Noam Chomsky is Wrong About Anarcho-Primitivism
Noam Chomsky’s thoughts on anarcho-primitivism expose his wilful ignorance about the subject.
Being one of the most known American anarchists, Noam Chomsky has for years been at the centre of attention. A household name, he’s become one of the most cited living authors (mostly in the linguistic field), though far too many know him only for his political activism. This is where we run into problems, because Chomsky seems to be completely in the dark about many subjects, but talks about them as if he knows everything there is to know.
I am an anarcho-primitivist; I believe that civilisation, domestication and industrialisation have all had a significantly bad impact on humanity and the world we inhabit, and should therefore be aiming to get rid of these things. While I might have some frequent minor disagreements with my anprim bretheren, we can probably all agree on one thing: Noam Chomsky had no clue what he was talking about when he was asked to weigh in on anarcho-primitivism.
In a 2010 documentary called Theory and Practice: Conversations with Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, Chomsky was interviewed by Sasha Lilley; the following exchange happened:
Interviewer: It seems indisputable that we’re facing an ecological crisis, and there are obviously different currents within the radical left in terms of addressing it. One current within anarchism known as anarcho-primitivism, associated with John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen, argues that the only way for the planet to survive is if we go back to the pre-industrial societies, or even pre-agrarian societies. What do you think of that kind of-
Noam Chomsky: That’s a factual claim, I mean if they have to be right, then we have to be in favour of mass genocide on a scale that has never even been complement, you know, contemplated. Okay, what happens to the six billion people around? They can’t live in a Stone Age society or an agricultural society. So if that factual claim happens to be correct, we’re lost. It’s not a prescription for action, I mean nobody, nobody’s proposing a course of action seriously that’ll lead us to a pre-industrial society. I mean, you couldn’t get ten people to even listen to you if you suggested that for a good reason, that means mass genocide. So, it’s not a prescription, it’s a factual claim, which I doubt is correct, but if it happens to be correct, fine, then we’re lost.
As you can imagine I have multiple issues with what was said here.
The first thing I noticed was Chomsky’s swift conclusion that a genocide would be necessary for a return to a primitive life. This is his idea, and his idea alone; no anarcho-primitivist writer has ever advocated for genocide or any sort of extermination of people in general. Recognising that civilisation, domestication and industry are bad, and that they should be abolished does not imply a deliberate slaughter of people, especially not on the basis of nationality/ethnicity as the word “genocide” implies.
Perhaps the most influential figure within A-P, John Zerzan, has (on more than one occasion) expressed a concern over how to make a transition to a future primitive without simply leaving millions of people to die; he proposed a transition period of some kind, though he has never made any concrete plans for it.
Ted Kaczynski, who is often wrongfully labelled as an anarcho-primitivist, even though he’s just an agrarian individualist anarchist, as evidenced by his 2008 hit-piece The Truth About Primitive Life: A Critique of Anarchoprimitivism, perhaps came closest to “genocidal” in his debut work. In Industrial Society and its Future he claimed (paragraphs 166, 167) that the system should be pushed over the edge by revolutionaries into a collapse. He acknowledged that this would result in mass death and suffering (like most revolutions tend to), though at no point did he endorse genocide or deliberate killing to lower the population — he assumes it will be lowered by the material and social conditions of collapse and the cessation of industrialism.
I am under the impression that Noam wants to conflate anarcho-primitivists with ecofascists, a common baseless misconception, as we share virtually nothing in common. In my essay Christchurch Shooter vs. Reality: The Fake Environmentalism of Ecofascism I have delved into the beliefs of two mass shooters who claimed to be ecofascist — if one reads my work or their manifestos, it should be very clear that ecofascism is just good old fascism with a green coat of paint, not a radical environmental plan of action in the slightest. (Eco)fascists simply want to use the current ongoing environmental crisis to make excuses for their racism, socially conservative values and other bigotry.
Besides the two losers I talked about in my essay, there is another noteworthy person to mention in relation to ecofascism: Kaarlo Pentti Linkola. He perhaps represents more closely what Chomsky imagines are the views of anarcho-primitivists. Linkola has proclaimed things like: “Any dictatorship would be better than modern democracy. There cannot be so incompetent dictator, that he would show more stupidity than a majority of the people. Best dictatorship would be one where lots of heads would roll and government would prevent any economical growth.” This bitter old man I’d consider to be the only genuine ecofascist, but that’s by no means a praise.
It might come as a surprise to some, but Linkola has more in common with Chomsky, than he does with me. Noam is very quick to call us genocidal, a term obviously meant to turn people off in regards to anprim, but if one takes a look at the old linguist’s history, it becomes evident that he’s somewhat too comfortable with genocide — perhaps why his first thought when overpopulation gets mentioned is that one would be necessary. He has been caught multiple times downplaying the Bosnian genocide during the breakup of Yugloslavia, and at times outright making up conspiracy theories about it.
