Reform & Revolution: Noam Chomsky on Anarcho-Syndicalism

An interview with Noam Chomsky was conducted in Boston on behalf of the ASR Editorial Collective by Jon Bekken and Mike Long on March 26, 1999. It took place in FW Chomsky’s office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is professor of linguistics and philosophy. Minor alterations have been made to clean up the transcript (removing false starts and such), and references and notes have been added where we think they may be useful to readers. It was published in two parts, in ASR 25 and 26. Some positions taken by FW Chomsky are highly controversial within anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist circles, as he is fully aware. ASR 26 and 27 also published responses and commentary on the interview.

This online version incorporates minor corrections and addenda appended to part 2 of the interview as published in ASR 26.

ASR: Barsky’s recent book [1] and snippets in your own essays over the years provide some background information on what first drew you to anarcho-syndicalism, and particularly to Rocker’s work [2] while still quite young. [3] What has maintained your allegiance over the years, preventing you, for example, from converting to some variety of Marxist belief system? Do you think anarchists have anything to learn from authoritarian socialists, and/or vice versa?
Chomsky: Well, a couple of the words I think are bothersome, like ‘allegiance’ and ‘convert’ and ‘belief system’ and so on. I don’t think anyone should be wed to a belief system any more than you are in the hard sciences. It’s not that these problems are simpler than the hard sciences. You’re not wedded to a belief system, you don’t convert, and as far as learning things from other people, no one owns truth and insight. You hunt it all over the place, you find your own mistakes, and you learn things from others.
This goes in every imaginable direction. So I don’t think there’s ever a question of maintaining allegiance. If we start thinking of dealing with the problems of life in terms of allegiances and conversions and belief systems and so on – if we can’t learn something from others – then we’re already lost. We’ve already departed from the realm of constructive, rational, moral discourse where any of these questions arise.
If I stop to think about it, I’m sure I’ve changed my mind on all sorts of things in the last 60 years, just as Rocker did. For example, Rocker ended up being some sort of anarcho-capitalist. [4] People change. But what I thought I got from his work and other work, and in fact things that were happening like the Spanish Revolution back in those days, it still seems to me was very valid, and there were plenty of things to learn from other points of view, including, you know, fascists. They have smart things to say, too. And it goes in every direction. If others who disagree on principles have nothing to learn from anarchists, they’re not giving a valuable enough analysis. If you have to believe everything they say in order to learn anything, then it is like a religion. So it seems to me that the last thing that anarchists would want to do is even consider the possibility that you couldn’t learn from people with different beliefs, and they can’t learn from you, or that there9s a question of converting from one belief system to another. If you’re a reasonable person, you’ll probably end up with bits and pieces of lots of belief systems, plus ones you’ve developed yourself.

Would it be possible to give a few examples of what’s specifically attractive about the anarchist tradition, and of problems that anarchists might want to look elsewhere for answers to?
What attracted me to the anarchist tradition is that, at least as I understood it, it’s based on an evolving understanding of illegitimate authority. So you have to discover illegitimate authority, and then try to overcome it. And that seems like an elementary, simple idea. If you look inside the anarchist tradition, they’re discovering acts of illegitimate authority that they themselves committed. So for example, during the Spanish Revolution, there was an issue over the rabid sexism of Spanish society, and some of the anarchists – if I remember correctly, Federica Montseny among them – thought that they ought to observe those principles because it’s good for women to be mocked at street corners when they walk by, and so on. If my memory’s correct, I think it was her. But I know this debate went on. [5] And that’s a question of women internalizing oppression and degradation as being beneficial and necessary. It’s like a slave saying, “I like to be a slave, and don’t take it away from me.” The worst kind of oppression is the kind we internalize. But here it was being struggled about right inside the anarchist movement itself, and properly. Those are the kind of things you discover, you weren’t aware of, and you struggle over them.
Actually the same kind of thing happened in the sixties here, as everyone knows. A good part of the contemporary feminist movement developed out of conflicts internal to the new left, when women began taking seriously the liberatory rhetoric and said, “OK, so why are we doing all the shit work?” And that caused not insignificant problems. Young kids who were thinking of themselves, correctly, as being very courageous, standing up against authority, facing danger, breaking with the power system, and so forth, suddenly had to look themselves in the mirror and say, “Well, yeah, I’m oppressing somebody, and illegitimately.” Those weren’t slight problems. I know people who went through serious difficulties in their personal lives trying to come to terms with them. And internal to the movement groups, there were extremely serious problems. I can remember them very well. How do we deal with the fact that men only make decisions and have authority? How are we going to deal with this? We never noticed it, because that was just a form of authority and oppression that we had all internalized, so we never noticed it. But because we’re committed to the idea that illegitimate authority should be exposed, and once exposed should be dealt with – if you’re not committed to that principle, then it’s not an issue – that seems to me the most healthy element in the anarchist tradition. To deal with it right away. And that applies to every aspect of life.

