A "personal essay" from 2015 on some of the reasons why Chomsky's fame -- unlike that of most public intellectuals -- is more than justified. Despite his rejection of the label, he is, in many respects, the quintessential Marxist.
At 86, Noam Chomsky is getting old. He remains indefatigable, keeping up a schedule that would exhaust a man half his age, but, unless he is indeed a demi-god, we can assume that the end is nigh. The tragic day cannot be more than a few years away.
This has set me to thinking: why, after all, does it strike me that his death will mark a day of global mourning, at least among the sane and the subaltern? What is it about him that so entrances? There are plenty of activists around the world more heroic than he, more selfless, many people who have devoted their lives more single-mindedly than he to rescuing humanity from its sinking ship, and who have, perhaps, done more concrete work to end suffering. These countless unknown people deserve at least as much reverence as Chomsky.
There are, of course, many reasons Chomsky is such a cynosure, some of them not very interesting. The most obvious is the quality of his mind. All things considered, he has probably the greatest mind of the twentieth century, and one of the greatest in human history. Einstein didn’t have anything approaching Chomsky’s breadth of knowledge (about virtually everything, it seems) or razor-sharp logical vision or remarkable memory. It’s hard to imagine that anyone has ever been a better debater than Chomsky, as one can judge from various YouTube videos. And of course he largely founded modern linguistics, and has made important contributions to philosophy, and so on.
But I’ll let the eulogists celebrate his intellectual powers when the time comes. There are more important issues I’d like to consider here.
Another source of his mystique is his charisma, by now a sort of shy, grandfatherly, warm and self-effacing persona, combined with an absolute self-certainty. But charisma, as such, should not impress us: it is a sub-rational phenomenon, a form of “dominance” similar to that recognized in other mammalian species, which in itself has little or nothing to do with morality or reason. The most charismatic people can be the most irrational and immoral.
Even less interesting is the fact that since the 1960s he has been a nearly ubiquitous presence, more full of energy and stamina than any other intellectual. This is impressive and helps explain the adulation he receives, but it isn’t mainly what intrigues me about him, or what I find useful about him.
His astonishing command of facts and extensive documentation of U.S. crimes are extremely useful, but they’re too obvious to deserve comment. His unusual kindness and solicitousness towards “ordinary people”--for instance, his spending many hours every day answering emails--is likewise admirable, and obvious.
But in addition to all these considerations are things about him I find especially noteworthy, which may be worth mentioning here because of the lessons they hold for us. For I think that he, or his public persona, can serve as a sort of moral and intellectual compass, keeping us on the road less traveled--less traveled because it requires some effort and willful independence. It’s useful to have a guide on such a path, and there is no better guide than Chomsky. To speak plainly, he can serve as a symbol of certain intellectual and moral tendencies--much as Marx does, though in a slightly different way--tendencies that in fact amount to little more than simple humanity and common sense, but that are surprisingly easy to forget in our indoctrinated and power-hungry world.
In short, we could do worse than to take Chomsky as our role model.
For one thing, Chomsky is the last great Enlightenment thinker--perhaps the greatest of them. The most consistent, and maybe the most profound (unless that honor belongs to Kant). If this were an academic article I’d write about his rationalist philosophy of mind; here I’ll confine myself to the more “practical” side of his contributions, which is equally rooted in the Enlightenment.
One doesn’t have to indulge in academic verbiage in order to express one of the central impulses of the Enlightenment: its recognition of the value of the individual. This is classical liberalism, as expressed by, say, Kant or Wilhelm von Humboldt (whom Chomsky likes to quote)--this essentially anti-authoritarian appreciation of the dignity and freedom of the individual. This is also, you may notice, morality. Respect and compassion for “the other,” the other person, the other sex, the other race, the other nationality: this is the kernel of true liberalism and true morality, as encapsulated by the Golden Rule. Express yourself freely as long as you don’t harm others, and express yourself so as to do good to others: liberalism and morality. These are the starting points and the endpoints of everything Chomsky has to say with regard to politics and society.
