The Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Peter Jay
The Jay Interview, July 25, 1976
CHOMSKY: [continued ...] the complexity 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.
QUESTION: One last question on the political organization. Is there not a danger with this sort of hierarchical tier of assemblies and quasi-governmental structure, without direct elections, that the central body, or the body that is in some sense at the top of this pyramid, would get very remote from the people on the ground? And since it will have to have some powers if it's going to deal with international affairs, for example, and may even have to have control over armed forces and things like that, that it would be less democratically responsive than the existing regime?
CHOMSKY: It's a very important property of any libertarian society to prevent an evolution in the direction that you've described, which is a possible evolution, and one that institutions should be designed to prevent. And I think that that's entirely possible. I myself am totally unpersuaded that participation in governance is a full-time job. It may be in an irrational society, where all sorts of problems arise because of the irrational nature of institutions. But in a properly functioning advanced industrial society organized along libertarian lines, I would think that executing decisions taken by representative bodies is a part-time job which should be rotated through the community and, furthermore, should be undertaken by people who at all times continue to be participants in their own direct activity.
It may be that governance is on a par with, say, steel production. If that turns out to be true -- and I think that is a question of empirical fact that has to be determined, it can't be projected out of the mind -- but if it turns out to be true then it seems to me the natural suggestion is that governance should be organized industrially, as simply one of the branches of industry, with their own workers' councils and their own self-governance and their own participation in broader assemblies.
I might say that in the workers' councils that have spontaneously developed here and there -- for example, in the Hungarian revolution of 1956 -- that's pretty much what happened. There was, as I recall, a workers' council of state employees who were simply organized along industrial lines as another branch of industry. That's perfectly possible, and it should be or could be a barrier against the creation of the kind of remote coercive bureaucracy that anarchists of course fear.
QUESTION: If you suppose that there would continue to be a need for self-defense on quite a sophisticated level, I don't see from your description how you would achieve effective control of this system of part-time representative councils at various levels from the bottom up, over an organization as powerful and as necessarily technically sophisticated as, for example, the Pentagon.
CHOMSKY: Well, first, we should be a little clearer about terminology. You refer to the Pentagon, as is usually done, as a defense organization. In 1947, when the National Defense Act was passed, the former War Department -- the American department concerned with war which up to that time was honestly called the War Department -- had its name changed to the Defense Department. I was a student then and didn't think I was very sophisticated, but I knew and everyone else knew that this meant that to whatever extent the American military had been involved in defense in the past -- and partially it had been so -- this was now over. Since it was being called the Defense Department, that meant it was going to be a department of aggression, nothing else.
QUESTION: On the principle of never believe anything until it's officially denied.
CHOMSKY: Right. Sort of on the assumption that Orwell essentially had captured the nature of the modern state. And that's exactly the case. I mean, the Pentagon is in no sense a defense department. It has never defended the United States from anyone. It has only served to conduct aggression. And I think that the American people would be much better off without a Pentagon. They certainly don't need it for defense. Its intervention in international affairs has never been -- well, you know, never is a strong word, but I think you would be hard put to find a case -- certainly it has not been its characteristic pose to support freedom or liberty or to defend people and so on. That's not the role of the massive military organization that is controlled by the Defense Department. Rather, its tasks are two -- both quite anti-social.
The first is to preserve an international system in which what are called American interests -- which primarily means business interests, can flourish. And, secondly, it has an internal economic task. I mean, the Pentagon has been the primary Keynesian mechanism whereby the government intervenes to maintain what is ludicrously called the health of the economy by inducing production, that means production of waste.
Now, both these functions serve certain interests, in fact dominant interests, dominant class interests in American society. But I don't think in any sense they serve the public interest, and I think that this system of production of waste and of destruction would essentially be dismantled in a libertarian society. Now, one shouldn't be too glib about this. If one can imagine, let's say, a social revolution in the United States -- that's rather distant, I would say, but if that took place, it's hard to imagine that there would be any credible enemy from the outside that could threaten that social revolution -- we wouldn't be attacked by Mexico or Cuba, let's say. An American revolution would not require, I think, defense against aggression. On the other hand, if a libertarian social revolution were to take place, say, in western Europe, then I think the problem of defense would be very critical.
QUESTION: I was going to say, it can't surely be inherent to the anarchist idea that there should be no self-defense, because such anarchist experiments as there have been have, on the record, actually been destroyed from without.
CHOMSKY: Ah, but I think that these questions cannot be given a general answer. They have to be answered specifically, relative to specific historical and objective conditions.
QUESTION: It's just that I found a little difficulty in following your description of the proper democratic control of this kind of organization, because I find it a little hard to see the generals controlling themselves in the manner you would approve of.
CHOMSKY: That's why I do want to point out the complexity of the issue. It depends on the country and the society that you're talking about. In the United States, one kind of problem arises. If there were a libertarian social revolution in Europe, then I think the problems you raise would be very serious, because there would be a serious problem of defense. That is, I would assume that if libertarian socialism were achieved at some level in Western Europe, there would be a direct military threat both from the Soviet Union and by the United States. And the problem would be how that should be countered. That's the problem that was faced by the Spanish revolution. There was direct military intervention by Fascists, by Communists and by liberal democracies in the background, and the question how can one defend oneself against attack at this level is a very serious one.
However, I think we have to raise the question whether centralized, standing armies, with high technology deterrents, are the most effective way to do that. And that's by no means obvious. For example, I don't think that a Western European centralized army would itself deter a Russian or American attack [continued in part 4] to prevent libertarian socialism -- the kind of attack that I would quite frankly expect at some level: maybe not military, at least economic.
Go To Part 4