Poem for B, C, D, D, D & J

This work deals with the highly topical issue of multiculturalism and, as such, a warning is necessary. It is written for those who are, or aspire to be, members of the intellectual elite. These are the people who believe that knowledge is the product of hard labour; the people who believe that you need to do a great deal of time-consuming research, read a lot of books and reflect on many difficult philosophical, empirical and theoretical issues to produce intelligent knowledge.

In John HoWARd’s Australia, there seem to be many individuals who feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’ in talking about issues about which they haven’t bothered to read a single researched article, let alone a book. Apparently, ‘life taught them’. In fact, such people are so ‘relaxed and comfortable’ that they believe that the more someone works at trying to learn about an issue, the more they become part of an ignorant and arrogant lot: the intellectual elite. The role of this elite is apparently simply to put down naturally intelligent people and find ways to stop them from expressing the truth they capture so effortlessly by merely living.

When I used to visit my grandmother in Bathurst in the late 1970s, she would often make comments such as ‘You’ve been reading too much’ or, even more explicitly, ‘People who go to university become mad.’ Although such comments helped me reflect on how and why university knowledge clashed with everyday knowledge, I resented pronouncements such as ‘You have read books, but life has taught me.’ I used to say, ‘But Granny, I have a life as well you know, and it teaches me too. Can’t you see that books and research provide me with extra knowledge.’ I was naive even to try.

The so-called ‘intelligentsia’ always looks down with a really limitless condescension on anyone who has not been dragged through the obligatory schools and had the necessary knowledge pumped into him. The question has never been: ‘What are the man’s abilities?’ but ‘what has he learned?’ To these ‘educated’ people the biggest empty-head, if he is wrapped in enough diplomas, is worth more than the brightest boy who happens to lack these costly envelopes.

This is neither my granny, nor any of Australia’s anti-intellectual populists speaking, but Adolf Hitler. And I cannot help thinking of him when people start abusing intellectuals. Hitler was the classic anti-intellectual: a man who had enough intellect to be a mediocre intellectual and enough also to realise that he wasn’t a member of the intellectual elite. Like many mediocre intellectuals, he thought he had a natural talent for knowledge, rather than realising how much hard work is put into whatever knowledge people end up gathering.

Hitler was not, however, the sort of person who would just sit there and take it. He was too motivated by dreams of social, political and intellectual mobility to allow himself to just sulk and do nothing. So, he found the time-honoured way to ‘beat’ the intellectual elite. This is the road often chosen by people who want to be recognised as intellectuals, but who are either not socially equipped to be so or feel they have better things to do than putting in the hard labour necessary to achieve such a status. These people compensate for their lack of knowledge by speaking in the name of ‘the people’. ‘The people’ becomes such a formula of success for mediocre intellectuals that they make themselves — and some others, too — believe that they actually are ‘the people’.

The mechanism is very simple: 1) ‘The people’ already know everything there is to know: ‘life taught them’. 2) Consequently, anything that the ‘intellectual elite’ says which is not known by the people is superfluous knowledge, if not actively against the people. 3) Therefore, any attack on the knowledge of the intellectual elite is a defence of the knowledge of the people. And who else is better at defending the instinctive knowledge of the people if not the instinctively intelligent, mediocre intellectual? In reality, ‘the people’ are too busy living. In addition, one can be certain that anyone who uses the concept of ‘the people’ is already someone who distinguishes himself or herself from them…

Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White supremacy in a multicultural society, Pluto Press, 1998, Preface, pp.7–9.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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12 Responses to Poem for B, C, D, D, D & J

  1. KinkyBoy says:

    Fantasies of JewHiss Supremacy in a Goyisch society.

    “Arbeit macht Frei” in the intellectual sense ?

    You Jews are fucking Nutz !

  2. Darrin Hodges says:

    Let’s simplify what you have said:

    Hitler was against the intellectual elite. People today who are against the intellectual elite are like Hitler. Therefore those same people must be Nazis.

  3. juancastro says:

    Interesting issue: the role of academia and the intelligentsia more generally can be hard to pinpoint. In many cases it can seem as if they are truly agitating for fundamental social change, but often this is undermined by (subconsciously?) elitist positions in which the masses are seen to be too ignorant to control society.

    Even in relatively extreme examples such as Chomsky (who has genuinely revolutionary politics), the separation of most academics from grassroots movements means that they are unresponsive to the issues facing the people being discussed, and can be unsure as to what needs to be said at any one time. Chomsky for instance shows his naivete when it comes to grass-roots organising and campaigning in his writing. This manifests itself in the fact that his followers who agree with some of his principles can come to wildly varying conclusions as to what actually needs to be done. For example there are MANY liberals in the US who are passionate supporters of the democrats who also claim to be Chomsky disciples…

    I think that is a real indictment on his writings: he is simply not sharp enough, consistently enough. In contrast, there is no way you can read a decent Marxist analysis of the ALP or an anarchist analysis of property and be left unclear as to what needs to be done. Obviously, tactics are not discussed in such texts, but no anarchist or socialist would be espousing the greatness of the ALP’s ideas after reading those two texts (or any others); the broad case for revolution would have been made.

