The Libertarian Socialist Thought of Noam Chomsky

Sunday 26 August 2007, by Corrêa Felipe

The Libertarian Socialist Thought of Noam Chomsky[1]

Felipe Corrêa[2]

Translated by André Mello / Sean Quinn

The renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky has been defending the principles of libertarian socialism since the 1970’s. With this in mind we have found it appropriate to write this article analyzing the relationship between his thoughts - a constant quest for social transformation - and anarchism. Attempting to bring traditional, classic anarchism from the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th to the present day; offering them as possible solutions for the problems of the world we live in. Herein lays our motivation to study and debate a series of questions raised by him.

Chomsky became a well known intellectual on account of his writings against the United States’ external policies and his analyses of world politics and economics found in his World Orders Old and New, Deterring Democracy and Year 501. Besides this, he has presented provocative analyses on the way corporations have been dominating the world, on the global economy and the resistance movement, in Profit Over People. He made noteworthy analyses of the terrorist attacks in 9-11, along with interesting observations in his writings on media, such as Necessary Illusions and Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky has also become well-known through his important books on linguistics, such as Syntactic Structures, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax and Cartesian Linguistics.[3] All this is generally known by those who admire and know some part of this author’s vast work. Many, however, do not know his explicit defense of libertarian socialism. For this reason, we think it is worthy to take a glimpse at this “other” Chomsky. We say “other” Chomsky, and we insisted on repeating this many times in the introduction of his book Notas sobre o Anarquismo[4] - which we also collated and translated -, because his writings on Linguistics, U.S. external policy, etc., are easily found and very well known. His writings discussing anarchism, on the contrary, are barely known and hence surfaced the proposal to edit this book, exposing this “new” Chomsky. And also to make known texts that were “lost” in old anarchist periodicals, in books that were never translated into Portuguese and show that Chomsky’s libertarian thought is completely contemporary.

There is a very important factor in the way Chomsky presents his thoughts. His conception about the role of the intellectuals is very clearly stated in his article “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, from 1967, putting them “in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions”. For him, the Western world gives this capacity to the intellectuals, being a result of their political freedom, their access to information and their freedom of speech. Furthermore they constitute a small and privileged minority. Intellectuals benefit fom this, since “Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest”, factors which end up having an influence on the facts that come to us. Chomsky builds his thoughts concerning anarchism upon these exact foundations. In any moment he places himself as the one being exploited or merely a proletarian. It would be actually cynical on his part to do so. He positions himself as a privileged intellectual who lives in a country which allows its citizens to live in privileged conditions and whose knowledge and respect allow him to be more “free”. It is in this sense that Chomsky will try to transform the world’s reality, using the conditions as advantages in which he is immersed.

Something that we must admire is the fact that, despite being a great and scholarly intellectual with almost fifty years of academia, Chomsky is able to make himself understood by anyone who wishes to understand his thought through simple examples and a highly accessible vocabulary. One can also be attribute to this reason, the relationship that we try to establish between the thoughts of Chomsky and Errico Malatesta, who was an Italian anarchist whose writings had, despite the very relevant contents, a simple style that is very easily understandable. Although Malatesta has never been quoted by Chomsky in his texts or interviews, it seems undeniable to us the existence of some convergent points between both of them; both in writing style and content. For now, however, it’s up to us just to emphasize this similarity - of simple writing style and great content -, things that we at last consider qualities.

Our intent, in writing about Noam Chomsky’s thoughts, reflects an already mentioned effort to update anarchist ideas, and Chomsky, despite being controversial - we’ll come to see this during this essay - has the basis of his ideas built on the anarchist classics. He proposes, from our point of view, an interesting attempt to bring anarchism discussions to the present day. For this reason, we identified, in order to understand his thought and his relation with libertarian principles, ten aspects that are a trial to cover this whole subject. However, to gain a more profound comprehension, we suggest reading the material selected by us in Notas sobre o Anarquismo. We will try, also, to relate some authors with those ten Chomskian concepts of anarchism and libertarian thought.

* * *

1. “Broad Back” Anarchism

Chomsky’s essay Notes on Anarchism begins with a quote stating that “anarchism has a broad back, like paper it endures anything”[5]. In fact, anarchism is something very broad. It consists of theories and practices that, even sustaining some similar aspects, are different and, sometimes, even opposing. In this sense, we can identify two of Chomsky’s positions about this issue. The first is related to what, for him, has more relevance in this “broad anarchism”. The second is the valorization of this plurality of ideas and the necessity of anarchism to be “flexible” and “adaptable” to the various and different realities, without the need to elaborate “manuals” or “primers” which exactly determine the ways in which anarchism has to develop itself, in order to be successful.

Anarchism’s “broad back” contemplates many kinds of anarchism, even referred to as “anarchisms”. We do not agree with that position; we believe that there is only one anarchism, and that it is plural; maybe, one of its more interesting features. Anarchism contemplates from Max Stirner theories about individualism to anarcho-syndicalism theories developed by Fernand Polloutier, Emile Pouget and Rudolf Rocker, passing through anarcho-communists as Errico Malatesta and Piotr Kropotkin, besides those who, in a certain way, are considered the major representatives of anarchism: P.-J. Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin. It would be useless trying to mention the entire wide range of variations of ideas that exist within anarchism. The truth is that there were - and there are today - many tendencies and different positions concerning organization, labor and rewards, methods and manners of actuation, that is, a wide range of issues. It can even be thought that each one of these elements bring an important contribution to anarchism: individualism, as a comprehension that the purpose of social revolution and the new society must be the total emancipation, happiness and realization of the individual; syndicalism, as one of the methods to reach social revolution; and communism (or collectivism, as some also defend), the organizational basis for future society.