Can you give an example of something from the authoritarian socialist tradition that you value?
There was a debate between Engels and the anarchists at one point as to the kind of temporal order, more or less, for establishing the society they were all talking about, a communist society. [6] So do you do it by first taking state power, and then moving on, or is it disastrous to go through the stage of seizing state power? Well, I think those are problems that are not so trivial in real life. So in real situations you may not have an option. The option may be either take state power and use it, if possible – and then comes the question, “Is it possible?” – for liberatory ends, or else just accept the even worse systems of oppression that exist. Those problems come up all along. In fact they came up in the Spanish Revolution. That was precisely the situation over which there was debate – whether to join the government – and which has continued to this day. [7] You know, I don’t think there are simple answers to these questions.

That leads us right into the second question. On several occasions of late, [8] you have argued in favor of limited, strategic support of governments in certain situations as an interim means of protecting citizens from even worse predators, such as some multinational corporations – “expanding the floor of the cage.” Some anarchists have gone into print in support of your position [9]; the reaction elsewhere, predictably, has been less favorable [10], as you obviously knew it would be.
We have several questions on this issue. First, (assuming such a distinction for the moment) is it possible to support the “good” (for example protective or welfare) function of the state without simultaneously giving strength to the “bad,” repressive side? Is the state the best defense people have against the corporations? Are most modern states not controlled by, and servants of, the very corporations your proposal would have them police? Are you concerned about the divorce of means and ends that support for governments entails? What about alternative solutions, such as community-based resistance of various kinds, organizing the One Big Union, or even workers’ militias, which could allow syndicalists to fight our immediate battles while simultaneously foreshadowing the society we’re trying to build?
Finally, what are the implications of your argument in terms of anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist theory? For example, do you think that the traditional, we thought immutable, opposition to the state is a fundamental anarchist principle in need of revision, or is this merely a temporary, strategic exception – perhaps with the same status as an anomaly in theory development in science – which leaves the principle (and, hence, much of the traditional anarchist analysis of power) intact? If the former, are there any other supposedly bedrock principles at which you think it is about time anarchists took a critical look?

That’s a lot of things. Remind me of what I forget. First of all, let me just get the origins straight. It’s not my pronouncement, but that of the Brazilian workers movement. The Brazilian workers had some choices. One was to simply subordinate themselves to very brutal power. The other was to try to expand somewhat the framework in which they could function, and then move on to something else – recognizing that they were in a cage, that is, that it was a system of oppression. Now would any serious anarchist see a problem as to which choice to make? I mean, should you stay under a much more severe system of oppression rather than gaining some rights, using those victories as a basis for something else, discovering how victories are possible, and go on from there? I don’t think anybody would. I don’t even think it’s an issue.
Let’s take something concrete. Take, say, the U.S. government. It has, it was forced to have, it didn’t give as a gift, but it was forced to accept conditions – OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulations, for example, safety and health regulations in the workplace. It doesn’t enforce them very much, but sometimes it’s forced to enforce them. Well, when it’s forced to enforce them, that saves lives. A lot of workers get killed and injured on jobs. In the Reagan years they stopped enforcing it, and the number of injuries shot up – they approximately tripled. Let’s take the Ravenswood aluminum plant strike a couple of years ago, which was fought, in part, over these issues, in fact largely over them. Management came in, insisted on running workers on double shifts, in – what do they call those things? – pit holes or something, where there’s molten iron heated at, I don’t know, 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Difficult conditions. And they were forced to work under conditions in which a couple of them died. And that led to demands to enforce the regulations. And then came a lock-out, the campaign, and finally a victory for the strikers, which with a lot of international solidarity was pretty impressive. But one crucial part of it was bringing OSHA in, to impose at first trivial fines, but later pretty harsh fines, like quarters of millions of dollars for violation of safety and health regulations. [11] Without going into the details, does anybody have any question about which side you’re going to be on?
Well that’s the kind of question that arises all the time. We live in this world, not in some other world. We may want another world, but we’re living in this one, and if we want to be relevant to other human beings, if we want to be able to contribute to their problems, you want them to help you, you want to learn together how to go on to some higher stage. If you want to be part of the world, you’ve got to accept it as it exists. If their problem is that they’re getting killed because of the lack of enforcement of regulations, it turns out that in this world there’s only one institution that can enforce them, and that’s the government – which can enforce them precisely because it is not entirely run by corporations. Yes, it is largely run by corporations. But the government in this world is nevertheless different from GE [General Electric]. GE in fact and in principle is a tyranny, period. You have nothing to say about it. The government in principle, and sometimes in fact, is subject to a measure of popular influence and can therefore be compelled to introduce things like OSHA regulations which can save lives, which in this case can lead to a significant worker victory, apart from saving lives, like unionizing the plant and so on. Shall we refuse to use the mechanisms that are available to save people’s lives, to improve their circumstances, to help them all gain the understanding that there’s a lot further that we can go? I don’t think that makes any sense. And in fact, I don’t think anybody doubts it.
When you came here, for example, if you flew up, you not only supported the state, but you supported the Pentagon. What’s a commercial airliner? It’s a modified jet bomber. There’s just no way to survive in the world without participating in the institutions that exist. We can we say we don’t care about people’s problems – if a steelworker gets killed or a poor mother starves because there’s no food stamps – we don’t care because to do something about that would mean using the mechanisms that are available and the one institution that exists to some degree subject to popular influence and control. We could say that, but then let’s not pretend any longer that we’re part of any struggle for liberation and freedom, because we’re not. Maybe that’s okay if you want to sit in an academic seminar and talk about anarchist theory. But it’s not okay if you see yourself as part of an ongoing struggle for rights and freedom and undermining authority, and so on. If you’re doing that, I don’t think there are choices.

