by Mark, Detroit
(from Communist Voice #25, Nov. 27, 2000)
Adam Smith: Profit-seeking is good for the whole society
Adam Smith as Chomsky's nascent anarchist
Does state intervention negate economic laws?
Glorifying small-scale production
Denying economic laws leads Chomsky down a blind path
Chomsky wonders if markets are "preferable"
Does freedom from the state imply an end to capitalism?
Anarchism vs. the workers' state
History as mystery: Chomsky campaigns against historical materialism
Human nature: Chomsky's ultimate explanation of society
. Anarchism is finding appeal today among a section of activists searching for an alternative to capitalism. But does anarchism really represent a path to a future free of exploitation and oppression? This article will examine this issue by looking at the views of one of its proponents in the U.S., Noam Chomsky. To some, Chomsky is known mainly for commentaries exposing U.S. foreign policy, or the crimes and self-serving lies of the corporate and government elite and the mainstream media. But for several decades he has also been promoting a variety of anarchist trends and giving his own variant of typical anarchist ideas. Today, Chomsky is closely linked with Z Magazine, a leftist journal promoting activist movements. Among other things, Z Magazine has been sympathetic to the mass civil disobedience tactics that have been prominent in the recent protests against the WTO, IMF, and other capitalist agencies. Though the magazine is not exclusively anarchist, Chomsky is one of the magazine's staff writers. As well, the internet presence of the magazine via "ZNet" includes an extensive archive of Chomsky's books, articles and interviews. Though Chomsky talks about replacing capitalism with an anarchist future, this does not stop him from also glorifying meek pacifist trends such as the Quakers, Witness for Peace, and even some Catholic archbishops in Latin America.
. In his writings, Chomsky expresses outrage against the capitalist system. He attacks "capitalism", "the market", and the "wage-labor system". He speaks in favor of a socialist society without "private ownership of the means of production" or any government apparatus. No doubt these are worthy goals. But what is capitalism according to Chomsky? He thinks it's merely the big corporations kept alive by the government. As Chomsky puts it:
. "What is called 'capitalism' is basically a system of corporate mercantilism, with huge and largely unaccountable private tyrannies exercising vast control over the economy, political systems, and social and cultural life, operating in close cooperation with powerful states that intervene massively in the domestic economy and international society."(1)
. The dominance of powerful private monopolies and state intervention on their behalf is an undeniable feature of modern capitalism. But there are also small capitalist businesses and farmers. Capitalist relations have developed among vast sections of the peasantry around the world, reflected in class divisions between rich and poor peasants. This occurs not only in private capitalist economies, but also where there have been communal forms such as in the "ejidos" of Mexico or the agricultural collectives in China. Wherever production of goods for the market becomes extensive, capitalism takes root. But Chomsky doesn't recognize small-scale capitalism. So time and again he ends up unwittingly supporting it. Thus, he winds up supporting the famous advocate of the free-market, Adam Smith, who wrote at a time when market production was still dominated by small producers, as anti-capitalist.
. Such stands of Chomsky are in line with the general anarchist vision. Anarchism promises that all the evils of capitalism will be overcome if only government is eliminated and society is composed of small autonomous groups, which perhaps might be loosely federated with one another. But anarchism, no matter what the wishes of its proponents, is doomed to fail because it does not recognize that in its future society the economic transactions between its autonomous groups will be subject to the laws of the market just as certainly as the transactions that take place between buyers and sellers today. With this, the division between rich and poor will also eventually arise, along with money, class oppression and a state to enforce the privileges of the rich.
. Anarchism also promotes small autonomous groups (e.g. "affinity groups") as the solution for
the problems in building the mass movements. This will supposedly overcome the need for
leadership of the mass movements, which anarchism equates with tyranny, along with the need
for using political means and parties to help organize a revolutionary movement. Some anarchists
even consider basic forms of class organization like unions as suspect, ignoring that the real
problem is the class collaborationist AFL-CIO union bureaucracy, not unions per se. Thus, while
some anarchists may actually try to organize the masses, anarchist ideology introduces
anti-organizational tendencies that will only weaken efforts to build a revolutionary class
movement capable of destroying capitalism. An array of anarchist trends in the U.S. consider
Chomsky as an articulate and learned champion of their doctrine. What then does Chomsky's
anarchism have to offer?
Adam Smith: Profit-seeking is good for the whole society
. Chomsky's views shows the close affinity between anarchist ideology and classical free-market theory. Chomsky believes the most famous theorist of free-market economics, Adam Smith, represents a sort of nascent anti-capitalist anarchism. He says that
"my personal visions are fairly traditional anarchist ones, with origins in the Enlightenment and classical liberalism"
and Smith is one of the figures of classical liberalism that he adores.(2)
. Smith's best-known work, The Wealth of Nations, was written in 1776. The bourgeoisie at this time was still engaged in battling feudal regimes and restrictions on their development. Under the banner of establishing "natural liberty," Smith's work proposes measures that would promote the free development of capitalism. By "natural," Smith implied that the bourgeois relations of production which he sought to assist were in line with the laws of nature. Hence, in contrast, previous economic systems were artificial, while bourgeois relations were supposedly as eternal as nature itself. For Smith "natural liberty" meant the end of government efforts to assist economic activity in any particular direction or place restrictions on it. Thus, "natural liberty" was defined as follows:
"the sovereign is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interests of society."(3)
. As opposed to the government interfering to decide what would be best for the economy, Smith advocated that society benefited by having production in whatever sector was most profitable. He did not deny this system of production would be motivated by the self-interest of each producer. But he thought that independent of the intentions of the profit-seekers, the interests of society as a whole, and not just the capitalists, would automatically be served. This was the supposed wonder-working "invisible hand" that Smith is known for. Here's an example of how Smith explained this, although here he does not use the phrase "invisible hand":
. "Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily, leads him to prefer employment which is most advantageous to the society."(4)
. Smith recognized certain evils that were starting to develop even in the early capitalism that he described. But Smith thought these ills would just be temporary, and since he wrote during an early period of capitalism, before the very sharp class contradictions between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie had fully developed, it was possible to imagine it was so. Karl Marx aptly noted that
. "Economists like Adam Smith and Ricardo [David Ricardo, whose main work was written about 40 years after Smith's Wealth of Nations -- Mark], who are the historians of this epoch [of the bourgeoisie fighting for supremacy against feudal conditions -- Mark] have no other mission than that of showing how wealth is acquired in bourgeois production relations, of formulating those relations into categories, into laws, and of showing how superior those laws, these categories, are for the production of wealth to the laws and categories of feudal society. Poverty is in their eyes merely the pang which accompanies every childbirth, in nature as in industry.(5)
Adam Smith as Chomsky's nascent anarchist
. Given Smith's promotion of bourgeois relations, how is it that Chomsky considers him a forerunner of anti-capitalist anarchism? He sees in Smith merely the good things Smith thought would happen if only the government stayed out of the way of each producer doing their own thing and ignores the bourgeois nature and the actual workings of the economic relations that Smith was promoting Thus, Chomsky is excited about Smith for
"offering nuanced arguments for markets on the grounds that under 'perfect liberty' there should be a natural tendency towards equality, a condition for efficient market function."(6)
. As we have seen, Smith's "liberty" was to allow each producer to be free to pursue profit without government interference or assistance. But Chomsky avoids mentioning that according to Smith, the proper goal of each producer was profit. He only highlights that equality was the goal that was to be achieved by "perfect liberty." By avoiding the specific class nature of the economic relations that Smith supported, Chomsky can reinterpret Smith's phrases about liberty and equality to mean whatever he desires. Thus, Chomsky takes Smith's criticism of various horrors that were arising, like concentration of wealth and power and the subjection of workers to a mind-numbing type of production under capitalist division of labor, as sufficient to declare Smith a founding father of anti-capitalist anarchism, as opposition to bourgeois production relations themselves. But as we have seen, Smith argued that the ills of capitalism were merely a brief inconvenience on the way to universal harmony.