It was under the same anarchist principles that such different actions as the Spanish Revolution of 1936 and the explosions and bombs in France of 1894 took place. It is also under these same principles that different shades of anarchists can be found today. Chomsky recognizes this pluralism, but he does not avoid selecting from this broad anarchism what is more useful for him in order to formulate his conception of libertarian socialism, which will be examined in detail later.

Another similarity with this broad anarchism is Chomsky’s respect for theories and practices in constant development and his anti-dogmatism. Even being an important and respected intellectual, his answers are always susceptible to deconstruction, a feature that is highly valued by him. Like Rudolf Rocker, he believes that anarchism cannot be contemplated inside a pre-established circle, like a rigid and immutable structure. Then, anarchism would be a system in constant progression, a flexible structure, dynamic and rich in terms of ideas and tendencies. In this sense, anarchism would have an adequate structure to each reality in a given temporal context. It is also for this reason that Chomsky refuses to give finished formulas as answers to solve such complicated matters. He says that

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.”[6]

2. The Criticism of State Socialism

The socialists who were expelled from the International Workingmen’s Association in the Haia Congress of 1872 started calling themselves libertarian socialists. That happened because those who expelled them - socialists who defended Marx’s ideas and began to be called authoritarian socialists by those who were expelled - did it because the IWA anti-authoritarian wing had rebelled against their attempt to impose their ideas to every member of the association. There was a crucial difference - which still exists today - between libertarian socialists and the authoritarian socialists.

Authoritarian socialists defend Marx’s conception of socialism as a period of transition from capitalism to communism. So, according to them, in a given moment of a capitalism crisis, a revolution would take place, a revolution that would seize the bourgeois State, converting it into a proletarian State. From that moment on, a dictatorship of the proletariat would be established, centralizing means of production, political and economical decisions, etc., in the hands of the State, until the menace of a counter-revolution had gone away. Libertarian socialists, despite defending also the revolution, want a revolution that would be, first of all, a social revolution, instead of replacing only the political order. Besides that, the fundamental difference between these two kinds of socialism is that the libertarians do not believe in a “transition” or “intermediary” period. Bakunin’s warnings, for instance, which are often quoted by Chomsky, say that even if statistics justify their State being a “proletarian” and “popular” State, “the people will feel no better if the stick with which they are being beaten is labeled ’the people’s stick’”[7]. Thus, Bakunin said that in a revolutionary moment, the State should be immediately destroyed, because

No state, however democratic - not even the reddest republic - can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves. The emancipation of the proletariat is impossible in any State, and that the first condition of this emancipation is the destruction of every State. [...] When a State is amplified, its organism becomes complex and, by this, strange to the people; consequently, the more its interests are opposed to those of the popular masses, the more the yoke that is kept on them is smashing, the more people stays in the impossibility to exercise a control over it, the more administration of the country is separated of people self-management.”[8]

Marx’s statist and centralist conceptions, retaken and developed by Lenin a few years later, gained new concepts. The conceptions of a revolutionary party and vanguard, developed by Lenin, brought to existence one of the largest tyrannies the world has ever known. It is incredible how Bakunin’s criticisms can be applied to the USSR: an eternal “intermediary State” which never gave place to the supposed “communism”. A State that centralized all decision-making, creating a dictatorship that alienated and oppressed the soviets in the same way capitalism did in the years of czarist Russia. Chomsky endorses, in his writings about this subject, all of Bakunin criticisms. When defining the systems of State socialism, Chomsky says that in them a

“[...] national plan is made by a national bureaucracy, which accumulates to itself all relevant information, makes decisions, offers them to the public, and occasionally every few years comes before the public and says, ‘You can pick me or you can pick him, but we’re all part of this remote bureaucracy.”[9]

It is based on these criticisms that Chomsky says that “Lenin was one of the greatest enemies of socialism” and that “If the left is understood to include ’Bolshevism,’” then he “would flatly dissociate myself from the left”.[10] Profoundly disagreeing with State socialism and the politics implemented in ex-USSR, Chomsky also says that his “response to the end of Soviet tyranny” was similar to his “reaction to the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini”. “In all cases”, he says, “it is a victory for the human spirit”.[11] To conclude this subject, it can be said that in the old discussion between libertarian and authoritarian socialists, Chomsky puts himself in favor of the libertarians, that is, of those who commended federalism instead of centralism.

3. Libertarian Socialism

In reading Chomsky’s writing and interviews, we note that he generally differentiates anarchism and libertarian socialism. For many people, these two terms designate the same thing. The tradition of the anti-authoritarian socialists mentioned above, expelled from the IWA in 1872, is understood by many of us as being the libertarian, the anarchist tradition. Chomsky would not totally agree with that. For him, the conception of libertarian socialism includes in itself aspects of anarchist and part of Marxist concepts.

