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(en) Ireland, Workers Solidarity #90 - Chomsky on Anarchism, Marxism & Hope for the Future - Interview by Keven

Date Wed, 29 Mar 2006 09:59:46 +0200

Noam Chomsky is widely known for his critique of U.S foreign
policy, and for his work as a linguist. Less well known is his ongoing
support for libertarian socialist objectives. In a special interview done
for Red and Black Revolution, Chomsky gives his views on
anarchism and marxism, and the prospects for socialism now. The
interview was conducted in May 1995 by Kevin Doyle.
RBR: First off, Noam, for quite a time now you've been an advocate
for the anarchist idea. Many people are familiar with the introduction
you wrote in 1970 to Daniel Guerin's Anarchism, but more recently,
for instance in the film Manufacturing Consent, you took the
opportunity to highlight again the potential of anarchism and the
anarchist idea. What is it that attracts you to anarchism?

CHOMSKY: I was attracted to anarchism as a young teenager, as
soon as I began to think about the world beyond a pretty narrow
range, and haven't seen much reason to revise those early attitudes
since. I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures
of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to
challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are
illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of
human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and
management, relations among men and women, parents and
children, our control over the fate of future generations (the basic
moral imperative behind the environmental movement, in my view),
and much else. Naturally this means a challenge to the huge
institutions of coercion and control: the state, the unaccountable
private tyrannies that control most of the domestic and international
economy, and so on. But not only these. That is what I have always
understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the
burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be
dismantled if that burden cannot be met. Sometimes the burden can
be met. If I'm taking a walk with my grandchildren and they dart out
into a busy street, I will use not only authority but also physical
coercion to stop them. The act should be challenged, but I think it
can readily meet the challenge. And there are other cases; life is a
complex affair, we understand very little about humans and society,
and grand pronouncements are generally more a source of harm
than of benefit. But the perspective is a valid one, I think, and can
lead us quite a long way.

Beyond such generalities, we begin to look at cases, which is where
the questions of human interest and concern arise.

RBR: It's true to say that your ideas and critique are now more
widely known than ever before. It should also be said that your views
are widely respected. How do you think your support for anarchism
is received in this context? In particular, I'm interested in the
response you receive from people who are getting interested in
politics for the first time and who may, perhaps, have come across
your views. Are such people surprised by your support for
anarchism? Are they interested?

CHOMSKY: The general intellectual culture, as you know,
associates 'anarchism' with chaos, violence, bombs, disruption, and
so on. So people are often surprised when I speak positively of
anarchism and identify myself with leading traditions within it. But
my impression is that among the general public, the basic ideas
seem reasonable when the clouds are cleared away. Of course, when
we turn to specific matters - say, the nature of families, or how an
economy would work in a society that is more free and just -
questions and controversy arise. But that is as it should be. Physics
can't really explain how water flows from the tap in your sink. When
we turn to vastly more complex questions of human significance,
understanding is very thin, and there is plenty of room for
disagreement, experimentation, both intellectual and real-life
exploration of possibilities, to help us learn more.

RBR: Perhaps, more than any other idea, anarchism has suffered
from the problem of misrepresentation. Anarchism can mean many
things to many people. Do you often find yourself having to explain
what it is that you mean by anarchism? Does the misrepresentation
of anarchism bother you?

CHOMSKY: All misrepresentation is a nuisance. Much of it can be
traced back to structures of power that have an interest in preventing
understanding, for pretty obvious reasons. It's well to recall David
Hume's Principles of Government. He expressed surprise that
people ever submitted to their rulers. He concluded that since Force
is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to
support them but opinion. 'Tis therefore, on opinion only that
government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most
despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free
and most popular. Hume was very astute - and incidentally, hardly a
libertarian by the standards of the day. He surely underestimates the
efficacy of force, but his observation seems to me basically correct,
and important, particularly in the more free societies, where the art
of controlling opinion is therefore far more refined.
Misrepresentation and other forms of befuddlement are a natural

So does misrepresentation bother me? Sure, but so does rotten
weather. It will exist as long as concentrations of power engender a
kind of commissar class to defend them. Since they are usually not
very bright, or are bright enough to know that they'd better avoid the
arena of fact and argument, they'll turn to misrepresentation,
vilification, and other devices that are available to those who know
that they'll be protected by the various means available to the
powerful. We should understand why all this occurs, and unravel it
as best we can. That's part of the project of liberation - of ourselves
and others, or more reasonably, of people working together to
achieve these aims.

