Chomsky Sessions 3: Education and Economics, Part II

Transcript of Z DVD Chomsky Sessions 3: Education and Economics an interview with Michael Albert and Noam Chomsky (http://www.zcomm.org/zstore/products/114). See Part I here.

OK, so, in the economic system that we're most familiar with, we have the private ownership, we have the hierarchy of the decision making, we have the mis-attribution of rights, etc. But then there was this thing that came along called socialism or twentieth century socialism, which still exists, I guess, in some places, but has in many other places disappeared. What was wrong with that?

Depends what you mean by it. First of all, the socialist movement that came along…

No, I mean the actual systems that were established and…

Leninism, for example? It was just another form of tyranny. I mean, Lenin, he didn't hide it, particularly. In fact, in the early twentieth century, years before the revolution, Lenin was pretty harshly criticized within the socialist movement, because of his doctrines. In fact, he was criticized by, I think even Trotsky said this, because his doctrine is that there should be a dictatorship of the proletariat, a Marxist notion which to Marx meant something quite different, you know, something like producers take over production and so on. There should be a dictatorship of the proletariat, run by the party which was the vanguard. The party should be run by the central committee. And the central committee should be run by me. He didn't put it in those words, but that's essentially what it came down to. And all for the best of reasons.

If you look at Lenin's writings, he veers away from this in early 1917. So say, from around April 1917, this is the course of the popular revolution, you know. He became much more libertarian. So you read the April theses, statement of the revolution, they're practically anarchist texts. Then he got power. And he went back to just what his doctrine was. And, you know, among the first acts were, dismantle – not totally destroy – but take away the power of the soviets, the factory councils, any of the popular institutions that were developed during the revolutionary period. Dismantle the constituent assembly, because there were social revolutionaries representing peasant interests and so on. And finally turned the place into what was actually called a labor army. And we've gotta drive them to industrialization. This was all very progressive. I mean, it all comes from a particular reading of Marx. Not Marx's reading, but it doesn't matter. The proletariat is the agency, you know, the engine of social change to freedom and justice and so on. But that can't happen unless we have an industrial society Of course, then you don't have a proletariat.

Russia was a backward peasant society. Kind of a third world colony of the West, almost. Big army and stuff, so, an unusual third world colony, but, structurally rather like that. And, Marx himself was very much interested in the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. In his last years he worked a lot on it. But all that was kind of suppressed. The urban socialists didn't like that stuff. But, the picture was that, well, we have to industrialize the country, then we'll have an urban proletariat and then the iron laws of history start working and you get socialism and communism and all kinds of wonderful things. All very progressive. Trotsky went along with it. And what they developed was a tyranny. For good reasons… for, you know, principled reasons. Stalin turned it into a monstrosity, but I think the basic structure was already there.

OK, that's what was called socialism. Now, you have two major propaganda systems in the world. The hugest one by far is the Western propaganda system. You know, U.S., Britain and so on. Just overwhelming. There's another propaganda system after 1917, the Bolshevik propaganda system, nowhere near as powerful but, it had a lot of appeal, especially in the third world, you know, they were industrializing. Intellectuals liked it, for all kind of reasons. So it did have an appeal. Now, these two systems disagreed on a lot of things. But they agreed on one thing. Namely, that this is socialism. And they agreed on it for different reasons. The West agreed on it 'cause they wanted to defame socialism. So look, it's just tyranny. The Bolsheviks wanted it because they wanted to kind of profit, benefit, from the moral appeal of socialism, which was real. Now, when the world's two propaganda systems agree on something it's kind of hard to disentangle yourself from it.

So, this became what was called really existing socialism. In fact, it's probably the worst blow that socialism ever faced, maybe, up until Hitler, you know. You may remember, in 1989 or so, 88, roughly, when the Russian system was finally collapsing, I was asked by a leftist journal to write an article on socialist collapses. And I wrote an article, and I said, this was a small victory for socialism, if this goes. And I explained why. They refused to publish it. It finally appeared in an anarchist journal in Montreal. But, I actually wrote something on that for the Nation in a symposium they had, I don't think anybody understood a word of what I was saying. I mean, even the people who were strong anti-Stalinists and so on. But I think that's true.

