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Democracy and Power

Noam Chomsky

Appendix: An Interview with Noam Chomsky1

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  • 1 First published in Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 13, no. 31 (30 March 1996), available at ht (...)

1NOAM CHOMSKY, eminent linguist and social critic, visited India in January 1996 and gave a series of lectures in Delhi, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Madras and Thiruvananthapuram. His visit, sponsored by the Centre of Development Economics at the Delhi School of Economics in collaboration with Frontline, the Centre for Applied Linguistics and Translation Studies (University of Hyderabad), the Indian Institute of Technology (Madras) and the Centre for Development Studies (Thiruvananthapuram), has been rightly described as a major intellectual event. Speaking on a wide range of subjects, from democracy and human rights to the role of intellectuals in society, he captivated audience after audience with his lucid challenge of accepted political analyses, his uncompromising commitment to social equality and individual freedom, the breadth of his scholarship, and the engaging style of his lectures. Back at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he responded by email to some questions relating to the major themes of his India lectures.

The World Order

2What do you mean exactly when you say that democracy and human rights are under attack in many countries?

3I’ll keep to the US, by far the most important case because of its enormous power and because it represents itself, and is regarded (not without reason) as in the forefront of the defense of democracy and human rights.

4Before turning to the factual questions, we have to clarify what we mean by “democracy” and “human rights.” In the latter case, there is an international standard: the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UD, December 1948), recognized by US courts as “customary international law,” hence binding on the US government. On democracy, the issue is more complex. The UD is solemnly acclaimed by all states though supported by none, to my knowledge. The US, for example, has one of the worst records in the world even in ratifying international conventions designed to implement the UD, and its few ratifications are conditioned so as to make them unenforceable. Contrary to much pretense, the US denies the universality of the UD: specifically, it rejects all Articles pertaining to socio-economic rights. These facts, not controversial, passed virtually without comment during the impressive accolades for US leadership at the Vienna conference of 1993 celebrating the UD, where Washington thundered against the “Third World relativists” who dare to question its universality.

5Turning to the parts of the UD that the US at least claims to support, we also find instructive gaps. Consider Article 14, which states that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”; Haitians, for example, locked into a prison of terror and torture by an illegal US blockade while Washington was producing impressive rhetoric at the Vienna conference, indeed returned to that torture chamber by force during its proceedings.

6Or consider Article 13, by far the best known provision of the UD, in the US. It states that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (my italics). This Article was invoked annually on Human Rights Day, December 10, with demonstrations led by distinguished law professors and civil libertarians issuing angry appeals to the Soviet Union to let Russian Jews leave. To be exact, half of Article 13 achieved such fame and renown; the words italicized were invariably omitted, for the simple reason that they are forcefully rejected by those who condemned the Soviet Union for its violations of the first half of Article 13. The significance of the omitted words was spelled out on December 11, 1948, the day after the UD was passed, in UN Resolution 194, also passed unanimously, which affirms the right of Palestinian refugees who had fled or had been expelled during the 1948 fighting to return to their homes. Resolution 194 continued to be endorsed by the US until 1993, when the Clinton administration broke from the traditional (and purely formal) advocacy of Resolution 194, voting alone (with Israel) against it; as usual, there was no report in the press.

7This last example is a minor one in the general context of human rights violations, though it does illustrate with some clarity the utter hypocrisy of the advocacy of human rights: advocated with much passion as a weapon against someone else, rarely otherwise.

8Let’s turn to the core Articles that the US endorses: so-called “anti-torture” rights. As repeated studies have shown, US foreign aid is highly correlated with torture – not because the State Department likes torture, but because it likes a “favorable business climate,” and that is often improved by murder of priests working for the poor, torture of union leaders, massacre of peasants, etc. Hence the secondary correlation between aid and torture. That continues. The leading human rights violator in the western hemisphere, as one can learn from (unreported) inquiries by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Church and others, is Colombia, with a horrendous record of atrocities. It also receives half of US military aid and training for the hemisphere, increasing under Clinton, under pretexts taken seriously by no knowledgeable observer. Again, one will find nothing of this in the press or mainstream journalism.

9The attack on human rights is systematic, rooted in institutional needs, and continuing. Sometimes the attack by Washington is far more direct and violent, as during the 1980s, when the US-run terrorist wars in Central America (condemned, irrelevantly, by the World Court and the UN Security Council) left hundreds of thousands of tortured and mutilated corpses and four countries in ruins, with dubious prospects for survival – to no slight extent a war against the Roman Catholic Church, which had dared to interpret the Gospels as implying a “preferential option for the poor.” Or in Africa in the same years, where terrorist forces from South Africa backed by the US and UK caused more than 1.5 million dead and 60 billion dollars in damage from 1980 to 1988, under the rubric of “constructive engagement.” Sometimes the methods are more indirect, for example, programs of “aid” and “development” that are not unrelated to the fact that 800 million people in the world suffer malnutrition and that 13 million children die each year from easily treatable diseases; or that such shocking conditions can even be found in the richest country in the world, with unparalleled advantages, as a result of conscious social policy. All of this in radical violation of the UD, not to speak of elementary moral principles.