Sounds simple-minded, and it is. But I have yet to find much
commentary on human life and society that is not simple-minded,
when absurdity and self-serving posturing are cleared away.

RBR: How about in more established left-wing circles, where one
might expect to find greater familiarity with what anarchism actually
stands for? Do you encounter any surprise here at your views and
support for anarchism?

CHOMSKY: If I understand what you mean by established left-wing
circles, there is not too much surprise about my views on anarchism,
because very little is known about my views on anything. These are
not the circles I deal with. You'll rarely find a reference to anything I
say or write. That's not completely true of course. Thus in the US
(but less commonly in the UK or elsewhere), you'd find some
familiarity with what I do in certain of the more critical and
independent sectors of what might be called established left-wing
circles, and I have personal friends and associates scattered here and
there. But have a look at the books and journals, and you'll see what
I mean. I don't expect what I write and say to be any more welcome
in these circles than in the faculty club or editorial board room -
again, with exceptions.

The question arises only marginally, so much so that it's hard to

RBR: A number of people have noted that you use the term
'libertarian socialist' in the same context as you use the word
'anarchism'. Do you see these terms as essentially similar? Is
anarchism a type of socialism to you? The description has been used
before that anarchism is equivalent to socialism with freedom.
Would you agree with this basic equation?

CHOMSKY: The introduction to Guerin's book that you mentioned
opens with a quote from an anarchist sympathiser a century ago,
who says that anarchism has a broad back, and endures anything.
One major element has been what has traditionally been called
'libertarian socialism'. I've tried to explain there and elsewhere what
I mean by that, stressing that it's hardly original; I'm taking the ideas
from leading figures in the anarchist movement whom I quote, and
who rather consistently describe themselves as socialists, while
harshly condemning the 'new class' of radical intellectuals who seek
to attain state power in the course of popular struggle and to become
the vicious Red bureaucracy of which Bakunin warned; what's often
called 'socialism'. I rather agree with Rudolf Rocker's perception that
these (quite central) tendencies in anarchism draw from the best of
Enlightenment and classical liberal thought, well beyond what he
described. In fact, as I've tried to show they contrast sharply with
Marxist-Leninist doctrine and practice, the 'libertarian' doctrines
that are fashionable in the US and UK particularly, and other
contemporary ideologies, all of which seem to me to reduce to
advocacy of one or another form of illegitimate authority, quite often
real tyranny.

RBR: In the past, when you have spoken about anarchism, you have
often emphasised the example of the Spanish Revolution. For you
there would seem to be two aspects to this example. On the one
hand, the experience of the Spanish Revolution is, you say, a good
example of 'anarchism in action'. On the other, you have also
stressed that the Spanish revolution is a good example of what
workers can achieve through their own efforts using participatory
democracy. Are these two aspects - anarchism in action and
participatory democracy - one and the same thing for you? Is
anarchism a philosophy for people's power?

CHOMSKY: I'm reluctant to use fancy polysyllables like philosophy
to refer to what seems ordinary common sense. And I'm also
uncomfortable with slogans. The achievements of Spanish workers
and peasants, before the revolution was crushed, were impressive in
many ways. The term 'participatory democracy' is a more recent
one, which developed in a different context, but there surely are
points of similarity. I'm sorry if this seems evasive. It is, but that's
because I don't think either the concept of anarchism or of
participatory democracy is clear enough to be able to answer the
question whether they are the same.

RBR: One of the main achievements of the Spanish Revolution was
the degree of grassroots democracy established. In terms of people, it
is estimated that over 3 million were involved. Rural and urban
production was managed by workers themselves. Is it a coincidence
to your mind that anarchists, known for their advocacy of individual
freedom, succeeded in this area of collective administration?

CHOMSKY: No coincidence at all. The tendencies in anarchism
that I've always found most persuasive seek a highly organised
society, integrating many different kinds of structures (workplace,
community, and manifold other forms of voluntary association), but
controlled by participants, not by those in a position to give orders
(except, again, when authority can be justified, as is sometimes the
case, in specific contingencies).

