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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/History and possibility: An interview with Noam Chomsky

History and possibility: An interview with Noam Chomsky

Vaughn A. Cartwright and Emmanuel J. Tellez

Platypus Review 28 | October 2010


On July 29, 2010, Vaughn Cartwright and Emmanuel Tellez interviewed Noam Chomsky, prolific author and activist, on behalf of the Platypus Review, to discuss the history of the Left and the state of radical politics today. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

Vaughn Cartwright: In our society, it behooves intellectuals to avoid radical opposition to capitalism and the state. This was as true in the 1960s when you wrote your famous essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” as it is now. In that essay you argue that intellectuals collude in a mass deception that serves the interests of institutions and the state. Have intellectuals fully discharged their responsibility to break with this collusion by telling the truth, as they understand it? Does “truth-telling” have the potential to radicalize people today?

Noam Chomsky: Well, the title of that article was intended to be double-edged. There is an official responsibility of intellectuals to be servants of power. That’s not just in the United States, but everywhere. But there is also a moral responsibility which is quite the opposite. In fact, you can only fulfill your moral responsibility by rejecting your official responsibility. It’s rare to find exceptions to this at any time in history. Remember that history is written by intellectuals, so they come out looking pretty good. But the ones the historians talk about are mostly the dissident intellectuals. They didn’t look good at the time, but were persecuted in one way or another. Later, maybe centuries later, they are vindicated. That goes back as far as you like to go. There are very few counterexamples.

Emmanuel Tellez: But in that essay you also say there is an information glut in which the truth can simply get lost, so that telling the truth is not simply a matter of truthfully reporting experience.

NC: Well, partly, there’s an information glut, but it’s also something that Orwell actually described rather well. You all read Animal Farm in elementary school, but chances are you did not read the introduction to the book, because it wasn’t published. While it may not be one of Orwell’s greatest essays, it is worth taking a look at. In it, he says the book is basically a satirical account of the totalitarian enemy, but that the English shouldn’t feel too complacent, because free England is not so different. In England ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. He gives a couple of rather weak examples, but then expands on his point in a few lines which more or less capture everything. Part of the reason, he says, is that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in suppressing certain ideas. But the other reason, which I think is much more important, concerns education. You go to the best schools and have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things that it just wouldn’t do to say, think, or see. That’s what you find all the time. Currently, for instance, there’s this big furor about the Wiki leaks, which are interesting, but not explosive in my opinion. At the same time as the Wiki leaks furor rages on in the newspaper, there is a story that goes entirely unreported in the United States. It was reported in England, but even there it didn’t arouse much interest. It was a story about a study reported in one of the medical journals that investigated the aftermath of the Battle of Fallujah, the Iraqi city the U.S. attacked in November 2004. The story reports dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer, and leukemia in Fallujah, exceeding even those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Amy Goodman reported it on Democracy Now! but it wasn’t in the newspapers—because that's the kind of thing you’re not supposed to hear or say.

ET: People can know that atrocities were committed in Fallujah, but without any way of situating the bare facts, the response seems limited to moral outrage. Arguably, don’t we have more truth and less understanding today than we did when you wrote “The Responsibility of Intellectuals?” How do we account for the persistence of the crisis in the face of readily available “dissident” information? Is the moral responsibility you speak of sufficient?

NC: The Internet now allows dissident voices to be heard and offers a wider range of perspectives and information as well. But for the large majority of the population that doesn’t mean much. People do not have the time or background even to know what to look for, and we should not underestimate the effectiveness of the dedicated programs of atomization of the population. Anyone in the sciences knows that what you can do alone is limited, and easily strays into error. Serious work generally requires interaction among a community of researchers. The same is true in trying to understand something about what is happening in the world. One of the reasons for the intense hostility to unions on the part of business and other power centers is that they are a democratizing force, offering ways for working people with limited resources and opportunities to join together to develop their own ideas and a sensible framework for interpreting what pours out in an incessant flow from the ideological institutions. That’s only one of the many devices employed to create what is an ideal society from the perspective of the masters: one in which the basic social dyad is you and the tube. So the term “readily available” is accurate in a narrow sense, but availability in principle does not suffice for understanding and action. Moral outrage in itself is not worth much unless it leads to significant action, as it often has, and does now, too. That’s how the world slowly and haltingly becomes a better place, though not without regular reversals.