    I think this difference between Chomsky and theorists who are part of revolutionary movements is a product of the nature of even left wing academics: being totally removed from the daily (often boring) reality of political organisation, his writing is almost exclusively analytical. He is unable to put forward a programme for change because he is not engaged in an ongoing, democratic relationship with that change.

  4. @ndy says:


    Kinky: Yeah, Lebanese-Australian Anthropologists for Zion.

    Dazza: You are beyond parody.

    juancastro: No.

    While the implications of his argument are fairly broad, Hage is addressing himself to a contemporary Australian audience, and in particular highlighting the role of ‘anti-intellectualism’ when employed by right-wing populists to suppress debate concerning issues surrounding multiculturalism. With regards Chomsky and the intelligentsia, he’s written a few pieces on the subject, the lengthiest of which concerns ‘Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship’, a rightly famous critique of liberal accounts of the Spanish Civil War (among other related matters). On the subject of the intelligentsia and socialism, ‘The Soviet Union Versus Socialism’ (below) is probably most germane. Beyond this, I think your account of the relationship between Chomsky’s political writing and movements for social change is completely inaccurate, for all sorts of reasons, including but not limited to:

    1) It’s one of the more well-known facts concerning Chomsky that he constantly addresses assemblies and gatherings organised by grassroots movements. In fact, I’d hazard that he’s probably addressed a larger number of such audiences than any other intellectual alive;
    2) Chomsky is hardly naive when it comes to grassroots organising; rather, he tends not to prescribe what this activism should consist of, believing — rightly, in my opinion — that there are numerous others who probably have a much better idea than he does what works best in any particular circumstance. To put it another way: his role is not to direct, but to inform. You see this as a weakness; many others see it as a strength;
    3) What his ‘followers’ believe is hardly Chomsky’s responsibility. Further, if you examine his work, there’s little, if any, desire expressed to accumulate these, and to the extent such individuals do exist, they are obviously deluded. To put it another way: he advocates citizens take part in forms of intellectual self-defence.
    4) As to what needs to be done, I think Chomsky makes himself fairly clear. In conversation (while wearing a suit) with Monsieur Foucault (while wearing a skivvy), Chomsky opines that:
    “A federated, decentralized, system of free associations incorporating economic as well as social institutions would be what I refer to as anarcho-syndicalism. And it seems to me that it is the appropriate form of social organization for an advanced technological society in which human beings do not have to be forced into position of tools, of cogs in a machine, in which the creative urge, that I think is intrinsic to human nature will in effect be able to realize itself in whatever way it will. I don’t know all the ways in which it will…” blah blah blah.
    5) “He is unable to put forward a programme for change because he is not engaged in an ongoing, democratic relationship with that change”; on the contrary, Chomsky is deeply embroiled in such processes, and has been for over 40 years, if not longer. In fact, this activity has consumed most of his life. He has the intellectual ability to be Bob Avakian, he chooses not to. The reasons why require further reflection on your part.

    The Soviet Union Versus Socialism
    Noam Chomsky
    Our Generation
    Spring/Summer 1986

    When the world’s two great propaganda systems agree on some doctrine, it requires some intellectual effort to escape its shackles. One such doctrine is that the society created by Lenin and Trotsky and molded further by Stalin and his successors has some relation to socialism in some meaningful or historically accurate sense of this concept. In fact, if there is a relation, it is the relation of contradiction.

    It is clear enough why both major propaganda systems insist upon this fantasy. Since its origins, the Soviet State has attempted to harness the energies of its own population and oppressed people elsewhere in the service of the men who took advantage of the popular ferment in Russia in 1917 to seize State power. One major ideological weapon employed to this end has been the claim that the State managers are leading their own society and the world towards the socialist ideal; an impossibility, as any socialist — surely any serious Marxist — should have understood at once (many did), and a lie of mammoth proportions as history has revealed since the earliest days of the Bolshevik regime. The taskmasters have attempted to gain legitimacy and support by exploiting the aura of socialist ideals and the respect that is rightly accorded them, to conceal their own ritual practice as they destroyed every vestige of socialism.

    As for the world’s second major propaganda system, association of socialism with the Soviet Union and its clients serves as a powerful ideological weapon to enforce conformity and obedience to the State capitalist institutions, to ensure that the necessity to rent oneself to the owners and managers of these institutions will be regarded as virtually a natural law, the only alternative to the ’socialist’ dungeon.

    The Soviet leadership thus portrays itself as socialist to protect its right to wield the club, and Western ideologists adopt the same pretense in order to forestall the threat of a more free and just society. This joint attack on socialism has been highly effective in undermining it in the modern period.

