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Geary writes: "Written in a withering, sarcastic tone, Chomsky's essay is a brilliant polemic against the Vietnam War and American imperialism more generally."

Noam Chomsky in 2011 at an Occupy Wall Street protest. (photo: Andrew Rusk/Flickr)
Noam Chomsky in 2011 at an Occupy Wall Street protest. (photo: Andrew Rusk/Flickr)


Truth to Power: On Chomsky and "The Responsibility of Intellectuals"

By Daniel Geary, Jacobin

23 February 17

 

Fifty years ago today, Noam Chomsky published his landmark antiwar essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.”

t is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.” So declared Noam Chomsky fifty years ago today in his landmark anti–Vietnam War essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Writing in the pages of the New York Review of Books, Chomsky asserted that intellectuals have a moral duty to use their training and access to information to challenge American imperialism.

The essay’s core argument — that thinkers can best contribute to social change by using their position to tell truths the powerful wish to keep hidden — remains essential for comprehending Chomsky. And the strengths and limitations of Chomsky’s analysis are a valuable starting point for understanding how left-wing intellectuals today can help defeat resurgent right-wing nationalism and revive the socialist movement.

Intellectuals and War

Though Chomsky is today the best-known intellectual on the Left, he was largely unknown to the public before the publication of “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1928 to Jewish immigrants, Chomsky was a radical from a young age. As a child, Chomsky explored anarchist offices and bookstores run by refugees from fascism; at the age of ten, he wrote his first political essay, bemoaning Barcelona’s fall to Franco. He kept his politics to himself as young man, though, focusing instead on establishing himself as a pioneering linguist who sought to discover a “universal grammar,” a deep structure that lies beneath the surface structures of individual languages.

The antiwar movement pushed Chomsky to use his stature as an eminent MIT professor to challenge US foreign policy. He began participating in the growing teach-in movement, which sought to educate Americans about the real causes and consequences of the war. He was arrested at antiwar demonstrations (first at the 1967 March on the Pentagon, where he found himself jailed next to Norman Mailer).

But Chomsky made his real mark not as an activist but as a writer. “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” — which first appeared in the undergraduate journal of the Harvard Hillel Society, where Chomsky originally delivered it as a speech — had an explosive impact upon its publication in the New York Review of Books. That the New York Review, then a new and highly influential journal, would reprint the essay suggested an opening to radical ideas in liberal circles.

As Chomsky knew, the horrendous destruction of life in Vietnam was based on patent falsehoods. Americans were told that they were defending the sovereign nation of South Vietnam from Communist aggression. In fact, South Vietnam was a puppet state that existed only because the US refused to accept a unified Communist Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson and his officials told Americans that the war would be easily won despite serious private doubts. American soldiers who died or suffered lasting physical and psychological wounds were given little explanation for why they were sent to war. At least until 1968, the mainstream media hid the true extent of the damage the US did to the Vietnamese through forced relocations of villages, excessive bombing of North Vietnam, and the use of chemical warfare.

In “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Chomsky’s main target is not policymakers but intellectual apologists for America’s Vietnam policy such as the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Chomsky criticizes Schlesinger and others for opposing the war for the wrong reason: not because it was morally abhorrent but because it was simply a mistake, a war the United States could not win at an acceptable cost. To Chomsky, Schlesinger and others pretended to be hard-headed realists in analyzing world politics but took it as an “article of faith that American motives are pure and not subject to analysis.” Two years later, in his first and best book, American Power and the New Mandarins, Chomsky would label these intellectuals the “new mandarins” because of their subservience to state power.

Against the “cult of the expert,” which urges citizens to defer to foreign policy analysts, Chomsky proposes a conception of intellectual responsibility that asks intellectuals to use their relative freedom from state repression to oppose American imperialism and aid its victims. “Intellectuals,” Chomsky writes, “are in a position to expose the lies of government, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression.”

Chomsky’s Consciousness

Written in a withering, sarcastic tone, Chomsky’s essay is a brilliant polemic against the Vietnam War and American imperialism more generally. But however convincing as a statement about intellectuals’ moral responsibility, its political analysis is incomplete.