So would this be an example of where you think anarchist theory is wrong?
No, I don’t think there is any anarchist theory that would deny this. I can’t believe that Kropotkin or Bakunin or Rocker, or pick who you want, would have said, “No, we don’t want health and safety regulations enforced to save workers’ lives, because that would bring in the state.” I just can’t believe it.
It’s just kind of obvious. Take wages, take, say, the “living wage.” Right now there’s a lot of campaigns going on at local levels to insist upon whats called the “living wage,” which actually means raising the minimum wage to the level that it would have been at if it had moved along with the growth of the economy. [12] So, up until roughly the 1960s, the New Deal [13] legislation regarding the minimum wage sort of tracked productivity, so that as the economy grew, the minimum wage grew. So, within a social-democratic system, we don’t really challenge control and domination, but you do insist on some measure of equity. That made sense within that framework. Somewhere around the mid ’60s, they separated them, so the minimum wage basically stayed fixed while the economy grew. If you raise it to the level to which it would have gone had it continued to track productivity, it would approximately double. You know, doubling the minimum wage would save a lot of people’s lives, change things enormously. They’d still be around the poverty line, you still would not be challenging wage labor and domination, but it’s a big difference to be at the poverty line or to be way below it. It’s a difference for yourself, your children, your family,
your opportunities, the things you can think about – everything.
Now, living wage legislation is legislation. It goes through some governmental organization. So, is it wrong to fight for a living wage? I don’t think so. In fact, fighting for a living wage is also a way of getting people to understand, “Look, we can win. We don’t have to accept what happens to us. There are ways to act. We can act together and we can achieve things.” And then you go onto say, “Why did we do this through the government?” This comes to the issue of alternatives. Can you construct alternatives? Yes, if you know that it’s possible to do anything. If the only options available to you are simply to follow orders and be by yourself and try to make out as well as you can in an oppressive environment, you’re not going to create alternatives, either.
Now, let’s go back to the alternatives. Are they alternatives? Why aren’t they simultaneous? Do you have to choose: either I’m going to do a living wage campaign or I’m going to fight for One Big Union? No, do them both. They’re not contradictory, they’re different ways of approaching the whole network of problems using the means that are available to you. And they can be mutually supportive. They tend to be mutually supportive. You win a victory here, you turn to something else. Winning those victories can contribute to carrying out workers’ struggles. It makes you understand that you’ve got to be together, you’ve got to recognize oppression, and you’ve got to deal with it. We could win over here, so now we can win over here. Those are the dynamics of social struggle. I don’t think they are alternatives at all.
To get back to the question of ‘theory,’ I’m very suspicious, I have to say, when I even hear the word ‘theory’ in reference to anything having to do with human affairs. I mean, understanding is pretty thin. There’s nothing like what might merit the term ‘theory’ where you’ve got principles and you sort of draw conclusions that aren’t obvious, and check them out, and so on. The term ‘theory’ is just used as a means of self-aggrandizement.
You’ve got some thoughts and ideas and they kind of hang together, and you want to make it sound fancy, so call it a theory. Aside from a few areas of human intellectual achievement, the term is mostly used for self-aggrandizement. You know, social theories, literary theories, that kind of thing. It’s usually some kind of dressed-up common sense, sometimes interesting ideas, but let’s not get too impressed with ourselves.
If anarchist theory has principles that are absolute, there’s something wrong with it. There is no understanding so profound that it can put forth absolute principles. It can put forth some preferences, some ideas, some guiding principles, but always subject to challenge because we just don’t know enough.
Take, say, the question of wage slavery. We’d like to see, all anarchists would like to see, that overcome. That’s not particularly original. It was true of American workers 150 years ago who had never heard of anarchism. Yes, there was always the recognition that wage slavery is not all that different fundamentally from slavery, a very deep recognition that goes all the way back. But do we really know how to run a society without wage slavery? Maybe we’ll discover that its impossible. I don’t think so. But anyone who’s not open to that possibility isn’t being very serious. We don’t know enough about how to run societies. Can a complex social structure – anything that human beings are going to exist with today, with billions of them around, so it’s rather complicated – can it exist and function on the principles that anarchists are committed to?

