in Freedom, Vol. 35, No.45 (November 16, 1974): pp. 4-5.

Chomsky's Anarchism

George Woodcock

This article (we believe published here for the first time) was sent to us recently because it carries further the dialogue between Monatte ana Malatesta at the 1907 Anarchist Congress, excerpts from which debate we published in our issues of 26 October and 2 November this year. Chomsky's introduction to Guerin's Anarchism was published separately in the New York Review of Books (21.5. 1970), in Anarchy 116 (October 1970), in The Spokesman 6 (October 1970) and in Our Generation Vol. 8 No. 2 (Winter 1971-1972).

Having lived through the 1940s and 1950s and most of the 1960s as a politically conscious being, when anarchism was a doctrine to be derided by such socialists as did not by some strange mental alchemy identify it as "objectively" reactionary, I cannot help a feeling of churlishness in crticising the essay which Noam Chomsky wrote to introduce the American edition of Daniel Guerin's Anarchism (Monthly Review Press, 1970), since Chomsky's effort to understand not only the proposals of the anarchists, but also the libertarian criticism of state socialism (even as defended by Marx and Lenin), is patently sincere. Yet those who sympathise from the outside with a philosophy of living and seek to discover a means of utilising it to support their own somewhat different doctrines, often in the process diminish the scope and potentialities of that philosophy, and likewise of the practice ensuing from it, by seeking to approximate it to their point of view. This Chomsky has done, and so has Guerin in the book Chomsky introduces, and thus they draw our attention once again to a danger which anarchists have been articulately aware at least since the International Congress of 1907, when Errico Malatesta argued the case of the "complete" anarchist against the economically orientated viewpoint represented on that occasion by the anarcho-syndicalist, Pierre Monatte.

I am doing neither Chomsky nor Guerin an injustice in stating that neither is an anarchist by any known criterion; they are both left-wing Marxists. Yet their awareness of the perils of any attempt to equate workers' control of the means of production with a state taken over by the proletariat -- as Marx and Engels conceived it -- is genuine, and in exploring the possibilities of finding a way out of this essentially Marxist dilemma they are ready to examine once again the possibility that the anarchists may have been right on the question of the "conquest or destruction of state power" which, Chomsky contends, "is what Bakunin regarded as the primary issue dividing him from Marx".

At this point begins my dissent from Chomsky and Guerin. Perhaps the matter of the "conquest or destruction of state power" was the "primary issue" that divided Bakunin from Marx, but there were other issues of almost equal importance, which Bakunin had inherited from Marx's original anarchist opponent, Proudhon; among them were the theory of the utmost decentralisation of control in a completely federalist structure, basic to any vision of a society not governed from above by the state, and the complementary view that that society is multifarious in its manifestations, and that voluntary organisation must extend in many directions other than the economic.

It is on this issue of the protean character of the anarchist approach to social change that Chomsky's argument, I suggest, most clearly fails. He portrays anarchism as in practice a way of struggle on the economic level; more precisely, on an obsolescent ninetheenth-century industrial level. It is true that he pays homage to Bakunin's all-dominating passion for freedom; that he begins by echoing Guerin's praise of anarchism as being the opposite of a "fixed, self-enclosed system". Yet the way he argues the anarchist case does in fact enclose it within the very limits of narrow anarcho-syndicalism from which Malatesta sought to keep anarchist aims free more than sixty years ago.

It is of course not with the aim of deliberate distortion, but because of his Marxist orientation, that Chomsky relies -- apart from Bakunin -- mainly on the syndicalist spokesmen in defining anarchism, but distortion is the result. It is impossible to give any feeling of the richness and variety and depth of anarchist thought when we have copious quotations from syndicalist spokesmen like Rudolf Rocker, Diego Abad de Santillan and Augustin Souchy, as well as from left Marxists like Anton Pannekoek and William Paul, but nothing at all from those who represent the elements in twentieth-century anarchism which -- while admitting the value of syndicalist means of struggle -- recognised the danger of monolithism and of rule by vested interests implicit in an exclusively syndicalist organisation of society or even merely of its economic functions. There is no reference to Kropotkin or Malatesta, none to Herbert Read or Paul Goodman, none to the determined exploration of the application of anarchist ideas to community organisation, to education, to local administration, to the problems of an automated society, to cultural questions, which was pursued by a numerous and often extremely clear-sighted group of writers in the journal Anarchy during the 1960s. Proudhon is mentioned only once, and then in a way which shows that Chomsky does not begin to understand, any more than Marx did, the complexities of what Proudhon meant by "property".

