On Chomsky

Far too much has already been said and written about Noam Chomsky, and some of it has the counter-productive effect of further enhancing his myth. This is because his fans often read his being attacked from “both the right and the left” as inherent proof of his brilliance. The rebuke to any criticism of the man usually takes the form of a “how dare you?” or, worse still, “who are you?” Take Nando Vila from Jacobin:

Bunch of loser leftists talking shit about Chomsky, whose pinky toe has done more for leftism than they ever will in their entire shitty lives. [1]

This isn’t true. Chomsky fans struggle to explain what his contributions are outside of media appearances and “raising awareness.” What I’d rather focus on here is the way that people gush about his work railing against hierarchies, while insisting that you accept your place below him in the hierarchy. The problems generated by a rhetorical negation of leaders were documented by Jo Freeman in her classic 1970s essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness, based on her experience with the women’s liberation movement:

This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware. [2]

For the sake of brevity, this post will simply string together Chomsky’s words with minimal additions. Primary sources are provided where possible. If you feel context is missing (it isn’t), feel free to reach out. And keep Freeman’s words in mind as you read along.

Losing Luster

Chomsky himself did a lot of damage to his own cult in the run-up to the US 2020 Presidential Election.

In an interview with The Young Turks he asserted that Trump was “the most dangerous figure in human history.” [3] Which, particularly in the context of the very publicized struggle to extract concessions from the DNC, landed as an inopportune sabotage of left-electoralist efforts.

Elsewhere, a fan e-mailed him to ask if he would vote for Bloomberg if it came down to him vs. Trump, to which he responded: “Definitely. Not to do so is in effect a vote for Trump, a path to disaster.” [4] Once again, it wasn’t clear what the point of this was. “Vote Blue No Matter Who”? Even for Bloomberg?

Chomsky also signed his name to a rather infamous Harper’s open letter lambasting “social justice activism” in US colleges. The letter referred in vague and unspecific terms to controversies that would’ve been in the collective consciousness at the time:

Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. [5]

Each one of these incidents is distorted according to the principles of the outrage machine described by Adam Johnson in a 2017 essay:

These articles are almost always composed of a series of anecdotes about college kids overreacting to a perceived slight. Sometimes the writer has a point, and they’re goofy or anti-intellectual; other times one investigates further, and it’s not nearly absurd as they make it out to be on its face. Take, for example the Robby Soave’s piece in The Daily Beast (Soave’s employer, Reason, lo and behold is also funded by the Koch Brothers).

“Abolish English Classes that Feature White Male Poets” screamed his subheadline. Except, reading down page one realizes it’s actually English Classes that only featured white male poets they wanted removed. That’s a major difference. You may still think it’s silly but eliminating a class because it only has X is different than eliminating because it has X. In the same article, Soave would write:

Students should feel free to explore how female authors, and authors of color, were mistreated throughout history, but this shouldn’t exempt them from studying Shakespeare.

Except the students weren’t trying to be exempt from reading Shakespeare, they were trying to add nonwhite authors in addition to him in a fresh, new inclusive course. [6]

Chomsky’s participation tarnished his reputation more than it elevated the letter. Despite his legendary attention to detail and recollection of facts, Chomsky lent his name to what was roundly jeered as a right-wing hit-job. And there it remains, in the illustrious company of Bari Weiss, Yascha Mounk, David Brooks, Anne Applebaum, J.K. Rowling, Francis Fukuyama, Steven Pinker, David Frum, Malcolm Gladwell, Matt Yglesias, and Fareed Zakaria.

However, even the many Chomsky fans who conceded that these actions truly were unbecoming had an easy way to dismiss them: he’s over 90 years old in 2020, so these were simply the results of cognitive decline.

This, too, is something less than the truth.

Multidimensional Misunderstanding

In my essay Marx, Capital, Anti-imperialism, and Socialism [7] I try to explain my current working political theory. I build from what I understand about Marx, to what I understand about geopolitics, to what socialism and the socialist project mean today. Given my approach of connecting one concept to the next, Chomsky reads to me as instructing his audiences to do the exact opposite of what I think is natural and reasonable.

