The Paris Commune of 1871

paris commune

Last year, I posted a series of writings by anarchist and revolutionary socialist participants in the international workers’ movement and the 1871 Paris Commune. This month marks the (142nd) anniversay of the tragic defeat of the revolutionary Paris Commune, which became an inspiration to thousands of anarchists and revolutionaries across the globe. Today, I have created a page setting forth the various writings on the Commune previously posted separately, which you can access by clicking here. Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas has a chapter on the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, with writings by Bakunin, Louise Michel and Kropotkin.

Paris cover

Murray Bookchin: Ethical Anarchism (1981)

Bookchin in Lyon 1984

Bookchin in Lyon 1984

This is the second part of the Open Road interview with Murray Bookchin. Here, Bookchin makes clear his rejection of Marxism, particularly the Marxist theory of “historical materialism.” He clarifies his concept of “post-scarcity anarchism” and advocates an ethical anarchism, urging anarchists to focus their efforts in locations where they have greater chances of success. 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.

1969 Bookchin Pamphlet

1969 Bookchin Pamphlet

Open Road: What kind of balance do you find between a Marxist or historical materialist concept of necessary conditions, and the idea of anarchism as an act of will, anarchism as voluntarism, anarchism as a potential in any historical situation according to the desire, consciousness, etc., of those who advocate it?

Bookchin: I’m less influenced by any of Marx’s ideas today than I’ve ever been in my life, and most significantly Marx’s theory of historical materialism, which I think is virtually a debris of despotism. But to respond very directly to what you said, I’m by no means convinced that capitalism and the development of technology has made anarchism easier. On the contrary it has imposed tremendous difficulties by reinforcing domination and hierarchy with instrumentalities, techniques, from electronic devices to thermo-nuclear bombs and neutron bombs, has reinforced hierarchy and domination on a scale that I could never have even foreseen, say in my youth, when I was a radical and a Marxist at that time.

But here’s what I do believe very strongly: that once capitalism comes into existence, once it creates this mythology of a stingy nature, then that myth has to be exorcised. In other words, we have to get out of people’s heads the idea that without a market economy, without egotism, competition, rivalry and self-interest, without all the technological advances that Marx imputed to capitalism, we have to eliminate the feeling that we would sink into some kind of barbarism. We have to give people the freedom to choose lifestyles and material satisfactions that suit their needs, and we have to redefine need itself. We can’t redefine need among ghetto people by telling them we should all give up our TV sets or automobiles: we have to tell them there’s enough to go around, now let’s talk about using it sensibly.

So in that sense I speak of post-scarcity because my concern is to eliminate the sense of scarcity that people feel. Capitalism has created a situation called scarcity. And that scarcity is not natural, it’s socially induced. Along with that sense of scarcity, or feeling of scarcity, is a feeling of economic insecurity. Along with that is a feeling of deprivation…  And unless we can demonstrate that that feeling is not justified technologically, we will not be able to speak intelligently to the great majority of people and reorganize our economy so that we really know what needs are rational and human and what have been created, almost fetishisticaly, by the capitalist economy. What I’m saying in effect is we have to say the goodies are all here to be had, but to what extent do we really want them and to what extent are they goodies? As long as we feel that we can’t have them, we’ll want them and we’ll make them central to our lives.

I’ve been criticized by many anarchists as believing that anarchism is impossible without affluence. On the contrary, I think affluence is very destructive to anarchism. If you are absorbed by that commodity world then you’re not going to move toward any radical positions, you’re going to move toward a stance of protectiveness.

European Youth Revolt

European Youth Revolt

Open Road: On the other hand, it is those affluent countries in Europe— Switzerland, Germany— which seem to be developing a rebellious youth movement.

Bookchin: That’s an intriguing fact. I have been criticized for pointing out that anarchism is likely to flourish more easily, at least in the western world, and to a certain extent in eastern Europe, in those areas where there is either grim need or considerable technological development. Since you’ve pointed this out, I’ll be the last one in the world to deny that. But I don’t believe that you can make a whole historical theory out of it. That’s very important to see.

After reading The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, I realized that capitalism did not naturally grow as Marx would imply by his theory of historical materialism. People were dragged into capitalism screaming, shouting, and fighting all along the way, trying to resist this industrial and commercial world. And I’m convinced more than ever that capitalism, with its technological development, has not been an advance toward freedom but has been an enormous setback of freedom. I am more disenchanted with “civilization,” which does not mean that I’m a primitivist, than I’ve ever been in my life. In The Ecology of Freedom, my critique of what is called civilization and industrial society is massive, and my attack upon Marx’s commitment to it as a necessary stage in human progress and the domination of nature is very sharp.

