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Starting the New Year with understanding

Hey, everybody! Let’s start out 2014 with the best understanding of our world possible, including ideas on how to make it better. That’s what this blog is all about, and in that spirit I have a new year’s gift for you: my notes on Chomsky on Anarchism, 2013.

In case you’re not familiar with Noam Chomsky, he’s an 84-year-old linguist and political commentator, ignored by the mainstream media because his views don’t fit into the dominant paradigm. Wikipedia describes Chomsky as “a leading critic of U.S. foreign policy, state capitalism, and the mainstream news media. Ideologically, he aligns himself with anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism.” Let’s find out what those labels mean, in his case at least, by delving into the latest of his many books, Chomsky on Anarchism. (If you find yourself becoming interested in anarchism after reading this blog post – which I hope you will – look under “Possibilities” at the top of the page, where you’ll find a section on Anarchism that includes a longer introduction to the subject. More pages will be added in the coming weeks.)

Now for Chomsky’s book…In the introduction, Nathan Schneider, a much younger anarchist associated with the Occupy movement, says that “what makes anarchism worth taking seriously is the prospect of learning, over the course of generations, how to build a well-organized and free society from the ground up…The principle with which Chomsky describes his anarchist leanings is that power that isn’t justified by the will of the people should be dismantled and refashioned from below, with workers owning and governing their workplaces and communities providing everyone’s basic needs…Both the anarcho-curiosity awakened by Occupy and the flourishing of right-wing libertarianism are signs that anarchism is overdue for recognition as a serious intellectual tradition and a real possibility.”

In the first chapter, titled “Notes on Anarchism,” Chomsky quotes Rudolf Rocker, who insists that “socialism will be free or it will not be at all.” From this point of view, Chomsky says, “anarchism may be regarded as the libertarian wing of socialism, and it is in this spirit that Daniel Guérin has approached the study of anarchism in Anarchism and other works.

Guérin quotes Adolph Fischer, who said that ‘every anarchist is a socialist, but not every socialist is an anarchist.’ Similarly, Bakunin, in his manifesto of 1865, laid down the principle that each member of his international anarchist fraternity must be, to begin with, a socialist.

A consistent anarchist must oppose private ownership of the means of production and the wage slavery which is a component of this system, as incompatible with the principle that labor must be freely undertaken and under the control of the producer.” This excludes, Chomsky notes, both capitalist wage labor and various modern forms of totalitarianism or state capitalism.

Chomsky reminds us that “anarcho-syndicalists sought, even under capitalism, to create ‘free associations of free producers’ that would engage in militant struggle and prepare to take over the organization of production on a democratic basis.

The consistent anarchist, then, should be a socialist, but a socialist of a particular sort. He will not only oppose alienated and unspecialized labor and look forward to the appropriation of capital by the whole body of workers, but he will also insist that this appropriation be direct, not exercised by some elite force acting in the name of the proletariat.

These ideas have been realized in spontaneous revolutionary action in Germany and Italy after World War I and in Spain in the countryside and industrial Barcelona in 1936. One might argue that some form of workers’ council communism is the natural form of revolutionary socialism in an industrial society.”

Chomsky concludes this chapter by cautioning us that the phrase “spontaneous revolutionary action” can be misleading. “The accomplishments of the popular revolution in Spain, in particular,” he says, “were based on the patient work of many years of organization and education.”

In chapter 2, “Excerpts from Understanding Power,” Chomsky notes that “anarchism as a social philosophy has never meant ‘chaos’ – in fact, anarchists have typically believed in a highly organized society, just one that’s organized democratically from below.

People in power have always regarded anarchism as the ultimate evil. Take the ‘60s, for example. The only thing that made it into history was the crazy stuff around the periphery. The main things that were going on are out of history because they had a libertarian character, and there is nothing more frightening to people in power.

Libertarian and anarchist mean the same thing to me and to others around the world. It’s just in the United States that ‘libertarianism’ means unbridled capitalism. If you have unbridled capitalism, you have all kinds of authority – you have extreme authority.

If capital is privately controlled, people are going to have to rent themselves to survive. You can say, ‘They rent themselves freely; it’s a free contract,’ but wage slavery or starvation isn’t a choice.

