Monday evening, in a standard Massachusetts Institute of Technology auditorium of muted colors and uncomfortable chairs, a wizened, stooped, silver-haired man in an ugly sweater held a packed house of nearly 300 people—most of them young, fashionably dressed, and capable of affording to attend one of the most prestigious private universities in the country—spellbound for about an hour and a half. That man was Noam Chomsky, and his subject was anarchism.
Chomsky has had an influential academic career in linguistics, but achieved celebrity status as a political philosopher and activist, beginning with his opposition to the Vietnam War and continuing through today with the charges of imperialism he levels at American foreign policy, and the criticism he makes of capitalism, and the totalitarian strains he traces through both the left and the right.
He was introduced by Nathan Schneider, a journalist who covered the Occupy movement for The Nation, Harper’s, and the Boston Review. Schneider described how Occupy activists had a kind of “amnesia” about leftist activism, knowing little of the history and practices of previous generations of activists since few of them had any prior experience. Chomsky, Schneider said, represents that neglected tradition. He also pointed out that anarchism has been revived as a term of abuse, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) derided Tea Partiers as “anarchists,” and some Republicans have made the same charge against North Carolina union organizers.
The main body of Chomsky’s talk was an outline and definition of the anarchist intellectual tradition, which he said was centuries old, though “terms of political discourse are hardly ones of precision.” He continued, “that’s even more true of ‘anarchism.’ It resists any characterization.”
The main currents of anarchist thought were derived from classical liberal ideas that emerged in the Enlightenment and the Romantic era. The central idea, Chomsky said, was that “institutions that constrain human development are illegitimate unless they can justify themselves.” Anarchists seek to challenge those institutions and dismantle the ones that cannot be justified, while creating new institutions from the ground up based on cooperation and benefits for the community. This tradition of libertarian socialism or anarcho-syndicalism was still alive, Chomsky claimed, despite challenges and suppression.
Paraphrasing the German-American anarchist Rudolf Rocker, Chomsky said that anarchism seeks to free labor from economic exploitation and society from ecclesiastical guardianship. This meant that workers struggle for their well-being and dignity—“for bread and roses,” as he put it—while rejecting the convention of working for others in exchange for money, which he described as a kind of slavery. The other opposition, to ecclesiastical guardianship, he explained as not necessarily an opposition to organized religion—he praised Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement and the Christian anarchism of the Basque Country. Rather, Chomsky articulated an opposition to the idea that society should be regulated by an elite group, whether they are liberal technocrats, religious clerics, or corporate executives.
Chomsky also addressed some of the issues confronting anarchist activism, noting that while anarchists stand against the state, they often advocate for state coercion in order to protect people from “the savage beasts” of the capitalists, as he put it. Yet he saw this as not a contradiction, but a streak of pragmatism. “People live and suffer in this world, not one we imagine,” Chomsky explained. “It’s worth remembering that anarchists condemn really existing states instead of idealistic visions of governments ‘of, by and for the people.’”
He then connected the libertarian socialist tradition to currents in American thought, quoting the philosopher John Dewey as saying that “Power today resides in control of the means of production, exchange, communication and transportation … workers should be the masters of their individual fates.” To Chomsky, “Dewey was American as apple pie.”
He contrasted Dewey’s critique of power with the ideals of the liberal/progressive tradition in the United States, noting that many of its leading lights, including Walter Lippmann, Samuel Huntington, and Woodrow Wilson, held extremely dim views of the majority of people, considering them dangerous, ignorant, and in need of control. Despite the historical tendency of elite groups of “ecclesiastical guardians,” like liberal technocrats or the Iranian Guardian Council to which he compared them, to seek control over society, he saw continued resistance. He finished his remarks on an optimistic note by pointing out that the anarchist critics of power are always recurring—during the English Civil War a “rabble” appeared that didn’t want to be ruled by either the king or Parliament—and that anarchism is like Marx’s old mole: always near the surface.
Throughout his talk Chomsky described how he became involved with anarchism. His extended family was involved in left-wing movements in Philadelphia and New York before World War II, and he spent time in New York’s Union Square, where many Leftists congregated—including Catalonian anarchists fleeing reprisals from Francisco Franco. He also pointed out that many working class people of the era were involved in high culture and were familiar with sympathetic poems such as Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, which memorialized the Peterloo Massacre.
It was a theme he returned to with the first question, which was about contemporary engagement with the arts. He contrasted two films from 1954, On the Waterfront and Salt of the Earth. The former was about a worker standing up to a corrupt union, had a wide release, and starred Marlon Brando. The latter was about union workers on strike and was effectively banned in the United States.
“When people in power believe something firmly, that’s worth investigating,” Chomsky said.
Finally, he was asked about the growth of surveillance and the militarization of the police.
“The phenomenon itself shouldn’t be surprising—the scale was surprising—but the phenomenon itself is as American as apple pie,” Chomsky said. “You can be confident that any system of power is going to use technology against its enemy: the population. Power systems seek short-term domination and control, not security.”
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston and also writes about urbanism and history.