Noam Chomsky: Moral & Social Thinker

Against the Current, No. 145, March/April 2010

Michael A. McCarthy & Glen Pine

The Essential Chomsky
By Noam Chomsky, edited by Anthony Arnove
New York: The New Press, 2008, 413 pages
+ notes and index, $19.95 paperback.

NOAM CHOMSKY IS a powerhouse of insightful thought – this book attests to that. So analyzing or even summarizing Anthony Arnove’s The Essential Chomsky is no simple task. A moderately lengthy and notably chronological collection of texts plucked from Chomsky’s enormous output, The Essential Chomsky leaps from linguistics to Palestine to libertarian socialism and back to linguistics again. Given the political nature of Against the Current, we will focus on Chomsky’s views on political philosophy, morality, U.S. foreign and domestic policy, and propaganda, ending with thoughts on the editing. But first, a few introductory remarks on the man himself.

Chomsky is professionally a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he has long supplemented his academic work with writing and lecturing on contemporary political issues. Unlike his writings in the field of linguistics, which can be highly technical, his political work is consistently straightforward. Rooted in uncovering the facts of political life in America and the world, it avoids discourse that might be obscure to the lay reader. This straightforward and consistently critical commentary has helped to make him widely read and highly regarded, typically among left-leaning circles. Yet his relative absence from the U.S. mainstream media belies his widespread popularity at home and abroad. As many have noted, despite being voted the world’s top public intellectual(1) and having a demand so high that he is allegedly booked years in advance,(2) he is not the person outfits like CNN or the Washington Post turn to for commentary.

Even in an article about Chomsky’s own book — which had catapulted to the top of’s bestseller list after a recommendation by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2006 — the New York Times saw fit to give an extended quote not to Chomsky, but to Alan Dershowitz, one of Chomsky’s longtime antagonists. “I don’t know anybody who’s ever read a Chomsky book,” Dershowitz said.(3)

If Dershowitz’s contacts were to read a Chomsky book, they might quickly realize why Chomsky is unacceptable in mainstream American discourse. In every one of his political volumes, Chomsky’s agenda is to expose the truth behind foreign and domestic policy, as well as the actions of its elites, its media and intellectuals, and even on occasion Alan Dershowitz — who is reviled in part for his role as an apologist for Israeli aggression and occupation. The truth turns out to be particularly ugly with regard to those in power, although Chomsky frequently strikes notes of optimism when discussing social movements and future prospects.

Given this subject matter, the effectiveness of Chomsky’s technique, alongside his relentlessness, is undoubtedly behind his near-invisibility within mainstream culture. These same factors must also help explain his popularity.

An Anarchist Philosophy

Libertarian socialist beliefs are always in the background, and frequently in the foreground, of Chomsky’s political analyses. For Chomsky, anarchism refers to a wide range of Enlightenment-based ideas rather than a specific and detailed political program. “Anarchism has a broad back, like paper it endures anything,” Chomsky quotes Octave Mirbeau.

Mainstream critics of anarchism who equate it with chaos — but also left-wing critics who associate some contemporary versions with lifestylism or an obsession with consensus — will find no ammunition here. Nor does Chomsky’s anarchism simply imply smashing the state — that is, not in the short-term, which would leave a power vacuum to be filled by the “unaccountable private tyrannies” (i.e. corporations).

Instead, Chomsky believes that “at every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified…but that now contribute to — rather than alleviate — material and cultural deficit.” This implies that “there will be no doctrine of social change fixed for the present and future, nor even, necessarily, a specific and unchanging concept of the goals towards which social change should tend.” Any such doctrine deserves “great skepticism.” (93)

Chomsky emphasizes the need to liberate humanity, in Rudolf Rocker’s terms, “from the curse of economic exploitation and political and social enslavement.” (93) But the “single leading idea” of anarchism is the love of and passion for liberty, in opposition to both exploitation (e.g. by capitalists) and domination (e.g. by the state).

