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.
One of these subjects is anarcho-primitivism. The elderly professor has made multiple jabs at anti-civilisation anarchists in his time — most of them reportedly behind closed doors, which is both unfortunate and cowardly if true — and on every occasion that we know of he’s been not just terribly misinformed, but intellectually dishonest and avoidant.
In a 2010 documentary 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 the primitivist current, 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’s never made any concrete plans for it.
Ted Kaczynski perhaps came closest to “genocidal” in his debut work (read: not close at all). 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. While this certainly comes off as callous, there’s a big difference between pointing a gun at someone and pulling the trigger, and simply not assuring every single person’s survival while taking down a globe-spanning ecophagic monstrosity.
A similar plan to Kaczynski’s was concocted by Lierre Keith, Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay in their 2011 book Deep Green Resistance, but Chomsky couldn’t have possibly known about it one year in advance; can’t say Mr. Chomsky strikes me as an oracle.
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. If one reads what most self-proclaimed ecofascists believe, it’s quickly revealed 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 in nearly all cases simply want to use the current ongoing environmental crisis to make excuses for their racism, socially conservative values and other heinous bigotry.
There is a rare exception to this general rule: 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.” I’d consider this bitter man to be the only genuine ecofascist, but that’s by no means a praise. In his only book translated to English, Can Life Prevail?, Linkola mostly rambles about his desire to return to traditional life of farming by exterminating most of humanity in camps, and is such a state-ist, so opposed to direct action that he wrote if he “came upon an animal protection activist burning down a slaughterhouse or a butcher’s car, I would take a hawkish hold of his neck and walk him to the police,” right after talking about how horrific modern meat industry is. Anyone conflating what this pathetic Finnish man is saying with anarchism would have to be so monumentally stupid, that I’d be forced to deny their existence for the sake of my sanity.
It might come as a surprise to some, but Linkola has more in common with Chomsky, than he does with me or any other anarcho-primitivist. Noam is very quick to call us genocidal, a term obviously meant to turn people off in regards to primitivism, 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 was said:
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. This is what he told the viewers:
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 carefully 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 whole anti-civilisation milieu). If he even touched primitivist-anarchist 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, habitat destruction, and from horrific abuses inflicted on us all by the system of civilisation.
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 The 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 attack both mercilessly! Even if a country is a victim of U.S. aggression, it doesn’t mean this country can’t be aggressor at the same time; victimhood and abuser-being aren’t mutually exclusive, especially when we’re talking about states, the impersonal socio-structural entities with a monopoly on legitimate use of violence.
I have seen him using such rhetoric on countless occasions to the point that I sometimes think this is no longer primarily about calling out the West, but rather to excuse the actions of certain other countries. What he’s doing is called whataboutery; he’s deflecting accusations by making up counter-accusations to divert attention. It is highly reminiscent of the Marxist-Leninist tendency to defend countries that have conflicting interests with the U.S., calling their actions of imperialism “anti-imperialist” (e.g. USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan), and blindly believing their propaganda (e.g. North Korea’s claims about being free and democratic). This is 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. Protagonist syndrome runs strong.
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 abstract visionary 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,” this certainly forced me to question the coherence and genuineness of his beliefs. Even most milquetoast of liberals have been doubting the authenticity of both major American political parties for ages. After what he’s said about Srebrenica, and after hearing how departed from what he claims to be some of his political actions and takes are, it’s not hard to imagine why he’d see genocide as an anarchist course of action for combating overpopulation — this man is deeply entrenched in a state-ist 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; far 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 many; just online groups revolving around AP have thousands of members on multiple platforms. 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, wouldn’t 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.
Leftists and others like him so often think they can have the cake and eat it too. Any sober look at the climate science as well as economic data clearly displays that we can not maintain the current rate of production and consumption on ecological grounds alone, we also can’t continue to enjoy cheap gadgets and even many foods if we want to stop with brutal Third World exploitation even within the current crappy framework. Yet these types who “[take] for granted the existence of industrial society” just blindly believe this can go on forever, as the world is collapsing around them from problems inherent to what they wanna keep.
