David Graeber: Bullshit Jobs


Here is a piece by David Graeber from the online Strike magazine, which even elicited a rebuttal from that venerable organ of capitalist propaganda, The Economist. The loss of meaningful, productive work is something that both Paul Goodman and Noam Chomsky have often commented on. I included pieces by Goodman and Chomsky in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas and by Chomsky and Graeber in Volume Three: The New Anarchism (1974-2012).


On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Why did Keynes’ promised utopia – still being eagerly awaited in the ‘60s – never materialize? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

work to live_2

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done – at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does.

I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.


Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: “who are you to say what jobs are really ‘necessary’? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the ‘need’ for that?” (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value.

I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, “taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.” Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralyzing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyze London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorized stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.

David Graeber

Food Service Workers on Strike for a Living Wage

Food Service Workers on Strike for a Living Wage

Noam Chomsky: The Manufacture of Consent (1983)

chomsky interview

In 1982-83, I conducted an interview with Noam Chomsky (by mail! there was no internet back then, or at least one accessible to the general public). It was published in the Open Road news journal, then the highest circulation English language anarchist publication (it’s circulation peaked at around 14,000). The interview reflects many of my own concerns at the time. Chomsky himself was fairly pessimistic back then regarding the human prospect. During the time over which the interview was conducted, the U.S. backed Rios Montt regime in Guatemala was murdering literally tens of thousands of people, largely among the indigenous peasant population. I note that Rios Montt has, just this month, some 30 years later, been convicted in Guatemala of genocide but the conviction has already been overturned. Space limitations prevented me from including excerpts from this interview in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, now available from AK Press.

open roadThe Manufacture of Consent: An Interview With Noam Chomsky

Today you are probably best known as a critic of U.S. foreign policy. What sort of audience are you trying to reach? Are you afraid that you may just be preaching to the converted?

I’m aware of the danger, but don’t feel that it is real. The major groups of “the converted”—that is, the deeply indoctrinated with naive and immutable quasi-religious beliefs—are the mainstream elite intelligentsia. But they are much too well-disciplined to listen to anything I have to say, and they know of it, if at all, only through the fabrications of various party-liners or their own incomprehension of anything that parts from doctrinal purity The reaction among various Marxists sects and the like is similar, and for similar reasons.

The audience I try to reach, and to some limited extent do reach, is a different one: partly, activists of a less doctrinaire sort than the mainstream liberal intelligentsia and sectarian Marxists, partly the kind of general interested audience that one finds everywhere: around universities (primarily students), church groups, and so on.

I’m not trying to convert, but to inform. I don’t want people to believe me, any more than they should believe the party line I’m criticizing—academic authority, the media, the overt state propagandists, or whatever. In talks and in print, I try to stress what I think is true: that with a little willingness to explore and use one’s mind, it is possible to discover a good deal about the social and political world that is generally hidden. I feel that I’ve achieved something if people are encouraged to take up this challenge and learn for themselves.

There are a vast number of people who are uninformed and heavily propagandized, but fundamentally decent. The propaganda that inundates them is effective when unchallenged, but much of it goes only skin deep. If they can be brought to raise questions and apply their decent instincts and basic intelligence, many people quickly escape the confines of the doctrinal system and are willing to do something to help others who are really suffering and oppressed.

This is naturally less true of better-educated and “more sophisticated” (that is, more effectively indoctrinated) groups who are both the agents and often the most deluded victims of the propaganda system.

The New Diplomacy - Just Like the Old One

The New Diplomacy – Just Like the Old One

What position do you think North American anti-authoritarians should take with regard to Third World liberation movements, especially the more authoritarian, Leninist/Maoist type of movement? Do you think our first priority should be to simply oppose U.S. imperialism?

The U.S. has not been elected God, and has no authority to impose its will by violence in the Third World. Apart from the matter of principle, some familiarity with recent history shows clearly enough the effects of its benevolence, in Central America and the Caribbean for many years, in Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. Any honest person will therefore oppose and attempt to block such intervention, exactly as in the case of subversion or aggression by any other power.

This truism aside, our attitude towards Third World “liberation movements” should be to find out and tell the truth about them. Where we can do something to defend people who are oppressed, to alleviate suffering, or to expand the scope of freedom, we should do so, though the best we can do, quite often, is to keep our bloody hands out of their affairs. We should also try to offer constructive assistance to people attempting to overcome centuries of misery and oppression, in part because it is just and right, in part out of a recognition of what the plague of European civilization has created as it spread through the world. Outside intervention regularly tends to enhance the authoritarian and oppressive elements in these movements, and in fact is often designed to achieve this end (Cuba and Nicaragua are two obvious examples).

It is not clear that there exists any way for most of the people of the Third World to overcome the enormous problems they face, which transcend anything in our historical experience. Whatever slight chance there might be for decent prospects are reduced or eliminated by the violence of the great powers, in part motivated by fear that successful development will take place outside of their control, with a “demonstration effect” that will undermine their dominance elsewhere. These are some of the facts of the world that have to be faced. It is easy to preach to the Third World, a little more difficult to offer constructive recommendations.

quiet rumours

Has there been a resurgence of left-wing political activity in the U.S. in the past couple of years?

First, the alleged decline of activism in the 1970s was partly mythical. This was, after all, the period of the rise of the feminist and ecological movements, and much else. In fact, there remained from the 1960s a proliferation of activists groups of many sorts, doing valuable work, generally locally oriented, and many new people joined or began afresh. As the state gradually returned to its natural stance of militancy, subversion and aggression after its partial failures in Vietnam, and as the economic crisis deepened, this activism quickly emerged to public view.

Yet in Radical Priorities, you deny that either feminism or the ecology movement pose a real threat to capitalism—presumably the demands of both movements can be met within the capitalist system. Do you see any revolutionary potential in these movements, or do you think that the working class remains the most likely agent of revolutionary transformation?

The feminist movement, and to some extent the ecology movement, have, I think, had a significant and lasting effect on social thought and practice. But it should be recognized that capitalism can easily accommodate the idea that individuals are interchangeable tools of production and that the environment should be maintained to be exploited by the masters of the economic and political system. A radical and emancipatory movement is not necessarily anti- capitalist. There are many forms of authority and domination apart from those of the capitalist system; correspondingly, there are many forms of “revolutionary transformation.” It doesn’t seem to me a matter of “one or the other,” as your formulation tends to suggest.

Isn’t industrialism itself becoming obsolete?

Industrialism is far from obsolete. The vast majority of the human race has not even entered the industrial era, or has barely entered it, and in the advanced industrial societies the production of useful goods poses real and imminent problems. One major problem of advanced industrial societies—England, and now the U.S.—is that the capacity for useful production is to a certain extent being lost, a fact that has been emphasized for many years by Seymour Melman, among others.

Manufacturing Unemployment

Manufacturing Unemployment

Do you see any prospects for a libertarian social movement emerging in the U.S.?

Quite often, one tends to find libertarian elements in the various activist groups that are continually forming, disappearing, and transmuting into something else. One of the healthy aspects of American society and culture is the relatively low level of deference to privilege and a general skepticism about hierarchy and authority. I emphasize “relatively”; there is a long way to go. The lack of any live socialist tradition or any party structure also serves to make the U.S. different from other capitalist industrial societies in this respect: on the one hand, it leads to a lack of continuity at the intellectual or activist-organizational levels and a generally shifting and evanescent quality to much that happens here; on the other hand, it often leads to openness and innovation, which helps foster libertarian tendencies that often have quite deep roots, I think. I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to where it will lead.

chomsky new mandarins

Many of your political writings are directed toward the “new mandarins,” the intellectual servants of American power and interests. Why do you think it is important to expose the collusion between intellectuals and the state?

It has been recognized for many years that “the manufacture of consent” is a major task in societies where obedience cannot be ensured by violence. Whether they are aware of it or not, a substantial part of the intelligentsia commit themselves to this task. The result is a system of indoctrination that is often remarkable in its effectiveness. The first step in freeing oneself from its grip is to recognize that it exists, to come to understand that the pretended objectivity and neutrality of social and political commentary, or simply news reporting, masks presuppositions and ideological principles that should be challenged, and that often collapse very quickly when exposed.

Until people free themselves from the system of indoctrination, they will continue to support the violence of existing institutions. If they can free themselves, they can often combat it effectively in countries such as ours, where the level of institutionalized violence is relatively low, for the privileged at least. So I think it is important to continually bring out the ongoing collusion, whether it is tacit and subconscious or quite consciously undertaken.

This is unending task, since the major institutions and their servants naturally never cease to construct the perceived world in the form that suits their needs. It is a great mistake to believe that once the lies of the propaganda system have been exposed about, say, the Vietnam war, then it is pointless to take the topic up again. On the contrary, the intelligentsia will maintain their natural commitment to restoring the shattered faith and do so in the course of time, quite effectively if unchallenged.

chomsky statistical error

As a self-described “statistical error,” meaning that people with your sort of political views are generally excluded from prominent positions in the U.S., how do you see yourself as an intellectual teaching at a major American university, in your role as a member of the very intelligentsia you criticize, and in relation to your students?

In fact, I have very little contact with the so-called academic or intellectual community, apart from a few friends and colleagues. With regard to students, the matter is different. They are in a phase of their lives when they are uniquely able to question and explore. They haven’t been completely socialized.