The American version of ‘libertarianism’ is an aberration – nobody really takes it seriously. Everybody knows that a society that worked by American libertarian principles would self-destruct in three seconds. The only reason people pretend to take it seriously is because you can use it as a weapon. When somebody comes out in favor of a tax, you can say, ‘No, I’m a libertarian, I’m against that tax’ – but, of course, I’m still in favor of the government building roads, and having schools, and killing Libyans, and all that sort of stuff. If you read about the world consistent libertarians describe, it’s so full of hate nobody would want to live in it.

I don’t feel that in order to work hard for social change you need to be able to spell out a detailed plan for the future. What I feel should drive a person to work for change are certain principles you’d like to see achieved. The basic principle I’d like to see communicated to people is the idea that every form of authority and domination and hierarchy, every authoritarian structure, has to prove that it’s justified or be dismantled. To me, that’s anarchism: the point of view that people have a right to be free, and if there are constraints on that freedom, you have to justify them.

I think people should be able to live in a society where they can act on the basis of their internal drives and freely develop their capacities, instead of being forced into the narrow range of options available to most people in the world today. One of the main purposes of socialism to me is to reach a point where people have the opportunity to decide for themselves what their needs are, and not have the ‘choices’ forced on them by some arbitrary system of power.

The anarchist vision in almost all its varieties has looked forward to dismantling state power, and I share that vision. But right now I defend elements of state power under severe attack – programs set up in the nation-state system after a century of hard struggle by the labor movement and the socialist movement that fulfill people’s needs. In my opinion the immediate goal of even committed anarchists should be to defend some state institutions, while helping to pry them open to more meaningful public participation, and ultimately to dismantle them in a much more free, equal, and participatory society. The far right wants to weaken these governmental structures to make sure all the key decisions are in the hands of the big corporations.

Take the example of devolving authority to the states. Ideally, moving from a central to a local authority would increase democracy, but in current circumstances, it would just give middle-sized corporations the ability to control state and local governments the way big corporations control the federal government – in addition to playing work forces off against each other.

I think it’s realistic and rational to work within structures to which you’re opposed in order to move to a situation where you can challenge them.

There’s nothing in the society right now that can protect people from corporate tyranny except the federal government.”

In chapter 3, “What Happened to Anarchism in Spain in the ‘30s,” Chomsky notes that both liberal and Communist intellectuals oppose and have opposed “revolutionary movements that are largely spontaneous and only loosely organized, while rooted in deeply felt needs and ideals of dispossessed masses – like the revolution that swept over much of Spain in the summer of 1936.

During the months following the Franco insurrection in July 1936, a largely spontaneous social revolution of unprecedented scope took place involving masses of urban and rural laborers with no ‘revolutionary vanguard.’ It radically transformed economic and social conditions and persisted, with remarkable success, until it was forcibly suppressed.

There were strikes, expropriations, and battles between peasants and Civil Guards in the months preceding Franco’s coup, and when it came, the Republican government was paralyzed. Workers armed themselves in Madrid and Barcelona, robbing government armories and even ships in the harbor, and putting down the insurrection while the government, afraid to arm the working classes, vacillated. In large areas of Spain effective authority passed into the hands of anarchist and socialist workers.

The next few months have frequently been described as a period of “dual power.” In Barcelona industry and commerce were largely collectivized, and a wave of collectivization spread through rural areas, as well as towns and villages, in Aragon, Castile, and the Levant, and to a lesser but still significant extent in many parts of Catalonia, Asturias, Estremadura, and Andalusia. Military power was exercised by defense committees, and social and economic organization took many forms, generally following the program of the Saragossa Congress of the anarchist CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) in May 1936. The revolution’s organs of power and administration remained separate from the central Republican government, and even after several anarchist leaders entered the government in the autumn of 1936, continued to function fairly independently until the revolution was finally crushed between the fascist and Communist-led Republican forces. The success of collectivized industry and commerce in Barcelona impressed even unsympathetic observers. The scale of rural collectivization is indicated by these data from anarchist sources: in Aragon, 450 collectives with half a million members (70% of the rural population, the majority of whom organized spontaneously); in the Levant, the country’s richest agricultural region, 900 collectives accounting for half of agricultural production and 70% of marketing; and in Castile, 300 collectives with 100,000 members. In Catalonia, the bourgeois government headed by Companys retained nominal authority, but real power was in the hands of the anarchist-dominated committees.