Here is Chomsky holding forth on Marx:

There’s nothing about socialism in Marx, he wasn’t a socialist philosopher — there are about five sentences in Marx’s whole work that refer to socialism. He was a theorist of capitalism. I think he introduced some interesting concepts at least, which every sensible person ought to have mastered and employ, notions like class, and relations of production… [8]

He had an abstract model of capitalism which — I’m not sure how valuable it is, to tell you the truth. It was an abstract model, and like any abstract model, it’s not really intended to be descriptively accurate in detail, it’s intended to sort of pull out some crucial features and study those. And you have to ask in the case of an abstract model, how much of the complex reality does it really capture? That’s questionable in this case — first of all, it’s questionable how much of nineteenth-century capitalism it captured, and I think it’s even more questionable how much of late-twentieth-century capitalism it captures. [8]

Despite gassing about what’s “questionable,” he’s not actually asking any questions nor giving any answers!

On dialectics:

Dialectics is one that I’ve never understood, actually — I’ve just never understood what the word means. Marx doesn’t use it, incidentally, it’s used by Engels. And if anybody can tell me what it is, I’ll be happy. I mean, I’ve read all kinds of things which talk about “dialectics” — I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is. It seems to mean something about complexity, or alternative positions, or change, or something. I don’t know. [8]

Admittedly, dialectics is not trivial to grasp. However, implying everyone else a fraud is not the same thing as admitting one’s own befuddlement. Chomsky moves straight from the latter to the former, modeling for his disciples a dismissive anti-intellectualism that will shield them from better ideas indefinitely.

On political language itself:

In fact, it’s extremely rare, outside of the natural sciences, to find things that can’t be said in monosyllables: there are just interesting, simple ideas, which are often extremely difficult to come up with and hard to work out. Like, if you want to try to understand how the modern industrial economy developed, let’s say, that can take a lot of work. But the “theory” will be extremely thin, if by “theory” we mean something with principles which are not obvious when you first look at them, and from which you can deduce surprising consequences and try to confirm the principles — you’re not going to find anything like that in the social world. [8]

This just sounds like Sam Harris.

Though Chomsky himself has never held a professional title other than MIT Academic, he does not hesitate to heap racist scorn on nameless “Third World intellectuals”:

Western and also Third World intellectuals were attracted to the Bolshevik counterrevolution because Leninism is, after all, a doctrine that says that the radical intelligentsia have a right to take state power and to run their countries by force, and that is an idea which is rather appealing to intellectuals. [9]

The culmination of his arrogance and condescension comes in 2003, on a C-SPAN interview:

The collapse of the Soviet Union is a small victory for socialism in my opinion. [10]

This sentiment is completely at odds with reality, considering both the human tragedy witnessed in former Soviet states and the suffering inflicted since by triumphalist neoliberalism.

Chomsky never bothers to define “socialism” or “capitalism,” and the result is this pair of completely incoherent proclamations:

There was more socialism in Germany, in Western Europe, than there was in Russia. No, Russia’s about the most anti-socialist place you can imagine. Since 1918 it had wage labor, had super exploitation, had no element of workers control or involvement or participation. [11]

So giving microcredit loans to women is a very smart thing to do. It’s not the end of everything, but it has paid off. It’s a good capitalist approach. This is pure capitalism, actually, much purer than the U.S. economy. It’s real capitalism. The U.S. economy is state-based to a large extent. [12]

Everything about this is incorrect. Microcredit loans did not work. The welfare state wasn’t socialism. Markets are not synonymous with capitalism, and never have been. Real capitalism looks exactly like the loot and plunder we’re all accustomed to witnessing. These definitions are absolute nonsense, matching neither any previously laid out principle, nor any purely-functional colloquial usage.

However, this measured praise of Europe is nothing compared to what Chomsky had to say about his own nation: the United States.

The United States, the New York Times, and the back-handed compliment

Chomsky has exactly one line I actually like, and it goes as follows:

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum. [13]

Consider this line moving forward.

Far from a silenced rebel voice, Chomsky was a frequent feature in all major networks and newspapers. And his contribution to said features plainly illustrates why.

