Truthout Interview with Noam Chomsky on Anarchism, Communism, and Revolution

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Courtesy Graham Gordon Ramsay

The following are excerpts from a new interview by C.J. Polychroniou with Noam Chomsky about the history of anarchism and communism, as published on Truthout on 17 July 2016.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, from the late 19th century to the mid or even late 20th century, anarchism and communism represented live and vital movements throughout the Western world, but also in Latin America and certain parts of Asia and Africa. However, the political and ideological landscape seems to have shifted radically by the early to late 1980s to the point that, while resistance to capitalism remains ever present, it is largely localized and devoid of a vision about strategies for the founding of a new socioeconomic order. Why did anarchism and communism flourish at the time they did, and what are the key factors for their transformation from major ideologies to marginalized belief systems?

Noam Chomsky: If we look more closely, I think we find that there are live and vital movements of radical democracy, often with elements of anarchist and communist ideas and participation, during periods of upheaval and turbulence, when — to paraphrase Gramsci — the old is tottering and the new is unborn but is offering tantalizing prospects. […]

Anarchism and communism share close affinities, but have also been mortal enemies since the time of Marx and [Russian anarchist Mikhail] Bakunin. Are their differences purely strategic about the transition from capitalism to socialism or do they also reflect different perspectives about human nature and economic and social relations?

My feeling is that the picture is more nuanced. Thus left anti-Bolshevik Marxism often was quite close to anarcho-syndicalism. Prominent left Marxists, like Karl Korsch, were quite sympathetic to the Spanish anarchist revolution. Daniel Guerin’s book Anarchism verges on left Marxism. During his left period in mid-1917, Lenin’s writings, notably State and Revolution, had a kind of anarchist tinge. There surely were conflicts over tactics and much more fundamental matters. Engels’s critique of anarchism is a famous illustration. Marx had very little to say about post-capitalist society, but the basic thrust of his thinking about long-term goals seems quite compatible with major strains of anarchist thinking and practice. […]

In certain communist circles, a distinction has been drawn between Leninism and Stalinism, while the more orthodox communists have argued that the Soviet Union begun a gradual abandonment of socialism with the rise of Nikita Khrushchev to power. Can you comment on these two points of contention, with special emphasis in the alleged differences between Leninism and Stalinism?

I would place the abandonment of socialism much earlier, under Lenin and Trotsky, at least if socialism is understood to mean at a minimum control by working people over production. The seeds of Stalinism were present in the early Bolshevik years, partly attributable to the exigencies of the civil war and foreign invasion, partly to Leninist ideology. Under Stalin it became a monstrosity.

Faced with the challenges and threats (both internal and external) that it did face following the takeover of power, did the Bolsheviks have any other option than centralizing power, creating an army, and defending the October Revolution by any means necessary?

It is more appropriate, I think, to ask whether the Bolsheviks had any other option for defending their power. By adopting the means they chose, they destroyed the achievements of the popular revolution. Were there alternatives? I think so, but the question takes us into difficult and contested territory. It’s possible, for example, that instead of ignoring Marx’s ideas in his later years about the revolutionary potential of the Russian peasantry, they might have pursued them and offered support for peasant organizing and activism instead of marginalizing it (or worse). And they could have energized rather than undermined the Soviets and factory councils. […]

And how do you see the Maoist revolution? Was China at any point a socialist state?

The “Maoist revolution” was a complex affair. There was a strong popular element in early Chinese Marxism, discussed in illuminating work by Maurice Meisner. William Hinton’s remarkable study Fanshen captures vividly a moment of profound revolutionary change, not just in social practices, but in the mentality and consciousness of the peasants, with party cadres often submitting to popular control, according to his account. Later the totalitarian system was responsible for horrendous crimes, notably the “Great Leap Forward” with its huge death toll, in the tens of millions. Despite these crimes, as economists Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze demonstrate, from independence until 1979, when the Deng reforms began, Chinese programs of rural health and development saved the lives of 100 million people in comparison to India in the same years. What any of this has to do with socialism depends on how one interprets that battered term. […]

Overall, do you regard the collapse of so-called “actually existing socialism” a positive outcome, and, if so, why? In what ways has this development been beneficial to the socialist vision?

When the Soviet Union collapsed I wrote an article describing the events as a small victory for socialism, not only because of the fall of one of the most anti-socialist states in the world, where working people had fewer rights than in the West, but also because it freed the term “socialism” from the burden of being associated in the propaganda systems of East and West with Soviet tyranny — for the East, in order to benefit from the aura of authentic socialism, for the West, in order to demonize the concept.

My argument on what came to be known as “actually existing socialism” has been that the Soviet State attempted since its origins to harness the energies of its own population and oppressed people elsewhere in the service of the men who took advantage of the popular ferment in Russia in 1917 to seize state power.

Since its origins, socialism has meant the liberation of working people from exploitation. As the Marxist theoretician Anton Pannekoek observed, “This goal is not reached and cannot be reached by a new directing and governing class substituting itself for the bourgeoisie,” but can only be “realized by the workers themselves being master over production.” Mastery over production by the producers is the essence of socialism, and means to achieve this end have regularly been devised in periods of revolutionary struggle, against the bitter opposition of the traditional ruling classes and the “revolutionary intellectuals” guided by the common principles of Leninism and Western managerialism, as adapted to changing circumstances. But the essential element of the socialist ideal remains: to convert the means of production into the property of freely associated producers and thus the social property of people who have liberated themselves from exploitation by their master, as a fundamental step towards a broader realm of human freedom. […]

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