Anarchism / Marxism debates

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Mon Aug 16 10:38:42 PDT 1999

Noam Chomsky on Socialism: A Critique by Li'l Joe (JoeRadical at and Connie White (connierw at

(in response to the 08/05/99 BRC-News "Quote of the Day")

Noam Chomsky says: "One can debate the meaning of the term 'socialism,' but if it means anything, it means control of production by the workers themselves, not owners and managers who rule them and control all decisions, whether in capitalist enterprise or an absolutist state. ***** To refer to the Soviet Union as socialist is an interesting case of doctrinal double speak."

Chomsky is considered an expert in the science of language - i.e., a professor of linguistics, and a partisan, linguistic theoretician. The notion of "doublespeak" is, of course, taken from George Orwell's anti-utopian science fiction, futuristic novel 1984. If there is a totalitarian or "absolutist" state-society within which operates a "Ministry of Truth," it is the United States -- with its educational institutions -- and Chomsky is its "Obrian."

Noam Chomsky has made significant contributions to the study of language - to the study of words and their meaning. But, what is the meaning of the word "meaning" as it is used in the above quote of the day (from the BRC-News listserve)? Chomsky is concerned with the "meaning" of the word "socialism," yet he removes it from its social, political and historical context. Furthermore, Chomsky is interested in socialism as it exists as an idea -- a concept ascertained through a dialectical process like the idea of right or justice in the Dialogue of Plato's Republic. As in the Republic, it is the determinateness of the idea and its proper definition -- or its reality as idea -- against which material activities are judged. Since socialism in the Soviet Union did not reach the standard of Chomsky's idea of what it "meant" to be socialist, the Soviet Union - the real -- is discarded. However, the reality of the Soviet Union cannot be so easily discarded in history.

Terms, such as "socialism" and "capitalism," have meaning not only in linguistic sophistry, but also as description of economic phenomena. For Chomsky, the idea -- the concept denoted by the term -- has prior reality. Chomsky is an idealist (not a materialist like Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemberg - all contemporaries of the Russian Revolution) and, therefore, if the material phenomenon he examines does not correspond to the concept, he dislodges the reality from the concept. For example, Chomsky's idea of socialism and the economic reality of the Soviet Union do not comport so, in order to keep his concept in tack, Chomsky dislodges the reality from the idea and refers to the Soviet Union as "socialist. . . doublespeak." To Chomsky we say that we are not dealing with an Orwellian novel, but economic reality.

We agree with Chomsky in that: the Soviet Union was never socialist. (Socialism is an economic category -- like capitalism - which is only possible at a certain level of the development of the productive forces. Since we do not believe in socialism in one country, we posit that the productive forces present in Russia in 1917 had to develop further - under state monopoly capitalism - before they would be at the level needed to accommodate socialism. But, that is another discussion.) Chomsky's explanation of what went wrong and why does not, however, coincide with or take into account the material (economic) reality. Economic reality in Russia in 1917 had nothing to do with Orwellian symbols and systems, and the reason why the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was not maintained in Russia cannot be explained by attributing ill will to what Chomsky considers a few power hungry "usurpers" -- viz. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin.

The Soviet Union, in its reality in 1917, was operating in the capitalist framework of a market economy. On the other hand, the Russian bourgeoisie in 1917 were unwilling -- but more correctly unable -- to carry its revolution to its logical, and historical conclusion. The model bourgeois-democratic revolution was the French Revolution of 1789-93, where the bourgeoisie made its revolution by forging an alliance with the rural peasantry. Positioned by industrial developments in Russia in 1917, the Russian working class was able to operate as a concentrated, independent political party, a class, and it was able to challenge the bourgeois Constituent Assembly. The Bolshevik party of proletarians and communists recognized that the laboring masses in Russia were, in overwhelming majority, mainly poor peasants (see Lenin's April Thesis), and exposed the real intent of the bourgeoisie in order to throw aside its political representatives. In contradistinction to the historical precedent of the bourgeois-dominated French Revolution, the Russian proletariat was able to exploit the nascent bourgeois democracy, and form an alliance with the vast masses of a revolutionary peasantry.

The Russian Revolution was based on Soviet power - soviets of workers, peasants, and soldiers. Chomsky's idea of socialism is "control of production by the workers themselves, not owners and managers who rule them and control all decisions, whether in capitalist enterprise or an absolutist state" (emphasis added). Historically speaking, there are no absolutist states in the world today. The age of the absolute monarch is long gone. The absolute monarchy was a political power of dynastic and colonial rivalries in the framework of mercantilism and centralized political power. This politico-economic framework gave rise to the development of the bourgeoisie and of the modern state. But, perhaps what Chomsky means by "absolutist state" is the Orwellian totalitarian state (fiction clashing with reality again?). Whatever. Socialism has nothing in common with either "capitalist enterprise or an absolutist state."

