Noam Chomsky and Marxism: On the roots of modern "authoritarianism"  Part One

Whilst one does not find in Noam Chomsky any specific critique of Marx’s writings (he admits he is not a Marx “scholar”), there are a number of inferences that Marxism represents an authoritarian tradition, although this is qualified by regular references to a supposed “left libertarian tradition”. Heiko Khoo looks at some of the ideas of Chomsky, showing how he misrepresents – or doesn’t even understand – genuine Marxism.

Noam Chomsky considers himself to be a ‘libertarian anarchist’. By this he means one who challenges and calls for the dismantling of all unjustified authority and oppression, one who fights for the realisation of the full development of each individual and the collective, through a government of “industrial organisation” or ‘council communism’.

Chomsky’s “anarchism” derives inspiration from a number of enlightenment thinkers. He claims this encompasses a tradition, which includes Humboldt, Jefferson, Bakunin and Rosa Luxemburg. Whilst one does not find any specific critique of Marx’s writings (Chomsky admits he is not a Marx “scholar”), there are a number of inferences in his writings that Marxism represents an authoritarian tradition, although this is qualified by regular references to a supposed “left libertarian tradition” within Marxism, which Chomsky sees as being represented by Matick, Pannekoek, and Luxemburg.

Chomsky argues that, “We are in a period of corporatization of power, consolidation of power, centralization. That’s supposed to be good if you’re a progressive, like a Marxist-Leninist. Out of the same background came three major things, fascism, Bolshevism, and corporate tyranny. They all grew out of the same more or less Hegelian roots. (Chomsky, Class Warfare p.23)

It is Chomsky’s belief that the centralisation of the means of production was not inherent to the dynamics of the Capitalist economic system. Instead, “lawyers and courts designed a new socio-economic system”. Chomsky says that for Marxist-Leninists centralisation is “supposed to be good.” For Marxists the issue is not that centralisation is “good” in itself. What Marx and his adherents said is that to create a socialist society it was necessary to greatly develop the means of production and this was best done through centralisation. The greater the productive capacity of the economy, the more rapidly humankind’s economic enslavement can be eradicated.

One can infer from Chomsky that Hegelianism as a body of ideas created the processes of centralisation described. Chomsky’s outlook can be surmised in the following statement, the philosophers have created the world in various ways, the point however is to change the philosophy. Chomsky writes that in the latter part of the 19th century, “the courts and lawyers came along and created a whole new body of doctrine, which gave corporations authority and power that they never had before. If you look at the background of it, it’s the same background that led to fascism and Bolshevism.” (ibid. p.23)

Marxism does not exclude the influence of the role of lawyers and courts in shaping the specific framework of social relations, but it explains that the forces of the economy and environment within which they act limit their independence. Chomsky seeks to elevate the doctrinal background created by courts and lawyers to be the determining factor in modern socio-political formations.

Marxists see the dynamic towards centralisation as rooted in the capitalist mode of production. Given that centralisation – better said monopolization – has been a universal economic process over the last hundred and fifty years regardless of the influence of Hegel, one must wonder what exactly Chomsky is trying to say. Centralisation and monopolization flow from economies of scale in industrialisation.

Obviously human beings can shape socio-economic systems, but only within certain material limits circumscribed by the class relations and material development of society. One result of the centralisation of capitalist economy is urbanisation. Are we to assume this too to be the product of Hegelian ideas? Is the world domination of the cities over the countryside the product of Hegelian design? In fact Chomsky, like Hegel, makes ‘the idea’ the driving force of economy and society.

Chomsky implies that lawyers and courts could have designed any other socio-economic system in the late 19th century. According to this thought stream there appears to be no more powerful impulsion than ideas, in this case primarily the idea to abandon classical liberalism. If only they had stuck to the ideas of the classical liberals like “Adam Smith or Jefferson or anyone like that” things would have been much better, and perhaps the horrors of the twentieth century could have been entirely avoided.