    One may take note of another device used effectively by State capitalist ideologists in their service to existing power and privilege. The ritual denunciation of the so-called ’socialist’ States is replete with distortions and often outright lies. Nothing is easier than to denounce the official enemy and to attribute to it any crime: there is no need to be burdened by the demands of evidence or logic as one marches in the parade. Critics of Western violence and atrocities often try to set the record straight, recognizing the criminal atrocities and repression that exist while exposing the tales that are concocted in the service of Western violence. With predictable regularity, these steps are at once interpreted as apologetics for the empire of evil and its minions. Thus the crucial Right to Lie in the Service of the State is preserved, and the critique of State violence and atrocities is undermined.

    It is also worth noting the great appeal of Leninist doctrine to the modern intelligentsia in periods of conflict and upheaval. This doctrine affords the ‘radical intellectuals’ the right to hold State power and to impose the harsh rule of the ‘Red Bureaucracy,’ the ‘new class,’ in the terms of Bakunin’s prescient analysis a century ago. As in the Bonapartist State denounced by Marx, they become the ‘State priests,’ and “parasitical excrescence upon civil society” that rules it with an iron hand.

    In periods when there is little challenge to State capitalist institutions, the same fundamental commitments lead the ‘new class’ to serve as State managers and ideologists, “beating the people with the people’s stick,” in Bakunin’s words. It is small wonder that intellectuals find the transition from ‘revolutionary Communism’ to ‘celebration of the West’ such an easy one, replaying a script that has evolved from tragedy to farce over the past half century. In essence, all that has changed is the assessment of where power lies. Lenin’s dictum that “socialism is nothing but state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people,” who must of course trust the benevolence of their leaders, expresses the perversion of ’socialism’ to the needs of the State priests, and allows us to comprehend the rapid transition between positions that superficially seem diametric opposites, but in fact are quite close.

    The terminology of political and social discourse is vague and imprecise, and constantly debased by the contributions of ideologists of one or another stripe. Still, these terms have at least some residue of meaning. Since its origins, socialism has meant the liberation of working people from exploitation. As the Marxist theoretician Anton Pannekoek observed, “this goal is not reached and cannot be reached by a new directing and governing class substituting itself for the bourgeoisie,” but can only be “realized by the workers themselves being master over production.” Mastery over production by the producers is the essence of socialism, and means to achieve this end have regularly been devised in periods of revolutionary struggle, against the bitter opposition of the traditional ruling classes and the ‘revolutionary intellectuals’ guided by the common principles of Leninism and Western managerialism, as adapted to changing circumstances. But the essential element of the socialist ideal remains: to convert the means of production into the property of freely associated producers and thus the social property of people who have liberated themselves from exploitation by their master, as a fundamental step towards a broader realm of human freedom.

    The Leninist intelligentsia have a different agenda. They fit Marx’s description of the ‘conspirators’ who “pre-empt the developing revolutionary process” and distort it to their ends of domination; “Hence their deepest disdain for the more theoretical enlightenment of the workers about their class interests,” which include the overthrow of the Red Bureaucracy and the creation of mechanisms of democratic control over production and social life. For the Leninist, the masses must be strictly disciplined, while the socialist will struggle to achieve a social order in which discipline “will become superfluous” as the freely associated producers “work for their own accord” (Marx). Libertarian socialism, furthermore, does not limit its aims to democratic control by producers over production, but seeks to abolish all forms of domination and hierarchy in every aspect of social and personal life, an unending struggle, since progress in achieving a more just society will lead to new insight and understanding of forms of oppression that may be concealed in traditional practice and consciousness.

    The Leninist antagonism to the most essential features of socialism was evident from the very start. In revolutionary Russia, Soviets and factory committees developed as instruments of struggle and liberation, with many flaws, but with a rich potential. Lenin and Trotsky, upon assuming power, immediately devoted themselves to destroying the liberatory potential of these instruments, establishing the rule of the Party, in practice its Central Committee and its Maximal Leaders — exactly as Trotsky had predicted years earlier, as Rosa Luxembourg and other left Marxists warned at the time, and as the anarchists had always understood. Not only the masses, but even the Party must be subject to “vigilant control from above,” so Trotsky held as he made the transition from revolutionary intellectual to State priest. Before seizing State power, the Bolshevik leadership adopted much of the rhetoric of people who were engaged in the revolutionary struggle from below, but their true commitments were quite different. This was evident before and became crystal clear as they assumed State power in October 1917.

    A historian sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, E.H. Carr, writes that “the spontaneous inclination of the workers to organize factory committees and to intervene in the management of the factories was inevitably encouraged by a revolution with led the workers to believe that the productive machinery of the country belonged to them and could be operated by them at their own discretion and to their own advantage” (my emphasis). For the workers, as one anarchist delegate said, “The Factory committees were cells of the future… They, not the State, should now administer.”