In order to elaborate his concept of libertarian socialism, Chomsky selects from anarchism what is called social anarchism. Social anarchism is the anarchist tendency that is concerned with social issues. It is the socialist tendency - which is even a special kind, libertarian - of anarchism. It excludes, then, the individualists who are concerned only with individual freedom. This social anarchism criticizes the private ownership of the production means, the oppression by State and Capital, the multiple kinds of oppression that are beyond politics and economics such as gender oppression, race oppression, sexual discrimination and so on. This anarchism has a series of concerns and a commitment to realize a social confrontation with the existing order. Individualism - out of this context, thus - would be much more the search for individual autonomy than for a collective commitment for social and collective freedom.[12]

From Marxism, Chomsky selects those who have been called “left-wing communists” or “council communists”, a tradition which is very different from the one known by us, here in Brazil. Chomsky says

“[...] And that tendency in anarchism [anarcho-syndicalism] merges, or at least interrelates very closely with a variety of left-wing Marxism, the kind that one finds in, say, the Council Communists that grew up in the Luxemburgian tradition, and that is later represented by Marxist theorists like Anton Pannekoek, who developed a whole theory of workers’ councils in industry and who is himself a scientist and astronomer, very much part of the industrial world.[13]

If we could identify two thinkers who most inspired Chomsky when creating this concept of libertarian socialism, we could mention, first of all, from social anarchism, more specifically from anarcho-syndicalism, Rudolf Rocker. His theories have greatly inspired Chomsky’s concepts presented here. Rocker was a German who began to defend anarchism after moving through the Social-Democratic Party. He lived from 1873 to 1958. Among the concepts created by him, we can mention one, presented in his conception of anarcho-syndicalism, which seems to be crucial in the development of Chomsky’s thoughts: the idea of fighting for improvements in short-term conditions and the preparation of a future society. Regarding Chomsky’s writings, it seems to us that Rocker’s book Anarcho-Syndicalism has been the one, which has most influenced his way of thinking in terms of libertarian socialism. The second thinker is, as mentioned above, Anton Pannekoek. Pannekoek was a Dutch revolutionary who lived from 1873 to 1960. Like Rocker, he moved through the Social-Democratic Party, participating later in the foundation of Netherlands Communist Party. He was a Marxist who defended self-management and criticized totalitarianism, whose conception of the soviets (councils) was that they would allow self-management as a strong weapon against capitalism, a way to stir up class struggle and emancipate the working class. It seems that Pannekoek’s book that has most influenced Chomsky is Working Councils.

4. Anarchism = Socialism + Liberalism

We were recently discussing with some friends from where this formula that Chomsky sustains in his whole speech had originally come from. As indicated occasionally by him, it was extracted from Rudolf Rocker’s thoughts. What is interesting is that this is not a very usual definition of anarchism. To Rocker, “modern anarchism” would be the “confluence of the two great currents which during and since the French Revolution have found such characteristic expression in the intellectual life of Europe: Socialism and Liberalism.”[14] He defined such a relation in the following terms:

Anarchism has in common with Liberalism the idea that the happiness and prosperity of the individual must be the standard of all social matters. And, in common with the great representatives of Liberal thought, it has also the idea of limiting the functions of government to a minimum. [...] In common with the founders of socialism, Anarchists demand the abolition of all economic monopolies and the common ownership of the soil and all other means of production [...].”[15]

In socialism there would be mainly criticism of a society based upon private property that, through wage labor, expropriates the workers. In this sense, Proudhon’s famous words, “property is theft” are fully endorsed. Also in socialism would be the criticism of a society based on predatory individualism in which competition and quest for profits by any means are crucial elements. Socialism, understood in this sense, would be the constant struggle against capitalism politics and the political institutions that sustain exploitation and domination, plus the belief that such a struggle should be direct and should not be mediated by some kind of elite acting in the name of the people or by parliamentary actions that aim for a gradual implementation of socialism. Although not often mentioned by Chomsky, - because of his pragmatic views - revolution would be a crucial element, which would destroy the State and bring the free society. The concept of control over work should be exercised by the workers themselves - the self-management idea that we will see later - is also a crucial element. This socialism would seek basically, according to Chomsky, work under a pre-figurative perspective of constructing today the society in which we wish to live tomorrow. This element, which is very important for anarcho-syndicalist ideas, is often mentioned and defended by him.

In liberalism, there is a theorist often quoted by Chomsky, Wilhelm von Humboldt, who, from his point of view, anticipated and probably inspired John Stuart Mill’s thought. His conceptions that the work should be freely undertaken and that social threads should replace the social oppression under which the people were living, would have an important relationship with libertarian thought. Adam Smith, another thinker often quoted by Chomsky - a representative of pre-capitalist Enlightenment, according to him -, is a critic of labor division and State practices that undermine individual freedom. Liberal theories, in a great measure, recognized free association among people, empathy for each other, solidarity and control over one’s own work, principles that are very close to anarchism. However, capitalism would have disfigured this liberal view, making a concept like Smith’s free market, which had been created considering that “under conditions of perfect liberty, markets will lead to perfect equality”[16], to be used today by the defenders of neo-liberal capitalism.

This classic liberalism should not, however, be confused with the liberalism defended in the context of capitalist tradition. These new tendencies of United States, which call themselves “libertarian” - like those defended by the Libertarian Party - defend, despite the criticisms of the role of the State, private ownership and profit. So, they have no relationship at all with anarchism.

Anarchism, then, would be critical of the government - in great part presented by the liberals - and the critics of capitalism - presented in socialist discourse.

5. Freedom

Freedom is a crucial idea for the anarchist tradition, and Chomsky agrees with this. But, after all, what is freedom? To answer such a question, Chomsky uses a definition formulated by Bakunin, reproducing it in his essay Notes on Anarchism.