The period of July through September may be characterized as one of spontaneous, widespread, but unconsummated social revolution. A number of anarchist leaders joined the government, as Federica Montseny said on January 3, 1937, “to prevent the Revolution from deviating, in order to carry it further beyond the war, and to oppose [any] dictatorial tendency.” The central government fell increasingly under Communist control, however, largely as a result of Russian military assistance. Communist success was greatest in the rich farming areas of the Levant, and the government moved to Valencia, the capital of one of its provinces, where prosperous farm owners flocked to the Peasant Federation the Spanish Communist Party had organized to protect wealthy farmers and check the rural collectivization promoted by agricultural workers.

The first phase of the counterrevolution was the legalization and regulation of those accomplishments of the revolution that appeared irreversible. A decree of October 7th by the Communist Minister of Agriculture legalized the expropriations of land belonging to participants in the Franco revolt. By exempting the estates of landowners who hadn’t participated in the rebellion, the decree represented a step backward from the standpoint of the revolutionaries. Similarly, a decree of October 24, 1936 promulgated by a CNT member who had become Councilor for Economy in Catalonia gave legal sanction to the collectivization of Catalonian industry but limited it to enterprises employing over 100 workers and transferred control from workers’ committees to the state bureaucracy.

The second stage of the counterrevolution, from October 1936 through May 1937, involved the destruction of the local committees, the replacement of the militia by a conventional army, and the reestablishment of the prerevolutionary economic and social system wherever possible. Finally, in May 1937, there was a direct attack on workers in Barcelona. Following the success of this attack, which killed 500 workers and wounded over a thousand, the process of liquidating the revolution was completed. The collectivization decree of October 24th was rescinded, and industries were ‘freed’ from workers’ control. Communist-led armies swept through Aragon, destroying many collectives, dismantling their organizations, and bringing the area under the control of the central government. Throughout the Republican-held territories, the government, now under Communist domination, acted in accordance with the plan announced in Pravda on December 17, 1936: ‘So far as Catalonia is concerned, the cleaning up of Trotskyist and Anarcho-Syndicalist elements has already begun, and it will be carried out with the same energy as in the USSR.’

During this period and after the success of the counterrevolution, the Republic was waging a war against the Franco insurrection. The Communist-led counterrevolution must be understood in context with the ongoing antifascist war and the more general attempt of the Soviet Union to construct a broad antifascist alliance with the Western democracies. The Communists didn’t believe these states, which had substantial commercial interests in Spain, would tolerate revolution there.

Rudolf Rocker made another important point: ‘What the Russian autocrats and their supporters fear most is that the success of libertarian socialism in Spain might prove to their blind followers that the much vaunted “necessity of a dictatorship” is nothing but one vast fraud which in Russia has led to the despotism of Stalin.’ In other words, Bolshevism and Western liberalism were united in their opposition to popular revolution. The Russians withdrew their support of the Republic once it became clear that the British would not be swayed from the policy of appeasement, confirming the thesis that only considerations of Russian foreign policy led the Soviet Union to support the Republic in the first place.

As Franz Borkenau pointed out, the Communist defeat of the revolution weakened popular support for the war against Franco. The masses wouldn’t commit themselves to the defense of a Communist-run dictatorship, which restored former authority and even ‘showed a definite preference for the police forces of the old regime.’ The critical loss of Málaga on February 8, 1937 might have been averted, Borkenau says, by a mass ‘fight of despair of the sort the anarchists might have led.’

George Orwell commented that ‘a government which sends boys of fifteen to the front with 40-year-old rifles and keeps its biggest men and newest weapons in the rear is manifestly more afraid of the revolution than of the fascists.’

The Catalonian war industry was successful under collectivization and could have achieved more had the means for expansion (the ability to purchase raw materials outside Spain) not been denied it by the Communist-dominated government (the government was insisting on controlling industry in exchange). All attempts to obtain credit for collectivized industry and agriculture were unsuccessful, the government remaining in control through the medium of the banks.

