Noam Chomsky is a public intellectual and political activist who has been credited as the father of modern linguistics. The Coffin Factory met with Chomsky in his office at M.I.T. to hear his opinions on anarchy, democracy, and literature.
The Coffin Factory: Which books helped form your political mentality?
Noam Chomsky: It’s hard to say. There are too many. When I was a kid, I was reading a lot of left literature—left anarchist literature. Some of it books, a lot of it pamphlets. Rudolf Rocker’s Anarchism & Anarcho-Syndicalism, for instance. When I was a young teenager, I read things that, in retrospect, I don’t think were great books, but influenced me a lot, like For Whom the Bell Tolls. Later, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia; I thought it was his best book, and I can’t say that I learned a lot from it, but it confirmed—vividly—things that I had learned elsewhere. I’ve read fiction that painted, in vivid colors, things that I more or less believed and understood. Books like Silone’s Fontamara, which gave a picture of peasant life under brutal repression, which is fiction, of course, but real. Actually, one of the books that influenced me a lot is a collection of short pieces written by peasants in collectives in anarchist Spain, which I picked up around 1940; it describes their own experiences during the brief period of freedom before the movement was crushed—and some of the pieces are quite moving. These are semi-literate people, just expressing their feelings, their goals, their intentions. One of them, “Membrilla,” was by a small poor village in Spain, and it had a page or two describing what they were doing and ended with the sentence: “Membrilla may be the poorest village in Spain, but it’s also the most just.” That’s the kind of thing I’ve seen and read about. And right up to the present, I’m always reading half a dozen books, and all across the spectrum. Some of them may be books by people I radically disagree with, but that I can learn from.
The Coffin Factory: Many people have a misconception of anarchy. How would you define anarchism?
Noam Chomsky: It’s an anti-authoritarian array of movements, so it doesn’t have an official definition or catechism. But I think if you look at the range of anarchist movements over the years, you can find some strains that you could say are a minimum condition for anarchism. The minimum condition is skepticism about authority and domination. It’s the principle that authority and domination and hierarchy are not self-justified. They have to carry a burden of proof. They have to demonstrate their legitimacy. If they can’t, which is almost always, they should be dismantled. The burden of proof is always on those who implement authority, or are in a higher position in a hierarchy who use their authority to dominate and control.
I think anarchy is the only form of democracy. Any other form is a departure from democracy.