Noam Chomsky on Revolutionary Violence, Communism and the American Left

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Christopher Helali

Pax Marxista, March 12, 2013

Christopher Helali: Well first off thank you so much for conducting this interview and for your many years of continued activism and solidarity.

Noam Chomsky: Thank you.

CH: Over the past few years there has been a reevaluation of violent revolutionary praxis by some intellectuals on the left. What is your position on the role of violence, in this case subjective violence, as opposed to symbolic or objective violence in movements of liberation?

NC: Well first of all I’m not familiar with the revival and I don’t know exactly what’s being advocated but is what being advocated that we pick up our guns and overthrow the government?

CH: In essence, some theorists have said that we should reevaluate the ethical implications of violence through the lens of events like the Terror in France and that events such as these can be justified.

NC: Maybe it was done, maybe it was not done, but it was done by a government after the government was established and it carried out a terror campaign basically against adversaries. Is that a situation we are in?

CH: Some would say we are in dangerous times.

NC: Well we may be in dangerous times but are you and I a part of a revolutionary government that controls the armed forces and is confronted with oppositionists who we are trying to eliminate?

CH: We are not in that position.

NC: Okay, so then that analogy is irrelevant. Okay so what is relevant?

CH: The question would then be; is violent praxis justified for us to overthrow a government?

NC: So again should we take our guns, go out in the street and start destroying Chase Manhattan bank. Well if you want to get killed in five minutes that’s a good suggestion. Other than that it has absolutely nothing to do with the world so there is not any point in even discussing it. I think it is a crazy idea myself, but quite apart from that it’s a bit like asking should we climb on an asteroid and attack the earth? Oh okay, maybe I don’t think it’s a good idea but why talk about it?

CH: So you think this twentieth century idea of revolutionary movements is over?

NC: It’s not just twentieth century. There are very rare occasions when you can even raise the question and we are not anywhere near those occasions. If you want to raise the question abstractly in a philosophy seminar okay you can discuss it. So we can discuss are there circumstances in which it might be justified to take up arms to overthrow a repressive government. Yea, sure. For example, I was in favor of the conspirators who tried to kill Hitler. I think that was a good thing to do. I was in favor of the partisans who were resisting the Nazis. I think you can give many cases in which resistance to oppression, terror and violence is justified, I am not a pure pacifist. So I can imagine. However, I think it carries a very heavy burden of proof and the burden of proof is always on those who choose violence. Sometimes the burden can be met in my opinion, but its a heavy burden. Now we are in a philosophy seminar, unrelated to the real world. But if we are talking about the real world, which is what I happen to care about, I don’t see much point in discussing it. So I don’t know the revival you are talking about.

CH: In conjunction with this, there has been a renewed interest in the Jacobin legacy. There are new writings on reevaluating, defending and justifying the Terror in addition to justifying Robespierre and his vision of a revolutionary France. This is something that is promulgated by some on the left who still have connections with Twentieth Century Communist ideas like Leninist Vanguardism. What is the legacy of Jacobinism and Leninism on the left?

NC: They are quite different first of all. In the case of Jacobinism, we could discuss it but now we are back in a philosophy seminar, an interesting one. There is an interesting question as to what should have been done, what were the proper actions to have been taken in revolutionary France. I don’t happen to agree with Robespierre’s methods at all.

