This article can be found online
I have added boldface and a larger font for some of the stronger
(and a few of the weaker) sentences, deleted footnotes and
added a few comments (clearly marked) of my own|
I should note that the author of the article, the Communist Voice Organization
(CVO), unfortunately shares many of the problems
common to sectarian groups based on cargo-cult Leninism:
In spite of the problems of the group which wrote it,
however, the article is extremely valuable.
- A distrust of political transparency manifested in
to respond to or deal with public criticism
- An inability to confront the crisis of theory that has
paralyzed the revolutionary movement--and, in particular,
an inability to recognize the importance of understanding
the relationship between democracy and democratic rights
and the decisive role that democractic rights will play in:
(a) future, post-bourgeois, society and
(b) revolutionary organizations which aspire to be
deserving of the respect and attention of the working class.
Ben Seattle • March 16, 2004
Anarchism as unwitting support of the market:
On the anarchist outlook of Noam Chomsky
by Mark (a supporter of the CVO) • November 27, 2000
[ ... ]
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
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
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
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.
[ ... ]
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.
Comment # 1 by Ben:|
The sentence above is true but it also ignores the reason that so
many activists have embraced these anti-organizational
tendencies: So many groups which call themselves
"revolutionary" have used organization to impose
"group-think" on activists, discourage independent thought
and build sectarian cults--that few good examples exist
of well-organized revolutionary groups.
[ ... ]
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.(x)
Comment # 2 by Ben:|
When I first saw the claim (above) that Chomsky "adores"
Adam Smith I was highly skeptical--in particular since
the CVO has a history of distorting the truth whenever
it can get away with it. However a careful reading of
this article has led me to conclude that this claim
may be completely accurate.
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."(x)
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."(x)
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
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."(x)
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
"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."(x)
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.(x)
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
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
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
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.
Comment # 3 by Ben:|
This article by the CVO is quite valuable--but note the fetish for centralization
that appears in the sentence above.
Yes it is certainly necessary that the economy be controlled
by society as a whole rather than be ruled by market forces.
But how is this necessary task to be accomplished?
Will centralization solve this problem?
(It didn't solve this problem in the revisionist Soviet Union
It is a huge theoretical blunder to see the problem
as being "independent producers" vs. "centralized control".
The marketplace economy can make do with a relatively small degree
of centralized control because in many ways it is
self-organizing. The independent actions
of large numbers
of producers and consumers in competition with one another
combine to create prices and provide direction for investment
But it is not only the capitalist marketplace
that can be self-organizing.
Self-organization is found everywhere in nature.
Our galaxy, all the stars in it,
our planet earth, and all the life on it
are the product of the self-organization of matter.
And the economy created by the working class will also
make use of the principle of self-organization.
This means that large numbers of independent producers
will find effective methods of coordinating their actions
and creating social wealth
without the need to obey a central authority which
tells them all what to do.
The correct way to understand the problem is to ask:
Will the independent producers be united
by the blind actions of market forces or by
the conscious actions of the masses ?
If we favor the later solution then we need
an economy that is not based on commodity production and
(most importantly--since it will likely take several decades to create such an economy)
a political system where the masses have
the fundamental democratic rights
(such as speech, assembly and organization) that are necessary
to actively intervene in the political, cultural
and economic life of society.
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 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.)."(x)
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.
[ ... ]
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
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
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
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."(x)
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
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
"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."(x)
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."(x)
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
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
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
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
Comment # 4 by Ben:|
This kind of talk of "duty" (see the sentence above) is nothing but hot air.
The struggle to clarify the distinction between the revisionist and the scientific
conceptions of the workers' state is the heart of the crisis of theory.
Confronting the crisis of theory requires
a recognition of the relationship between proletarian democracy
and the fundamental democratic rights
(ie: speech, assembly and the right to create independent organization)
which the working class will use, in post-bourgeois conditions,
to control the political and economic life of society.
A lesser aspect of the crisis of theory is the related question of
the nature of democratic rights within a mass revolutionary organization.
For example: during normal circumstances--should a member or a faction in the minority
have the right to make his criticisms of the majority
known to the supporters of the revolutionary mass organization?
Or (equivalently) in normal circumstances
(ie: excluding periods of insurrection, war or extensive illegal underground activity
where security considerations may be paramount)
will the supporters of the organization
have the right to know about
criticisms (of the leadership or policies of the organization)
that have been made by its members or by other supporters?
Unfortunately the CVO has not, in the ten years of its existence, troubled itself
to write about these topics nor allowed criticism of its neglect of these topics
to be printed in its journal or posted on its website.
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
"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."(x) (emphasis added)
Comment # 5 by Ben:|
Anarchism, as a political ideology, is saturated with problems. However there is nothing wrong with this particular quote (see above) by Bukunin: it is correct.