Certain Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century subscribed to this moral liberalism, but, given the time in which they lived, they were periodically susceptible to illiberal sentiments, such as contempt for Africans or women or wage-laborers. Or they tried to justify imperialistic policies. Contrary to what many postmodernists might think, this doesn’t invalidate the Enlightenment itself; it merely shows that humans are human, products of their society, and sometimes unable to live up to the implicit conceptual content of their philosophies.
Chomsky, however, is perfectly aware of what his liberalism commits him to, and as far as I know he has never deviated from the classical liberal path in his public statements or actions. There are two things that generally deserve notice in our dealings with people and our estimation of them: first, to what extent does someone recognize--fearlessly, if need be--claims of reason and logic? And second, to what extent does he act--again, with courage--on the basis of empathy and compassion (or respect for others)? These are the basic criteria we should use in judging someone’s value as a human being. Chomsky understands this, and so should we.
Our society, of course, sees things differently, in an illiberal and immoral way, which is precisely why it has to be dismantled and rebuilt. Society judges things in terms of power, authority, wealth, race, popularity, charisma, physical beauty, and other qualities that have either no relation or a negative relation to morality and rationality. Insofar as we, as individuals, periodically succumb to these illiberal tendencies, we must try to root them out of ourselves, even if that goal can never be completely fulfilled. We’re only human, after all.
But one thing we do have control over is whether we acknowledge the force of logic and can follow chains of reasoning. If we admit that morality and rationality are, so to speak, no respecters of persons, that rank and wealth and power don’t pertain to the inner worth of a person, then we’re committed to fighting against society in its current form--its practices, its institutions, its cultural norms, and its authority figures. They are all apostles of illiberalism, of the coercion and injustice that radiate from what one might call deadly snobbery, the snobbery that happily disregards the claims to life and dignity of people without power or wealth or status (whether determined by white skin, physical beauty, popularity, or whatever).
It’s the unreasoned respect for power/authority that gets you the world we have today. We unthinkingly look down on people who are “different” and respect people whom others respect, because of the human instinct for conformity. So, since the amoral institutions that run society are naturally going to exalt amoral people who serve their interests--and since powerful institutions propagate the ideas and norms that influence our own ways of thinking and acting--we end up respecting amoral, irrational people, and behaving in amoral, socially irrational ways.
Thus, our anti-liberal snobbery goes hand-in-hand with our easy conformism, and both are contrary to reason and morality.
This is all implicit in Chomsky’s work, and in his behavior he counters it more effectively than anyone else. He exudes contempt for those with status--especially intellectuals and politicians--and respects and admires the forgotten, the millions of unknown activists, the nameless Colombian peasants who show incredible compassion in the midst of state-organized horrors, the “unpeople” everywhere who persevere in the face of savage collective torture.
The point isn’t that Chomsky is a nice guy; the point is that we must all be vigilant against the anti-liberal tendencies in ourselves. We may be compelled to obey the authoritarian norms of mainstream institutions in our work lives, but inwardly, and sometimes outwardly, we should rebel.
We should recognize that--other things being equal--the more mainstream success someone has, the less respect he deserves, for success only suggests obedience, uncritical acceptance of indoctrination, and the snobbery that notices only status, not morality or rationality (or humanity). In daily life such snobbery and institutional subservience are fairly innocent, if obnoxious and contemptible, but in the aggregate, on a large scale, they are what produce things like capitalist decimation of civil society and the natural environment, the U.S.’s ongoing global holocaust since World War II, and the Holocaust itself.
The “innocent” thus merges with the evil, making all of us obedient and snobbish people complicit in the horrors that define the modern world.
A good example, and one that Chomsky has focused on for fifty years, is the intellectual community, including academia, “policy institutes,” and the mainstream media. With the occasional exception, intellectuals are in fact very anti-intellectual, uninterested in reason, truth, or social understanding, and incapable of comprehending elementary truths about how society functions. The average taxi driver, for instance, is more intellectual--more insightful--than the average intellectual, as Chomsky points out. As shown by their behavior, most intellectuals care about two things: their careers, and shutting out dissenting voices. Effectively, they are bureaucrats of the mind, (unwitting) servants of power, and prisoners of status-consciousness--personifications of institutional interests, that’s all.