It is, in fact, quite striking to see how differently students and faculty respond to issues involving the university or the larger society. Take just one rather typical example. A few years ago MIT in effect arranged to sell about 1/3 of the nuclear engineering department to the Shah of Iran. When the scandal surfaced, there was much uproar on campus, leading to a student referendum that showed about 80% opposed. There was also a series of well-attended faculty meetings (a rare event), which led to a vote in which about 80% approved.

The faculty are simply the students of a few years ago, but the difference in reaction, on a matter of simple academic freedom apart from the obvious broader implications, reflects the fact that they are now a functional part of the institutional structure of power. It is that step towards acceptance and obedience that it is important to try to prevent. Once it has been taken, the rest is fairly predictable.

1960s Student Movement

1960s Student Movement

So you think a large American university is a suitable place for free education and independent thought?

Insofar as the universities provide the opportunities for free inquiry and expression, it would be crazy not to make use of them, while trying to expand these opportunities. This can be done; it was done quite effectively, in fact, by the student movement of the 1960s, one reason why it was so hated and why it is so maligned by the custodians of history, whose privilege and authority were threatened by the student pressure for free inquiry and who now have to mask their real fears by the pretense that the main thrust of the student movement was totalitarian, Stalinist, opposed to academic freedom, and so on. There is a whole literature of falsification on this topic, which is naturally very highly regarded in intellectual circles.

Anarchists, from Godwin to Goodman, have developed libertarian theories of education very critical of conventional, state-controlled education systems. Do you have any thoughts on this libertarian tradition of educational thought?

I think it often effectively expressed crucially important values. Schools function in many ways as instruments of indoctrination, not only in the content of what is taught, but in the style and manner of teaching and organization, from the earliest years.

Students are rewarded for obedience and passivity—one result is that in the elite institutions students are often pre-selected for these traits and are more effectively indoctrinated than elsewhere.

These are not laws of nature. It is possible in principle for schools to foster the creative impulses that are rather natural from childhood on and to encourage a constant willingness to challenge established doctrine and authority. In fact, this comes close to being true in advanced work in the natural sciences, though very rarely elsewhere. For just this reason, training in the natural sciences might not be a bad way to prepare oneself for a life of serious engagement in social and political issues.

A bit of personal good fortune is that up to high school, I was in such school—one that was Deweyan, not libertarian in our sense, but that did encourage independent thought and self-realization in the best sense. It wasn’t until I entered a city high school, for example, that I discovered, to my surprise, that I was a good student. It was assumed in my earlier school experience that everyone was. Insofar as students were “measured,” it was not against one another but against what they could accomplish.

Such schooling is fundamentally subversive, in the best sense, and therefore rarely undertaken, but it is possible even within the institutional constraints of our societies as they now exist, and the effort to create and expand such possibilities merits much effort and struggle. This is most important within the state educational system, where the overwhelming majority of the population is educated, or mis-educated.

goodman miseducation

You have argued that your linguistic theories have revolutionary implications. Why do you feel that your theoretical work in linguistics is important, and what is the relation between that work, your political views and social liberation in general? In other words, what do innate structures and generative grammar have to do with human emancipation?

A word of caution: I don’t argue that my linguistic theories have revolutionary implications. Rather, that they are merely suggestive as to the form that a libertarian social theory might assume. One shouldn’t claim more than can be shown. Surely one cannot simply deduce social any political consequences from any insights into language. Rather, it is perhaps possible to begin to perceive, if only dimly, how innate structures of mind may lead to an extraordinary richness of understanding, and may underlie and enter human action and thought. On this basis one may hope—it is only a hope—to be able to show, some day, that structures of authority and control limit and distort intrinsic human capacities and needs, and to lay a theoretical basis for a social theory that eventuates in practical ideas as to how to overcome them. But there are huge gaps in any such argument, something I’ve always taken pains to emphasize.

My own hopes and intuitions are that self-fulfilling and creative work is a fundamental human need, and that the pleasures of a challenge met, a work well done, the exercise of skill and craftsmanship, are real and significant, and are an essential part of a full and meaningful life, The same is true of the opportunity to understand and enjoy the achievements of others, which often go beyond what we ourselves can do, and to work constructively in cooperation with others.

chomsky anarchismYou have described yourself as a “derivative fellow traveler” of anarchism and as an “anarchist socialist.” Just how do you see yourself in relation to anarchism as a philosophy, and anarchism as a movement?

What I think is most important about anarchism as a “philosophy” (a term I’m uncomfortable with) is its recognition that there is and will always be a need to discover and overcome structures of hierarchy, authority and domination and constraints on freedom: slavery, wage-slavery, racism, sexism, authoritarian schools, etc., forever. If human society progresses, overcoming some of these forms of oppression, it will uncover others, particularly as we move from confronting animal problems to confronting human problems, in Marx’s phrase.

Anarchism does not legislate ultimate solutions to these problems. I see it as a rather practical “philosophy,” inspired by a vision of the future that is more free and more conducive to a wide range of human needs, many of which are in no position even to identify under the intellectual and material constraints of our present existence.

We will each commit ourselves to the problems we feel most pressing, but should be ready to learn from others about the limitations of our own conceptions and understanding, which will always be substantial. It is only in this sense that anarchism can be a “movement.” It won’t be a party with members and a finished doctrine.

How did you come to embrace such ideas? Is it true you were influenced by the kibbutz movement in Israel when you were young?

Yes, I was influenced by the kibbutz movement, and in fact lived for a while on a kibbutz and almost stayed on. I think there is much of value in the kibbutz experience, but we must also not forget (as I have sometimes tended to do) that the historical particularity of the kibbutz movement in Israel embodies many serious flaws, sometimes crimes. One should also explore other facets of the experience, for example, the kinds of coercion that arise from the need for acceptance in a closely-knit community, not a small topic, I think.

I can’t really say how I came to be influenced by anarchist ideas; I can’t remember a time when I was not so influenced.

The Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity

What, in general, is your opinion of Marx and Marxism?

Marx was a person, not a god. The concept “Marxism” belongs to the history of organized religion, and should not be seriously employed by a free and independent person. Marx was a major intellectual figure and it would be foolish not to learn from him or to value his contributions properly. He was, like anyone, limited in his perceptions and understanding. His personal behavior (not to be confused with his thought) often left much to be desired, to put it mildly. There are also very dangerous and destructive elements in his ideas, some of which underlie the worst elements of Leninist thought and practice.

chomsky libertarian

Best of Social Anarchism

Social Anarchism 2

Just got my copy of The Best of Social Anarchism, a collection of articles and reviews from Social Anarchism, the US published review that has been coming out since 1980. It has some great stuff in it, some of which I had forgotten about, including a critical survey of the so-called “new anarchism” by Brian Morris, not to be confused with Volume Three of my anthology, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, The New Anarchism (1974-2012). The only article in both anthologies is Jeff Ferrell’s “Against the Law: Anarchist Criminology,” so there isn’t much overlap, which is nice. It’s very reasonably priced, and covers a very wide range of topics showing the continuing relevance of anarchism today.


The Best of Social Anarchism also includes my essay on “Chomsky’s Contributions to Anarchism,” which was part of a special issue of Social Anarchism marking the publication of Chomsky on Anarchism, edited by Barry Pateman, a collection of essays by and interviews with Noam Chomsky focusing on anarchist related topics. The introductory note to my piece on Chomsky incorrectly identifies it as the introduction to Chomsky on Anarchism, which was actually written by Barry Pateman. The introductory note also makes my essay on Chomsky sound much more critical than it really is (see for yourself by clicking this link).


I don’t “divorce” Chomsky’s linguistic ideas from any relevance to political ideology but simply quote his own remarks to the effect that his linguistic theories are only “suggestive as to the form that a libertarian social theory might assume.” Some of the political implications of his linguistic theories are drawn out by Chomsky himself in one of the selections I included in Volume Three of the Anarchism anthology, under the title “Human Nature and Human Freedom” (which incidentally is not included in Chomsky on Anarchism). When I suggest that perhaps Chomsky’s most lasting contribution to radical political theory is his analysis and critique of the role of the media and intellectuals in modern society, “manufacturing the consent” of the general population to their own exploitation, I refer to Chomsky’s own acknowledgement that much of this critique originated with the anarchist revolutionary, Michael Bakunin, who warned that rule by intellectuals would constitute “the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant and elitist of all regimes.”

Michael Bakunin

Michael Bakunin

My description of Chomsky as an anarchist “fellow-traveller” is again a quote from Chomsky, not my description. I also give credit to Chomsky for introducing many people, including myself, to anarchist ideas, particularly the constructive achievements of the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. My comment that Chomsky’s contributions to specifically anarchist ideas are modest is consistent with Chomsky’s own self-evaluations, and not an attempt to belittle his role in making anarchist ideas better known to the general public.