10Let’s turn to democracy. Here we have to distinguish between the US record abroad and at home. The most instructive examples abroad are of course in the regions with greatest US influence: Latin America. Here the US has regularly overthrown parliamentary regimes and instituted the rule of brutal torturers, carried out or supported murderous terrorism, and turned potentially rich and productive areas into some of the world’s worst horror chambers. The record was characterized accurately by one of the leading specialists on US policy and democracy in Latin America, Thomas Carothers, who writes as both a scholar and an insider, having been in the Reagan State Department, working on its “democracy enhancement” programs, which have received much acclaim. Carothers regards these as “sincere,” but a “failure”; a remarkably systematic failure, as he concedes. Where US influence was least, there was progress towards democracy, resisted by the Reaganites though they claimed credit for it when it could not be stopped. Where US influence was greatest, progress was least, and the US was willing to tolerate “only limited, top-down forms of democratic change that did not risk upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the US has long been allied,” radically antidemocratic structures, as he observes.

11That continues today. The US fulminates impressively (and accurately) about Cuba’s lack of democracy. Meanwhile it lauds democracy in Colombia, where there is even an independent political party. Since it was formed ten years ago, about 2,500 of its leading activists have been murdered, mostly by the state authorities and their paramilitary associates, including presidential candidates, mayors, and others – a small fraction of the victims of state terror in this stellar democracy. Nothing comparable can be attributed to Cuba. Again, all this passes without comment.

12Turning to the US itself, it has perhaps the most stable democratic institutions in the world, but it is important to bear in mind the principles on which US democracy was founded. The constitutional system was based on the principle that the prime responsibility of government is “to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority,” as Madison, the leading framer, explained at the Constitutional Convention. Therefore, he elaborated, power must be in the hands of the wealthy, while the public is fragmented and scattered so that the threat of democracy is reduced and the country can be “governed by those who own it,” as declared by John Jay, the president of the Convention and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. With all the changes that have taken place over two hundred years, that principle has been maintained, and indeed reiterated, particularly in the twentieth century, when leading Wilsonian liberals (Walter Lippmann, Howard Lasswell, etc.) explained that the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” (the general public) have no business interfering in the public arena – their “function” is solely to lend their weight now and then to one of the “responsible men” (elections). That message was forcefully reiterated twenty years ago by the Trilateral Commission, representing the more liberal internationalist currents among elites from western Europe, Japan and the US, in their study Crisis of Democracy. The “crisis” was that during the ferment of the 1960s, the public began to depart from its normal apathy and passivity. The study recommends means to drive people back to their spectator role, so that “democracy” can be protected. Recall that this is the liberal side of the spectrum; the mislabeled conservatives are far more strongly opposed to democracy. Social policy and propaganda since have been directed to the goal of overcoming “the crisis of democracy” by sharply reducing participation in democratic institutions. The public grasps that in some manner; by now, an unprecedented eighty percent of the public regards American democracy as non-functional.

13The major attack on democracy is the effort to shift decision-making even more than before into the hands of unaccountable private tyrannies: the corporate world, which is fundamentally totalitarian in character, as long understood by business historians and political economists. That is the goal of the current efforts to weaken those elements of the national government that serve public needs, while expanding those that serve business power, notably the Pentagon system, which was designed in large measure as a device to transfer public funds to advanced sectors of industry under the guise of “security,” and continues to serve that function.

14Another powerful weapon against democracy is the astronomical growth of financial capital, which is now able to undermine democratic national planning by transferring masses of capital away from countries that seek to depart from the preferred model of low growth, low wage, high profit social policy. Even the US is not immune: Clinton proposed a very mild economic stimulus in 1993, but withdrew it quickly under the threat of the bond market – though whether this was a necessity or a choice is another question.

15There is much to say about these matters. Without placing them at the focus of attention, one is not discussing the real world. And that world is one in which human rights and democracy are under serious attack, not only from the recognized leader of “the campaign for democracy and human rights,” but elsewhere as well.

16Would you say that the attack on democracy and human rights applies in India, too? And if so why?

17I would not presume to discuss India on the basis of my limited knowledge. But to answer your question: yes, I think so, for very much the same reasons, though, of course, the socioeconomic projects that undermine human rights and democracy have a much harsher impact in a country like India than in the US.

18Is there a “new world order” after the Cold War? And if so, how does it differ from the old world order?