    But the State priests knew better, and moved at once to destroy the factory committees and to reduce the Soviets to organs of their rule. On November 3, Lenin announced in a “Draft Decree on Workers’ Control” that delegates elected to exercise such control were to be “answerable to the State for the maintenance of the strictest order and discipline and for the protection of property.” As the year ended, Lenin noted that “we passed from workers’ control to the creation of the Supreme Council of National Economy,” which was to “replace, absorb and supersede the machinery of workers’ control” (Carr). “The very idea of socialism is embodied in the concept of workers’ control,” one Menshevik trade unionist lamented; the Bolshevik leadership expressed the same lament in action, by demolishing the very idea of socialism.

    Soon Lenin was to decree that the leadership must assume “dictatorial powers” over the workers, who must accept “unquestioning submission to a single will” and “in the interests of socialism,” must “unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process.” As Lenin and Trotsky proceeded with the militarization of labour, the transformation of the society into a labour army submitted to their single will, Lenin explained that subordination of the worker to “individual authority” is “the system which more than any other assures the best utilization of human resources” — or as Robert McNamara expressed the same idea, “vital decision-making…must remain at the top…the real threat to democracy comes not from overmanagement, but from undermanagement”; “if it is not reason that rules man, then man falls short of his potential,” and management is nothing other than the rule of reason, which keeps us free. At the same time, ‘factionalism’ — i.e., any modicum of free expression and organization — was destroyed “in the interests of socialism,” as the term was redefined for their purposes by Lenin and Trotsky, who proceeded to create the basic proto-fascist structures converted by Stalin into one of the horrors of the modern age.

    Failure to understand the intense hostility to socialism on the part of the Leninist intelligentsia (with roots in Marx, no doubt), and corresponding misunderstanding of the Leninist model, has had a devastating impact on the struggle for a more decent society and a livable world in the West, and not only there. It is necessary to find a way to save the socialist ideal from its enemies in both of the world’s major centres of power, from those who will always seek to be the State priests and social managers, destroying freedom in the name of liberation.

  5. Darrin Hodges says:

    Noice cut’n’paste, @ndy, noice.

  6. Darrin Hodges says:

    I’d get that seen to.

  7. juancastro says:

    You didn’t actually address any of my points @ndy.

    1) Addressing an assembly is irrelevant. How many meetings does he organise? Does he know the difficulties of building such a meeting? Does he know how to talk to the average person on the street and convince them of radical arguments? This is what grass-roots activism is all about. Speaking to rallies and assemblies is what politicians do all the time; that doesn’t mean they have any idea how to build either.

    2) Choosing to inform is great, but by not explicitly and consistently mentioning revolution, he is allowing people who agree with him on all counts to continue to believe in figures like Obama and Kucinich. I think it should be impossible to agree with a Chomsky book and be unsure of the need for revolution. I think it should be impossible to read and agree with a Chomsky book and be unclear that the system is unable to be reformed from within. Yet it is patently NOT impossible, and that is deeply problematic IMO.

    3) I think this is addressed above, but let me just say that I believe it IS his responsibility. AND also that these individuals are not deluded at all (what an elitist position!). Chomsky is an intelligent and articulate person, and his ideas make a lot of sense. The problem IMO is that his mainstream publications are not sharply anti-systemic and pro-revolution, and so supporters are not necessarily lead to this clear and essential conclusion. Again, one cannot read and agree with texts by Proudhon, Cliff, or Trotsky without being a revolutionary.

    4) The fact that he stated his opinion that an anarchist revolution is necessary in one debate at some historical moment is hardly sufficient to counter my point. I’ve read many of his articles and one of his books, and the case for a revolution is rarely front and centre.

    5) I would like to hear a bit more of an explanation of how [he] is engaged in a democratic relationship with contemporary social movements.

    Also, I would like to hear how anarchists would have defended the revolution from invasion from the 14 (?) countries without some form of centralisation. I agree that the post-revolutionary era was abhorrent, but people in SAlt have convincingly argued that at the time the alternative to the “Red Bureaucracy” at the time was military fascism… hardly a good outcome. Lenin explicitly said that the RB was instituted as a holding measure while the country awaited the revolution in Germany amongst other places. What would anarchists have done? As much as I would like to (sincerely…), I personally can’t see much hope in democratically decentralised armies facing 14 invading military machines…

  8. Dr. Cam says:

    Dazzling Dazza: You are projecting something fierce.

  9. @ndy says:

    “You didn’t actually address any of my points @ndy.”

    I disagree, but in any case, I’ll try again.

    According to you, Chomsky’s principal failings stem from the fact that, as an intellectual(?), he is separated (politically? socially? culturally?) from (progressive, presumably) grassroots political movements. As a result Chomsky, like most, if not all, members of the intelligentsia — and despite his genuinely revolutionary political agenda — is unresponsive to the needs of members of such movements; unsure of what needs to be said to its members and when; and naive regarding the issues facing those involved in such movements. These facts are somehow evident in his writing.

    What evidence do you provide to support these claims?