In an interview with CNN in 2002, Chomsky answered another guest’s accusation that he was unpatriotic by saying:

I choose to live in what I think is the greatest country in the world, which is committing horrendous terrorist acts and should stop. [14]

Then, in another interview for NYT from 2003:

Solomon: Have you considered leaving the United States permanently?

Chomsky: No. This is the best country in the world. [15]

Some people have suggested that he was being sarcastic in both of these interviews. However, in 2008 he gave an interview to Der Spiegel, in which they asked him to clarify:

SPIEGEL: A while ago you called America “the greatest country on earth.” How does that fit together with what you’ve been saying?

Chomsky: In many respects, the United States is a great country. Freedom of speech is protected more than in any other country. It is also a very free society. In America, the professor talks to the mechanic. They are in the same category. [16]

This is unambiguous. Notice, also, how all this talk of mechanics, professors, and “category” sounds more like Obama on the “middle class” than Marx on production relations. Chomsky apes the aesthetics of a left intellectual, and in doing so displaces Marxist class analysis from our discourse, replacing it with vague nonsense.

In a 2013 interview with Jonathan Freedland, a major UK pundit associated with The Guardian, he went on to explain his esteem for the US:

The number of dissenters that are pushed aside is almost universal, either they’re in jail or if it’s Latin America they get their heads blown off. In the US they’re marginalized in various ways. The US is a free country, you can’t do in the US what was done in England. It’s not that oppressive of a society, and there is more protection for freedom of speech. But essentially they can’t get jobs, they’re marginalized, they’re vilified, all sorts of things. Not much punishment, frankly, but, it’s real. [17]

The casual western chauvinism revealed earlier in his reference to “Third World intellectuals” rears its head again: the US is obviously superior to Latin America. There’s no difference between Trump’s “shithole country” comment, and the sentiment promoted by Chomsky here. Serious organizers on the streets of the United States — the Black Panthers, Standing Rock, Ferguson organizers — did not have an easy time. They were, in fact, murdered by the police, exactly as he alleges only happens down south. What Chomsky really means here is that the police has not bothered him and his peers.

Chomsky doesn’t just heap glib praise on US polite society, he goes on to actively minimize and play down the most troublesome revelations about US operations. Consider how he draws objectively incorrect conclusions from bad analysis in 2012:

Guantanamo is still open, but it’s unlikely that serious torture is going on at Guantanamo. There is just too much inspection. There are military lawyers present and evidence regularly coming out so I suspect that that’s not a torture chamber any more. [18]

Chomsky in fact treats the US as a whole exactly how he treats the NYT! He has built an entire career criticizing both, and in fact been called the foremost critic of both. This has a strange way of manifesting in practice, however. Here’s Noam Chomsky on NYT in 2020:

The first thing I do in the morning is read the New York Times. It’s the best newspaper in the world. You want some general sense of what’s going on, that’s where you go. [19]

This is simply incorrect. The NYT often factually mis-reports. Not rarely, not occassionally, and not just as a matter of framing. They report incorrect facts, be it regurgitating claims about Xinjiang in China, or electoral ballots in Bolivia, or trucks in the Venezuelan-Colombian border, or the entire section they dedicate to “Iran’s Nuclear Program.”

Even if we granted that the downside lay exclusively in the realm of distorsion, omission, and mis-representation (as opposed to fabrication), how does that render it the best newspaper in the world? Does nobody else deserve that credit? He supposedly reads voraciously. Where does TeleSUR rank? Where does Grayzone rank? Where does FAIR rank?

Chomsky fans insist it’s ambiguous wording, that he’s referring to the attitudes of others, like a speculator who wants to understand the expectations of the market, however mistaken. This delusion is once again dispelled by his own clarifications:

Chomsky: If I had one newspaper, or stuck with one newspaper, I’d read the New York Times because the coverage is so much broader and deeper…

Freedland: You stay with the New Times even though your book is so critical of the New York Times, damning of the New York Times —

Chomsky: As I said it’s a selective criticism. What reporters report is usually quite accurate, even though distorted. [17]

Chomsky Tactics Advance

Chomsky, consistent in his lifelong opposition to Lenin, instead of suggesting what is to be done, restricts himself to exclusively pointing out what is not to be done.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), aiming to exert economic pressure against the apartheid regime of Israel in Palestine, is ruled out completely in a 2016 interview:

I mean you might as well boycott the United States. [20]

If that seems fatalistic, informed by recent events, consider that his opposition to any meaningful action in solidarity with Palestine was even bleaker in 2002:

Well, the objective reality is that most of the Palestinian refugees will never go back to Palestine — that’s just a fact of life, just like the American Indians will never get back what they had on the American continent. So in that respect, there’ll never be justice. And there’s just no way out of that: if there was ever any prospect of Palestinians in any large number going back to what was formerly Palestine, Israel would probably blow up the world, which they’re capable of doing. And that’s never going to happen. So the only question is, what kind of limited form of justice can be achieved? [8]

You might think that his solution would look something like a voluntary federation of autonomous consensus-based militias with no overarching goals or formal command structure. You’d be wrong:

Associated with the loose antifa array are fringe groups that have initiated the use of force in ways that are completely unacceptable and are a welcome gift to the far right and the repressive forces of the state, while also providing some justification for the absurd claim that antifa is comparable to the far-right forces. [21]

Not content with trashing contemporary domestic resistance, Chomsky uncritically indulges in atrocity propaganda in order to condemn — with absurd and shameless hyperbole — the self-defense strategies of nations on the US State Department’s hit list:

…so maybe it’s the worst government in human history…

…so the crazy North Koreans started producing missiles and nuclear weapons again…

…so yeah, maybe the most horrible regime in human history, but the fact of the matter is the regime does want to survive, and it even wants to carry out economic development — there’s pretty general agreement about this — which it cannot do in any significant way when it’s pouring resources, very scarce resources, into weapons and missile production. So, yeah, maybe the most horrible regime in human history. [22]

As for stable and growing countries like China and Singapore:

I think it’s a pretty rotten system. It does keep the streets clean and people get a good technical education and so on, very repressive, but I don’t think it’s an admirable society by any means. [23]

All this negativity raises the question: does anyone ever get it right? Who does Chomsky like? What kind of institutions or individuals would he put forward as role models?

Well, Chomsky begins his career with US military funding in the mid-1950s:

I would like to express my gratitude to the Society of Fellows for having provided me with the freedom to carry on this research.

This work was supported in part by the U.S.A. Army (Signal Corps), the Air Force (Office of Scientific Research, Air Research and Development Command), and the Navy (Office of Naval Research); and in part by the National Science Foundation and the Eastman Kodak Corporation. [24]

He was pretty grateful then. And, in 1995, he had this to say to a NYT interviewer about the appointment of his MIT peer John M. Deutch as head of the CIA:

[Deutch] has more honesty and integrity than anyone I’ve ever met in academic life, or any other life. If somebody’s got to be running the CIA, I’m glad it’s him. [25]

Deutch now serves on the Board of Directors of Citigroup, Cummins, Raytheon, and Schlumberger. Great guy!

Another thing Chomsky is a fan of is Rojava. From an interview with Mehdi Hasan in 2016:

I’m not an absolute pacifist, I think there are times when the use of military forces defensively is [legitimate] and ISIL is one of them. Defending the Kurds against the ISIL attacks? Yes, that’s legitimate. [26]

So we do have options that fit with the Chomsky framework: funding people like him, becoming director of the CIA, or perhaps signing up for deployment to areas like Syria, where the US is attempting regime change operations.

Critics: Then and Now

In 1968, in the midst of ghetto rebellions against the US Invasion of Vietnam, Chomsky engaged with the public on the pages of the New York Review of Books. A reader involved in the struggle, William X, responds to what he identifies as his narrow-mindedness and lack of strategic thinking:

Chomsky’s article is unsatisfactory for reasons he himself admits to — he does not see where resistance is going and he does not believe that the organized draft resistance he discusses will be very effective. I feel the difficulty lies in a too narrow view of resistance: while Chomsky feels the Washington demonstrations and anti-war protest generally are aspects of (or only “symbolize”?) the move “from dissent to resistance,” all he writes about is one form of draft resistance and various forms of dissent. Are the current demonstrations a move from dissent to resistance or not?