19“New world orders” are constantly proclaimed, sometimes with reason. There was a substantial change, of course, with the Second World War. The most significant changes, in my opinion, were in the early 1970s. Nixon’s dismantling of the Bretton Woods system was a major factor in the huge explosion of financial capital, enhanced by the telecommunications revolution and the sudden flow of petrodollars. The same tendencies contributed to a new phase of transnational capital, with actual or threatened transfer of production abroad. These developments have placed powerful new weapons in the hands of the private tyrannies that have been seeking to dismantle residual democratic forms and even to undermine markets, as we find if we take an honest look. The end of the Cold War, returning most of eastern Europe to its traditional role as a Third World service area, has provided still more weapons to private power. Huge conglomerates can now undermine what the business press calls the “luxurious life-style” of the “pampered western workers” not only by transferring operations to Mexico and Indonesia, but also to Poland and Hungary – of course demanding high tariff protection and other subsidy, on the usual interpretation of “free markets.”

20So yes, there is another phase of world order, with the same basic structure (because dominant institutions remain highly stable and unchallenged), though with modifications that are quite significant for human life: for example, for the majority of Americans, whose family incomes and security have been steadily declining for fifteen years, and for those elsewhere who suffer far more severely from the same developments.

21How does the domestic political situation in the US today affect the rest of the world?

22Since the Second World War, the US has been by far the richest and most powerful country in the world. While the recovery of Europe and Japan (with its periphery) created a more complex “tripolar” global economy, US power remained pre-eminent. The options for some measure of independence have declined markedly in the Third World, in part for the reasons just mentioned. Though it is hard to give a precise measure, it seems clear that US cultural and doctrinal influence is even more overwhelming than its economic power in much of the world, certainly western Europe, and much of the Third World too. In the light of such facts, anything that happens in the US is of great significance for the rest of the world.

23What is your reading of the current “peace process” in West Asia?

24The term “peace process” itself is an interesting reflection of US doctrinal hegemony. The facts are clear and uncontroversial. The June 1967 war brought the world close to dangerous superpower confrontation, and led to diplomatic efforts to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict. The result was UN 242 (November 1967), which established the principle of full peace in return for full Israeli withdrawal from conquered territories (with at most minor and mutual border adjustments). In the light of subsequent propaganda, it is important to stress that the US explicitly advocated this interpretation, which it helped craft, as demonstrated very clearly by the documentary record. The Arab states rejected full peace; Israel rejected full withdrawal.

25The impasse was broken in February 1971 when President Sadat of Egypt accepted official US policy (and UN 242) with regard to Israel and Egypt, saying nothing about the West Bank and Golan Heights (or Palestinian rights, which at that time were unmentioned). Israel recognized this as a “genuine peace offer” but refused to withdraw. The US had to decide whether to persist with its official policy, or to support Israel. In the internal debate, Kissinger prevailed, and the US instituted his policy of “Stalemate” (his word): no negotiations, only force. That led directly to the 1973 war, which undermined the Israeli-Kissinger assumption that Egypt had no military option. US tactics were adjusted, aiming to neutralize Egypt so that Israel could continue to integrate the territories and attack Lebanon without fear of Egyptian reprisal. That is precisely what happened, with massive US support, as a result of the Camp David agreements (1978-79).

26Meanwhile, by the mid-seventies the international consensus had shifted, now recognizing Palestinian rights in the West Bank and Gaza. From January 1976, the US has therefore, been compelled to veto Security Council resolutions, vote alone (with Israel, and occasionally some other client state) against annual General Assembly Resolutions, and block every other diplomatic initiative: from Europe, the Arab States, the PLO, the Third World, whatever.

27In brief, from 1971, and even more clearly from the mid-1970s, the US has led the rejectionist camp, and has effectively blocked diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. In the US the crucial facts are entirely suppressed in the media and journals of opinion, often even in scholarship. These are instructive features of “free institutions” that are either owned outright by private tyrannies closely linked to state power or heavily dominated by them: admittedly a somewhat extreme case of voluntary subordination to power, though not unique. Washington’s disruption of any diplomatic settlement is what is called “the peace process,” a technical term that refers to whatever the US government happens to be doing, often blocking peace. The Gulf War established that “what we say goes” – George Bush’s proud words as he proclaimed his “new world order.” At last, the US was able to extend the Monroe Doctrine to West Asia, temporarily at least. Immediately after the Gulf War, the US initiated its own unilateral and rejectionist “peace process” at Madrid. This has been consummated in the Oslo Agreements, which effectively rescind UN 242 and all other relevant international agreements. Oslo II (September 1995) leaves Israel in full control of seventy percent of the West Bank and thirty percent of the Gaza Strip, and effective control of the rest, including the water and other resources. It retains “veto power” over the Palestinian Administration that is granted limited local autonomy and, in return for this gift, must recognize the legality of Israeli settlements in the territories and Israeli sovereignty over the parts it will choose to retain, unilaterally (thanks to US support). With huge US subsidies, Israel is expanding development projects designed to establish irrevocably a version of the programs it announced in 1968: to take over some forty percent of the territories and to leave the rest under effective Israeli control, but local (or Jordanian) administration. That is pretty much the traditional colonial pattern: the British in India, whites in southern Africa, etc.