Among historians of the Spanish Civil War, the dominant view is that the Communist policy was in its essentials the correct one – that in order to consolidate domestic and international support for the Republic it was necessary to block and then reverse the social revolution. The anarchist leaders who entered the government shared this view, putting their trust in the good faith of liberals like Companys and believing – naively, as events were to show – that the Western democracies would come to their aid.”

These “democracies,” Chomsky notes, “were actually complicit in the fascist insurrection. Pro-Franco French bankers blocked the release of Spanish gold to the loyalist government, hindering the purchase of arms and increasing the Republic’s reliance on the Soviets. Despite a supposed policy of ‘non-intervention,’ which blocked Western aid for the loyalist government while Hitler and Mussolini helped Franco, British naval forces joined those of Germany and Italy in preventing the Spanish navy from blocking Franco’s transportation of Moroccan troops.” Britain, Chomsky explains, was “determined to maintain its control of the Mediterranean.” It also, in the name of anti-communism, supplied Franco with munitions and gave him information about Russian arms deliveries to the Republic. Meanwhile, according to Chomsky, the supposedly neutral United States blocked almost all deliveries of arms and oil to the Republic. Five oil tankers belonging to Texaco were diverted to Franco, who received $6 million worth of oil on credit during the Civil War, in July 1936. Franco’s Spain became a staunch anti-Communist American ally during the Cold War.

“A policy diametrically opposed to the one followed by the Republic was advocated by Camillo Berneri, the leading anarchist intellectual in Spain. Berneri, an Italian anarchist, left Italy after Mussolini’s rise to power, coming to Barcelona on July 19, 1936. Having formed the first Italian units for the antifascist war, he was murdered during the May Days of 1937 after being arrested by Communist-controlled police. In an open letter to anarchist minister Federica Montseny, Bernini predicted ‘either victory over Franco through revolutionary war, or defeat.’ He argued that Morocco should be granted independence and that an attempt should be made to stir up rebellion throughout North Africa. (Franco relied heavily on Moorish contingents, including a substantial number from French Morocco.) Delegations of Moroccan nationalists approached the Valencia government asking for arms and materiel, but were refused by Caballero, who proposed territorial concessions in North Africa to France and England to try to win their support.

It is perhaps relevant that in Asturias, the one area of Spain where the CNT-UGT system of committees wasn’t eliminated in favor of central control, guerilla warfare continued well after Franco’s victory.

A former minister of the central government admitted ‘that there had been a successful social revolution in half of Spain. Successful, that is, in the collectivization of factories and farms which are operated, quite efficiently, under trade union control.’

The study of collectivization published by the CNT in 1937 concludes with a description of the village of Membrilla in the present-day central Spanish province of Castile-La Mancha. ‘In its miserable huts live the poor inhabitants of a poor province; 8,000 people, but the streets aren’t paved, the town has no newspaper, no cinema, café, or library. On the other hand, it has many churches that have been burned.’ Immediately after the Franco insurrection, the land was expropriated and village life collectivized. ‘Food, clothing, and tools were distributed equitably to the whole population. Money was abolished, work collectivized, all goods passed to the community, consumption was socialized. It was, however, not a socialization of wealth, but of poverty.’ Work continued as before. An elected council appointed committees to organize the life of the commune and its relations to the outside world. The necessities of life were distributed freely, insofar as they were available. A large number of refugees were accommodated. A small library was established, and a small school of design.

The document closes with these words: ‘The whole population lived as in a large family; functionaries, delegates, the secretary of the syndicates, the members of the municipal council, all elected, acted as heads of a family. But they were controlled, because special privilege or corruption would not be tolerated. Membrilla is perhaps the poorest village of Spain, but it is the most just.’

An account such as this, with its concern for human relations and the ideal of a just society, may be treated with scorn by the sophisticated intellectual – taken to be naïve, primitive, or irrational. Only when such prejudice is abandoned will it be possible for historians to undertake a serious study of the popular movement that transformed Republican Spain in one of the most remarkable social revolutions recorded by history.”