Open Road: Is there a necessity for a spiritual or religious idea in addition to practical, every day demands, in organizing, as a unifying bond for a political or social movement?

Bookchin: I believe that there has to be an ideal and I favour an ethical anarchism which can be cohered into an ideal.

I believe that it’s terribly important to have a movement that is spiritual, not in the supernatural sense, but in the sense of German Geist, spirit, which combines the idea of mind together with feeling, together with intuition. I’m sorry that some self-styled anarchists have picked up on the word spirit and have turned me into a theological ecologist, a notion which I think is crude beyond all belief. There has to be a body of values. I would prefer to call them ecological because my image of ecology goes beyond nature and extends into society as a whole—not to be confused in any way with socio-biology, which I think is an extremely regressive, reactionary tendency…

Green anarchism

Open Road: Anarchism and its various qualifiers—communalist, syndicalist, eco-, collectivist, etc., seems to have a pretty nebulous identity at the present time.

Bookchin: We have to clarify the meaning of the word. We have to give it a rich content. And that content has to stand apart from a critique of other ideologies, because the way you sharpen a knife is, frankly, on a grindstone. And the grindstone for me is Marxism. I’ve developed my anarchism, my critique of Marxism, which has been the most advanced bourgeois ideology I know of, into a community of ideas and ultimately a common sense of responsibilities and commitments. I don’t think anarchism consists of sitting down and saying let’s form a collective. I don’t think it consists of saying we’re all anarchists: you’re an anarcho-syndicalist; you’re an anarcho-communist; you’re an anarcho-individualist. I believe that anarchists should agree to disagree but not to fight with each other. We don’t have to go around as the Protestant reformation did, or as the socialist revolution did, and execute each other as soon as we are successful—assuming we’ll ever be successful. But I believe that if we do have a commonality of beliefs we should clarify them, we should strengthen their coherence and we should also develop common projects that produce a lived community of relationships.

And also we should try to become better people, ethically speaking, reflect upon ourselves and our very limited existences and develop a sense of tolerance for each other, as well as for other anarchist groups with which we may disagree. But we’re not committed to toeing a line called anarchism; there are many different anarchisms. My anarchism is frankly anarcho-communalism, and it’s eco-anarchism as well. And it’s not oriented toward the proletariat. I would like to see a critical mass of very gifted anarchists come together in an appropriate place in order to do highly productive work. That’s it. I don’t know why that can’t be done except for the fact that I think that people mistrust their own ideals today. I don’t think that they don’t believe in them; I think they mistrust the viability of them. They’re afraid to commit themselves to their ideals.

You see something very important is happening. Personality is being eaten out, and with that the idealism that always motivated an anarchist movement—the belief in something, the ideal that there is something worth fighting for.

I’m much more interested in developing human character in this society. And I’m much more interested in the social conditions that foster commitment to ideals, a sense of solidarity, purposefulness, steadfastness, responsibility…

Open Road: I’m not that clear on what you were suggesting when you said you felt that highly gifted anarchists should get together in one location and…

Bookchin: Anarchists should get together who agree, and develop their gifts at a critical point, in a critical place, and form genuine affinity groups in areas where they can have certain results, notable results—not move into areas of great resistance where they’re almost certain to be crushed, defeated, demoralized. And secondly, I would not want to be in the same movement with an anarcho-syndicalist, however much I may respect and like that person. Some of my best friends are anarcho-syndicalists. I mean, I realize that we do not have a commonality, even a language, that makes it possible for us to communicate.

Sam Dolgoff - anarcho-syndicalist

Sam Dolgoff – anarcho-syndicalist friend

Open Road: How do too feel about the developing “doctrine of Bookchinism’’ around your ideas?

Bookchin: Terms that are related to individuals like Marxist, or Hegelian, or Bakuninist, or Kropotkinist, are completely outside my intellectual and emotional horizon. I’m a follower of no one; I’m a Bookchinite, and nobody has a right to claim that but me. When I die Bookchinism comes to an end, and all the allusions to it both among Marxists and anarchists…

(lots of laughter)

Bookchin quote

Murray Bookchin: Anarcho-Communalism (1981)

Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin

In September 1981, the Open Road editorial collective in Vancouver interviewed Murray Bookchin while he was finishing his magnum opus, The Ecology of Freedom (yes, the legend is true: he spent some of his time correcting the galley proofs in a local MacDonald’s). The publication of The Ecology of Freedom in 1982 marked the apogee of Bookchin’s eco-anarchism. After that he came to focus more on his concept of “libertarian municipalism,” eventually rejecting anarchism altogether. Back in 1981, Bookchin was an anarchist, and proud of it. The interview was published in the Spring 1982 issue of Open Road, No. 13. This is the first of two parts. 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. Volume Three does include Bookchin’s essay, “Toward an Ecological Society,” which summarizes the main themes in The Ecology of Freedom.