Spain ’36? Mondragon today? Not big enough examples? Not long enough running?
And in fact plenty of problems exist. Take Mondragon. Mondragon is facing very serious questions, as you know much better than I, [14] about whether to exploit labor in order to remain competitive, by basically moving operations elsewhere. Is it possible to overcome those problems? There are problems with self-management. There are well known problems with worker-owned and worker-managed enterprises. Namely, are they out for themselves or are they out for everybody? Well, if they’re out for themselves, then you’ve got another configuration of units within a capitalist system. How do you overcome that? Well, you can think of ways – integrating communal structures and production
units, and so on and so forth. But anyone who says, “Look, I know this is going to work,” is not being serious. You don’t know.
These are things you’re going to have to learn about from personal history. People say, “OK, I’m going to agree to work in this law firm, or I’m going to join the government, because I’m going to use the authority and power that I have to help people.” And pretty soon you find yourself using that authority and power, and you’re using it for anything but helping people. But still with the same ideology, still saying, “Yes I’m helping people. If I was to stay outside like you guys, I wouldn’t be able to help in the way I am now.” And we know where that leads. So one should just be aware of it. That’s part of human psychology we’re all subject to, and you have to be able somehow to try and combat that danger while still using the options that are available. That’s how it is.
There’s an interesting struggle in the Brazilian Workers’ Party over this, kind of an interesting case. I think it’s the most effective popular movement that I know of in the world, but the Workers’ Party, which is the umbrella social-democratic party, with radical elements in it, has become somewhat personalized. The leadership – Lula is like the perpetual leader. I had a long talk with him the last time I was down in Brazil, and he told me he’s not going to run any more because if he continues to run, it’s going to turn into his personal party, instead of a people’s party. He’s a steelworker who happened to be in the right place at the right time. He doesn’t want it to be his party. So his decision was, well, he wasn’t going to run. All right, the consequences of that decision are that the party’s going to fall apart, and you would not have a representation for the various groups that fall under the umbrella. Not too easy sometimes, because there’s plenty of conflicts.
There’s no theory that tells you what choice to make. Like decisions you constantly face in your life. Any of us who are in similar positions have to ask, “Am I going to cause more harm or more benefit by continuing to run, with the very strong likelihood that it’ll become a personalistic party?” And maybe I’ll even decide that’s the way it ought to be, in the worst case. “Or shall I pull out and under the conditions that exist, let what has been achieved fall apart?” These are never easy decisions, and they’re faced all the time. You face them trying to raise your children. There’s no human interaction in which you don’t face those sorts of choices. I mean, like in an academic setting, you’re facing them constantly. Because there are structures of authority, you can’t avoid them. Somebody’s deciding whether this student’s going to be able to go on to graduate school. Its asymmetric. Maybe there’s a way around that, but nobody sees it. But anyway, the structure that exists doesn’t offer a way around it, and you have to struggle all the time.

