Noam Chomsky on Anarchism, Communism and Revolutions

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By C.J. Polychroniou

As global capitalism, with neoliberalism being a necessary accompaniment, has covered now the entire globe, it is extremely useful to revisit some of the great radical traditions of the 19th and 20th centuries -- namely, anarchism and communism. What do they stand for? What are their main differences? Did Soviet Communism represent an authentic form of socialism or was it a "reformed workers' stage" -- or, even worse, a tyrannical form of stage capitalism? In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Noam Chomsky shares his views on anarchism, communism, and revolutions in hopes that the new generation of radical activists does not ignore history and continue to grapple with questions about strategies for social change.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, from the late 19th century to the mid or even late 20th century, anarchism and communism represented live and vital movements throughout the Western world, but also in Latin America and certain parts of Asia and Africa. However, the political and ideological landscape seems to have shifted radically by the early to late 1980s to the point that, while resistance to capitalism remains ever present, it is largely localized and devoid of a vision about strategies for the founding of a new socioeconomic order. Why did anarchism and communism flourish at the time they did, and what are the key factors for their transformation from major ideologies to marginalized belief systems?

Noam Chomsky: If we look more closely, I think we find that there are live and vital movements of radical democracy, often with elements of anarchist and communist ideas and participation, during periods of upheaval and turbulence, when -- to paraphrase Gramsci -- the old is tottering and the new is unborn but is offering tantalizing prospects. Thus, in late 19th century America, when industrial capitalism was driving independent farmers and artisans to become an industrial proletariat, evoking plenty of bitter resistance, a powerful and militant labor movement arose dedicated to the principle that "those who work in the mills should own them" alongside a mass radical farmers movement that sought to free farmers from the clutches of banks and merchants. The dramatic era of decolonization also gave rise to radical movements of many kinds, and there are many other cases, including the 1960s. The neoliberal period since the '80s has been one of regression and marginalization for much of the world's population, but [Karl] Marx's old mole is never far from the surface and appears in unexpected places. The spread of worker-owned enterprises and cooperatives in the US, while not literally anarchist or communist, carries seeds of far-reaching radical transformation, and it is not alone.

Anarchism and communism share close affinities, but have also been mortal enemies since the time of Marx and [Russian anarchist Mikhail] Bakunin. Are their differences purely strategic about the transition from capitalism to socialism or do they also reflect different perspectives about human nature and economic and social relations?

My feeling is that the picture is more nuanced. Thus left anti-Bolshevik Marxism often was quite close to anarcho-syndicalism. Prominent left Marxists, like Karl Korsch, were quite sympathetic to the Spanish anarchist revolution. Daniel Guerin's book Anarchism verges on left Marxism. During his left period in mid-1917, Lenin's writings, notably State and Revolution, had a kind of anarchist tinge. There surely were conflicts over tactics and much more fundamental matters. Engels's critique of anarchism is a famous illustration. Marx had very little to say about post-capitalist society, but the basic thrust of his thinking about long-term goals seems quite compatible with major strains of anarchist thinking and practice.

Certain anarchist traditions, influenced by Bakunin, advocate violence as a means of bringing about social change while others, influenced by [Russian anarchist Peter] Kropotkin, seem to regard violence not only politically ineffective in securing a just social order but morally indefensible. The communist tradition has also been divided over the use of violence even in situations where the conditions seem to have been ripe for revolutions. Can social revolutions take place without violence?

I don't see how there can be a general answer. Struggles to overcome class power and privilege are sure to be resisted, sometimes by force. Perhaps a point will come where violence in defense against forceful efforts to maintain power is warranted. Surely it is a last resort.

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(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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