    According to you, some of his “followers”, despite agreeing with some of his “principles”, nevertheless come to wildly different conclusions “as to what actually needs to be done”. For example: US liberals, who are passionate supporters of the Democrats, also claim to be Chomsky’s disciples. According to you, this is a failure of Chomsky’s because, if he more clearly articulated his otherwise “genuinely” revolutionary politics, his “followers” and his “disciples” — including Democrat-voting US liberals(?!?) — would be compelled to come to conclusions much more closely in accord with Chomsky’s own regarding ‘what is to be done’. This failure is “a real indictment on his writings”, and may be usefully contrasted with the fact that “there is no way you can read a decent Marxist analysis of the ALP or an anarchist analysis of property and be left unclear” as to the answer to this question.

    Which may, of course, be summarised in one word: ‘revolution’.

    What accounts for this phenomenon?

    According to you, it is “a product of… being totally removed from the daily (often boring) reality of political organisation”. Thus, Chomsky’s “writing is almost exclusively analytical” and he “is unable to put forward a programme for change because he is not engaged in an ongoing, democratic relationship with that change”.

    In response, and to begin with, your account begs all sorts of questions. For example: that the proper role of an intellectual is to spell out explicitly what is to be done; that ideally, the role of the intellectual is to cultivate followers; that revolutionary ideology derives its primary effect from its enunciation to the masses in the form of an easily-understood ‘programme’; that there is such a thing as “an ongoing, democratic relationship” between intellectuals and social movements, which may be expressed through the development of such a programme, and that such programmes and relationships are also easily-understood and recognised by all parties to them; that intellectual responses to social theory and to political speech may be easily determined if their content is determined with the same or similar precision…

    Secondly, it fails to engage in any way with Chomsky’s history as an ‘activist’.

    My impression is that you know next-to-nothing about this subject, which is not surprising, given that you’ve only read a handful of essays and one book, none of which appear to have revealed much of anything to you about it.

    Leaving aside his childhood engagement with politics, and his early Zionism, Chomsky’s political activism really began in the 1960s, and in response to the US/Viet Nam War. Here’s how he puts it:

    I faced a serious and uncomfortable decision about this in 1964 — much too late, I think. I was deeply immersed in the work I was doing. It was intellectually exciting, and all sorts of fascinating avenues of research were opening up. Furthermore, I was pretty well settled then into a comfortable academic life, with very satisfying work, security, young kids growing up, everything that one could ask from a personal standpoint. The question I had to face was whether to become actively engaged in protest against war, that is, engaged beyond signing petitions, sending money, and other peripheral contributions. I knew very well that once I set forth along that path, there would be no end. For better or worse, that is what I decided to do, with considerable reluctance. In those days, protest against the war meant speaking several nights a week at a church to an audience of half a dozen people, mostly bored or hostile, or at someone’s home where a few people might be gathered, or at a meeting at a college that included the topics of Vietnam, Iran, Central America, and nuclear arms, in the hope that maybe the participants would outnumber the organizers. Soon after, it meant participation in demonstrations, lobbying, organizing resistance, civil disobedience and arrests, endless speaking and travel, and the expected concomitants: threats of a fairly serious nature that were quite real by the late 1960s, which I don’t particularly want to enter into, and so on.

    So, since the mid-1960s, Chomsky has been incredibly politically active, writing scores of books, hundreds of essays, giving thousands of speeches (to capacity audiences) and writing countless letters. He has been the subject of major films, appeared on many TV and radio shows, and featured in innumerable articles in the press. He has also lent his name to innumerable causes. If you want to find evidence of Chomsky’s ‘activism’, in other words, there is absolutely no shortage of it available. He is a phenomenally popular writer and speaker, having addressed literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people over the course of the last few decades.

    Further, in doing all of these things, Chomsky is in part responding to the demands of other activists, activists deeply involved in all sorts of campaigns, projects and groups: the political grassroots, in other words, whether in North America, Australasia, Europe, Central and South America, or elsewhere in the world. For example, when Chomsky spoke at the Town Hall in Sydney in 1995, proceeds from one talk were given to local East Timorese groups; those from another talk, local anarchists, for whom his speech — on ‘Visions of Freedom’ — was one of the key events at a conference they’d organised (and which I also attended). There are, literally, countless other examples of Chomsky placing both himself and his work, both financial and political, at the disposal of ‘grassroots movements’, over a period of almost 50 years. That you should be unaware of this is perhaps unfortunate, but easily remedied. As an aside, it’s absurd to compare Chomsky’s speech-giving to that of a politician; unlike a politician, people are actually willing to pay to hear Chomsky speak, and these funds have been used by enormous numbers of groups to sustain their organising.

