The Problem With Chomsky’s “Anarcho-Syndicalism”

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Linguistic professor Noam Chomsky of MIT University is a distinguished intellectual and activist. He has wrote voluminously and spoke thousands of words in lectures about propaganda and the foreign policy of US empire. In doing so Chomsky has contributed a body of work essential to understanding how that empire functions and controls it’s subjects. As a younger activist he was vocal about his support for Anarcho-syndicalism. He rarely brings it up now a days, but when asked about it he reiterates his opinion that Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism offer a framework for challenging power and creating a radically democratic society.

He recounts that as a teenager he was fascinated by the Spanish Revolution and the Anarcho-syndicalists’ role in it. He even wrote an article about it which he says is gone, which he is glad about since he says it was barely readable. If Chomsky is a consistent Anarcho-syndicalist then the Anarcho-syndicalist movement has a powerful public ally. If he is not then it is an unavoidable fact that he is doing some damage to Anarcho-syndicalism as a movement by portraying it’s ideals improperly. So what does Noam Chomsky have to say about Anarcho-syndicalism?

In an interview with Peter Jay in 1976 Chomsky describes Anarcho-syndicalism as a society under complete democratic control by the population. Production and social affairs are organized through horizontal cooperation rather than through modern coercive institutions like the state. Chomsky describes such a society; “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.” Chomsky says this about representative democracy and capitalist economic relations from an Anarchist point of view; “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.”

This is a less than accurate picture of Anarcho-syndicalism. Libertarian socialism, or the Anarchist vision of a socialist society is described more, or less to a tee by Chomsky here. Anarcho-syndicalists do indeed seek to achieve such a society, but Anarcho-syndicalism is not a synonym for Libertarian Socialism, or Libertarian Communism. Anarcho-syndicalism is the labor strategy adapted by Anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to achieve such a society. The basis of this strategy is revolutionary unionism where workers form their own unions, organized by the workers themselves, to struggle against the capitalist class and the capitalist mode of production. Chomsky never actually talks about revolutionary unionism and makes far different strategy prescriptions.

Apart from advocating a mass movement to acquire reforms such as a national healthcare service, Chomsky does not advocate any thing like a revolutionary labor strategy. Instead. When asked what to do about specific issues Chomsky comes up with  policies the state can put in place. In addition Chomsky is a long time advocate of electoralism which Anarcho-syndicalists have always stood firmly against. In 2008 Chomsky said that Americans should “vote for Obama without illusions”. Since, in Chomsky’s estimation, the republican party has gone wildly off the rails voters in swing states (or states that swing the vote toward one candidate or another) should vote for the democratic candidate. During the 2016 presidential election Chomsky argues there is  “sufficient basis to voting for Clinton where a vote is potentially consequential-namely, in a contested, “swing” state.” For the sake of argument let’s compare Chomsky’s position to that of two prominent Anarcho-syndicalists of the 19th and 20th centuries, Rudolf Rocker and Alexander Berkman.

In the 19th century the Marxist movement was concentrated in “social democracy” which was a series of socialist parties that used participation in electoral politics to agitate for socialism as Marx prescribed. Rudolf Rocker and Alexander Berkman, opposing this strategy, articulated cutting critiques of it. According to Berkman:

 “they claimed that they meant to use politics only for the purpose of propaganda. It was in the days when Socialist agitation was forbidden, particularly in Germany. ‘If you elect us to the Reichstag’ (the German parliament), the Socialists told the workers then, ‘we’ll be able to preach Socialism there and educate the people to it.’ There was some reason in that, because the laws which prohibited Socialist speeches did not apply to the Reichstag. So the Socialists favored political activity and took part in elections in order to have an opportunity to advocate Socialism.

It may seem a harmless thing, but it proved the undoing of Socialism. Because nothing is truer than that the means you use to attain your object soon themselves become your object. So money, for example, which is only a means to existence, has itself become the aim of our lives. Similarly with government. The ‘elder’ chosen by the primitive community to attend to some village business becomes the master, the ruler. Just so it happened with the Socialists.”