. Smith's glorification of small producers carrying out free transactions among themselves is music to Chomsky's anarchist ears. So he never bothers to question Smith's view that small producers pursuing their own designs would give rise to equality. But starting from small, relatively equal producers, what did the market actually give rise to? It led not to equality, but to some producers growing stronger at the expense of the others, to a wiping out of the weaker capitalists, and to the concentration of production in the hands of a relative handful of monopolies. Smith's market lead not to universal well-being, but to the creation of a new oppressed class, the proletariat, suffering at the hands of the capitalist exploiters. Chomsky confuses the relative equality that existed between the producers at an early stage of capitalism with a so-called "natural tendency" of the market. Smith wanted no capitalist to get an advantage over the other via government assistance. Thus, he was against the huge firms with Crown-granted monopolies of his day. Get rid of such privileged monopolies, and in that sense each business would be equal. As well, in Smith's time, despite the Crown-granted trading monopolies, production itself was still dominated by smaller entrepreneurs, not the giant industrial enterprises that eventually developed out of market competition. So in that sense as well, there was relative equality between producers. But the tendency of capitalism was not toward equality, but toward creating huge gaps between the entrepreneurs both within a given country and between rich and poor countries.
. But rather than examine the true workings of the production relations described by Smith, Chomsky stresses that Smith has little in common with later economists who Chomsky considers as pro-capitalist because they insist on portraying in graphic detail how the capitalists, of necessity, ruin the working masses and each other.
. Let's look at one striking example of how Chomsky pretends there is nothing in common between Smith and later pro-capitalist economists. This involves Chomsky's reaction to certain statements by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan. (Buchanan is a conservative free-market economist with no relation to Pat Buchanan.). Buchanan states that
. "Any person's ideal situation is one that allows him full freedom of action and inhibits the behavior of others so as to force adherence to his own desires. That is to say, each person seeks mastery over a world of slaves."(7)
. Chomsky's reaction is to declare that this statement by Buchanan is "a thought that Adam Smith would have considered pathological". But what exactly is it in Buchanan's views that upsets Chomsky? Chomsky isn't upset about the notion of complete freedom for the individual because that's the anarchist ideal. Chomsky is not pleased with the idea that full freedom for the individual means pursuing only their "own desires". But if so, he is arguing not only with Buchanan, but also Adam Smith who advocated that freedom to pursue economic self-interest for each person was the path to the best society. No doubt Chomsky is upset because Buchanan's general portrayal of complete market freedom is not a genteel pursuit of self-interest with each producer scarcely affecting the other, but a war of attrition. Buchanan depicts a ruthless struggle of each participant in the market to conquer the other, to crush one's competitors there, and pursue "mastery over a world of slaves." Buchanan's ideal situation certainly sounds very brutal. Chomsky, who does not want such a brutal society, thus cries out in horror against Buchanan. But as disgusting as Buchanan's ideal seems, it is an apt description of what actually happens in the market. Even the best-intentioned entrepreneur soon learns that the pursuit of their self-interest is impossible without doing damage to their competitors, and using every means at their disposal to do so. Chomsky fumes at Buchanan, because Buchanan, in his own crude way, spells out just where Smith's economic relations actually leads.(8)
. For Chomsky, the way Smith's free-market really operates is of little importance. What matters
is what Smith thought should be the results of the developing capitalist order he described. In
short, what attracts Chomsky to Smith is Smith's idealization of early capitalism under the banner
of liberty and equality. It is no wonder that Chomsky sees anarchist ideals here. Smith had
illusions that the relatively small capitalist firms of his day, free from state restrictions on
commerce, would lead to a harmonious world. The anarchists curse capitalism, but hold that an
economy based on transactions between independent, autonomous producers freed from any
governance, will end oppression. The anarchist Chomsky embraces Smith's idealization of the
market because, in reality, the future society of the anarchist is idealized market relations.
Does state intervention negate economic laws?