Libertarian socialism, according to Chomsky, implies “eliminating the commodity character of labor, ending wage slavery, and bringing the commercial, industrial, and financial institutions under democratic control” so that humans can fully realize their creative potentials. He calls for nothing short of a “community of free association without coercion by the state or other institutions, in which free men can create and inquire, and achieve the highest development of their powers.” (87)

Chomsky is as concerned with the dangers of a “red bureaucracy” as he is with those inherent in capitalist democracies and fascist regimes. (95) There has been considerable disagreement, however, among left scholars concerning the accuracy of Chomsky’s account of Leninism as authoritarian (“The Soviet Union Versus Socialism,” 1986). For alternative views, see Le Blanc (1993) and Lih (2006).(4)

Notwithstanding this debate over the facts of history, Chomsky sees an overlap between anarchism and what he calls “left Marxism” or “mainstream Marxism” — essentially democratic socialism.(5)

Regardless of his stance on the legacy of Marxism, Chomsky is unremittingly contemptuous of those in positions of unjustified dominance, and his visceral disgust makes a frequent appearance in the form of biting sarcasm. In one chapter he repeatedly refers to Vietnamese people as “yellow dwarves,” bitterly mocking Lyndon Johnson’s slur; meanwhile workers are “two-legged beasts of burden,” World Social Forum participants are “freaks,” and the population at large is the “great beast.” (144)

Furthermore, Chomsky is never fooled by the liberals and the “doves” who criticize policy on unprincipled grounds. Again and again, Chomsky shows the doves complaining about this or that offensive, which they allege to be morally exalted but tactically flawed. Appropriately, Chomsky shows a clear methodological preference for critiquing this farthest liberal edge of the mainstream, among academics, media creators, bureaucrats and politicians.

Human Nature and Morality

A distinctive feature of Chomsky’s political philosophy is his emphasis on human nature — something often downplayed or wholly rejected by many on the left. Humans grow arms instead of wings, he notes frequently, and this happens regardless of how much time humans spend around birds.

Analogously, humans are capable of speaking only human languages, which they learn with striking ease, and which are all fundamentally similar to each other. Chomsky extends this analogy further to encompass other issues, including morality (another “no-no” for some lefties), but these claims are mainly at the level of speculation.

In one of his most provocative passages, Chomsky describes how “we are lucky that we are incapable of becoming birds, because this follows from the fact that we are capable of becoming humans.” Artworks of “true aesthetic value” abide by “canons and principles that are only in part subject to human choice; in part, they reflect our fundamental nature.” Likewise “it cannot be merely a matter of convention that we find some things to be right, [and] others wrong.” (244-245) His approach suggests a biologically based, cross-cultural convergence of judgments on moral issues.(6)

Chomsky finds “no inconsistency in the notion that the restrictive attributes of the mind underlie a historically evolving human nature that develops within the limits that they set; or that these attributes of mind provide the possibility for self-perfection; or that, by providing the consciousness of freedom, these essential attributes of human nature give [people] the opportunity to create social conditions and social forms to maximize the possibility for freedom, diversity, and individual self-realization.” (81)

Humans then are not mechanically determined; instead, we possess an innate creativity that gives us the capacity to envision and realize greater self-autonomy and more just social relationships.

When discussing political philosophy, Chomsky does not act as if he is extending libertarian socialist theory or generating new scientific discoveries, and perhaps he isn’t. He does not even “really” consider himself to be “an anarchist thinker.” (Chomsky on Anarchism, 135)

Moreover, his and Edward Herman’s “Propaganda Model,” arguably the best explanation available for how the mainstream media operates, is not “a ‘theory’ or anything like that — it’s virtually just an observation.” (Understanding Power, 14) So it is unsurprising that Chomsky generally takes the tone of a “fellow traveler,” one who takes pleasure from pondering classic problems, synthesizing them, extracting the most valuable ideas, and speculating about applications. (Chomsky on Anarchism, 135)

He believes that “…teaching should not be compared to filling a bottle with water but rather to helping a flower grow in its own way;” teaching should be about “arousing the natural curiosity of the students and stimulating their interest in exploring on their own.” His approach to presenting anarchist and Enlightenment ideas appears intended to follow that aphorism, rather than to expound upon new theoretical notions. (233) Even if Chomsky is not claiming to advance science in this area, one still has much to lose by not thinking through his “observations.”

Resisting U.S. Foreign Policy

Chomsky suggests that if we want to understand the foreign policy of any state, the starting point should be an investigation of that state’s domestic social structure, with a clear eye on the questions of who sets foreign policy, whose “interests do [they] represent”, and “what is the domestic source of their power.” (160)

Such an investigation, Chomsky believes, will result in an understanding that U.S. foreign policy is no more benevolent and concerned with the international good than any other state. Instead, it is designed and implemented by groups who “derive their power from domestic sources — in our form of state capitalism, from their control over the domestic economy, including the militarized state sector.” (165) Those in the top advisory and decision-making positions are shown in study after study to be heavily concentrated in major corporations, investment firms, banks, and corporate law firms.