Original Edition

Original Edition

Murray Bookchin: My concern is to develop a North American type of anarchism that comes out of the American tradition, or that at least can be communicated to Americans and that takes into consideration that Americans are not any longer people of European background. Another consideration is to find out what is the real locus of libertarian activity. Is it the factory? Is it the youth? Is it the schools? Is it the community?

The only conclusion I could arrive at with the death of the workers’ movement as a revolutionary force—you know the imagery of the proletarian vanguard, or proletarian hegemony—has been the community.

I’ve tried to start up from a different perspective involving a broader ecological perspective perhaps, and more or less updating my thinking historically, to many of the ideas expressed in Mutual Aid by Kropotkin (which doesn’t mean I’m a Kropotkinite). And I’ve gone toward an idea which in fact Kropotkin played around with a great deal, and which unfortunately acquired a bad name because it was associated with a French anarchist, Paul Brousse, who became a reformist…

I’ve followed Brousse’s career very carefully and I don’t know that you necessarily have to wind up in the type of situation where Brousse did. And that is to restore the image of the commune, the revolutionary commune, the neighbourhoods, the townships, in which the factories at best would be part of the community, not the factories usurping the community. This is anarcho-communalism in the full sense of the word. Thus I would like to believe that the arena would be an attempt to restore the revolutionary communal situation that existed in the 19th century and that I think can exist today even though we have tremendous crisis and division in the cities.

libertarian municipalism

The goal would be basically to try to revive civic organizations which would aim for the municipalization, the equivalent of collectivization of industry, of land, and create assemblies in the smaller communities, or many such assemblies federated in the larger communities.

As for the workers’ movement, I find that I reach workers more easily as neighbours than I do standing outside the factory despairingly giving out a leaflet telling them to take over, say the Ford plant. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you may not have worker’s movements developing, but the real question is whether or not one is going to have a unionist orientation or a communal orientation, whether the factories link with factories or the factories link with the people in the community. This is reinforced in my opinion by my conviction that the American middle class is being wiped out. In fact I believe that’s probably going to happen in much of North America through inflation, taxation…

bookchin communalism

Open Road: One of the obstacles to a municipal or community movement in North America would be the absolute lack of community in this society. There’s no interaction among people in neighhourhoods anymore.

Bookchin: Admittedly that’s so, but the problem of reviving it is another issue that has to be discussed. How about trying to revive it? I can’t think of any other arena in which to function as an anarchist.

Open Road: What about the alternative of rather than working within an existing geographical community, stepping outside of that whole grouping with one’s peers and building a base—rather than starting from within and all the compromises that would entail?

Bookchin: That’s one way of looking at it. And another way is starting from within but not within institutions, but creating counter institutions in their own community. Suppose you have food co-ops that interlink with, possibly, alternative schools. This is purely hypothetical. Right now there is a great deal of passivity; people are watching and waiting. And there is a very strong feeling of powerlessness. So, admittedly, if you were to point to institutions that exist right now in North America, or for that matter to a great extent in Europe, I would certainly agree with you. There is nothing to work with. But the point is what could we work with, or what could we try to create. And one of the things we can try to create would be the food co-ops, the health centres, the women’s centres, educational centres, even protective centres for elderly people in crime-ridden areas. In some instances even certain social services that normally were supplied, or pre-empted by the state. Take the United States, the Reagan administration is withdrawing assistance, all kinds of welfare programs, and if people don’t improvise their own resources to cope with problems of the ageing, problems of the sick, problems of the young, problems of the poor, problems of tenant rights, who will? And out of this may come the possibility of creating counter institutions, which I don’t believe in and of themselves are going to replace the existing institutions, but could be a dropping off point for the development of attitudes, techniques, and the practice of self-management.

Anarchist Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution

Anarchist Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution

Open Road: Getting back to libertarian municipalism, what you’re emphasizing is creating decentralized, democratic assemblies?