Your father was once a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and you took out a red card yourself a little over two years ago. What are your impressions of today’s Wobblies, and what prospects do you see for the One Big Union in the coming years? What are your views on the relative merits of revolutionary industrial unionists agitating within traditional trade unions – for example, unions grouped within the AFL-CIO, TUC, or ACTU – in other words, “boring from within,” as distinct from trying to build separate industrial unions, like the IWW, CNT, CGT or SAC, among others?
My father was indeed a member of the IWW, he once told me well after I knew about it. What happened was that he was an immigrant from Eastern Europe, off the ship, working in a sweatshop, didn’t know very much English, and miserable conditions. And some guy came around who seemed to be for the workers, so he figured OK, and joined up. And it turned out to be the IWW. But they were organizing in the sweatshops, a good thing to do, and saying the right things.
What do I think about the IWW? Well I think it’s got the right ideas, but its got to find ways to become a substantial part of the consciousness of ordinary people, working people and others, and that’s not an easy task. There are things about the structure that personally bother me. In fact, they’re extremely difficult for me to deal with. From my point of view, there’s way too much bureaucracy just on simple technical things like remembering every month to send in a check. I just can’t remember every month. I would like somehow to get around a lot of the technicalities. I don’t like to have organizations, and I don’t like to go to meetings, and I don’t like to fill out forms, and so on, and so I think there’s just too much of that stuff going around. And maybe too much energy’s being wasted on it. But that’s a trivial issue, and there’s easy ways to get around these things.
I think the harder questions are the ones like what do you do when there’s a parallel organization? Do you work through industrial unions, the AFL-CIO, or do you set up alternatives? The problem again there may be the word ‘or.’ Why not do both? So, suppose you’re in the Ravenswood aluminum company, let’s take that as an example. It would have been extremely bad judgment from the point of view of hopes for organizing in the future, and it would have been just immoral, forgetting any ‘theory,’ not to participate in the struggle of working people who are trying to survive under those conditions. And the way to do that is to work through the union, which is the steelworkers union, which is not a wonderful outfit. So you have to say, “OK, I’m with you guys, working in the steelworkers union.” At the same time, you could be organizing an IWW group within it and saying, “Look what’s wrong with that union? They’re part of the problem that we’re having.” That happens all the time. Like, take the strikes in Illinois a couple of years ago, Staley and Caterpillar. Those guys were locked out in a vicious effort by the management to destroy the union. [15] At the same time, they were sort of sold out by the union leadership. That’s something that’s important to understand, and you’ve got to understand it while you’re working with the leadership. And the understanding of it in fact led to some changes in the leadership, healthy changes.
Well, that’s what life is like. You’ve got to do all of these things at once. They’re not really alternatives. The problem is to figure out ways to combine them. If you’re a Marxist-Leninist sectarian and you’ve got a rule book, you can just sit there and read your rule book, no matter what the circumstances are. So you get up in a meeting and you say, “Smash the capitalists, and lets overthrow the state,” and so on. OK, that’s great. If you
want to play games, that’s OK. If you don’t want to play games, if you want to play some kind of a significant role in moving toward the ideals that you think you profess, then you have to adjust. You have to learn from others. You have to adjust what you’re doing, your choices and so on, in light of the options that are available, and the level of consciousness and concerns of the people you’re dealing with, which you may not understand. You’ve got to learn it from them.

You’re coming across as much more pragmatic than I’d ever realized, One example was “expanding the floor of the cage.” And now dual card or dual strategy in unions.
I don’t mean that that’s a formula for everything. It’s something that sometimes would be reasonable. For example, in the case which we were talking about, I think it would be reasonable. In other cases, maybe not.

I can hear some authoritarian socialists gloating, saying “That’s what we’ve said all along.” There’s some things that are clearly different, but this part they would surely endorse. Look at groups like Militant Tendency in the UK. That’s exactly their position, and always has been. It’s the position of the WSA, funnily enough, in this country, “boring from within,” even though they’re in the IWA.
But remember there is a difference. You’re “boring from within” as a vanguard party which is trying to attain control over the working class from a central committee on the principle that somehow they’ll do wonderful things when they take over. You may agree on supporting people who have to work in hellish working conditions. Yeah, you can agree on that. And in that sense, you are all boring from within, but with a very different conception in mind. And that shows up very fast. It shows up very fast in practical positions.
One other thing about community and workplace organization. They’re not alternatives, either. They’re both necessary, and unless they’re integrated, neither of them is going to work.
I’m no oracle. If any of this is right, its common sense. If it’s not common sense, it’s probably not right. Nobody, certainly not me, has any deep insights about how we should deal with the serious problems of life, which are almost always tactical problems. You know, people tend to say that tactics aren’t important, but those are the things with human consequences. They’re very hard choices. You have them all the time. Take, say, civil disobedience, resistance activities – say, smashing nose cones of missiles. Is it the right tactic or is it the wrong tactic? Some people get an answer from God, but I’m not interested in that. If you’re not getting your answers from God, if it’s not between you and God but it’s between you and the welfare of the species, then it’s a very hard question to answer. Sometimes it may be completely the wrong tactic. It may have the effect of alienating people, of strengthening support for authority and militarism, of marginalizing protest. It can have all those effects. And you have to ask yourself, is it going to have those effects or is it going to have the effect of getting people to think about things they weren’t noticing and maybe take steps themselves that they wouldn’t have taken before? Which of those effects is going to happen? The action itself, in itself, is neither right nor wrong. If you’re really serious about it, you’re going to prepare for it with educational and organizing work sufficient so that people will understand it in a constructive fashion. Otherwise it’s not only just a waste of time, it’s even harmful.

