Noam Chomsky and His Critics
posted to www.marxmail.org on Aug. 15, 2002
In the aftermath of September 11th, certain sectors of the US left buckled under ruling class pressure and turned against Noam Chomsky. His uncompromising anti-imperialism might have been acceptable during the 1980s when the Sandinistas were under Washington's gun, but in today's repressive atmosphere no quarter is given to the dissident intellectual. Of course, no quarter is asked from Chomsky, who remains fearless and principled as ever.
To the chagrin of ruling class pundits and weak-kneed leftists, a collection of interviews with Chomsky, which has been published under the title "9/11," has become a best seller. According to a May 5th Washington Post article, the book had already sold 160,000 copies and been translated into a dozen languages, from Korean to Japanese to two varieties of Portuguese.
In an attempt to warn people away from the book, the Post cites Brian Morton, supposedly "a novelist and essayist of the left," who regards Chomsky as an important intellectual whose arguments have suffered a sclerotic hardening. He says, "Chomsky sees the world in a very stark way and gets at certain truths in that way, but ultimately his view is so simplistic that it's not useful. He's become a phase that people on the left should go through when they are young."
It should come as no surprise that the Washington Post failed to identify the segment of the left Morton is associated with. As it turns out, he is an editor of Dissent Magazine, a publication that might be described as social democracy in a state of advanced rigor mortis. Irving Howe, the founder of the magazine, was a critical supporter of the Vietnam War who reserved most of his animosity for the antiwar movement rather than imperialism. The current editor, Michael Walzer, stumped for Bush's war against terrorism in the Fall 2001 issue, stating: "We have to defend our lives; we are also defending our way of life. Everyone says this, but it is true. The terrorists oppose and hate our way of life--and would still oppose and hate it even if we lived our lives far better than we do."
Eric Alterman and Christopher Hitchens, contributors to The Nation Magazine, a left liberal weekly that has published continuously since the Civil War, have jumped on the anti-Chomsky bandwagon with a vengeance. Although the magazine has had a reputation for principled anti-imperialism in the past, it has shifted noticeably to the right in recent years. Most would explain this as a function of tail-ending the Clinton administration.
Alterman, admits on his MSNBC.com 'blog' that Chomsky "did a lot of good work on East Timor." But when he accused the United States of "perpetrating a holocaust in Afghanistan" and compared the attack on the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan with that on the Twin Towers, he went out of bounds and became "the mirror image of the ignorant jingoism of Bennett, Krauthammer, Kelly, Will, etc."
Christopher Hitchens has been the author of the most visible and controversial attacks against Chomsky. In flag-waving attack on the peace movement in the September 24, 2001 Nation titled "Of Sin, the Left & Islamic Fascism." Hitchens describes Chomsky as "soft on crime and soft on fascism." With such people, he adds, "No political coalition is possible."
For some on the postmodernist left, Chomsky has also become objectionable. Michael Berube, a commentator on the arts and society, feels that "the Chomskian left has consigned itself to the dustbin of history." In accounting for the split between the "Chomskian left" and "the Hitchens left," Berube surmises that "the simple fact that bombs were dropping" might have something to do with it. He writes:
For U.S. leftists schooled in the lessons of Cambodia, Libya, and the School of the Americas, all U.S. bombing actions are suspect: they are announced by cadaverous white guys with bad hair, they are covered by seven cable channels competing with one another for the catchiest "New War" slogan and Emmy awards for creative flag display, and they invariably kill civilians, the poor, the wretched, the disabled. Surely, there is much to hate about any bombing campaign.
Dispensing with the relativism and playful irony that characterizes the postmodernist left, Berube reminds his readers that war is a serious business:
Yet who would deny that a nation, once attacked, has the right to respond with military force, and who seriously believes that anyone could undertake any "nation-building" enterprise in Afghanistan without driving the Taliban from power first?
Bad Subjects, another postmodernist outlet, has joined the anti-Chomsky crusade as well. In the latest online edition (http://eserver.org/bs/reviews/2002-3-11-4.49PM.html), Joe Lockard complains:
The excursion begins with a simple postulate from which flows all manner of derivatives: the United States is the leading terrorist state. Mr. Smith isn't going to Washington; Mr. Smith is going to Terrorism Central. Why ever do Chomsky-quoters wonder why their hero isn't invited to address a special joint session of Congress?
My only wonder is how a member of the Bad Subjects collective would deem a trip to Congress worth the trouble. One supposes that despite all the transgressive gestures of our postmodernist friends that bourgeois respectability remains their underlying desire.
