Notes on Anarchism – Part 1

by Noam Chomsky (In Daniel Guérin, Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, 1970)

A French writer, sympathetic to anarchism, wrote in the 1890s that “anarchism has a broad back, like paper it endures anything” — including, he noted those whose acts are such that “a mortal enemy of anarchism could not have done better.”1 There have been many styles of thought and action that have been referred to as “anarchist.” It would be hopeless to try to encompass all of these conflicting tendencies in some general theory or ideology. And even if we proceed to extract from the history of libertarian thought a living, evolving tradition, as Daniel Guérin does in Anarchism, it remains difficult to formulate its doctrines as a specific and determinate theory of society and social change. The anarchist historian Rudolph Rocker, who presents a systematic conception of the development of anarchist thought towards anarchosyndicalism, along lines that bear comparison to Guérins work, puts the matter well when he writes that anarchism is not

a fixed, self-enclosed social system but rather a definite trend in the historic development of mankind, which, in contrast with the intellectual guardianship of all clerical and governmental institutions, strives for the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life. Even freedom is only a relative, not an absolute concept, since it tends constantly to become broader and to affect wider circles in more manifold ways. For the anarchist, freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account. The less this natural development of man is influenced by ecclesiastical or political guardianship, the more efficient and harmonious will human personality become, the more will it become the measure of the intellectual culture of the society in which it has grown.2

One might ask what value there is in studying a “definite trend in the historic development of mankind” that does not articulate a specific and detailed social theory. Indeed, many commentators dismiss anarchism as utopian, formless, primitive, or otherwise incompatible with the realities of a complex society. One might, however, argue rather differently: that at every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to — rather than alleviate — material and cultural deficit. If so, there will be no doctrine of social change fixed for the present and future, nor even, necessarily, a specific and unchanging concept of the goals towards which social change should tend. Surely our understanding of the nature of man or of the range of viable social forms is so rudimentary that any far-reaching doctrine must be treated with great skepticism, just as skepticism is in order when we hear that “human nature” or “the demands of efficiency” or “the complexity of modern life” requires this or that form of oppression and autocratic rule.

Nevertheless, at a particular time there is every reason to develop, insofar as our understanding permits, a specific realization of this definite trend in the historic development of mankind, appropriate to the tasks of the moment. For Rocker, “the problem that is set for our time is that of freeing man from the curse of economic exploitation and political and social enslavement”; and the method is not the conquest and exercise of state power, nor stultifying parliamentarianism, but rather “to reconstruct the economic life of the peoples from the ground up and build it up in the spirit of Socialism.”

But only the producers themselves are fitted for this task, since they are the only value-creating element in society out of which a new future can arise. Theirs must be the task of freeing labor from all the fetters which economic exploitation has fastened on it, of freeing society from all the institutions and procedure of political power, and of opening the way to an alliance of free groups of men and women based on co-operative labor and a planned administration of things in the interest of the community. To prepare the toiling masses in the city and country for this great goal and to bind them together as a militant force is the objective of modern Anarcho-syndicalism, and in this its whole purpose is exhausted. [P. 108]

As a socialist, Rocker would take for granted “that the serious, final, complete liberation of the workers is possible only upon one condition: that of the appropriation of capital, that is, of raw material and all the tools of labor, including land, by the whole body of the workers.”3 As an anarchosyndicalist, he insists, further, that the workers’ organizations create “not only the ideas, but also the facts of the future itself” in the prerevolutionary period, that they embody in themselves the structure of the future society — and he looks forward to a social revolution that will dismantle the state apparatus as well as expropriate the expropriators. “What we put in place of the government is industrial organization.”

Anarcho-syndicalists are convinced that a Socialist economic order cannot be created by the decrees and statutes of a government, but only by the solidaric collaboration of the workers with hand and brain in each special branch of production; that is, through the taking over of the management of all plants by the producers themselves under such form that the separate groups, plants, and branches of industry are independent members of the general economic organism and systematically carry on production and the distribution of the products in the interest of the community on the basis of free mutual agreements. [p. 94]

Rocker was writing at a moment when such ideas had been put into practice in a dramatic way in the Spanish Revolution. Just prior to the outbreak of the revolution, the anarchosyndicalist economist Diego Abad de Santillan had written:

…in facing the problem of social transformation, the Revolution cannot consider the state as a medium, but must depend on the organization of producers.

