary people often confuse anarchism with chaos and violence, and do not know that anarchism (an archos) doesn't mean life or state of things without rules, but rather a highly organized social order, life without a ruler, “principe”. Is pejorative usage of the word anarchism maybe a direct consequence of the fact that the idea that people could be free was and is extremely frightening to those in power?

NC: There has been an element within the anarchist movement that has been concerned with “propaganda by the deed” often with violence, and it is quite natural that power centers seize on it in an effort to undermine any attempt for independence and freedom, by identifying it with violence. But that is not true just for anarchism. Even democracy is feared. It is so deep-seated that people can’t even see it. If we take a look at the Boston Globe on July 4th - July 4 is of course Independence Day, praising independence, freedom and democracy, we find that they had an article on George Bush’s attempt to get some support in Europe, to mend fences after the conflict. They interviewed the foreign policy director of the “libertarian” Cato Institute, asking why Europeans are critical of the US. He said something like this: The problem is that Germany and France have weak governments, and if they go against the will of the population, they have to pay a political cost. This is the libertarian Cato Institute talking. The fear of democracy and hatred of it is so profound that nobody even notices it. In fact the whole fury about Old Europe and New Europe last year was very dramatic, particularly the fact that the criterion for membership in one or the other was somehow not noticed. The criterion was extremely sharp. If the government took the same position as the overwhelming majority of the population, it was bad: “Old Europe” bad guys. If the government followed orders from Crawford, Texas and overruled an even larger majority of the population, then it was the hope of the future and democracy: Berlusconi, Aznar, and other noble figures. This was pretty uniform across the spectrum, just taken for granted. The lesson was: if you have a very strong government you don’t have to pay a political cost if you overrule the population. That’s admirable. That’s what governments are for: to overrule the population and work for the rich and powerful. It is so deep-seated that it wasn’t even seen.

ZV: What your opinion about the dilemma of means - revolution versus social and cultural evolution?

NC: I don’t really see it as a dilemma. It makes sense, in any system of domination and control, to try to change it as far as possible within the limits that the system permits. If you run up against limits that are impassable barriers, then it may be that the only way to proceed is conflict, struggle and revolutionary change. But there is no need for revolutionary change to work for improving safety and health regulations in factories, for example, because you can bring about these changes through parliamentary means. So you try to push it as far as you can. People often do not even recognize the existence of systems of oppression and domination. They have to try to struggle to gain their rights within the systems in which they live before they even perceive that there is repression. Take a look at the women’s movement. One of the first steps in the development of the women’s movement was so-called “consciousness raising efforts”. Try to get women to perceive that it is not the natural state of the world for them to be dominated and controlled. My grandmother couldn’t join the women’s movement, since she didn’t feel any oppression, in some sense. That’s just the way life was, like the sun rises in the morning. Until people can realize that it is not like the sun rising, that it can be changed, that you don’t have to follow orders, that you don’t have to be beaten, until people can perceive that there is something wrong with that, until that is overcome, you can’t go on. And one of the ways to do that is to try to press reforms within the existing systems of repression, and sooner or later you find that you will have to change them.

ZV: Do you think that the change should be achieved through institutionalized (party) politics, or rather through other means such as disobedience, building parallel frameworks, alternative media, etc?

NC: It is impossible to say anything general about it, because it depends on circumstances. Sometimes one tactic is right, sometimes another one. Talk of tactics sounds sort of trivial, but it is not. Tactical choices are the ones that have real human consequences. We can try to go beyond the more general strategic choices speculatively and with open minds, but beyond that we descend into abstract generalities. Tactics have to do with decisions about what to do next, they have real human consequences. So for example, let’s take the upcoming Republican National Convention. If a large group that calls itself anarchist acts in such a way as to strengthen the systems of power and antagonize the public, they will be harming their own cause. If they can find actions that will get people to understand why it makes sense to challenge systems of formal democracy without substance, then they picked the right tactic. But you cannot check or look in a textbook to find the answers. It depends on careful evaluation of the situation that exists, the state of public understanding, the likely consequences of what we do, and so on.

ZV: The United States has a very long history of “Utopism “ of different attempts towards alternative social orders. Transcendentalism was also famous because its Brook Farm and Fruitlands experiments. French thinker Proudhon once wrote that:” Freedom is the mother, not the daughter of order.”  Where do you see life after or beyond (nation) state?

NC: My feeling is that any interaction among human beings that is more than personal - meaning that takes institutional forms of one kind or another - in community, or workplace, family, larger society, whatever it may be, should be under direct control of its participants. So that would mean workers' councils in industry, popular democracy in communities, interaction between them, free associations in larger groups, up to organization of international society. You can spell out the details in many different ways, and I don't really see a lot a point in it. And here I disagree with some of my friends; I think spelling out in extensive detail the form or future society goes beyond our understanding. There surely will have to be plenty of experimentation - we don't know enough human beings and societies, their needs and limitations. There is just too much we don't know, so lots of alternatives should be tried.

ZV: On many occasions activist, intellectuals, students, have asked you about your specific vision of anarchist society and about your very detailed plan to get there. Once you have answered “that we can not figure out what problems are going to arise unless you experiment with them.”  Do you also have a felling that many left intellectuals are loosing too much energy with their theoretical disputes about the proper means and ends, to even start experimenting in practice.

NC: Many people find this extremely important and find that they cannot act as, let’s say, organizers in their community unless they have a detailed vision of the future that they are going to try to achieve. OK, that’s the way they perceive the world and themselves. I would not presume to tell them it's wrong, maybe it is right for them, but it is not right for me. A lot of flowers have a right to bloom. People do things in different ways.