As such, they exemplify illiberalism and immorality; for a person who is not truly autonomous (free), who does not critically use his reason but only accepts institutional norms, and who cares little about furthering the autonomy of others, exists in a negative relation to classical liberalism and morality.
Rigorous thought, as objective as possible, and rigorous adherence to elementary moral principles are the two main elements of human dignity, and the two imperatives that intellectuals routinely violate. The reason Chomsky is worth emulating is that he personifies both intellectual and moral integrity.
Consider his unique intellectual cleanliness. An example is his analysis of anarchism. He points out, following Rudolf Rocker and others, that the true successor to classical liberalism is anarchist socialism. This should be common sense, but since it has been buried under the manure of centuries of capitalist propaganda, few people recognize it.
If liberalism (like morality) means concern for people’s freedom and dignity, then it means suspicion of power. It means that power is not self-justifying but has to be dismantled--unless it can give a convincing argument to justify itself, which it rarely can. This impulse to dismantle power-structures is the core of anarchism, and also the common sense of elementary morality, which most people implicitly agree with (whether they know it or not).
That is to say, most people are already anarchists, because the essence of anarchism is common sense. They might disagree on whether it’s possible to create a large-scale society on the basis of diffused power, but, unless they’re fascists or moral monsters, they agree with anarchist values, i.e., democratic values.
Chomsky is able to cut through all the nonsense of the intellectual culture and state truths like these without sesquipedalian adornments, without having to indulge in elitist academic obscurantism. He recognizes, moreover, that we shouldn’t worship “big names” like Lenin or Gramsci or Foucault (or Chomsky!) or any of the more contemporary names that get thrown around in the media or in leftist subcultures, that to do so is elitist and pretentious--especially since most of what is valuable in the works of these “thinkers” is little more than an elaboration of common sense.
(Status-consciousness, which infects even the Left, is truly an anti-democratic, authoritarian approach to thinking and acting, which, as rigorous democrats, we must follow Chomsky in rejecting. It is deeply rooted in us and probably cannot be wholly extirpated, but it is intellectual and moral rot.)
As for socialism, Chomsky is right that it means simply workers’ control, economic democracy, and as such is but a component of “anarchy”--and of democracy. The Soviet Union, as a kind of state-capitalist society that allowed workers virtually no rights, was the precise opposite of socialism. Worker cooperatives, by contrast, exemplify socialism on a small scale.
There are countless other examples of Chomsky’s lucid logical vision. He’s right, for instance, that the “radical Left” is, in a sense, the only truly conservative force in politics, for it actually believes in such conservative values as community, freedom, justice, truth, and reason. This is a point that, once made, is obvious--and that leftists should always bring up in debates with self-styled “conservative” opponents.
Radical change is needed in order to realize conservative values. One of those ironic facts with which history is replete.
Or consider these points--obvious once you hear them--that Chomsky makes about American imperialism in this video (at about the 8:15 mark). “Talking about American imperialism is a bit like talking about triangular triangles. The United States is the one country that exists, and ever has, that was founded as an empire, explicitly [according to the intentions of the Founding Fathers]… Modern-day American imperialism is just a later phase of a process that has continued from the first moment without a break.” When you think about this statement and what it entails, you can start to see American history in a new light.
Of course, intellectuals typically think of American imperialism as starting with the invasion of Cuba in 1898; but intellectuals are usually shallow thinkers. In reality, the 19th-century American expansion into the western part of the continent, which involved genocide of the indigenous population, was a particularly vicious form of imperialism. The invasion of Mexico in the 1840s was another viciously imperialistic act. And so the record continues up to the present, the imperialism taking different forms at different times.