RBR: Anarchists often expend a great deal of effort at building up
grassroots democracy. Indeed they are often accused of taking
democracy to extremes. Yet, despite this, many anarchists would not
readily identify democracy as a central component of anarchist
philosophy. Anarchists often describe their politics as being about
'socialism' or being about 'the individual'- they are less likely to say
that anarchism is about democracy. Would you agree that
democratic ideas are a central feature of anarchism?

CHOMSKY: Criticism of 'democracy' among anarchists has often
been criticism ofparliamentary democracy, as it has arisen within
societies with deeply repressive features. Take the US, which has
been as free as any, since its origins. American democracy was
founded on the principle, stressed by James Madison in the
Constitutional Convention in 1787, that the primary function of
government is to protect the minority of the opulent from the
majority. Thus he warned that in England, the only
quasi-democratic model of the day, if the general population were
allowed a say in public affairs, they would implement agrarian
reform or other atrocities, and that the American system must be
carefully crafted to avoid such crimes against the rights of property,
which must be defended (in fact, must prevail). Parliamentary
democracy within this framework does merit sharp criticism by
genuine libertarians, and I've left out many other features that are
hardly subtle - slavery, to mention just one, or the wage slavery that
was bitterly condemned by working people who had never heard of
anarchism or communism right through the 19th century, and

RBR: The importance of grassroots democracy to any meaningful
change in society would seem to be self evident. Yet the left has
been ambiguous about this in the past. I'm speaking generally, of
social democracy, but also of Bolshevism - traditions on the left that
would seem to have more in common with elitist thinking than with
strict democratic practice. Lenin, to use a well-known example, was
sceptical that workers could develop anything more than trade union
consciousness- by which, I assume, he meant that workers could
not see far beyond their immediate predicament. Similarly, the
Fabian socialist, Beatrice Webb, who was very influential in the
Labour Party in England, had the view that workers were only
interested in horse racing odds! Where does this elitism originate
and what is it doing on the left?

CHOMSKY: I'm afraid it's hard for me to answer this. If the left is
understood to include 'Bolshevism,' then I would flatly dissociate
myself from the left. Lenin was one of the greatest enemies of
socialism, in my opinion, for reasons I've discussed. The idea that
workers are only interested in horse-racing is an absurdity that
cannot withstand even a superficial look at labour history or the
lively and independent working class press that flourished in many
places, including the manufacturing towns of New England not
many miles from where I'm writing - not to speak of the inspiring
record of the courageous struggles of persecuted and oppressed
people throughout history, until this very moment. Take the most
miserable corner of this hemisphere, Haiti, regarded by the
European conquerors as a paradise and the source of no small part of
Europe's wealth, now devastated, perhaps beyond recovery. In the
past few years, under conditions so miserable that few people in the
rich countries can imagine them, peasants and slum-dwellers
constructed a popular democratic movement based on grassroots
organisations that surpasses just about anything I know of
elsewhere; only deeply committed commissars could fail to collapse
with ridicule when they hear the solemn pronouncements of
American intellectuals and political leaders about how the US has to
teach Haitians the lessons of democracy. Their achievements were
so substantial and frightening to the powerful that they had to be
subjected to yet another dose of vicious terror, with considerably
more US support than is publicly acknowledged, and they still have
not surrendered. Are they interested only in horse-racing?

I'd suggest some lines I've occasionally quoted from Rousseau:
when I see multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European
voluptuousness and endure hunger, fire, the sword, and death to
preserve only their independence, I feel that it does not behoove
slaves to reason about freedom.

