Noam Chomsky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Activism, Anarchism, and Power: Conversation with Noam Chomsky, Linguist and Political Activist; 3/22/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 2 of 5

Anarchism and Power

These experiences we've described, you were saying they led you into linguistics, but also led you into your view of politics and of the world. You're a libertarian anarchist, and when one hears that, because of the way issues are framed in this country, there's often many misperceptions -- and also because of things that you've written. Help us understand what that means. In other words, it doesn't mean that you favor chaos or no government, necessarily.

The United States is sort of out of the world on this topic. Britain is to a limited extent, but the United States is like on Mars. So here, the term "libertarian" means the opposite of what it always meant in history. Libertarian throughout modern European history meant socialist anarchist. It meant the anti-state element of the Workers Movement and the Socialist Movement. It sort of broke into two branches, roughly, one statist, one anti-statist. The statist branch led to Bolshevism and Lenin and Trotsky, and so on. The anti-statist branch, which included Marxists, Left Marxists -- Rosa Luxemburg and others -- kind of merged, more or less, into an amalgam with a big strain of anarchism into what was called "libertarian socialism." So libertarian in Europe always meant socialist. Here it means ultra-conservative -- Ayn Rand or Cato Institute or something like that. But that's a special U.S. usage. There are a lot of things quite special about the way the United States developed, and this is part of it. There [in Europe] it meant, and always meant to me, socialist and anti-state, an anti-state branch of socialism, which meant a highly organized society, completely organized and nothing to do with chaos, but based on democracy all the way through. That means democratic control of communities, of workplaces, of federal structures, built on systems of voluntary association, spreading internationally. That's traditional anarchism. You know, anybody can have the word if they like, but that's the mainstream of traditional anarchism.

And it has roots. Coming back to the United States, it has very strong roots in the American working class movements. So if you go back to, say, the 1850s, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, right around the area where I live, in Eastern Massachusetts, in the textile plants and so on, the people working on those plants were, in part, young women coming off the farm. They were called "factory girls," the women from the farms who worked in the textile plants. Some of them were Irish, immigrants in Boston and that group of people. They had an extremely rich and interesting culture. They're kind of like my uncle who never went past fourth grade -- very educated, reading modern literature. They didn't bother with European radicalism, that had no effect on them, but the general literary culture, they were very much a part of. And they developed their own conceptions of how the world ought to be organized.

They had their own newspapers. In fact, the period of the freest press in the United States was probably around the 1850s. In the 1850s, the scale of the popular press, meaning run by the factory girls in Lowell and so on, was on the scale of the commercial press or even greater. These were independent newspapers -- a lot of interesting scholarship on them, if you can read them now. They [arose] spontaneously, without any background. [The writers had] never heard of Marx or Bakunin or anyone else; they developed the same ideas. From their point of view, what they called "wage slavery," renting yourself to an owner, was not very different from the chattel slavery that they were fighting a civil war about. You have to recall that in the mid-nineteenth century, that was a common view in the United States -- for example, the position of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln's position. It's not an odd view, that there isn't much difference between selling yourself and renting yourself. So the idea of renting yourself, meaning working for wages, was degrading. It was an attack on your personal integrity. They despised the industrial system that was developing, that was destroying their culture, destroying their independence, their individuality, constraining them to be subordinate to masters.

There was a tradition of what was called Republicanism in the United States. We're free people, you know, the first free people in the world. This was destroying and undermining that freedom. This was the core of the labor movement all over, and included in it was the assumption, just taken for granted, that "those who work in the mills should own them." In fact, one of the their main slogans, I'll just quote it, was they condemned what they called the "new spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self." That new spirit, that you should only be interested in gaining wealth and forgetting about your relations to other people, they regarded it as a violation of fundamental human nature, and a degrading idea.