    Regarding Chomsky’s political vision, I don’t know why you assume it was only articulated once, in a televised debate with Michel Foucault. A recent account of Chomsky’s political critique is available in Alison Edgley, ‘Chomsky’s Political Critique’, Contemporary Political Theory, 2005, pp.3–25 [PDF]. It concludes:

    Chomsky’s libertarian socialist political philosophy, with its underlying theory of human nature, underpins his social and political analysis of American foreign policy. Whether one’s tolerance for Chomsky’s interrogation of American foreign policy rests upon a sympathy for his underlying political philosophy and theory of human need or not, it is certain that some disputes could be more sharply focussed if placed within their political theoretical context. The polarization between those who find his work inspired or irritating may in part be due to an unacknowleged dispute about an underlying theory of human need. Were this brought to the forefront then judgement on the relative value of a variety of positions would be more revealing. One might not like his theory of human need, but it lends his interpretation of events a logical consistency and a basis on which to rigorously evaluate the empirical evidence available. Once the subjective basis for the political judgement of Chomsky’s work is established, it calls for a much higher standard of criticism of Chomsky. A recognition of the validity of his contribution to foreign policy analysis on its own terms would follow, and may encourage more productive debates.

    More sustained accounts are available in Milan Rai, Chomsky’s Politics, Verso, 1995, and Robert F. Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, MIT Press, 1997. An account of Chomsky’s anarchist politics is available in his essay ‘Notes on Anarchism’ (available in numerous editions), which was originally published as an introduction to the English translation of the libertarian Marxist Daniel Guerin’s Anarchism: From Theory to Practice (1970). More recently, AK Press has published Chomsky on Anarchism (edited by Barry Pateman, 2004). There are also numerous interviews with Chomsky in which he discusses the subject, available in audio, video and print formats.

    Your argument concerning what people may or may not conclude upon having read some of Chomsky’s work is simply unreasonable, and merely reflects, I think, a very crude understanding, on your part, of the nature of political consciousness and the means by which it is shaped. Further, not only what a piece of writing consists of, but what the goals of writing are, can and should be. That the case for revolution is rarely front and centre may in fact be a virtue, not a vice, for example. Further, it may not always be appropriate. Perhaps this is one of the attractions of Chomsky’s works, and the reasons why, unlike say, the publications of the ISO, it has a mass audience?

    In general, it appears you view writing and speech very much in terms of a conveyor belt (cf. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?). That is, developing ‘revolutionary consciousness’ in the masses is a question of substituting the right product — ‘revolution’ — for the wrong one. If the consumer ‘agrees’ and consumes the product, they have consumed the ‘revolutionary’ content of the message; if not, well, maybe if it was packaged differently…?

    This approach is problematic, for all sorts of reasons. So are statements like “Again, one cannot read and agree with texts by Proudhon, Cliff, or Trotsky without being a revolutionary”, and again, for all sorts of reasons. An obvious question: is the definition of a revolutionary someone who ‘agrees’ with Proudhon, Cliff and/or Trotsky? And on what, precisely? I think the answer is ‘no’.

    Personally, I first encountered Chomsky’s work in the late 1980s, when I was in high school. I heard him speak via local public radio station, 3RRR, on a current affairs program whose name I can’t remember. It played a speech Chomsky gave somewhere or other on the subject of US foreign policy in Central America. I listened to it and was immediately intrigued. A short time later, I bought a copy of Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace (South End Press, 1987) (from The International Bookshop, back when it was still in the city). It really didn’t take me all that much longer to discover his other political commitments; specifically, his commitment to anarchism.

    On the subject of the orthodox Marxist account of the Russian Revolution, that’s a whole other question, as is the question of whether it was 14, 17, 18, 21 or 22 foreign armies that invaded Russian Bolshevik territory. But briefly:

    The “Red bureaucracy” was “military fascism”. It was July 1918 when Trotsky re-introduced into the Red Army the same measures as had existed in the Tsarist Army. Thus the death penalty for disobedience under fire was reintroduced; as were saluting, special forms of address, separate living quarters and privileges for officers. Officers were appointed rather than elected. Trotsky argued that “the elective basis is politically pointless and technically inexpedient and has already been set aside by decree”;
    “Centralisation” is a euphemism akin to the term “pacification” — it deliberately obscures real events, real history, and real suffering;
    Rather than ask ‘What would anarchists do?’, why not examine what anarchists actually did?;
    The 14 or 17 or 18 or 21 or 22 military machines largely consisted of veterans of WWI. The largest, the Czech contingent, numbered about 30,000. It had formerly constituted the Czech Legion, which had fought for the Tsar. As a consequence of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918), the Germans demanded that the Bolsheviks disarm the Legion and ensure its passage to Austria, where the Czechs were to become prisoners of war. Not surprisingly, the Legion was not especially cooperative. Mostly, they only wanted to go home, and did so in 1920, but not before handing over to the Red Army Kolchak, the White dicktator, and a shitload of gold.

    More later, maybe.

  10. Darrin Hodges says:

    Ya reckon Cammy?

  11. @ndy says:

    More and later.

    1) “How many meetings does he organise? Does he know the difficulties of building such a meeting? Does he know how to talk to the average person on the street and convince them of radical arguments? This is what grass-roots activism is all about. Speaking to rallies and assemblies is what politicians do all the time; that doesn’t mean they have any idea how to build either.”

