Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Chomsky in the light of French Anarchism

            Knowing that Noam Chomsky was an Anarchist didn't inspire me to go off and study Anarchy, but I ran across an interesting mention in Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years, The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, (written in 1958) Shattuck begins his book by describing how everything is going well.  Oh yes, there was the death of Victor Hugo, the affair of General Boulanger, the Dreyfus affair, the constant dueling and fist-fights, but there were the salons and cafes and Sarah Bernhardt and everyone in France seemed to be having a giddy good time, with one exception. 
            "The most turbulent force of all is almost forgotten.  Anarchism had been seething for many years in the south, principally in the industrial city of Lyon.  Its way was prepared by the surge of antimilitarism after the war of 1871 and by the fresh memory of the Commune.  Traveling inexorably northward, the libertarian movement finally shook Paris in a series of bomb explosions and controversial trials.
            "'Anarchists come from the most varied backgrounds.  But a specific mentality links them -- the spirit of revolt and its derivatives, the spirit of examination and criticism, of opposition and innovation, which leads to scorn and hate of every commitment and hierarchy in society, and ends up in the exaggeration of individualism.  Decadent literature furnished the party with a strong contingent; in recent years there has been, especially among young writers, an upsurge of anarchism.  (Maurice Boisson, Les attentats anarchistes.)'
            Boisson wrote in 1931, but his description seems to fit Chomsky rather well.  There was much in France at the time we might look back and criticize or make fun of, but French people seemed to enjoy being French.   Freud  told us that one of the things a nation does when it thinks extremely well of itself is build a gigantic phallic symbol.  It was in 1899 that they built their Eiffel Tower, the tallest man made structure in the world for half a century.  But Anarchists as Boisson's description tells us are never happy in happy times.  Shattuck continues, "First Ravachol, with five murders behind him, blew up the homes of several magistrates in 1892.  He was caught in a restaurant, brought to trial, and let off with penal servitude for life.  Then another jury, intimidated by public outcry, reversed the decision and sent him to the guillotine.  The end of the same year Vaillant, of illegitimate birth and hysterical disposition, tossed a weak bomb full of nails into the Chamber of Deputies from the visitor's gallery.  None of the deputies was killed, and Vaillant, pleading in his defense that the bomb was intended only as a 'warning,' quoted Darwin, Spencer, Ibsen, and Octave Mirbeau in support of his doctrine.  After his execution he was widely acclaimed as a martyr.  At a literary banquet the evening of Vaillant's bombing, the polemical critic Laurent Tailhade was interviewed about the violence in the Chamber.  'What do a few human lives matter,' he replied' 'si le geste est beau?' Two years later he lost an eye when a bomb exploded in the restaurant where he was eating, and the next morning's paper chastised him with his own Nietzschean sentiments.  Yet his sympathies were shared by many."
            "A few weeks after Vaillant's death, a young intellectual of good family named Emile Henry exploded a bomb in the Cafe Terminus in the Gare Saitn-Lazare.  He had to be saved by the police from being lynched on the spot.  The trial brought out the full challenge of anarchist convictions.  Judge (in red robe): 'your hands are stained with blood.'  Henry: 'Like the robes you wear, Your Honor.'  His coolness on the stand allowed him to discuss the precise chemical composition of his bomb and regret that it had not taken the lives of more victims.  He died bravely under the knife crying, 'Vive l'anarchie,' and it was discovered that he had spent his last days in prison reading Don Quixote."
            Shattuck provides some other examples, which I will skip, then he writes, "By 1894 most sympathizers realized that the defiance of the anarchists exceeded defensible bounds, and the outrages died out quickly.  But their effects remained.  Anarchism served not only to unsettle the political smugness of the Third Republic, but also to challenge any formulated aesthetic. . ."
            The challenges to the formulated aesthetics of the time are also interestingly described, but, as far as I know, Chomsky has not engaged in anything equivalent.  Still, one can't but help but be aware of the faddish changes in clothes and music as each new generation resents and rebels against the previous.  Is it of the same spirit as anarchy?  A better question might be to ask whether " the spirit of revolt and its derivatives, the spirit of examination and criticism, of opposition and innovation, which leads to scorn and hate of every commitment and hierarchy in society" isn't derived from something like sibling jealousy.  My number two daughter often said to the number one daughter, six years her senior, with great heat, "you're not the boss of me." 
            Do the Anarchists have some system that they think is better than Liberal Democracy.  Chomsky says that he does.  But I doubt that anyone takes his system seriously.  What he does better than anyone else is to tell all and sundry, "you're not the boss of me."  He heaps scorn and hate upon every commitment of the American Liberal Democracy.  Every exertion of economic or military success is opposed by Chomsky who in effect says, "you are not only not the boss of me, you ought not to be the boss of anyone else."  Chomsky phrases his scorn and hate much better than my number two daughter did, but my daughter was only a child at the time.

1 comment:

Mike Geary said...

And #2 daughter was right. No one has authority over anyone but that one agrees to abide by the will of another or of some group. And that agreement can be rescinded at any time. Most of us no longer believe in the divine right of kings or any other ruler -- even of God many would say. This seems to me to be the bedrock value of liberal democracy. I can yell "fire" in a crowded theater, I can blow up buildings because I'm angry, I (as a nation) can invade countries because I desperately need their resources. I can make $300 million dollars a year while millions go under nourished. It's liberal democracy. I wouldn't have anything else. Except liberal democracy with a compassionate moral code. I think this is all that Noam Chomsky ever argued. The military evil we unleashed in Latin America and Vietnam, the economic evil we unleashed in the US through slavery and Jim Crow, these are but the most egregious offense against our credo of equality, justice and (the French, god love 'em) fraternity. For the sake of money this nation has committed many crimes. We've not starved millions as Stalin did in the Ukraine, nor as Mao executed after the Revolution or during the Cultural Revolution, we have no Babi Yar to account for -- well, there's Wounded Knee and The Trail of Tears and many other massacres, but they were just Indians and that was long ago. Bunches of blacks got hanged, but that's all history now. Over all, we're quite a Christian nation. Love your neighbor and all that. Chomsky bickers. He seems to think that we have had other motives in mind besides Justice, Equality, (and yes, the French again) Fraternity. All Chomsky is asking is that we stop being idiots at look at what's going on. But when you're comfortable, why should you do that?