. Chomsky's chafing at those who point out the inevitability of capitalism mistreating the masses is connected to a series of basic anarchist prejudices. Anti-capitalist anarchists do not like what they see of capitalism, but they see the state as the root cause of oppression, not the underlying economic relations. (Not all anarchists are anti-capitalist. There are also individualist-anarchists who simply want to unchain capitalism from the state, some even calling themselves anarcho-capitalists.) Chomsky objects to any talk of economic laws and promotes that how the economy develops is basically a matter of what the state decides to do. This can be seen in the following quote, in which Chomsky denounces David Ricardo, a proponent of capitalist economy who, nonetheless, made important advances in understanding its inner workings, such as that the source of profit was the unpaid surplus labor of the workers. Ricardo and other economists are attacked merely for claiming there are laws by which capitalism operates and not believing the state was the root cause of every major feature of capitalism. Chomsky, after giving examples of how capitalism doesn't meet "human needs," and thus is a "failure" for all but "a narrow sector of privilege" says:
. "These developments are commonly attributed to inexorable market forces -- immutable, like the principles of gravitation, David Ricardo argued during an earlier exercise of ideological warfare. Analysts then divide over the contribution of international trade, automation and other factors. Putting aside the absurdity of comparing human institutions, with their specific values and choices, to laws of nature, there is an element of deception in all of this. The alleged efficiencies of trade and automation are hardly attributable to the market. Huge state subsidy and intervention has always been required. . . . "(9)
. Let's look at the contention that without the state, capitalist development would have come to nothing. That capitalism can develop according to definite laws on its own accord without the state, and even with the resistance of the state, is shown by the history of the bourgeoisie's development as a class. Under feudalism there was also a state, but a state that choked capitalist development through guild restrictions, innumerable local customs barriers, etc. Despite that, the bourgeoisie kept gaining in economic strength, became a powerful force in society, and where it became strong enough, it rid itself of the old state and built a new one serving its needs. This capitalist state tries to maintain and regulate the present system. But for all its efforts, it has hardly overcome the market. Even with today's domination by monopolies and with much state intervention, anarchy of production reigns, albeit in new forms. It's true the capitalists need the state as a means to maintain the present economic relations. But the increased reliance on the state for economic bailouts and keeping rebellions down only shows that capitalist development has given rise to new economic forces it cannot control and a vast expansion of the proletariat that struggles against it. It demonstrates that the economic laws are more powerful than the will of any capitalist or the power of any state. Far from this meaning that the toilers are doomed to perpetual oppression by inexorable laws, these laws are creating the conditions for a new social system. This new system will be marked by social ownership of the means of production, which will be in harmony with the already social character of large-scale production that has grown up under capitalism, and outgrown the forms of private ownership (whether they be ordinary private ownership, or state-capitalist).
. Chomsky though is blind to this and thus also tries to explain the growth of powerful monopoly corporations as mainly due to state action. He states:
. "It should be added that the extraordinary power that corporations and financial institutions enjoy was not the result of popular choices. It was crafted by courts and lawyers in the course of the construction of a developmental state that serves the interests of private power."(10)
. It's obvious that the masses did not vote for the creation of monopoly and that the courts and lawyers rewrote the laws to assist monopoly. But this explains nothing about the origin of monopoly. If the small-scale capitalism of the early 19th century had not already been evolving into large businesses, writing laws to protect monopolies would have been pointless. If the state served powerful private corporations, how did that economic power arise? Chomsky doesn't answer this, but merely repeats over and over that the power of corporations subverts democracy. In contrast, Marx showed in painstaking detail how commodity production at a certain level leads to some producers becoming exploiters and others wage-laborers creating profits for them, i.e., to capitalism. In turn, the anarchy of capitalist production for the market leads to the means of production being centralized by a relatively small group of big monopolies.
. Chomsky's "explanation" explains nothing, but it fits in nicely with the anarchist idea that the
state is the root cause of all evil. Likewise, anarchism does well to stay away from a close study
of the laws of commodity production, as it would also tend to expose where their ideal society of
independent producers, free from any centralized control by society as a whole, actually leads.
Glorifying small-scale production
. Chomsky's quote on economic laws and the role of the state also raises the specific charge that there is no inherent advantage to automation over earlier forms of production. If large-scale machine industry has nonetheless conquered small production, he can only explain this by the state coming in and subsidizing its development. It's true that present-day capitalism is far from a pure market, but involves a lot of government intervention on behalf of the capitalists. And there have been ebbs and flows of state intervention during the history of capitalism. But it's absurd to argue that there is no inherent advantage in employing the latest technology. In fact, capitalist competition itself, without any assistance from the state, compels each competing owner toward utilizing technological innovation. Advances in production techniques create cheaper goods, and the capitalist who fails to match their competitors in this regard will become extinct. The process of advancing production capabilities under capitalism also decimates the working class and creates an army of unemployed, thus creating more competition among the workers and driving their conditions down. Thus, capitalism advances production through ruining the workers. But the point is not that capitalism treats the workers well, but that a tendency toward automation and large-scale production is an inherent tendency of capitalist economy, regardless of the degree, or lack thereof, of state interference. The capitalists may enlist the state in various ways to assist this process, but the process goes on with or without state aid.
. If Chomsky can see no legitimate reason for the triumph of large-scale modern industry, what is his attitude toward small production? In the main Chomsky gives tacit support to small capitalism by confining his criticism of capitalism to the big corporations. But sometimes he directly lauds small production as superior to large-scale production. For instance, he promotes Gandhi's scheme for economic development in India based on small-scale production. Chomsky writes of Gandhi's "emphasis on village development, self-help and communal projects" that
. "That would have been very healthy for India. Implicitly he was suggesting a model of development that could have been more successful and humane than the Stalinist model that was adopted (which emphasized the development of heavy industry, etc.)."(11)
. Chomsky's argument here is that since Stalin was for modern large-scale industry, modern large-scale industry is suspect. No doubt the state-capitalist economy erected under Stalin's phony communist regime took a heavy toll on the masses, as capitalist modernization has done everywhere. But what sort of alternative would small production offer? Chomsky presumably thinks that small production would avoid capitalism. Yet around the world the small economy of the peasant village has given rise to capitalist relations and class differentiation. Indeed, eventually large-scale capitalism arises from the competition between the small capitalists. In fact, after lauding small production as the alternative to industrial capitalism, a few paragraphs later Chomsky inadvertently demolishes his own arguments about the virtue of small village production. He denounces the British for preventing industrial development in India and thus condemning the country to poverty. Says Chomsky:
. "The British succeeded. India deindustrialized, it ruralized. As the industrial revolution spread in England, India was turning into a poor, ruralized and agrarian country."(12)
. So it turns out that confining India to small production means insuring its economic helplessness.