RBR: Speaking generally again, your own work - Deterring
Democracy, Necessary Illusions, etc. - has dealt consistently with
the role and prevalence of elitist ideas in societies such as our own.
You have argued that within 'Western' (or parliamentary) democracy
there is a deep antagonism to any real role or input from the mass of
people, lest it threaten the uneven distribution in wealth which
favours the rich. Your work is quite convincing here, but, this aside,
some have been shocked by your assertions. For instance, you
compare the politics of President John F. Kennedy with Lenin, more
or less equating the two. This, I might add, has shocked supporters
of both camps! Can you elaborate a little on the validity of the

CHOMSKY: I haven't actually equated the doctrines of the liberal
intellectuals of the Kennedy administration with Leninists, but I
have noted striking points of similarity - rather as predicted by
Bakunin a century earlier in his perceptive commentary on the new
class. For example, I quoted passages from McNamara on the need
to enhance managerial control if we are to be truly free, and about
how the undermanagement that is the real threat to democracy is an
assault against reason itself. Change a few words in these passages,
and we have standard Leninist doctrine. I've argued that the roots are
rather deep, in both cases. Without further clarification about what
people find shocking, I can't comment further. The comparisons are
specific, and I think both proper and properly qualified. If not, that's
an error, and I'd be interested to be enlightened about it.

RBR: Specifically, Leninism refers to a form of marxism that
developed with V.I. Lenin. Are you implicitly distinguishing the
works of Marx from the particular criticism you have of Lenin when
you use the term 'Leninism'? Do you see a continuity between
Marx's views and Lenin's later practices?

CHOMSKY: Bakunin's warnings about the Red bureaucracy that
would institute the worst of all despotic governments were long
before Lenin, and were directed against the followers of Mr. Marx.
There were, in fact, followers of many different kinds; Pannekoek,
Luxembourg, Mattick and others are very far from Lenin, and their
views often converge with elements of anarcho-syndicalism. Korsch
and others wrote sympathetically of the anarchist revolution in
Spain, in fact. There are continuities from Marx to Lenin, but there
are also continuities to Marxists who were harshly critical of Lenin
and Bolshevism. Teodor Shanin's work in the past years on Marx's
later attitudes towards peasant revolution is also relevant here. I'm
far from being a Marx scholar, and wouldn't venture any serious
judgement on which of these continuities reflects the 'real Marx,' if
there even can be an answer to that question.

RBR: Recently, we obtained a copy of your own Notes On
Anarchism (re-published last year by Discussion Bulletin in the
USA). In this you mention the views of the early Marx, in particular
his development of the idea of alienation under capitalism. Do you
generally agree with this division in Marx's life and work - a young,
more libertarian socialist but, in later years, a firm authoritarian?

CHOMSKY: The early Marx draws extensively from the milieu in
which he lived, and one finds many similarities to the thinking that
animated classical liberalism, aspects of the Enlightenment and
French and German Romanticism. Again, I'm not enough of a Marx
scholar to pretend to an authoritative judgement. My impression, for
what it is worth, is that the early Marx was very much a figure of the
late Enlightenment, and the later Marx was a highly authoritarian
activist, and a critical analyst of capitalism, who had little to say
about socialist alternatives. But those are impressions.

RBR: From my understanding, the core part of your overall view is
informed by your concept of human nature. In the past the idea of
human nature was seen, perhaps, as something regressive, even
limiting. For instance, the unchanging aspect of human nature is
often used as an argument for why things can't be changed
fundamentally in the direction of anarchism. You take a different
view? Why?

CHOMSKY: The core part of anyone's point of view is some
concept of human nature, however it may be remote from awareness
or lack articulation. At least, that is true of people who consider
themselves moral agents, not monsters. Monsters aside, whether a
person who advocates reform or revolution, or stability or return to
earlier stages, or simply cultivating one's own garden, takes stand on
the grounds that it is 'good for people.' But that judgement is based
on some conception of human nature, which a reasonable person
will try to make as clear as possible, if only so that it can be
evaluated. So in this respect I'm no different from anyone else.

You're right that human nature has been seen as something
'regressive,' but that must be the result of profound confusion. Is my
granddaughter no different from a rock, a salamander, a chicken, a
monkey? A person who dismisses this absurdity as absurd
recognises that there is a distinctive human nature. We are left only
with the question of what it is - a highly nontrivial and fascinating
question, with enormous scientific interest and human significance.
We know a fair amount about certain aspects of it - not those of
major human significance. Beyond that, we are left with our hopes
and wishes, intuitions and speculations.