I wanted to at least give him credit for popularising anarchism and doing a lot to break the common stereotype about anarchists as murderous sociopaths who just want to watch the word burn, but I can’t even give him that because what he’s preaching is about as anarchist as Barack Obama. Post-left anarchist Bob Black very adequately summed up his experience of reading Chomsky, “[a]fter reading all his political books, one would be hard-pressed to identify Chomsky’s politics, except maybe as consisting of some sort of generic, anti-American leftism.”
Even his ecological activism is drenched in neo-liberal myths of “green growth,” and by that I don’t mean growth of trees or bushes, he’s all about sustaining the current system. In an interview for Vox about his 2020 book Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal, co-authored by some hack who, I kid you not, used to be Obama’s Energy Department adviser, Chomsky told us that he only sees us solving the Anthropocene crisis through a capitalist framework. Not that I’m shocked or anything, but it’s baffling how he considers us “lost” in either the scenario where climate crisis dissolves our super-destructive mass society (something I assume/hope would happen before life itself was doomed), or where civilisation is destroyed by those of us who find the current state of affairs unacceptable, as if there can’t be anything beyond this. He always emphasises a set of words “organised human society,” as if his primary concern isn’t even with people and their well-being, but with the structure itself; considering he’s so quick to deny or excuse genocide, and seems to be concerned with the environment only in terms of how it serves the kind of system that’s currently in place, therefore being totally fine with ecocide as long as we can keep it all up, I’m left with only one conclusion: Chomsky’s true concern is preservation of the Leviathan itself for its own sake.
Of course, we wouldn’t be lost or doomed in a future where civilisation vanished; not if we value life, not if we value freedom, independence, autonomy, equality, community, you know, things that lie at the core of anarchist thought. We have plenty of evidence of how the uncivilised societies worldwide tend to be the most anarchic of societies, while industrialism that Noam clings to like a tick tends to correlate with largest inequality, most strain on the worker, worst control and surveillance in history. Not that he’s ever displayed a particularly good knowledge of history, but it’s not like you have to get a doctorate to know the important bits — I’m no historian myself. His insistence on building a free, libertarian society in a system with such a strong historic precedent to be the exact opposite is truly baffling.
John Zerzan perhaps put it best: “Chomsky is […] 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, Chomsky is an agent of the industrial system, and nothing else. 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, Sasha. Theory & Practice: Conversations with Noam Chomsky & Howard Zinn. PM Press [documentary film] 2010.
 Zerzan, John. Running on Emptiness. First Edition, p. 117, Feral House, 2008.
 Kaczynski, Theodore John. Technological Slavery. Fourth edition, vol. 1, pp. 77–78, Fitch and Madison Publishers, 2022.
 Pentti Linkola: Ecofascism and Deep Ecology. http://www.penttilinkola.com/pentti_linkola/ecofascism. Accessed 15 May 2022.
 Linkola, Pentti. Can Life Prevail? First edition, pp. 69–74, Wewelsburg Archives, 2009.
 The British Library. “Noam Chomsky in Conversation With Jonathan Freedland.” YouTube, 28 Mar. 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0D0E42AA4I.
 Mandić, Danilo. “On the NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia.” RTS Online, 25 April, 2006. Transcript accessed 4 June, 2022: https://chomsky.info/20060425/
 Eaton, George. “Noam Chomsky: ‘We’re Approaching the Most Dangerous Point in Human History.’” New Statesman, 19 Aug. 2022, https://www.newstatesman.com/encounter/2022/04/noam-chomsky-were-approaching-the-most-dangerous-point-in-human-history.
 Chernyi, Lev, et. al. “A Brief Interview with Noam Chomsky on anarchy, civilization and technology.” Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, 1 April, 1991.
 Black, Bob. “Chomsky on the Nod.” The Anarchist Library, 2014, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/bob-black-chomsky-nod.
 Roberts, David. “Noam Chomsky’s Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal Takes on Capitalism and Politics.” Vox, 21 Sept. 2020, https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/21446383/noam-chomsky-robert-pollin-climate-change-book-green-new-deal.
 Look up previously mentioned Zerzan’s Running on Emptiness, 2008, on page 140.