    How many meetings does Chomsky organise? I’ve no idea. Very few, I imagine, and for very good, and, I hope, obvious reasons. Rather, Chomsky responds to invitations to speak, of which there are many more than it is possible for him to accept.

    Does he know the difficulties of building such a meeting? Probably. Well, depending on how you interpret that question. In reality, it’s not difficult to ‘build’ interest in an address by Chomsky: it’s already massive, and his speeches are, as far as I’m aware, always sold out. In terms of ‘building’ meetings in general, yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was aware of the difficulties in obtaining an audience for political issues generally. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s mentioned it on a number of occasions, and I believe it to otherwise be fairly common knowledge.

    Does he know how to talk to the average person on the street and convince them of radical arguments? Again, probably. He’s a very smart bloke. Further, there’s all kindsa testimony to that effect. On the other hand, I already alluded to Chomsky’s support for the development of forms of intellectual self defence, and I believe he’s stated on more than one occasion that people generally convince themselves. Or as Eugene Debs put it: “I don’t want you to follow me or anyone else. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, somebody else would lead you out.”

    Grass-roots activism is all about organising meetings, being aware of the difficulties encountered when trying to persuade people to attend them, and being able to talk to average people on the street in a way that convinces them of radical arguments? Maybe. I actually think this is a rather impoverished definition, which much better describes some of the main activities of a group like SAlt, especially if one adds an ability to convince average students on campus to buy the paper and to join the group.

    “Speaking to rallies and assemblies is what politicians do all the time; that doesn’t mean they have any idea how to build either.” Uh-huh. Actually, I think most politicians are the product of long-standing political processes. In the Australian context, this means precisely having demonstrated an ability to organise meetings, to convince people to attend them, and to construct a persuasive argument. Where do you think Peter Costello cut his teeth? Alternatively, which union did the Deputy Prime Minister once lead? There are many, many other examples.

    2) “Choosing to inform is great, but by not explicitly and consistently mentioning revolution, he is allowing people who agree with him on all counts to continue to believe in figures like Obama and Kucinich. I think it should be impossible to agree with a Chomsky book and be unsure of the need for revolution. I think it should be impossible to read and agree with a Chomsky book and be unclear that the system is unable to be reformed from within. Yet it is patently NOT impossible, and that is deeply problematic IMO.”

    I think you want Chomsky to perform rather like a magic wand, or perhaps a magic bullet, striking counter-revolutionary heresies dead. “Y’know, I used to think changing the system meant voting for Obama or some guy called Kucinich, but after I read Chomsky’s latest title, I now know that there’s only one solution: revolution!” I find such reasoning to be utterly fatuous. Further, in a Marxist context, idealist. (As mentioned previously, however, it does reflect the ‘propagandistic’ approach of groups such as SAlt.) That is, it fails to recognise that the ideas in people’s heads aren’t merely the product of conscious, disinterested, ‘objective’ reflection, but overdetermined by a range of factors, including but not limited to position in the social hierarchy — class, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, sexuality and so on — personal history, psychology, unconscious motivations, material interests, and so on. Individuals are not blank canvasses upon which it’s possible to simply throw new coats of (red or even black) paint, in other words, and their opinions, and the reasons for them (including the seemingly irrational ones) the subject of multiple causes.

    Regarding Chomsky’s own work, here’s a quote:

    There are no magic answers, no miraculous methods to overcome the problems we face, just the familiar ones: honest search for understanding, education, organization, action that raises the cost of state violence for its perpetrators or that lays the basis for institutional change — and the kinds of commitment that will persist despite the temptations of disillusionment, despite many failures and only limited successes, inspired by the hope of a brighter future.

    Alternatively, here’s some other quotes:

    “But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”

    “The purpose of propaganda is not to provide interesting distraction for blasé young gentlemen, but to convince… the masses. But the masses are slow moving, and they always require a certain time before they are ready even to notice a thing, and only after the simplest ideas are repeated thousands of times will the masses finally remember them.”

    3) “I think this is addressed above, but let me just say that I believe it IS his responsibility. AND also that these individuals are not deluded at all (what an elitist position!). Chomsky is an intelligent and articulate person, and his ideas make a lot of sense. The problem IMO is that his mainstream publications are not sharply anti-systemic and pro-revolution, and so supporters are not necessarily lead to this clear and essential conclusion. Again, one cannot read and agree with texts by Proudhon, Cliff, or Trotsky without being a revolutionary.”

    OK. So you believe it’s Chomsky’s responsibility to somehow ensure that, upon having read something he’s written — a book, an essay — and irrespective of its subject matter, but presumably in reference to his writings on US foreign and domestic policy, the inescapable conclusion the reader is forced to arrive at is that ‘revolution’ is the ‘answer’ to whatever ‘problem’ he happens to be discussing.


    Further, to suggest that individuals who support Obama or Kucinich who read Chomsky and who, upon having done so, continue to support Obama or Kucinich, are somehow delusional, is an extraordinarily “elitist” position to take.