Now let’s move to Leninism. They are totally unrelated, no relation whatsoever. Leninism was in my view counterrevolutionary. It wasn’t instituting communism. There was a popular revolution, in fact there had been for years, through 1917 it grew very substantially from February on. Lenin basically tried to take control of it. If you take a look at his writings in 1917 they went way to the left. April Thesis, State and Revolution the most radical things he ever wrote, almost anarchist. My view is that it was basically opportunism. I don’t think he believes a word of it. It seems to me that he was trying to associate himself, become the leader of the revolutionary popular forces. When he became the leader, he didn’t waste much time, and Trotsky helped him, in instituting a pretty repressive regime with the basic elements of Stalinism. They moved pretty quickly to dismantle most of the organs of popular power. Not over night, but over a short time they were able to basically dismantle the soviets, the factory councils, to convert the labor force into a labor army. The peasant revolutionary forces were very much opposed to this incidentally. As distinct from Marx who saw revolutionary potential in the Russian peasantry, the urban communists, like Lenin were strongly opposed to that. In fact, a lot of Marx’s later work was even suppressed, because they didn’t like what he was saying. It wasn’t Marx but their contempt for the backward peasants. Their conception was that Russia is a backward peasant society, it has to be driven towards industrialization and then out of that the iron laws of history will lead to socialism and so on but sometime in the future. In fact, they regarded Russia as a backwater. They were essentially waiting for a revolution in Germany, the most advanced capitalist country, that’s where there should be a revolution. When the revolution was crushed in Germany in 1919, by that time Russia had been pretty much turned into the kind of labor army that Lenin and Trotsky were advocating, not totally but mostly, Kronstadt kind of finished it all. When the German revolution was crushed they realized that’s not going to work, so we have to do something else to drive Russia towards industrialization. Shortly after that comes the New Economic Policy which is essentially lets introduce state capitalism but with an iron fist, because we are going to drive them forward. This is Lenin’s vanguardism.

It was sharply criticized back in the early years of the twentieth century by Marxists, in fact by some of his later associates. Although some of the critics, like Rosa Luxemburg, pointed out that Lenin’s program, which they regarded as pretty right wing, and I do too, was, the image was, that there would be a proletarian revolution, the party will take over from the proletariat, the central committee would take over from the party and the maximal leader will take over from the central committee. Pretty much what happened, not precisely but roughly what happened. After that the use of terror to defend the repressive violent state has nothing to do with communism. In fact, I think that one of the great blows to socialism in the Twentieth Century was the Bolshevik revolution. It then called itself socialist, and the west called it socialist. In fact that’s one thing on which the world’s two major propaganda systems agreed; the huge propaganda system in the west and the minor propaganda system in the east. One of the few things on which they agreed was that this was socialism. The west propaganda system liked that because it was a way of defaming socialism, relating it to what is going on in Russia. The east, the Russian propaganda system liked it because they are trying to profit from the moral aura of socialism which was quite real, so they kind of both agreed on that. You know that when the world’s major propaganda systems agree on something it’s kind of hard for people to extricate themselves from it, so by now its routine that that was socialism, all of it very anti-socialist. I remember when in about the late 80’s when it was pretty clear that the system was tottering I was asked by a left journal, I won’t mention it, to write an article on what I thought was going to happen when the system collapses. I wrote an article in which I said I think it will be a small victory for socialism if the system collapses. They refused to publish it. Finally, it was published in an anarchist magazine, so it appeared. They couldn’t understand it. In fact I wrote some of the same things in journals here like The Nation and they published it, but I don’t think anyone understood it because this was socialism. How could you say that this was anti-socialist? My view is not unique. The left Marxists had the same view, people like Anton Pannekoek, Karl Korsch, others who got marginalized, because that’s what happens to people who don’t have the guns. I think they were right. The people who Lenin condemned as the ultra left, the infantile ultra leftists, I think they were basically right, not in everything, as were a lot of the anarchist critics. Early on, Bertrand Russell saw it pretty well. By 1920 it was unmistakable, I think even earlier. I mean I wasn’t alive then but when I was 12 years old it seemed pretty obvious to me.

CH: Do you think that within the coordinates of the entire Marxist tradition there will always be this danger of going towards that edge?

NC: You know, I don’t regard Lenin as part of the Marxist tradition, frankly. What the Marxist tradition is, who knows, but it wasn’t Marx’s position. I mentioned his belief in the revolutionary potential of the Russian peasantry. There is hardly a hint of that in Lenin. Marx had a lot of different views. For example, he thought it might be possible to reach socialism by parliamentary means in the more bourgeois democratic societies. England was his model, of course, he didn’t rule it out. In fact, Marx didn’t have very much to say about socialism or communism. Take a look at Marx’s work. Very deep, analytic critique of a variety of capitalism, capitalist markets, properties, imperialism and so on, but about the future society a couple of scattered sentences, and I think, my guess is for good reasons. His picture was, as I understand it, that when working people liberate themselves, and can make their own decisions, they will determine what kind of society it will be. He is not going to dictate it to them. I think that’s a pretty wise stand frankly.