He goes on; “Little by little they changed their attitude. Instead of electioneering being merely an educational method, it gradually became their only aim to secure political office, to get elected to legislative bodies and other government positions. The change naturally led the Socialists to tone down their revolutionary ardor; it compelled them to soften their criticism of capitalism and government in order to avoid persecution and secure more votes. To-day the main stress of Socialist propaganda is not laid any more on the educational value of politics but on the actual election of Socialists to office.” The ostensible founding father of Anarcho-syndicalism, Rudolf Rocker, makes a similar argument against socialist electoralism. He says: “Parliamentarianism (electoralism),which quickly attained a dominating position in the labour parties of the different countries, lured a lot of bourgeois minds and career-hungry politicians into the Socialist camp, and this helped to accelerate the internal decay of original Socialist principles. Thus Socialism in the course of time lost its creative initiative and became an ordinary reform movement which lacked any element of greatness. People were content with successes at the polls, and no longer attributed any importance to social upbuilding and constructive education of the workers for this end. The consequences of this disastrous neglect of one of the weightiest problems, one of decisive importance for the realisation of Socialism, were revealed in their full scope when after the World War, a revolutionary situation arose in many of the countries of Europe. The collapse of the old system had, in several states, put into the hands of the Socialists the power they had striven for so long and pointed to as the first prerequisite for the realisation of Socialism. In Russia the seizure of power by the left wing of state Socialism, in the form of Bolshevism paved the way, not for a Socialist society, but for the most primitive type of bureaucratic state capitalism and a reversion to the political absolutism which was long ago abolished in most countries by bourgeois revolutions. In Germany, however, where the moderate wing in the form of Social Democracy attained to power, Socialism, in its long years of absorption in routine parliamentary tasks, had become so bogged down that it was no longer capable of any creative act whatsoever. Even a bourgeois democratic sheet like the Frankfurter Zeitung felt obliged to confirm that “the history of European peoples has not previously produced a revolution that has been so poor in creative ideas and so weak in revolutionary energy.” Against electoral politics Rocker argues for a revolutionary Anarcho-syndicalist movement of the mass of workers that organizes against the state for their interests; “Anarcho-Syndicalists, then, are not in any way opposed to the political struggle, but in their opinion this struggle, too, must take the form of direct action, in which the instruments of economic power which the working class has at its command are the most effective. The most trivial wage fight shows clearly that, whenever the employers find themselves in difficulties, the state steps in with the police, and even in some cases with the militia, to protect the threatened interests of the possessing classes. It would, therefore, be absurd for them to overlook the importance of the political struggle. Every event that affects the life of the community is of a political nature. In this sense, every important economic action, such, for example, as a general strike, is also a political action and, moreover, one of incomparably greater importance than any parliamentary proceeding. Of a political nature is likewise the battle of the Anarcho-Syndicalists against Fascism and the anti-militarist propaganda, a battle which for decades was carried on solely by the libertarian Socialists and the Syndicalists, and which was attended by tremendous sacrifices.” Thus Anarcho-syndicalists reject participation in electoral politics in favor of the direct self-organization of workers and the masses of people against the capitalist class, the state, and the entire capitalist system itself. For Anarcho-syndicalists it makes little difference who is in power in a capitalist state. Such individuals will always have to carry out the normal functions of the capitalist state, namely the political control and oppression of the working class.

At the end of the above passage Rudolf Rocker argues that Anarcho-syndicalists should confront Fascist organizing through organized direct action. This strategy has been put into practice both by Anarchist and communist resistance to Fascist regimes historically such as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and the modern anti-fascist movement which organizes against neo-fascist groups through organized class struggle and direct action. This movement has been derided by the mainstream media and internet liberals for it’s violent clashes with neo-fascist groups such as the alt-right. Despite Chomsky’s professed sympathy for Anarcho-syndicalism he joins the mainstream media and reactionary internet commentators in denouncing militant anti-fascism. Chomsky argues in am email exchange with a fan:

“You draw the line where the actions are principled and tactically effective. You therefore oppose these actions, on both grounds.