In a conversation with Jonathan Freedland for The British Library he claimed he refuses to use the word genocide in relation to the Srebrenica massacre, an act of ethnic cleansing committed by Serb nationalist forces (with over 8,000 killed). The following exchange happened:
Noam Chomsky: …and then they carried out a lot of atrocities.
Jonathan Freedland: The Serb forces did?
Noam Chomsky: The Serb forces did, yeah. I mean it’s called genocide, and I don’t use the word “genocide” much; I think it’s — the way it’s used strikes me as a kind of Holocaust denial. I mean, when you kill a bunch of people you don’t like, that demeans victims of the Holocaust — I think. So I rarely use the word; I don’t think it’s used properly. But to kill a couple of thousand men in a village, after you’ve allowed women and children to escape — in fact, truck them out — , that doesn’t count as genocide.
While this comment where he refuses to consider an ethnic cleansing of thousands a genocide, and addresses deportation of women and children whose fathers and husbands were systematically slaughtered as some kind of gentlemanly act is gross, it’s by far not the worst thing he had to say about the matter. A thing I’d also note, before we continue, is that historically a lot of genocides were very unequal in terms of gender, men often being killed at a much higher rate; the “gender inequality” aspect of Srebrenica and other pre-meditated massacres does not and should not be a determining factor of weather something is considered genocide.
When interviewed by Danilo Mandić for RTS (Radio Television of Serbia) NC straight up denied that the concentration camps made by Serbs were even concentration camps.
Noam Chomsky: You remember. The thin men behind the barb-wire so that was Auschwitz and ‘we can’t have Auschwitz again.’ The intellectuals went crazy and the French were posturing on television and the usual antics. Well, you know, it was investigated and carefully investigated. In fact it was investigated by the leading Western specialist on the topic, Philip Knightly, who is a highly respected media analyst and his specialty is photo journalism, probably the most famous Western and most respected Western analyst in this. He did a detailed analysis of it. And he determined that it was probably the reporters who were behind the barb-wire, and the place was ugly, but it was a refugee camp, I mean, people could leave if they wanted and, near the thin man was a fat man and so on, well and there was one tiny newspaper in England, probably three people, called LM which ran a critique of this, and the British (who haven’t a slightest concept of freedom of speech, that is a total fraud)…a major corporation, ITN, a big media corporation had publicized this, so the corporation sued the tiny newspaper for lible. Now the British lible laws were absolutely atrocious. The person accused has to prove that the, what he’s reporting is not done in malice and he can’t prove that. So and in fact when you have a huge corporation with batteries of lawyers and so on, carrying out a suit against the three people in the office, who probably don’t have the pocket-money, it’s obvious what is going to happen. Especially under these grotesque lible laws.
Chomsky does not use the word genocide lightly because he has respect for the victims of the Holocaust, he refuses to use it appropriately, so he can defend regimes that he likes for whatever reason. He sees this word as a handy weapon to be wielded against those he does not approve of (like the anarcho-primitivists). If he even touched the A-P literature he’d know that our goal of returning to a primitive society stems from wanting to save human (as well as non-human) lives from death at the hands of climate crisis and habitat destruction.
I‘m thoroughly convinced he has a particularly strong need to paint the West as some sort of Disney villain compared to the rest of the world, as evidenced in the aforementioned British Library conversation, where he remarked that “when we [the West] commit an atrocity, nobody investigates.” I agree with him here, but if the western countries get away with crimes against humanity that should not be a reason to be more gentle to the states from opposing geopolitical blocs; we should critique both mercilessly!
I have seen him using such rhetoric on countless occasions to the point that I think this is no longer about calling out the West, but rather to excuse the actions of or take attention away from other countries. It is highly reminiscent of the Marxist-Leninist tendency to defend countries who have conflicting interests with the U.S., calling their actions of imperialism “anti-imperialist”, and blindly believing their propaganda. This is most often done by Western authoritarian leftists, most likely from some sort of narcissistic impulse to label their country as uniquely capable of evil, therefore painting themselves as fighting a much more difficult battle by wanting to overthrow it.
Not that I’m the sort of person to go around purity testing fellow anarchists like some paranoid creep, but everything about Chomsky smells of state-ism. He strikes me as someone who is an “anarchist” only in some very idealistic sense, like a Marxist-Leninist who considers themselves an anarchist, because their far-future desired goal is a moneyless, stateless, classless society.