CH: Do you think that the new form of Authoritarian Capitalism that functions today in, for example, China or Singapore, is the new danger that we face today?

NC: It’s a danger and there are many dangers of course. But yes, I think it’s a pretty rotten system. It does keep the streets clean and people get a good technical education and so on, very repressive, but I don’t think it’s an admirable society by any means.

CH: There was a recent article in January 2013 by Alan Johnston, writing for the telegraph and he accused Žižek of being a left-fascist, promulgating this view of totalitarianism and violence that is justified within the left tradition and something that we should reclaim in the twenty first century. How does this fascination with violence, terror and hegemony stem from the radical left tradition? Do you think that it’s a part of it or is it some offshoot?

NC: You know, there are a lot of radical left traditions. The ones that made any sense, in my view, were not committed to violence except in self defense. So, if you manage to carry forward significant changes and progressive changes, maybe radical, institutional changes, and you start to function and there is an attack on them by former centers of power, by outside powers and so on, then you defend yourself. As I said, I am not a pure pacifist; I don’t think you should stop defending yourself when you are under attack, but under very special circumstances. The idea of overthrowing existing forces by violence is a very questionable one for pretty good reasons I think. People who talk about revolution, it’s easy to talk about, but if you want a revolution, meaning a significant change in institutions that’s going to carry us forward, rather than backwards, then it has to meet a couple of conditions. One condition is it has to have dedicated support by a large majority of the population. People who have come to realize that the just goals that they are trying to attain cannot be attained within the existing institutional structure because they will be beaten back by force. If a lot of people come to that realization then they might say well we’ll go beyond the, what’s called reformism, the effort to introduce changes within the institutions that exist. A+t that point the questions at least arise. But we are so remote from that point that I don’t even see any point speculating about it and we may never get there. Maybe Marx is right that within parliamentary democracies you can use the institutions themselves to go to a sharp institutional change. In fact, I think there is some evidence for that. So for example, in the United States there are the beginnings of germs of what might be a real socialist or communist society like worker owned enterprises. It’s the beginnings of industrial democracy, you know popular democracy in all institutions. How far can it go, well you know, if it keeps going and there is violent resistance to it, then you can raise the question of using violence to defend it, but if it keeps going and it doesn’t meet violent resistance, then we will just continue it.

CH: Going off of that, there are some accusations that students in higher education are not radical enough or that they focus on single issues like LGBT rights and climate change instead of focusing on the transformation of social and economic structures in their totality. What do you think the role of students and the university is in revolutionary movements today?