There is nothing regressive about the fact that a human embryo is so
constrained that it does not grow wings, or that its visual system
cannot function in the manner of an insect, or that it lacks the
homing instinct of pigeons. The same factors that constrain the
organism's development also enable it to attain a rich, complex, and
highly articulated structure, similar in fundamental ways to
conspecifics, with rich and remarkable capacities. An organism that
lacked such determinative intrinsic structure, which of course
radically limits the paths of development, would be some kind of
amoeboid creature, to be pitied (even if it could survive somehow).
The scope and limits of development are logically related.

Take language, one of the few distinctive human capacities about
which much is known. We have very strong reasons to believe that
all possible human languages are very similar; a Martian scientist
observing humans might conclude that there is just a single
language, with minor variants. The reason is that the particular
aspect of human nature that underlies the growth of language allows
very restricted options. Is this limiting? Of course. Is it liberating?
Also of course. It is these very restrictions that make it possible for a
rich and intricate system of expression of thought to develop in
similar ways on the basis of very rudimentary, scattered, and varied

What about the matter of biologically-determined human
differences? That these exist is surely true, and a cause for joy, not
fear or regret. Life among clones would not be worth living, and a
sane person will only rejoice that others have abilities that they do
not share. That should be elementary. What is commonly believed
about these matters is strange indeed, in my opinion.

Is human nature, whatever it is, conducive to the development of
anarchist forms of life or a barrier to them? We do not know enough
to answer, one way or the other. These are matters for
experimentation and discovery, not empty pronouncements.
The future

RBR: To begin finishing off, I'd like to ask you briefly about some
current issues on the left. I don't know if the situation is similar in
the USA but here, with the fall of the Soviet Union, a certain
demoralisation has set in on the left. It isn't so much that people
were dear supporters of what existed in the Soviet Union, but rather
it's a general feeling that with the demise of the Soviet Union the
idea of socialism has also been dragged down. Have you come
across this type of demoralisation? What's your response to it?

CHOMSKY: My response to the end of Soviet tyranny was similar to
my reaction to the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini. In all cases, it is a
victory for the human spirit. It should have been particularly
welcome to socialists, since a great enemy of socialism had at last
collapsed. Like you, I was intrigued to see how people - including
people who had considered themselves anti-Stalinist and
anti-Leninist - were demoralised by the collapse of the tyranny.
What it reveals is that they were more deeply committed to Leninism
than they believed.

There are, however, other reasons to be concerned about the
elimination of this brutal and tyrannical system, which was as much
socialist as it was democratic (recall that it claimed to be both, and
that the latter claim was ridiculed in the West, while the former was
eagerly accepted, as a weapon against socialism - one of the many
examples of the service of Western intellectuals to power). One
reason has to do with the nature of the Cold War. In my view, it was
in significant measure a special case of the 'North-South conflict,' to
use the current euphemism for Europe's conquest of much of the
world. Eastern Europe had been the original 'third world,' and the
Cold War from 1917 had no slight resemblance to the reaction of
attempts by other parts of the third world to pursue an independent
course, though in this case differences of scale gave the conflict a life
of its own. For this reason, it was only reasonable to expect the
region to return pretty much to its earlier status: parts of the West,
like the Czech Republic or Western Poland, could be expected to
rejoin it, while others revert to the traditional service role, the
ex-Nomenklatura becoming the standard third world elite (with the
approval of Western state-corporate power, which generally prefers
them to alternatives). That was not a pretty prospect, and it has led
to immense suffering.

Another reason for concern has to do with the matter of deterrence
and non-alignment. Grotesque as the Soviet empire was, its very
existence offered a certain space for non-alignment, and for perfectly
cynical reasons, it sometimes provided assistance to victims of
Western attack. Those options are gone, and the South is suffering
the consequences.

A third reason has to do with what the business press calls the
pampered Western workers with their luxurious lifestyles. With
much of Eastern Europe returning to the fold, owners and managers
have powerful new weapons against the working classes and the
poor at home. GM and VW can not only transfer production to
Mexico and Brazil (or at least threaten to, which often amounts to
the same thing), but also to Poland and Hungary, where they can
find skilled and trained workers at a fraction of the cost. They are
gloating about it, understandably, given the guiding values.