The Russian Revolution brought the workers and peasants to power in the form of democratic soviets of workers, peasants, and soldiers and sailors deputies. The Soviet State nationalized the means of industrial production, and the peasants expropriated the lands of the aristocracy. But, this was not accomplished over night by an October, Bolshevik coup-de-tat. For three decades, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party organized and prepared for revolution. The myth that the Bolsheviks were an isolated, sectarian group of intellectuals in exile is unsubstantiated nonsense. The Bolsheviks were the majority (e.g., "bolshevik" means majority) in the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, and that Party was based in the Russian workers' movements. As part of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, the Bolshevik Party saw itself as a vanguard detachment of the workers' political struggle for power and a party of professional revolutionaries. When the revolution did come, it was as much a response to the bloody war of 1914 as a response to the economic hardship of workers and peasants. Chomsky would have us believe that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was in opposition to Czarism. In fact, the Czarist autocratic government was - in any meaningful sense of the term - an absolutist state. The overthrow of that state was the first phase of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in April-May 1917. Yet, there was also Soviet power along side of the bourgeois government of the Constituent Assembly. Following the example of the Paris Commune, the Bolsheviks called for "all power to the Soviets" in opposition to the power held by the National Constituent Assembly. This was class struggle personified. The Soviet was the political representative of workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors, while the National Constituent Assembly was the political representative of the bourgeoisie. When the Soviets got the upper hand, the Bolsheviks (as the majority in the Soviets) seized the initiative and disbanded the National Constituent Assembly. Perhaps the disbanding of the National Constituent Assembly (the bourgeois political power) in favor of the Soviets (the power of the masses of workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors) is what Chomsky bemoans. On the contrary, we do not bemoan this victory by the Bolsheviks but celebrate it!

Chomsky's idea of "socialism" is workers' control of industry, "whether in a capitalist enterprise or an absolutist state." Well, what if the capitalists who own the enterprise do not want to subject it to the "control" of the workers? They don't, and they won't. Workers' control of the economy in an absolutist state is impossible. The Bolsheviks had to send armed detachments to break up the bourgeoisie's' constituent assemblies, and the Soviet power became the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics - and we are not here talking about an "absolutist state." The bourgeois industries were nationalized and the peasantry seized the lands. The Bolsheviks were only a part of this revolution.

Chomsky charges that "The Bolshevik coup of October 1917 placed state power in the hands of Lenin and Trotsky, who moved quickly to dismantle the incipient socialist institutions that had grown up during the popular revolution of the preceding months - the factory councils, the Soviets, in fact any organ of popular control - and to convert the work force into what they called a 'labor-army' under the command of a leader." Chomsky continues by saying: "In any meaningful sense of the term 'socialism,' the Bolsheviks moved at once to destroy its existing elements. No socialist deviation has been permitted sense." Chomsky's perception was very much different from the reality.

Lenin explains the facts as follows: "One of the most vicious and probably most widespread distortions of Marxism practised by the prevailing 'Socialist' parties consists in the opportunist lie that preparations for insurrection and generally the treatment of insurrection as an art are 'Blanquism.' ***** To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon the revolutionary spirit of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon the crucial moment in the history of the growing revolution, when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemies and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point.

And these three factors in the attitude towards insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism." (Emphasis in original) (Marxism and Insurrection: A Letter to the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, V. I. Lenin Selected Works, Volume VI, p.213). "We must prepare a brief declaration in the name of the Bolsheviks, sharply emphasising the irrelevance of long speeches and of 'speeches' in general, the necessity for immediate action in order to save the revolution, the absolute necessity for a complete break with the bourgeoisie. . . ." (Marxism and Insurrection: A Letter to the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, V. I. Lenin Selected Works, Volume VI, p.222)

Furthermore, Lenin speaks to the workers: "The workers' and peasants' revolution has definitely triumphed in Petrograd, having dispersed or arrested the last remnants of the small number of Cossacks deceived by Kerensky. The revolution has triumphed in Moscow too. Even before the arrival of a number of troop trains dispatched from Petrograd. . . . ***** Daily and hourly reports are coming in from the front and from the villages announcing the support of the overwhelming majority of the soldiers in the trenches and the peasants in the uyezds for the new government and its decrees on peace and the immediate transfer of the land to the peasants. The victory of the workers' and peasants' revolution is assured because the majority of the people have already sided with it. ***** It is perfectly understandable that the landowners and capitalists, and the top groups of office employees and civil servants closely linked with the bourgeoisie, in a word, all the wealthy and those supporting them, react to the new revolution with hostility, resist its victory, threaten to close the banks, disrupt or bring to a standstill the work of the different establishments, and hamper the revolution in every way, openly or covertly. Every politically-conscious worker was well aware that we would inevitably encounter resistance of this kind. The entire Party press of the Bolsheviks has written about this on numerous occasions. Not for a single minute will this resistance intimidate the working class; they will not falter in any way before the threats and strikes of the supporters of the bourgeoisie. ***** The majority of the people are with us. The majority of the working and oppressed people all over the world are with us. Ours is the cause of justice. Our victory is assured." (Emphasis in original) (To the Population, V.I. Lenin Collected Works, Volume 26, p.296-7)

