The Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Peter Jay
The Jay Interview, July 25, 1976
QUESTION: Professor Chomsky, perhaps we should start by trying to define what is not meant by anarchism -- the word anarchy is derived, after all, from the Greek, literally meaning "no government." Now, presumably people who talk about anarchy or anarchism as a system of political philosophy don't just mean that, as it were, as of January 1st next year, government as we now understand it will suddenly cease; there would be no police, no rules of the road, no laws, no tax collectors, no post office, and so forth. Presumably, it means something more complicated than that.
CHOMSKY: Well, yes to some of those questions, no to others. They may very well mean no policemen, but I don't think they would mean no rules of the road. In fact, I should say to begin with that the term anarchism is used to cover quite a range of political ideas, but I would prefer to think of it as the libertarian left, and from that point of view anarchism can be conceived as a kind of voluntary socialism, that is, as libertarian socialist or anarcho-syndicalist or communist anarchist, in the tradition of, say, Bakunin and Kropotkin and others. They had in mind a highly organized form of society, but a society that was organized on the basis of organic units, organic communities. And generally, they meant by that the workplace and the neighborhood, and 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. And these decisions could be made over a substantial range, but 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.
QUESTION: So it doesn't mean a society in which there is, literally speaking, no government, so much as a society in which the primary source of authority comes, as it were, from the bottom up, and not the top down. Whereas representative democracy, as we have it in the United States and in Britain, would be regarded as a from-the-top-down authority, even though ultimately the voters decide.
CHOMSKY: Representative democracy, as in, say, the United States or Great Britain, would be criticized by an anarchist of this school on two grounds. First of all because there is a monopoly of power centralized in the state, and secondly -- and critically -- because the representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere. 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. That is, 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.
QUESTION: Historically speaking, have there been any sustained examples on any substantial scale of societies which approximated to the anarchist ideal?
CHOMSKY: There are small societies, small in number, that I think have done so quite well, and there are a few examples of large scale libertarian revolutions which were largely anarchist in their structure. As to the first, small societies extending over a long period, I myself think the most dramatic example is perhaps the Israeli kibbutzim, which for a long period really were constructed on anarchist principles, that is: self-management, direct worker control, integration of agriculture, industry, service, personal participation in self-management. And they were, I should think, extraordinarily successful by almost any measure that one can impose.
QUESTION: But they were presumably, and still are, in the framework of a conventional state which guarantees certain basic stabilities.
CHOMSKY: Well, they weren't always. Actually, their history is rather interesting. Since 1948 they've been in the framework of a conventional state. Prior to that they were within the framework of the colonial enclave and, in fact, there was a subterranean, largely cooperative society, which was not really part of the system of the British mandate, but was functioning outside of it. And to some extent, that's survived the establishment of the state, though of course, it became integrated itself into the state and in my view lost a fair amount of its libertarian socialist character through this process, and through other processes which are unique to the history of that region which we need not go into.
However, as functioning libertarian socialist institutions, I think they are an interesting model that is highly relevant to advanced industrial societies in a way in which some of the other examples that have existed in the past are not. A good example of a really large-scale anarchist revolution -- in fact the best example to my knowledge -- is the Spanish revolution of 1936, in which, over most of Republican Spain, there was a quite inspiring anarchist revolution that involved both industry and agriculture over substantial areas, developed in a way which to the outside, looks spontaneous. Though, in fact, if you look at the roots of it, you discover that it was based on some three generations of experiment, thought and work which extended anarchist ideas to very large parts of the population in this largely pre-industrial -- though not totally pre-industrial -- society.
And that, again, was, by both human measures and indeed anyone's economic measures, quite successful. That is, production continued effectively; workers in farms and factories proved quite capable of managing their affairs without coercion from above, contrary to what lots of socialists, communists, liberals and others wanted to believe. And in fact, you can't tell what would have happened. That anarchist revolution was simply destroyed by force, but during the brief period in which it was alive I think it was a highly successful and, as I say, 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. How relevant the Spanish experience is to an advanced industrial society one might question in detail.
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