NC: First of all, to learn enough to understand what you are talking about. Then, if your ideas are clarified enough, to try to work to carry them forward. So let’s take these examples. Take climate change. I don’t think you can discuss climate change for very long without reaching a very radical interpretation of the nature of existing institutions and why they have to be changed. There are built in features of our existing institutions which are leading us towards disaster with regard to the climate. Built in, you can find discussion of this in Marx if you like and so on, but it’s just part of market systems. We don’t really have market systems, it’s mostly fraud, but we have partial market systems and to the extent that you have a market system, inherent problems of markets do enter into operation. You can read about them in economic texts. There is a footnote that talks about market inefficiencies. So, what are the market inefficiencies? Well, a lot of them. One of them which is not talked about much is that markets direct your choices in particular areas. Like, say I can choose to buy a Toyota or a Chevrolet, but I can’t choose in a market system to get a subway system, that is a collective action. Market systems don’t allow that. So it has an enormous distorting effect on the choices that are available. There are plain inefficiencies, even from the point of view of markets, externalities, crucially. So for example, if you and I make a transaction we’ll make sure that we make out okay, we’re not considering the effects on that guy over there, that doesn’t enter into market transactions and those effects can be very substantial. In fact we are right in the middle of one right now, the financial crisis. When big institutions, like Goldman Sachs, when they make some risky transaction, whatever it is, if they are paying attention, they will try to cover their own potential losses but they don’t pay attention to what’s called systemic risk; the possibility that their failed transaction might bring down the entire system. In fact, they really don’t have to worry much about that because we don’t have a market system. So therefore they can run cap in hand to the nanny state and say ‘bail me out’ and that’s what happens. If it was a market system it would lead to a total collapse. This way it leads to massive financial disaster and then the nanny state comes in and bails you out, up to a point. Those are externalities, but there is a much more serious one. If, say, the business world, say energy corporations, or for that matter both political parties, who work for the corporate sector, basically; if they decide, as they are doing, that we should extract every drop of oil, every bit of hydrocarbons from underground, including Tar Sands and everything else, they are very excited about it, very euphoric, you can read it in the newspapers every day, David Brooks this morning; both parties boast ‘this will be wonderful, it will save us from subservience to Middle East oil dictators and Venezuela,’ for which there isn’t one particle of evidence, and we’ll be self sufficient and energy independent for a century. But meanwhile, there is a slight externality, we’ll destroy the world. Oh, okay, but you don’t pay attention to that in a quasi-market system. That’s not part of the transaction. The transaction is ‘let’s make as much money as we can tomorrow,’ and for governments ‘let’s have as much power as we can,’ but not ‘well, okay, our grandchildren won’t have a world to live in.’ That’s an externality, it’s not part of the system and here you can’t run to anybody cap in hand to bail you out. This is inherent in the institutions we have and you can see it happening. It’s kind of striking when you look at the world today, if there is ever a future historian they are going to be amazed with what they see in the early twenty first century. There are a variety of reactions to very likely climate and environmental disaster. It is very likely, in fact not very far away perhaps. There are a variety of reactions. There are some that are trying to do something about it. In the lead, trying to do something about it are the preindustrial societies, the indigenous societies, the tribal societies, First Nations in Canada or indigenous people in Ecuador, Bolivia, Australia, all over. They are in the lead. They want to do something about it and they are. So for example, in Ecuador, which is an oil producer with a large indigenous population, the government is trying to get some support for leaving their oil in the ground, which is where it ought to be. So that’s the indigenous societies. Then you go up to the richest, the most powerful societies in history, incomparable advantages, peak of western civilization. They are trying to race to disaster as fast as possible. So, you know, ‘those silly Indians want to leave their oil in the ground, we want to get it out as fast as possible so we can wreck the environment for our grandchildren.’ That’s the world we live in. Now you can’t go very far talking about climate change without running into fundamental features of our basic institutions. So I don’t think this dichotomy means much and that’s true on every other issue you look at. You very quickly run into institutional factors that are deeply rooted in the nature of the society. So you go quite quickly to what’s called a radical critique.

CH: Do you think that for students in our universities today, it is important to focus on these single issues because they contain within them the critique of the system?

NC: It’s important to begin with the issues that interest and concern you. That’s just for almost anything. But if you just look at those issues you’re quickly going to get into deeper ones and I think you have to think about the whole range. I mean, nobody can be an activist working on everything, that’s impossible. So if you really want to do something you are going to focus, you have to, whatever it may turn out to be. As soon as you do focus, if you think about it, you are going to find that you are facing fundamental questions about the nature of the social and economic institutions in which we live, and the political ones. Then you are going to link up with other people who are working on their issue and they’ll run into the same problems. So I just don’t see a contradiction. This is where activism leads.

CH: Many people are asking in the wake of the Occupy movement, how are we to rebuild the left in America today and if it is even possible. What is your vision of a renewed left in America today?