. Chomsky's penchant for small capitalism can also be seen in his praise for Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan's promotion of black-owned businesses as the salvation of the black masses. In answering an interviewer who mentions
"But Farrakhan's economic program is small-scale capitalism", Chomsky replies "but when you're crushed, even small-scale capitalism can be a step forward" and praises Farrakhan's calls for "self-help."(13)
No doubt there should be no discrimination against black businesses. But the idea that black businesses will prevent the vast majority of blacks from being crushed is a fraud. It is a path for creating a small stratum of relatively well-off blacks who, to the extent their businesses grown, become exploiters in their own right. Meanwhile, black capitalist notions divert the black workers, the vast majority of blacks, from the class struggle. These are among the reasons the dominant white bourgeoisie, which has forever bled the black masses, itself promotes black capitalism. For all of Farrakhan's anti-racist rhetoric, his black capitalism and "self-help" ideas merge nicely with the neo-liberal program of market solutions for social ills and cutbacks in social programs.
. Chomsky's fondness for small capitalism as an alternative to modern industry can also be seen in his sympathy for what he calls a "genuine conservative" opposition to capitalism. He writes:
. "Genuine conservatives continued to recognize that market forces will destroy what is of value in human life unless sharply constrained."(14)
. The conservative opposition that Chomsky refers to here sees the solution to the evils of capitalism in somehow keeping the market forces as they were in an earlier stage. For instance, Chomsky refers to Alexis de Toqueville's view that the "manufacturing aristocracy" arising in the U.S. in the first half of the nineteenth century might eventually jeopardize democracy in the U.S. So if only we can go back to the good old days before the manufacturing aristocracy, everything will supposedly be fine. Once again, Chomsky ignores that even if the big manufacturers were eliminated, that would still leave the small capitalists and the market itself intact, with competition eventually giving rise to monopoly again. Really, Chomsky's "genuine conservative" opposition is not opposition to ruinous "market forces" themselves, as Chomsky mistakenly puts it, but support for capitalism at an earlier stage versus capitalism at a later stage.
. Chomsky's efforts to fight capitalism by seeking sanctuary from the horrors of modern
production in petty commodity production is futile. But it reflects the typical anarchist view that
sees in capitalist development only terrible things, and not also the creation of conditions that
will lead to the replacement of capitalism by a higher economic order, socialism. Chomsky sees
the suffering of the masses resulting from the growth of capitalist industry, but he does not see
that large-scale production, by centralizing economic operations, is what makes societal control
of production possible. He does not see that the colossal productive powers of modern industry
make it possible to dramatically improve the conditions of the masses and reduce the working
day, both of which are necessary for the elimination of classes. Of course, the working masses
will not enjoy such things unless capitalism is overthrown. But it is capitalism, through the
development of large-scale social production, which also creates and concentrates together vast
forces of propertyless workers who have the potential power to accomplish this task so that the
productive powers now used against them can be put at their disposal.
Denying economic laws leads Chomsky down a blind path
. Had Chomsky paid attention to the real laws governing capitalist development, he would have seen why there was no point in returning to pre-monopoly capitalism. He would have seen that these laws create limits to the future possibilities. For instance, there will always be a definite general pattern that emerges from the spread of market relations. One may wish for a commodity production which doesn't lead to a division between rich and poor, exploiter and exploited, but this division will occur just the same. Likewise, not paying attention to these laws means not seeing the conditions for socialism emerging from within capitalism itself and instead diverting oneself into schemes to keep capitalism from developing, thereby only postponing the creation of the conditions for working class liberation.
. But, as we have seen, Chomsky denies the existence of economic and historical laws altogether. According to Chomsky, the market giving rise to bad things is not "inexorable" or "immutable" because that would deny that human institutions are created by a choice, a choice of what values to uphold. But this counterposition of "choice" to economic "laws" is wrong. He doesn't bother to directly contest the findings of Marx, who demonstrated the general laws of historical development and the particular laws of capitalist economy. He just dismisses the notion of laws of capitalism out of hand because Chomsky is offended by what he believes are the implications of such laws for free choice. He fails to understand that in order for the choices people make to have the desired effect, they have to be based a profound understanding of the operations of the society they seek to change. If there are no laws of human societal development, then there isn't any way to know what the result of one's actions will be. Of course, someone can make a blind and arbitrary choice based on ignorance, which is what free choice amounts to in that case. But in that case their efforts are bound to fail, because the forces of which they are ignorant will continue to work against them despite not being consciously acknowledged. This is what human choice is reduced to if laws affecting the development of human institutions are denied. But if by freedom is meant the ability to consciously bring about change in a desired direction and not just be helpless as history churns ahead, the task is to strive to discover the laws of societal development.
. Chomsky thinks ignoring the laws of capitalism is the key to freedom from the market. Actually
it has meant he is reduced to moral indignation against its evils while having no idea how to
replace it. He looks to small commodity production, but that's market production too. Chomsky,
who is never consistent, at times flirts with anarcho-syndicalism, which accepts large-scale
industry. But the federations of entire industries advocated by the anarcho-syndicalists are so
weak that, in effect, they amount to dividing the different industries, and even the enterprises in
each industry, among independent groups of workers. Such trends falsely imagine they can
overcome the market in this way. But in essence dividing up the enterprises among autonomous
groups means keeping private ownership and the market.
Chomsky wonders if markets are "preferable"
. Chomsky's inability to find an alternative to the market even leads him to openly declare that markets may be necessary in his future society. As Chomsky puts it:
. "I understand well enough what's wrong with them, but that's not sufficient to demonstrate that a system that eliminates market operations is preferable."(15)
. Such an open admission may seem strange. But if there are no economic laws, then why should
the market be excluded? If human institutions can be shaped solely by choice, why can't a way be
found to make the market serve the needs of the masses? This has long been a common idea of
reformist apologists for capitalism. Look at the social-democratic governments that have come to
power in Europe over the years. They too were "socialists" who imagined that the economy could
operate on a capitalist basis, but that they could balance the profit-making of the capitalists with
the needs of the masses. But the idea that class contradictions were going to be overcome in this
way has been proved false. In fact, the concern of the social-democrats for the profit-margins of
the corporations has time and again led them to slash the social programs that were supposed to
redistribute the wealth to the masses. Marxism points out that the way a society distributes
wealth reflects the way in which that wealth is produced. If there's private ownership of the
means of production by the capitalists, then they will accumulate vast wealth at the expense of
the working masses. Neither Chomsky nor the social-democrats believe in this law, but history
has consistently proved it to be true. Chomsky asserted that recognizing capitalist economic laws
would eliminate any choice but capitalism. But it turns out that ignoring these laws led Chomsky
to speculate that maybe the market is "preferable" after all.