Now, you know, out of the Marxist movement there came another strain. People like… well known people like Anton Pannekoek, the head of the Second International educational system, Karl Korsch, you know, others. Later, here, you've got Paul Mattick. Strict Marxists, but they had a different position. They were very opposed to Bolshevism, in fact, Lenin had a famous pamphlet about them, they were called the ultra-left infantiles or something or other. That was kind of left-wing Marxism. It wasn't very far from anarcho-syndicalism. In fact, they were pretty close relations. A lot of these people were very much in favor of the Spanish revolution. You know, anarchist revolution. They wanted workers' control in the factories and elimination of party hierarchy, very anti-Leninist. But, in fact, this stuff didn't even reach the West until the 1950s. There was of course the whole, you know, left libertarian movements. Anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, all sorts of other people. But that didn't become socialism. Socialism became Lenin or else social democracy. German social democracy, which, you know, was kind of reformist, parliamentary social democracy which did do things for workers' rights and women's rights and so on. But it's within the framework of state capitalist democracy. So that was socialism. But, the real socialist movement was pretty much crushed.

What does the word "class" mean to you, or the concept? What do you think it refers to?

I'm pretty simple-minded, frankly. If I can't see something in simple terms, I don't understand it. In these areas, it's not like science. If you take a look at society, there are just different roles that people play. I mean, there are people who give orders and there are people who take orders. And in fact it gets institutionalized. So, for example, take, say, the corporate system again. It's very strikingly institutionalized. I mean, there are the directors and the banks who own them and so on and so forth. They basically set the framework. They're the managers who sort of work out how to apply things, they have their own initiative and they give orders. Then you go down the line and there are people who just take orders. I mean, they're not totally passive, like workers can strike and all sorts of other things, but the array of decision making and control is fairly sharp. OK, those are classes.

By virtue of the position in the economy and the roles that people play, they have different interests, opposed interests, etc.

You use different terms for other kinds of hierarchy and domination. So let's take a patriarchal family. So, maybe the father gives the orders, so the mother follows the orders and the kids do what they're told. OK, we don't call that class. But that's just a terminological point. I mean, it's another illustration of the same kind of structural relationship.

Is classlessness possible in an economy?

That's kind of like asking whether slavery is necessary. You go back to the eighteenth century. If you asked people they'd say "how can you have a society without slaves?" I mean…

They look around and they see them everywhere.

Yeah, and what can you do? In fact, slave owners argued that they are more benevolent than northern manufacturers. I mean, when you own a slave you have capital. And you want to take care of your capital. So we're nice to our slaves, 'cause we need them. You guys, northern manufacturers, you just rent people. You have no responsibility for them, you want to throw them out, you throw them out and get others.

In fact, that revealed itself very dramatically in American history in a period that's kind of suppressed, although we have the information. I mean, you're taught in school that slavery ended in the Civil War. It did for about ten years. By 1877 there was a compact made by north and south that the south could do what it felt like, essentially. So they re-instituted slavery. But they re-instituted it in a much more brutal form. What they did is criminalize black life. So if a black man is standing on a street corner, he can be arrested for vagrancy. If he looks at a white woman, he can be arrested for attempted rape, or something. And it didn't matter if, you know, he were in for a ten dollar fee. He'd never get out. 'Cause you couldn't pay the corrupt judge and you couldn't pay the lawyer and you didn't have any money anyway, so it was essentially permanent servitude. These criminalized blacks were then handed over to industry. And that's a large part of American industrial development.

There was a big southern industrialization based on mines, you know, steel, U.S. Steel and so on. Agriculture, of course, they went right back to the cotton fields. I mean, this is a large part of American economic history. And it was worse than slavery, for exactly the reasons that the slave owners had always argued. When we own these guys we take care of them. When we just pick them up from the jails, we don't give a damn about them. If they die of starvation, fine, we get more from the jails. So you had a period worse than slavery.