Just a short follow-up. You mentioned how there’s a real difference that’s manifested very quickly between people who are boring from within from an authoritarian sensibility and people who are working with people in immediate struggles while holding out this broader vision. And I’m struck by the example of Rose Pesotta, who worked in the ILGWU, became an official, and at the same time there were others who were saying that this was a union that fundamentally was committed to an alliance with the employers, and so there was a struggle about that. [16] How does that difference manifest itself actually?
It manifests itself in a lot of different ways. How does one deal right this minute with, say, sweatshops in Guatemala? It’s not a trivial question. You want to work for decent standards in Guatemala, but you don’t want those poor Guatemalan women who are being smashed to starve to death because the factories are going to move somewhere else. The questions that one immediately faces are real, serious ones about international solidarity. One of the reasons I never write about these things in general ‘theoretical’ terms is that there are no formulas. Every situation is different and has to be analyzed on its own terms – with the same guiding ideas, maybe, but they come out leading to very different conclusions, depending upon the circumstances.
As another example, take the economists who argue that if you try to put decent labor standards into trade conditions, you’re just going to harm the poor people who aren’t going to be able to get jobs. Well, there’s a lot wrong with those ideas, but there are circumstances in which they could be correct. If there isn’t enough international solidarity to prevent the textile factory from moving across the border where there are even worse conditions, then, yes, you are harming those people by insisting on decent work standards. And you don’t know. There’s no general answer for all cases. You know what you’re aiming at, but you have to follow different paths to get there. Sometimes working within a corrupt and even criminal union may be better than the other alternatives.

Charges of “life-stylism” against large sectors of the anarchist movement have resurfaced of late, not least in a recent publication of Bookchin’s. [17] Is this “lifestylism” issue a bogus one, do you think? More generally, what are your views on the strategy, advocated by some, of concentrating on industrial organization in the workplace first, second and third, and worrying about “community” issues later? Conversely, what prospects, if any, do you see for a heavily, or even exclusively, community-based approach, e.g., some variant of the “libertarian municipalism” propounded by Bookchin, [18] which downplays the importance of industrial organizing, or even bypasses it altogether as (to simplify somewhat) irrelevant in a “post-industrial” society?
Well, as far as lifestyle goes, we should try to create a world where people have the maximum amount of freedom to pick their own lifestyle, without being derided, oppressed, eliminated, and so on. Now, of course there are going to be limits. If somebody’s lifestyle is to hit people in the face as they pass by, well, OK, the community won’t accept that. But there’s kind of a big burden of proof that has to be met by anyone who says, “I’m going to restrict your lifestyle.” Its a hard burden of proof…

I think the critique of lifestylism more revolves around, for example, I was at a meeting some time ago when people were talking about the need to overthrow capitalism, and somebody said that to work for a capitalist was to reinforce capitalism, and so we should live in squats and eat out of dumpsters.
Well, if that’s what he wants to do, OK. But you know, most people are going to want to have a broader life than that. They’re going to want to have things, they’re going to want their children to have things, they’ll want their children to get educated, they’ll want to be able to take an hour for a walk in the woods, or whatever. If you want those things, you’re going to have to accept some aspects of the existing society. For particular people, maybe for particular privileged people, you can play these games, but most people, virtually nobody can. So if that’s your lifestyle, fine, but don’t try to legislate it for anyone else. If they make that choice, fine. I don’t think very many are going to make it. If they don’t, fine. They have a right to choose their own lifestyle even if it includes compromises like working for a boss. If that expands your cage as far as it can go, then it may well be the right choice. I don’t have a right to tell you not to do that.
So if life-stylism is a matter of legislating lifestyles for others, no. If it’s a matter of saying, “Look, I have a right to my own lifestyle, and unless I’m really harming you, you have no right to tell me not to do it,” then I’m all for it. I don’t see anything more involved in the issue.
As for post-industrial societies and pure communitarianism, I don’t think that’s real. People are always working together. Whether it’s called a factory, or whatever it may be, there9s just communal activity going on. And in fact if there wasn’t communal activity going on, there’d be nothing going on. Take this academic department. It’s a small unit, but everybody’s working together. And you can’t say this is this guy’s contribution. Like, | just was talking with a student, I’m learning from him. I hope he’s learning from me. We’re both changing our ideas. We work together, we work with somebody else, and so on. Well, these are social units that function to produce something. In this case it doesn’t happen to be trucks, but something else. Well, all of society is organized that way. And if it weren’t, people would be extremely diminished. I’d hate to imagine a world where that’s not the case, a world in which everyone was sitting at their own computer sending off their production to somebody else. That would really be hell. But it’s not going to exist, and it doesn’t exist, and we’re lucky that it doesn’t exist.
As long as people are spending their creative lives, we hope as creative as possible, together in groups – and that’s a large part of creativity, a very substantial part of it – then there’s going to be questions as to how those groups are organized. And in a real world they can be extremely large, they can involve sub-units, which raise the question of federalism. At this point comes the question of how they interact with other kinds of groups that people are a part of. You’re not only part of your workplace, you’re also part of your community. And that has to be organized. So what are you going to do about the schools, the roads, support systems, and so on? These are just different kinds of questions. They require different kinds of organization. People are going to be parts of all of them. These are just not alternatives; neither is going to survive unless you have both. To the extent that you have them both, each can survive, but it’s not one or the other.