I hope I have begun to make several points clear. The first is that the most effective anti-war activities are those which are the most disruptive, the most costly, those which most undermine the authority of the government domestically and in its war policy. In this light the ghetto rebellions must be seen as one of the activities which most affect the war  — and therefore those elements of the white middle class opposed to the war must work to protect participants (whether or not they agree with the aims or means of those involved, I would say). The anti-war and anti-draft demonstrations are also in this category.

Because the above is so, the kind of specific draft resistance Chomsky and “The Resistance” advocate is the least effective — it causes men to volunteer for prison. […] I have met others, both black and white. I think we would agree that Chomsky’s notion of the alternatives — the military, prison, or exile — is too limited, constrained by lack of experience and by lack of a full comprehension of what is to be done. Our attitude is, prison or exile, yes, before the military — but the cost of trying to catch us will be theirs. We have work to do, or simply lives to live, and don’t intend to make their job easier or our lives more miserable. [27]

That was 1968. Nothing has changed. Chomsky is still out there recommending that we vote for Bloomberg, and dialogue with fascists, and indulge in atrocity propaganda against DPRK, while telling Antifa to pipe down. This is because the man is, and always has been, a libertarian loser.

We will move past this era of Chomsky. One day we will look back on the defeat-after-defeat that coexisted with his 30-or-so years of unofficial misleadership of the Western left. And then Tarzie’s 2015 appraisal will appear definitive:

The high perch from which Chomsky tells us how free we are was likely only vacant because state agents murdered all consequential Black leaders and squashed every other left-wing movement. In the ensuing years, white guys writing books supplanted visionaries with megaphones while the prison population grew. [28]


  1. Nando Vila on Twitter, July 2020. [web] 

  2. Freeman J., 1970. The Tyranny of Structurelessness. Talk given at a conference called by the Southern Female Rights Union. [web] 

  3. Interviewed by Cenk Uygur for The Young Turks, 2020. [web] 

  4. Correspondence with Noam Chomsky, 2020. [web] 

  5. Harper’s, 2020. A Letter on Justice and Open Debate. [web] 

  6. Johnson A.H., 2017. In Defense of Political Correctness. [web] 

  7. Day R., 2020. Marx, Capital, Anti-imperialism, and Socialism. Red Sails. [web] 

  8. Noam Chomsky, 2002. Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky

  9. Michael Parenti. Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism & the Overthrow of Communism. City Light Books. 1997. 

  10. C-SPAN 2003. In Depth. [web] 

  11. Lecture at Clark University, 1994. [web] 

  12. Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, 2007. What We Say Goes: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World. Henry Holt and Company. [web] 

  13. Noam Chomsky, 1998. The Common Good. Odonian Press. 

  14. Zahn P. May 2002. Interview with Noam Chomsky, Bill Bennett. CNN. [web] 

  15. Interviewed by Deborah Solomon, 2003. [web] 

  16. Del Spiegel, 2008. [web] 

  17. The British Library, 2013. Noam Chomsky in conversation with Jonathan Freedland. [web] 

  18. CounterPunch, 2012. [web] 

  19. Chomsky T., Halper K., Taibbi M. March 2020. Noam Chomsky on the Primary, Plus Biden’s Lies Dissected. Rolling Stone. [web] 

  20. Interviewed by Mehdi Hasan, 2016. Noam Chomsky opposes cultural boycott of Israel. [web] 

  21. Interviewed by Maya Oppenheim, 2017. The Independent. [web] 

  22. Interviewed by Amy Goodman for Democracy Now!, 2017. [web] 

  23. Interviewed by Chris Helali, 2013. Noam Chomsky on Revolutionary Violence, Communism and the American Left. [web] 

  24. Chomsky N. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton. p. 1. 

  25. Weiner T., 1995. The C.I.A.’s most Important Mission: Itself. [web] 

  26. Interviewed by Mehdi Hasan, 2016. Noam Chomsky on the war against ISIL. [web] 

  27. Noam Chomsky debates with Chad Walsh and William X. The New York Review of Books. February 1, 1968. [web] via Lorenzo A.E. 2019 Noam Chomsky and the Compatible Left, Part I. [web] 

  28. Tarzie, 2015. White Supremacy and Magic Paper. [web]