Primitivism, post-Modernism, Chomsky and anarchism
by Graham Purchase
Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #51, Winter, 2009
a review of
B. Paterman, ed., Chomsky on Anarchism, AK Press, $16.95.
The dismissal of the working classes is currently popular among “radical” intellectuals. Some of the stupidest political ideas and outlooks maybe found among primitivists (back-to-the caves) and post-modernists. A few individuals mistakenly believe themselves to be avant garde anarchist thinkers or philosophers. Post-modern `anarchists’ (a tiny clique embedded in the academy) believe class analysis is passé and the working classes largely irrelevant and/or virtually non-existent. Primitivists believe workers exist but are just human robots within our evil industrial-technological civilization, which will end with our return to the caves. Quizzed about his views on such nonsense, Chomsky sensibly replies that “post Modernism is gibberish” (216), and primitivism would entail “the mass genocide of millions” (226). For Chomsky, “technology is a pretty neutral instrument,” utilizable for both good and evil ends. (225) He dismisses the post-modernist denial of “fundamental class differences.” He hasn’t “much problem in discerning class differences and their significance. In fact we see class issues rising all the time.” (228)
Barry Pateman, the editor and compiler of Chomsky on Anarchism, is clearly unsympathetic to Chomsky’s commonsensical views on class, culture and social change. Pateman takes the liberty of using his Introduction (pp. 7-10) to rebuff Chomsky’s remarks about post-class-ism elicited in Pateman’s own interview with Chomsky in 2004 (presumably undertaken to supplement this book’s meager offerings of new material)
Quoting George Woodcock, Pateman states in his Introduction, “Chomsky’s equation of anarchist struggle with a single class fails to see how anarchism appeals to the people of all classes who seek a society where the potentialities of existence are varied and liberated, a society to he approached by lifestyle rebellion as well as economic struggle.” (7) This is unfair. One might reasonably accuse Chomsky of confusing liberalism, humanism and anarchism, but not of ignoring non-economic factors, thinking and movements necessary for progressive social change. Throughout the book, Chomsky champions “classical liberalism.” (191) He repeatedly cites Dewey and Bertrand Russell, who stressed the importance of attitudinal change leading to both community and individual lifestyle experimentation in sexual mores, gender equality and core social and developmental processes, particularly the reform of primary education. Libertarian lifestyle change and experiment evolve hand in hand with economic liberation and empowerment because they are all essential pathways through which humanity socially self-organizes a libertarian, humane and wise society.
But, as Chomsky repeatedly argues, economic or capitalist class hierarchies are the most prevalent and important obstruction to the obtainable dream of a new collaborative libertarian order, an order made possible through self-organization of working people in both traditional and service industries. It is these economic or capitalist class hierarchies that obstruct the overthrow of the corporate capitalist structures of local, national and global political oppression and economic exploitation. The systems are based upon “unaccountable control pyramids,” “largely business-run private totalitarian dictatorships” or “tyrannies” (188, 192 and 213), aided by compliant nation states and media and university spin doctors, employing force and indoctrination dedicated to ensuring that big money states, people and corporations stay on top forever.
The editor is unhappy with Chomsky’s perfectly clear and orthodox syndicalism. He feels that Chomsky’s stress on economic class and workerism makes him more Marxist than anarchist. But Chomsky states that he holds traditional anarchist beliefs, and the text shows that he is an unadulterated disciple of Rocker, Bakunin and classical liberalism. Although occasionally quoting agreeably libertarian passages from Marx or one of his acolytes, Chomsky is primarily a supporter and student of syndicalism, with a particular interest in scholarship of its historical achievements, political role and significance during the Spanish Civil War.