It went up to the second world war, it was not small. Big impact on American industrial history. During the second world war you needed what's called free labor. You know, you need them for wartime industry. So, blacks sort of got out of the criminalized slavery, and then there was a postwar boom. Mostly based on the state sector, but it took place, like the 50s and the 60s there was a big economic boom. And there were jobs for, you know, black men in auto factories and so on. Pretty decent jobs. You could own a car, a home and so on.

Well, by the 1970s, that was over. There were social and economic decisions made to essentially deindustrialize the country and turn it into a financial center. So, if you go back to say 1970, the role of the financial institutions in gross domestic product, was, I don't know, maybe three percent. And now it's like a third. And that's changed all sorts of things, a concomitant fact was sending industry out of the country. I mean, two years ago, the head of IBM, [Ralph] Gomory, I think, testified before congress. Interesting testimony, what he said is: in the earlier years what was good for American corporations was good for the country. 'Cause you get jobs and so on and so forth. He says now it's not true anymore. What's good for the corporations is bad for the country.

IBM is a perfect example. I think they have like seventy percent of their employees in India. I mean the ones that they hire themselves. You know, they're overseas. You can take a rowboat and go out to your job. And this is striking in the case of IBM because the corporation exists thanks to huge public subsidies. I mean, that's how computers were developed and on and on. So here they are, a corporation that exists thanks to fantastic public subsidies. For their own economic reasons it's better to move production overseas, you know… Dell, for example is one of the biggest exporters from China and so it goes… but… so there's not even a pretense anymore that what's good for the corporation is good for the country. OK, all this happened. The result is that for, say, poor working people which means, heavily black, later Hispanic, there's no jobs. So what do you do? Throw them into jail. Just like after reconstruction. That's the main reason the level of criminalization, of incarceration in the United States has shot out of sight. I mean, around 1980, it was kind of like other industrial countries. Now, it's maybe ten times as high as most of them. It's mostly black and Hispanic on, sort of, drug charges. You know, a kid is picked up with a joint, or something. And they become slave labor again. I mean, they're farmed out to corporations, in fact often private jails which is against international regulations but it happens anyway. OK, going back to the question, why be opposed to slavery?

No, that wasn't the question. The question was, is classlessness possible?

Well, was it possible to get rid of slavery? It was possible, but there were a lot of pressures to prevent it. So, technically, we didn't have slavery after 1877. But, in practice, we did.

Is that an upshot that you want to communicate that while it's maybe possible to get rid of classlessness it's pretty much hopeless?

No. Getting rid of formal slavery was progress.


Remember that the people who own and manage the society are going to fight back. They're not going to give up. So you've got to keep struggling. Can we eliminate class in other respects? Sure, why not? Why can't workers run factories? In fact, it's a very live issue right now. These issues are just below the surface right now. So, let's be concrete. There's an economic crisis and there's an environmental crisis. And it's agreed across the board that one way that the United States has to try to deal with this is to overcome our hopelessly backward infrastructure. Backward as compared to Europe and Japan. So, we have a terrible transportation system, which was designed that way. It was designed and, you know, like, massive social engineering projects after the war to be highly inefficient. Inefficient from the point of view of money making. But based basically on wasteful use of fossil fuels. That's why you have suburbanization, you know, destroy the railroads and so on and so forth. Major state-corporate projects.

Now we've got to at least catch up to the rest of the industrial world. So you need high speed rail. OK, how do you get high speed rail? Well, Obama sends his transportation secretary to Spain so that he can use federal stimulus money, meaning taxpayer money, to make contracts in Spain for Spain, you know, not some superpower, to provide us with high speed rail. At the very same time, Obama is continuing to follow the deindustrialization policies from the 1970s. You know, close down GM plants and so on and so forth. You couldn't imagine a more massive criticism of the socioeconomic system. Destroying a factory doesn't just mean destroying the factory. It means destroying the workforce, the community. The community's usually built up around the factories.