It is not surprising then that the basic principle of U.S. state ideology is that, “alone among the states of the world, the United States has the authority to impose its rule by force” in order to achieve the interests of those that control its foreign policy. (145)

This ideology is similar for all states, but as the leading global hegemon, the United States enforces it. “No other power in the postwar period,” he notes, “has employed even a fraction of the military force used by the United States in its efforts to destroy indigenous forces to which it has been opposed in other lands.” (133) Likewise, “the free market is an ideal to be lauded if its outcome accords with the perceived needs of domestic power and privilege; if not, the market must be guided by efficient use of state power.” (274)

The Essential Chomsky has Chomsky analyzing U.S. involvement in a long list of countries, from Greece to Guatemala. Chomsky is perhaps best known, however, for his assaults on U.S. policy in Indochina, Israel/Palestine and East Timor, as well as his critiques of various actions after 9-11. It is natural that Chomsky, and thus Arnove, have focused on them, given both the horrific magnitude of these policies and the moral responsibility Chomsky feels for them.

People are morally responsible “for the anticipated consequences of their choice of action (or inaction),” and this responsibility “extends to the policy choices of one’s own state to the extent that the political community allows a degree of influence over policy formation.”

One’s responsibility is further “enhanced by privilege.” In other words, privileged people (including MIT professors) in capitalist democracies are especially responsible for the actions of their state. Such people have a moral obligation to take action against any policy in opposition to agreed upon moral truisms. These truisms, of course, “must be applied to oneself, not only to official enemies.” (304)

The “true ‘American tragedy’ — a potential tragedy for many others, in a far more real sense — is, in [Chomsky’s] opinion, our continued inability to apply to ourselves the standards that we properly use in evaluating the behavior of other powers.” (123)

Indeed, the educated elite bears significantly more moral responsibility than the average person. One would never find Chomsky making broad moral criticisms of people struggling to meet basic needs. On the contrary, he aims to show how reasonable and moral the general U.S. population is, despite drowning in an ocean of highly sophisticated propaganda.

For Chomsky, these moral imperatives are situated within social structures, and structural forces are ever-present in his analysis. Although not a Marxist, class analysis is everywhere in his writing. He describes government and business elites as “vulgar Marxists, with the values reversed, of course,” “self-consciously” waging a “class war” on “the general population.” (324)

The implication is that the war’s “victims” should “resist exploitation” while concentrating on decreasing militarism, saving the environment, rescuing democracy and freedom, and promoting a real globalization based on international integration rather than political and economic imperialism.

One might criticize Chomsky for providing rigorous and sharp political analyses yet avoiding detailed discussion of how the domestic U.S. population might counter the “masters of the universe.” (327) For a response to this point by Chomsky himself, one must turn to Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (for more on Understanding Power, see below).

When approached with the typical question, “what can actually be done by activists today?” he replied: “everything can be done up to the point of eliminating all structures of authority and repression: they’re human institutions, they can be dismantled.”

He continued, “…you don’t start by saying, ‘Okay, let’s overthrow transnational corporations’ — because right now it’s just not within range. So you start by saying, ‘Look, here’s where the world is, what can we begin to do?’ Well, you can begin to do things which will get people to understand better what the real source of power is, and just how much they can achieve if they get involved in political activism.” And then “you just construct organizations — that’s it.” (Understanding Power, 191) Given his focus, Chomsky may see his own role in this process not so much detailing the nuts and bolts for next steps of particular movements, but as showing his readers where the world is and how power operates within it.

He helpfully wades through endless copies of journals and newspapers, abstracting key ideas and then arguing them with forceful clarity.

“The [U.S.] goal in Vietnam,” he wrote in 1971, is “to concentrate and control the population, separating it from main guerrilla units, and to create a dependent economy that adapts itself to the needs and capacities of the industrialized societies of the West (and Japan), under the rule of wealthy collaborators, with a mere pretense of democracy.” (126) The goal in India, he wrote in 2006, is to “divert New Delhi away from the task of creating new regional [economic] architecture by dangling the nuclear carrot and the promise of world power status in alliance with itself” — an analysis of particular relevance now given the recent U.S. nuclear deal with India. (406)

Part of the reason Chomsky’s arguments are so hard-hitting is his frequent use of careful comparative methodology. He finds examples that are similar in key aspects and tries to isolate the variables of interest, for example, corporate media coverage or U.S. foreign aid. One comparison example involves Clinton-era policies towards East Timor and Kosovo, but also towards Turkey, Colombia, Chechnya, Tibet, and the African wars (Congo, Sierra Leone).

