A book about anarchism from the world’s most influential anarchist leaves me unclear what anarchy actually is.
As improbable as this might seem given that I was a politically engaged teenager who was angry about wars and stuff, I’ve never before read any Noam Chomsky. I had, however, come across his ardent fans. They generally seemed to come equipped with extensive mental archive of his arguments that they would wheel out at the least provocation. And I’d also come across scathing attacks both from ideological enemies like Paul Berman and disappointed disciples like George Monbiot. Love him or hate him, he seems to generate a lot of passion.
So I was expecting that when I read a compilation of his writings on anarchism (with the imaginative title On Anarchism), I would wind up feeling strongly about it. In fact, I was rather non-plussed. I had picked the book up because I was looking for some kind of insight into anarchism, what with there being renewed interest in it on the left and all. What I was hoping to get was a better sense of what applying anarchist principles would mean in practice. And that was precisely what Chomsky seemed least interested.
Rather he continues to enunciate the broad principles of anarchism in a way that becomes rather repetitive even in a book that is fewer than 200 pages long. We learn of various concepts of which he approves: democracy, decentralisation and workers’ control of production all meet with his approval. As to how these might be achieved we are left guessing.
Rather we are given constant reassurance that plenty of eminent thinkers also endorsed these concepts. In a book about the illegitimacy of authority and elitism, to have it constantly implied that you should support the ideas of anarchism because a long dead white guy apparently did feels rather incongruous. We also get a LOT of Chomsky explaining that anarchism is not state socialism without ever really being clear what it actually is.
He is actually challenged about his vagueness in the transcript of a Q&A that is reprinted as part of On Anarchism. He replies by declaring himself a “reformist” who rather than being able to “spell out a plan for future society in any detail” but is instead content to work towards implementing certain principles and believes that the important thing is to “work to help people start trying them.” Now that’s a respectable position, which I would endorse. However, it does not excuse one from considering practicalities. Putting a principle into action involves translating it into institutions, procedures and practices. Here people trying out anarchism would not find Chomsky remotely helpful.
Besides this big weakness with the book, there are a number of others worth highlighting. I found Chomsky’s way of establishing his arguments rather unconvincing. His critique of contrary positions is often perfunctory and superficial to the point of being glib. And he has a rather grating habit of doing the intellectual equivalent of launching a commando raid on an out of the way enemy outpost and then declaring that his full scale invasion has resulted in complete victory. So for example, at one point we move with astonishing and unconvincing speed from Chomsky nit-picking an academic history of the Spanish Civil War to the conclusion that the Allied Powers actually welcomed the rise of fascism as an alternative to communism.
This is not to say there is not a convincing case for anarchism out there. Chomsky, himself might even have written it in a less cobbled together and breezy book. But On Anarchism has managed the remarkable achievement of talking about a subject I’m interested in but know little about for 200 pages without changing my perception at all. I can’t help feeling that if Chomsky really deserved his title of the World’s Top Public Intellectual then he probably shouldn’t be writing books which elicit a ‘meh’ from the reader.