“I am a fanatic lover of liberty, considering it as the unique condition under which intelligence, dignity and human happiness can develop and grow; not the purely formal liberty conceded, measured out and regulated by the State, an eternal lie which in reality represents nothing more than the privilege of some founded on the slavery of the rest; not the individualistic, egoistic, shabby, and fictitious liberty extolled by the School of J.-J. Rousseau and other schools of bourgeois liberalism, which considers the would-be rights of all men, represented by the State which limits the rights of each - an idea that leads inevitably to the reduction of the rights of each to zero. No, I mean the only kind of liberty that is worthy of the name, liberty that consists in the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers that are latent in each person; liberty that recognizes no restrictions other than those determined by the laws of our own individual nature, which cannot properly be regarded as restrictions since these laws are not imposed by any outside legislator beside or above us, but are immanent and inherent, forming the very basis of our material, intellectual and moral being - they do not limit us but are the real and immediate conditions of our freedom.”[17]

Bakunin was a faithful and passionate defender of freedom, as we can note through the words above. He believed that no man owes obedience to others and that freedom would exist only from the moment that each person determines his own acts, without the imposition of other’s will. Such freedom would not exist under capitalism or the State. Men are enslaved mainly by Capital-generated oppression that transforms workers into slaves, or using Chomsky’s words, “wage-slaves” and also by State-generated oppression, which reduces and limits the rights of each one, alienating us politically. So, the realization of freedom demands the destruction of both State and Capital by a violent social revolution, which would not leave structures of the State untouched - like in the Marxist conception of revolution. Also, this freedom, said Bakunin, would not be an individual factor, but a collective product, since only collective work emancipates mankind. Bakunin said that “[...] men can only feel and recognize themselves free - and consequently, can only realize their liberty - among other men. To be free, I have to be circled by, and recognized like that, by free men.”.[18]
Chomsky’s thought is based on this criticism of individual freedom. He also does not believe that the attempts to construct some kind of freedom, outside human society are possible. So, a human being is a social product, and would only be able to be free socially. In these terms, Chomsky criticizes an individualist thesis, which says that it would be possible to construct some sort of individual freedom with no relation to a social one; an individual freedom by him and for him. Because individual labor is powerless and sterile, an individual would not triumph over the nature of things in an oppressive system such as the one in which we live today. So, the quest for freedom would be a present day collective effort aiming at its future construction. This freedom would be a product of our thought, our wills and our actions. Chomsky believes that freedom should be present at the ends and the means upon which we shall base ourselves. Without freedom, socialism ends up turning into any kind of tyranny, like many others. We shall remember the numerous examples of State socialism and their “proletariat” dictatorships in the 20th Century.

6. Authority

Frequently, Chomsky defines anarchism as being the constant quest and attempt to overcome illegitimate authority. For him, this unjustified authority must be identified in every sphere of life, whether it is generally in economic and political relations or even in the relations at the workplace, family, etc.. Consequently, Chomsky makes a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate authority. In referring to his comprehension about anarchist tradition, he says that

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. [...] We are 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.”[19]

Chomsky sometimes uses an example of illegitimate authority: if one of his grandchildren (an infant) is running towards a crowded street, he will use force to stop the child. From his point of view, he would be using authority, but a legitimate authority, since he had a justification that only few people (or maybe anyone) would question. Bakunin, when writing about authority, made the same distinction between legitimate and illegitimate authority. He has even gone a little further. He made an important distinction between authority as knowledge about a given subject, and authority as the power to rule. As he justified himself:

Does it follow that I reject all authority? Such a thought is far from me. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the boot maker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer.” [20]

The authority that is illegitimate and, thus, cannot be justified, is that which is not founded in right and reason. The authority which creates any kind of oppression - it can be economic, political, gender, race or any other form of discrimination - is illegitimate. We start with the premise that men and women are free and, for innumerous reasons, have become slaves - the situation in which we are today. We are the Capital’s slaves, the State’s slaves, prejudices’ salves, in short, slaves for many reasons. Any action based on authority that contributes in the tightening or extension of this slavery, is based on illegitimate authority. It must, then, be denounced and overcome. A priori, the utilization of authority is always illegitimate, until the contrary is proven. “So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.”[21]

Concerning authority as knowledge, Chomsky believes that no authority is infallible, and that a person may detain more knowledge about a given subject, but from the moment that other subjects are discussed, the authorities are going to be others. Justifying his conception, Chomsky gives the example of his classes: he puts the relation between teacher and students as a moment of mutual learning, in which teacher teaches the students what he knows better and, at the same time, learns with them. He says: “no one owns truth and insight. You hunt it all over the place, you find your own mistakes, and you learn things from others.”[22]

7. Labor

Chomsky’s conceptions on labor are defined in the same way as his conceptions on libertarian socialism, based mainly upon the ideas of Rocker and Pannekoek. These two militants had in common, besides other features, the defense of self-management, a concept often mentioned and endorsed by Chomsky when defending the ideal system of labor.

As René Berthier said once, self-management is “the means which allows putting into practice the following principle: worker’s emancipation will be undertaken by the workers themselves”. In this sense, self-management means direct management of labor by those who realize it. It is opposed to labor in capitalist society, since the individuals, when selling their labor force to an owner, end up being exploited, because the lowest possible value is paid to them, and thus the employer gets benefited by the fruits of other people’s labor, accumulating capital which does not come from his own efforts. In this way, the workers do not have control of their labor and are not responsible for it. Thus, they end up being alienated. Capitalism has the obtainment of profit as its main goal, and the worker is only a means which allows the employer to attain this goal. Self-management is also opposed to State-alienated labor. An example of this, was USSR, where centralized planification put every decision on work in the hands of the State, such as what would be produced, how it would be produced, prices, distribution, etc.. In the same way as in capitalism, the working class continued to be exploited, alienated and oppressed. However, those responsible for this situation had changed. Capitalism’s private employer gave place to the State employer; both were oppressors in the same way.

The criticism of alienated labor and labor division - present in Marx and sometimes mentioned by Chomsky - could be applied to the capitalist system, as Marx did during the 19th Century, or to the system born from his conceptions, the State socialism. In this, the worker was still a degraded “fragment of a human being” and an “accessory of a machine”. The anarcho-syndicalist attempts to take mankind out of this condition constitute an effort towards the creation of “‘free associations of free producers’ that would engage in militant struggle and prepare to take over the organization of production on a democratic basis”[23].