Bookchin: Yes. You see my residence is in New England, and New England has a strong tradition of localism. What is ordinarily called election day in most of the United States is called town meeting day in Vermont. And there are town meetings that are to one degree or another active, however vestigial their powers. They, for example, banned uranium mining in the Green Mountains of Vermont. And the governor of the state was forced to knuckle down to that even though he wanted uranium mining. A number of town meetings—not very large a number but at least a majority of those who had it on their agenda—voted for a nuclear arms moratorium. They’re taking up issues like that at town meetings. What we would like to do if we could is foster, at least in Vermont, greater local power, discussions around issues that are not simply immediate local issues. We would like to raise broad issues at these town meetings and turn them into discussion arenas and interlink the various assemblies and town meetings or try to help create growth of this type of local municipal power—communal power—a view toward, very frankly, establishing a grass-roots self-management institutional framework or network. Now this may be a pure dream, a hopeless ideal, but it’s meaningless for us to go to factories, I can tell you that much.

For me it’s meaningless to function in a very large city like New York, because I don’t think that one should measure the social weight of an area by the number of people it has. I think it should be measured by the quality of the politics involved. New York has a tremendous number of people but the quality of its politics is unspeakable. By contrast, in a smaller township, I find there’s a great deal of social awareness, less of a sense of powerlessness, less of a polarization of economic life. More people have been affected, in an amusing sense, by the fact that Burlington elected a socialist mayor—and I’m not concerned with elections at the moment: I’m concerned with what are called impacts—than they are by a demonstration for El Salvador in New York.


Open Road: One thing you mentioned is the danger of counter-institutions and projects becoming co-opted. Couldn’t they be used to supplement deteriorating social services and merely obscure the real nature of the state?

Bookchin: Yeah, that could happen. And that’s why I think an anarchist consciousness is necessary and why an anarchist movement is necessary. There is nothing that can’t be, at least hypothetically, co-opted, including anarchism. I’ve seen the professionalization of anarchism in a number of universities. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m addressing myself to is an anarchist theory of community and community activities. I’m not speaking of these things just occurring without any consciousness, intuitively or instinctively, merely in reaction to things that the state power does.

My feeling is that anarchists have to think in terms of a specific. I think the dispersal of anarchists all over the place, particularly very gifted ones who can turn out periodicals and do very effective public work, and their tendency to just pick up and take off is a liability. What I’m trying to do in Burlington is to help foster the development of a group of anarchists who will pick up on American radical tradition, or confederal traditions which might even exist in Canada as well. And I’m more interested in seeing some good examples established here, there and anywhere, than I am in seeing an attempt to build mass movements that in fact involve the dissolution of almost any movement in an amorphous mass that is politically very passive.

Anarchism in America

Open Road: What authentic North American radical traditions can you see us building on?

Bookchin: What I’d like to see developing is an American radicalism, libertarian in character, which relies, however weak, faint, and even mythic these traditions may be, on the American libertarian tradition. I don’t mean right-wing libertarianism obviously. I’m talking of the idea, basically very widespread in America, that the less government the better, which is obviously being used to the advantage of the big corporations, but none-the-less has very radical implications. The idea of a people that exercises a great deal of federalist or confederalist control, the ideal of a grass-roots type of democracy, the idea of the freedom of the individual which is not to get lost in the mazes of anarcho-egotism à la Stirner, or for that matter right-wing libertarianism. So I feel that now we have some opportunity in North America to go back and say the American Revolution was the real thing. I don’t want to think any longer simply in terms of the Spanish Revolution or the Russian Revolution. It doesn’t make any sense to talk Makhno to an American.

Open Road: What sort of activities would you suggest that conscious anarchists be doing?

Bookchin: At this point in North America the most important thing they can do is educate themselves, develop a propaganda machinery in the form of books and periodicals, a literature, engage in discussion groups that are open to a community, to discuss and develop their ideas and to develop networks. I think it’s terribly important that networks of anarchists establish themselves with a view toward educating people. In my case I would emphasize anarcho-communalism, along with the ecological questions, the feminist questions, the anti-nuclear issues that exist, and along with the articulation of popular institutions in the community. I think it’s terribly important for anarchists to do that because at this moment not very much is happening anywhere in North America. This may be a period of time, and a very valuable period of time of preparation, intellectually, emotionally and organizationally. My main interests right now are to publish, to write, to explicate various views which I hope have an impact on thinking people.

I know one thing: that you can do a lot of things but if you don’t educate people into conscious anarchism it gets frittered away. In the 60s there were a lot of things which were anarchistic. May-June ‘68 was riddled by anarchistic sentiments, dreams and ideals, but insofar as this was not strengthened organizationally and intellectually by a very effective, powerful infrastructure, then what happens is the movement becomes dissipated.

bookchin endquote

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