28The outcome is a dramatic reaffirmation of the rule of force in international affairs, and also of the power of American doctrinal institutions. I’ve been astonished to see the extent to which Europeans and Third World elites have accepted and internalized US propaganda, even forgetting positions they themselves had advocated only a few years ago. I was rather surprised to find that in India, though my experience is limited. There are important lessons here, which should be carefully considered.

Structural Adjustment

29How do you interpret the current wave of structural adjustment programs in different countries?

30The current wave of “neoliberalism,” applied now to the rich societies as well, is in my opinion a reflection of the shift of power towards private tyrannies in the past twenty-five years. But we should bear in mind that there is nothing fundamentally new about “structural adjustment.” For hundreds of years, what we might call “really existing free market doctrine” has had a dual form: for you, but not for me, except for temporary advantage. From England to the US to the “late developing” industrial societies and on to today’s NICs, a crucial factor in development has been protection from market discipline. Import barriers are only one element of such protection; the US Pentagon system, to take only one case, has been a far more significant element in the past half-century. At the same time, market discipline has been imposed on those who could not resist it. Today’s First and Third Worlds were much more similar in the eighteenth century; “really existing free market doctrine” is one factor in their sharp divergence since.

31Today’s “structural adjustment” is a new variant of the traditional dual conception of free markets. The Reagan administration produced most impressive odes to the wonders of the free market – for others. Meanwhile, it introduced more import barriers than all postwar administrations combined while pouring public funds into hi-tech industry under the usual pretext of “security,” a conscious fraud as we know from the documentary record. Today’s “conservatives” demand that hungry seven-year old children be denied free lunches at school so that they will learn “responsibility” and “family values.” But their leader Newt Gingrich funnels to his super-rich constituents more federal subsidies than to any suburban district in the country apart from the Federal system itself; and the ultra-right Heritage Foundation, while calling for sharp cuts in government programs that serve the great majority, also demands an increase in the Pentagon budget, not because the US faces any threat, but because the “conservatives” understand well that advanced sectors of industry rely heavily on the nanny state. In material that reaches the public, including its educated sectors, one will have to search diligently for any hint of these elementary features of contemporary US society.

32The latest phase of “free market doctrine” reflects the changes in power already mentioned. The principles themselves are familiar. As for the impact of these programs, it is mixed and complex, though some features are evident. Advocates of the “Washington consensus” concede that among the most important factors in development are relative equality and improvement of “human capital” (health, education, etc.), all radically undermined by the programs they demand. The World Bank also calls for a shift to agro-export and opening of markets to subsidize western agricultural imports, surely knowing that the effect is to place primary producers in competition with one another, with obvious consequences, and to undermine food production for domestic needs. The Bank’s economists can also read the recent report of the FAO warning the poorer countries of the danger of failure to develop indigenous sources of food. Structural adjustment yields repeated “economic miracles” – as in Brazil, Mexico, and elsewhere. But it pays to look at their character.

33Generalizations are of doubtful validity. Honest economists recognize that little is understood about these matters, and that a great deal depends on specific contingencies. There is, however, historical and contemporary evidence that should not be simply dismissed in favor of a theoretical apparatus based on unrealistic assumptions and with little empirical support; and – not coincidentally I think – that undergirds policies that are highly supportive of established power and privilege. One of the most consistent consequences of “structural adjustment,” as of other “experiments” in social engineering back to the eighteenth century, is that the designers do very well, however others may suffer.

34Do you have any views on India’s own structural adjustment program?

35As is well known, India has been undergoing forms of “structural adjustment” for most of its modern history – one reason why India is India, while England is England, having become willing to toy for a time with laissez-faire, after 150 years of protectionism and destruction of competitors had given it huge advantages. While development was barred by “free market principles” in India (and by British force in Egypt and elsewhere), the US was able to develop textiles, steel, and later a full modern economy by leading the world in protectionism and extensive state intervention in the economy. It is hard to miss the fact that the two parts of the South to develop are the two that escaped colonial rule and the market discipline it imposed: the US and Japan, with some if its colonies in tow. As for current policies, one has to evaluate them on their merits, in the light of the options available. That’s a complex question, and one should be skeptical about the advice of self-proclaimed experts. I would not hazard any specific advice without closer study, and if I were to, no sensible person should pay any attention to it. The same holds far more broadly, in my opinion.

India in the World

36In your assessment, where does India fit in the US foreign policy agenda?

