Chomsky on anarchism

by Noam Chomsky

Other authorsBarry Pateman
Paper Book, 2005


"Radical linguist, philosopher, and activist Noam Chomsky is one of the world's foremost intellectuals. Known for his brilliant evisceration of American foreign policy, state capitalism, and the mainstream media, he remains a formidable and unapologetic critic of established authority. On Anarchism sheds a much-needed light on the foundations of Chomsky's thought, specifically his constant questioning of the legitimacy of entrenched power. The book gathers his essays and interviews to provide a short, accessible introduction to his distinctively optimistic brand of anarchism. Chomsky eloquently refutes the notion of anarchism as a fixed idea, suggesting that it is part of a living, evolving tradition, and he disputes the traditional fault lines between anarchism and socialism, emphasizing the power of collective, rather than individualist, action. Including a revealing new interview with Chomsky by well-known writer and blogger Nathan Schneider that assesses Chomsky's writings on anarchism to date, this is a book that is sure to challenge, provoke, and inspire. Profoundly relevant to our times, On Anarchism is a touchstone for political activists and anyone interested in deepening their understanding of anarchism and the man dubbed the "nation's conscience." Incorporating revealing interviews with Chomsky by writer Nathan Schneider that update each in light of today's events, this is a book that is sure to provoke and inspire. Profoundly relevant to our times, Chomsky on Anarchism is a touchstone for activists and anyone interested in politics and the man dubbed "our nation's conscience." "--… (more)



Call number



Edinburgh ; Oakland, CA : AK Press, c2005.

User reviews

LibraryThing member PoliticalMediaReview
The Grand Old Wizard giving us the ins and outs of anarchism. The book really is a compilation of Chomsky’s varied writings and interviews on the subject, collected over the last 30 years or so.

Much of Chomsky’s writings are direct attacks on aspects of US foreign policy, blasting holes in
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stated motives and uncovering hidden agenda’s. Whilst these criticisms and analysis are defined by his political outlook, it’s nice to have something positive on what the Man believes in rather than what he opposes.

Unlike the Marxist Left, Chomsky consistently refuses to go into detail on a blueprint of a future society. To do so would be as unwise as it would be inaccurate. All we can do, he argues, is set the scene for grassroots, non-hierarchical desicion making processes to flourish. This means challenging and abolishing all authoritarian structures unless they can prove their necessity. (E.g. in the parent/child relationship).

Chomsky has an ability to make what is often seen as radical politics accessible and historically relevant to peoples lives. Chomsky’s anarchism is similar to the original ideas of democracy and responsibility espoused by the Forefathers of the United Stares – Thomas Jefferson and Henry Throueau, and he refers to this regularly.

Indeed the history of anarchist resistance and innovation was very often initiated by people who had never heard of Bakunin (who?) or Mutual Aid (what?). The Spanish Civil War, South Americas landless peasants movement. They had instead a natural inclination toward direct democracy and direct action. We are anarchists by nature.

Chomsky’s rebuttal of Statist Communism and the radical right Libertarian Party is conclusive and helps define his thoughts (particularly anarcho-syndicalism) on what anarchy exactly is and isn’t. Unfortunately he doesn’t expand enough on his criticisms on Green/primitivist anarchism, currently a big trend, especially in the States, and the book does repeat itself a bit, while feeling a little disjointed at times.

Still, bang it on the coffee table and impress your friends.
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LibraryThing member chaosmogony
A great read, which would justify itself alone for Chomsky's dismantling of the ideas that "socialism" was represented by the USSR, or that "capitalism" as practiced by the US is free of tyranny (and equally interesting is his critique of the Rand-esque style of right-wing libertarianism unique to
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the US). Chomsky goes into some detail on the history of anarchist movements and his own ideas on libertarian or anti-authoritarian forms of socialism.

