…and Chomsky might as well have said “I do not agree with fascism but I defend to the death your right to recruit for it”
Given the current controversy about Chomsky’s opposition to anti-fascist activity in the US, it seemed worthwhile giving publicity to this post from libcom (here):
On the issue of Professor Faurisson, for Chomsky to defend the freedom of speech of a fellow academic is understandable. But to claim that, despite his Holocaust denial, Faurisson was somehow not an anti-Semite but merely an ‘apolitical liberal’ is absurd.
To defend another fellow academic, Walt Rostow, and his freedom of speech (even though, as a government adviser, he had organised the US’s murderous bombing of North Vietnam) may also be understandable. But to threaten to ‘protest publicly’ if Rostow were prevented from returning to his academic job at MIT, as Chomsky did in 1969, is even more absurd.
To defend the freedom of another MIT academic, John Deutch, to research whatever he wanted (even if he did research the use of ‘chemical and biological weapons together in order to increase their killing efficiency’ as well as initiating the deployment of both MX and Midgetman nuclear missiles) is perhaps, at a stretch, understandable. But to be ‘one of the very few people on the faculty‘ who supported Deutch’s bid to become MIT President, as Chomsky was, is simply outrageous (as was his support in The New York Times for Deutch’s promotion from Pentagon official to the Director of the CIA in 1995).
To understand why Chomsky has often taken academic freedom to such extreme lengths, we need to understand his situation at MIT. As he says of his early career in the 1960s, MIT was ‘about 90% Pentagon funded at that time. And I personally was right in the middle of it. I was in a military lab.’
Chomsky was recruited to work at MIT by Jerome Wiesner, a military scientist who had both ‘helped get the United States ballistic missile program established in the face of strong opposition‘ and had brought such missile research to MIT. Wiesner also became a nuclear strategy adviser for both Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and, as Chomsky says himself, ‘I’m at MIT, so I’m always talking to the scientists who work on missiles for the Pentagon.‘
(Police disperse a student picket of one of MIT’s nuclear missile laboratories in November 1969.)
The only way a passionate anti-militarist like Chomsky could survive in such a militarised environment was for him to believe even more passionately in academic freedom. Consequently, for Chomsky a university should be somewhere where academics are both free to do the most obscene things – such as promoting Holocaust denial or researching weaponry – and are equally free to peacefully campaign against such obscenities.
This helps us understand why, in 1969, Chomsky openly told anti-war students that, rather than trying to remove war research from the university, ‘you ought to have the Department of Chemical and Biological Warfare right in the centre of the campus so you can see who is coming and going.‘ It helps us understand why, at this time, Chomsky opposed students’ attempts to occupy MIT’s administrative offices in protest at their university’s military research. And it helps us understand why he now opposes any confrontational direct action against fascists.
Although a genuine belief in free speech, combined with a genuine fear of a right-wing backlash, explains some of his approach to fascism, it seems that he has also extended his rather extreme interpretation of academic freedom from the university campus to the wider political environment.
Does this mean we should ignore his views? I don’t think so. After all, Noam is not unintelligent! But we do need to understand how his position at MIT has influenced these views in order to decide how seriously to take his opinions on both politics and science.
For full references and for more on Chomsky’s situation at MIT see:
This schizophrenia is a clear product of thought without consequences (on this, see in particular the posts from Red Marriott on the above thread): “ideas” become just abstractions, something one happens to think at the time, and are never tested out in any risky confrontation with reality, never used to practically challenge social relations. But then intellectuals who never get their hands dirty are invariably schizophrenic. However, I hadn’t realised this level of schizophrenia, despite despising him since he gave a very unimpassioned TV interview in the mid-70s to Peter Jay, a high-up bourgeois (the son-in-law of the Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan) who shortly afterwards became the UK ambassador to the US, in which he abstractly argued for the creation of workers councils in Spain in ’36 [see the script of this interview here]. To indulge in polite dialogue with a representative of the (very vicious) enemy shows how undangerous his ideas are, a spectacle of opposition which makes ‘revolution’ and utterly acceptable forms of bourgeois politeness apparently compatible. Any ‘radicality’ has the sting taken out of it.
The fact that this utterly respectable anarchism could be treated politely by a representative of the bourgeoisie and in the British mainstream media, whilst being cheered by endless lefty liberals, merely showed me how his claims to being an ‘anarchist’ meant fuck-all (as if his later support for Chavez in Venezuela had anything anarchistic about it). But I’d never realised that at MIT he’d effectively collaborated in the very things he claimed to oppose.
“The cadre is the institutionalisation of the two-sided and contradictory nature of the spectacle which simultaneously sings its own praise and, smelling its own stench, reports it…The cadre simultaneously wants to enjoy the thrill of refusal and the security of submission…for all his talk about revolution he is terrified of having to give up the security of this world where he enjoys certain ordinary privileges for a world where he could become anything – a villain, a hero or simply a mediocre man…The intellectual is the cadre who is most proud that he works, who wants his work to be visible…The bourgeoisie know that they will get nothing practical from this modern-day eunuch but…they continue to subsidise the intellectual who, if he does nothing else, demonstrates the rewards of thought without consequence.”
“The spectacle’s division of labour…allots to its most precocious intellectual strata the task of presenting its image of struggle as representative of the society-as-a-whole in order to preserve the reality of proletarian misery”
All the bullshit about “free speech”, an ideology with which Chomsky berates those who attack recruitment for white supremacists, ignores the very obvious fact that if you exercise your “right” to free speech to a teacher, to a boss, to a cop, etc. you find your speech is not so free at all. Besides, speech is colonised by the monologuers of the media, and inculcation by the official educators and of all the dominant forces of pseudo-communication. Originally, in the 18th century, the demand for “free speech” had something radical about it, insofar as it opposed the monopoly of ideological expression spouted by the monarchy. But the ruling class are the only section of society who have the power to put their free speech into effect, whose ideas have the most obviously concrete consequences; for the rest of us, it’s a constant battle to express ourselves freely, and we do it at risk of being imprisoned or crushed in other ways. “Freedom of expression” does not exist in a world where “expression” is reduced to activity needed to survive – ie wage labour. Those specialists in one-way communication (of which Chomsky, endlessly speaking on high from conference platforms, is an adept) oppose disruption of their “free” speech because such a disruption challenges dominant hierarchical discourse.
For a further critique of “free speech”, see this.