37In the postwar period, India was not a central issue in US policy. The US was strongly opposed to Nehru’s neutralism and efforts at independent development. As recognized by diplomatic historians, the US brought the Cold War to South Asia by arming Pakistan, in large part out of concerns about West Asia, it seems. By the 1950s, and particularly in the Kennedy period, the US was becoming more concerned with the demonstration effect of Chinese development, and supported India as the “democratic alternative,” though always with considerable reluctance because of India’s relative independence and its links to the USSR. Today, the US hopes to incorporate India within the global system dominated by the TNCs (transnational corporations) and the powerful states in which they are based, and the quasi-governmental institutions taking shape around them: the international financial institutions, the World Trade Organization, G7, etc.

38Do you support India having a permanent seat on the Security Council?

39It’s not a bad idea, but I think the matter is peripheral to the problems faced by the UN. The more fundamental question is whether the US (or any great power) will permit an independent voice in world affairs, one that it does not control. So far, the record on that is bleak, a reflection of the weakness of functioning democracy, in my opinion.

40There is intense debate here, at the moment, about whether India should sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Do you have any comments on this?

41That the CTBT is hypocritical at its core is plain enough. It is an attempt to keep a monopoly of force in the hands of the US and its allies – to the extent possible (thus Israel, a US client, is under no pressure to abandon its nuclear program, which the US has in fact supported). On the other hand, nuclear weapons are an extraordinary danger, and proliferation may spell the end of human life. Within such unpleasant but real conditions, India has to make choices. I don’t feel in any position to give advice.

Socialism and Democracy

42The end of the Cold War has been widely interpreted as the victory of capitalism over socialism. Is this accurate?

43It is not only inaccurate, but ludicrous. First, there are no “capitalist” countries; rather various forms of state capitalism. Capitalism would hardly be able to survive, for reasons discussed by Karl Polanyi years ago; and the business world has never been willing to accept market discipline except for temporary advantage, always demanding state protection when needed. Merely to give one indication, a recent study of the hundred leading TNCs (reported in the London Financial Times) found that all had benefited from the intervention of the state in which they are based, and twenty “would not have survived” without such state support.

44As for “socialism,” Soviet leaders did call the system they ran “socialist” just as they called it “democratic” (“peoples democracies”). The West (properly) ridiculed the claim to democracy, but was delighted with the equally ridiculous pretense of “socialism,” which it could use as a weapon to batter authentic socialism. Lenin and Trotsky at once dismantled every socialist tendency that had developed in the turmoil before the Bolshevik takeover, including factory councils, Soviets, etc., and moved quickly to convert the country into a “labor army” ruled by the maximal leader. This was principled at least on Lenin’s part (Trotsky, in contrast, had warned years earlier that this would be the consequence of Lenin’s authoritarian deviation from the socialist mainstream). In doctrinal matters, Lenin was an orthodox Marxist, who probably assumed that socialism was impossible in a backward peasant society and felt he was carrying out a “holding action” until the “iron laws of history” led to the predicted revolution in Germany. When that attempt was drowned in blood, he shifted at once to state capitalism (the New Economic Policy, or NEP). The totalitarian system he had designed was later turned into an utter monstrosity by Stalin.

45At no point from October 1917 was there a willingness to tolerate socialism. True, terms of discourse about society and politics are hardly models of clarity. But if “socialism” meant anything, it meant control by producers over production – at the very least. There wasn’t a vestige of that in the Bolshevik system.

46The Cold War, in my opinion, falls to a large extent within the traditional “North-South conflict,” to use the contemporary euphemism. Eastern Europe was the West’s original “Third World,” separating the West from pre-Columbian times; the West beginning to develop, the East becoming its service area. Russia was declining relative to the West until the First World War; much the same was true elsewhere in the region. Of course, Russia was a very unusual part of the Third World; thus the Czar had a huge and menacing military force. But the basic logic of the North-South conflict holds rather well. The service areas are to pursue only “complementary development,” their primary “function” being to provide markets, investment opportunities, resources, cheap labor, and other amenities. The crime of independence becomes even more severe if it seems to be succeeding in terms that might influence others facing similar problems, in which case the criminal is termed a “rotten apple that might spoil the barrel,” a “virus” that might “infect” others, etc. The Cold War began in 1918 (as reputable scholarship recognizes: George Kennan, for example). And for basically these reasons (as it does not recognize).

47The logic is not fundamentally different from Grenada or Nicaragua, though the scale was radically different, so the conflict took on a life of its own. With the end of the Cold War, the status quo ante is being pretty much restored. Sectors of eastern Europe that were part of the industrial West (the Czech Republic, western Poland, etc.) are returned to it. Most of the rest is assuming standard Third World characteristics. These are only first approximations, of course, but fairly close ones, I think.

48After the collapse of the communist regime in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, what are the prospects for socialism today?