Does freedom from the state imply an end to capitalism?
. Chomsky makes it clear that he thinks the struggle of today should be based on the principles of the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century. The best Enlightenment figures developed ideas against tyranny, religion, superstition, etc. that they believed would lead to human emancipation. They were progressive in their day, and the philosophical materialists among them advanced the cause of scientific inquiry. But rather than general emancipation, they actually paved the way for the rise of a new set of exploiters, the bourgeoisie. Thus, despite their claims to be speaking for all humanity, their ideas on society are wholly inadequate for the modern class struggle, which scarcely existed at that time. Not according to Chomsky, though, who argues:
. "In fact, on the very same assumptions that led classical liberalism to oppose the intervention of the state in social life, capitalist social relations are also intolerable. . . .
". . . It is true that classical libertarian thought is opposed to state intervention in social life, as a consequence of deeper assumptions about the human need for liberty, diversity, and free association. On the same assumptions, capitalist relations of production, wage labor, competitiveness, the ideology of the 'possessive individualism' -- all must be regarded as fundamentally antihuman. Libertarian socialism [read: "anti-capitalist anarchism" -- Mark] is properly to be regarded as the inheritor of the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment."(16)
. In reality, opposition to the state in no way automatically implies opposition to capitalism. The assumption of classical liberalism was that without government interference in society, freedom and prosperity for all would reign. Actually it meant free reign for the development of capitalism and new class antagonisms. Chomsky, like many anarchists, recognizes that capitalism is now also a problem. But the anarchist cure for this disease remains trapped in general prescriptions that not only had nothing to do with fighting capitalism, but paved the way for it. Classical liberalism fought for liberty from the state, but didn't see that individual producers freely interacting with each other would lead to the enslavement of society by the market and the rise of a new state. Anarchism shares the same basic idea even though they denounce capitalism. It holds that once you eliminate the state, you have freedom for autonomous enterprises, sovereign and independent from one another. So far we have nothing but a mirror image of classical liberalism.
. But what about overcoming the capitalist economy? The anarchist would take the enterprises from the corporations and divide them up among independent, sovereign collectives of workers and peasants. The problem is that insofar as these new enterprises really are free to carry out transactions with each other as they see fit, and not by a conscious plan serving society as a whole, the laws of the market will again assert themselves. Anarcho-syndicalists feel this problem will be overcome if there are some loose federations of the local enterprises. But in this scheme no part of the federation is obligated to follow any societal plan. The anarchists oppose any agreement binding on everyone, which means rejecting any institution that can effectively represent the interests of society as a whole.
. Chomsky, however, has no way to really overcome the market, so he prefers to romanticize the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy. He writes:
. "As always in the past, one can choose to be a democrat in [Thomas] Jefferson's sense, or an aristocrat. . . . Today's world is far from that of Thomas Jefferson or mid-nineteenth century workers. The choices it offers, however, have not changed in any fundamental way."(17)
. But Jeffersonian democracy, while preferable to despotism, was also a form of bourgeois class rule. It was a political form corresponding to the early capitalism which preceded production becoming centralized in the hands of a relatively few monopolies, which also became dominant politically. Chomsky, however, dresses up Jeffersonian democracy as opposition to the state itself, saying
. "The aristocrats of his [Jefferson's] day were the advocates of the rising capitalist state, which Jefferson regarded with dismay, recognizing the obvious contradiction between democracy and capitalism -- or more accurately, 'really existing capitalism,' linked closely to state power."(18)
. Thus, according to Chomsky, bourgeois democracy in the form supported by Jefferson has no
class character and is against capitalism. This again shows how Chomsky has no clue that less
developed capitalism is still capitalism. Indeed, Jefferson was a "founding father" of a revolution
which aimed to spur the growth of the bourgeoisie in the American colonies by freeing it from
the colonial restrictions of the British Empire. It was neither a revolt against the state in general
nor intended to halt bourgeois development. By ignoring the class nature of early capitalist
democracy Chomsky converts it into the end of class rule. Just as Chomsky declared war on the
market only to embrace it in an earlier form, so he rids himself of the state and classes by
creating illusions in bourgeois democracy in its beginning stages. Behind all the brave "socialist",
"anti-capitalist", and anti-state phrases of Chomsky's anarchism, the essential content does not go
beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy.
Anarchism vs. the workers' state
. Chomsky looks with fright on the workers establishing a unified control of the economy. For Chomsky, any political or economic centralization is evil. As he puts it,
"This natural struggle for liberation runs counter to the prevailing tendency towards centralization in economic and political life."
Chomsky does not realize that his independent enterprises will, through market relations, wind up centralizing themselves with monopolies just as the competition between the enterprises of early capitalism did. The real issue is not one of avoiding centralization of production, which cannot be avoided so long as we wish to maintain modern productive capabilities. Rather it's whether this centralized production shall remain in private hands, as it does now and would in a different form under anarchism also, or under the control of the working class.
. Unless the workers are able to establish such a control, there is no way to overcome the market, no way to replace anarchic production with planned production. After the bourgeois state is vanquished by a victorious workers' revolution there still remains the enormous task of transforming the economic system which will still be dominated by private ownership. The workers will need to keep the defeated bourgeoisie from making a comeback and must step-wise make take over the means of production, converting it into the property of society as a whole. They will also need a high degree of centralized organization to reorganize the economy under the conscious control of the workers as a whole. This means the workers cannot immediately dispense with the state, but must use their own state as a weapon to transform the economy along socialist lines. But while the workers' state is a form of class rule like all states, it differs dramatically from all other states in that it represents the vast majority, the toilers. Indeed, its most important task is to activate all the workers for the administration of the economy and all important social matters. When class distinctions are overcome and the economy is really run by all, the distinction between government and the population ends, and there will no longer be any state. Society will still need to run in an organized way and will require planning institutions and certain rules that everyone will obey. But with the elimination of classes, these institutions no longer represent the rule of one section of society over another.