Very much worth a read.
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LibraryThing member bloom
It seems like AK press is hell bent on publishing everything Chomsky has ever written and said over and over again. Unfortunately there is nothing in this text that hasn't already been printed, so readers of Chomsky are more than likely to be disappointed as I was. There are excellent articles in
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here however, such as "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, an article on Vietnam and the Spanish Revolution which originally appeared in Chomsky's first political book, "American Power and the New Mandarins." The article is first-rate scholarship and includes excellent bibliographical information. Chomsky was probably the only American dissident in the 1960's who was discussing issues like Anarcho-Syndicalism in relation to the Vietnam conflict. The other articles in the book have also appeared elsewhere, and they vary in quality a great deal. There is some interesting discussion here on Libertarian Socialist life in the Israeli Kibbutzim as well. "Language and Freedom," is an excellent lecture which connects his linguistic work with political ideology (which Chomsky now refuses to do), and discusses classical anarchist thinkers like Bakunin and Rocker. The last couple of interviews get slightly too informal for my taste and there are hardly any footnotes to back them up, but still this is a moderately helpful collection of material which gives an insight into Chomsky's anarchist convictions
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LibraryThing member bkinetic
Chomsky makes a good case for anarchism. A highlight is the autobigraphical section detailing how he came to be an anarcho-syndicalist.

A significant part of the book is a reinterpretation of the history of the Spanish civil war in which the communists undermined the anarchist's work in
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estabilishing their economic system and in defending Spain against Franco's facist forces. Chomsky believes that existing liberal histories of the war incorrectly diminish the contributions of the anarchists, and he seems to make a good case for this view. Spain during their civil war is pretty much the only place where anarchism has been put into practice on a large scale, so it remains prominent in the anarchism literature, despite the horrible conditions under which it tried to flourish.

A chapter on language and freedom is less compelling. Chomsky believes that people have an innate language generator within us, making it difficult to reconcile freedom with a supposed biological determinism of thought and speech. Language plays important roles in both facilitating and denying freedom, but these topics are not covered here.
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LibraryThing member pivic
From the book:

WOMAN: It seems to me that as a social system, anarchism makes such bottom-line sense that it was necessary to discredit the word, and take it out of people’s whole vocabulary and thinking—so you just have a reflex of fear when you hear it.

CHOMSKY: Yeah, anarchism has always been
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regarded as the ultimate evil by people with power. So in Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare [a 1919 campaign against “subversives” in the U.S.], they were harsh on socialists, but they murdered anarchists—they were really bad news. See, the idea that people could be free is extremely frightening to anybody with power.

That’s why the 1960s have such a bad reputation. I mean, there’s a big literature about the Sixties, and it’s mostly written by intellectuals, because they’re the people who write books, so naturally it has a very bad name—because they hated it. You could see it in the faculty clubs at the time: people were just traumatized by the idea that students were suddenly asking questions and not just copying things down. In fact, when people like Allan Bloom [author of The Closing of the American Mind] write as if the foundations of civilization were collapsing in the Sixties, from their point of view that’s exactly right: they were. Because the foundations of civilization are, “I’m a big professor, and I tell you what to say, and what to think, and you write it down in your notebooks, and you repeat it.”

If you get up and say, “I don’t understand why I should read Plato, I think it’s nonsense,” that’s destroying the foundations of civilization. But maybe it’s a perfectly sensible question—plenty of philosophers have said it, so why isn’t it a sensible question? As with any mass popular movement, there was a lot of crazy stuff going on in the Sixties—but that’s the only thing that makes it into history: the crazy stuff around the periphery. The main things that were going on are out of history—and that’s because they had a kind of libertarian character, and there is nothing more frightening to people with power.

One of the things I like best about Chomsky, is that, regardless of whether you hail or diss him, you're bound to understand what he's talking about. It's always clear-cut, referenced throughout and simple, even when dealing with complex and even advanced matters at times, but if you just re-read that stuff if it feels hard to get, you will get it.

To begin with, he both discusses what anarchism has been, is and is not, which is vital.