    Perhaps you could elaborate on this point, because I don’t understand it. It also appears to be a question-begging exercise. Readers “agree”, in toto, apparently, but escape coming to revolutionary conclusions?

    Dum spiro spero! [While there is life, there’s hope!] … If I were one of the celestial bodies, I would look with complete detachment upon this miserable ball of dust and dirt … I would shine upon the good and the evil alike … But I am a man. World history which to you, dispassionate gobbler of science, to you, book-keeper of eternity, seems only a negligible moment in the balance of time, is to me everything! As long as I breathe, I shall fight for the future, that radiant future in which man, strong and beautiful, will become master of the drifting stream of his history and will direct it towards the boundless horizon of beauty, joy, and happiness! …

    The nineteenth century has in many ways satisfied and has in even more ways deceived the hopes of the optimist … It has compelled him to transfer most of his hopes to the twentieth century. Whenever the optimist was confronted by an atrocious fact, he exclaimed: What, and this can happen on the threshold of the twentieth century! When he drew wonderful pictured of the harmonious future, he placed them in the twentieth century.

    And now that century has come! What has it brought with it from the outset?

    In France – the poisonous foam of racial hatred; in Austria – nationalist strife …; in South Africa – the agony of a tiny people, which is being murdered by a colossus; on the ‘free’ island itself – triumphant hymns to the victorious greed of jingoist jobbers; dramatic ‘complications’ in the east; rebellions of starving popular masses in Italy, Bulgaria, Romania … Hatred and murder, famine and blood …

    It seems as if the new century, this gigantic newcomer, were bent at the very moment of its appearance to drive the optimist into absolute pessimism and civic nirvana.

    – Death to Utopia! Death to faith! Death to love! Death to hope! thunders the twentieth century in salvos of fire and in the rumbling of guns.

    – Surrender, you pathetic dreamer. Here I am, your long awaited twentieth century, your ‘future.’

    – No, replies the unhumbled optimist: You, you are only the present.


    I gladly agree to become one of the recipients of your correspondence, whose aims and organization seem to me most useful. Yet I cannot promise to write often or at great length: my varied occupations, combined with a natural idleness, do not favour such epistolary efforts. I must also take the liberty of making certain qualifications which are suggested by various passages of your letter.

    First, although my ideas in the matter of organization and realization are at this moment more or less settled, at least as regards principles, I believe it is my duty, as it is the duty of all socialists, to maintain for some time yet the critical or dubitive form; in short, I make profession in public of an almost absolute economic anti-dogmatism.

    Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are realized, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the people; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot Martin Luther, who, having overthrown Catholic theology, at once set about, with excommunication and anathema, the foundation of a Protestant theology. For the last three centuries Germany has been mainly occupied in undoing Luther’s shoddy work; do not let us leave humanity with a similar mess to clear up as a result of our efforts. I applaud with all my heart your thought of bringing all opinions to light; let us carry on a good and loyal polemic; let us give the world an example of learned and far-sighted tolerance, but let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason. Let us gather together and encourage all protests, let us brand all exclusiveness, all mysticism; let us never regard a question as exhausted, and when we have used our last argument, let us begin again, if need be, with eloquence and irony. On that condition, I will gladly enter your association. Otherwise — no!

    I have also some observations to make on this phrase of your letter: at the moment of action. Perhaps you still retain the opinion that no reform is at present possible without a coup de main, without what was formerly called a revolution and is really nothing but a shock. That opinion, which I understand, which I excuse, and would willingly discuss, having myself shared it for a long time, my most recent studies have made me abandon completely. I believe we have no need of it in order to succeed; and that consequently we should not put forward revolutionary action as a means of social reform, because that pretended means would simply be an appeal to force, to arbitrariness, in brief, a contradiction. I myself put the problem in this way: to bring about the return to society, by an economic combination, of the wealth which was withdrawn from society by another economic combination. In other words, through Political Economy to turn the theory of Property against Property in such a way as to engender what you German socialists call community and what I will limit myself for the moment to calling liberty or equality. But I believe that I know the means of solving this problem with only a short delay; I would therefore prefer to burn Property by a slow fire, rather than give it new strength by making a St Bartholomew’s night of the proprietors …

    Do you ‘agree’? Or do you ‘disagree’? Are these indeed your only options in response? Says who? And what has this to do with ‘revolution’? If someone read this, and upon having done so, declared, ‘I am a revolutionary’, what would it mean?

    4) “The fact that he stated his opinion that an anarchist revolution is necessary in one debate at some historical moment is hardly sufficient to counter my point. I’ve read many of his articles and one of his books, and the case for a revolution is rarely front and centre.”

    Chomsky’s views on social change are fairly clear. Certainly, they’re not hard to find, and I’ve already provided you some references, which are not exhaustive. Feel free to discuss them. Alternatively, feel free to discuss any of Chomsky’s work. I think his thoughts on Leninism are germane.

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