The Eleventh Decade of Noam Chomsky
I recently saw an article in Ordinary Times by Russell Michaels that claimed Chomsky was the first “tankie” or an apologist for authoritarian or totalitarian communist regimes. One potential title to this piece would have been the clunky: “Is Chomsky a tankie?”. However, this question is easy to answer, and the answer is unambiguously: no. Chomsky is an anarchist or libertarian socialist and has consistently criticized the actions of the Soviet Union and other authoritarian regimes, both capitalist and communist. In particular, the decision in 1968 by the Soviet Union to send tanks into Czechoslovakia to crush the liberalization movement there was supported by Stalinist apologists, from which tankie gets its name. There is a more interesting question however: “What is Chomsky’s role in 2020?” That’s a more interesting question I think, and in answering it, we can see more clearly why Chomsky is not, in fact, a tankie. As Chomsky is entering his eleventh decade on this earth, we should see how his thinking about the world has changed since his birth in 1928.
Noam Chomsky has long had enemies on the right, and his popularity with many on the left has waned in recent years. It would be easy for the young to dismiss him as simply another boomer, out of touch with the issues of today. But Noam comes from the generation before the baby boom, usually called the silent generation. His upbringing in the 1930s shaped his political views, and he suffered through anti-Semitic harassment and violence as a boy in Philadelphia by his neighbors that celebrated Nazi victories openly. Chomsky was also intensely interested in the Spanish Civil War that played out in his youth, where the tankies of the day supported the Soviet aligned communists, who allied with more moderate republicans to crush the anarchist movement in Spain and end their experimentation with socialism 1.
Chomsky has been a lifelong anarchist, as well as a lifelong Zionist, supporting a binational settlement with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians before the state of Israel gained independence. However, his Zionist vision has an anarchist flavor of course: Chomsky wanted “no state, no Jewish state, just Palestine”. Chomsky has consistently criticized the Israeli state for its racism and brutality, with “The Fateful Triangle” laying out his views at book length. He has been criticized, however, for opposing the tactics of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, which Chomsky sees as counterproductive to producing a favorable outcome in Israel2.
But perhaps the differences are deeper than that, with Chomsky supporting a no-state solution, consistent with his anarchism and anti-state views, and perhaps more akin to the political arrangement when Palestine was a part of the Ottoman Empire, which had dissolved just 6 years before Chomsky was born. The BDS movement, much more popular among the members of younger generations, supports a more prosaic one- or two-state solution, whichever can achieve a just outcome for the Palestinians sooner 3. Many supporting the Palestinian cause would certainly describe themselves as anti-Zionist, even though their position is likely closer to one that many Zionists would support for Israel (like the two-state solution) rather than Chomsky’s quixotic anarchism.
While a famous and successful MIT linguist, Chomsky is today much better known for his political and historical writings. Noam was extremely popular with the anti-Vietnam War movement, a major youth movement, due to his writings intensely critical of that conflict, and his action, like tax protests, to oppose the war 4. Chomsky’s position was always that it was essential to criticize one’s own government most as one has the best ability to change policy in one’s own country. It’s very easy to criticize the abuses of foreign governments, in particular adversaries, which one has little to no control over. Citizens have responsibility to try to improve the political structures they have responsibility for, and so Chomsky argued that Americans have primary responsibility for the actions of the American government. But Chomsky went beyond that, with a credulity for American adversaries that well exceeded these principles. While Chomsky was always critical of the Soviet Union, he had significant sympathy for Communism in Asia 5.
The crimes of communist countries were always put alongside U.S. crimes to give a moral similarity or equivalence, even when there was no reasonable comparison or analogy, often downplaying or minimizing clear atrocities. Chomsky’s most notorious comments came in expressing skepticism about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia when initial reports began to come out of that country 6. It seems that Chomsky thought the reports of violence were exaggerated by anti-communists. This went beyond any reasonable criticism of the United States, and will be a black mark on Chomsky’s record forever. These comments should not be minimized.