The CVO has gotten so caught up in their competition with anarchist trends (ie: competition over the recruitment of the warm bodies of activists who are new on the scene and looking for a trend with which to hook up) that they have forgotten what is fundamental about marxism: that the ultimate goal of the progressive movement is a society without a state--a society based on the free self-organization and adminstration--by the masses--from the bottom upward--of all politics, economics and culture.
A workers' state is necessary only as a means to get from "here" (ie: a society under bourgeois rule with a complex economy based on commodity production) to "there" (ie: a society consistent with Bakunin's statement above). Even a genuine workers' state that is controlled in a genuinely democratic way by the working class as a whole--will have real problems--manifested in unfortunate distortions in the administration of the life of society. These distortions will be struggled against and corrected by the active struggle of the masses and their independent organizations against the incompetence, hypocrisy and corruption that will inevitably emerge even in a workers' state. This is why the workers' state will be discarded (in a step by step process) as soon as the various functions of the state can be taken over by these self-organizing mass organizations.
The primary problem with anarchism as an ideology is that it fails to understand how humanity can get from "here" to "there" and, in the process, leads many activists to waste their time on paths (such as building co-ops -- which inevitable fall victim to the laws of commodity production) that lead nowhere.
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"
Comment # 6 by Ben:|
Above we can see the CVO doing their typical dance
around the topic of proletarian democracy.
Yes, it is true that many anarchists have a poor understanding
of the nature of democracy and the need for organizations
with democratically elected representatives.
But why not use this opportunity to explain the distinction between
genuine democracy and the phony "democracy"
that existed in the former Soviet Union?
Any discussion today of the nature of a genuine workers' state
is nothing more than hot air
if it cannot:
(1) confront the near universally held myth that
such a state must exist in the form of the rule of a single-party
with the ability to suppress the independent political voice
and independent political life of the masses and
(2) discuss the fundamental democratic rights
(such as speech, assembly
and the right to create independent organizations)
that the masses will need in order to exercise
genuine democratic control
over the political and economic life of society.
What is the meaning of an "election" in which the voters are not allowed to know about criticisms
that have been made of those who are running for office?
How can the "workers' state" represent the democratic choice of the workers
if the workers are not allowed
to know anything (or say anything) that runs
contrary to the interest of the ruling party?
Without such clarification--all talk of "democratically representing the masses"
simply feeds the typical anarchist prejudice that
(a) such talk is always empty and (b) genuine democratic control
of a state machine will never be possible.
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
Comment by Ben --
I have added boldface to the section below |
in order to highlight it for criticism
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.
Comment # 7 by Ben:|
Again we see the fetish for centralization that is typical
for sectarian organizations which are based on
Will it really be necessary for every autonomous workers' production unit to obey the decisions of a central authority?
The masses will be able to control (to whatever degree is necessary) the actions of autonomous production units thru a system of distributed authority that avoids the kind of excessive concentration of authority that invites corruption.
The masses will have a broad spectrum of powerful tools that would allow them to influence (or, if necessary, intervene in a powerful way in) the actions of production units:
(1) The masses will supply the free labor and free materials that allow the production unit to produce. If the actions of the production unit run contrary to the interest of the masses the free labor and materials would quickly dry up.
(2) The masses will consume the products or services of the production unit. If the production unit engages in actions that hurt the interests of the masses--then this consumption would be replaced by boycott--and those who do supply the free labor or materials for the production unit will tend to become demoralized and lose their will to continue
(3) The masses, thru their vigorous participation in public life
(ie: discussion, debates and forums in the mass media--and peripheral media)
will create public opinion that decisively influences the two factors above--and
the ability of the production unit to compete against rival units for free labor and materials
and for public consumption of whatever it creates.
A system of distributed authority is necessary because many of the disagreements concerning the actions of production units will involve complex, long-term struggles in which the weight of many factors (temporal, geographical, environmental, etc) will combine and draw forth passionate disagreements which involve the actions of the millions of people. For example: should we build factories at place A in order to create B--or should we instead do something else for such-and-such reason? How do these decisions impact (a) present consumption, (b) investment for the future (such as education--a big and often long-term investment), (c) the development of training and infrastructure in Bangladesh, (d) the depletion of rainforests in Brazil or Malaysia, etc?
Complex and long-term questions, by their nature, must be as transparent as possible
to everyone who is interested--and subject to the influence of anyone who cares enough to give a damn.
The more complex the problem--the more brain cells we need to draw into solving it.
The more the energy and attention of the masses can be drawn
into consideration of such questions--the more knowledge will be applied and the more robust
will be the solution that is the product of the struggle.
Yes, there will undoubted be organizations with some degree of elected authority and there will be some degree of centralized planning applicable to a particular production unit and, in some cases, to a particular industry (or even group of industries). For example I doubt that people will drive on the right side of the road in Seattle while at the same time the left side of the road in Portland (if cars are still being used). And, if I buy a lamp, the plug will still fit into the socket on the wall. But there will be no need for all of society to be under the control of a single central authority that must be obeyed. Production units will have a high degree of autonomy and will openly oppose and compete with one another because (among other reasons)
they will have different and opposing views on what should be
the priorities of society on questions related to consumption, investment, education, ecology, production methods
(or even trends in software, entertainment or music).
