Penguin Books, 2013
In general, the word “anarchy” tends to churn up an image of total lawlessness, a breakdown of all rules and norms. Conservatives are likely to equate it with the Hobbesian state of nature, or an all-out war where it’s every individual for themselves, while orthodox Leninists would dub it as “left-wing infantilism.” Yet if we consider the broad concept, putting aside the preconceptions accrued by political ideologies, anarchism is both, neither, and so much more.
The problem with defining anarchism is that its rich history and the varied propositions of its proponents make confining it to a single, fixed definition a difficult task. With this in mind, Noam Chomsky’s simple but compelling definition, that “anarchism may be regarded as the libertarian wing of socialism,” is not so much an equivocation as a reconciliation of what are generally perceived as mutually exclusive concepts. Indeed, On Anarchism — a collection of interviews with, and lectures and essays by, the prominent linguist, philosopher, logician, and activist—is a work dedicated to the defence of this definition. Chomsky seems to have taken to heart the Bakuninist adage that freedom without socialism is privilege and socialism without freedom is tyranny.
More than anything else, as a public thinker, Noam Chomsky is a critic of power, of Western power in general and American power in particular. We can see from On Anarchy how the positions he takes as a thinker stem from his convictions that “the idea that people could be free is extremely frightening to anybody with power.” Thus, we can see Chomsky as an intellectual throwing his weight behind several movements that fight under the banner of freedom, be it Palestine or Occupy.
To understand why, it is worth briefly considering the history of anarchism. Generally, the origin of modern anarchism is attributed to William Godwin, the English political philosopher, novelist, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, and father of Mary Shelley, in his Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). However, if the anarchist tradition is to be considered as a belief that “power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate,” its origins can be traced way back to the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, also known as Diogenes the Cynic; his encounter with Alexander the Great where he trivialised the authority of the conqueror, related by both Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius (a biographer of the Greek philosophers) is the stuff of historical legend. Likewise, we might also consider those Christian sects like the Waldensians and the Anabaptists which demonstrated contempt for the authority of both the state and the church (and often ended up being burnt at the stake as heretics) as precursors to modern anarchism.
Anarchism as a theory is immensely indebted to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a contemporary of Marx who famously declared that “property is theft.” Proudhon visualised a self-regulating society without judicial, bureaucratic, military, or civil power. He preceded Marx in attacking the basis of property, laissez-faire and economic individualism, and in advocating the right of workers to the value of their labour. It was Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist, who contributed the most to making anarchism popular as an idea for revolution. One of the many ironies of the history of socialist revolution is that Bakunin had a greater influence on Leninist strategies of party organisation and revolutionary terror than Marx. For instance Bakunin’s “Revolutionary Catechism” provided the foundations for Lenin’s “Democratic Centralism.” Bakunin, not Marx, gave roots to the idea that villages were also centres for class war. Despite its indebtedness to anarchist thinkers, Leninism was persistent and particularly violent in rooting out anarchism. Why was this?
Unfortunately, Chomsky does not provide an answer. In “Of Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship”, he gives a detailed explanation of how the communists persecuted the anarchists during the Spanish civil war but rarely does he explain why; rather, he reproduces the usual caricature of communists as enemies of freedom. It is indeed true that, under Stalin, the USSR played a criminal role in dictating the terms of its support to the Spanish republic. It is also a historical fact that Soviet agents were more concerned with eliminating anarchist forces than in waging a united fight against Spanish fascism. And Chomsky is right to argue that the anarchists in areas like Catalonia, Aragon, Levante, and other places were highly successful in collectivisation of land, redistribution of resources, socialisation of agriculture and industry and so on. But it is also true that the anarchist parties made several political and strategic blunders which Chomsky is reluctant to recognise.
The National Confederation of Labour (CNT)—a confederation of anarcho-syndicalist trade unions founded in 1910 during the Bourbon restoration—rebelled against the Primo de Rivera dictatorship without an assessment of its own strength, resulting in a ban of the labour union and several crackdowns. During the 1936 elections, after the ban on the CNT was lifted, the union failed to consolidate the support of the working classes by coming to terms with the Workers’ General Union (UGT), which had over a million members in its ranks at that time. While the CNT had self-defence committees, they were naive about the matter of military offence. Rather than enacting a realist strategy, they relied on the goodwill of the people. Civil war is a brutal business and utopians rarely survive it.
It is too soon, however, to write an obituary for anarchism. Inspired by anarchist ideas, the Kurdish struggle in the Middle East led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliated groups is a particularly successful and spectacular movement. Though initially conceived as a Kurdish nationalist-cum-Marxist-Leninist movement, it evolved into a movement that seeks to transcend barriers of nations and states, and seeks instead to establish autonomous sovereign communes of peoples based on equitable distribution of resources, mutual recognition, and tolerance. The PKK-led Kurdish struggle, under the theoretical guidance of its founder-leader Abdullah Ocalan, is based on direct democracy and grassroots participation. It is of note here that Ocalan was greatly influenced by the ideas of the American anarchist Murray Bookchin. The latter’s idea of “libertarian municipalism”, the creation of local level democratic bodies as opposed to a centralised state apparatus, contributed to the development of Ocalan’s idea of “democratic confederalism” which forms the theoretical basis for the praxis of the PKK. Even though a critical situation like the one with which the Kurds are now faced—confronting ISIS—requires strict military discipline, the vanguard of the Kurdish struggle has not established a vertical decision-making process, choosing instead a more horizontal approach to cultivating cadres and leaders.
The effects of such an approach can be seen in the enthusiastic participation of Kurdish women in the struggle. Unlike most nationalist movements that symbolically use the bodies of women in the peak of a military campaign but send them “back to the kitchen” once the goals are achieved, the Kurdish struggle in Kobane involves women as an integral, organic part. Kurdish women in Kobane are the agents of their own liberation, and are as politically equipped at resisting chauvinism within their own communities as they are fierce in resisting the brutalities of ISIS. Few movements in the world have been able to rival the PKK when it comes to gender parity. And, while Chomsky himself has written little on the Kurdish struggle, it might actually be the best contemporary example to validate his own position on the moral superiority of anarchism.
After reading On Anarchism, there are still lingering questions on the prospects of anarchism. Can a movement bereft of any rigorously organised theory and meta-explanations—the likes provided by Marxism—sustain itself politically and intellectually? Can successes on a local scale be reproduced on a global scale? Will we ever reach a stage where state power can be done away with? Chomsky has no answers. We must, then, return to Kirilov’s dilemma in Dostoevsky’s The Devils one of the deepest considerations on the abolition of authority. “To realise that there is no god and not to realize at the same instant that you have become god yourself—is an absurdity.”
The future of anarchism depends on resolving this paradox.
Karthick Manoharan  is a completion-year PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the Department of Government, University of Essex.