Chomsky’s strongly rationalistic philosophy, which also underpins his linguistics, sees all humans as hard-wired to come to the same conclusions. There is a single “truth” — those who refuse to acknowledge it have simply been corrupted by power. Similarly, Chomsky believes we could achieve a socialist society if we could only dispel all the harmful illusions our society promotes. “A radical consciousness,” he argues, “will almost certainly develop as a natural consequence of objective study and thinking that frees itself from mythology.”

But merely exposing lies doesn’t spur social change. And total certainty in a single truth introduces a dogmatism detrimental to democratic discourse. By turning disagreement into a question of an individuals’ moral motives, it invites sectarianism. It also makes coalitional politics difficult. To achieve a concrete goal like ending the Vietnam War, radicals need help. That means not writing off liberals. Finally, Chomsky’s moralistic view of politics sometimes leads to a kind of Manicheanism that overstates the extent, coherence, and perfidy of American power.

In “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Chomsky also hails the “free-floating” intellectual who has the independence to tell the truth. But intellectuals are never independent of social forces and never have been. What truths get told depends more on the balance of political forces than on the cowardice or courage of individual thinkers. Chomsky’s own intervention was only possible because of the rise of the antiwar movement.

Truth and Power

More than speaking truth to power, the Left needs an analysis that allows us to identify and exploit contradictions in the current power structure so we can win short-term victories and organize a social base. This is where intellectuals today can be of the most use. By providing such a power analysis, thinkers can effectively aid the fight against Trumpism and the struggle for a viable socialist alternative.

Chomsky’s conception of intellectual responsibility, though flawed, remains an important contribution to this effort. He insisted that intellectuals not waste their time feeling ashamed of their privilege and instead put their position to good use.

For fifty years now, Chomsky has done exactly that. He’s shown how under the right circumstances, truth-telling can be a radical act. He has invaluably and indefatigably challenged American imperialism through his writings. In our own dangerous times, we need the moral courage that Chomsky has advocated and demonstrated more than ever.

It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth. But it is also their responsibility to show how the change we desire is possible.

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+13 # Mainecoon 2017-02-23 23:15
This article gets certain things wrong. Noam doesn't embrace the Quaker dictum, Speak Truth to Power. We should, he has argued, speak truth to the powerless; power already knows the truth. Also, the idea that the anti-war movement pushed Noam is putting the cart before the horse. When Noam first began giving talks on Vietnam, in 1963-1964, there was little in the way of an anti-war movement. That said, the writer is very correct that Noam has been a beacon and truth-teller like none other.
 
 
+2 # LionMousePudding 2017-02-26 10:42
Thank you for explaining both positive and negative critique. Most comments that I read here find something they don't like, excoriate the author, and discount the entire article. This makes your critique many times more respectable, and for me, believable. Thus educational.

Tx;)
 
 
-2 # JayaVII 2017-02-24 00:07
I like this:

"By turning disagreement into a question of an individuals’ moral motives, it invites sectarianism. It also makes coalitional politics difficult. ... Chomsky’s moralistic view of politics sometimes leads to a kind of Manicheanism that overstates the extent, coherence, and perfidy of American power."

I'm of two minds about Chomsky. On the one hand, his basic analysis of imperialism is insightful. On the other hand, he often falls victim to a simplistic and, as you say, Manichaean tendency. Everyone in power is bad. All parts of the system work together toward the same end, without friction or faction. He's uninterested in how people actually behave and how things actually work.

Because he has no nuance or flexibility, he is capable of massive error, as in his inability to understand the Kennedy assassination and what it really meant about the permanent state. And it enabled him to write a abominable book like "After the Cataclysm," an apology for the Khmer Rouge, wherein, wrapped up in his ideological dogmatism, he downplays the evidence of the Cambodian auto-genocide.

There is an arrogance and self-certainty to Noam Chomsky that frightens and repels me. He is a different character than Howard Zinn, who was a rounded human being. There's something missing in Chomsky ... a personality, a there-ness. He has the soul of a fanatic.
 
