Hip: Chomsky (fwd)

Matt D. afn02065 at freenet.ufl.edu
Mon Jul 10 11:37:27 MDT 1995

Rakesh writes:

>I have assigned Noam Chomsky's Year 501: The Conquest Continues.
>Some ten years ago, I  became radicalized reading his Towards a New Cold
>War.  Since then, I have very slowly become more interested in Marx. Does
>anyone have any thoughts about Chomsky's critical theory, its strengths and
>limits, and its complex relationship to Marx's critique?  I would also be
>very interested in any comments about the propaganda model which Chomsky
>has developed with Edward Herman.

Back in high school, I found out that Chomsky was more than just a linguist
through his articles in Z-magazine.  It is primarily through his Z essays
and the film "Manufacturing Consent" that I am familiar with his political

My own feeling is that Chomsky is useful for radicalizing folks--esp. the
way he's able to pour on the facts and figures--but that overall he lacks a
compelling analysis.  I wouldn't agree that he has a "critical theory" or
that it stands in a "complex relationship" to anything.  Rather, it seems to
me that he stands pretty much in the American tradition of leftish-populist
civic activism that believes that the bourgeois state is at least
potentially really "democratic", that is as sceptical of "big" socialism as
it is of big capitalism and indulgent of small versions of the latter as
well as giving the nod to Greeny-bioregional versions of the former
(remember, this coming from Z...), and that has struggled hard for civil
rights and other "level playing-field" type reforms (which I'm not
criticizing)--but that resists any "complex" theoretical investigation of
its bases or perspectives.  Like some parts of the solidarity movement with
which (to his credit) he's been very involved, he sees revolution as
something that basically happens "over there" and as for "here at home" has
a sort of Habermasian faith in the "new social movements" coming out of the
seventies ([bourgeois] feminism, [b.] environmentalism, etc.) as being the
drivers of some sort of (relatively non-violent) social evolution.

Overall, I find him to be very eclectic in his application of "theory" to
the problems he looks at, and I think he would agree.  He does not regard
himself, to my knowledge, does not take a "totalizing" view of social
"science" and is more interested in practical immediate applications of
analyses than broader theoretical underpinnings.  While certainly not all
"anarcho-socialists" (this is what he calls himself, right?) show the same
disinterest in theory, many that I've known definitely do.

Like some on this list, he indulges (IMHO) in excessive hand-wringing about
whether revolutionaries will turn out to be "just as bad" or worse than
those they aim to overthrow, and when debating others on the left loves to
chatter about "justice" and "freedom" as if the bourgeois ideological
structures in which those concepts are embedded in popular discourse (rights
as commodity possessions) exhaust the potential meanings of those terms.  If
I recall correctly, he was making somesuch remarks in a conversation with
Foucault (on French TV?), and F. responded (hyperbolically but basically
correctly, to my view) that the question facing the proletariat is how to
take power, and we can sort the rest out later!

I see Chomsky as an agitator (and a good one, especially for those new to
the left), but not a theorist.  When the revolution comes, I hope he'll get
with the picture vis-a-vis Marxism! :)

(Didn't he have a bad experience on a Leninist kibbutz or something in his
youth that he occasionally refers back to in discussing his distaste for

-- Matt D.

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