NC: First of all there is a lot of activism and a lot of concern on all kinds of issues, probably more than the 60’s, but its pretty scattered. It’s a very atomized society so a lot of the actions are scattered. Right here in Boston, for example, it’s very striking I give talks around different parts of the city, there are places where they are doing the same thing as in some other part of the city but they don’t know about each other, it’s amazing. I mean I found it myself. I have been involved in activism for years and years and not long ago I was invited to give a talk in downtown Boston by a group I had never heard of who were doing fantastic things. I had never heard of it because it happens to be downtown Boston, another going on somewhere else. So there is a lot happening. It’s got to move together, it’s got to find common ground.

The Occupy movement, I think, has been very successful. In a very brief period, a couple months after all, it changed the discourse in the country, changed a lot of the perceptions and mentality, brought a lot of people together. Contrary to what’s claimed it’s active and functioning, doing a lot of important things, like actions on foreclosures. It even hit the news recently with being the first on the scene after Hurricane Sandy. Many things going on and that’s all good. I mentioned before that there are other things happening like the development of worker owned enterprises. That could be happening right here if there were an active movement that could be involved in similar initiatives which begin to take off but often are aborted because they don’t have enough popular support, I could give you some real cases if we had time. One of the very good initiatives of the Occupy movement was the Occupy the Hood spin-offs. I don’t know how far they got, actually farther than people think, I believe. I didn’t think they got very far but I have met activist groups working in the so called ghettos and slums who were spin offs of this and are still working and doing interesting things and in fact growing. So I think they are probably out there, you know we don’t hear a lot. Of course the media obviously isn’t going to cover it. We also don’t use our own options. It’s quite striking, you take a look at the left the last 40 years, one of the very sharp criticisms it’s had is of the media. That they don’t do the things we ought to be doing. That’s true, they aren’t going to, corporate media. But there are opportunities, always have been. When congress passed a law 40 years ago I guess, distributing rights to cable television, there was a component of the law which required the private companies that got the monopoly, which is very profitable, to require them to put up public cable facilities and they did. So in Cambridge and Lexington and towns all over the place there are public cable facilities, I have been on them occasionally. It’s not CBS, but by standards of most countries it’s unbelievably good. Do we use them? Almost never. Almost nothing’s on, well there are some things. Look you can reach an awful lot of people that way if you do something about it but you have to do it. Boston again is an interesting city. There is a lot of activism but it’s one of the cities that basically has no public, community radio. There are small things here and there but a lot of other communities have community radio. When you travel around the country you see places where there is a live community radio station with a lot of public participation and so on, and people know what other people are doing. It’s a way of bringing people together. If you don’t have it, it’s scattered. Those are not insuperable barriers. There are a lot of things that can be done and I think out of that can grow whatever movement will grow out of it, depends what the participants decide to commit themselves to.

CH: Slavoj Žižek, in an interview to the New Statesman in 2009 said, and I quote: “My friend told me Chomsky said something very sad. He said that today we don’t need theory. All we need to do is tell people, empirically, what is going on. Here, I violently disagree: facts are facts, and they are precious, but they can work in this way or that. Facts alone are not enough. You have to change the ideological background…I’m sorry…I’m an old-fashioned continental European. Theory is sacred and we need it more than ever.” How would you respond to Zizek’s claim?

NC: First of all, I quite agree that just spewing out facts means nothing. In our discussion here we haven’t just been spewing out facts, it’s within a framework, a frame of understanding, principles and so on. The European intellectuals he is talking about have a concept of theory, which in my view, is largely divorced from facts and from theory, in any serious sense of the notion. It’s mostly big, complicated words that may be fun for intellectuals to throw around to each other but most of it, I think, is gibberish to tell you the honest truth. It’s not theory in any sense that I understand and I have been involved most of my life in the sciences where there are theories and so on. So sure, if you can find a theory that has some real principles which are of some interest and you can draw conclusions from them which you can apply to interpreting the actual world around you then sure, that’s wonderful. If there are such theories, I am happy to see them. I don’t find them when I read Paris Post-Modernist talk. What I see is intellectuals interacting with one another in ways which are incomprehensible to the public and, to be frank, incomprehensible to me. So sure, let’s have theories that have some intellectual content, some consequences, can be refined, change and lead us to better understanding.

CH: Thank you very much Professor Chomsky.