. It should be noted that a real workers' state has nothing in common with the fake communist regimes that eventually consolidated themselves in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and that still rule in China, Cuba, North Korea, etc. In these countries the ruling party and state officials eventually hardened into a privileged bureaucracy lording over the masses and living in relative splendor off the labor of the workers. This bureaucracy maintained it was Marxist-Leninist, but distorted it beyond recognition to justify the construction of a new type of state-capitalist system. The old capitalists were largely expropriated, but the new state property was run along capitalist lines. These methods encouraged the development of private interests among the enterprise managers and the ministries, which assured that the economy could not overcome anarchic production no matter how many state production plans were drawn up. Indeed, the growth of private interests under this state-capitalist rule paved the way for the transition from state-capitalism to private capitalism that has gone on not only where the phony communist regimes fell, but where they still rule. Today, it is the duty of genuine Marxist-Leninists to clarify the difference between the revisionist distortion of communism and a revolutionary workers' government carrying out a transition to socialism.
. Chomsky, though, rejects the very concept of a workers' government. For him the basic problem with the regimes in the Soviet Union, China, etc., was that they supposedly were workers' regimes. He argues that if the workers' state takes over production, this means that the workers themselves are not taking over production, just a new "elite." But the workers' government ceases to be such if it is not sanctioned by the workers and is not drawing the workers into the task of administering society. It's notable that while anarchists often claim that a workers' state is anti-democratic, the prince of anarchism, Bakunin, argued that even if the workers' government were democratic, he would be against it. Chomsky himself cites Bakunin's argument that
. "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."(19) (emphasis added)
So no matter if the workers' state democratically represents the masses. If the workers have the nerve to elect their most trusted comrades to represent their interests, that supposedly violates their "free self-organization"! That's "violence from above"! The very act of representing is suspect, as it supposedly works against "the workers themselves" deciding things.
But wait. Chomsky himself touts various anarchist schemes that call for each enterprise to have elected representatives. Presumably this means the workers have authorized them to act on their behalf in some way. Either these representatives have no duties, and the whole exercise was a farce, or they have been entrusted to do certain things, in which case, by the standards applied by the anarchists against Marxist socialism, these representatives are exercising tyranny over those who elected them. Indeed, Chomsky at times promotes schemes for regional and national elective bodies. Thus, he must be promoting wholesale persecution of the masses!
. And what of the bogeyman of organizing from above, which is presented as in all instances an obstacle to organizing from below? In the above-mentioned stand of Bakunin, he is railing against "from above" to discredit the notion of a revolutionary workers' government. His reasoning is that the workers' revolution only operates from below and a workers' state is, in his terms, from "above", and as such must be rejected. But by rejecting the idea of a workers' state, Bakunin ignores that such a state is also a product of a revolution of the masses from below. When the workers are able to establish themselves as a ruling class, or before that, to develop their own revolutionary party, this signifies huge strides in their ability to organize themselves. It marks their ability to have a general means to force their will on the bourgeoisie. In this context, Bakunin's outcry against "from above" is simply shrieking against any high degree of organization the workers are able to achieve. The workers' revolution from below, if you like, gives rise to representative bodies that it grants certain powers. This state, in turn from above carries out a certain program on behalf of the workers which requires the mobilization of the whole class into the duties of running society. So action from above has, in this case, assisted action from below. Also, as the transition to socialism progresses, new mass movements assisting the accomplishment of this task will spontaneously well-up, and must be encouraged and assisted by the state. So in a very real sense, the process of achieving socialism will take place both from above and from below.
. In reality, all the anarchist charges against the workers' state as being "from above" and not "the workers themselves" are a smokescreen. What the anarchists really mean when they say "from below" is that each local group or enterprise should be able to do whatever it wants, regardless of the wishes of the workers as a whole. Power for my little group, none for society. That's the anarchist ideal. The anarchists cannot fathom that the workers can freely agree that each of their local organizations would be obliged to obey the decisions of bodies representing the interests of the workers overall. That would be a sin in the anarchists' eyes because that would require accepting an "authority" and "centralization" which Chomsky and other anarchists consider anathema to everything they stand for. Never mind that this authority is that of the workers as a whole. Never mind that this centralization is necessary to replace anarchy of production between autonomous producers with societal planning.
. The transitional workers' state is a boon to the organization and mobilization of the workers.
The anarchist outcry against it is an example of how their standpoint against authority in general
undermines organization of the workers. Indeed, if we take seriously the anarchist idea that
authority is the principal evil in the world and must always be evil in every case, then the whole
notion of organization itself must also be questioned. To see this, let's see how Chomsky deals
with the question of authority. He puts forward that the grand idea informing anarchism is "the
conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled
if that burden cannot be met."(20) Under the category of "authority", Chomsky includes many
forms of oppression that really should be fought. But for him, it is authority in general that is the
problem, and not merely the ills that arise from class society. Authority in general, however, is
not merely something found in unjust institutions and relationships, but is implicit in
organization in general. The oppressed need organization and collective effort, for without it they
are weaponless against the exploiters. Organization requires the individual to submit to some
degree to the will of the group. Of course, the workers' movement doesn't need any sort of
authority, but authority based on mass control and not just centralism, but democratic centralism.
Chomsky qualifies his stand against authority in general by conceding the possibility, remote
though it may be, that some authority can be justified. Translation: the less organization, the
better. The bourgeoisie, with all sorts of brutal organization at its command, must really be
quaking at the anarchist Chomsky assuring the oppressed that the less organized they are, the
History as mystery: Chomsky campaigns against historical materialism
. One of the major faults of anarchism is that while it expresses outrage against the present system, it does not make a realistic assessment of the workings of the social environment it seeks to change. The idea that the proletarian revolution can immediately dispense with the state, and Chomsky's declarations against searching for laws guiding human society, are examples of this.
. In fact, Chomsky continually campaigns that understanding how human society develops is virtually impossible. He acknowledges that there can be useful ideas that help explain some particular event or feature of society. But he denies that one can derive any underlying general principles that help explain historical development. For instance, Chomsky agrees it might be a "smart idea" to "look at the economic factors behind the Constitution."(21) But he evidently doesn't see that as an example of some general relationship between economics and politics. That would constitute a "law" or a "theory." And Chomsky takes it for granted that
"surely our understanding of the nature of man or the range of viable social forms is so rudimentary that any far-reaching doctrine must be treated with great skepticism."(22)
He huffs that any view that denies this is a fraud, with pointed references to the historical materialist view of Marxism. Thus,
"If somebody came along with a theory of history . . . the theory will be extremely thin, if by 'theory' we mean something with principles which are not obvious when you look at them from which you can deduce surprising consequences, check out the consequences, and then confirm the principles. You're not going to find anything like that."(23)
Not only does Chomsky deny that anything very enlightening has been learned about human history, but he doubts there ever will be because "life is complex."