Chomsky claims that, once the Bolsheviks realized democracy and Soviet power, they then destroyed it! This is unsubstantiated nonsense! In fact, what really happened was that the Bolsheviks nationalized capitalist enterprises, because socialism could not exist in conjunction with bourgeois enterprises. But, to say the revolutionary workers and peasants, engaging in civil war - and, consequently, armed to the teeth - would allow two men, Lenin and Trotsky, to "dismantle" the incipient socialist institutions that had grown up during the popular revolution, is pure nonsense. If Chomsky wanted to derive his perception of reality from fiction, he should have read Doctor Zhavago, rather than 1984, and he would have had a better understanding of the Russian Revolution and the popularity of Lenin and Trotsky, and the degenerate Stalinist bureaucracy overseeing a state-capitalistic economy. During the years of revolution and civil war, the Bolsheviks and Anarchists were allies against the bourgeoisie and gentry, and fought foreign interventionists. Workers seized the factories, in which they worked, managed those individual factories, and peasants owned and managed their land in communes. Trotsky organized the Red Army, and Macho's Insurrectionary Army in Ukraine fought a common enemy. It was also during these years of "war communism," that the concept of a "labor army" was developed, but disbanded after victory, and the New Economy Policy in 1921.

Since Chomsky believes that "socialism" is workers' "control" of production in capitalist enterprises, he probably dislikes the Bolsheviks' scheme of expropriating capitalist enterprises and making them state enterprises under the auspices of a workers' state. We would agree with the perspective of social ownership of the means of social production - even if control of that ownership were centralized in workers' state. Chomsky seems to believe in the private ownership of the means of social production with workers' "control" (or management) of that production. That is what we have under capitalism. The capitalist class owns the means of social production, but the workers manage society and, through those management positions, control the means of social production. Those same managers work long hours in order to optimize control of what they manage - and they rarely get paid overtime. Ownership is the key - not management or control.

Chomsky further criticizes the Russian Revolution: "These developments came as no surprise to leading Marxist intellectuals, who had criticized Lenin's doctrines for years (as had Trotsky), because they would centralize authority in the hands of the vanguard party and its leaders. In fact, decades earlier, the anarchist thinker Bakunin had predicted that the emerging intellectual class would follow one of two paths: either they would try to exploit popular struggles to take state power themselves, beginning a brutal and oppressive Red bureaucracy; or they would become the managers and ideologists of the state-capitalist societies, if the popular revolution failed. It was a perceptive insight, on both accounts."

We take issue with Chomsky's portrayal of Lenin (and the Bolsheviks) as dictating to the armed proletariat, peasantry, soldiers and sailors. Contrary to Chomsky's portrayal, the finest Marxist intellectuals - such as Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebnick -- supported the Bolshevik insurrection as part of the Russian Revolution, while certain Marxist reformists -- such as Karl Kautsky -- opposed the Russian Revolution becoming a dictatorship of the proletariat in an alliance with the peasantry. More importantly, the Russian Revolution found support - and gave support to - workers' and oppressed people around the world. Chomsky probably would have stood with Karl Kautsky in opposing the dictatorship of the proletariat in an alliance with the peasantry. We stand with Lenin, Luxemberg and Liebnick.

Although Chomsky praises Bakunin for his "perceptive insights," the Anarchist Bakunin was not a contemporary of Lenin, but of Marx. He wreaked havoc in the International Working Men's Association in an effort to place a clique of Anarchists in its leadership with himself at the head! Bakunin was opposed to the proletarian revolution, in its political form of "the dictatorship of the proletariat." Marx writes about Bakunin in a Report on Disunity in the International Working Men's Association: "Some intrigues, directed ostensibly against the General Council but in reality against the Association, were hatched in its midst. At bottom of these intrigues was the inevitable International Alliance of Social Democracy, fathered by the Russian Micheal Bakunin. On his return from Siberia, the latter began to write in Herzen's Kolokol, preaching the idea of Pan-Slavism and racial war, conceived out of his long experience. Later, during his stay in Switzerland, he was nominated to head a steering committee of the League of Peace and Freedom, founded in opposition to the International. When this bourgeois society's affairs went from bad to worst, its President, Mr. G. Vogt, acting on Bakunin's advice, proposed to the International's Congress - which met at Brussels in September 1868 - that it make an alliance with the League. The Congress unanimously proposed two alternatives: either the League should follow the same goal as the International, in which case it would have no reason for existing, or else its goal should be different, in which case an alliance would be impossible. At the League's Congress, held in Bern a few days later, Bakunin made an about-face. He proposed a makeshift program whose scientific value may be judged by his single phrase: 'economic and social equalization of classes.' Backed by an insignificant minority, he broke with the League in order to join the International, determined to replace the International's General Rules by a makeshift program, which had been rejected by the League, and to replace the General Council by his personal dictatorship."

Neither we nor Chomsky were a part of the Russian Revolution, but if we were -- and based on the information at hand today about the Russian Revolution and the material conditions that gave rise to the dictatorship of the proletariat - we would have stood against Chomsky, and with Lenin and the Bolsheviks in calling for "all power to the Soviets."

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