49The collapse of Soviet tyranny is a small victory for socialism, for the same reason that the collapse of fascism was. It removed a barrier to socialism. Or so it should be regarded, in my opinion. It isn’t, because much of educated opinion worldwide succumbed to the illusions fostered by the world’s two leading propaganda systems, which agreed in calling this radical attack on socialism “socialism” (the USSR, so as to gain what advantage it could from the moral appeal of socialism, the West, so as to defame socialism). That is tragic, but it should be within our power to reverse these gross misinterpretations.

50What went wrong with the socialist program in “communist” countries?

51There were never any socialist programs, so nothing could go wrong with them. As to what happened, we have to first settle the standards of evaluation. The usual standard is to compare eastern Europe with the West – which is about as sensible as comparing kindergartens in Boston with local universities, than grandly proving that the former is a failure because children there know less quantum physics than graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is a remarkable comment of western intellectual life that this farce can even proceed.

52If one wants to make sensible comparisons, one begins with countries that were at a more or less comparable state of development and prospects before the Bolshevik system was instituted: perhaps Russia and Brazil, or Bulgaria and Guatemala. Such comparisons, the only realistic ones, are notable by their absence; I’ve presented some in several books, but the only reaction has been silence or outrage. One can understand why. The Bolshevik system was a monstrosity, but a close look shows that what the US has done to the regions under its control is even worse, for the majority of the population, though the conditions for successful development were far more favorable.

53That’s not an acceptable conclusion, so what is offered is a comparison that scarcely rises to absurdity. Recall that Brazil, a country with enormous potential and vast advantages, was taken over by the US fifty years ago as a “testing area” for scientific methods of development, and was considered a great “success story” for American capitalism as recently as 1989. And Guatemala was going to be a “showcase for democracy and capitalism” after a US-run coup overthrew its first democratic government forty years ago and installed a regime of neo-Nazi killers who have been devastating the place since. And so on down the list. A look at the facts is instructive, too much so to be allowed to enter the canon.

54The Bolshevik system of forced industrialization was a human catastrophe, and the totalitarian socio-political system prevented progress beyond early stages. By the 1960s, the economy was beginning to stagnate, harmed even more by the militarization program undertaken in response to the vast Kennedy program of armament and confrontation. As to what might have happened had the western reaction been different, one can only speculate.

55Why does Leninism have so much appeal among revolutionary movements?

56Leninism definitely has an appeal among those who declare themselves the leaders of revolutionary movements. As for its appeal among the actual movements, that’s a different matter, not easy to determine without close inquiry that goes beyond the pronouncements of intellectuals. I’m skeptical. Anyway, the distinction is crucial.

57Leninism declares that “radical intellectuals” should take control of popular movements and use their struggles to gain power, then rule with an iron hand. The consequences are hardly a surprise. They were predicted by Bakunin long before Lenin appeared on the scene, and Leninist doctrine was condemned for these reasons early in the century by Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and intellectual leaders of the Marxist left like Anton Pannekoek and others. The effects were very quickly recognized by Luxemburg and Pannekoek, and by independent leftists like Bertrand Russell, and of course, by the libertarian left.

58Why should this doctrine appeal to intellectuals who appear on the scene with the message of “I’m your leader”? The answer is pretty clear I’m afraid, and not very attractive.

59Does libertarian socialism have any relevance for popular movements in the Third World today?

60Libertarian socialism begins by recognizing, with all serious forms of socialism, that socialism will be free or it will not be at all. Beyond that, it consistently questions power and authority. It seems to me of great relevance to any person or popular movement interested in defending human rights and expanding the sphere of freedom and justice. That includes the First World as well.

61Westerners have had it drilled into their heads that rule by private tyrannies is “freedom.” In the US the power of this propaganda has been extraordinary. One illustration is the fate of the media. When radio appeared in the 1920s, in most countries it was placed under public authority, and was as democratic as the society was: zero in the USSR, quite considerable in the case of BBC. In the US, perhaps uniquely, it was handed over to powerful corporations, though not without a struggle. The takeover by private tyranny was supported by liberals and civil libertarians on the grounds that it contributes to democracy. After all, what could be more democratic than control by huge unaccountable corporations? The public relations industry, the world’s major propaganda organization by far, is dedicated to that message. While in India, I happened to turn on the BBC World Service, and to my astonishment, saw a statement by the Advertising Council (part of the corporate propaganda system) explaining how commercial advertising creates freedom. What could we desire beyond freedom to choose between two commodities we don’t want and can’t afford?

62Free minds should not succumb to this crude and vulgar propaganda. Unaccountable private tyrannies have no intrinsic rights, and expansion of their power is hardly a contribution to freedom. The rights they are granted are, it is true, extraordinary, but also rather recent, and without justification in my opinion – a conclusion that used to be close to a truism among popular movements and leading intellectuals.