Well, there's an answer. The people in those factories could take over the plants. Run them themselves. Convert them to high speed rail production. It's a task but not an insoluble one, like a version of the American industry of war time production. In the 1940s it was a far bigger task and it was done very successfully. It might need some community and federal support. A fraction of what's paid to the banks. So it's perfectly feasible. It has to at least be in consciousness. You have to at least be able to think about it. And then to proceed to do it. And it's not impossible. Scattered through the country, there are such examples. And there are cases which came pretty close to working.

The most important one I know is in Ohio, Youngstown. About thirty years ago, I guess. Youngstown Steel. the town was sort of based around the steel industry, a steel town. U.S. Steel decided to move somewhere else. There were a lot of protests. I mean, strikes, you know, I think there were even sit-downs. A lot of community protest. Finally, an effort led by Staughton Lynd, a radical lawyer, went to try to take it to the courts, to try to get the courts to agree that the so-called stakeholders – you know the community and the workforce – could take over the corporate institution that was being dismantled. And it went to the courts and they finally lost in the courts. Not for any economic reason. They lost because they didn't have enough public support. You know, if they'd had enough public support they could have won. American workers have the skills and the ability and the managerial capacity and so on to do it themselves. From some point of view that's a reformist measure. From another point of view it's a very radical measure. It's a move toward eliminating class society. And it's not that Utopian.

The biggest obstacle is the absence of…

Consciousness, organization…

You could even say that biggest obstacle… that the other side is an obstacle.

Sure, they're going to fight to hold what they own, but that's true of everything. I mean, that's why the business classes have been fighting like mad to get rid of something like, say, Social Security.

OK. Do you have any, I don't know whether to call it advice. What do you think activists seeking a better economy might usefully focus their energies on? You just answered that in some sense. That was one example. And do you think any serious mistakes have been made in left approaches to the economy that should be corrected?

Well, the biggest mistake is non-existence. It's very hard to find left approaches to the economy. Popular forces have to be created. I mean, there's experience, after all. Even in American history. Take, the 1920s. In the 1920s, the labor movement was basically destroyed. Woodrow Wilson, again, the great idealist, he played a major role in destroying the unions which he hated. But, it was pretty dead. In fact, there's a famous book of labor history by David Montgomery, one of the great labor historians, called The Rise and Fall of the American Labor Movement or something like that [The Fall of the House of Labor, 1987]. And by the fall he means the 1920s. It was pretty much gone. In British newspapers, they couldn't believe how workers were oppressed here. Killed, and so on.

Well, you know, it changed in the 1930s. A big revitalization, but not fast. The Depression hit in 1929. It wasn't until around five or six years later that you really got substantial labor organizing. CIO organizing, for example, and some radicalization of the AFL. And you got to the point where you had sit-down strikes. Sit-down strikes are frightening. Sit-down strikes are one step before taking over the factory. So, as soon as that started happening, business got nervous, New Deal legislation got passed, valuable legislation. A large part of it was just trying to damp down what's going on.

Of course, there were things that existed then, that don't exist now. One of them, which we're not allowed to talk about, was that there was a communist party. Now, the Communist Party was all tied up with Stalin worship, but, for most people in the party here, that didn't mean much. I mean, I can remember… this is my personal experience, now. Like, my aunts and uncles who were, you know, unemployed workers who were in the Communist Party, and they'd say the right words about Russia, but they didn't give a damn about what was happening in Russia. They were interested in unions, civil rights, you know, rights for blacks, workers' rights. Getting a vacation in a union establishment, that's what they were interested in. And, in fact, the Communist Party was right in the forefront of everything that was happening. Whether it was civil rights, rights for blacks, union organizing and so on. Well, that was crushed. We call it McCarthyism, but it started before that. Because the idea that you could have a militant, radical, worker based force was just intolerable to American power. Liberals, conservatives, anybody. That doesn't exist now, but it can be reconstructed. On some other terms, without worship of some foreign power.

Transcribed by Anton G. 

Leave a comment