Pateman feels Chomsky’s class analysis “could be a little tighter” and substantially improved by greater consideration of the “complexity” and phenomenology of class “experience.” This is a polite way of saying that Chomsky’s ideas on anarchism and class are one-dimensional, simplistic and economically essentialist or deterministic. Chomsky, Pateman continues, does not fully appreciate how working-class identities are not only an “economic” category, but also “cultural states.” Post-modernists balk at Chomsky’s `economic essentialism’ and `workerism,’ thinking working class identities are historically dated and primarily culturally and semantically determined inter-subjective social-psychological states. The working class, according to the post-moderns, is not an objectively existing entity (economic or otherwise), but some historical-cultural-semantic label or identity — one historical-cultural identity, psychological state or semantic construction among many that change over time and by which people routinely classify or rank themselves and others.
Post-modernism is pure sophistry. With a few intellectual tricks and fancy long words, the post-modernists talk the workers out of existence. This is the very antithesis of Chomsky’s unwavering anarchism and syndicalism that hopes someday the self-organization of labor will place workers at the center-stage of human social and economic existence. Pateman suggests that class analysis is old-fashioned and inadequate: “Chomsky’s perception of class as the central tenet of anarchism is out of synch with Woodcock and some elements of contemporary anarchism.” (8)
But what Chomsky correctly says (citing Bakunin and Rocker in support of this thesis) is that, the “leading traditions” of “traditional anarchism” (179 and 191) present us with a revolutionary socialist movement based upon the idea of peasant-agricultural laborers and the industrial working class organizing themselves democratically into syndicates in order to fight for their liberation from state capitalism. Individuals who deny the existence or relevance of the working class, have no justification for calling themselves anarchists, because they deny the essence of what anarchism has historically been all about. Where there is capitalism, there are workers, and in an era of global capitalism it is not difficult to find them suffering among the poor, underpaid and unemployed.
The question of state power
The dominant thread binding Chomsky’s many works of contemporary political commentary is: The Statue of Liberty is a prostitute pimped out to the “private dictatorships” and “totalitarian organizations” (213) constitutive of corporate capitalism. This is also a major unifying theme of Chomsky on Anarchism, insofar as there are any in this haphazardly conceived book.
In his early essays, Chomsky allies himself with anarcho-syndicalism, but over time progressively adopts a purely syndicalist position. He focuses on corporate capitalist tyrannies and is open-minded on questions of the compatibility of the state and the future possibility of a comparably large non-hierarchical libertarian welfare structure run by public workers’ syndicate and administering pensions and healthcare or providing coordinated inter-regional relief in natural disasters and other large-scale emergencies. Once the capitalist monster has been decapitated, workers can utilize the established civic body of a now headless workers’ state to concentrate largely upon administration and coordination of useful, socially productive basic services.
Unlike anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, syndicalists have generally felt happy to leave the question of the fate of the state unanswered. Syndicalists consider overthrowing and supplanting capitalism work enough, and view the perhaps utopian vision of a stateless workers’ society as a much more distant or larger project. With regard to the future of the state, syndicalism can he flexible and does not hold to the either/or position of anarcho-syndicalism. In fact, syndicalists may even contemplate the idea of strengthening the welfare state. Chomsky is of this view, believing that the welfare state at least establishes some sort of “public arena” and provides considerably more relief to the poor than the bread crumbs handed out by big business. Minimizing the welfare “state,” Chomsky asserts, would result in “increasing an even worse power [private capitalism].” (214) In contemporary capitalist society the worker is left with little else but the state to provide relief in difficult times. Observing this predicament, Chomsky believes we should not he too inflexible over our principles with respect to our visions and goals. Instead, we must take a “practical” (190) approach to assisting the working classes because they are currently facing the daunting prospect of having to continue to cling onto the edges of the welfare state frying-pan or he tossed into a capitalist inferno.
Anarcho-syndicalism is syndicalism enriched and empowered by the diversity and wealth of anarchism. Syndicalism has a very narrow tactical, industrial or workplace focus, whilst anarchism is a broad and inclusive political movement historically and ideologically embracing and influencing many different philosophical and cultural movements, outlooks and activities.