I will not hold voting in certain situations against any anarchist as some sort of moral crime, but when Chomsky has admitted to voting for the Republican party in the past, saying they used to be “an authentic party”, I was certainly forced to question the coherence and genuineness of his beliefs. Even most liberals have been doubting the authenticity of American political parties for ages. After what he’s said about Srebrenica, and after hearing how departed from what he proclaims to be some of his political actions and takes are, it’s not hard for to imagine why he’d see genocide as an anarchist course of action for combating overpopulation — this man is deeply entrenched in a statist mindset. The most anarchist thing about Noam is the beard he grew during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To return to the original topic, his claim that nobody would take anarcho-primitivist ideas seriously is blatantly false; much more than “ten people” have listened to our proposals and claims — thousands have. His other claim that nobody’s seriously proposed any course of action that would take us back to a pre-agrarian future is also false as evidenced just by the existence of all the loads of primitivist literature that discuses such topics. While there is no way to know how many primitivists currently roam the world, there are certainly thousands. I happen to be the administrator of an anarcho-primitivist online forum which has thousands of members (who I’m very grateful to for helping me with this piece), and it’s not even the largest (third or fourth place). In a twist of irony, the anarcho-syndicalist forum on Reddit is just half the size of the main anarcho-primitivist Reddit forum.
Meaningless online cock measuring aside, the works of John Zerzan have been read by thousands and have been translated into many other languages, fuelling the flames of anti-civilisation/primitivist anarchy in Serbia, Turkey and Italy among other places.
In a brief 90’s interview with Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, Chomsky perhaps most clearly displayed his inability to think radically.
Lev Chernyi: Do you ever read Fifth Estate, for example?
Noam Chomsky: Yes.
Lev Chernyi: Do you have any sympathy for their anti-civilization perspective?
Noam Chomsky: Not a lot. I mean I’ve always felt much more attuned with the parts of the anarchist movement that were interested in and took for granted the existence of industrial society and wanted to make it free and libertarian. So at least that’s why I’ve always been inclined much more toward the anarcho-syndicalist tradition. I don’t think that there’s anything else that has any real relationship with ongoing life. Something’s got to happen to the 5 billion people in the world. They’re not going to survive in the Stone Age.
His reasoning for not venturing further outward is the fact that he feels attuned with the less critical sphere of anarchism — whatever that’s supposed to mean. While he is correct in asserting that 5 billion people, or the current 7 billion, would not survive in the Stone Age, there is a large amount of scientific evidence that suggests barely anything will survive the continuation of the Industrial Age. Of course it should be noted that this interview was done in the 90’s, when a lot of the current climate related scientific discoveries were not yet available, but now that they are Chomsky still doesn’t seem to see the light — he spends hours rambling about Trump, as if stopping the reactionary lunatics is enough to save the world. Even though he is a self-proclaimed anarchist his political commentary is that of an average social democrat, very disappointing; one would expect him to offer more.
John Zerzan perhaps put it best in his 2002 book Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization: “Chomsky is also, by all accounts, a generous, sincere, tireless activist, which does not, unfortunately, confer his thinking with liberatory value.” A very true statement. Chomsky’s views will not result in any kind of meaningful liberation, Chomsky’s views will not save the planet. This so-called radical thinker is completely unwilling to do serious thinking and step outside the comfortable box that is The Left… or at least recognise that a genocide happened, so he comes up with bad-faith accusations to discredit his more radical contemporaries. Little does he know how easy it is for an average person to see through him.
 Lilley, S. (Director). (2010). “Theory & Practice: Conversations with Noam Chomsky & Howard Zinn” [Documentary on DVD]. Mighty Small Films; PM Press.
 Zerzan, J. (2008). Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (First Edition, p.117). Feral House.
 Kaczynski, T. J. (2018). Industrial Society and Its Future. Pub House Books.
 “Pentti Linkola: Ecofascism and Deep Ecology”. www.penttilinkola.com. Retrieved 15 May 2022: http://www.penttilinkola.com/pentti_linkola/ecofascism/
 “Noam Chomsky in conversation with Jonathan Freedland” (Mar 28, 2013), The British Library, YouTube. Retrieved June 4, 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0D0E42AA4I
 Danilo Mandić (April 25, 2006), “On the NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia”, RTS Online. Transcript retrieved June 4, 2022: https://chomsky.info/20060425/
 George Eaton (April 6, 2022), “Noam Chomsky: “We’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history””, The New Statesman. Retrieved June 6, 2022: https://www.newstatesman.com/encounter/2022/04/noam-chomsky-were-approaching-the-most-dangerous-point-in-human-history
 Chernyi, L., Otter, T., Darkly, A., & Noa. (1991). A Brief Interview with Noam Chomsky on anarchy, civilization and technology. Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, 29, 27.
 Zerzan, J. (2008). Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (First Edition, p.140). Feral House.