The Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Peter Jay
The Jay Interview, July 25, 1976
QUESTION: It's clear that the fundamental idea of anarchism is the primacy of the individual -- not necessarily in isolation, but with other individuals -- and the fulfillment of his freedom. This in a sense looks awfully like the founding ideas of the United States of America. What is it about the American experience which has made freedom as used in that tradition become a suspect and indeed a tainted phrase in the minds of anarchists and libertarian socialist thinkers like yourself?
CHOMSKY: Let me just say I don't really regard myself as an anarchist thinker. I'm a derivative fellow traveler [of anarchism], let's say. Anarchist thinkers have constantly referred to the American experience and to the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy very very favorably. You know, Jefferson's concept that the best government is the government than governs least, or Thoreau's addition to that, that the best government is the one that doesn't govern at all, is one that's often repeated by anarchist thinkers through modern times.
However, the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy -- putting aside the fact that it was a slave society -- developed in an essentially pre-capitalist system, that is, in a society in which there was no monopolistic control, there were no significant centers of private power. In fact, it's striking to go back and read today some of the classic libertarian texts. If one reads, say, Wilhelm von Humboldt's critique of the state of 1792 [English language version: The Limits of State Action (Cambridge University Press, 1969)], a significant classic libertarian text that certainly inspired Mill, one finds that he doesn't speak at all of the need to resist private concentration of power, rather he speaks of the need to resist the encroachment of coercive state power. And that is what one finds also in the early American tradition. But the reason is that that was the only kind of power there was. I mean, Humboldt takes for granted that individuals are roughly equivalent in their private power, and that the only real imbalance of power lies in the centralized authoritarian state, and individual freedom had to be sustained against its intrusion -- the State or the Church. That's what he feels one must resist.
Now, when he speaks, for example, of the need for control of one's creative life, when he decries the alienation of labor that arises from coercion or even instruction or guidance in one's work, he's giving an anti-statist or anti-theocratic ideology. But the same principles apply very well to the capitalist industrial society that emerged later. And I would think that Humboldt, had he been consistent, would have ended up being a libertarian socialist.
QUESTION: Don't these precedents, suggest that there is something inherently pre-industrial about the applicability of libertarian ideas -- that they necessarily presuppose a rather rural society in which technology and production are fairly simple, and in which the economic organization tends to be small-scale and localized?
CHOMSKY: Well, let me separate that into two questions: one, how anarchists have felt about it, and two, what I think is the case. As far as anarchist reactions are concerned, there are two. There has been one anarchist tradition -- and one might think, say, of Kropotkin as a representative -- which had much of the character you describe. On the other hand, there's another anarchist tradition that develops into anarcho-syndicalism which simply regarded anarchist ideas as the proper mode of organization for a highly complex, advanced industrial society. And that tendency in anarchism merges, or at least inter-relates very closely with a variety of left-wing Marxism, the kind that one finds in, say, the Council Communists that grew up in the Luxembourgian tradition and that is later represented by Marxist theorists like Anton Pannekoek, who developed a whole theory of workers' councils in industry and who is himself a scientist and astronomer, very much a part of the industrial world.
So, which of these two views is correct? I mean, is it necessary that anarchist concepts belong to the pre-industrial phase of human society or is anarchism the rational mode of organization for a highly advanced industrial society? Well, I myself believe the latter, that is, I think that the industrialization and the advance of technology raise possibilities for self-management over a broad scale that simply didn't exist in an earlier period. And that in fact this 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. At present, institutions do not permit them to have control over the requisite information, and the relevant training to understand these matters. A good deal could be automated. Much of the necessary work that is required to keep a decent level of social life going can be consigned to machines -- at least, in principle -- which means that humans can be free to undertake the kind of creative work which may not have been possible, objectively, in the early stages of the industrial revolution.
QUESTION: I'd like to pursue in a moment the question of the economics of an anarchist society, but could you sketch in a little more detail the political constitution of an anarchist society, as you would see it in modern conditions? Would there be political parties, for example? What residual forms of government would in fact remain?
CHOMSKY: 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.
Now, exactly how these would develop and how they would inter-relate and whether you need both of them or only one, well, these are matters over which anarchist theoreticians have debated and many proposals exist, and I don't feel confident to take a stand. These are questions which will have to be worked out.
QUESTION: But, there would not be, for example, direct national elections and political parties organized from coast to coast, as it were. Because, if there were that would presumably create a kind of central authority which would be inimical to the idea of anarchism.
CHOMSKY: No, the 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.
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. 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. That is, it should be the case, I would think, that where there is direct participation in self-management, in economic and social affairs, then factions, conflicts, differences of interests and ideas and opinion, which should be welcomed and cultivated, will be expressed at every one of these levels. Why they should fall into two, three or n political parties, I don't quite see. I think that the complexity [continued in Part 3] of human interest and life does not fall in that fashion. Parties represent basically class interests, and classes would have been eliminated or transcended in such a society.
Go To Part 3