The anarchist historian Rudolf Rocker, who presents a systematic conception of the development of anarchist thought towards anarchosyndicalism, along lines that bear comparison to Guérin’s work, puts the matter well when he writes that anarchism is not a fixed, self-enclosed social system but rather a definite trend in the historic development of mankind, which, in contrast with the intellectual guardianship of all clerical and governmental institutions, strives for the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life. Even freedom is only a relative, not an absolute concept, since it tends constantly to become broader and to affect wider circles in more manifold ways. For the anarchist, freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account. The less this natural development of man is influenced by ecclesiastical or political guardianship, the more efficient and harmonious will human personality become, the more will it become the measure of the intellectual culture of the society in which it has grown.

His thoughts on anarchy are massive, intrinsic and needed. He exudes socialism and anarchism where he discusses matters as far-flung as language, freedom, politics and philosophy of today as well as during the days of Descartes, George Bush and how corporate capitalism has taken over to be the lingua franca state of life for many people.

In his attack on the right of private or bureaucratic control over the means of production, the anarchist takes his stand with those who struggle to bring about “the third and last emancipatory phase of history,” the first having made serfs out of slaves, the second having made wage earners out of serfs, and the third which abolishes the proletariat in a final act of liberation that places control over the economy in the hands of free and voluntary associations of producers (Fourier, 1848).

And he often exemplifies how anarchism lives, not only in the mind, but very closely:

MAN: Then how can we build a social contract which is cooperative in nature, but at the same time recognizes individual humanity? It seems to me that there’s always going to be a very tense polar pull there.

CHOMSKY: Where’s the polar pull—between what and what?

MAN: Between a collective value and an individual value.

CHOMSKY: I guess I don’t see why there has to be any contradiction there at all. It seems to me that a crucial aspect of humanity is being a part of functioning communities—so if we can create social bonds in which people find satisfaction, we’ve done it: there’s no contradiction. Look, you can’t really figure out what problems are going to arise in group situations unless you experiment with them—it’s like physics: you can’t just sit around and think what the world would be like under such and such conditions, you’ve got to experiment and learn how things actually work out. And one of the things I think you learn from the kibbutz experiment is that you can in fact construct quite viable and successful democratic structures—but there are still going to be problems that come along. And one of the problems that people just have to face is the effect of group pressures to conform. I think everybody knows about this from families. Living in a family is a crucial part of human life, you don’t want to give it up. On the other hand, there plainly are problems that go along with it—nobody has to be told that. And a serious problem, which becomes almost pathological when it arises in a close-knit group, is exclusion—and to avoid exclusion often means doing things you wouldn’t want to do if you had your own way. But that’s just a part of living, to be faced with human problems like that. Actually, I’m not a great enthusiast of Marx, but one comment he made seems appropriate here. I’m quoting, so pardon the sexist language, but somewhere or other he said: socialism is an effort to try to solve man’s animal problems, and after having solved the animal problems, then we can face the human problems—but it’s not a part of socialism to solve the human problems; socialism is an effort to get you to the point where you can face the human problems. And I think the kind of thing you’re concerned about is a human problem—and those are going to be there. Humans are very complicated creatures, and have lots of ways of torturing themselves in their inter-personal relations. Everybody knows that, without soap operas.

The chapter on language and freedom goes into anarchy from a linguistic route, even as it's very human. The chapter on Spain and the anarcho-syndicalistic ideas that grew into action from there is also really interesting.

All in all: very recommendable, even if you're not into politics. It's mind-bending in a good way.
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LibraryThing member Kavinay
Why so much focus on the Spanish Civil War--oh.
LibraryThing member Kavinay
My only wish is that Chomsky would tell more jokes.
LibraryThing member quantum.alex
Requires a bit of foreknowledge and the text is from different sources, so bit fragmented. Likely, an analysis of Chomsky's thoughts on anarchism would be a more effective learning experience.

He draws quite liberally from Homage to Catalonia and Bolloton's The Grand Camoflauge--which are now on my
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Original publication date



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