You have a long, and widely admired record of selfless support for numerous “national liberation” struggles around the world. What would you say to anarchists who have wanted, or do want, to help remedy massive human rights violations and other forms of blatant social injustice perpetrated under western supervision in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Palestine, South Africa, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, The Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor – tragically, only a partial list – but who balk at supporting “national liberation” movements on the grounds that the predominant ideology of such movements is usually a ruthless authoritarian nationalism, often accompanied by variants of Marxism-Leninism or Maoism? Such groupings wish to take control of existing state structures, not change them, and can often be as brutal and corrupt once in power as the regimes they overthrew.
That’s absolutely true, and I’ve never felt that I was supporting national liberation movements. So I wasn’t supporting the Sandinistas, or the PLO or the Vietnamese leadership, and so on, and they knew it.
I remember my visit to Indochina back around the late 1960s. I had this ritual meeting with Pham Van Dong, the Prime Minister, and when I got in there, he was sitting ostentatiously with a French translation on his desk of my book American Power and the New Mandarins. [19] So, starting the conversation, it was in French, I asked what he thought of the book, and his answer was “trop anarchiste” – too anarchist. We knew exactly where we were standing right off; we were not on the same wave length. If I wanted to try to stop the American war against the people of Vietnam, that was fine, but I’m certainly not going to support what he’s doing, and he knew it. So we had nothing to do with each other on ideological points, I was not supporting their government or their movement, but I was supporting the right of the people to be free from foreign domination and, in this case, massacre.
And it’s the same in every other case. In the case of the Palestinians, the first time I opened my mouth on this topic, it was criticizing the PLO, but from within. I think Palestinians should understand the problems, and probably understood them better than I do, so we’re supporting their right to be free of torture and repression, and also their right to make what from your point of view are wrong choices. But they have the right to
make choices which I think are wrong, because I’m not God, and I’m not the dictator, and I can try to explain why I think they’re wrong. And maybe I’m wrong. But if that’s the choice they make, well, OK, they have a right to make it and not be stopped by outside force and violence. That’s all it means to support a national liberation movement, as far as I can see.
It was the same in Nicaragua. When I used to go down to Nicaragua in the 1980s, I was constantly being called in by the Sandinista leadership and asked to explain why I was so critical of them. Actually they were kind of confused; they didn’t understand it. And we talked about it, and I tried to explain that I thought they were making serious mistakes and ought to rethink, and were probably going to lose. I thought they were going to lose in a free election. I told them that. I don’t see any contradiction between that and opposing the U.S. aggression and terror in Nicaragua.
It’s a little bit like the question we never got to about where you organize. I mean, I don’t organize in the steel mill, and the reason is, I’m not there. So I’m not going to organize there. If steelworkers come and want to, let’s say, have a support meeting for a strike, I’ll be glad to show up and give a talk. I’m happy to do that, and that’s the kind of contribution I can make from where I am. But I’m not going to organize the mill. And it’s the same with national liberation movements. I mean, I’m not going to join the guerrillas in the hills. If I did, I’d be more of an impediment than a help. But what I can do is live where I am, which happens to be a position of very great privilege, obscene privilege, in fact, which shouldn’t exist, but it does – and in that position of privilege which gives me access to resources and opportunities, I can in fact do things for them. But that’s not supporting their movement, it’s supporting their right to pick what they want to do, and to have, I hope, friendly interchanges about what I think is wrong. So I agree with the anarchists who think they shouldn’t support the movements. We should never support them; we should support the right of people to join them if they feel that’s right for them without anyone else blocking them, and particularly without us blocking them, because we do have a role in this. What the U.S. government does, we can influence. We can choose not to, but we must recognize that that’s a choice. Like those people last night [20] could do a lot of things. They’re in the same position of privilege, and if they don’t want to use that privilege to help people, well, that’s a choice, and not a pretty one.