Self-management would place workers as owners of their workplaces, and they would carry out their activities as wished by them. Private ownership would be substituted by collective property - which shall not be confused with the State’s property - and everyone would work in the name of the common well-being. Educated and organized, working people would be able to constitute what Chomsky calls “industrial democracy”, a system in which the participation of workers would be total, something that would bring, in a great deal, their self-realization.[24]

Besides that, technology is a factor that would bring well-being to people, in the case that its development had this focus. Kropotkin, who dedicated part of his writings to this subject, justified the use of technology by saying that a great deal of human effort would be saved. His discussion, present in The Conquest of Bread, on women can be taken as an example. In it, Kropotkin criticizes the socialists (men) who insist in keeping their wives fully responsible for the house chores, oppressing them with that. Technology - he presents the shoe-polishing machines or the dishwashers - could be used to perform a great amount of the house chores, leaving women free to develop creative work, something beyond domestic, non-creative and alienating work.[25] This discussion on the role of technology has an important place in USA’s anarchism, since there is a tendency - anarcho-primitivism - that believes technology itself is oppressing. Chomsky, as other U.S. anarchists - Murray Bookchin could be mentioned - also believes that machines and technology can help mankind to attain its emancipation. For Chomsky,

Much of the necessary work that is required to keep a decent level of social life going can be consigned to machines-at least in principle-which means humans can be free to undertake the kind of creative work which may not have been possible, objectively, in the early stages of the industrial revolution.”[26]

For Chomsky, labor is one of the most important factors in the quest for a libertarian society in which happiness and human realization are priorities. For this reason, labor should propitiate people as much satisfaction and well-being as possible. In a libertarian society, from his point of view, everyone should be dedicated to constructive, pleasant, fulfilling work. And undesirable work should be divided among those who are able to perform it. Labor would be the means through which working people would guarantee their existence, since, according to Chomsky, those who didn’t wish to work would risk starving to death - an idea that brings his thought closer to Bakunin’s collectivist ideas than to Kropotkin’s communist theories.

The self-management that was present in 1936’s Spanish Revolution is often mentioned by Chomsky as an example of the capacity of the working class to be fully responsible for the management of its labor. He believes that the realizations of the workers and peasants were impressive in many ways, and that the overtaking of factories and lands by the people, when carried out, demonstrated the practical viability of self-management.

8. Democracy

The concept of democracy defended by Chomsky is far from being the one known nowadays. The word democracy, which has its origin in Greek - demo meaning people and kratia meaning government or power - was utilized throughout history and may have had very different - and maybe antagonistic - meanings. Democracy is discussed today by a range of people, from the anarchists to George Bush. Chomsky frequently uses the word democracy, and maybe for this reason, he seduces elements of a more institutional left, which believes that their parties are an essential element on such a democracy. But, after all, what does Chomsky mean when he uses the word democracy?

As said by him: Criticism of ’democracy’ among anarchists has often been criticism of parliamentary democracy, as it has arisen within societies with deeply repressive features.[27] His criticism is similar to the classical anarchist’s one. When employing the word democracy in a positive manner, he doesn’t refer to it as an expression of political parties or universal suffrage. Representative democracy is, as the anarchists have widely demonstrated, a way to hand over - the professional politician - the right that every one of us has to act politically and participate directly in the decisions that affect us. As Malatesta says: “Government signifies delegation of power, that is, abdication of the initiative and sovereignty of everyone into the hand of the few”[28] The government is, thus, a centralizing element that takes away from the people the capacity of making political decisions. In this way, the parliament creates a distinction between the governors and the governed, progressively increasing the distance between both of them. From the examples of history itself, it can be inferred that even the most “progressive” governments have an enormous distance from the grassroots. As sometimes, public said by its bureaucracy, they have an increasing necessity of being in power and end up corrupted by this same power, without mentioning money issues. As wrote Kropotkin:

“The parliaments, faithful to the real tradition and its modern transfiguration, the Jacobinism, did not anything but concentrate power in the hands of government. Functionalism to everything - this is the characteristic of the representative government. Since the beginning of this century, one talk on decentralization, autonomy, and all that is done is centralize, kill the last vestiges of autonomy.”[29]

According to Chomsky, representative democracy is criticized basically for two reasons: in the first place, because the centralization of the decisions of the State, that performs the monopoly of power; in the second place, because of the fact that representative democracy concerns only the political sphere and does not extend itself to other spheres. Although Chomsky’s belief that political parties are, sometimes, the expression of the will of the people, he says that creating political parties is not the best way to attain people’s desires, and he does not even guarantee it is an adequate means.[30]

Chomsky attributes to the word democracy the following meaning: effective participation on making decisions. This does not mean a merely consultative participation, but a really deliberative one on the decisions related to each one. We can even compare Chomsky’s “democracy” with “self-management” extended to the political sphere, what some anarchists consider as being federalism. The same self-management explained above, when extended to the political sphere, constitutes the concept of democracy that we consider to be present in Chomsky’s thought. This democracy can be better related to the concept of direct democracy than to that of representative, or parliamentary democracy. In direct democracy, the decisions are not entirely delegated to someone else - which happens in representative democracy - but are taken by every group, in the sphere of labor or community. It is an effective democracy in which power really emanates from the people and not from any class of representatives, who make decisions in the name of the people. The possibility of a larger decisory instance and the possibility of a relationship between communities and the different branches of labor would constitute the federalism that Proudhon defended in the 1860’s.