ZV: With the process of economic globalization getting stronger day after day, many on the left are caught between a dilemma - either one can work to reinforce the sovereignty of nation-states as a defensive barrier against the control of foreign and global capital; or one can strive towards a non-national alternative to the present form of globalization and that is equally global. What's your opinion about this riddle?

NC: As usual, I don't see it as a conflict. It makes perfect sense to use the means that nation states provide in order to resist exploitation, oppression, domination, violence and so on, yet at the same time to try to override these means by developing alternatives. There is no conflict. You should use whatever methods are available to you. There is no conflict between trying to overthrow the state and using the means that are provided in a partially democratic society, the means that have been developed through popular struggles over centuries. You should use them and try to go beyond, maybe destroy the institution. It is like the media. I am perfectly happy to write columns that are syndicated by the New York Times, which I do, and to write in Z Magazine. It is no contradiction. In fact, let's take a look at this place (MIT). It has been a very good place for me to work; I've been able to do things I want to do. I have been here for fifty years, and have never thought about leaving it. But there are things about it that are hopelessly illegitimate. For example, it is a core part of the military-linked industrial economy. So you work within it and try to change it.

ZV: Many oppose democracy since it is still a form of tyranny:  tyranny of the majority. They object to the notion of majority rule, noting that the views of the majority do not always coincide with the morally right one. Therefore we have an obligation to act according to the dictates of his conscience, even if the latter goes against majority opinion, the presiding leadership, or the laws of the society. Do you agree with this notion?

NC: It is impossible to say. If you want to be a part of the society, you have to accept the majority decisions within it, in general, unless there is a very strong reason not to. If I drive home tonight, and there is a red light, I will stop, because that is a community decision. It doesn't matter if it is 3 a.m. and I may be able to go through it without being caught because nobody is around. If you are part of the community, you accept behavioral patterns that maybe you don't agree with. But there comes a point when this is unacceptable, when you feel you have to act under your own conscious choice and the decisions of the majority are immoral. But again, anyone looking for a formula about it is going be very disappointed. Sometimes you have to decide in opposition to your friends. Sometimes that would be legitimate, sometimes not. There simply are no formulas for such things and cannot be. Human life is too complex, with too many dimensions. If you want to act in violation of community norms, you have to have pretty strong reasons. The burden of proof is on you to show that you are right, not just: "My conscience says so." That is not enough of a reason.

ZV: What is your opinion about so-called “scientific anarchism” - attempts to scientifically prove Bakunin's assumption that human beings have instinct for freedom. That we have not only a tendency towards freedom but also a biological need. Something that you were so successful in proving with universal grammar (language).

NC: That is really a hope, it is not a scientific result. So little is understood about human nature that you cannot draw any serious conclusions. We can't even answer questions about the nature of insects. We draw conclusions -- tentative ones -- through a combination of our intuitions, hopes, some experiences. In that way we may draw the conclusion that humans have an instinct for freedom. But we should not pretend that it is derived from scientific knowledge and understanding. It isn't and can't be. There is no science of human beings and their interactions or even simpler organisms that reaches anywhere near that far.

ZV: Last question. Henry David Thoreau opens his essay “Civil Disobedience”  with the following sentence: “That government is the best that governs the least or doesn’t govern at all.” History teaches us that our freedom, labor rights, environmental standards have never been given to us from the wealthy and influential few, but have always been fought out by ordinary people with civil disobedience. What should be in this respect our first steps toward another, better world?

NC: There are many steps to achieve different ends. If we take the immediate problems in the US, probably the main domestic problem we face is the collapse of the health care system, which is a very serious problem. People can't get drugs, can't get medical care, costs are out of control, and it is getting worse and worse. That is a major problem. And that can be, in principle and I think in fact, dealt within the framework of parliamentary institutions. In some recent polls 80% of the population prefer much more reasonable programs, some form of national health insurance, which would be far cheaper and more efficient and would give them the benefits they want. But the democratic system is so corrupted that 80% of the population can't even put their position on the electoral agenda. But that can be overcome. Take Brazil, which has much higher barriers than here, but the population was able to force through legislation which made Brazil a leader in providing AIDS medication at a fraction of the cost elsewhere and in violation of international trade rules imposed by the US and other rich countries. They did it. If Brazilian peasants can do it, we can do it. Instituting a reasonable health care system is one thing that should be done, and you can think of a thousand others. There is no way of ranking them; there is no first step. They should all be done. You can decide to be engaged in this one or that one or some other one, wherever your personal concerns, commitments and energy are. They are all interactive, mutually supportive. I do things I think are important, you do things you think are important, they do what they think is important, they can all be means for achieving more or less the same ends. They can assist one another, achievements in one domain can assist those in others. But who am I to say what the first step is?

ZV: Do you go to the polls/ Do you vote?

NC: Sometimes. Again, it depends on whether there is a choice worth making, whether the effect of voting is significant enough so it is worth the time and effort. On local issues I almost always vote. For example, there was recently a referendum in the town where I live that overrode ridiculous tax restrictions, and I voted on that. I thought it is important for a town to have schools, fire stations, libraries and so on and so forth. Usually the local elections make some kind of difference, beyond that it is: If this state (Massachusetts) were a swing state, I would vote against Bush.

ZV: And what about upcoming elections?

NC: Since it is not a swing state, there are other choices. One might have reasons to vote for Ralph Nader, or for the Green Party, which also runs candidates apart from the presidency. There are a variety of possible choices, depending on one’s evaluation of the significance.

* Ziga Vodovnik is Assistant/Young Researcher at the Department of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, Europe.