ET: What I have experienced, as far as telling people the truth, is that it actually makes people feel less powerful. In other words, the resistance is deeply psychological and not merely acquired by training, so to speak.

NC: That’s true. It should make people feel that there is more they should do when, as mentioned before, toxic effects in Fallujah are worse than the fallout from the atom bomb.

VC: I’d like to turn the question of internationalism and the Left in the 20th century. Internationalism is a crucial aspiration for the Left. Marx suggested that there is little chance for one country to overcome capitalism, war, and other profound limitations on human freedom without the spread of social revolution throughout the world. Internationalism designates collaboration among politically organized workers across national borders. But, beyond this, what role should internationalism play in the Left today? Is internationalism even necessary for overcoming capitalism? The question seems particularly pressing at a time when U.S. imperialism claims for itself the mantle of internationalism and the defense of human rights and has done so, it must be said, with a certain plausibility.

NC: In the United States it would be possible to do without international support. In Bolivia, on the other hand, you need international support. It’s a matter of power. Every labor union, as you know, is called an international, but none of them are international, they’re all organized along national lines. But there are, in my opinion, emerging signs of the first ever true International. The first four were not genuinely international, I don’t think. The First was strictly Europe-based, and was more or less destroyed by Marx, who didn’t like the fact that the French anarchists were getting too powerful. The Second International collapsed in the First World War. The Third International was an offshoot of the Russian state. The Fourth International was what it remains, marginal. But the World Social Forum is a real international and it has prospects. Maybe they won’t be realized, but it succeeds in bringing people together from all over the world, huge numbers of people from every walk of life. It usually meets alongside Via Campesina, an international peasant organization, and includes environmentalists, farmers, and activists of all kinds. It is constructive, too. I have been there a couple times. They have serious discussions and by now they’ve branched out all over the world into regional social forums. There was just one in Detroit. I heard from people just this week that there’s one in Boston. From these beginnings, it could grow into a real bottom-up international, not something created from the top to fulfill some power project.


Activists rally at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, 2010.

As for successful international activities, take the case of Bolivia, which may in fact be the most democratic country in the world today. Its majority indigenous population basically took over and elected somebody from their own ranks to take on serious issues. It began with the water wars in the year 2000. The World Bank, the treasury, and the Bechtel Corporation were trying to privatize water, which may sound nice in some economics seminar, but it means people end up having no access to water. There was a lot of protest that grew into a virtual insurrection. And there were a couple of very media-savvy people there who managed to turn it into an international event, one that happened to coincide with the big protest in Washington against the World Bank, as I recall. It succeeded in linking up with the demonstrations in Washington. They also had demonstrations in other countries, at Bechtel corporate headquarters, etc. This was all timed with the peaking of the actions in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The international combination of events made a big difference. Bechtel fled the country and the World Bank pulled out. It’s interesting to see the reactions—I was just down in Southern Colombia last week and in one of the peasant villages the government’s also trying to privatize water. But the government has learned from the Bolivian experience. So, the government is not doing it publicly anymore. They are trying to pick off small regions one at a time.

VC: The First, Second, and Third Internationals united parties which, in one sense or another, advanced some form of labor politics. It was in this context that the struggle between Marx and anarchism took place—both Marx and Bakunin advanced forms of labor politics. The World Social Forum, by contrast, does not claim to embody a labor international, but operates as a minimally organized “movement of movements,” which, at most, might claim unity in defense of the rights and claims of the poor and underprivileged. Given the move away from labor politics, do you agree that the World Social Forum represents an evolution in political internationalism?

NC: That’s partially correct but not completely so, at least if by labor you have in mind the industrial proletariat. Bakunin by no means restricted his concerns to these sectors of the laboring classes. Marx, particularly in his later years, was very much interested in Russian peasant society, and studied intensely the vast flood of information produced by Narodnik investigators. He also seems to have shared in part their beliefs about the revolutionary potential of the peasant masses. But it’s true that contemporary social movements, as illustrated by the World Social Forum, have carried further concerns for the rights of people who are oppressed, including those who are not poor. The women’s and gay rights movements, for example, extend well beyond. These are all healthy tendencies in principle, though they can be counterproductive too if crucial class issues are marginalized.