We can learn a lot about what the Cold War (or any other conflict)
was about by looking at who is cheering and who is unhappy after it
ends. By that criterion, the victors in the Cold War include Western
elites and the ex-Nomenklatura, now rich beyond their wildest
dreams, and the losers include a substantial part of the population of
the East along with working people and the poor in the West, as well
as popular sectors in the South that have sought an independent

Such ideas tend to arouse near hysteria among Western intellectuals,
when they can even perceive them, which is rare. That's easy to
show. It's also understandable. The observations are correct, and
subversive of power and privilege; hence hysteria.

In general, the reactions of an honest person to the end of the Cold
War will be more complex than just pleasure over the collapse of a
brutal tyranny, and prevailing reactions are suffused with extreme
hypocrisy, in my opinion.

RBR: In many ways the left today finds itself back at its original
starting point in the last century. Like then, it now faces a form of
capitalism that is in the ascendancy. There would seem to be greater
'consensus' today, more than at any other time in history, that
capitalism is the only valid form of economic organisation possible,
this despite the fact that wealth inequality is widening. Against this
backdrop, one could argue that the left is unsure of how to go
forward. How do you look at the current period? Is it a question of
'back to basics'? Should the effort now be towards bringing out the
libertarian tradition in socialism and towards stressing democratic

CHOMSKY: This is mostly propaganda, in my opinion. What is
called 'capitalism' is basically a system of corporate mercantilism,
with huge and largely unaccountable private tyrannies exercising
vast control over the economy, political systems, and social and
cultural life, operating in close co-operation with powerful states that
intervene massively in the domestic economy and international
society. That is dramatically true of the United States, contrary to
much illusion. The rich and privileged are no more willing to face
market discipline than they have been in the past, though they
consider it just fine for the general population. Merely to cite a few
illustrations, the Reagan administration, which revelled in free
market rhetoric, also boasted to the business community that it was
the most protectionist in post-war US history - actually more than all
others combined. Newt Gingrich, who leads the current crusade,
represents a superrich district that receives more federal subsidies
than any other suburban region in the country, outside of the federal
system itself. The 'conservatives' who are calling for an end to
school lunches for hungry children are also demanding an increase
in the budget for the Pentagon, which was established in the late
1940s in its current form because - as the business press was kind
enough to tell us - high tech industry cannot survive in a pure,
competitive, unsubsidized, 'free enterprise' economy, and the
government must be its saviour. Without the saviour, Gingrich's
constituents would be poor working people (if they were lucky).
There would be no computers, electronics generally, aviation
industry, metallurgy, automation, etc., etc., right down the list.
Anarchists, of all people, should not be taken in by these traditional

More than ever, libertarian socialist ideas are relevant, and the
population is very much open to them. Despite a huge mass of
corporate propaganda, outside of educated circles, people still
maintain pretty much their traditional attitudes. In the US, for
example, more than 80% of the population regard the economic
system as inherently unfair and the political system as a fraud, which
serves the special interests, not the people. Overwhelming majorities
think working people have too little voice in public affairs (the same
is true in England), that the government has the responsibility of
assisting people in need, that spending for education and health
should take precedence over budget-cutting and tax cuts, that the
current Republican proposals that are sailing through Congress
benefit the rich and harm the general population, and so on.
Intellectuals may tell a different story, but it's not all that difficult to
find out the facts.

RBR: To a point anarchist ideas have been vindicated by the collapse
of the Soviet Union - the predictions of Bakunin have proven to be
correct. Do you think that anarchists should take heart from this
general development and from the perceptiveness of Bakunin's
analysis? Should anarchists look to the period ahead with greater
confidence in their ideas and history?

CHOMSKY: I think - at least hope - that the answer is implicit in
the above. I think the current era has ominous portent, and signs of
great hope. Which result ensues depends on what we make of the

RBR: Lastly, Noam, a different sort of question. We have a pint of
Guinness on order for you here. When are you going to come and
drink it?

CHOMSKY: Keep the Guinness ready. I hope it won't be too long.
Less jocularly, I'd be there tomorrow if we could. We (my wife came
along with me, unusual for these constant trips) had a marvellous
time in , and would love to come back. Why don't we? Won't bore
you with the sordid details, but demands are extraordinary, and
mounting - a reflection of the conditions I've been trying to describe.
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