You are 70 this year. Do you have any plans to retire from MIT, perhaps to spend even more time than you already do on political activist work, including increased travel?
Yes, I’ve got all kinds of plans, but they’re not very definite. I’ll be retiring pretty soon, I guess. It depends on a lot of things. I can’t really spend more time than I’m doing now traveling, that’s almost constant. But how to split up my life I’m not sure, I’ve never been sure.

(1) Robert F. Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A life of dissent. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997 (reviewed in LLR #22, Winter 1997-1998, pp. 34-7).
(2) See, for example, Rudolph Rocker, Nationalism and culture [1947], reissued 1978 by Michael E. Coughlin, St. Paul; and Anarcho-Syndicalism [1938], reissued by Phoenix Press, London, no date.
(3) Chomsky’s earliest publication, at age 10, was a piece on the fall of Republican Barcelona to the fascists, published in his school newspaper. (See Barsky, p. 16.)
(4) For a recent biography of Rocker, see Mina Grauer, An anarchist “rabbi”: The life and teachings of Rudolph Rocker. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997 (reviewed in LLR #22, Winter 1997-1998, p. 40). Although Rocker did change his position on several issues in his final years, ending up advocating something very akin to Bookchin’s municipal libertarianism, there is no indication that he advocated anarcho-capitalism.
(5) For an account of women’s struggles during the Spanish Revolution, see Martha Acklesberg, Free Women of Spain, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. (There is no reference to the incident FW Chomsky describes here; however, David Porter’s anthology of Emma Goldman’s writings on Spain, Vision on Fire (pp. 255 – 57), reports on this debate in very similar terms without naming the principals involved.)
(6) Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism: Selected Writing by Marx, Engels and Lenin, edited by N.Y. Kolpinsky, New York: International Publishers, 1972.
(7) See, e.g., Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution. Third edition. London: Freedom Press, 1983.
(8) See, e.g., Noam Chomsky, The Common Good (pp. 84-6). Monroe, ME: Odonian Press/Common Courage Press.
(9) See, e.g., “Tigers and cages” Editorial in Lib Ed 29 Autumn 1998, p. 2.
(10) See, e.g., Larry Gambone, “What is anarchism?” Any Time Now (Vancouver) 3, 1, Summer 1997, 1-2.
(11) For more on the Ravenswood strike, see Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner, Ravenswood: The Steelworkers’ Victory and the Revival of American Labor. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
(12) Robert Pollin and Stephanie Luce review the economics and politics of the living wage campaign in: The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy, New York: The New Press, 1998.
(13) The “New Deal” was President Roosevelt’s package of government works and other projects to ameliorate the effects of the Great Depression.
(14) See, e.g., Mike Long, “The Mondragon Co-operative Federation: A model for our times?” LLR 19, Winter 1996, 19-36; Jon Bekken, “The limits of ‘self’-management under capitalism.” LLR 21, Winter-Spring 1997, 29-32.
(15) Chomsky noted in reviewing the transcript, “I spoke at a fund-raiser for Staley workers in Cambridge at their suggestion. It’s discussed a little in a recent collection of interviews (Class Warfare, pp. 49-50,110-12) with David Barsamian, who was there – pretty sad affair: the first and last time I’ve spoken in Cambridge without an overflow audience for many years. The left didn’t show up; it was just a bunch of working people fighting for their lives, and against a corrupt union too.”
(16) Elaine Leeder, The Gentle General: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist and Labor Organizer, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. For a more critical perspective see Sam Dolgoff, Fragments.
(17) Murray Bookchin, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm. Edinburgh and San Francisco: AK Press, 1995.
(18) Murray Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology. 2nd ed., revised. Montreal: Black Rose, 1995.
Two introductions to libertarian municipalism are Murray Bookchin, “The New Municipal Agenda,” in Janet Biehl, editor, The Murray Bookchin Reader (London: Cassell, 1997, pp. 173-96), Janet Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (Montreal: Black Rose, 1998).
(19) Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins. New York: Pantheon/Random House, 1969.
(20) Several hundred faculty, students, and community members had attended a public talk on “humanitarian intervention” by Chomsky at Harvard University the evening before this interview. For a treatment of the history of such interventions and the legal and philosophical issues involved, see Noam Chomsky, The Umbrella of U.S. Power. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Contradictions of U.S. Policy. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999.

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