Volume 3

Chomsky’s Contributions to Anarchism

In Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included two pieces by Noam Chomsky, “Notes on Anarchism” (1970) and “Intellectuals and the State” (1977). “Notes on Anarchism,” which was used as the introduction to Daniel Guérin’s Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, has also been reprinted in Chomsky on Anarchism, published by AK Press in 2005, together with many other articles by Chomsky on anarchist themes. “Intellectuals and the State” sets forth Chomsky’s critique of the role of intellectuals in helping to “manufacture” the consent of the people to their own subservience and exploitation, building on Bakunin’s critique of intellectuals as a new class and the rise of techno-bureaucracy. Volume Three of Anarchism will include a 1975 selection from Chomsky on “Human Nature and Human Freedom,” in which he relates Bakunin‘s conceptions of human nature and human freedom to Chomsky’s own theories of mind and language. I wrote the following commentary on Chomsky’s contributions to anarchism for a special issue on Chomsky in Social Anarchism, No. 39 (2006).

Robert Graham: Chomsky’s Contributions to Anarchism (2006)

In the interview with Peter Jay included in Chomsky on Anarchism as “The Relevance of Anarcho-Syndicalism,” Noam Chomsky describes himself not as an “anarchist thinker,” but as “a derivative fellow-traveller” (page 135). I think this is a fair assessment. While Chomsky has often expressed his sympathies with socialist currents in anarchist thought, for the most part he has avoided making any direct contributions to anarchist theory. On many occasions he has expressed his doubts that anarchism can or should even be considered a “philosophy,” a term he is uncomfortable with, regarding those anarchist ideas he finds worthwhile simply as common sense (page 181).

On those rare occasions when he has written about the possible connections between his theory of language and human freedom (as in “Language and Freedom,” also included in Chomsky on Anarchism), Chomsky’s statements are very modest, tentative and exploratory. When I interviewed him in the early 1980s for the anarchist newsjournal, Open Road, he cautioned me that he did not argue that his linguistic theories have revolutionary implications; rather his point was that “they are merely suggestive as to the form that a libertarian social theory might assume”(Language and Politics, page 394).

More recently Chomsky has written:

“I feel that far too little is understood to be able to say very much with any confidence. We can try to formulate our long-term visions, our goals, our ideals; and we can (and should) dedicate ourselves to working on issues of human significance. But the gap between the two is often considerable, and I rarely see any way to bridge it except at a very vague and general level” (Tom Lane interview, ZNet, December 23, 1996).

Consistent with his general libertarian approach, when people ask Chomsky that perennial question, “what is to be done,” Chomsky unlike Lenin and scores of others, tells them this is something they must decide for themselves. Many people are disappointed by this kind of response, expecting Chomsky to show some leadership here, but he does offer his own opinions and suggestions on general strategies for social change, including his controversial proposal that anarchists should work to strengthen democratic state power as a way to combat and constrain the private tyranny of capitalism, without losing sight of their long term vision of a free, stateless society (page 193).

When discussing anarchism, Chomsky often refers to Rudolf Rocker’s claim that modern anarchism represents “the confluence of…  two great currents… Socialism and Liberalism,” such that “anarchism may be regarded as the libertarian wing of socialism” (page 123). Chomsky identifies most closely with anarcho-syndicalist currents in anarchist thought, regarding the decentralized, communitarian anarchism of people like Kropotkin as “pre-industrial,” whereas the anarcho-syndicalist approach is seen by him as a “rational mode of organization for a highly advanced industrial society” (page 136). Chomsky is also very sympathetic to left-wing Marxism, such as council communism, which he argues is closely inter-related with anarcho-syndicalism (page 136).

But where Chomsky most directly draws from anarchist ideas is in his criticisms of the role of intellectuals in modern societies. Unlike most academic commentators, Chomsky isn’t afraid to acknowledge Bakunin as one of the first and most perceptive critics of the “new class” of intellectuals who seek to create, in Bakunin’s words, “the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant and elitist of all regimes” (page 151). Chomsky himself has been relentless in exposing the role of intellectuals in seeking to maintain and expand authoritarian and hierarchical modes of social organization, and in “manufacturing” or “engineering” the consent of the populace to existing inequalities of wealth and power, particularly in capitalist democracies, where resort to more overt and repressive forms of social control is more difficult (pages 167-171).

I think Chomsky’s most lasting contribution to radical ideas will likely be this critique of the role of intellectuals and the media in controlling, diverting and suppressing dissent and discontent in ostensibly democratic countries. The “propaganda model” of the media that he developed with Ed Herman, most notably in Manufacturing Consent, is one of his few ideas outside of language theory to have received any appreciable notice in academic circles, buttressed with impressive empirical evidence (I have included Ed Herman’s retrospective article on the propaganda model in Volume Three of the Anarchism anthology).

His contributions to specifically anarchist ideas are much more modest, and by his own admission not particularly original. The conception of anarchism as the confluence of classical liberalism and anti-authoritarian socialism goes back well before Rudolf Rocker to such 19th century writers as Charlotte Wilson, who helped with Kropotkin to found the English anarchist paper, Freedom (see her article, “Anarchism,” reprinted in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE — 1939)).

When put in proper context, his argument that anarchists should help strengthen democratic state power to restrain the worst excesses of capitalism is not as strange as it sounds, or that much different from what other some other anarchists have advocated and practiced, such as the anarchists who fought for the eight hour day.

But when one looks more closely at some of Chomsky’s examples, it is difficult to see how the actions he favours can truly be said to strengthen democratic state power. In one interview, he refers to a lengthy strike that ultimately forced the authorities to begin enforcing their own health and safety laws (ZNet, Tom Lane interview). To me, this is more an example of the working class power of direct action being used to call the state authorities to account, rather than the strengthening of state power. As Rudolf Rocker put it in a passage from Anarcho-Syndicalism that is not quoted by Chomsky in his “Notes on Anarchism,” legal rights “do not originate in parliaments, they are rather, forced upon parliaments from without… The peoples owe all the political rights and privileges which we enjoy today… not to the good will of their governments, but to their own strength.” I don’t think Chomsky would disagree — in fact, he has said much the same thing, for example: “Protection against tyranny comes from struggle, and it doesn’t matter what kind of tyranny it is” (“Creation and Culture,” audiotape, Alternative Radio, Nov. 25 1992).

Chomsky’s most significant contribution to anarchism is that he has been able to communicate anarchist ideas and achievements to a much wider public than probably any other contemporary anarchist writer. His 1969 essay, “On Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship,” also reproduced in Chomsky on Anarchism, was for many of us, including myself, our first introduction to the constructive achievements of the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, something that had been suppressed and distorted by both liberal and Marxist historians.

His “Notes on Anarchism,” which originally appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1970, then as the introduction to Daniel Guérin’s Anarchism, and then reprinted many times thereafter (including in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas), presented an eloquent and persuasive case for the continuing relevance of anarchist ideas, even if he appeared to agree with Guérin that the main purpose for rehabilitating anarchism was to revitalize Marxism (page 128 – I say “appeared to agree” because Chomsky has also said that the “concept ‘Marxism’ belongs to the history of organized religion” — Language and Politics, page 395). It was ironic that George Woodcock, whose earlier book, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Idea and Movements, portrayed anarchism as one of history’s great lost causes, should then criticize Chomsky for his narrow neo-Marxist conception of anarchism, when it was Chomsky and Guérin who were portraying anarchism as part of a living tradition of liberatory theory and practice rather than as an historical relic.

Chomsky’s more recent works do not contain as many references to anarchists and anarchist ideas, perhaps because, as he put it, “virtually no one shared my interest in anarchism (and Spanish anarchism)…  and the deepening of my own understanding of the (left) libertarian tradition back to the Enlightenment and before was completely isolated from anyone I knew or know of’ (quoted in Robert F. Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent).

Perhaps Chomsky on Anarchism will help introduce anarchist ideas to another generation. On the other hand, if Chomsky’s current audience is not much interested in anarchist ideas, then they aren’t likely to read this book. It maybe that Chomsky has too successfully compartmentalized his “anarchism” from his activism. Let’s hope not.

Noam Chomsky: 9-11: Was There an Alternative?

Looking Back on 9/11 a Decade Later
Noam Chomsky
(adapted from 9-11: Was There an Alternative?, Seven Stories Press, September 2011)

We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the horrendous atrocities of September 11, 2001, which, it is commonly held, changed the world. On May 1st, the presumed mastermind of the crime, Osama bin Laden, was assassinated in Pakistan by a team of elite US commandos, Navy SEALs, after he was captured, unarmed and undefended, in Operation Geronimo.

A number of analysts have observed that although bin Laden was finally killed, he won some major successes in his war against the U.S. “He repeatedly asserted that the only way to drive the U.S. from the Muslim world and defeat its satraps was by drawing Americans into a series of small but expensive wars that would ultimately bankrupt them,” Eric Margolis writes. “‘Bleeding the U.S.,’ in his words.” The United States, first under George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, rushed right into bin Laden’s trap… Grotesquely overblown military outlays and debt addiction… may be the most pernicious legacy of the man who thought he could defeat the United States” — particularly when the debt is being cynically exploited by the far right, with the collusion of the Democrat establishment, to undermine what remains of social programs, public education, unions, and, in general, remaining barriers to corporate tyranny.

That Washington was bent on fulfilling bin Laden’s fervent wishes was evident at once. As discussed in my book 9-11, written shortly after those attacks occurred, anyone with knowledge of the region could recognize “that a massive assault on a Muslim population would be the answer to the prayers of bin Laden and his associates, and would lead the U.S. and its allies into a ‘diabolical trap,’ as the French foreign minister put it.”

