Chomsky on Anarchism ed. Barry Pateman [Review]

I can hear readers sighing and saying “another general book about anarchism” so I will use this review to point out what is specific about Noam Chomsky. But first a few points about the man himself and the contents of the volume in question.

Chomsky has spent much of his working life on linguistics and while there is a tradition of writers using their studies as a subject - Kropotkin for example - It is only tangentially covered in the book, For our purposes, his directly political writings are the subject but note that he does link the two subjects in a reading on Language and Freedom.

The bulk of the book is reprints of interviews from the last 35 years with only a few literature extracts. One of these is a revised version of his useful Introduction to Daniel Guerin’s classical Anarchism from Theory to Practice. Another is Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, one of the first of a continuous series of comment and analysis with which he has plagued the academic establishment, and governments and grandees of US capitalism ; in this case over the Spanish revolution and the Vietnam War

The interviews are perhaps more specific and responsive, and one emerging theme is that he thinks for himself and his views are sometimes quite challenging to anarchist assumptions. As Barry Pateman points out, he claims that the state can be used to move towards a more equitable anarchist society, contrary to those anarchists who are “pursing doctrine in a rigid fashion without being concerned about the human consequences”.

In another slightly heretical section, he defends both Marx, for his early liberationary theory, and praises lavishly the “left marxists” like council communists, who broke with Lenin in 1920 but were first called Left Communists. His promotion of Anton Pannekoek has led George Woodcock to claim that Chomsky is not really an anarchist, but readers can make up their own mind.

As well as proposing State orientated action, and supporting Marxist influenced groups like council communists, now Workers Socialists, Chomsky says that he has a “flexible view of voting”. Like some other anarchists he does vote on local matters and would vote in national elections in a key vote. In this he is only following the practice, if not the policy, of the Spanish CNT from 1930 to ‘36.

It is worth noting that whatever his reservations about theory, he repeatedly avoids answering questions about anarchist practice, tactics and such issues. Still this is a very thought provoking. publication by a writer who would perhaps want to be defined as a “libertarian socialist”.

Chomsky on Anarchism ed. Barry Pateman. AK Press, 2005, 241pp. ISBN : 1-904859-20-8.