Federalism opens the doors to a decentralized decisory instance that would balance, as Proudhon believed, authority and freedom. It would make possible, in this way, decision-making outside the State. He wrote that,

Federation [...] means pact, contract, agreement, convention, alliance, etc., it is a convention for the which an or more heads of the family, an or more communes, an or more groups of communes or States, they assume an obligation reciprocal and equally some en relationship to the other ones for an or more private objects, whose load assigns then special and exclusively to the police officers of the federation”[31]

The federation idea is certainly the more discharge to which rose to our days the political genius. [...] She solves all the difficulties that it raises the agreement of the Freedom and of the Authority. With her we don’t have more of fearing us in the government antinomies [...].”[32]

In this way, the diverse communities would make their decisions in a local level, passing their decisions to a delegate - who would be chosen by the community itself and would have a revocable mandate - who would be responsible for taking his community’s decisions to a higher decisory instance. The biggest difference in comparison with the representative political system is that this spokesman (the delegate) would serve only as a link between community and a higher decisory instance, and would not decide for the community he represents.

Chomsky says that “ the decisions could be made over a substantial range, but by delegates who are always part of the organic community from which they come, to which they return and in which, in fact, they live”, and that “parties represent basically class interests”. He also says that “insofar as political parties are felt to be necessary, anarchist organization of society will have failed”.[33] In this sense, he is very close to those who defend the extension of self-management also to the political sphere. This is the reason for, from our point of view, we can demystify the concept of democracy present in Chomsky, showing that despite the utilization of a word that is not meaningful anymore, the meaning given to it is really radical.

9. Goals and Visions

Chomsky’s whole thought related to anarchism is being worked out from the perspective defined by himself as “goals and visions”. According to his own definitions:

By visions, I mean the conception of a future society that animates what we actually do, a society in which a decent human being might want to live. By goals, I mean the choices and tasks that are within reach, that we will pursue one way or another guided by a vision that may be distant and hazy”[34]

In this way, he creates a method, which allows us to trace feasible purposes and which can result in immediate gain for us. For Chomsky, no matter how much the ideals of revolution or a libertarian society reside in us, it is worthless to keep only this in mind and lack mobilizing today in terms of opening the path towards such a purpose. For him, the goals are the short-term purposes; something which is well defined and can be attained today. Thus, what can be understood as goals are, for example, a demand in the workplace for better wages or the organization of the community to demand the pavement of a street; at least, everything attainable in a short period of time. Those goals include choices, which are difficult and have serious human consequences. They must be planned with the purpose of solving an immediate problem. There are people who have immediate necessities and cannot wait for too long for a solution. For this reason, a goal can be feeding the starving or pressing the government to improve the level of the healthcare services for the citizens. Many people may accuse these goals of being “assistencialist” or “reformist”, but the fact is that, for Chomsky, they are immediate necessities, which need to be fulfilled. Fighting for these achievements, however, can be a double edged sword. We can, many times, end up lost in the middle of the institutionalization and have as our ends these short-term goals. That is when the visions come up. Our visions - or that which we see as our end - are the achievement of a libertarian society where everyone can have the right to the complete development of capacities and potentialities; a society which does not give place to any form of oppression. What Chomsky says is that our goals always have to aim for these visions, which cannot be precisely defined, but must serve as a horizon to be reached. Thus, in constructing our short-term goals, we must always know where we want to go, because only doing so, can we avoid getting lost or being deluded by the minor achievements we want to attain.

This raises an important reflection on the reforms and the revolution - which we have treated a little more deeply in another article.[35] According to Chomsky, this method of conceiving social dynamics can be applied in the discussion of reforms - those being understood as short-term achievements - and revolution - this one being understood as the last end and the final purpose of the libertarians. For him, the mistake in this analysis would be to understand reforms as being the same thing as reformism. Reformism is the reforms taken as the ends. The final purpose of a reformist is the reforms. However, the reforms can be understood as an end - thus, constituting reformism - or can be understood as goals, short-term achievements which open the path towards something bigger. Chomsky’s defense of these fights for short-term achievements is rooted mainly in Rudolf Rocker and Rosa Luxemburg thoughts. Rocker, whose arguments laid the foundations for anarcho-syndicalism, said that the short-term achievements were meant to improve the welfare of the working class, but at the same time, were meant to create consciousness and prepare an ideal world - the already mentioned pre-figurative politics. For him, the revolutionary trade unions have two purposes:

1. As the fighting organization of the workers against the employers to enforce the demands of the workers for the safeguarding and raising of their standard of living; 2. As the school for the intellectual training of the workers to make them acquainted with the technical management of production and economic life in general so that when a revolutionary situation arises they will be capable of taking the socio-economic organism into their own hands and remarking it according to Socialist principles.”[36]

Rosa Luxemburg was also very influential in this conception of Chomsky. When answering the creator of reformism in German social democracy, Edward Bernstein, she justified that

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive”[37]

Then, reforms and revolution would not be antagonistic, but complementary, and as far as Chomsky analyses goes, they should be understood and projected together. A short-term achievement, for this reason, can serve as a means to reach something else. Those goals, as we mentioned, must always keep in sight the libertarian vision, which is the revolution plus the constitution of a libertarian society. This vision must enlighten our present actions and always serve as a guide, inspiring and dictating the direction of our actions.

Malatesta, who, as said previously is never quoted by Chomsky, developed something similar to this idea when reflecting about reforms. While the revolution for which we dream does not come, he said, we must not be condemned to non-action and stay waiting for a revolution that comes by itself. For him, propaganda activities and the fight for short-term achievements would also be steps towards the libertarian vision. According to him, the conquest of the reforms could be understood as a gain, taken away from the government, and would serve as a first step towards revolution. Malatesta said that

“[...] it is necessary to pluck from the government and from the capitalists every political and economical order improvements that can make the conditions of fight less difficult and increase the number of those who fight consciously. It is necessary, thus, to pluck them by means that not implicate the recognition of the actual order and that prepare the way for the future.”[38]

10. The Cage Theory

Finally, we decided to discuss the Cage Theory and the whole controversy, which was formed around it. As mentioned above, Chomsky way of thinking is similar to that of many others anarchists’. So, why Chomsky is not well “accepted” by many anarchists? That is what we intend to clarify in exposing and discussing this theory developed by him.