. No doubt human society is complex and not everything can be predicted. But many underlying features of society have been shown to continually exhibit a certain general pattern of development, and are therefore predictable. As was mentioned earlier, commodity production has everywhere, and in the most varied circumstances, been shown to give rise to differentiation between rich and poor. The modern class struggle is no accident but is wholly predictable under capitalism. Nor is it an accident that various social classes have their own distinct patterns of behavior and have their own particular outlook. Thus, one can speak about the general nature of different classes.
. Moreover, just because there are a variety of forces shaping human events does not mean that certain forces are not primary and others secondary or tertiary. Nor does it mean that one can't find a common origin for various of these forces in certain fundamental features of society. For example, Chomsky talks about the role of the choices people make according to their "values" while other times noting how the social environment influences people's behavior. Both things are undoubtedly true, but the question remains of what gave rise to both these values and the environment? Marxism clarified that both the social environment of any given society and the values people hold reflect the economic relations, which themselves undergo changes due to the development of the forces of production. Take the relationship between the economy and the government for example. The political system which arises on the basis of a given economic system certainly affects the economy. It can assist economic development or retard it. When it helps economic life flourish, it's obvious that the political structure is subordinate to the needs of the economy. But what about when it retards such development? Doesn't this show that politics is just as primary a force as economics? Not really. History shows over and over again that when a political order no longer serves the further development of the productive forces, but becomes a drag on it, its days are numbered. As upsetting as this might be to Chomsky, this is an example of an historical law. It by no means negates the complexity of society, but helps to understand it.
. To see some of the dreadful practical consequences of the idea that society is too complex to understand, consider the following example by one of the main sources for Chomsky's anarchism, Rudolf Rocker. Rocker was a prominent anarcho-syndicalist figure whose writings Chomsky often refers to. Rocker, like Chomsky, is at war with historical materialism. One of his arguments to show "it is clearly apparent that economics is not the center of gravity of social development in general" is the following:
. "Man is not purely the agent of specific economic interests. The bourgeoisie, for instance, has in all countries where it achieved social importance, frequently supported movements which were by no means determined by its economic interests, but often stood in opposition to them. Its fight against the church, its endeavors for the establishment of lasting peace among the nations, its liberal and democratic views regarding the nature of government, which brought its representatives into sharpest conflict with the traditions of kingship by the grace of God, and many other causes for which it has at some time shown enthusiasm are proofs of this."(24)
. Contrary to Rocker, Marxism never contended that there are "purely" economic causes behind human activity. Take away this straw-man and you are left with the assertion that the fight the bourgeoisie raised against religion and hereditary rule had nothing to do with its economic interests. But this is absurd. Hereditary rule was fought because it was an obstacle to the bourgeoisie using political means to further its class interests.
. Likewise, the struggle waged against the Roman Catholic Church was necessary for the bourgeoisie at a certain point in its historical development because this church's hierarchy was a major prop of the feudal system that was stifling bourgeois development. As well, church dogma was an obstacle to the scientific advances which were necessary for the economic advance of the bourgeoisie. Thus, the bourgeois attacks on the church (which were sometimes conducted under the banner of another religion and sometimes not) undoubtedly served bourgeois economic interests. It is also economic interests that explains why the bourgeoisie generally changed its tune on religion in a later period. After rising to power, the bourgeoisie now faced a challenge from the proletariat and the growth of socialist ideas among them. Thus, religion became a convenient tool to pacify this threat.
. As for Rocker's references to the allegedly peace-loving nature of the bourgeoisie, it merely
shows to what depths one can sink when one denies the underlying role of economics in the
political behavior of the bourgeoisie. After all, if the economic interests of the bourgeoisie are no
more important than any other factor motivating them, then there isn't anything left to the idea of
the bourgeoisie having a certain class nature. If they have launched wars, Rocker reasons, they
may just as well bring about world peace. Yet somehow, world peace never seems to arrive under
the reign of the profiteers. Why this is, is evidently a mystery for Rocker. But it can be explained
by Marxist historical materialism which shows that underneath the periods of peace, there is
ruthless economic competition between different capitalist groups and nations that is continually
preparing the conditions for war. That's why despite the capitalists' claims that they will bring
world peace through a League of Nations after World War I or a United Nations after World War
II or a World Trade Organization today, wars have continued non-stop. Rocker's denial of
historical laws thus leaves the door open to outright prettification of the bourgeoisie.
Human nature: Chomsky's ultimate explanation of society
. As much as Chomsky chides the historical materialism of Marxism for "grand pronouncements" on social evolution, Chomsky has his own "laws" and puts forward his own opinion of the fundamental force underlying society. Since he considers society itself to be too complex to have any coherent explanation, he resorts to speculating about "largely genetically-determined" "human nature." This is supposed to be the root cause of an innate moral system since
"we can't reasonably doubt that moral values are rooted in our nature, I don't think." Chomsky goes on to argue that "our fixed internal nature" is mainly responsible for explaining why, according to him, the same moral values basically exist in every culture.(25)
No wonder Chomsky rejects laws of societal development. If we take this idea seriously, there has been no development!
. Yet it turns out that Chomsky has to abandon his theory of an eternal, unchanging, universal culture when confronted by those who argue the present capitalist system is consistent with human nature. Then he raises the correct point that in fact there have been cultures where there was a different morality and pattern of behavior. Indeed, his discourses on human nation are none too consistent. For instance, sometimes he answers the question of the relation of society to human nature not by referring to human nature itself, but what people's opinions of human nature are. So he'll argue that people are guided by their understanding of what human nature is. But if there is some innate, unchanging human nature as Chomsky supposes, what people think human nature is may have nothing to do with what is actually guiding their thinking. But let's get back to Chomsky's own view of what human nature is.