That was a strong, rich American culture, which was crushed by violence. The United States has a very violent labor history, much more so than Europe. It was wiped out over a long period, with extreme violence. By the time it picked up again in the 1930s, that's when I personally came into the tail end of it. After the Second World War it was crushed. By now, it's forgotten. But it's very real. I don't really think it's forgotten, I think it's just below the surface in people's consciousness.

This is a continuing problem, and something that emerges in your scientific work, also, namely, the extent to which histories and traditions are forgotten. To define a new position often means going back and finding those older traditions.

Things like this, they're forgotten in the intellectual culture, but my feeling is they're probably alive in the popular culture, in people's sentiments and attitudes and understanding and so on. I know when I talk to, say, working-class audiences today, and I talk about these ideas, they seem very natural to them. I mean, it's true, nobody talks about them, but when you bring it up, the idea that you have to rent yourself to somebody and follow their orders, and that they own and you work there, and you built it but you don't own it, that's a highly unnatural notion. You don't have to study any complicated theories to see that this is an attack on human dignity.

So coming out of this tradition, being influenced by and continue to believe in it, what is your notion of legitimate power? Under what circumstances is power legitimate?

The core of the anarchist tradition, as I understand it, is that power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate. So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can't prove it, then it should be dismantled.

Can you ever prove it? Well, it's a heavy burden of proof to bear, but I think sometimes you can bear it. So to take a homely example, if I'm walking down the street with my four-year-old granddaughter, and she starts to run into the street, and I grab her arm and pull her back, that's an exercise of power and authority, but I can give a justification for it, and it's obvious what the justification would be. And maybe there are other cases where you can justify it. But the question that always should be asked uppermost in our mind is, "Why should I accept it?" It's the responsibility of those who exercise power to show that somehow it's legitimate. It's not the responsibility of anyone else to show that it's illegitimate. It's illegitimate by assumption, if it's a relation of authority among human beings which places some above others. That's illegitimate by assumption. Unless you can give a strong argument to show that it's right, you've lost.

It's kind of like the use of violence, say, in international affairs. There's a very heavy burden of proof to be borne by anyone who calls for violence. Maybe it can be sometimes justified. Personally, I'm not a committed pacifist, so I think that, yes, it can sometimes be justified. So I thought, in fact, in that article I wrote in fourth grade, I thought the West should be using force to try to stop fascism, and I still think so. But now I know a lot more about it. I know that the West was actually supporting fascism, supporting Franco, supporting Mussolini, and so on, and even Hitler. I didn't know that at the time. But I thought then and I think now that the use of force to stop that plague would have been legitimate, and finally was legitimate. But an argument has to be given for it.

Is there less of a burden of proof when you're looking at weaker power entities, looking at the powerless, basically? Is the burden of proof less for them?

No, it's the same. When you take, say, people living under military occupation or under racist regimes and so on, they have a right to resist. Actually, everyone in the world except the United States and Israel believes they have a right to exist, if you look at the UN resolutions.

You're talking about Palestine now.

Palestine, or South Africa. If you take a look, there are major UN resolutions on terrorism, in 1987 denouncing the plague of international terrorism, and calling on everyone to do something to stop it. It passed with two negative votes, the United States and Israel. The reason was exactly this, they explained it: it said "nothing in this resolution will prejudice the right of people to struggle for independence against racist and colonialist regimes and foreign military occupation." That meant South Africa and Israel, so, therefore, the United States objected because it is opposed, it does not grant the right of people to struggle against racist and colonialist regimes and foreign occupation. U.S. and Israel are alone on that. When the U.S. votes against a resolution, it's out of history, so you don't read about it, but it's there. The war against terrorism isn't new, it's old. The U.S. is alone in opposing it.

Now, I believe that the world is right on this and that the U.S. is wrong. There is a right to resist racist and colonialist regimes and foreign military occupation. But then comes your question: Is there a right to use violence to do that? Well, no, I think the burden of proof is on those who say there is a right to use violence. And that's a hard burden to meet, both morally and even tactically. And, frankly, I think it can very rarely be met.

Next page: Thinking about Power

© Copyright 2002, Regents of the University of California