Especially since World War II, the United States has been the scourge of the earth, intervening constantly in any country where democratic hopes threatened to puncture authoritarianism, and actively supporting every dictator imaginable (Chiang Kai-shek, Batista, Diem, Somoza, Duvalier, Trujillo, Iran’s Shah, Suharto, Mobutu, Papadopoulos, Pinochet, Mubarak, Marcos, Rios Montt, Saddam Hussein, and a hundred others) as long as he didn’t pose a threat to U.S. power. Chomsky’s work provides all the references you need.
Consider, also, his pithy analyses of what elementary morality requires. While other intellectuals and self-styled philosophers--often mere apologists for Western crimes--wade in the muck of “good intentions” (ours are good, theirs are bad) and subjectivism and idealized thought-experiments, Chomsky states flatly and clearly that, basically, two things are involved in acting morally: applying to yourself the standards you apply to others, and choosing how to act by considering the predictable consequences of your actions--not by having “good intentions.”
With these two rules in mind, we have the tools to judge our own and others’ morality. Unfortunately, neither we nor others typically come out smelling like roses if we’re honest in our evaluations, because it’s extremely difficult to rigorously apply to yourself (or people you identify with) the standards you apply to others. Humans are born to deceive themselves about the moral significance of their actions.
Some of us, however, can at least comfort ourselves that we’re not the moral monsters who constitute the elite of powerful politicians, intellectuals, and corporate executives. We aren’t directly responsible for invading and destroying countries, or for enacting policies designed to obliterate life on earth, or for driving billions of people into desperate poverty and misery. We aren’t the ones who deserve to be hanged (or rather imprisoned, since capital punishment is barbarous).
Chomsky usefully documents how Western leaders are constantly flouting the rule of international and domestic law--their own laws, laws that they themselves have enacted. In fact, no entity more consistently violates laws than a national government, and no one is literally more of a criminal than the leaders of a country. And their friends.
The U.S. government, for instance, simply doesn’t enforce many of its own labor laws, as codified especially in the Wagner Act of 1935. Employers are typically allowed to act with impunity against their employees. In a society governed by the rule of law, on the other hand, nearly all corporate executives would be behind bars, for continual minor and major infractions.
In foreign policy, the U.S. government regularly violates its own Leahy Law, by giving military assistance to countries with no regard for human rights. (Israel comes to mind.) Chomsky points out that, while it may be too much to expect the U.S. government to abide by international law, it should at least be feasible that it abide by its own laws. But, in fact, that isn’t feasible.
Anyway, the point is that what a person with intellectual and moral integrity should do is to follow Chomsky’s example: adumbrate a consistent set of moral and intellectual principles, and then rigorously apply them, as objectively as possible, to oneself and to others. Don’t fall victim to the “self-love” fallacy, the tendency to make excuses for your own behavior and thereby contradict your principles and sacrifice your integrity. Evaluate yourself, and your country, as you imagine an honest outsider would.
That is, “step outside yourself” and try to nullify your subjective biases.
Subjectivism and idealism are things I find particularly noxious, and things that Chomsky has counteracted in his work more effectively than anyone. He really is, at bottom, a Marxist, an anarchist Marxist (which is a perfectly coherent concept--in fact a necessary concept--for reasons I explain in the sixth chapter of this book). He disagrees, rightly, with the orthodox Marxist theory of revolution (involving the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and so on), but, implicitly, his analyses are grounded in the ideas of class struggle, the imperialistic nature of capitalist power, a kind of economic determinism, and of course Marxian values of workers’ dignity and creativity, and the evils of the capitalist state, and the evils of money and the market system, etc.
He is probably the most consistent materialist alive, in his absolute rejection of the subjectivist, idealistic decadence that is postmodernism--i.e., his complete lack of interest in the discursive games that intellectuals like to play with themselves. He has contempt for such self-preening verbiage machines as Slavoj Zizek, Lacan, Derrida, Baudrillard, Kristeva, and their thousands of (sometimes unwitting) acolytes scattered across the humanities and even the political Left.