VC: In a 1987 interview you did with James Peck published in The Chomsky Reader, you said that, “[Given imperialism's effect on developing nations] it is hard for people with libertarian commitments to support Third World struggles. I’m not saying that the reluctance is justified, but it is understandable.” So, in cases where leftists in a developing nation hold a political philosophy incompatible with those of many First World leftists, what approach should be taken?

Socialist Poster During the Spanish Civil War

Anarchists exhorted their comrades to work and fight for revolution in 1930s Spain.

NC: South Vietnam is a good example. The U.S. actually attacked South Vietnam, that was the main target of the assault, and it won the war there. It destroyed the National Liberation Front. What began as a peasant-based movement with a lot of local participation got smashed and the North Vietnamese army took over installing a kind of Stalin-style dictatorship. That was a big victory for the United States. What they were worried about was precisely the libertarian tendencies of the NLF, and they were destroyed. Something similar happened in the anarchist revolution in Spain, which is the peak of libertarian success in important respects. There, the communists, fascists, and liberal democracies combined to make sure they destroyed that revolution. They recognized a political virus that might spread. In the Spanish revolution there was a strategic proposal that conceivably might have worked to get around this. Italian anarchist intellectual Camillo Berneri thought that in Spain they would never succeed in winning the war, so he urged a dual strategy of guerrilla warfare. He also urged support for the revolutionary struggle in Morocco, the country from which most of Franco’s troops came. There was revolutionary struggle of a kind going on there, and he argued that the anarchists in Spain ought to be supporting that in order to undercut the social base of the Franco armies. That movement was not very radical, seeking basic land reform and the like. Needless to say, the French and the English were strongly opposed. This I think would have been a good strategy, but it would have depended very heavily on international solidarity in the major imperialist states.

ET: So, you would say that leftists in other countries were largely opposed to the libertarian project being advanced by many in Spain at the time?

NC: Most leftists at that time were communists. They were the ones crushing the revolution in Spain. They were more opposed to the revolution than anyone else and for good reason. There was a good deal of violence against the anarchists. The communists were the party of the police. It is the same reason Lenin destroyed the soviets. Communists don’t want popular rule. Both Lenin and Trotsky wanted centralized control.

ET: How, then, would you make sense of the failure of the anarchist’s direct appeal to the Spanish workers in the 1930s?

NC: I don’t think this is an accurate portrayal. Industrial Catalonia was a centerpiece of the anarchist revolution, before it was crushed—right there, in fact.

VC: Going back to something that was brought up earlier, how do we evaluate anti-imperialist movements, given their political divergence? How do we make sense of competing anti-imperialist politics around the globe? Can there be a reactionary opposition to imperialism?

NC: Certainly, there can be. The clerical regime in Iran is anti-imperialist, but probably worse than the pro-imperialist regime it replaced. So, of course, you have to be careful when you try to defend some population from attack, since they’re usually under attack by their own government as well. One’s analysis must have finesse, so you’re not supporting the internal destructive forces. You can oppose the Iraq war, but not support Saddam Hussein, though these are not always easy paths to tread.

ET: So what are the criteria for evaluating such instances?

NC: There isn’t any algorithm, you just have to work it out in each case. But that’s what human life is like, you have to make decisions in uncertain situations. You may have some principles, but you might not know how they apply.

ET: But then what are the principles of the Left on this matter? What ideas are central to leftist politics and in what way have they changed over the course of the 20th century? How do you see yourself as a part of that transformation?

NC: Well, the terms of political discourse have been so debased that it’s hard to use these words. For example, the Communist Party was called “the Left,” though, in my view, they were utterly right wing. When the Soviet Union collapsed, I wrote a short article that none of the left journals wanted to publish, in which I said it’s a small victory for socialism. One of the main anti-socialist forces of the 20th century was destroyed. There was, of course, a libertarian left, which criticized the Bolsheviks from the left. These included some Marxists. There are shared ideals, of course, but they are so general that everybody will say they accept them. But the question is: who really does? So you want freedom, you want justice, you want equality, you want opportunities, you want to eliminate hierarchy and domination, and so on. Those all should be ideals of the Left, but you could probably find Glenn Beck espousing them too.

