Chomsky on Anarchism by Noam Chomsky [Review]

This book is a collection of essays by and interviews on anarchism with the man who has recently been voted the most popular intellectual in the world, (not that he was very impressed by that!) The bulk of the items have been published elsewhere but some are presented here for the first time.

Now it is important to remember that Chomsky himself does not consider himself an anarchist theoretician (i.e. someone who creates theories about anarchism) but rather an intellectual who is an anarchist and who is prepared to give his views on subjects from an anarchist perspective. Chomsky makes it clear that he stands very much in the tradition of the classical anarchists, in particular those that emphasised collective (as opposed to individualist) solutions to problems. He is refreshingly non-sectarian, being generally supportive not only of both the anarchist communist and anarcho-syndicalist strands of anarchism but also the more libertarian elements of Marxism, especially council communism. His position is deliberately pluralistic, as he considers the question of which are the best forms of struggle and re-constituting society to be open questions, there being no long-term successful anarchist societies to draw on and as the situation is different in various places and economies, it is unlikely that any single solution can be applied to all situations.

Chomsky is also a classical anarchist inasmuch as he sees his anarchism as standing at the meeting point of the two main liberatory tendencies from the European Enlightenment: liberalism and socialism. Indeed he makes many references to figures such as von Humboldt, Kant and Schelling, alongside the American democratic tradition. Chomsky also holds a position on “human nature” which states that there are certain elements to it, which are invariant (and therefore universal) which puts him in opposition to those who consider human nature to be “tabula rasa”. His views on human nature are also crucial to his project of trying to understand human linguistics, which, in return - because it based on laws of regularity - allows for the freedom to create.

One of the most interesting essays in this book is his well-known discussion of liberal scholarship in the matter of the Spanish Civil War / Revolution, which first appeared in his book “American Power and the New Mandarins”. Chomsky shows up the ideological bias in mainstream liberal scholarship, which renders it incapable of comprehending the nature of the anarchist inspired resistance to the military coup and the associated social revolution. However, the essay is now nearly 40 years old and there has been a huge amount of writing on the topic published since then. One looks forward to a similar essay looking at more recent writings.

Alongside the more familiar pieces there those such as a talk he delivered at the “Glasgow Conference on Self-Determination and Power” in 1990 which hasn’t been published before, which initially situates his ideas on freedom within a specifically Scottish framework which makes for interesting reading. He also approvingly quotes from Bertrand Russell - well you would too if he said that anarchism is ” the ultimate ideal to which society should approximate. Chomsky also goes into one of his favourite riffs on the subject of the manufacture of consent and thee evils of the foreign policy of the government of the United States of America. No change there then.

Indeed one can argue that Chomsky has been consistent in his political stance since the 1960’s, which is not to say never has anything original to say in later essays and interviews. But equally there is inevitably a fair bit of repetition involved when reprinting eleven items spread over nearly 40 years. One aspect of Chomsky’s “anarchism” has given rise to some debate over the years and that is his pragmatism, which at times seems to be little different than a form of radical liberalism. For example he votes in local and national elections, if he considers his vote may make a difference - to keep out an overtly reactionary candidate or to vote in local referenda on important issues. Equally there is advocacy of strengthening the state in certain areas if this can help build community-based services in opposition to more privatised profit based ones. Whilst these ideas may seem heretical to more orthodox revolutionary anarchists, they can also seen as the exercise of responsible citizenship in the limited and deficient forms currently allowed.

Inevitably the question has to be answered in a review such as this: should one spend one’s hard-earned cash on this book? Well, AK Press have done another excellent production effort on the book, and you won’t find a better collection of Chomsky’s writings on anarchism anywhere else. The price seems reasonable for the type of book and so if you haven’t already got most of the essays in your existing collection of Chomsky’s books then I’d recommend buying this one. However, be aware, you won’t be getting much that is particularly original in the way of anarchist theory or history, and the level of writing is way beyond “Anarchism for Dummies”. What you do get are a series of essays and interviews, which, hopefully, will challenge and inform and entertain (Chomsky has a very dry wit). Perhaps the only criticism I could make is that the book would be improved by a name and subject index.

So recommended if you don’t already have the main essays


Richard Alexander

(N.B. The essays are taken from the following books: “American Power and the New Mandarins”; “For Reasons of State”; “Radical Priorities”; “Language and Politics”; “Powers and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order”.)

Chomsky, Noam “Chomsky on Anarchism”. 2005, AK Press, Oakland, CA and Edinburgh, Scotland. Pbk. 241pp. ISBN 1-904859-20-8, $16.95 US) / £11.00.