It is simple to understand why Chomsky has been targeted. As the most visible and respected figure in the radical movement, he is a tempting target. When one is involved in a street fight, it is good psychology to knock out your biggest and most powerful opponent and thus demoralize the ranks of the enemy. This article will consider how Chomsky became such a preeminent figure. In the course of this discussion, we will examine some of his limitations that, needless to say, are of a totally different sort than those alleged by his foes. We understand that it is exactly his ability to stand up to wartime pressures that distinguishes him from the run-of-the-mill intellectual.
From Robert Barsky's first-rate biography and intellectual portrait of Noam Chomsky (Noam Chomsky: a life of dissent, MIT Press 1998), we learn that he was born on December 7, 1928 to Dr. William (Zev) Chomsky and Elsie Simonofsky, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Chomsky's father was the principal of a Hebrew school and raised his son according to traditional Jewish beliefs. Although his parents identified with the New Deal, various cousins, aunts and uncles were further to the left. Within the extended Chomsky household, various opinions clashed with each other. Against this political backdrop, it was inevitable that he would come to identify with the left, especially since the radical opinions he heard all about him were reinforced by "seeing people coming to the door and trying to sell rags or apples" and " travelling in a trolley car past a textile factory where women were on strike, and watching riot police beat the strikers".
The bulk of the young people who became radicalized during the 1930s joined the Communist Party, while a smaller number became anti-Stalinists. And within this minority most joined the Trotskyist movement or the left wing of the Socialist Party, which tended to overlap. There were, however, a smaller number that identified with anarchism or the left communism (sometimes called council communism) that constituted a reaction to the compromises with world capitalism forced on the USSR. Noam Chomsky became part of this current.
Chomsky created an eclectic blend of council communism, anarchism and a left-Zionism that was natural to a Jewish household that retained many traditional beliefs side-by-side with progressive politics. All three influences reinforced each other and produce what appears to be a life-long affinity for small-scale cooperatives against "state socialism."
While most of his writings focus on US crimes, his ideas about locally based alternatives to capitalism and state socialism form a consistent thread throughout his career. For example, while his 1967 "American Power and the New Mandarins" is mostly devoted to a withering attack on the 'trahison des clercs' that made the Vietnam War possible, there is also a chapter that includes a lengthy discussion of the Spanish Civil War. Although framed as a reply to liberal interpretations that justified repression of the anarchists, it is also a defense of anarchism itself, especially as expressed in the Aragon collectives. Chomsky puts the blame on "authoritarian centralization" rather than on a class-collaborationist Soviet foreign policy. The Marxist view, contrary to Chomsky's, is that centralization cannot be a meaningful term when detached from political economy and such key class criteria as ownership of the means of production.
Chomsky leaned at early date toward the Israel kibbutz as some kind of "socialist experiment", long after the colonization intentions of the settlers had become obvious. He did turn against the particular kibbutz he worked on, but not because of any economic shortcomings. Instead, the racism of the settlers was the key factor. To this day, Chomsky still speaks positively about the Zionist outposts without really addressing concerns about the class nature of the Israeli state. (Guardian, May 14, 2001)
Chomsky has never written systematically about how his brand of small-scale socialism will be achieved. This would require a discussion of matters such as human agency and economic policy that seem to matter little to him. For despite his affiliation with a movement that wrote a vast literature on such questions, Chomsky himself often seems content to proclaim its superiority to state socialism on face value.
Understandably, this attitude often veers off into a kind of moralizing that is symptomatic of the mood of the intelligentsia at the beginning of the Cold War, when both "camps" seemed equally evil--the very time indeed that Noam Chomsky was maturing politically and intellectually. Barsky comments:
Among those figures he was drawn to, George Orwell is especially fascinating, both because of the impact that he had on a broad spectrum of society and the numerous contacts and acquaintances he had in the libertarian left. Chomsky refers to Orwell frequently in his political writings, and when one reads Orwell's works, the reasons for his attraction to someone interested in the Spanish Civil War from an anarchist perspective become clear.
Armed with Orwell's sometimes troubling "pox on both your houses" outlook, Chomsky has often tended to evoke the beleaguered hero of "1984" who faced a world divided into equally evil totalitarian powers. This mindset shapes his discourse on the double-speak of an entire generation of US administrations. Unfortunately, this stance cannot do justice to the underlying dynamic of the clash between the superpowers, which is much more of a function of divergent class interests than blind worship of the State. In all fairness to Chomsky, as we shall see momentarily, this perspective has not led him to blur over the dominant and aggressive character of the Anglo-American imperialism, as it did Orwell who eventually collaborated with the British secret police against the "enemies" of freedom.