Through this analysis Chomsky lays out the so-called “new era” of history that erupted in the Clinton era with NATO’s March, 1999 bombing of Serbia: the notion of humanitarian interventions couched in the language of human rights.

Such interventions allow for the “enlightened” states to be freed from the old conceptions of world order and use force whenever they believe it to be in their interest. Here, the United States is the defender of freedom, a responsibility that flows from its power and exceptionalism. Chomsky shows how this notion of responsibility to the world is largely corrupt (e.g. 304).

In his writings on Israel and Palestine, Chomsky has argued for decades that domestic lobby groups — i.e. the Israel lobby — cannot primarily account for the U.S. position: “No pressure group will dominate access to public opinion or maintain consistent influence of policy-making unless its aims are close to those of elite elements with real power.”

The tail does not wag the dog. Instead, one can explain America’s relationship with Israel, and the subsequent devastation of human life it produces in Palestine, by the role Israel plays in America’s conception of its interests in the Middle East. (206)

The key interest lies in the oil reserves located heavily in the Arabian Peninsula. As quoted by the State Department in 1945, Saudi Arabia is, “…a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” (207) It is no surprise then that one consequence of the CIA-backed coup that restored the power of the Shah in Iran in 1953 was the transfer of 40% of Iranian oil from British to American hands. (209)

In addition to oil, since the 1950s the U.S. state has come to accept the notion that a powerful and dominant Israel is a strategic asset against the threats of radical nationalists in the Middle East. (210) Despite some ill-founded hopes to the contrary, Chomsky’s analysis remains all too painfully accurate during the Obama Administration.

Propaganda, Intellectuals, Stamping Out Critics

State power, while acting ruthlessly to suppress foreign enemies that might undermine its interests, is also “engaged in another war against a much less resilient enemy, the American people.” (141) The battleground on domestic soil is largely “ideological, not military.” Rather than smashing public resistance through force, liberal elites require that the public at large should not even consider resisting in the first place.

Chomsky always has a great deal to say about propagandists, cheerleaders, and apologists who help “manufacture consent” among the population. These people help keep “issues on which the public differs from elites … pretty much off the agenda, notably questions of economic policy.” (339) He often states (as in Chapter 20) that “what remains of democracy is to be construed as the right to choose among commodities.” Business elites hope that, “deluged by such propaganda from infancy, people may then accept their meaningless and subordinate lives and forget ridiculous ideas about managing their own affairs. They may abandon their fate to the wizards, and in the political realm, to the self-described ‘intelligent minorities’ who serve and administer power.” (339-340)

Chomsky states plainly that “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.” He then shows in graphic detail how this seems obvious, but isn’t. There isn’t space here to recount the myriad striking examples Chomsky puts forth of intellectuals defending atrocities.

This phenomenon is all the more disturbing since “intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.” (40) Intellectuals have access to leisure, facilities and training to discern truth from distortion.

But as he notes elsewhere, their level of formal education and immersion in print media leave them particularly susceptible to indoctrination.The allure of power plays the primary role, however, seldom failing to intoxicate.

Chomsky distinguishes two categories among the “secular priesthood” of intellectuals. On the one hand are the outright propagandists — these are the Glenn Becks of the world — and on the other, the technocratic and policy-oriented intellectuals, “who simply dismiss any question of ends and interests served by policy and do the work laid out for them, priding themselves on their ‘pragmatism’ and freedom from contamination by ‘ideology’….”

The latter, he argues, are far more effective in inculcating attitudes of obedience. This, in Henry Kissinger’s phrase, is the “age of the expert.” (164)

Writing about resistance to the Vietnam war, what Chomsky found “most terrifying is not Curtis LeMay, with his cheerful suggestion that we bomb our ‘enemies’ back into the Stone Age, but rather the calm disquisitions of the political scientists on just how much force will be necessary to achieve our ends, or just what form of government will be acceptable to us in Vietnam.” (66)

He repeatedly unmasks the unprincipled criticisms of liberal elites. During Vietnam, Chomsky wrote that “intellectual apologists for state violence, including those who describe themselves as doves, will naturally focus on the stupidity, alleging that the war was a tragic error, a case of worthy impulse transmuted into bad policy, perhaps because of the personal failings of a generation of political leaders and incompetent advisors. Stupidity is a politically neutral category.” (158) We see, in the Obama administration, a similar logic:  If U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan etc. was stupid, then the solution is smarter policy makers. We have seen the result of such logic.