But the postmodernists, fixated on language, “discourse,” “society’s imaginary,” idealistic constructions of sexuality or gender or ethnicity or whatever, are only extreme manifestations of the more general idealism of the intellectual culture. Intellectuals are naturally inclined to think that words and ideas are of exceptional importance, because they themselves traffic in words and ideas, and they want to think that they themselves are important. So they proclaim that discourses are what create and structure the world, ideologies are of primary importance to social dynamics, etc. It’s a type of self-glorification.
An added benefit of such thinking is that it has a conservative influence, for it focuses people’s attention on ideas and subjective identities rather than institutional structures and class relations. It encourages people to think that what’s important is to change ideas, rather than to change economic and political power relations.
Moreover, idealism, especially in its extreme postmodernist forms, is usefully solipsistic, individualistic, disengaging-from-social-reality. Everything is just a “construct,” there is no such thing as objective social class or objective realities of power or objective truth in general; all depends on one’s perspective or “frame of reference,” etc. Such positions are calculated to turn one in on oneself, away from the outside world, and to undermine popular struggles.
No surprise, then, that corporate capitalism has been perfectly happy with idealism and postmodernism, and powerful institutions in the media and academia have propagated them. To (grandiosely) quote myself, “any potentially oppositional ‘discourse’ that reeks of solipsism or masturbation will be favored and propagated by powerful institutions, because it militates against social engagement.” Chomsky understands this, and accordingly has refused even to dip a toe into the bog of subjectivism and “discourse analysis,” or whatever one wants to call it.
Social “theory” in general he is suspicious of. He doesn’t like its elitist overtones, its Ivory Tower nature, and he thinks that, by and large, it isn’t necessary in the first place. It doesn’t require over-subtle jargonistic analysis to understand, in broad outline, how society works. One has only to recognize, for example, that institutions will act so as to maintain and increase their power, and the institutions with the most resources at their command (in particular the corporate sector) will have the most political and ideological power, and class is the central variable in determining what sorts of resources one has access to and what kinds of ideas one will accept and what one’s general life-path will likely be, and the inner nature of economic institutions is class struggle, etc.
That is to say, all one needs is a basic Marxian materialism, because materialism is common sense. Access to resources is the key, the key to survival and to social influence and to education and to political power and to a high quality of life; and access to resources is determined by class position. –That sentence is the kernel of materialism.
As for bringing about social change, common sense, again, tells us what’s necessary: education and organization. Join together with people whose interests lie in fighting progressively against the status quo and empowering the public; and listen to them, listen to their experiences, and offer your own experiences and ideas, and educate each other, and organize events to draw in more people, and gradually build up a movement. These are mere truisms of activism. We don’t need fancy “theory” to understand society or change it.
Now, it’s possible that Chomsky goes too far in his “anti-theoretical” stance, and that he underestimates the practical and scholarly value of, say, Marxian political economy as written by Robert Brenner, David Harvey, John Bellamy Foster, and others. I think that such scholarship can be extremely useful and enlightening. (Chomsky might agree, actually.) But only because it’s materialistic, and any correct understanding of society has to be based on a materialist foundation.
Fortunately, as class polarization increases and the global economy descends further into stagnation and crisis, we can expect idealism to wane and materialism to rise. This is what happened in the 1930s, and structurally we are in a situation eerily similar to the late 1920s.
In the coming years, as social crisis becomes the norm and the ruling class insistently professes its good intentions at every opportunity, we will do well to remember one of the lessons of Marxian and Chomskian materialism: the self-interpretations of institutional actors mean exactly nothing. The true significance of someone’s acts is not given by what he thinks their significance is, because humans are born to deceive themselves (on the basis of their self-regard). Rather, it is given by analysis of his institutional functions.
People in positions of authority act as their institutions pressure them to; and if, by some miracle, they act with excessive independence, either they’ll be taught a lesson and cut down to size or they’ll be discarded by some means or other. So it is really the institutions that are the actors; the people with power are merely tools. (At high levels, people do have some freedom….but they always use this freedom only to increase their power, which is to say the power of their institution. So, again, it comes down to the objective nature of the institutional role they play.)
