Noam Chomsky on Anarchism, Communism and Revolutions

As global capitalism, with neoliberalism being a necessary accompaniment, has covered now the entire globe, it is extremely useful to revisit some of the great radical traditions of the 19th and 20th centuries -- namely, anarchism and communism. What do they stand for? What are their main differences? Did Soviet Communism represent an authentic form of socialism or was it a "reformed workers' state" -- or, even worse, a tyrannical form of state capitalism? In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Noam Chomsky shares his views on anarchism, communism, and revolutions in hopes that the new generation of radical activists does not ignore history and continue to grapple with questions about strategies for social change.

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. Thus, in late 19th century America, when industrial capitalism was driving independent farmers and artisans to become an industrial proletariat, evoking plenty of bitter resistance, a powerful and militant labor movement arose dedicated to the principle that "those who work in the mills should own them" alongside a mass radical farmers movement that sought to free farmers from the clutches of banks and merchants. The dramatic era of decolonization also gave rise to radical movements of many kinds, and there are many other cases, including the 1960s. The neoliberal period since the '80s has been one of regression and marginalization for much of the world's population, but [Karl] Marx's old moleis never far from the surface and appears in unexpected places. The spread of worker-owned enterprises and cooperatives in the US, while not literally anarchist or communist, carries seeds of far-reaching radical transformation, and it is not alone.

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.

Certain anarchist traditions, influenced by Bakunin, advocate violence as a means of bringing about social change while others, influenced by [Russian anarchist Peter] Kropotkin, seem to regard violence not only politically ineffective in securing a just social order but morally indefensible. The communist tradition has also been divided over the use of violence even in situations where the conditions seem to have been ripe for revolutions. Can social revolutions take place without violence?
I don't see how there can be a general answer. Struggles to overcome class power and privilege are sure to be resisted, sometimes by force. Perhaps a point will come where violence in defense against forceful efforts to maintain power is warranted. Surely it is a last resort.

In your writings, you have maintained the view that the Soviet Union was never a socialist state. Do you accept the view that it was a "deformed workers state" or do you believe that it was a form of state capitalism?
The terms of political discourse are not models of precision. By the time the Soviets and factory councils were eliminated -- quite early on -- there was hardly a trace of a "workers state." [Factory councils were forms of political and economic organization in which the place of work is controlled collectively by the workers.] The system had wage labor and other features of capitalism, so I suppose one could call it a kind of tyrannical state capitalism in some respects.

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. But all that raises many questions, both of fact and of speculation about possibilities -- for example, about creating a disciplined and effective Red Army, choice of guerrilla vs conventional military tactics, political vs military warfare, and much else.

Would you accept the view that the labor concentration camps and the other horrible crimes that took place under Stalin's reign are unlikely to have taken place if either Lenin or Trotsky were in power instead?
I strongly doubt that Lenin or Trotsky would have carried out crimes anything like these.

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.

Cuba under Castro?
In assessing developments in Cuba since it achieved independence under Castro in January 1959, one cannot overlook the fact that from almost the first moment Cuba was subjected to vicious attack by the global superpower. By late 1959, planes based in Florida were bombing Cuba. By March, a secret decision was made to overthrow the government. The incoming Kennedy administration carried out the Bay of Pigs invasion. Its failure led to near hysteria in Washington, and Kennedy launched a war to bring "the terrors of the earth" to Cuba, in the words of his close associate, historian Arthur Schlesinger, in his semi-official biography of Robert Kennedy, who was placed in charge of the operation as his highest priority. It was no small affair, and was one of the factors that led to the missile crisis, which Schlesinger rightly described as the most dangerous moment in history. After the crisis, the terrorist war resumed. Meanwhile, a crushing embargo was imposed, which took a huge toll on Cuba. It continues to this day, opposed by virtually the entire world. 

When Russian aid ended, Clinton made the embargo harsher, and a few years later, [the] Helms-Burton [Act] made it harsher still. The effects have of course been very severe. They are reviewed in a comprehensive study by Salim Lamrani. Particularly onerous has been the impact on the health system, deprived of essential medical supplies. Despite the attack, Cuba has developed a remarkable health system, and has an unmatched record of medical internationalism -- as well as playing a crucial role in the liberation of Black Africa and ending the apartheid regime [in South Africa]. There have also been severe human rights violations, though nothing like what has been standard in the US-dominated countries of the region or the US-backed national security states of South America. And, of course, the worst human rights violations in Cuba in recent years have been in Guantanamo, which the US took from Cuba at gunpoint in the early 20th century and refuses to return. Overall, a mixed story, and not easy to evaluate given the complex circumstances.

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.

The Leninist intelligentsia had a different agenda. They fit Marx's description of the "conspirators" who "pre-empt the developing revolutionary process" and distort it to their ends of domination. "Hence their deepest disdain for the more theoretical enlightenment of the workers about their class interests," which include[d] the overthrow of the Red Bureaucracy of which Bakunin warned, and the creation of mechanisms of democratic control over production and social life. For the Leninist, the masses must be strictly disciplined, while the socialist will struggle to achieve a social order in which discipline "will become superfluous" as the freely associated producers "work for their own accord" (Marx). Libertarian socialism, furthermore, does not limit its aims to democratic control by producers over production, but seeks to abolish all forms of domination and hierarchy in every aspect of social and personal life -- an unending struggle, since progress in achieving a more just society will lead to new insight and understanding of forms of oppression that may be concealed in traditional practice and consciousness.

The Leninist antagonism to the most essential features of socialism was evident from the very start. In revolutionary Russia, Soviets and factory committees developed as instruments of struggle and liberation, with many flaws, but with a rich potential. Lenin and Trotsky, upon assuming power, immediately devoted themselves to destroying the liberatory potential of these instruments, establishing the rule of the [Communist] Party, in practice its Central Committee and its Maximal Leaders -- exactly as Trotsky had predicted years earlier, as Rosa Luxembourg and other left Marxists warned at the time, and as the anarchists had always understood. Not only the masses, but even the Party must be subject to "vigilant control from above," so Trotsky held as he made the transition from revolutionary intellectual to state priest. Before seizing state power, the Bolshevik leadership adopted much of the rhetoric of people who were engaged in the revolutionary struggle from below, but their true commitments were quite different. This was evident before and became crystal clear as they assumed state power in October 1917.

A historian sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, E.H. Carr, writes that "the spontaneous inclination of the workers to organize factory committees and to intervene in the management of the factories was inevitably encouraged by a revolution which led the workers to believe that the productive machinery of the country belonged to them and could be operated by them at their own discretion and to their own advantage" (my emphasis). For the workers, as one anarchist delegate said, "The Factory committees were cells of the future… They, not the state, should now administer."

But the state priests knew better, and moved at once to destroy the factory committees and to reduce the Soviets to organs of their rule. On November 3, Lenin announced in a "Draft Decree on Workers' Control" that delegates elected to exercise such control were to be "answerable to the state for the maintenance of the strictest order and discipline and for the protection of property." As the year ended, Lenin noted that "we passed from workers' control to the creation of the Supreme Council of National Economy," which was to "replace, absorb and supersede the machinery of workers' control" (Carr). "The very idea of socialism is embodied in the concept of workers' control," one Menshevik trade unionist lamented. The Bolshevik leadership expressed the same lament in action, by demolishing the very idea of socialism.

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