Chomsky & Hobsbawm or: Homage to Catalonia


Let’s start again with late Tony Judt’s comment about Eric Hobsbawm autobiography, where one can read the following:

Eric Hobsbawm is decidedly a man of order, a “Tory communist,” as he puts it. Communist intellectuals were never “cultural dissidents”; and Hobsbawm’s scorn for self-indulgent, post-anything “leftism” has a long Leninist pedigree. But in his case there is another tradition at work. When Hobsbawm scornfully dismisses Thatcherism as “the anarchism of the lower middle class,” he is neatly combining two anathemas: the old Marxist abhorrence of disorderly, unregulated self-indulgence; and the even older disdain of the English administrative elite for the uncultivated, socially insecure but economically ambitious service class of clerks and salesmen, formerly Mr. Pooter, now Essex Man. Eric Hobsbawm, in short, is a mandarin—a Communist mandarin—with all the confidence and prejudices of his caste.

At the beginning of the seventies, there was a remarkable confrontation on those topics among Noam Chomsky and Eric Hobsbawm.
The former, along with a piece on Anarchism during the Spanish Civil War (pdf), contributed a second one where the basic idea was that, with respect to theorization about the social fabric, the apparent void in the anarchist camp was not so, for

One might […] argue rather differently: that at every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to—rather than alleviate—material and cultural deficit.

Amongst other things, Chomsky stressed that a generalized rise in the intellectual and moral conscience of the mass of the population is a necessary condition for any society which is meant to advance on the current one and delegation will simply perpetuate the usual gap.
Hobsbawm contributed two pieces which are also freely available online on, respectively, the role of anarchists in the Spanish Civil War (as a reply to Chomsky’s first) and on general reflections on anarchism (as a reply to Chomsky’s second I believe).
The first (pdf) stressed the usual “primitive rebels” argument which he had already expounded in “Primitive Rebels (1959) in force of which

Spanish anarchism is a profoundly moving spectacle for the student of popular religion — it was really a form of secular millennialism — but not, alas, for the student of politics. It threw away political chances with a marvellously blind persistence. The attempts to steer it into a less suicidal course succeeded too late, though they were enough to defeat the generals’ rising in 1936.

In the second piece (pdf) he argued that a minimal level of organization is a necessary condition for any social movement that intends to be effective, hence the spontaneous flowering of workers and peasants communes in 1936-1937 Catalonia could not have possibly worked – and it didn’t, any more so than the Paris student rebellion of May 1968.

The problem with Hobsbawm’s argument is that he tends to theoretically magnify a historically contingent accident – technology had not yet reached the stage of today’s peer-to-peer ubiquity – into an insurmountable fallacy of every movement that attempts at reorganizing the social fabric without a stratum of apparatchik.

The problem with Chomsky’s argument –at that time – was that technology had not reached a level of sophistication high enough to cut off the managerial stratum which acts as the information broker. But Noam may have been hinting at our time when in his celebrated discussion with Michael Foucault in 1971 (here a transcript) he presciently spoke  about information networks, data processing etc to the effect that

It seems to me that modern technology, like the technology of data-processing, or communication and so on, […] implies that relevant information and relevant understanding can be brought to everyone quickly. It doesn’t have to be concentrated in the hands of a small group of managers who control all knowledge, all information and all decision-making. So technology, I think, can be liberating, it has the property of being possibly liberating; it’s converted, like everything else, like the system of justice, into an instrument of oppression because of the fact that power is badly distributed. I don’t think there is anything in modern technology or modern technological society that leads away from decentralisation of power, quite the contrary.

This is the usual Norbert Wiener’s argument, on “The Human Use of Human Beings”, but there is more. There is the idea of the possibility to “uberize” the social fabric, turning it into a peer-to-peer arrangement where the brokerage functions previously intermediated by an ad hoc stratum are now accomplished by technology.

The main point is not about raising the level of consciousness of the average man (certainly a noble attempt if the Leninist trap of “What to do?” is to be avoided) but about the direction that technology has taken or could take from now on. Briefly, it can be instrumental at reducing labor bargaining power  in the direction of more managerial strata, or can be a wedge that reduces the necessity of the intermediation/brokerage function itself.

That was analyzed, in the sense of a study of industrial automation, by US scholar David Noble, in “Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation”.

Things have indeed changed since the time Noam and Eric wrote their articles – probably in a qualitative way, to the effect that those pioneering suggestions seem closer home.  See this related post.

Categories: Chomsky, Society, Technology

2 replies

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