Cargo-cult Leninist organizations often greatly exaggerate
the need for "centralized authority" because they are aware of the actions taken by Lenin in the 1917 Russian revolution but fail to understand
the context of these actions or the reasons they were taken.
So instead we have a mechanical promotion of this or that policy
(which Lenin resorted to as an emergency measure) as if it were some kind of inevitable feature of all post-bourgeois societies.
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.
Comment # 8 by Ben:|
Greater hypocrisy is difficult to imagine.
If the CVO were the least bit serious about popularizing
the concept of the transitional workers' state
they would have taken a clear stand against
the myth that, under modern and stable conditions, this state
must inevitably assume the form of the rule of a single party
which has the ability to suppress the voices of its critics
and the independent political voices of the masses.
It is this myth (a deeply ingrained revisionist concept)
which (more than anything else) has enraged anarchist-minded activists
and led them to equate the concept of
a workers' state with a police state.
It is this myth which exists as the main barrier
to serious consideration of the idea that
the working class can run society better than the bourgeoisie.
The immense popularity of the anarchist ideology is
a direct result of this kind of cowardly behavior by supposed "marxists"
and "leninists" who fail to recognize that this myth
is the heart of revisionist ideology and
has led to the currently existing crisis of theory
which has paralyzed the revolutionary movement
and left it undeserving of the respect of the working class.
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."(x) 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
Comment # 9 by Ben:|
Unfortunately the term democratic centralism
(which once had a real, living meaning
in working class politics and in mass revolutionary organizations)
is now almost universally used to describe the sophisticated manipulation
and fraudulent, charlatan methods by which
sectarian, cult-like organizations can
isolate their supporters from
the threat posed by independent thought.
This unprincipled manipulation has, unfortunately,
given a very bad name to the idea that
revolutionary activists must take seriously the need to create an organization
that both (a) has the power to get things done in the world and
(b) is really controlled by its members.
I doubt that the CVO will be able to shed much light on this unfortunate state of affairs
because they are too close to this problem to see it clearly.
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 better!
[ ... ]
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.
Comment # 10 by Ben:|
The above is true but, unfortunately, is also total hypocrisy,
because the CVO, which wrote this article, also runs away
from the organizational tasks necessary to build
a strong revolutionary movement.
At this time the key organizational tasks revolve around
making use of transparency and genuinely democratic methods
(including the right of publicity for factions in the minority)
to assemble together into a
genuinely revolutionary mass organization
all trends of militant activists who want to
oppose the reformist domination of the antiwar movement.
Such a genuinely revolutionary mass organization would confront
the real problems of the revolutionary movement
(including the crisis of theory which has paralyzed the revolutionary movement),
win the respect of tens of thousands of activists
(and post their criticisms--and answer their questions--online)
and create an open, interactive news service that allows readers to help in the work
of rating and filtering posts and comments.
Such a genuinely revolutionary mass organization would make systematic and combined use
of paper and digital media to build its press and information network
in the streets and on the internet.
Such a genuinely revolutionary mass organization would
help hundreds of thousands of potential militants understand that neither Kerry nor Nader
is an answer to the imperialist war launched by Bush.
Unfortunately, at this time the CVO is too busy attempting
to recruit activists into its organization
(which--like many on the left--is part revolutionary
political organization--and part religious cult)
to write about (or to even consider) how to build
the kind of genuinely revolutionary mass organization
that the revolutionary movement desperately needs.
That's why anarchism cannot deliver on its anti-capitalist promises.
Comment # 11 by Ben:|
More hypocrisy because the CVO is unable to do any better
to deliver on the anti-capitalist promises that it makes.
For starters, in any article discussing the shortcomings
of anarchism, some mention should also be made of
strengths of this ideology that have led so many thousands
of serious and dedicated activists to embrace it.
One of the main strengths of the anarchist ideology is that it takes
questions related to democracy far more seriously
than do organizations like the CVO--which has never,
in the ten years of its existence,
seen a need to discuss the kinds of democratic rights
that the masses will enjoy in a genuine workers' state--and which
is unable to give the question of democracy anything more than lip service.
[ ... ]
Will the CVO reply to this criticism?|
(don't hold your breath)
March 14, 2004
From: Ben Seattle
To: Joseph Green, editor of
I am writing to inform you that, as part of round 3
Anarcho-Leninist Debate on the State,
I have written a criticism of Mark's November 2000 article:
On the anarchist outlook of Noam Chomsky.
My criticism can be found on the web at:
In the event that Mark or you (or any of your supporters)
would like to make a public reply to my criticism
I will link to it from that page.
Sincerely and with revolutionary regards,
( this space permanently reserved for any reply
from the CVO or any of its supporters )