The senior CIA analyst responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden from 1996, Michael Scheuer, wrote shortly after that “bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. [He] is out to drastically alter U.S. and Western policies toward the Islamic world,” and largely succeeded: “U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it is fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.” And arguably remains so, even after his death.

The First 9/11

Was there an alternative? There is every likelihood that the Jihadi movement, much of it highly critical of bin Laden, could have been split and undermined after 9/11. The “crime against humanity,” as it was rightly called, could have been approached as a crime, with an international operation to apprehend the likely suspects. That was recognized at the time, but no such idea was even considered.

In 9-11, I quoted Robert Fisk’s conclusion that the “horrendous crime” of 9/11 was committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty,” an accurate judgment. It is useful to bear in mind that the crimes could have been even worse. Suppose, for example, that the attack had gone as far as bombing the White House, killing the president, imposing a brutal military dictatorship that killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands while establishing an international terror center that helped impose similar torture-and-terror states elsewhere and carried out an international assassination campaign; and as an extra fillip, brought in a team of economists — call them “the Kandahar boys” — who quickly drove the economy into one of the worst depressions in its history. That, plainly, would have been a lot worse than 9/11.

Unfortunately, it is not a thought experiment. It happened. The only inaccuracy in this brief account is that the numbers should be multiplied by 25 to yield per capita equivalents, the appropriate measure. I am, of course, referring to what in Latin America is often called “the first 9/11″: September 11, 1973, when the U.S. succeeded in its intensive efforts to overthrow the democratic government of Salvador Allende in Chile with a military coup that placed General Pinochet’s brutal regime in office. The goal, in the words of the Nixon administration, was to kill the “virus” that might encourage all those “foreigners [who] are out to screw us” to take over their own resources and in other ways to pursue an intolerable policy of independent development. In the background was the conclusion of the National Security Council that, if the US could not control Latin America, it could not expect “to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world.”

The first 9/11, unlike the second, did not change the world. It was “nothing of very great consequence,” as Henry Kissinger assured his boss a few days later.

These events of little consequence were not limited to the military coup that destroyed Chilean democracy and set in motion the horror story that followed. The first 9/11 was just one act in a drama which began in 1962, when John F. Kennedy shifted the mission of the Latin American military from “hemispheric defense” — an anachronistic holdover from World War II — to “internal security,” a concept with a chilling interpretation in U.S.-dominated Latin American circles.

In the recently published Cambridge University History of the Cold War, Latin American scholar John Coatsworth writes that from that time to “the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of non-violent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites,” including many religious martyrs and mass slaughter as well, always supported or initiated in Washington. The last major violent act was the brutal murder of six leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, a few days after the Berlin Wall fell. The perpetrators were an elite Salvadorean battalion, which had already left a shocking trail of blood, fresh from renewed training at the JFK School of Special Warfare, acting on direct orders of the high command of the U.S. client state.

The consequences of this hemispheric plague still, of course, reverberate…

For the rest of this article, click here.

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Kan San: The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

Although anarchism as a significant movement virtually disappeared from China by the 1930s, anarchist ideas and anti-authoritarian movements have continued to manifest themselves in China during various social upheavals. During the so-called “Cultural Revolution” in the 1960s, some Red Guards took Mao Zedong’s revolutionary pronouncements to heart, advocating the transformation of China into a “People’s Commune” based on the revolutionary models of the 1871 Paris Commune and the 1917 Petrograd Soviets (see the “Whither China” manifesto of the Sheng-Wu-Lien group, reprinted in China: The Revolution is Dead—Long Live the Revolution (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1977)). After the Communist authorities, with Mao’s approval, suppressed these “ultra-leftist” deviations, some former Red Guards became interested in anarchist ideas. In 1976, the Hong Kong based libertarian communist group, the ‘70s, published their collection of ultra-left writings, China: The Revolution is Dead—Long Live the Revolution. Space considerations prevented me from including material from this anthology in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977).

Lee Yu See and Wu Che, in the Appendix to China: The Revolution is Dead—Long Live the Revolution, set forth the following analysis of the Chinese Communist Party and its counter-revolutionary role, drawing on theories of the “new class,” the relationship of intellectuals to the state and the rise of techno-bureaucracy that originated with Bakunin (Volume One, Selections 22, 24, 25 & 64) and were further developed by later anarchists, such as Geoffrey Ostergaard (Volume Two, Selection 27), Nico Berti (Volume Two, Selection 67) and Noam Chomsky (Volume Two, Selection 68).

1. From the beginning, the Chinese Communist Party was a bourgeois organism. The party was structured along hierarchical lines. It was a miniature state. It assimilated all the forms, techniques and mentality of bureaucracy. Its membership was schooled in obedience and was taught to revere the leadership. The party’s leadership, in turn, was schooled in habits born of command, authority, manipulation and egomania. At the same time, the party was the spineless follower of the Comintern directed by Moscow.

2. The rigid dogma adopted by the Chinese Communist Party was that of Leninism-Stalinism, an ideology which had led to the consolidation of a system of state capitalism in Russia. Not by deviating from but by following Lenin’s ideas, a new dominating and exploiting class came into power over the working masses.

3. China was an economically backward country in which the old ruling classes were incapable of carrying out industrialization. The young native bourgeoisie had neither the strength nor the courage to revolutionize the old social structure in the way that a genuine modernization would require. The “bourgeois tasks” were to be solved by a bureaucracy

4. In pursuing the strategy of encircling the cities from the countryside in its attempt to seize state power, the Chinese Communist Party built up a peasant army. But such an army, organized by a bourgeois party, became a tool of the party and therefore a capitalist machine.

5. The so-called 1949 revolution [had] nothing in common with a genuine socialist revolution. It was simply a violent take over of the state by a bureaucracy better placed to manage the national capital than the old ruling clique.

6. Having won control of the state machine, the only way to move forward for the Maoist bureaucracy was to impose a regime of ruthless exploitation and austerity on the working masses.

The bureaucracy began to carry out the task of primitive accumulation. Because of the lack of capital-intensive industry, economic development depended on the most primitive methods of extraction of surplus value: in the countryside, mobilizing millions of peasants and semi-proletarians around the construction of public works and irrigation projects, built almost bare-handed by the rural masses; in the cities, forcing the workers to work long hours for extremely low wages, banning strikes, putting restrictions on the choice of employment and so on.

7. The new bureaucratic capitalist class in China did not emerge because of the development of new modes of production. It was on the contrary, the bureaucracy which brought the new mode of production into existence. The Chinese bureaucracy did not originate from the industrialization of the country. Industrialization was the result of the bureaucracy’s accession to power.

8. Soon after the accession to power of the Maoist bureaucracy, intra-party feuds occurred. Such feuds originated out of two different conceptions of how China was to modernize in agriculture, industry, science and technology.

9. The Maoist-radical faction (led… by Jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan [the so-called “Gang of Four”]) advocated self-reliance, the active mobilization of the “popular masses” behind the state and the economy to promote production by ideological rather than material incentives, “redness” over “expertness”, the “infallibility” of the thoughts of Mao Zedong, hostility towards the Soviet Union, “revolutionizing” arts and literature to serve the single purpose of propagating the official ideology, the need for endless mass movements and struggle because “in the long historical period of socialism, the principal internal contradiction is the contradiction between the working class and the bourgeoisie.”

The so-called capitalist roaders (Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, et al) favoured the retention of wage differentials and the extension of material incentives for increased productivity. They also stood for a more efficient technological apparatus, rapprochement with the Soviet “revisionists”, liberalization of policies in relation to the arts, rejection of the personal cult of Mao, the priority of national Construction over endless “class struggles”.

Both lines represented different strategies designed by the different factions of the bureaucratic capitalist class for attacking the working masses, for intensifying their exploitation.

The Maoist-radical road was leading to a “feudalistic social-fascist dictatorship”. The road of the “capitalist roaders” would bring a “destalinized Russian type of society” like today’s Russia.

Lee Yu See and Wu Che also provide greater details regarding the so-called Tiananmen Incident in April 1976, when some 100,000 people gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest against the Communist government. Cars were overturned and burned, the barracks of the People’s Liberation Army were sacked and occupied and some protesters battled with the police and worker-militiamen. Similar demonstrations took place in Chengchow and Kunming. In an earlier essay, “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Kan San provides further details regarding the “ultra-left deviationists;” his views regarding Mao’s role are rather naive and at odds with the more critical analysis of Lee Yu See and Wu Che.

Ba Jin (1904-2005)

The awful absurdities and excesses of the Cultural Revolution are discussed from a personal perspective by the Chinese novelist and anarchist, Ba Jin, in “Against the Powers that Be,” an essay that will be included in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas that he wrote in 1984 during a brief period of liberalization (which ended with the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989) . I included several selections by Ba Jin, written in the 1920s, in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939).


Kan San: The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution


1. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution—Why is it called “cultural”?