Indeed, much of the wrath directed against Chomsky seems tied up with his refusal to bend an inch toward the kind of free world triumphalism Francis Fukuyama upheld. If anything, Chomsky's antagonism toward American imperialism has only deepened since the end of the cold war.
For Chomsky, the cold war was essentially a confrontation along North-South lines rather than East-West. In this 500-year war of conquest against colonized peoples, anarchism or left communism rarely played a prominent role. But this does not prevent Chomsky from identifying with those in struggle, whatever their ideology.
Turning to "World Orders Old and New,"(based on lectures given at the American University in Cairo in 1993), we find a remarkable analysis of the cold war that, despite Chomsky's hostility to the Kremlin, elucidates the one-sided nature of the conflict. Citing Guatemalan journalist Julio Godoy, Chomsky concurs that Eastern Europeans were "luckier than Central Americans." While Prague was degrading and humiliating reformers, the US backed government in Guatemala was organizing a virtual genocide that ultimately cost the lives of 150,000 indigenous people. Indeed, the fearlessness of the Czech students' "Velvet Revolution" might just be explained by the refusal of the Czech army to shoot to kill.
Despite his animosity toward the USSR, he is even-handed about its place in history. In contrast to European and American imperialism, the Soviet Union appeared to operate on principles other than profit. During the period of Soviet "exploitation" of Eastern Europe, the satellite countries actually had a higher standard of living than the mother country. This was the result of a huge subsidy, amounting to $80 billion in the 1970s.
For Chomsky, the collapse of the Soviet Union did not usher in the emancipation of humanity. Instead, without the USSR as a counter-balance, imperialism has been able to step up the level of exploitation in the third world, including Nicaragua where the Sandinista revolution had been toppled:
It is only fair to add that the wonders of the free market have opened alternatives, not only for rich landowners, speculators, corporations and other privileged sectors, but even for the starving children who press their faces against car windows at street corners at night, pleading for a few cents to survive. Describing the miserable plight of Managua's street children David Werner, the author of "Where There is No Doctor" and other books on health and society, writes that "marketing shoe cement to children has become a lucrative business," and imports from multinational suppliers are rising nicely as "shopkeepers in depressed communities do a thriving business with weekly refills of the children's little bottles" for glue-sniffing said to "take away hunger." The miracle of the market is again at work, though Nicaraguans still have much to learn.
Although Chomsky has not written much in the way of a theoretical appreciation of the short-lived Sandinista revolution, there is little doubt that this country engaged his sympathies in a way that other countries with Marxist leaderships did not. Chomsky spoke out tirelessly to defend Nicaragua during the late 1980s. In a debate with John Silber, the Reaganite President of Boston University, Chomsky said:
Now, to return to Nicaragua and to return to the real world, I never described the Sandinistas as perfect democrats or whatever your phrase was. What I did was quote the World Bank, OXFAM, the Jesuit Order and others who recognize that what they were doing was to use the meager resources of that country for the benefit of the poor majority. That's why health standards shot up. That's why literacy shot up. That's why agrarian reform proceeded, the only place in the region. That's why subsistence agriculture improved and consumption of food increased and that's why we attacked them. It had nothing to do with democracy.
Chomsky did not allow his ideological predispositions to interfere with his perception of reality. Anybody who visited Nicaragua during this period, including Chomsky, came away with a deep appreciation for the dedication and honesty of the FSLN. (Chomsky's own daughter Avi was a volunteer with Tecnica, an organization that involved hundreds of others, included the author of this article.)
After the downfall of the Central American revolution, the enemies of US imperialism have been much easier to demonize. While tens of thousands of US citizens participated in Sister Cities projects for Nicaragua or raised money for the FMLN in El Salvador, solidarity on behalf of Iraq or Yugoslavia has been much more difficult to organize for obvious reasons.
Many intellectuals, who found it relatively easy to call for an end to the contra war, capitulated during the war against Iraq and Yugoslavia. Chomsky's stubborn refusal to go along with the "humanitarian intervention" mood in these circles led to his isolation from their ranks, but growing popularity among youthful radicals who questioned not only the motives of the USA but the effectiveness of replacing one dictator with another.
No matter how repugnant Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic appeared to rightward moving American progressives, September 11th constituted a profound challenge to the anti-interventionist left. There was and still is enormous pressure to conform to the ruling class consensus on the war, on the basis--to use Michael Berube's less than felicitous language--that "who would deny that a nation, once attacked, has the right to respond with military force." Surely, it is a different matter when Reagan supported the contras in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas never attacked a single American citizen.