Syndicalists assume that without international capital and faced with the non-cooperation of the workers of the world, the political power of the most powerful states would be reduced to nil. Anarchists believe that capitalism is a fundamental part, but not the whole, of the nation state system, representing in their view a different and possibly greater evil than corporate capitalism. For anarchists, the workers’ revolution involves a fatal blow to the body that unites the two-headed monster of state-capitalism.
Chomsky was at one point a member of the syndicalist organization, the Industrial Workers of the World. Private tyrannies are the exclusive target of the IWW’s efforts, with campaigns aimed at inspiring workers to educate, agitate and organize grass-roots union networks for their protection and to overthrow the employer class. In contrast to their anarcho-syndicalist cousins, the syndicalist IWW members, or Wobblies, have always maintained an ambivalent, wait-and-see attitude to the fate of the state. The elimination and replacement of the capitalist system, not the nation-state, is the syndicalists’ focus and priority.
Chomsky implies that syndicalists, unlike some anarcho-syndicalists, have shied away from “detailed programs” (221) or social-economic blueprints as to how the post-capitalist worker-run society will emerge and organize itself, including whether it will retain a state-like structure or civic body Revolutionary syndicalism can be distinguished from more reformist versions of syndicalism that simply call for local shop-floor democracy and militant unionism as the only way for the worker to live a decent life within state-capitalism.
The editor of this compilation mistakenly believes that in placing greater emphasis upon the evils of capitalism than those of the nation-state, Chomsky has gradually come to embrace Marxism, when, in fact, Chomsky has become more purely syndicalist. Chomsky is clearly attracted to the tactics and less utopian vision of syndicalism, but he seems equally strongly drawn to libertarian-liberal or progressive literature, networks and movements, historically spawned, inspired or organized by anarchists.
Syndicalism and anarchism are complementary, but not identical, political theories of social and democratic transformation. Anarchists of all descriptions seek to eliminate state functions and institutions. But many disparate anti- or non-state world views are unified in the madness of armchair pseudo-anarchism. In the Anglo-American world, anarcho-syndicalists are confronted by the intellectual equivalent of pathological lunacy in the bipolarity of libertarian free-marketeers and libertarian survivalists (primitivists), both asserting a clearly unfounded claim to carry the anarchist flag. Anarchism, according to these ways of thinking, is either back to the caves or back to the market! Non-anarchist syndicalism provides an opportunity and an ideology, albeit a somewhat narrow one, to bypass such idiotic, impractical and contradictory pseudo-anarchist positions. The worst enemies of anarchism are often the “anarchists” themselves. Chomsky appreciates this depressing situation and has reacted by warming towards the IWW/syndicalist position, to which Chomsky, as a lifetime disciple of Rocker, has always been sympathetic. Chomsky and Rocker blend an open-minded and open-ended libertarian approach to their concepts and exploration of culture and freedom, while calling for practical, effective industrial and syndicalist concepts, tactics and methods for the realization of a free and equal society.
Liberalism and freedom
Hand in hand with early socialism, the assumptions and outlooks of classical liberal writers provide an underlying world-view and ideological source for the anarchist and many other 19th and 20th century political and philosophical traditions. The predominant subject of several of the essays in this collection is liberalism and our understanding of the instinctive experience in striving and satisfying our deep-felt need for freedom of thought, action and in conducting ourselves as we feel best. Chomsky’s analysis of freedom and classical liberal literature isn’t straightforwardly about anarchism because the great liberal thinkers (with the exception of Dewey and Russell) predate the anarchist movement.
Bakunin, Chomsky (121-2) and almost everyone else can readily agree that, at an instinctual level, everybody desires and seeks freedom. The struggle to enlarge or defend individual and collective freedoms is a defining feature of human nature, individual and social aspiration, such that it is a major force behind the great historical changes in human civilization. But anarchism differs from liberalism in its core assertion that freedom will only be achieved when the working classes liberate themselves by their own agency and self-organization. Anarchism disputes the idea that the democratic and libertarian visions of the great liberal dreamers can be realized under the torpor of the nation-state-capitalist system. Anarchists insist, instead, that the state should be replaced by a technologically savvy and “rational social order” (114) , developing out of the revolutionary syndicates and neighborhoods organized by the people in mass, open and constructive revolt against institutions that have failed to deliver housing, health care, bread, freedom or democracy for all in an age of global communication and potential plenitude.