Based on his conceptions of goals and visions, Chomsky began to think about the relation between State and social movements. On this relation - also in a great deal included on the discussion of reforms and revolution mentioned above - he starts thinking about a way to deal with present-day tyrannies, and through social movements, to invest in a form of increasing the reach of freedom. That is when Chomsky comes to a conclusion that he sustains very eloquently: multinational corporations are tyrannies much worse than governments. From his point of view, the governments, no matter how non-democratic they are, offer the people a possibility - even minimal - of intervention or participation, and the corporations are informal dictatorships that give almost no room to intervention or participation. This “vulnerability” of the government should serve to the people obtain some gains, fighting against the problems that afflict them in an immediate way. This possibility of influencing should not necessarily pass through the institutional way; it could also, and specially, happen due to popular pressure and direct action movements. In sum, people could pressure the government in many possible ways. What is clear to Chomsky is that the State is, in a certain way, “pressionable”. On the contrary, corporations - or private tyrannies, as Chomsky likes to refer to them - have the obtainment of profit as their only goal and do not have any obligation, not even rhetoric, to protect people. He believes it is much more difficult for a social movement to influence a corporation than to influence a government.

The Cage Theory was conceived from this point of view. According to Chomsky, the “workers movement in Brazil” explained it to him. Which movement would it be? Maybe it is the Landless? Who knows, maybe it is. The truth is that this whole theory is based on the following conception: contemporary society is locked up in a cage. The goal of those committed in the fight for freedom, for equality and against oppression should be, thus, to raise the floor of this cage until the bars could break up and people could be free of the oppression - from the cage, restrictor of their freedom. Often in his texts and interviews, he sustains that the State is this cage. From this premise, it would be up to the “progressive movements” to guarantee more rights under the existence of the State, and this would be a path, or the first step, towards its abolition. Since the great tyrannies of our times are the corporations, the State, in this sense, can guarantee some rights and some kind of welfare to the people. It really seems confusing. For Chomsky, on today’s world,

“[...] the goals of a committed anarchist should be to defend some state institutions from the attack against them, while trying at the same time to pry them open to more meaningful public participation - and ultimately, to dismantle them in a much more free society.”[39]

This idea of defending the State in some aspects is the greatest controversy with the anarchists. Those, for a long time, have been sustaining that the State, together with Capital, are the two tyrannies that enslave the people. How can a libertarian suddenly talk about defending whatever aspect of the State? For some people it is absurd that Chomsky says this kind of thing:

My short-term goals are to defend and even strengthen elements of state authority which, though illegitimate in fundamental ways, are critically necessary right now to impede the dedicated efforts to "roll back" the progress that has been achieved in extending democracy and human rights.”[40]

For him, the social conquests, which were attained after many years of social uprising, are being lost in the name of profit. The 8-hours work journey, the good health and work security conditions, registration, vacations and many other rights, which were hardly attained, are examples of losses perpetrated by the emerging neo-liberal order.[41] For this reason, making the State accomplish those laws is, for Chomsky, a way to supply short-term help to the people who really need it. That is intimately connected with his way of thinking about goals and visions, reforms, and revolution. These achievements obtained from the State - the reforms -, as seen above, must be understood as a first step towards freedom. From those conquests, people must always want more, a way to take these conquests to their maximum extents. Besides that, his analysis ends in the following way: if companies could be “reformed” by the anarchist movements during great parts of history, why cant the present day governments? For Chomsky, it is about the same question.

Although such a theory has some complications in the sphere of ideas, when considered in a practical way, it can be accepted without further controversy. Chomsky has a very pragmatic and non-idealistic point of view. For him, those who have urgent necessities today, must solve their problems today. For this reason, when talking about the famished and those who do not have decent medical assistance, Chomsky is the first to argue that those people should be immediately aided; it does not matter if this aid comes from the State since, otherwise, they can end up dead. If we had two alternatives: 1. Aid people through the State or 2. Do not aid them at all; he is clear in choosing the first alternative. He continues his whole analysis in this way. If we had two options: 1. to pressure the State in applying the legislation that demands protection and security on labor or 2. simply watch people die without doing anything, or even with good intentions, and not be able to avoid those deaths in an effective way; then the alternative to be chosen would also be the first one. For him, even if the revolutionary have projects to solve those problems, since they cannot be effective, the more effective alternative should be chosen at that moment. When asked if his goal does not contradict his vision, Chomsky answers yes, and that both of them will always be in conflict. According to him it is up to each one of us to analyze the facts and choose the goals that have the more impact on people’s well-being and try the best to align those goals with the visions.

* * *

Those ten relationships between Noam Chomsky’s thinking and anarchist ideas can give us an idea about his affinities with libertarian thought. This can be surprising for many people. To others, this can contribute to the discussion and updating of ideas, which are intended to minimize today’s world problems. It is not about to consider Chomsky works like a dogma, a formula to solve all these problems. He also would say that if we did such a thing, we would be more churchgoers than anarchist militants. His contributions serve to give us some ideas and to contribute in the discussions of contemporary anarchism.