But when three airplanes came crashing into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers, many journalists and intellectuals appeared ready to enlist in the Marines to wreak vengeance, if they hadn't been of such advanced years.
Mark Naison, a historian favorable to the CPUSA, told the New York Observer "if anyone said anything about America’s imperialist activities making it the moral equivalent of the Taliban and Al Qaeda … I would beat them up. I’m six feet tall and 200 pounds." (http://www.nyobserver.com/pages/story.asp?ID=4975)
Against this rising tide of bellicosity and xenophobia, Chomsky's voice has been a beacon of calmness and reason. In its rush to organize a "war against terrorism," the USA conveniently ignores the fact that it is the most dangerous terrorist state in the world. "9-11" is a short anthology of interviews with Noam Chomsky that has become a best seller. It is one of the few places, outside of the Internet and the ghettoized socialist press, that ordinary citizens can get a counter-analysis.
Drawing from a wealth of previous research, Chomsky reminds his readers of US culpability without excusing the attack on the WTC and the Pentagon, which he characterizes as "horrifying atrocities."
The pamphlet contains Chomsky's comparison of Clinton's attack on a medicinal factory in Khartoum with the September 11th attacks, which enraged Christopher Hitchens to no end:
According to credible analyses readily available to us, then, proportional to population, the destruction of Al-Shifa is as if the bin Laden network, in a single attack on the U.S., caused "hundreds of thousands of people-many of them children-to suffer and die from easily treatable diseases," though the analogy, as noted, is unfair. Sudan is "one of the least developed areas in the world. Its harsh climate, scattered populations, health hazards and crumbling infrastructure combine to make life for many Sudanese a struggle for survival", a country with endemic malaria, tuberculosis, and many other diseases, where "periodic outbreaks of meningitis or cholera are not uncommon," so affordable medicines are a dire necessity (Jonathan Belke and Kamal ElFaki, technical reports from the field for the Near East Foundation). It is, furthermore, a country with limited arable land, a chronic shortage of potable water, a huge death rate, little industry, an unserviceable debt, wracked with AIDS, devastated by a vicious and destructive internal war, and under severe sanctions. What is happening within is largely speculation, including Belke's (quite plausible) estimate that within a year tens of thousands had already "suffered and died" as the result of the destruction of the major facilities for producing affordable drugs and veterinary medicines.
Concrete examinations of US criminality such as these are Chomsky's strong point, rather than socialist ideology. Over the decades, he has invested countless hours into removing the tarnished halo from the head of US foreign policy. As US politics becomes increasingly polarized, his books will continue to be an extremely valuable resource for the left, no matter his views on Kibbutzim or the Spanish Civil War.
This article will conclude with an examination of some controversies attached to Chomsky's political career that were used in a demagogic fashion against him during the struggle over support for the "war on terror." I speak of the Faurisson and Khmer Rouge affairs that have dogged Chomsky over the years no matter how often and how lucidly he has tried to defend his reputation against ideological lynch gangs.
For an example of how these issues were used against Chomsky, we turn to Alterman's MSNBC blog cited earlier. He writes:
As for Noam, well, it is unfair to compare him to Bill Bennett, because a) he does appear to be decent person with very good manners, and b) he has a day job as perhaps the most important linguistic philosopher since Wittgenstein. But politically, I'm sorry. I defended the guy for years, even through the Faurisson affair. And I think he did a lot of good work on East Timor. But look at the man's political judgment. He defended Faurisson. He championed the Khmer Rouge.
To put Chomsky's defense of Faurisson's right to teach in perspective, it is necessary to understand that he has been a free speech absolutist from early on.
In Chapter Four of Barsky's study, we learn that Chomsky views the university as some kind of refuge from politics and the class struggle. As Chomsky put it in 1996, "Nothing should be done to impede people from teaching and doing their research even if at that very moment it was being used to massacre and destroy."
During the time Chomsky was involved with protests against the war in Vietnam, he was always hostile--like Theodor Adorno--to on-campus protests that got in the way of pursuing the Truth. It was one thing to march against the war; it was another thing entirely to occupy a building that was dedicated to counter-insurgency research. According to Barsky, Chomsky admired "the challenge to the universities" but thought their rebellions were "largely misguided," and he "criticized [them] as they were in progress at Berkeley (1966) and Columbia (1968) particularly. This is corroborated by Norman Mailer, who spent time with Chomsky in a jail cell after being arrested at the Pentagon protest in 1969: "He had, in fact, great reservations about the form that the 1968 student uprisings ultimately took."