The Essential Chomsky unfortunately does not have a section incorporating Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model. However, media analysis is deeply enmeshed in Chomsky’s political analysis. The “manufacture of consent at home,” he writes, is the “domestic counterpart” to the global policy of containment. (260)

Different tactics are available for “containing” the domestic population than, say, the native populations in Vietnam then and Iraq and Afghanistan now — but both populations must be controlled nonetheless. The “Free Press,” whose customers are advertisers, not readers, creates the “necessary illusions” to support the “masters of the universe” in their shameful endeavors — a point Chomsky and Herman defend ad infinitum in Manufacturing Consent. Needless to say, “it is a good idea to watch the performance of the free press with a cautious and skeptical eye.” (144)

When select members of the domestic population dare to resist those in power, propagandists and intellectuals of the type above must teach the remainder of the population the “true” nature of the situation.

Chomsky explains how this process unfolds. First comes the “argument that the facts are more complex than as represented in the ‘simplistic theories’” of radicals and the like. This charge is trivally correct, since reality is always “more complex than any description we may give.”

This problem is, of course, no reason to give up trying. We should still “proceed in the manner of rational inquiry … to extract some principles that have explanatory force over a fair range, thus hoping to account for at least the major effects.” (167) Chomsky notes that elites have no problem applying this principle to the actions of their enemies.

The second attack on critics of power pursuing a rational approach is that they are putting forward “conspiracy theories.” Such language relegates ideas to “the domain of flat-earth enthusiasts and other cranks,” safely protecting the decision-making apparatus from scrutiny.

A third, related criticism is to label rational critics “paranoid.” When one makes claims of U.S. atrocities, “standards of evidence must match those of physics.” But for those committed by enemies, “any fanciful construction will do,” and demands for evidence trigger the label: “apologist for atrocities.” (168) It is the burden of the activist to weather this storm.

Editing and Final Thoughts

We are skeptical of the claim that this volume constitutes “the essential” Chomsky. To be sure, none of these selections are dispensable, but if a neophyte wanted one book that would give him/her an essential feel for Chomsky, we might instead recommend Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, by the same publisher. That book — which mostly contains transcribed discussions and interactive lectures — is brilliantly edited by subject, is more inviting, and has 449 pages of highly detailed online footnotes which serve as a great research tool.

That said, someone who takes the time to absorb The Essential Chomsky will likely have a solid feel Chomsky’s thinking. The book is decades newer than, say, The Chomsky Reader or Radical Priorities, and is more comprehensive than, say, Propaganda and the Public Mind or Imperial Ambitions.

While we find The Essential Chomsky wanting for an inclusion of the Propaganda Model (see Ch. 1 of Manufacturing Consent), the book does incorporate considerably more linguistics material than Understanding Power. Those interested in Chomsky’s linguistics, however, might be better served by picking up a copy of On Nature and Language.

The Essential Chomsky’s chronological ordering has benefits and drawbacks, but in our view mainly drawbacks. One is that the unassuming reader is straight away thrust into a difficult and somewhat technical critique of B. F. Skinner, without having any context. Later pieces in the book on language are more straightforward and could have been placed earlier in the text. Similarly, Ch. 18 (“New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind”), in our view, should have preceded the more technical Ch. 17 (“The Minimalist Program”).

A related problem with the chronological approach is the repetition. In some ways the repetition is valuable for understanding, since Chomsky articulates thoughts differently at different times, but again, the easier explanations often follow the hard ones. One benefit of the ordering, however, is that it shows Chomsky’s impressive consistency over a very long period of time, and the reader can see him applying his technique to new events as they unfold.

Regardless of our quibbles with the editing, a book like The Essential Chomsky nevertheless has a tremendous amount to offer a reader, well beyond what we have covered in this review. Chomsky expounds on topics like international trade, the nature of the nation state, the “minimalist program,” intelligence quotients, the mind-brain problem, and so on, all with characteristic thoughtfulness and care. We see in Chomsky a profoundly moral and rigorous scholar, one whose analyses will remain critically important for the foreseeable future.


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  4. Le Blanc, Paul. 1993. Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. Humanity Books. AND, Lih, Lars. 2006. Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? In Context. Haymarket Books.
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  5. Chomsky elsewhere contrasts these left Marxists with Lenin, whom he, citing the “left Marxists” themselves, regards as a “right-wing deviation of the socialist movement” (lecture, 3/15/89).
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  6. See also: Chomsky, “On Humanism and Morality” in Montreal Serai, Vol. 13, No. 3, Autumn 2000.
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ATC 145, March-April 2010