ET: Given the slide into barbarism and oligarchy in post-1989 Russia, does your positive judgment of the collapse of the USSR still stand? How do you make sense of the steady waning of socialist and left politics during the post-Cold War era?

NC: On the latter question, there has been a waning of “left politics,” but not, I think, of socialist concerns and aspirations. True, the gross caricature of socialism in the Soviet system has lost its allure, thankfully, but again that seems to me a small victory for socialism, as I wrote at the time. The waning of left politics is a much broader phenomenon, long preceding the collapse of the USSR, and hardly affected by it, I think. Across the mainstream spectrum there was a very harsh reaction to the democratizing and civilizing effects of the activism of the 1960s. Liberal internationalists—basically, those who formed the Carter administration—called quite openly for reversing what they called the “excess of democracy” as the majority of the population became organized and active in entering the political arena and pursuing their interests there, and also ensuring that institutions responsible for “indoctrinating the young” pursue their tasks more forcefully. Towards the right end of the spectrum a much harsher stand was taken against dissidence, in hopes of restoring obedience and conformity.

VC: Do you see the Left advancing a particular economics, for instance state planning? Or some particular relationship between how food and other goods are produced and politics?

NC: Oh, absolutely. Food sustainability is extremely important. In fact, we don't have to talk about that abstractly. It’s very concrete. Take, say, Haiti. Why is Haiti such a total disaster? Part of the reason was that there were a couple of countries, first France but particularly the United States, that in the last 30 or 40 years very consciously tried to destroy the agricultural system. This was justified on principles of “comparative advantage,” which for Haitians means making baseballs, knitting garments, and stuff like that, not producing their own rice. That’s better served by highly subsidized American imports which are forced on them. It all goes back to French colonialism and the end result, of course, is that the Haitians can’t feed themselves. But if there is an earthquake, it is a monstrous catastrophe. What we see elsewhere is no different. Take India, which is highly praised for its neoliberal reforms. I’ve been to the research labs at Hyderabad, and they do look better than the ones here. On the other hand, since the neoliberal reforms started, average food consumption in India has dropped considerably, because the same programs that were building those fancy labs in Bangalore are eliminating support for the rural poor. There are tens of thousands of peasants once engaged in agricultural production, production of fruit, and so on, who now flow into the cities, which in turn results in all sorts of horrors. These are real problems. It is a problem right here, too. I mean, why should we be importing food from thousands of miles away? Food isn’t produced in an accessible way. There is too much organization and it’s not sustainable. Whether it is a rich country like here, or a poor country like India, food is a serious concern.

ET: Among other things, Platypus is interested in reconsidering the history of the Left in light of the present. This perspective prioritizes the role of the historical consciousness of the Left. In what way does history matter, and how does historical consciousness play a role in your work?

NC: It certainly matters. We are the products of the historical process. If we don’t understand history, we don’t understand ourselves. I mean, if you live in the United States, for example, you should know that this country was founded as an empire. George Washington called it an “infant empire.” The goal of the most libertarian of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was to have the superior Anglo-Saxon race eliminate the red, send the blacks back to Africa, and eliminate the “Latins” (his term), because they are inferior, and then populate the whole hemisphere. He and his associates got pretty far in that project too. It’s a settler-colonial society, the absolutely worst kind of imperialism, one that deliberately exterminated the indigenous population then expanded abroad. Now the U.S. is a world dominant power, spending as much on the military as the rest of the world combined, fighting two wars, all kinds of things—if you don’t know that, you don’t know who you are. And you don’t know why the world looks at you the way they do. So, if you want to function as a civilized person in the existing world, you’d better correct the false historical consciousness that's been imposed on you and try to find out the truth about history, including the truth about your own privilege. I mean, did you know that the average per capita income in India is about 2 percent that of the United States, and that of China is only 5 percent, according to World Bank figures, which are probably underestimated, but not by much? People talk about these countries attaining our material level, but simple arithmetic will tell you that’s impossible. Which means our material level has to turn to something civilized. Maybe a better life, but certainly a life that won’t be measured by the number of commodities you can consume, or how much fossil fuel you can use. There has to be a big change in our lives if the world is going to have any kind of decency. |P