Chomsky tells us that what took place would have “horrified” and “scandalised” the classical liberals. Sadly the architects of the new socio-economic system managed to consolidate corporate and state power against the popular will.

That in essence is Chomsky’s view of how we ended up where we are. And to round out the argument Chomsky says that centralised corporate capitalism (read all capitalist democracies), fascism (read every right-wing regime) and Bolshevism (read every so called communist state) all come “more or less” from Hegel’s mind.

That these processes of centralisation of corporate power occurred in all capitalist countries regardless of the “Hegelianism” of the human agents would tend to indicate that the economic dynamic towards centralisation was inherent to the developmental laws of capitalism. To be fair, professor Chomsky qualified his assertion in that he states that tyranny comes, “more or less” from Hegelian roots. Presumably Japanese economic centralisation is at the “less” end of the spectrum, and poor old Germany suffered the full weight of Hegelian ideological tyranny, corporate, fascist and Stalinist.

Contrast this to the method employed by Marx. In Das Kapital he studied and described the various phases in the development of the capitalist mode of production and observed the process of imperialist monopolisation in embryo. Lenin with others at the start of the twentieth century by observation of the economic processes taking place, investigated the developmental dynamics of monopoly capitalism. Lenin’s book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism sought to provide a means of understanding the dynamics of world capitalism, e.g. the domination of finance capital over industrial capital, the nature of the relations between the most powerful imperialist countries and the colonial and economically backward countries and the reasons for the world war.

The world division of labour brought the world into a single whole, Marxism considers this progressive because it paves the way economically and culturally for the socialist unification of the world. However imperialism maintains the division of the world into capitalist nation states, each grabbing the loot or protecting it from the others, producing wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. Professor Chomsky does not bother to explain why or how a “Marxist-Leninist” allegedly considers “corporatization of power, consolidation of power, centralization”... “good”. In relation to this question Chomsky provides assertion as proof.

Mikhail Bakunin’s “anti-authoritarianism” versus Marxism

Chomsky sees Bakunin as one of the main sources of his political inspiration. Bakunin, “predicted that there would be two forms of modern intellectuals, what he called the ‘Red Bureaucracy’, who would use popular struggles to try to take control of state power and institute the most vicious and ruthless dictatorships in history, and the other group, who would see that there isn’t going to be an access to power that way and would therefore become the servants of private power and the state capitalist democracy, where they would, as Bakunin put it, ‘beat the people with the people’s stick,’ talk about democracy but beat the people with it. That’s actually one of the few predictions in the social sciences that’s come true, to my knowledge, and a pretty perceptive one.” (Chomsky, On Democracy and Education, p.248)

Bakunin was a colourful man whose views were a mixture of insightful inspiration and crazed ramblings. However, his severe attacks on Marx and the leadership of the First International appear to be at the core of Chomsky’s view of Leninism and his anarchist alternative. For much of his politically active life Bakunin was a pan-slavist, but he passed through various political and philosophical movements of 19th century Europe.

One factor that a cursory analysis of Bakunin’s political activity reveals is his total disregard for the creation of democratic structures and any accountability in every organisation he was involved in. Amusingly he would found one secret society after another. And the organisational principle he applied can be summarised best by the term personal dictatorship .

Daniel Guérin claims that, “His wild early career as a revolutionary conspirator was unconnected with anarchism. He embraced libertarian ideas only in 1864 after the failure of the Polish insurrection in which he played a part. His earlier writings have no place in anarchist anthology.” (Daniel Guérin’s Anarchism, p.6)

Guerin’s contention does not stand up to investigation, E.H. Carr points out that long after 1864. Bakunin’s “secret Alliance” working inside the First International was nothing but a conspiratorial personal dictatorship run by Bakunin himself:

The revolution was to be directed, ‘not by any visible power, but by the collective dictatorship of all members of the Alliance.’ For this purpose, members of the Alliance must be willing to submit their personal freedom to discipline as rigid as that of the Jesuits ‘ (my emphasis; Bakunin returns more than once to this comparison), whose strength lay in the ‘obliteration of the individual before the collective will, organisation and activity.’ (my emphasis) Bakunin could see nothing incompatible in demanding the loosest possible form of organisation for the International and the strictest possible discipline in the ranks of the Alliance.” (E.H. Carr Bakunin, p.440)

As we shall see later, we find this dictatorial apparatus replicated in the FAI’s leadership of the Spanish anarchist movement. We also find that the most famous anarchist movements were named after one man, in the Ukraine the ‘Mahknovites’, in Spain the ‘friends of Durruti’ – hardly the indication of a “non-hierarchical movement” with no leaders, which in real life never exists.

E H Carr’s amusing biography of Bakunin summarised his work as follows, “Bakunin is known to the world as one of the founders of anarchism. It is less often remembered that he was the first originator of the conception of a select and closely organised revolutionary party, bound together not only by common ideals, but by the tie of implicit obedience to an absolute revolutionary dictator.(Carr Bakunin, p. 455, my emphasis) It should be noted that it is precisely for the concept of the “vanguard party” that Leninism is condemned by the anarchists!

It is our contention that most if not all, anarchist “non-hierarchical and anti authoritarian movements,” were in fact highly authoritarian, hierarchical secret conspiracies. Bakunin was totally obsessed by conspiratorial organisation, he believed that by creating tightly controlled organisations under his enlightened leadership, he would be able to guide revolutions towards his goals; variously bourgeois nationalism, Tsarist reformation, pan-Slavism, anti-Germanism and libertarian anarchism. Of course there is an element of conspiracy in all revolutionary movements, because the secret police and the state seek to undermine, infiltrate, monitor and control revolutionary threats. However, Bakunin took conspiracy to extreme levels.

In contrast to Bakunin’s organisational methods, Marxism works on the basis of adherence to ideas and creates organisational forms that correspond to the needs of the moment. At one time the organisation will be open and extremely democratic, at another centralised, adopting organisational forms as required. A characteristic of Leninism is that democratic control inside the revolutionary organisation is designed to be able to flexibly respond to the organisational exigencies of the day in response to the nature of the political tasks required. One cannot have the same organisational form in a bourgeois democracy and under a fascist dictatorship. To lead a movement of strikes over wages and to make an insurrection requires radically different structures.

Bakunin always applied his personal dictatorship to organisations he worked in, though many of his conspiratorial organisations were simply a figment of his imagination. Marx and Lenin on the other hand, always had to try to win support from the political movements they led by democratic procedure. Lenin spent much of the first decade of the 20th Century struggling to win a majority for his ideas and methods within the Russian Social Democratic Party, during the Russian Revolution voting took place even for the most strictly disciplined acts like the insurrection and the banning of factions in 1921.

Bakunin saw the peasantry as the main force of the coming revolution, which his secret societies would lead. The revolution was to encompass the peasants, the workers and criminal elements whose “evil” and “socialist passions” for destruction would bring down the existing order and state. In its place was to be nothing. Everything would self-regulate from day one.

What this meant in practice can be seen in 1870 in Lyon. A spontaneous popular rising had placed bourgeois radicals in command of the town, and Bakunin set up his own “Committee for the saving of France’ and at a public meeting on 24 September declared amongst other things that, “The administrative and governmental machine of the State, having become impotent, is abolished.”...and “All existing municipal organisations are suppressed, and are replaced in all federated communes by Committees for the Saving of France, which will exercise full powers under the immediate supervision of the people.”

Within 3 days the National Guard took over the headquarters of the rising. Bakunin’s adventurist attempt to abolish the state by decree had taken no account of the real relations of power, the mood of the masses or the social forces in play. He had simply rushed to Lyon, declared his own “Committee for the Saving of France” and the abolition of the State.