63Libertarian socialism, or anarchism, questions all kinds of power: state, private, personal, whatever. It is, in my view, a natural outgrowth of Enlightenment and classical liberal ideas that were wrecked on the rocks of emerging industrial capitalism, as Rudolf Rocker observed sixty years ago. I think these ideas have substantial validity. They naturally have to be reshaped to apply to today’s world. But I think it makes good sense to adopt the principle that any form of authority carries a heavy burden of justification. If it cannot provide a justification, it is illegitimate, and should be dismantled. That’s true of everything from personal relations to social, economic, and political institutions. Libertarian socialism is guided by this principle, and seeks to apply it to every domain of existence. That’s not only of relevance, but of crucial significance for decent people everywhere, in my opinion.

64In western countries, Marxism has lost much of its appeal, even in radical circles. In India, however, it continues to dominate revolutionary thought and action. How do you interpret this contrast?

65Marxism is a curious notion like Freudianism. These are, in my opinion, forms of organized religion, which treat individuals as gods, or maybe idols. In disciplines that have passed beyond the most primitive stage, there is (or should be) nothing comparable. There is no “Einsteinism” in physics, for good reasons.

66Marx was a human being, with virtues and faults. He had a good deal to say about many topics; incidentally, not socialism, about which he had only a few rather conventional remarks, as far as I know. Sane people will learn from him what they can, discarding what is wrong or irrelevant. The fact that Marxism, as a form of idolatry, has lost its appeal is all to the good. It is not to the good that it has been replaced by other forms of religious fundamentalism – a term that I am afraid applies all too well to much of what passes for “free market doctrine” and “neo-liberalism.” In countries that are more effectively under the control of state capitalist doctrinal systems, “Marxism” was never very influential and has now pretty much disappeared. In countries that are less disciplined, it remains more influential. In my opinion, “Marxism” (though not Marx’s work) should disappear everywhere, but not to be replaced by new dogma and secular religion; rather, by independent thought.

67What are the positive insights we can gain from Marxism?

68Marx had important things to say about economic history and contemporary affairs, and interesting ideas about a certain rather abstract model of capitalism. Certainly, what he wrote should be taken quite seriously, and one will learn from it what one can. Beyond that loose comment, it is a matter of looking closely at particular ideas and analyses, something I cannot attempt here. I should say that some of what I personally find most appealing in Marx, namely, the early manuscripts, is drawn rather directly from aspects of the Enlightenment and Romantic traditions that I think have much to offer, something I’ve written about.

69How do you interpret the popularity of communist parties today in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe?

70We should distinguish two kinds of “communists” in eastern Europe. Some are the “Nomenklatura capitalists,” rich beyond their wildest dreams as they assume the role of Third World elites. Others, no less opportunistic, are seeking power on the basis of the terrible human consequences of the huge social engineering projects that were designed by people who knew little about the society and were surely not relying on any well-established theoretical understanding – projects that, as usual throughout history, offer great advantages to the institutions that grant authority to the designers, and are called “reforms” because of the favorable connotation (we don’t call Stalin’s innovations “reforms”). The “reforms” may help the population or harm them, but that is incidental.

71I doubt very much that eastern Europeans want to return to the Stalinist dungeon. Nevertheless, they increasingly regard the Brezhnev era as a kind of “golden age.” Western-run polls are pretty clear about that, I don’t think this is nostalgia for a disappearing past as much as it is recognition of what is approaching: Brazil and Mexico, and other long-term beneficiaries of tutelage by the industrial powers of the West. The historical pattern is not exceptionless. One striking exception is Japan, a brutal imperial power, which, however, developed its colonies rather than ruining them. Formosa (Taiwan) and Korea developed approximately as Japan itself did during the period of Japanese rule, a course of development that picked up again, under rather special circumstances, from the 1960s. The devil is very much in the details in such cases.

72You are sometimes described as an anarchist, or as a libertarian socialist. Do you accept any of these designations? If not, how would you summarize your basic political beliefs?

73I’m happy with the designation “libertarian socialist” or “anarchist,” though like all terms of political discourse, these (particularly the latter) are used broadly and inconsistently. I frankly don’t care much what term is used, and rarely use standard terminology at all because it has become so vulgarized. What’s important is the ideas, analyses, and proposals, whatever one chooses to call them. And here there is plenty of complexity. Take myself. As an anarchist, I think that the state is fundamentally illegitimate and should be dismantled. But at the moment, I’m in favor of strengthening the federal government in the US – not the sectors, like the Pentagon, that are part of the welfare system for the rich, but other sectors that can be responsive to popular will and can stand as a barrier to private tyranny. That’s not strictly a contradiction: rather, a reflection of the complexity of the real world.

74Are there important practical experiences of libertarian socialism in recent history, and what can we learn from them?