Thus, it is institutional analysis--on the basis of materialist ideas--that matters most, not analysis of political rhetoric or self-interpretations or ideologies or “good intentions.” It’s fine for scholars to study such things, but they should have a clear understanding of their “superstructural” and self-deceived nature.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting again that, in a totally different sense of the word, Chomsky is very idealistic. He has the idealism that is a component in classical liberalism and morality itself: the belief in human creativity, dignity, freedom, and the capacity for generosity and love. He is convinced, with good reason--and in the tradition of Rousseau--that these traits are inborn in people….just as the capacities for pathological greed, violence, power-hunger, and slavish obedience are. The human mind is incredibly rich, with all kinds of potentialities, both for the insatiable greed of capitalism and for the loving generosity that is normal in intimate relationships.
What matters, as Rousseau thought and common sense confirms, is the nature of the social structures in which the individual is embedded. Pathological structures produce pathological imperatives (think of the bureaucratic imperative of low-level Nazis to kill Jews, or the economic imperative of capitalists to destroy the environment); humane and democratic structures produce more humane imperatives.
Bourgeois institutions facilitate any human tendencies toward anti-democratic snobbery; less hierarchical institutions, such as grassroots activist organizations, counteract these tendencies, and bring out the more appealing side of human nature.
Implicit in all this, though, is recognition of the essential “equality” of human beings, even in the midst of extreme social hierarchy. We are all to some extent moldable and to some extent genetically determined; we all have various strengths and various weaknesses; we all can be manipulated to act in terrible ways depending on the circumstances; and in the lives of all of us, luck plays an enormous role.
Any form of elitism or status-consciousness is therefore based on ignorance and unreason. What should determine how we “rank” people, in general, are only their commitments to objective reason and to morality and human welfare, because such commitments are largely within the domain of free will. We have control over them: it is up to us whether we want to be honest, compassionate, and rational.
Despite this long encomium I’ve written--which I could easily double or triple in length--I have to admit that Chomsky isn’t perfect. One can criticize him, for example, for not saying enough about positive things that are happening. He rarely gives specific advice to activists, though he surely has a rich history of experience to draw from. He seems to rarely tell audiences or readers about particular organizations that are doing good work, and that could use support.
One might also wish that he would more often discuss capitalism as the chief source of the world’s ills, to get people thinking in explicitly anti-capitalist terms. His refusal to invoke the insights, or even the name, of Marxism seems puzzling, but doubtless he thinks one doesn’t need Marx in order to understand how the world works. And, again, he’s suspicious of theoretical systems in the context of the social sciences.
All in all, though, the adoration that millions have for him is well deserved. A perusal of Understanding Power, a tour de force, should be enough to establish this. Or just read this compendium of Chomskian wit and wisdom, mind-boggling in its range and depth.
Personally, when I discovered Chomsky I found him useful as a validation of certain ideas about politics and the intellectual community. He was a sort of distant mentor, who sharpened my thinking and encouraged me (without knowing it). In particular, his unparalleled precision of thought impressed and guided me.
For example, I was struck by his statement that corporations are systems of private totalitarianism: orders come down from above, a common ideology is enforced on all the workers, disobedience can be punished severely, structurally speaking there isn’t a particle of democracy. I found this to be an obvious truth once I’d heard it--and on some obscure level I’d always had a similar intuition about the nature of the corporation--but his articulation of the insight fostered clarity of thought.
And that’s perhaps his greatest contribution: his absolute clarity of thought, his ability to parse complex phenomena into simple, pithy statements that capture their essence. He bypasses all the ideological accretions and intellectual chicanery, and states the truth--backed up by facts--in unpretentious, anti-“snobbish” language.
In short--to sum up--Chomsky is sui generis. It will be a sad day for the Left, and for humanity, when he departs….but at least his writings and talks will remain, to help guide us toward a better world.
In the meantime, “don’t mourn, organize!”