 
+7 # fwthye@gmail.com 2017-02-24 05:28
Thank you Mr. Geary and much thanks to Noam Chomsky, of course.
 
 
+7 # ddd-rrr 2017-02-24 06:48
Sorry if I "gush", but this is a wonderful piece, with a wonderful, inclusive "grand view" over
the entire concept of what we need to understand in order to move forward in countering
this particular aberration in our history, "Trumpism". The concept of the recognition of the
variations "hard-wired" into people, and the recognition that a coalition of the variants that
exist on the left is necessary for success in this endeavor, is an important one. There is
neither "one answer to", nor "one concept of", the problem to be solved or its solution.
Thank you, Daniel Geary, for writing this, and RSN for publishing it!
 
 
+12 # goodsensecynic 2017-02-24 07:34
Fifty years ago today (give or take a week), I clipped the essay from my copy of NYR and have kept it close at hand ever since.

Later that year, I took up my first paid position as a post-secondary instructor and have been toiling in these same vineyards ever since ... always with Chomsky's testament nearby.

The principle of "speaking truth to power" is, however, incomplete. The powerful already know the truth and benefit from it relentlessly.

The second part of the responsibility of intellectuals is to speak truth to the powerless, revealing the contradictions and hypocrisies of the ruling class (or the "elites" if you must) and gathering the political will to press for systemic change (progressive "reform" if you like).

Unseating the hegemony of corporatism - or what John McMurtry has called "The Cancer Stage of Capitalism" - is the never more desperate first order of "business" (so to speak).
 
 
+6 # reiverpacific 2017-02-24 11:13
Sadly, most "average" Americans have never heard of Chomsky, thanks in a large part of the commercial-driv en, somnambulistic mainstream owner-media.
Unless (Gawd-forbid) you live in a progressive enclave, go ahead and ask your neighbors, or at your local pub, or any other public gathering place (libraries excepted) who he is and they'll give you a blank stare and ask which TV show he's on!
 
 
+6 # Bush 2017-02-24 14:50
The primary problem faced by "the left" is vocabulary. We must stop using old fashioned words like socialist, leftist, globalist, etc. We are progressive thinkers concerned about the future of everyone. The only constant in life is change, we need to convince the world to get comfortable with that.
 
 
+3 # elkingo 2017-02-24 16:13
At the same risk of sounding fascistic and demagogic, - there IS one truth: LOVE. And it underlies socialism.
 
 
+2 # elkingo 2017-02-24 16:21
And the progressive doctrine IS Manichean in structure. GOOD vs. EVIL, survival vs. death. And in immediate [practical;term s now. If this sounds too touchy-feelie, grandiose, vaporous and non-specific - just think about it. We are at a big crossroads folks, and the battle lines are clearly drawn, the directions to follow clear.
 
 
+2 # Wise woman 2017-02-25 10:42
Unfortunately, intellectualism is no longer "in vogue". One only has to look at the lineup of what's on TV to fully appreciate how much we've become America the dumb. It's what sells is the "true" story and the garbage that passes for entertainment today is indicative of the American mindset. How many folks in the so-called rust states do you think ever watch public television? Or read anything except the sports page or Playboy? How are they ever going to learn or understand the complexities of the greater world around them? The mass media isn't going to do that. That's why so many people think trump is going to save them - if only fro mm themselves.
 
 
+1 # LionMousePudding 2017-02-26 10:54
Chomsky is all of these things, and deeply respectable. I admire him greatly.

I would however beg to differ that his politics supercedes his linguistics as ouevre. Chomsky, as he continued his exploration of language, pretty much invented discipline after discipline of linguistics. Studying linguistics is about 50% studying what Chomsky has discovered or created. And he was still continuing to pioneer brand new ideas as I was studying linguistics myself 20 years ago (I had the pleasure of working in Acquisition and proving various of his ongoing thoughts wrong). (My knowledge stopped there and as I soon was victim of a TBI, I don't even remember my studies).

I would not be surprised to learn he painted masterpieces either, as he certainly tends toward being a Renaissance Man!!
 

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