Superficial observations only revealed brutal struggles, large scale rebellion, or a limited civil war in various places. Under the directive of Mao Zedong, [future Gang of Four member] Yao Wenyuan published the essay “Criticizing the New Historical Play: The Dismissal of Hai Jui from Office” and this raised the curtain of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Yet the revolution should not be called “cultural”. After the October Revolution the Soviet Union had not travelled on the road to socialism and had become an imperialistic power, Mao Zedong had to seek an explanation for this. Of course we ourselves would not think that the foundation for the realization of socialism had been laid if the means of production were nationalized under the leadership of a vanguard party. However, to a stern believer of Bolshevism like Mao Zedong, the revisionism of the Soviet Union was puzzling. Subsequently he came to the conclusion that the superstructure had brought about counter-effects to the economic base. Mao said, “We recognize that in the long course of historical development, the material determines the spiritual; social existence determines social consciousness; but we also recognize in turn the counter-effects of the spiritual on the material, social consciousness on social existence, and the superstructure on the economic base”. This is to say Mao Zedong felt that although the capitalist class had been overthrown, their ideas and ideology were still greatly influencing the superstructure in the arena of theoretical formulation, academic research and artistic creation… Such propagation of anti-socialist ideas was making preparations for capitalism to be restored…

Mao Zedong ignited the Cultural Revolution because he wanted to resolve the problem of the residual capitalist ideas and consciousness having a counter-revolutionary effect on the economic base. He wanted to carry out a revolution which would deeply affect the inner soul of mankind, and revolutionize the thoughts of the people so that China would steer clear from the path travelled by the Soviet Union…

It is my belief that unless we understand the aim of Mao Zedong in initiating the Cultural Revolution to be more than the resolution of his disputes with the Liu Shaoqi faction, unless we are aware that Mao Zedong was seeking to revolutionize the thoughts of the people, we would not be able to explain many of the seemingly incomprehensible occurrences in the Cultural Revolution.

2. A Real Revolution developed from a Sponsored Revolution

Before the Cultural Revolution, the power and influence of the Liu Shaoqi faction had been deeply entrenched… Mao, in addition to his control of the army through Lin Biao, commanded respect through his own authority but he possessed nothing else. Moreover, Mao ignited the revolution not purely for the sake of a power struggle. The move in fact embraced a highly idealistic overtone, and this explained why Mao had the courage to mobilize the masses to attack the bureaucrats of the Liu Shaoqi faction by means of “big Link-Up”, big character posters and the slogan “attack with pens and defend with arms.” At that time, although the people found their material well being slightly better under communist rule as compared to the days of Chiang Kai-shek, they nonetheless felt suppressed in many respects. The youth, in particular, were torn between the education of orthodox Marxism which conferred upon them high ideals on the one hand, and their experience in reality which differed greatly from socialism which the Chinese Communists preached to be in existence. But they could not see where the problem really lay. The bureaucrats enjoyed special privileges and received special attention. What the bureaucrats advocated was to join the party and become an official. What was prevailing was elitism. The principle of “from the top to the bottom” ruled and the masses were reduced to small pawns on a chess board and screws in a megamachine, completely obedient to the top leadership. Hence when Mao Zedong mobilized the masses to struggle against the Liu Shaoqi faction, they responded most enthusiastically. [That] is because the masses, tired of bureaucratic rule, naively believed that it was the Liu faction to whom all problems could be traced. They became a formidable force and the Liu faction was completely toppled.

During the course of struggle against the Liu Shaoqi faction, the masses realized their own strength. The bureaucrats, once posited high above, revealed their impotence and cowardice in front of the people. When the masses smashed the governmental machine, they discovered that each individual had a secret file in which a comment made by the bureaucrats would predetermine that individual’s whole life. For the sake of the struggle against the Liu faction bureaucrats, the Red Guards went everywhere to link up with one another and organized themselves. Their power of analysis was greatly improved as a result. After the Liu Shaoqi faction had been crushed, Mao felt that the major problem had been solved, the only remaining one being the reconstruction of peace and order. But most of the masses felt that even though the Liu Shaoqui faction was overthrown, the problem had not been solved. Some who were thoughtful and sensitive, having acquired a better understanding of the bureaucratic system from their struggle against the bureaucrats, persisted to the end. Some were also beginning to cast away the control exerted by Mao Zedong’s thought, and did what they thought ought to be done. The Shanghai Radio Station broadcast the warning that the rebels must not seize power from the Party, saying: “Some thought-confusing members of our group said, ‘Without the Party’s leadership, we still managed to achieve for ourselves victory in the January Revolutionary struggle for power. Seize power again in the same way and use it well.’”

Mao Zedong, seeing that the masses were gradually going out of his control, panicked. The more thoughtful Red Guards in particular, by means of link-ups exchanged revolutionary experiences with their counterparts in other provinces and gradually formulated their own framework of analysis, most notably in the [1968] article “Whither China?” by [the] Sheng Wu-lien [group]. They pointed out that the only prospect for the Chinese Revolution was forming the Chinese People’s Commune to be modeled after the 1871 Paris Commune. For this goal to be achieved, they thought that the precondition was to smash the entire state machinery and the entire bureaucratic system. Ultra-left ideas thus germinated and flourished and groups like the Northern Star Study Society and Kung Shan Tung were established, causing Mao to feel all the more uneasy. Furthermore, the outbreak of the Wuhan Mutiny by the military to oppose the masses’ seizure of their power further compelled Mao Zedong to decide on the suppression of the Red Guards. Through the military, Mao forced the masses to surrender their weapons to join the Revolutionary Committee of the Old, Middle-aged, and the Young, with the Army, Cadres and the Masses, so as to restore bureaucratic rule and to force the masses to surrender their arms seized from the military. He further launched the “Up the Mountain and Down the countryside” campaign, driving the youths up the mountain and down the countryside, preventing the Red Guards from getting together to discuss and learn how to rebel and how to attain genuine socialism. The masses’ consciousness and ideas had not yet developed to maturity and they had not been aware of Mao’s trickery. This real revolution, developed from the sponsored one, was crushed before it could make great strides. The revolution is dead; long live the revolution! The failure was to pave the way for the new total revolt.

3. The Development of Ultra-left Ideas

…Although the tumultuous mass movement was suppressed, the Cultural Revolution had not yet ended. On the one hand, the Cultural Revolution had had an important effect on the superstructure, including literature, education, scientific research, political organization, and had negated a great part of the establishment—but all these had yet to be reconstructed. Controversies over questions such as the method of production, enterprise management, etc. had also not been solved. On the other hand, the conservative faction of the bureaucrats had reorganized their strength and demanded a restoration of the old order of the days before the Cultural Revolution. They thus tried to seize power from the newly instated bureaucrats, causing the contradiction to be deepened and become evident. The disclosure of the Lin Biao affair [who died fleeing China following an alleged attempt to seize power], the anti-Lin [Biao], anti-Confucius campaign, the criticize [the 14th century literary classic] Water Margin Movement, and the reemergence of certain of the disgraced bureaucrats rendered the vision of the masses clear, enabling them to understand that the Cultural Revolution was yet another trick played by Mao to fool the people. The masses began consciously to boycott the instructions imposed by the bureaucrats. For example, in the field of production, their lack of enthusiasm for work lowered production greatly, and their sabotage further prevented the production target from being reached, tightening the supply of commodities. In the fields of arts and literature, education and scientific research, because of the boycott by the masses, non-cooperation of the old bureaucrats, and the incompetence of the Gang of Four and their followers, Mao’s already ridiculously inappropriate policies were to become even more farcical. In the field of arts and literature, only some ten scripts of model operas were accomplished, and all literary works were repeating the same theme and their characterizations were very much the same. The standard of education declined rapidly: those who accused the teachers were hailed as the model of the people, and those who submitted blank answer sheets in examination, heroes. The intensification of all these contradictions made the pursuit of the answer to “Whither China?” all the more urgent.

The article “Whither China?” by [the] Sheng Wu-lien [group] firstly pointed out that China should head towards the goal of the Chinese Peoples’ Commune. The way to attain the goal was by means of overthrowing the rule of the new bureaucratic capitalist class through violence to solve the question of political power. It is indeed utopian to neither talk about the seizure of power nor to entirely smash the old state machine, but to just cry the empty slogan of realizing the May 5th directive. The red capitalist class had become a corrupt class hindering the progress of history; their relationship with the masses had changed from that of the leader and the led to the ruler and the ruled, and the exploiter and the exploited, from a relationship based on equality in the course of revolution to that of the oppressor and the oppressed. This class must be overthrown if the Chinese Peoples’ Commune was to be realized. The article provoked tremendous response and sparked off further analysis of the essence of the rule of the Chinese communists.

The [1974] Li I-che poster [“Concerning Socialist Democracy and the Legal System,” also reprinted in China: The Revolution is Dead—Long Live the Revolution] once again proved with examples the emergence of the new class in China. The essence of the new bourgeois mode of production is “changing the public into private”. When the leader of the state or an enterprise redistributes the properties and power of the proletariat in a bourgeois manner, he is in fact practicing the new bourgeois private possession of these properties and powers. What has been commonly observed is that some leaders have allowed themselves, their families, kinfolk and friends special political and economic privileges, even going so far as to swap among themselves and push their children into political and economic positions through back door channels. Once the Li I-che poster was pasted up, the people of Canton enthusiastically copied the whole text, and its influence extended more and more. When the Tiananmen Incident erupted [in April 1976], the Chinese Peoples’ understanding of the bureaucrats was pushed to the peak, well demonstrated by their words: “China is no longer the China of yore, and the people arc no longer wrapped in sheer ignorance. Gone for good is [Chin] Shih Huang-ti’s feudal society!” The Chinese Communists mobilized the militiamen to execute the bloody suppression of the masses. After the Tiananmen Incident, the era of Mao Zedong finally retreated from the stage of history. The intense infuriation of the masses indirectly led to the rapid downfall of the Gang of Four and finally managed to force the bureaucrats to stop labelling the Tiananmen Incident as counter-revolutionary. The masses once again became the major determinant of China’s politics.