When Robert Faurisson, a holocaust denier, was relieved of his duties at the University of Lyon, Chomsky signed a petition on his behalf. Certainly, if scientists at MIT could conduct research even if it was used to "massacre and destroy", why would deny the right of a professor to earn a living even if he was guilty of nothing except of defending such practices in his spare time. While this act might have been understood on its own terms, Chomsky's 'obiter dictum' that "I have nothing to say here about the work of Robert Faurisson or his critics, of which I know very little, or about the topics they address, concerning which I have no special knowledge" raised hackles, as did his characterization of Faurisson as "a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort".
This led French Marxist antiquities scholar Pierre Vidal-Naquet to write a pointed reply to Chomsky. Even on free speech grounds, he found the petition dubious. It stated that Faurisson had been prevented from conducting research in public libraries and archives, an allegation that is certainly false according to Vidal-Naquet. Furthermore, Faurisson's books on the holocaust have been published without interference and he has given interviews on two occasions to Le Monde. Addressing Chomsky in sorrow just as much as anger, Vidal-Naquet writes in Assassins of Memory:
The simple truth, Noam Chomsky, is that you were unable to abide by the ethical maxim that you had imposed. You had the right to say: my worst enemy has the right to be free, on condition that he not ask for my death or that of my brothers. You did not have the right to say: my worst enemy is a comrade, or a "relatively apolitical sort of liberal." You did not have the right to take a falsifier of history and to recast him in the colors of truth.
When Chomsky and his writing partner Edward Herman were charged with apologetics on behalf of the Khmer Rouge, whose assault on the people of Cambodia attained near-genocidal proportions, the attack had as much merit as it did in the Faurisson case. While poor judgment may explain the error in the first instance, Chomsky and Herman's scholarship on the events in Cambodia were simply not acceptable to established wisdom in left-liberal circles. Their sin was to compare the relative indifference to the slaughter in East Timor to that in Cambodia, just as it was more recently in comparing the September 11th attacks to the Khartoum bombing. A statement such as this, contained in "The Political Economy of Human Rights," was unacceptable:
In the case of Cambodia reported atrocities have not only been eagerly seized upon by the Western media but also embellished by substantial fabrications--which, interestingly, persist even long after they are exposed. The case of Timor is radically different. The media have shown no interest in examining the atrocities of the Indonesian invaders, though even in absolute numbers these are on the same scale as those reported by sources of comparable credibility concerning Cambodia, and relative to population, are many times as great.
Furthermore, Chomsky and Herman had the temerity to question the casualty statistics in Francois Ponchaud's "Année Zéro," a book that had a major impact on the Western intelligentsia in the mid-1970s, particularly through a review of it by Jean Lacouture that appeared in the New York Review of Books, a journal that has been responsible for demonizing one enemy of US imperialism after another for over three decades. While not questioning the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge, Chomsky observed that Lacouture had inflated Ponchaud's estimates of civilian casualties to the tune of two million. In a correction published subsequently in the NY Review, Lacouture withdrew his claim and confessed that he "should have checked more accurately the figures on victims, figures deriving from sources that are, moreover, questionable." In "Chomsky's Politics," Milan Rai observes that the two million figure--despite the correction--became part of official history.
From the standpoint of Marxism, Chomsky's preeminent place in American politics represents something of a challenge. In contrast to the legions of Marxist scholars who jet set from conference to conference delivering obscure papers on how to re-interpret the Grundrisse or understand Marx from the perspective of French poststructuralism, Chomsky has always preferred speaking to community groups or activists:
What are called "conferences"--gatherings of intellectuals I almost never attend--I do give endless talks and take part in many forums, but not the kind that would be called conferences. I almost always turn down invitations to these. Thus I almost never go to the Socialist Scholars Conference (though I have a lot of personal friends there), or to academic and professional conferences, etc. Virtually all of my talks are for popular and activist groups, though typically, they are combined with talks at universities, sometimes seminars, but more often for mass audiences interested in the general area.
If Chomsky can be infuriatingly superficial on the major questions of our epoch, including the nature of the USSR, he more than compensates through his passionate devotion to the underdog. His works have been geared to people new to radical politics, who are trying to make sense of the discrepancy between bourgeois democracy's lofty professed ideals and the actual record of blood, plunder and rape. The Marxist movement can learn much from Chomsky, most of all how to speak to the ordinary citizen. As late capitalism's contradictions continue to mount, there will be a tremendous imperative to speak with clarity and with authority. To do this successfully, we must pay careful attention to Chomsky's writings. Indeed, for all of Chomsky's frequent disparaging of Marxian socialism, his uniquely prophetic voice reminds us of none other than Karl Marx's own.