That said, this episode illuminates the old pattern Chomsky highlighted where one criticizes one’s opponents, who one has little to no control over and is very easy and convenient, rather than one’s own government, which one has more control over, and is thus responsible for. It’s very easy to criticize one’s enemies, which requires no acceptance of responsibility or reflection on one’s own role as an American taxpayer and voter in supporting a global war machine. After invading Cambodia, the country was destabilized by a bombing campaign that dwarfed the bombing campaigns conducted Fascist Japan in the 1940s. The leveling of the country results in something like 30% of the population being internally displaced and this directly led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The United States government then supported the Khmer Rouge financially and politically through the 1980s, well after the deaths of millions had been established beyond a doubt. This is conveniently forgotten by Chomsky’s critics eager to demonstrate Chomsky’s inhumanity, though it is unambiguously a worse outcome than what resulted from the scattered writings of a linguist.
More importantly, the lessons of the period were largely forgotten later, leading to tragedy. Americans continued to shirk their responsibility for their own government’s actions and to forget the lesson from the American invasion and destabilization of Cambodia. This can be clearly seen in the Iraq War, with a death count approaching a million (if that tragic milestone has not already been reached) as the direct result of the invasion and destabilization by the United States, as the few remaining members of Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities can certainly attest. No lesson was learned the flawed and rigid foreign policy based in realpolitik that opposes U.S. adversaries no matter what, even if it meant allying with a genocidal communist government against Vietnamese forces that finally ended the genocide. Ironically, the United States opposed one of the only clear cases of a benevolent foreign military invasion waged on humanitarian grounds, while claiming this justification (much less credibly) for itself in its many wars since. The United States government continues to starve and blockade Iran with debilitating sanctions to this day. These actions will only strengthen reactionary forces in Iran and weaken liberals and democrats and is unambiguously inhumane in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Even for those unconcerned with the death and destruction these policies wreak in Iran, the main threat to American interests in the region is Sunni extremist terrorism, and Iranian actions have been useful in containing and suppressing this threat. In this way, Chomsky’s work is still as relevant as ever.
Near the end of the twentieth century, many countries moved towards democracy across the globe (to varying degrees of course), and Cold War conflicts largely wound down. Chomsky’s critiques at the time primarily focused on an American empire extending further across the globe and neoliberalism which was also ascendant. The War on Terror and the War in Iraq gave new life to Chomsky’s writing. But by the 2010s, the United States wars abroad had settled into low level insurgencies and drone bombings, largely forgotten by an America focused on internal conflicts. Trump, despite his bravissimo and saber-rattling, did not involve the United States directly in any new conflicts.
Trump did withdraw troops from Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria, a development that one might expect Chomsky to welcome. Instead, this was criticized by Chomsky, who supported American troops remaining in the region 7. This might be surprising to Chomsky’s critics, who assumed his opposition to American empire would extend to the United States establishing bases in a sovereign nation whose government has unequivocally stated its opposition to the establishment of American bases on their territory 8. But one must remember that the Syrian Kurds in Rojava have established a democratic polity with a libertarian socialist economy that closely resembles Chomsky’s ideals. Rojava does not even align with state borders and is the clearest example of a “no state” solution today. To his credit, Chomsky could support the aspirations of the Syrian Kurds to create a just economy and a just society. Finally, in a sign of maturity perhaps, Chomsky is able to see that American military force can be a force for good, even if it often isn’t. In a tragic replay of the betrayals of the Spanish Civil War, the “tankies” of today strongly support the Syrian government’s actions, who will certainly end the democratic socialist experiment in Rojava once the Syrian dictatorship is can reassert control over the country.
But is Chomsky really relevant if he is just another supporter of a muscular American foreign policy, even if it’s the right decision? The man once faced imprisonment for his refusal to support the Vietnam War financially through his tax dollars. Now Chomsky is reduced to taking questions from drunk youth on various banal topics over e-mail 9. Chomsky continues his full-throated support for unfettered free speech, no doubt a legacy of the free speech battles of the 1960s where the left’s position was unquestioningly supportive of free speech. Now young leftists either roll their eyes at Chomsky signing an open letter in opposition to cancel culture or are enraged that a has-been would lecture them, however subtlety, in their opposition to reactionary hate speech. But anyone familiar with Chomsky’s former work would know that he would even support the free speech of a Holocaust denier like Faurisson, and thus there is no way he would balk at signing a letter alongside others who were, at worst, hypocrites or whiners.