I’ve received so many inquiries I’ve been reduced to form responses, below:

Wrong in principle, and tactically self-destructive. When we move to the arena of violence, the most brutal guys win – that’s the worst outcome (and, incidentally, it’s not us). The right response is to use the opportunity for education and exposure, not to give a gift to the hard right while attacking fundamental principles of freedom of speech.

We’ve been through all of this before, for example, with Weathermen. The Vietnamese pleaded with them to stop actions like these, understanding very well that each such act simply increased support for the war. In this case, the motive is far less significant, but the consequences are very likely to be the same, and we can see that they already are. That’s quite apart from the question of principle. There could be a constructive response that would not simply be a welcome gift to the far right and those elements in the state yearning for a pretext for repression: to use the opportunity for education and organizing.” He calls militant anti-fascism “a minuscule fringe of the Left, just as its predecessors were” with “some limited similarity to the Weather Underground”.

This is quite apart from the Anarcho-syndicalist tradition of militant resistance to Fascism. When the Nazis tried to take over a German town where the Anarcho-syndicalist movement was culturally centered the FAUD, Germany’s Anarcho-syndicalist union, mounted a heroic resistance to Nazi forces and held them off for a period of time before being crushed. The Anarchist social revolution in Spain in 1936 was kicked off when workers overthrew and attempted Fascist coup and forced the Fascists to flee the country. Anarcho-syndicalists such as Buenaventura Durruti mounting armed resistance to Fracoist Fascists through workers’ militias became a main fixture of the Spanish Civil War.

Chomsky’s affinity for the liberal approach to fighting Fascism through debating it’s merits is not a recent phenomena by any means. In the 70s when an academic in France by the name of  Robert Faurisson was charged by the French government for denying that the holocaust happened and disputing the existence of the horrific gas chambers in German concentration camps Chomsky signed a petition for this individual’s right to express his views, no matter how horrible. When denounced in French intellectual circles Chomsky defended his position with gusto arguing that the right for people to express and promote any views without any harm coming to them because of it even if those views are Fascist is a fundamental “civic libertarian principle”. He defends his position to this day. It should be mentioned that Zionists such as Alan Dershowitz have blown Chomsky’s position completely out of proportion and out of context to attack any criticism he makes of Israel however, the fact remains that Chomsky’s position with regard to this issue was not one of Anarcho-syndicalist militant anti-Fascism. Militant anti-Fascists would agree with Chomsky that the capitalist state should not be allowed to punish individuals for thought crimes, however Chomsky argues against even organizing to prevent this individual from publishing his holocaust denial work and being accepted by academia. As Rocker states anti-Fascist Anarcho-syndicalists by contrast would aim to stop the proliferation of this individual’s views through organizing against him.

It must be concluded that Chomsky is not an advocate of Anarcho-syndicalism as his positions are at odds with fundamental Anarcho-syndicalist principles. To be fair to Chomsky he has never painted himself as a “theorist of Anarchism”, or even an Anarcho-syndicalist outright, but rather as a “fellow traveler”. Really that is all he can claim to be. He is a public intellectual with an affinity for the skepticism of authority and democratic ideals of Anarchism. One can not look to Chomsky for true Anarcho-syndicalist theory and practice, they must instead look to the international Anarcho-syndicalist movement which has been organized around the world since the 19th century.


Fighting For Ourselves, Solidarity Federation


Anarcho-syndicalism: Theory and Practice, Rudolf Rocker

ABC Of Anarchism, Alexander Berkman

Durruti Is Dead, Yet Living, Emma Goldman

” Anarcho-Syndicalism ” Concept and production by Thomas Beckmann, Barbara Uebel and Markus Hoffmann in cooperation with “Videozeitung”



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