In these essays, Chomsky takes several historical tours of liberal-minded thinkers familiar to most undergraduate students of political philosophy (Rousseau, Kant, Bentham and Mill), but more unusually, he pays considerable attention to the much-less-known (outside of Germany) Humboldt, for whom Chomsky clearly has great admiration. In his sadly neglected masterpiece, Nationalism and Culture, Rocker “describes Humboldt as `the most prominent representative in Germany of the doctrine of natural rights and of the opposition to the authoritarian state– (117, note 15). Kropotkin despairs in his Ethics at how Humboldt’s books lie neglected and “moldering” upon library shelves while many lesser thinkers have become fashionable. The great French geographer E. Reclus also greatly admired Humboldt. Reclus had been a Paris Communard, a confidant of Bakunin, and also worked closely with Kropotkin. Reclus’ first geographical book, The Earth (1868-9), received nearly universal praise from the scientific establishment. One prominent reviewer of the time thought Reclus’ work “as worthy of figuring as one of the monuments of science alongside Humboldt’s Cosmos.”
There is no mention whatsoever in this anthology of ecology or the environmental movement/crisis. Chomsky seems unaware of the direct and profound links between the great anarchist geographers and Humboldt’s life and ideas. Humboldt, like Kropotkin, had been a Siberian explorer. Humboldt and Reclus are justly remembered for their contribution to the integrated geographical and scientific study of the Earth’s systems and phenomena at the local and global level.
Chomsky tells us how he took on his anarchist political ideas as a “young teenager” and hasn’t “seen much reason to revise those early attitudes since.” (178) But in the more than half-century since Chomsky became an anarchist and syndicalist convert, the scientific and public perception of an approaching environmental crisis has gradually crawled to center stage.
Chomsky became a disciple of Bakunin and Rocker as a teenager because he was sympathetic to industrial syndicalism, and he remains so today. Unfortunately, the industrial bias of syndicalism in the late 20th century resulted in a widespread tendency to express antagonism toward or dismiss the environmental movement. This occurred in reaction to the predominantly middle-class liberalism of that movement, which almost instinctively ignores the needs and views of the working classes and is often indifferent to the inherent ecological evils of the capitalist system. Unfortunately, in the last quarter of the 20th century, dogmatic and provocative anti-technological diatribes championing pseudo-anarchist primitivist-survivalist idiocy also helped to widen a sectarian divide between sensible ecological anarchists and industrial syndicalists. The late Judi Bari was the most active and coherent advocate in the early 1990s of the urgent need for radical environmentalists and industrial unionists to join hands and organize.
Chomsky often quotes Rocker and Bakunin, who had nothing to say about environmental issues. He mentions Kropotkin in passing, and Reclus not at all. Reclus and Kropotkin, rather uniquely for their time, stressed the need to integrate and harmonize the natural and non-natural, or human, environment. Kropotkin’s general idea of the democratically self-governing, bio-regionally integrated and self-sufficient green city-region (serviced by inter-communal and international industrial syndicates) must, in my opinion, form the material basis and lie at the heart of any modern and realizable conception of anarchism.