Chomsky’s views on economics were always limited, seeing commerce and production exclusively through a lens of power and domination. However, given the prevalence of democracy (to varying degrees) across the globe today, the best prospects for socialism lies in domestic economic policy reforms, rather than through revolution or war (as was the case during the Cold War). But Chomsky is no policy wonk, and so he will necessarily be a follower and not an intellectual leader of a more technocratic socialist movement.
The big media companies that Chomsky thought “Manufactured Consent” during the Cold War have declined in importance, and while Chomsky is still almost never seen in mainstream media, his opinions can be viewed easily with a simple click on internet media like Youtube. However, the rise of decentralized social media has not been as beneficial as an anarchist like Chomsky might expect. Social media, freed from the control of government and media elites shaping media discourse, has fueled the rise of authoritarian nationalism and reactionary conspiracy theories like QAnon. These forces are anathema to Chomsky’s ideals, but their rise cannot be traced to by the imperial ambitions of major nation states or anti-communist violence, as these forces have largely used the ballot box to obtain power. This has left Chomsky the position of having authoritarians like Donald Trump as his arch nemeses, leading to Chomsky making hyperbolical, and borderline deranged statements that Trump is one of the most dangerous humans that has ever lived, worse even than Hitler 10. But what else is there to rail against?
American involvement abroad under Trump has focused on military aid, sanctions, and an ongoing drone assassination program, a clear contrast with the violence at the height of the Vietnam and Iraq wars and insurgencies. While an American withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq would have its benefits, this would also strengthen reactionary forces like ISIS or the Taliban, and Chomsky is opposed to American withdrawal from Syria. The most straightforward way to check this rising tide of authoritarian nationalism is to strengthen the electoral prospects of liberal democrats. The intractable ideological conflict between communism and capitalism during the Cold War produced major public intellectuals like Chomsky, but it also produced decades of violence and millions of deaths. In 2020, the biggest threats to the world are the current pandemic, inequality and poverty, and the looming threat of climate change. While we may longer produce major public intellectuals as we did during the Cold War, we can also leave the mountains of corpses in the past, a development Chomsky would certainly support. Perhaps it’s not so bad to be reduced to exhorting leftists to vote for Joe Biden so he can appoint technocrats to address the existential crises of our times.
And whatever you think of Chomsky, everyone who can make it to the age of 91 deserves some time to rest in retirement.
- Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, March 1968
- Israel boycott campaign risks backfiring, says Noam Chomsky, Guardian, July 2, 2014
- To be fair, Chomsky has said he would support a 2-state solution along the 1967 borders with security guarantees for both states, though he seems quite unenthusiastic about this prospect. “Israel, the Holocaust, and Anti-Semitism Noam Chomsky Excerpted from Chronicles of Dissent, 1992″
- see “What Shall the Responsible Intellectual Do?: Noam Chomsky debates with George Steiner” The New York Review of Books, March 23, 1967
- See Chomsky’s appearance on Firing Line with William F. Buckley in 1969 for example: “You see, I think that in looking at China one has to recognize a great deal of repressive practice, a great deal of authoritarianism – and one also has to recognize a great deal of spontaneous democratic structure of a sort which never existed in Asia before, and if you want to know the truth, to some extent doesn’t even exist in our society.” One can also see favorable impressions of life in Communist North Vietnam in: Chomsky, Noam. At war with Asia: Essays on Indochina. AK Press, 2005.
- see Chomsky and the Khmer Rouge, New York Times March 27, 1988, Edward Herman
- see Interview with Professor Noam Chomsky, Washington Kurdish Institute, October 13, 2019
- Chomsky claims that the Americans presence in Rojava is simple there to deter attacks from the enemies of Rojava and preventing a genocide, and thus is not American imperialism. But surely the government of South Vietnam also invited an American presence there to deter attacks from North Vietnam? Or many other countries where the presence of American bases would be seen as evidence of American imperialism?
- See this piece for example
- See his appearance on the Young Turks in August 2020