The State however, not having caught on to Bakunin’s liberatory wisdom, crushed the rebellion and arrested its leaders. Bakunin escaped to prepare new decrees and phantom committees in the future. (Carr, p 417-22)

What is surprising is that Chomsky should consider Bakunin as a liberal anti-authoritarian, when all evidence points to the contrary. Here again we see how Chomsky allows assertion to replace evidence.

Engels writing against the anti-authoritarianism of Bakunin’s followers neatly summarises all that is foolish in anarchist anti-authoritarianism: communal action is possible without submission on the part of some to an external will, that is to say authority. Whether it be the will of a majority of voters, of a managing committee or of one man alone, it is invariably a will imposed on dissidents; but without that single controlling will, no cooperation is possible. Just try and get one of Barcelona’s big factories to function without control, that is to say without an authority! Or to run a railway without knowing for certain that every engineer, stoker etc. is at his post exactly when he ought to be! I should very much like to know whether the good Bakunin would entrust his portly frame to a railway carriage if the railway were administered on the principle that no one need be at his post unless he chose to submit to the authority of the regulations, regulations far more authoritarian in any conceivable state of society than those of the Congress of Basle! All these grandiloquent ultra-radical and revolutionary catchphrases serve only to conceal an abysmal ignorance of the conditions under which the daily life of society takes place. Just try abolishing ‘all authority, even by consent’, among the sailors on board a ship! “(Engels to Lafargue, 30 December 1871 Collected works, Vol 44 p.286)

Chomsky on the Russian Revolution and Leninism

Leninist doctrine holds that a vanguard Party should assume state power and drive the population to economic development, and, by some miracle that is unexplained, to freedom and justice. It is an ideology that naturally appeals greatly to the radical intelligentsia, to whom it affords a justification for their role as state managers. I can’t see any reason – either in logic or history – to take it seriously. Libertarian socialism (including a substantial mainstream of Marxism) dismissed all of this with contempt, quite rightly.” (Chomsky,

“The Leninist intelligentsia ... fit Marx’s description of the ‘conspirators’ who ‘pre-empt the developing revolutionary process’ and distort it to their own ends of domination”.

“Since its origins, the Soviet State has attempted to harness the energies of its own population and oppressed people everywhere in the service of the men who took advantage of the popular ferment in Russia in 1917 to seize State power.” (Chomsky, The Soviet Union Versus Socialism)

Although one finds very little written by Chomsky on Lenin or Trotsky, it is impossible not to be struck by how boldly Chomsky makes sweeping (and false) assertions concerning their ideas and actions. Chomsky, as we shall see, considers Lenin and Trotsky as both founders and supporters of the system of tyranny, which Marxists define as Stalinism. Chomsky’s contemptuous dismissal of “Leninism”, is based either on intellectual ignorance or deliberate falsification, and appears to emanate almost exclusively from secondary sources.

Preparation of a revolutionary movement

Bolshevism developed from 1903 onwards as the revolutionary wing of Russian Social-Democracy; it distinguished itself in respect of organisational and ideological preparation for revolution. The concept famously advanced by Lenin in 1903 was that Social Democracy must be the “vanguard party” of the working class. Lenin argued that the economic struggle was not sufficient, the workers also required political struggle.

There was a tendency among some layers of the Russian Social Democracy to ignore the political struggle. For them everything would flow from the trade union, the “economic” struggle. History has shown repeatedly that this is not the case. The working class needs a revolutionary leadership, a revolutionary party. This does not arise spontaneously, but must be consciously built by revolutionary Marxists.

The “Leninist intelligentsia” (i.e. the Bolshevik Party) sought to build up Social Democracy’s political base and influence amongst the workers, such that the working class would become the “vanguard fighter for democracy”. Lenin’s idea was to build a revolutionary movement capable of defeating the state machine of Russian Tsarism. This meant before the revolution Social Democracy would have to operate in both legal and illegal forms. Legality provides the opportunity for open and democratic structures, illegality inevitably brings with it conspiratorial organisational forms that cannot always base themselves on open democratic discussion about the task to be carried out.