We have followed this norm and we find no need for the hypothesis of a superior power to organized labor, in order to establish a new order of things. We would thank anyone to point out to us what function, if any, the State can have in an economic organization, where private property has been abolished and in which parasitism and special privilege have no place. The suppression of the State cannot be a languid affair; it must be the task of the Revolution to finish with the State. Either the Revolution gives social wealth to the producers in which case the producers organize themselves for due collective distribution and the State has nothing to do; or the Revolution does not give social wealth to the producers, in which case the Revolution has been a lie and the State would continue.

Our federal council of economy is not a political power but an economic and administrative regulating power. It receives its orientation from below and operates in accordance with the resolutions of the regional and national assemblies. It is a liaison corps and nothing else.4

Engels, in a letter of 1883, expressed his disagreement with this conception as follows:

The anarchists put the thing upside down. They declare that the proletarian revolution must begin by doing away with the political organization of the state….But to destroy it at such a moment would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the victorious proletariat can assert its newly-conquered power, hold down its capitalist adversaries, and carry out that economic revolution of society without which the whole victory must end in a new defeat and a mass slaughter of the workers similar to those after the Paris commune.5

In contrast, the anarchists — most eloquently Bakunin — warned of the dangers of the “red bureaucracy,” which would prove to be “the most vile and terrible lie that our century has created.”6 The anarchosyndicalist Fernand Pelloutier asked: “Must even the transitory state to which we have to submit necessarily and fatally be a collectivist jail? Can’t it consist in a free organization limited exclusively by the needs of production and consumption, all political institutions having disappeared?”7

I do not pretend to know the answers to this question. But it seems clear that unless there is, in some form, a positive answer, the chances for a truly democratic revolution that will achieve the humanistic ideals of the left are not great. Martin Buber put the problem succinctly when he wrote: “One cannot in the nature of things expect a little tree that has been turned into a club to put forth leaves.”8 The question of conquest or destruction of state power is what Bakunin regarded as the primary issue dividing him from Marx.9 In one form or another, the problem has arisen repeatedly in the century since, dividing “libertarian” from “authoritarian” socialists.


This essay is a revised version of the introduction to Daniel Guérin’s Anarchism: From Theory to Practice. In a slightly different version, it appeared in the New York Review of Books, May 21, 1970.

1 Octave Mirbeau, quoted in James Joll, The Anarchists, pp. 145-6.

2 Rudolf Rocker, Anarchosyndicalism, p. 31.

3 Cited by Rocker, ibid., p. 77. This quotation and that in the next sentence are from Michael Bakunin, “The Program of the Alliance,” in Sam Dolgoff, ed. and trans., Bakunin on Anarchy, p. 255.

4 Diego Abad de Santillan, After the Revolution, p. 86. In the last chapter, written several months after the revolution had begun, he expresses his dissatisfaction with what had so far been achieved along these lines. On the accomplishments of the social revolution in Spain, see my American Power and the New Mandarins, chap. 1, and references cited there; the important study by Broué and Témime has since been translated into English. Several other important studies have appeared since, in particular: Frank Mintz, L’Autogestion dans l’Espagne révolutionaire (Paris: Editions Bélibaste, 1971); César M. Lorenzo, Les Anarchistes espagnols et le pouvoir, 1868-1969 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1969); Gaston Leval, Espagne libertaire, 1936-1939: L’Oeuvre constructive de la Révolution espagnole (Paris: Editions du Cercle, 1971). See also Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, enlarged 1972 edition.

5 Cited by Robert C. Tucker, The Marxian Revolutionary Idea, in his discussion of Marxism and anarchism.

6 Bakunin, in a letter to Herzen and Ogareff, 1866. Cited by Daniel Guérin, Jeunesse du socialisme libertaire, p. 119.

7 Fernand Pelloutier, cited in Joll, Anarchists. The source is “L’Anarchisme et les syndicats ouvriers,” Les Temps nouveaux, 1895. The full text appears in Daniel Guérin, ed., Ni Dieu, ni Maître, an excellent historical anthology of anarchism.

8 Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, p. 127.

9 “No state, however democratic,” Bakunin wrote, “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, because every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, from a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves….” “But the people will feel no better if the stick with which they are being beaten is labeled `the people’s stick’ ” (Statism and Anarchy [1873], in Dolgoff, Bakunin on Anarchy, p. 338) — “the people’s stick” being the democratic Republic.

Marx, of course, saw the matter differently.

For discussion of the impact of the Paris Commune on this dispute, see Daniel Guérin’s comments in Ni Dieu, ni Maître; these also appear, slightly extended, in his Pour un marxisme libertaire. See also note 24.

This entry was posted in a/c/s. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s