The exclusions in Chomsky's approach are shown not merely in the theoretical company he chooses. They mark also his discussion of the practical achievements of anarchists and of others who have sought to change society by direct action. When he talks of Spain, and the libertarian achievements of the early part of the Civil War, he is thinking -- in his own words -- of "specifically, industrial Barcelona", and he goes on to talk of industrial proletarians, not of the land workers who were the real masses supporting Spanish anarchism. There is not a word about what was probably the most striking manifestation of anarchist activity in Spain between 1936 and 1938 -- the thousands of agrarian communes in which whole villages would not merely take over the land and work it in common, sharing the produce, but would also set themselves up as communes dedicated to what Malatesta, in his denunciation of the narrowness of anarcho-syndicalist aims, defined as "the complete liberation of all humanity, at present enslaved, from the triple economic, political, and moral point of view".

It is, I would suggest, not merely the anarchist emphasis on workers' control that explains the vastly renewed speed of anarchism during the past decade, for the response to libertarian teachings in any articulate way has in fact been least strong among those who fall into the classic category of the industrial proletariat, in any case a class that will continue to diminish both in numbers and in strength if present technological trends continue (and will change into an artisanate if they do not). The response to anarchism has come rather from 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 by economic struggle, a society to be integrated -- as Malatesta would put it -- "from the triple economic, political, and moral point of view" in a way that Marxists, even the most open-minded of them, seem quite unable to conceive. As Malatesta also pointed out in 1907, to equate the anarchist struggle with a single class, as the anarchists followed the Marxists in attempting, is to abdicate the true anarchist ideal of a revolution seeking "the complete liberation of all humanity at present enslaved".

I find it especially significant that there should be no reference at all in Chomsky's essay to education, in view of the attention which anarchists have paid to this vital aspect of social life and social struggle ever since Herbert Read wrote that classic treatise on nonviolent struggle, Education through Art, and especially in view of the importance of student rebels -- some at least convinced anarchists, even if others may have been badly disguised authoritarians -- in the radical movements of the 1960s. At least as important in any strategy of social transformation during the rest of the present century as the struggle for workers' control is the remaking of the system of education, and especially the breaking down of the academic hierarchy not in the direction of students seizing control of existing campuses -- already an obsolete concept -- but of what we now call "higher education" being diffused in the community so that it is not only physically decentralised and organisationally democratised, but also reorganised in such a way that it becomes a lifelong process, and work and learning in the end become part of a single continuum. It is the inclination -- despite all their protestations -- to regard work as something special and separate that sets off the Marxists as heirs to the Calvinist and capitalist ethic, and makes it impossible for them to follow Charles Fourier and William Morris in any true attempt to eliminate the boundaries between a man's work life and the rest of his existence. Is not, after all, the continuance of the use of the word "worker" in the special connotation used in socialist discussions an oblique admission that Marxists have not yet been able to conceive imaginatively a society in which a "worker" is anything more? Certainly he has not become anything more in any self-styled Marxist society that has yet existed; under Stalin and Brezhnev, and equally under Mao and Castro, his alienation has been undiminished.

The mental imprisonment in nineteenth-century categories appears to affect most modern neo-Marxists, and to give their writings a curiously arid doctrinaire quality. I was impressed by this recently on reading a newly published collection of essays, The Politics of Literature, written by American university teachers of "radical" inclinations, of whom all but one called themselves Marxist. What they wer were concerned with was the content of courses; the relevance or otherwise of Edmund Spenser to modern conditions, the arguments for teaching "popular" literature, the possibility and justification of using their classes for left-wing propaganda. Nowhere in their essays was there any evident thought of fundamental changes in our attitude to and our processes of education that would make it part of the work of beginning to change society now, a question to which anarchist writers like Read and the Goodmans have given copious and constructive thought.

I do not suggest that Chomsky is as obtuse as these callow disciples of Christopher Caudwell; obviously he plays a much suppler mind over his subject. Yet when he quotes Guerin as saying that "the constructive idea of anarchism" can "contribute by enriching Marxism", he appears to be reflecting his own outlook which, by regarding Marxism as primary, selects from anarchism those elements that may serve to diminish the contradictions in Marxist doctrines; thus, though they may indeed enrich Marxism, which certainly needs it, both Chomsky and Guerin in fact impoverish the anarchism they portray by abandoning the elements that do not serve their purpose and thus reducing it from a comprehensive philosophy of living, embodying a many-sided strategy of social change, to a mere cluster of tactical concepts, useful to Marxists, but ultimately, no doubt, expendable.