4. The Lessons of the Cultural Revolution

The richest heritage of the Cultural Revolution was the realization by the masses of the greatness of their own strength. The head of the State who had been regarded as immaculate as well as many of the leading cadres had fallen within a very short time. The idea that leaders were indispensable was negated. In the past everything had been done as instructed by the leaders as if the absence of leaders would lead to the collapse of the sky. The experience of the Cultural Revolution however convinced the masses that without the directions from above and with the masses themselves managing, planning and executing all administration, steel continued to be produced and the trains were punctual in arrival and departure. Production improved both qualitatively and quantitatively. When the workers controlled and managed production on their own, their commitment to work increased for they not only knew how to produce, but also comprehended what it was they were working for. Work ceased to be alienating and the working morale rose tremendously. The dullness of the past had given way to a situation swelling with life and burning with warmth. The people seemed to have realized in this very moment the meaning of life, the truth of revolution, the prospect of China and the future of mankind.

There were, admittedly, a few who had felt uneasy in the face of such great freedom. But they too looked back to those days of freedom with nostalgia and felt infuriated and disgusted with the existing political conditions. They witnessed the process through which the State Chairman Liu Shaoqi became “a traitor and a spy”; the constitutional successor to the Party and the State, Lin Biao, became a “traitor, a man with ambition and a conspirator” who died without a grave; an unknown young man became the vice-chairman of the Party and was then denounced as “a new born capitalist”; Mao’s wife, “student and comrade”, Jiang Qing, was condemned as a monster and likened to Wu Ji-tien. The struggle among the bureaucrats disclosed their corruptibility and rendered the People’s vision clear, making them realize that “there had never been any saviour, god or emperors to give them happiness and that the happiness of mankind had to be created by man himself.” To avoid being fooled again by the bureaucrats, to be freed from the bureaucrats and from the need of morning prayers, evening penitences, the loyalty dance, and the constant threat of struggles and criticisms, the people have to rely on their own strength all the more for the smashing up of the entire bureaucratic system.

The shift of Mao’s attitude from making beautiful promises to mobilize the masses in the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, to suddenly proclaiming “Revolutionary committees are fine!” to deceive the masses into discarding the demand for the establishment of the Chinese Peoples’ Commune, and then finally utilizing the army to execute the brutal suppression of the masses… taught the People an old yet still new lesson: the ruling class would never retreat from the stage of history voluntarily. Without force and violence, they would never be overthrown. To be kind hearted and lenient towards the bureaucrats would only result in being slaughtered by them in the end, and to compromise with the bureaucrats was analogous to offering the bandits weapons. The generation baptized by the Cultural Revolution will be the initiator and backbone of the forthcoming socialist revolution in China.

5. Conclusion

The Chinese communists recently announced that “the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution has been concluded by the victorious crushing of the Gang of Four”. The real meaning of this is—Mao Zedong is dead; the Gang of Four are arrested, and the Chinese bureaucrats no longer have conflicting opinions on the restoration of the old order of society before the Cultural Revolution. All bureaucrats who have lost their positions during the Cultural Revolution have been restored to positions of power, and are ready to avenge the activists of the Cultural Revolution. Does this mean anything but that the Cultural Revolution marked for its anti-bureaucratic overtone has ended? For the rebels of the Cultural Revolution, the Cultural Revolution had failed long ago. Now, it only means that they can no longer make use of the contradictions among the bureaucrats as they have done in the past few years.

On the face of it thus Mao’s attempt to initiate the Cultural Revolution in order that China will not become like the Soviet Union has failed, for the Hua-Teng policies now implemented have totally negated this attempt of Mao. Mao’s failure however was to be expected and unavoidable. Although Mao Zedong was capable of grasping the idea that the superstructure would and could have significant influences on the economic base, influences, which if not seriously attended to, would ultimately lead to revisionism, nevertheless as head of the bureaucrats, and deeply imbued with bureaucratic ideas, Mao could not understand that the maintenance of the bureaucratic system itself was the prime factor contributing to revisionism and imperialism. During the course of the Cultural Revolution, Mao had tried hard to maintain the bureaucratic system, as demonstrated by his saying that “Revolutionary committees are fine” and by his insistence on the practice of giving orders to be followed—even to the extent that “those understood by the people must be executed and those not understood must also be executed.” How then could the revolution he sought develop from the inner soul of the people? How then could China be saved from travelling the tragic road of the Soviet Union? The failure of the Cultural Revolution is no accident.

But Mao Zedong had nonetheless unexpectedly educated the generation of the Cultural Revolution. His repeatedly reactionary measures helped to generate the awareness of the people and they now have found the way for the Chinese revolution. Mao’s own practice in the Cultural Revolution destroyed his faked revolutionary image and finally led to his fading out from the stage of history. From now on, no bureaucrat will be able to bring forth theories like the “thoughts of Mao Zedong” to fool the masses. The Chinese People have got rid of the chains previously restricting their thoughts and the ideas of the “Ultra-left” can develop in the absence of mystifying fog. The bureaucrats have lost their weapon of ideological control on the Peoples’ consciousness.

What the Hua-Teng bureaucrats have proposed are merely the policies and practices rejected by the people during the Cultural Revolution. How then could they get accepted by and satisfy the people aspiring to genuine socialism? It is not a simple process for people who are aware to turn to action. But how long will it take for this process to be accomplished? This can come about only when the “Ultra-left” thoughts and ideas become more widespread and when there are other changes in the political situation in China… the Chinese Revolution is an integral part of the world revolution, and if there is a genuine socialist revolutionary upsurge in any part of the world, it will inevitably affect China in a substantial way. For this reason, I have come to exchange ideas and experiences with you and hopefully this will contribute to the development of the world revolution in a small way, which will then act as a catalyst to the socialist revolution in China. Then will be the day when the aim of “liberation of myself through the liberation of mankind” is attained.

Daniel Guérin: Three Problems of the Revolution (1958)

Daniel Guérin (1904-1988) was a French libertarian communist who helped spark renewed interest in anarchism in the 1960s, first through his book, Anarchism: From Theory to Practice (1965), and then through his anthology of anarchist writings, Neither God Nor Master (1969; English translation published in 1998 by AK Press under the title, No Gods No Masters). I included excerpts from his 1965 essay, “Twin Brothers, Enemy Brothers,” in which Guérin discusses the continuing relevance of anarchism, in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, together with a selection of his writings on homosexuality and social revolution (Selections 49 & 76), and Noam Chomsky‘s Introduction to the 1970 English edition of Anarchism: From Theory to Practice. The following excerpts, translated by Paul Sharkey, are from Guérin’s 1958 essay, “Three Problems of the Revolution,” reprinted in his collection of essays, In Search of a Libertarian Communism (Paris: Cahiers Mensuels Spartacus, 1984).

Three Problems of the Revolution

Voline, libertarian chronicler of the Russian revolution, after having been an actor in and an eye-witness to it, writes:

“We have been bequeathed a fundamental problem by preceding revolutions: I am thinking of the one in 1789 and the one in 1917 especially: largely mounted against oppression, animated by a mighty breath of freedom and proclaiming freedom as their essential objective, how come these revolutions slid into a new dictatorship wielded by other ruling, privileged strata, into fresh slavery for the popular masses? What might the conditions be that would enable a revolution to avoid that dismal fate? Might that fate be due to ephemeral factors and even quite simply to mistakes and shortcomings which might from now on be averted? And in the latter case, what might the means be of eradicating the danger threatening revolutions yet to come?”

Voline (1882-1945)

Like Voline, I think that the two great historical experiences of the French revolution and the Russian revolution are indissolubly linked. Despite the time differences, the differences in their contexts, and their differing “class content”, the issues they raise and the pitfalls they encountered are essentially the same. At best the first revolution displays them in a more embryonic state than the second. Also, men today cannot hope to discover the path leading to their definitive emancipation unless they can distinguish in these two experiences what was progress and what was backsliding, so that they can draw lessons for the future.

The essential cause of the relative failure of history’s two greatest revolutions does not reside, as I see it, to borrow Voline’s words, either in “historical inevitability” nor in mere subjective “errors” by the revolutionary protagonists. The Revolution carries within itself a grave contradiction (a contradiction which, happily, let it be said again, is not beyond remedy and lessens with the passage of time): it can only arise and it can only win if it springs from the depths of the popular masses and their irresistible spontaneous uprising.