Chomsky believes in essentialism, rationalism and universalism (all vehemently opposed by post-modernists) , examining how apparent “restraints” or “restrictions” have been compatible with bio-linguistic evolution and human freedom. Chomsky attempts to reconcile Bakunin’s idea that the “essential and defining property of man is his freedom” with Chomsky’s equally long-held view that the human mind’s linguistic abilities are systems of innate developmental properties of the species-specific human mind, in the form of a “universal grammar.” (101-4) These ideas, Chomsky argues, are allied with Humboldt’s concept of an abstract and “fixed form of language as a system of generative [developmental] processes or innate properties of mind but permitting an infinite use of finite means.” (113-15)
Since Chomsky originally expressed these thoughts, the field of semantic biology has been greatly enriched by M. Barbieri’s The Organic Codes, an extraordinarily fertile work described by Chomsky as “intriguing” and “fascinating.” Barbieri discusses how life diversified and evolved by means of creative, cooperative and locally autonomous epigenetic or developmental systems of social meaning and biological reconstruction. The extraordinary diversity of life occurred through the developmental integration of a complexity of coded semantic exchanges between molecules and cells freely exploring, interpreting, refining, discovering and inventing infinite possibilities, despite the apparently restrictive, finite nature, or grammar, of the DNA code or language. This, Barbieri contends, parallels human linguistic diversity, despite the innate and universal nature of the epigenetically or developmentally reconstructed “human species-specific mind.”
In addition to his linguist achievements, Chomsky is also known as an intellectual opponent of the Vietnam War. Oddly and awkwardly for a book about anarchism, this anthology begins with a detailed 30-page scholarly analysis of establishment ideology justifying the continuation of the Vietnam war some 40 years ago. Chomsky’s overview of modern elite theory concludes that the New Mandarins, the term he uses for America’s intellectual and bureaucratic servants, were motivated in Vietnam by ideals and goals that were undemocratic and illiberal.
I am too young to know anything much about the Vietnam era, other than that America and Australia lost the war. For the upcoming generations, Vietnam is a distant historical event known about only through war movies. This long essay introduces a book called On Anarchism, but it is not about anarchism and does not even mention the word. Some sort of introduction about how this history relates to anarchism is badly needed. Specifically, I would at least expect some background about what led to the war, and why and how resistance to it became one of the major causes of 1960s youth or student rebellion, resulting in a brief resurgence of libertarian thinking in Australia and the United States.
The first half of this book consists of essays from two recently republished books: The New Mandarins (1969) and Reasons of State (1970). Only one section concerns Chomsky’s anarchism, and it is a wholly derivative work of anarchist historical orthodoxy analyzing liberal historical scholarship surrounding the early and revolutionary period of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1937). Chomsky draws upon standard or classic anarchist studies (Rocker, Peirats, Leval, Richards) and contemporary journalistic accounts (Orwell, Borkenau). Chomsky sympathetically presents the anarchist account, but like the Vietnam material, this essay does not serve as a clear or inspiring introduction to those who are ignorant of revolutionary Spain, and Chomsky reveals nothing new to those already familiar with this history and scholarship.
“I don’t really regard myself as an anarchist thinker. I’m a derivative fellow traveler.” (135) This is how Chomsky described himself in 1976 at the beginning of an interview hosted by the BBC’s London Weekend Television. The text is the fourth chapter of Chomsky on Anarchism and was previously anthologized in Radical Priorities (republished by AK in 2003). As Chomsky recognizes, he has little original to add to the insights of Bakunin and Rocker. Instead, he remains happy, like most of us, to have been their lifelong fellow worker and fellow traveler.
I doubt very much that Chomsky was inclined to articulate his present views about his long-held anarchist political beliefs had they not been gently coaxed out of him. Chomsky has not written much about anarchism; rather most of his reflections on anarchism have appeared in the course of interviews for a couple of anarchist journals. Without these brief statements, Chomsky’s 1960s essay on Spanish anarchism and his brief introduction to Guerin’s book Anarchism (1970, republished 2003) would have remained his primary contribution to anarchist literature. Recent interviews conducted by anarchists represent only a tiny fraction of this book, which consists primarily of old and recently republished essays of no direct relevance to anarchism. (Despite the paucity of both new and anarchist material, the editor, Pate-man, failed to include two interviews with Chomsky conducted and published by the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review.) The publisher of this anthology, AK Press, has republished several classical anarchist works and some excellent historical studies. But their catalog offers little sensible, new, specifically anarchist analysis and theory. Unfortunately, Chomsky on Anarchism does little to fill this need.