. According to Chomsky, human nature is good, bad and everything in between. In short, it's basically any behavior that exists and nothing in particular. As he puts it:
. "Doubtless there is a rich and complex human nature, and doubtless it's largely genetically determined, like everything else. But we don't know what it is."(26)
At the same time, Chomsky holds that society determines which manifestations of human nature are prevalent. But how did this fixed entity, "human nature", manage to create different societies? If human nature determined the first form of human society, which in turn allowed full expression to only some features of human society, why was this society abandoned for another? Indeed, why was it that the first society only exhibited certain traits of human nature and not others? Chomsky can't explain this, and so his entire theory of human nature turns out to explain nothing about societal evolution. At most he offers the possibility that people will eventually learn more about their own human nature so that "it can get more and more realized."(27) In other words, all of history is supposed to be explained by a mysterious "human nature" (about which we still know nothing) finally being understood and then changed in accordance with it. That's heartening! But it essentially is an admission that Chomsky hasn't the slightest idea of how to explain historical change.
. Chomsky observes that society determines what aspects of human nature come out. But if the origin of society lies in human nature, how is it that human nature managed to display only certain aspects of itself, while banning the other aspects? Aren't the varying attitudes that one finds in different societies an indication that what is commonly called human nature is really the product of the sum total of societal relations existing at any given time? To illustrate this, let's look at the views of the Enlightenment figures whose views Chomsky assures us are superior to Marxist historical materialism. Like Chomsky, they argued that the path to justice was to establish a system that was in line with human nature. They assumed that if only everyone thought rationally, they would agree on what constitutes this just society. But what remedies did the Enlightenment figures prescribe to suit human nature? Were they measures for human society in general, or were they measures for one particular type of society? It turns out the measures they recommended, such as free trade and limited government interference in private property relations, were important for a specific set of social relations, the relations of bourgeois society. Thus, the Enlightenment figures mistakenly took one particular set of social relations for general relations representing an eternal human nature. Enlightenment philosophers saw that society affected what was considered just and moral -- but only in the past. They imagined that what they were in favor of was unaffected by their environment, but merely, at long last, the society tailored to human nature itself. History has proved them wrong, indicating it is not very likely that Chomsky's efforts to found a society based on eternal "human nature" are going to fare much better.
. Chomsky is sure that Marxist historical materialism is bankrupt. But his argument is less than convincing when he can offer nothing but speculation about so-called eternal human nature as an alternative. Indeed, all Chomsky is really sure about is that we can hardly know anything about social evolution. Therefore an examination of present society can tell us nothing about what it will possible to do in the future. Unable to anticipate the development of any basic societal features, all Chomsky is left with is, as he puts it, "hopes" and "intuition" about the future. He is not even sure whether anarchism is even possible, since
"we do not know enough [about human nature -- Mark] to answer, one way or the other."(28)
The more Chomsky addresses the issue of changing society, the less he has to say!
. The problems with Chomsky's view reflect many of the basic problems of anarchism as a whole. Anarchism promises deliverance from oppression and exploitation. It curses the evil capitalist order. And no doubt many followers of anarchism sincerely want revolutionary change. But when one looks past the radical phrases, anarchism has no real alternative to the market and has no understanding of what needs to be done to overcome class oppression. It speaks in the name of the activity of the masses, but runs from the organizational tasks necessary to build a strong revolutionary movement. That's why anarchism cannot deliver on its anti-capitalist promises. <>
(1) May 1995 interview with Chomsky by Kevin Doyle for Red and Black Revolution. It can be found at the web site: http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/rbr/noamrbr2.html (Return to text)
(2) Chomsky, Powers and Prospects, p.71, South End Press, Boston, 1996. (Text)
(3) Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, near end of Book 4. (Text)
(4) Ibid., Book 4, ch.ii. (Text)
(5) Marx, Karl, The poverty of philosophy, Ch. 2, Sec. 1, "The Method", Subsection "Seventh and Last Observation", p.119, Norman Bethune Institute, Toronto, 1976. (Text)
(6) Chomsky letter of June 14, 1994 entitled Lies of our times. It can be found in the Chomsky archives at the ZNet web site: < http://www.zmag.org/ > (Text)
(7) Chomsky, Powers and Prospects, p.78. (Text)
(8) Buchanan and Chomsky actually start out from the same premise, namely, the free expression of self-interest for each economic player in the society, and for this reason it is no accident that Buchanan also feels free to use the term "anarchy" for his ideal system described above. Chomsky would reject Buchanan's use of the term "anarchy" because Buchanan glorifies the dog-eat-dog nature of the market. But if the quintessential free-market economist Adam Smith is really sort of an anarchist, as Chomsky holds, it's hypocritical to denounce other free-market economists for adopting anarchist labels. (Text)
(9) June 14, 1994 letter. (Text)
(10) Power and prospects, p. 72. (Text)
(11) Chomsky, The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many, p.52, Odonian Press, Tuscan, Arizona, 1994. (Text)
(12) Ibid., p.55. (Text)
(13) Chomsky, The Common Good, p.123, Odonian Press, 1998. (Text)
(14) Power and prospects, p.87. (Text)
(15) Chomsky is quoted here in a December 23, 1996 article by Tom Lane entitled "Noam Chomsky on anarchism". See ZNet archives. (Text)
(16) "Notes on anarchism", 1970. Published in For reasons of state in 1973. See ZNet archives. (Text)
(17) Power and Prospects, p.93. (Text)
(18) Ibid., p.88. (Text)
(19) "Notes on anarchism", footnote 9. (Text)
(20) May 1995 interview for Black and Red Revolution. (Text)
(21) Chomsky interview with Z Magazine editor Michael Albert, January 1993. See ZNet archives. (Text)
(22) "Notes on anarchism". (Text)
(23) Interview with Michael Albert, January 1993. (Text)
(24) Rocker, Rudolf, Nationalism and Culture, "The insufficiency of Economic Materialism". First appeared in three volumes published from 1935-37. The text can be found at the web site: < http://flag.blackenred.net/rocker/index.html > (Text)
(25) All quotes in this paragraph are from the interview with Michael Albert, January 1993. (Text)
(26) Ibid.. (Text)
(27) Ibid. (Text)
(28) May 1995 interview for Black and Red Revolution. (Text)
Last modified: October 15, 2001.