The Bolsheviks used all channels that were open to them, including parliamentary opportunities. But they were also forced to use underground methods. Revolutionary work under a dictatorship requires conspiracy or it will be crushed. A successful revolution also requires preparation, including political, ideological and even military preparation.

In one sense Chomsky accepts this, for in relation to the Spanish revolution he writes, “The accomplishments of the popular revolution in Spain, in particular, were based on the patient work of many years of organization and education, one component of a long tradition of commitment and militancy.” So surely logic would tell us there is nothing wrong with preparing for a revolution, as the Bolsheviks did by a “long tradition of commitment and militancy.”

According to Chomsky the Bolsheviks pre-empted “the developing revolutionary process”. The implication is that the Bolsheviks should never have seized power because it was too early, the revolutionary crisis would have matured better if the Leninist conspirators had waited for the workers and peasants of Russia to institute “council communism” themselves. In fact, the irony of this position is that many of the old Bolshevik leadership actually opposed the insurrection proposed by Lenin because like Chomsky they felt it pre-empted the developing revolutionary process. On this question Chomsky finds himself in the same camp as many leading Bolsheviks like Kamenev, Zinoviev and even Stalin, who initially wavered on this question!

Lenin’s assessment in October 1917 was that the army was mutinying, there were widespread peasant revolts, the Provisional Government was continuing the hated war, revolt was brewing in armies across Europe and the Bolsheviks had majority support in the main urban Soviets or workers’ councils.

Earlier, in July 1917, Trotsky had used all his personal and political authority to convince armed workers not to try to seize power, so as not to “pre-empt the developing revolutionary process.” At that time it was felt by Trotsky and Lenin that an insurrection would have led to defeat. The history of the struggle for socialism has been one in which there have been sharp divisions over whether and when to seize state power by insurrection or wait for the process “to fully mature.” We normally find that those who took the attitude of waiting for the “full maturation” of the objective and subjective conditions for socialism ended up in the reformist camp.

The founder of this “revisionist” movement, Eduard Bernstein, the ideological grandfather of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, argued that capitalism would evolve into socialism and, as socialism is logically the best system, when the masses understand this it will be brought into existence. Is this the “substantial mainstream of Marxism” to which Chomsky refers?

The State and Revolution

Chomsky believes “it is perverse to regard Bolshevism as ‘Marxism in Practice’, ... ‘the left wing critique of Bolshevism, taking account of the historical circumstances surrounding the Russian Revolution, is far more to the point.” Chomsky then cites Paul Mattick who argues that the Bolsheviks “did not go far enough in exploiting the Russian upheavals for strictly proletarian ends”. (Chomsky, Notes on Anarchism)

Earlier we saw how Chomsky thought that the Leninist revolutionaries were premature, pre-empting “the developing revolutionary process” Now Chomsky changes tack and agrees with Mattick that the revolution was not premature, rather the Bolsheviks “did not go far enough”. Now it is the “Left wing critique of Bolshevism” that is to the point. Before, let us recall, it was the “substantial mainstream of Marxism”, i.e. reformism.

But let us not concern ourselves with consistency. The purpose is after all to make the ideas and action of Lenin and Trotsky appear to be beneath contempt and show how you can’t take them seriously. Thus Chomsky faces two ways in his attack, on the one hand the Bolsheviks should never have seized power, and on the other hand when they did, they did not go far enough for “strictly proletarian ends.” It appears that the essence of what Chomsky means is that the Bolsheviks should have instituted and promoted libertarian communism, or council communism immediately.

Lenin when in hiding in the summer of 1917 wrote State and Revolution, which Chomsky describes as “perhaps his most libertarian work”, but says this was an “intellectual deviation” to the left in 1917. We can infer that Chomsky agrees with the ideas contained in State and Revolution. Chomsky is arguing that Lenin made this “intellectual deviation” as a trick. Let us look into this question a little more closely.