But, though class instinct impels them to break their chains, the masses of the people lack education and consciousness.  And as they surge with redoubtable energy, but clumsily and blindly, towards freedom, bumping into privileged, astute, expert, organized and experienced social classes, they can only triumph over the resistance they encounter if they successfully acquire, in the heat of battle, the consciousness, expertise, organization and experience in which they are deficient. But the very act of forging the weapons just listed, which are the only ones that can ensure that they get the better of their adversary, carries with it an enormous danger: that it might kill the spontaneity which is the heart of the revolution, that it might compromise freedom inside the organization, or allow the movement to be taken over by a minority elite of more expert, more aware, more experienced militants who, to start with put themselves forward as guides, only to end up imposing themselves as leaders and subjecting the masses to some new form of man’s exploitation of his fellow men.

Ever since socialism ever considered this problem and ever since it clearly perceived this contradiction, which is to say, since, roughly, the mid-19th century, it has not ceased weighing up the odds and hovering between the two extreme poles of freedom and order. Every one of its thinkers and actors has striven labouriously and tentatively, amid all sorts of hesitation and contradictions, to resolve this fundamental dilemma of the Revolution.

Proudhon (1809-1865)

In his celebrated Memoir on Property (1840), Proudhon figured that he had worked out a synthesis when he optimistically wrote: “The highest perfection of society lies in the union of order with anarchy”. But a quarter of a century later, he noted glumly: “These two ideas, freedom… and order, are back to back… They cannot be separated, nor can the one absorb the other: we must resign ourselves to living with them both and striking a balance between them… No political force has yet come up with a true solution in the reconciling of freedom and order.”

Today a vast empire built under the aegis of “socialism” is seeking tiresomely and empirically and sometimes convulsively to escape from the iron yoke of an “order” founded upon constraint and rediscover the road to the freedom to which its millions of subjects, growing coarser and more alive to the fact, aspire.

The problem thus remains posed acutely, and we have not yet heard the last of it.

If we examine it more closely, this problem boasts three relatively distinct but closely connected facets:

1. In the period of revolutionary struggle, what should the proper ratio be between spontaneity and consciousness, between the masses and the leadership?

2. Once the old oppressive regime has been overthrown, what form of political or administrative organization should replace the one overthrown?

3. Finally, by whom and how should the economy be administered following the abolition of private property (a problem posed in full measure as far as the proletarian organization is concerned but which the French revolution faced only in embryonic form)?

On each of these counts, the 19th century socialists hesitated and dithered, contradicted one another and clashed with one another. What socialists?

Broadly, we can identify three main currents among them:

a. the ones whom I would term the authoritarians, the statists, the centralists, the heirs — some of them to the Jacobin and Blanquist tradition of the French revolution — and others to the German (or, to be more precise, Prussian) tradition of military discipline and the State with a capital ‘S’.

b. the ones I would term the anti-authoritarians, the libertarians, heirs, on the one hand, to the direct democracy of 1793 and the communalist, federalist idea: and, on the other, to Saint-Simonian apoliticalism aiming to replace political governance with the “administration of things”.

c. finally, the so-called scientific socialists (Marx and Engels), striving labouriously and not always successfully or in a coherent way, and often for merely tactical reasons (for they had to make concessions to the authoritarian and libertarian wings of the workers movement alike), to reconcile the two afore-mentioned currents and come up with some compromise between the authoritarian idea and the libertarian one.

Let us attempt to summarize briefly the attempts made by these three currents of socialist thinking to resolve the three fundamental problems of the Revolution.

1. Spontaneity and consciousness

Authoritarians have no confidence in the masses’ ability to attain consciousness unaided, and, even when they claim otherwise, they have a panic-stricken terror of the masses. If they are to be credited, the masses are still brutalized by centuries of oppression. They are in need of guidance and direction. A tiny elite of leaders has to stand in for them, teach them a revolutionary strategy and lead them to victory. Libertarians, on the other hand, contend that the Revolution has to be the doing of the masses themselves, of their spontaneity and free initiative, their creative potential, as unsuspected as it is formidable. They caution against leaders who, in the name of higher consciousness, seek to overrule the masses so as to deny them the fruits of their victory later on.

As for Marx and Engels, sometimes they place the accent on spontaneity and sometimes on consciousness. But their synthesis remains lame, unsure, contradictory. Moreover it ought to be pointed out that the libertarians too were not always free of the same afflictions. In Proudhon, alongside an optimistic paean to the “political capacity of the working classes”, one can find pessimistic strains casting doubt upon that capacity and lining up with the authoritarians in their suggestion that the masses ought to be directed from above. Likewise, Bakunin never quite managed to shake off the “48′er” conspiratorialism of his younger days and, right after he has honed in on the masses’ irresistible primal instinct, we find him advocating covert “penetration” of the latter by conscious leaders organized in secret societies. Hence this queer criss-crossing: the people whom he berated, not without good grounds perhaps, for their authoritarianism catch him red-handed in an act of authoritarian Macchiavellianism.

The two competing tendencies within the First International took each other to task, each with good reason, for subterranean manoeuvres designed to capture control of the movement. As we shall see, we would have to wait for Rosa Luxemburg before a fairly viable modus vivendi between spontaneity and consciousness would be advanced. But Trotsky compromised this painstakingly struck equilibrium in order to take the contradiction to its extreme: in some respects he was “Luxemburgist”: as his 1905 and History of the Russian Revolution particularly testify, he had a feel and an instinct for revolution from below: he placed the accent upon the autonomous action of the masses; but he comes around in the end — after having argued brilliantly against them — to Lenin’s Blanquist notions of organization and, once in power, he came to behave in a manner even more authoritarian than his party leader. Finally, in the tough struggle from exile, he was to shelter behind a Lenin who had become unassailable in order to bring his indictment against Stalin: and this identification with Lenin was to deny him, until his dying day, the opportunity to give free rein to the Luxemburgist element within him.

2. The Problem of Power

Authoritarians maintain that the popular masses, under the direction of their leaders, must replace the bourgeois State with their own State decked out with the description “proletarian” and that in order to ensure the survival of the latter, they must take the coercive methods employed by the former (centralization, discipline, hierarchy, police) to their extremes. This prospect drew cries of fear and horror from libertarians — a century and more ago. What, they asked, was the use of a Revolution that would make do with replacing one apparatus of oppression with another? Implacable foes of the State, any form of State, they looked to the proletarian revolution for the utter and final abolition of statist constraints. They aimed to replace the old oppressive State with the free federation of combined communes, direct democracy from the ground up.

Marx and Engels sought a path between these two extremes. Jacobinism had left its mark on them, but contact with Proudhon around 1844 on the one hand, and the influence of Moses Hess on the other, the critique of Hegelianism, the discovery of “alienation” had left them a touch more libertarian. They repudiated the authoritarian statism of the Frenchman Louis Blanc and that of the German Lassalle, declaring their support for the abolition of the State. But in good time. The State, that “governmental hotchpotch”, is to endure after the Revolution, but for a time only. As soon as the material conditions making it dispensable have been achieved, it is to “wither away”. And, in the interim, steps must be taken to “lessen its more vexatious effects as much as possible”. This short term prospect rightly worries libertarians. Survival of the State, even “temporary” survival, has no validity in their eyes and they prophetically announced that, once reinstalled, this Leviathan will doggedly refuse to go quietly. The libertarians’ unremitting criticism left Marx and Engels in a bit of a pickle and they eventually made such concessions to these dissenters that at one point the quarrel among socialists over the State seemed to hinge upon nothing more and indeed to amount to nothing more than quibbling over words. This blithe agreement lasted no longer than a morning.

But 20th century Bolshevism revealed that it was not simply a matter of semantics. Marx’s and Engels’s transitional State, became, in embryo under Lenin and much more under Lenin’s posterity, a many-headed hydra bluntly refusing to wither away.

3. Management of the economy

Finally, what form of ownership is to take the place of private capitalism?

The authoritarians have a ready answer to that. As their chief shortcoming is a lack of imagination and as they have a fear of the unknown, they rely upon forms of administration and management borrowed from the past. The State is to throw its huge net around the whole of production, all of exchange, and all of finance. “State capitalism” is to survive the social revolution. The bureaucracy, already enormous under Napoleon, the king of Prussia or the Tsar, will, under socialism, no longer make do with collecting taxes, raising armies and increasing its police: its tentacles will now extend into the factories, the mines, the banks and the means of transportation. Libertarians shrieked with horror. This extravagant extension of the State’s powers struck them as the death knell for socialism. Max Stirner was one of the first to rebel against the statism of communist society. Not that Proudhon was any less vocal, and Bakunin followed suit: “I despise communism”, he declared in one speech, “because it necessarily results in the centralization of ownership in State hands, whereas I… want to see society organized and property held collectively or socially from the bottom up, through free association, and not from the top down through any sort of authority.”

But the anti-authoritarians were not unanimous in formulating their counter-proposals. Stirner suggested a “free association” of “egoists”, which was too philosophical in its formulation and too unstable as well. The more down to earth Proudhon suggested a somewhat backward-looking petit bourgeois combination appropriate to the outmoded-stage of small industry, petty commerce and artisan production: private-ownership would be safeguarded; the small producers, retaining their independence, would favour mutual aid; at best he would agree to collective ownership in a number of sectors, regarding which he conceded that large-scale industry had already taken them over: transport, mining, etc. But Stirner like Proudhon, each after his fashion, was leaving himself wide open to the sound birching which Marxism was about to inflict upon them, albeit somewhat unfairly.