With the end of the “socialist world” in the 20th Century, Bakunin’s old predictions actually have been confirmed, and socialism internal controversies between statists and anarchists have gained a new configuration. History has shown everyone who wishes to see that the so-called proletariat’s dictatorship was a complete fiasco. This opens a new perspective to libertarian militants since State socialism has proven itself incapable of overcoming many of the problems, which assault the world.

Another factor, which actually provides us with credibility, is the Brazilian political context. The ancient dream of thousands of militants of the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores - PT) of seeing their party attain power was materialized. However, PT has demonstrated that it is incapable of bringing any change to the country’s political, social and economic contexts. Besides keeping the same economic politics as the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, PT’s government has brought a major aggravation: because almost all social movements were involved in its foundation - occurred in the early 1980’s -, now that PT is in government, those movements are feeling contemplated, in a certain way, by this government. This means that simply there is no strong opposition. Despite this, those social movements have been realizing that even in PT’s government there is no room for the true democracy or the true freedom. Although conservative in many ways and often non-libertarian, this is a room, which can be used by anarchists in a productive manner. Many PT militants that formed the party can be found today frustrated with what their party has become, and a lot of militants desolated with the institutionalization of their movements or the little room dedicated to socialism and freedom. Maybe that is another interesting space to be occupied by libertarian ideas.

With the end of State socialism and the demonstration that even “left-wing” governments are as reactionary as any other, doors are open for the development of libertarian socialism. Today the world’s major problems are still the same: capitalism oppression, alienation and exploitation of workers, the huge amount of unemployed, repression, control by the State, and many others. That is the “disgrace of economic exploitation and social and political slavery”. The solution for those problems given by Chomsky, resides on the practice of libertarian socialism. When we asked him a question a few months ago (2004), and asked if anarchism still served as an inspiration and guide to the solution of all those issues, his answer was straight: “Unquestionably”[42]


[1] This text was originally written in Portuguese and translated into English. In the translation, we tried to substitute the quotations and works, with the corresponding in English. The books we could not find an English translation were quoted in Portuguese. The same is true for the quotations: what we could find in English, it is quoted originally in English, and what we could not find, was just translated.

[2] Felipe Corrêa is a Brazilian anarchist militant and translator. Among his works is the Chomsky’s compilation on anarchism, published in Brazil, called Notas sobre o Anarquismo [Notes on Anarchism], a book that includes 2 articles and 8 interviews. He is also member of the libertarian press Faísca Publicações Libertárias ( and Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro (

[3] We quoted preferentially books that were translated into Portuguese and that is known to us.

[4] Chomsky, Noam. Notas sobre o Anarquismo. São Paulo: Imaginário/Sedição, 2004.

[5] Chomsky, Noam. Notes on Anarchism. In: For Reasons of State.

[6] Chomsky, Noam. Reform and Revolution. In: Anarcho-Syndicalist Review # 25 and # 26.

[7] Bakunin, Mikhail. Statism and Anarchy.

[8] Ibid.

[9]Chomsky, Noam. The Relevance of Anarcho-Syndicalism. In: Radical Priorities.

[10] Chomsky, Noam. Anarchism, Marxism & Hope for the Future.In: Red and Black Revolution # 2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] For an interesting discussion between social anarchism and lifestyle anarchism see, Murray. Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism. San Francisco: AK Press, 1995.

[13] Chomsky, Noam. The Relevance of Anarcho-Syndicalism.

[14] Rocker, Rudolf. Anarcho-syndicalism.


[16] Chomsky, Noam. Class Warfare.

[17] Chomsky, Noam. Notes on Anarchism.

[18] Bakunin, Mikhail. O Princípio do Estado - Três Conferências Feitas aos Operários do Vale de Saint-Imier.
[19] Chomsky, Noam. Reform and Revolution.

[20] Bakunin, Mikhail. What is Authority?

[21] Chomsky, Noam. Activism, Anarchism and Power.

[22] Chomsky, Noam. Reform and Revolution.

[23]Chomsky, Noam. Notes on Anarchism.

[24] For an interesting Chomsky essay discussing self-management see: Chomsky, Noam. “Industrial Self-Management”. In: Radical Priorities. Oakland: AK Press, 2003.

[25] See Kropotkin, Piotr. The Conquest of Bread.

[26] Chomsky, Noam. The Relevance of Anarcho-Syndicalism.

[27] Chomsky, Noam. Anarchism, Marxism & Hope for the Future.

[28] Malatesta, Errico. Anarchy.

[29] Kropotkin, Piotr. Textos Escolhidos.

[30] Chomsky, Noam. Libertarian Socialism Dilemmas.In: Notas sobre o Anarquismo. This interview was conducted by the editorial collective that published the book in 2004.

[31] Proudhon, P.-J.. The Principle of Federation.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Chomsky, Noam. The Relevance of Anarcho-Syndicalism.

[34] Chomsky, Noam. Goals and Visions. In: Powers and Prospects.

[35] The author wrote another article called Reforma e Revolução [Reform and Revolution] which is to be published in Brazil by Conrad press.

[36] Rocker, Rudolf. Op. Cit.

[37] Luxemburg, Rosa. Reform or Revolution.

[38] Malatesta, Errico. Anarquistas, Socialistas e Comunistas.

[39] Chomsky, Noam. Goals and Visions.

[40] Ibid.

[41] In Brazil, all the labor laws incorporated in the legislation by Getúlio Vargas government, in the 1930s, were reflective of anarchist mobilization during the decades of 1910 and 1920. The anarcho-syndicalist movement that took place during these times demanded better workplace conditions, registration, 8-hour journey, and other rights. A decade after, being threatened by the growing social movements, the government created these laws, putting it like a government action and abusing the propaganda, trying to show the benefits of a welfare state government.

[42] Chomsky, Noam. Libertarian Socialism Dillemas.