75There are very instructive applications. The most significant, I think, are the achievements of the anarchist revolution in Spain in 1936 before it was crushed by the combined forces of the communists, fascists, and western democracies. Like most civil strife, the Spanish civil war was not just a conflict between the official “two sides”: in this case, the republic and the fascists. There was a “third side” that had deep popular roots after decades of organizing, education, and struggle. In this case, the “third side” was highly significant, with real achievements to its credit in industrial Catalonia, rural Aragon, and elsewhere. Though the popular revolution was demolished by force, its impact survived even through the brutal fascist repression that followed. I think one can detect this influence in the highly successful Mondragon worker-owned complex in the Basque country, the largest in the world, combining industry, banking and social and community services. Its immediate origins are in the left populist church, but it appears to have deeper anarchist roots.

76One finds libertarian tendencies far more broadly. In the seventeenth century English revolutions, for example. Hannah Arendt once pointed out the spontaneous appearance of variants of council communism, anarchist in spirit, in almost all modern revolutions. One example she discussed was the Hungarian revolution of 1956, where the councils were crushed by Soviet tanks, much as in Spain twenty years earlier. Though I hesitate to draw conclusions from limited experience, my impression in the West Bengal panchayat I visited was that very similar tendencies have been taking shape, in part spontaneously, it seems. Green shoots of this nature arise all over the place, sometimes with considerable impact, which often withstand harsh repression. One can make a case that a good part of the progress of civilization reflects such popular tendencies.

77Who are the great libertarian socialist thinkers, in your opinion, and what are their essential insights?

78As you know, I’m not overly impressed by “great figures.” Modern libertarian socialist thought has roots in the Enlightenment and classical liberalism, perhaps most strikingly Wilhelm von Humboldt. There were important contributions by Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and many others, also by left Marxists like Luxemburg and Pannekoek, and leading twentieth-century philosophers like Bertrand Russell. But the most important contributions were in the constructive work done by people who have disappeared from history, who developed such ideas and applied them in labor organizing, educational and social activities of all kinds, and institutions they created and defended. The leading insights? The primary one, as old as the hills, is the illegitimacy of authority, unless it can be justified. That insight then works itself out in a critical analysis of all human relations and institutions, with consequences depending on time, place, and topic. Some have constructed very detailed pictures of how a libertarian society or “participatory economy” might work. The ideas are interesting, but I’m personally a bit skeptical about far-reaching programs. I don’t think enough is understood about complex systems; even in the hard sciences, understanding drops off pretty quickly when we move much beyond big molecules. I think there is ample room for experimentation, and though I naturally have my own ideas as to where it might lead, I think the general principles are clearer than the specific applications, which simply have to be explored.

79You have persistently highlighted how democratic institutions, in the US and elsewhere, tend to be systematically subverted by corporate interests and privileged classes. Does this mean that there is no point in engaging in democratic politics?

80Elite opinion and the doctrinal institutions try very hard to discourage political participation, except for the very narrow matter of choosing among candidates representing one or another coalition of investors. They do so because of the fear of the potential of democratic politics, a leading theme of democratic principles and theory from the Founding Fathers of American democracy to the present, underscored again by the study of the Trilateral Commission that I mentioned. For the same reason, people should reject the propaganda (sometimes force) that tries to keep them out of the political arena, and should use, to the extent possible, the political opportunities that are formally available in relatively free societies like the US. They should also proceed well beyond this, aiming to dismantle the illegitimate power of private tyrannies – a rather recent development incidentally, hardly graven in stone. But that is a separate matter. What private power naturally fears is what an organized public should cherish: conversion of the political system into an instrument to serve the interests of the general population, not its tiny sectors of privilege and private power.

81During the last ten days, you have visited six different cities of India. What are the main impressions that you retain from this visit?

82I have strong and vivid impressions, but l frankly do not see why people in India should pay any attention to them. I’m willing to discuss them, but only on the understanding that these are superficial impressions, necessarily.

83One day in the West Bengal countryside left me with quite positive impressions about village self-government. One could not mistake the eager and enthusiastic involvement of people in running their own affairs, the overcoming of caste, tribal and gender discrimination, the use of simple but critically important technology (women installing and maintaining pumps for drinking water), a women’s dairy co-operative, etc. I’d like to learn more, but the little I saw was impressive in comparison to what I’ve seen elsewhere, or read about.

84Most of my impressions, however, are from lecture halls and discussions. The lively intellectual atmosphere, cultural depth, and very high level of competence are apparent, and most exhilarating. On the other hand, it is painful to see heart-wrenching misery alongside great opulence, the notable persistence of feudalist attitudes, the extreme and wasteful inefficiency, the huge and destructive black economy that surely undermines economic development, and the pitiful waste of rich human and material resources. More narrowly, it is distressing to see outstanding scholars, some of the best in the world, unable even to obtain books and journals: apart from everything else, not a good portent for Indian society and culture. So, it’s very much a mixed story; but I stress, these are superficial impressions.

Notes de fin

1 First published in Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 13, no. 31 (30 March 1996), available at


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