Bakunin made a point of parting company from Proudhon. For a time, he made common cause with Marx inside the First International against his mentor. He repudiated post- Proudhonian individualism and took notice of the consequences of industrialization. He whole-heartedly advocated collective ownership. He presented himself as being neither communist, nor mutualist, nor collectivist. Production had to be run at one and the same time locally, through a “solidarization of communes”, and in trade terms by the workers’ companies (or associations). Under the Bakuninists’ influence, the Basle congress of the First International in 1869 decided that in the society of the future, “government will be replaced by the councils of the trades bodies”. Marx and Engels shuttled and hovered between the two extremes. In the 1848 Communist Manifesto inspired by Louis Blanc, they had opted for the all too convenient pan-Statist solution. But later, under the influence of the 1871 Paris Commune and pressure from the anarchists, they were to temper this statism and spoke of the “self-government of producers”. But such libertarian nuances were short-lived. Almost immediately, in the struggle to the death which they waged against Bakunin and his disciples, they reverted to a more authoritarian and statist vocabulary.

So it was not entirely without reason (although not always in complete good faith either) that Bakunin charged the Marxists with dreaming of concentrating the whole of industrial and agricultural production in the hands of the State. In Lenin’s case, statist and authoritarian trends, overriding an anarchism which they contradicted and extinguished, were present in germ, and under Stalin, as “quantity” became “quality”, they degenerated into an oppressive State capitalism which Bakunin appears to have anticipated in his occasionally unfair criticisms of Marx.

This brief historical review is of no interest other than the extent to which it can help us to find our bearings in the present. The lessons we draw from it make us understand, startlingly and dramatically, that, despite many notions which today appear archaic and infantile and which experience has refuted (their “apoliticism”, say), the libertarians were in essence more correct than the authoritarians. The latter showered insults upon the former, dismissing their program as a “collection of ideas from beyond the grave”, or as reactionary, obsolete, moribund utopias. But today it turns out that, as Voline emphatically underscores, it is the authoritarian idea which, far from belonging to the future, is merely a hangover from the old, worn-out, moribund bourgeois world. If there is a utopia involved here, it is in fact the utopia of so-called State “communism”, the failure of which is so patently obvious that its own beneficiaries (concerned above all else with salvaging their interests as a privileged caste) are presently busily and blindly on the look out for some means to amend and break free from it.

The future belongs neither to classical capitalism, nor, despite what the late Merleau-Ponty would have had us believe, to a capitalism overhauled and corrected by “neo-liberalism” or by social democratic reformism. The failure of both of those is every whit as resounding as that of State communism. The future belongs still, and more than ever, to socialism, and libertarian socialism at that. As Kropotkin prophetically announced in 1896, our age “will bear the imprint of the awakening of libertarian ideas… The next revolution s not going to be the Jacobin revolution anymore”.

The three fundamental problems of revolution which we sketched earlier should and can be resolved at last. No more the dithering and groping of 19th century socialist thinking. The problems are now not posed in abstract terms, but in concrete ones. Today we can call upon an ample crop of practical experiences. The technique of revolution has been enriched beyond measure. The libertarian idea is no longer etched on the clouds but derives from the facts themselves, from the (even when repressed) deepest and most authentic aspirations of the popular masses.

The problem of spontaneity and consciousness is much more easily resolved today than a century ago. The masses, though they are, as a consequence of the very oppression under which burden they are bent, somewhat out of touch as far as the bankruptcy of the capitalist system is concerned, and still lacking in education and political clear-sightedness, have regained much of the ground by which they lagged historically. Throughout the advanced capitalist countries, as well as in the developing countries and those subject to so-called State “communism”, they have made a prodigious leap forward. They are a lot less easy to dupe. They know the extent of their rights. Their grasp of the world and of their own fate has increased considerably. While the deficiencies of the French proletariat before 1840, in terms of its lack of experience and its numerical slightness, gave rise to Blanquism, those of the pre-1917 Russian proletariat to Leninism, and those of the new proletariat exhausted and in disarray after the civil war of 1918—1920, or recently uprooted from the countryside, engendered Stalinism, today the toiling masses have much less need to vest their powers in authoritarian and supposedly infallible tutors.

Then again, thanks especially to Rosa Luxemburg, socialist thinking has been penetrated by the idea that even if the masses are not yet quite ripe, and even if the fusion of science and the working class envisioned by Lassalle has not yet been fully realized, the only way to combat this backwardness and remedy this shortcoming is to help the masses educate themselves in direct democracy directed from the bottom up: to imbue them with a feeling for their responsibilities — instead of maintaining in them, as State communism does (whether it be in power or in opposition), the age-old habits of passivity, submission and the inferiority complex bequeathed to them by a past of oppression. Even though such an apprenticeship may sometimes prove labourious, even if the rate of progress is sometimes slow, even if puts additional strain upon society, even it can only proceed at the cost of a degree of “disorder”, these difficulties, these delays, these added strains, these growing pains are infinitely less harmful than the phoney order, phoney dynamism, phoney “efficiency” of State communism, which reduces man to a cipher, murders popular initiative and ultimately brings the very idea of socialism into disrepute.

As far as the problem of the State goes, the lesson of the Russian revolution is written on the wall for all to see. To eradicate the masses’ power right after the success of the revolution, as was done, rebuilding on the ruins of the old state machinery a new machinery of oppression even more refined than its predecessor, and to pass this off fraudulently as the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, and, in many instances, absorbing into the new system “expertise” from the late regime (and still imbued with the old Fuhrerprinzip) leads gradually to the emergence of a new privileged class that tends to regard its own survival as an end in itself and to perpetuate the State which assures that survival — such is the model it now behooves us not to imitate. Moreover, if we take literally the Marxist theory of the “withering away” of the State, those material circumstances which had given rise to and (according to Marxists) legitimized the reconstruction of a state apparatus ought to allow us today increasingly to dispense with the state, which is a meddlesome gendarme greedy for survival.

Industrialization is proceeding by leaps and bounds the world over, albeit at different rates in different countries. The discovery of new, inexhaustible sources of energy is accelerating this process prodigiously. The totalitarian state engendered by poverty and deriving its justification from that is growing daily a little more superfluous. As far as the management of the economy goes, all experience, both in quintessentially capitalist countries like the United States and in the countries in thrall to “State communism”, demonstrates that, as far as broad segments of the economy at least are concerned, the future no longer lies with giant production units. The gigantism that once bedazzled both the late Yankee captains of industry and the communist Lenin is now a thing of the past: Too Big is the title of an American study of the damage which this blight has done to the US economy. For his part, Khrushchev, wily old boor, eventually realized, albeit belatedly and falteringly, the need for industrial decentralization. For a long time it was believed that the sacrosanct imperatives of planning required State management of the economy. Today we can see that planning from above, bureaucratic planning, is a frightful source of disorder and waste and that, as Merleau-Ponty says, “plan it does not.” Charles Bettelheim has shown us, in a book which was unduly conformist at the time when it was written, that it could operate efficiently only if directed from the bottom up and not from the top down, only if directions emanated from the lower echelons of production and were continually monitored by them — whereas in the USSR this supervision by the masses is startlingly absent. Without any doubt, the future belongs to autonomous management of undertakings by workers associations. What has yet to be clarified is the assuredly delicate mechanism by which these federate and the various interests are reconciled in an order which is free. In the light of which, the attempt by the Belgian Cesar de Paepe, who is today unjustly forgotten, to work out a modus vivendi between anarchism and statism, deserves to be exhumed.

Elsewhere, the very evolution of technology and of labour organization is opening up a route to socialism from below. The most recent research into the psychology of work has pointed to the conclusion that production is only truly “efficient” provided that it does not crush man and that it works with him instead of alienating him, and relies upon his initiative and whole-hearted co-operation, turning his toil from obligation into joy, something which cannot be fully achieved either in the industrial barracks of private capitalism or those of State capitalism. Moreover, the acceleration of transport is a singular boon to the operation of a direct democracy. To take but one example: thanks to the aeroplane, in a few hours the delegates from local branches of the most modern of the American labour unions (let us say, the automobile workers’ union) can readily be brought together.

But if we wish to regenerate a socialism which has been stood on its head by the authoritarians, and get it the right way up again, we have to act quickly. Back in 1896, Kropotkin was forcefully stressing that as long as socialism presented an authoritarian and statist face, it would inspire a measure of distrust in the workers and would, as a result, find its efforts compromised and its further development frustrated.

Private capitalism, condemned by history, only survives today thanks to the arms race on the one hand, and the comparative failure of State communism on the other. We cannot ideologically rout Big Business and its supposed “free enterprise”, behind which lurks the rule of a handful of monopolies, and we cannot dispatch back to the prop room the nationalism and fascism which are ever ready to rise again from their ashes, unless we can in fact offer a hard and fast substitute for State pseudo-communism. As for the socialist countries (so-called), they will not emerge from their current impasse unless we help them, not to liquidate, but rather to rebuild their socialism from the foundations up.

Khrushchev finally came to grief for having dithered so long between past and future. For all their good intentions and essays in de-Stalinization or loosening state controls, the Gomulkas, Titos and Dubceks run the risk of standing still or slipping from the tightrope where they balance unsteadily, and, in the long run, risk ruination, unless they acquire the daring and far-sightedness that would enable them to identify the essential features of a libertarian socialism.


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