Noam Chomsky and the Left: Allies or Strange Bedfellows?

The Left needs to learn from, and not harangue, Chomsky.

Today, December 7, is Noam Chomsky’s 92nd birthday.


A couple of days before he was scheduled to discuss, on the platform of the Tata Literary Festival 2020, his recent book Internationalism or Extinction, a group of India’s social and political activists wrote an open letter to Noam Chomsky in which they suggested that he boycott the festival. They cited the less-than-wholesome credentials of the festival’s sponsors, the Tatas, in the matter of human rights and apropos of how they ran their businesses. The activists reminded Chomsky that the Tatas’ business empire had expanded over the years by ruthlessly displacing – with active help from the Indian state, and often with brute force – vast tribal communities from their traditional habitats in several Indian provinces. They also talked about open-cast mining and other deleterious business practices the Tatas continued to pursue in flagrant disregard of environmental concerns. By lending his formidable name and his enormous prestige to the festival, the activists believed, Chomsky would only help “erase their (the Tatas’) crimes from public consciousness”.

Noam Chomsky responded by telling the activists that he wanted to go ahead with the programme he had committed to, but that he and his interlocutor, Vijay Prashad, would begin the proceedings by reading out a prepared statement in which they would spell out their views on big business including the Tatas. Obviously they were not going to present a particularly edifying picture of the business conglomerate’s activities. Expectedly, therefore, when the festival organisers got wind of Chomsky’s intentions, they cancelled the programme, without, of course, telling him why. The festival’s director later issued an appropriately grand statement about how greatly they valued every individual’s freedom of expression, but why, despite all that, they could not allow someone’s ‘personal agenda’ to run away with the spirit of the festival. For good measure, the director also threw in a mention of the very high regard he apparently held Chomsky in.

So far, so good. The activists’ purpose had been served. Besides, because the festival had barred its door to Chomsky, at least another writer boycotted the festival, which also became news. A joint statement by Chomsky and Prashad wondered if it wasn’t a case of censorship, and the statement gained wide currency. All this hardly did the Tatas’ reputation a great deal of good. Indeed, this episode in the end showed the group in perhaps poorer light than a formal boycott of the festival by Noam Chomsky would have done.

All this is true, and yet one cannot help feeling a little sad at the manner the whole episode played out. Couldn’t the appeal to Chomsky have gone out more discreetly, and not as an open letter made public at the same time as it went out? From personal experience, I can say that, however busy Noam Chomsky may be  – and he obviously has an awful lot on his hands at any point – he is unfailingly prompt and polite in responding to letters and emails, even when he happens not to know a particular correspondent he is replying to. (And in this case, Chomsky was clearly familiar with the work of at least some of the activists who wrote to him, if he did not know some of them personally.) That being so, was it really necessary to force Chomsky’s hand on this issue so demonstratively?  It does look like a case of forcing his hand really, not least because the tone of the communication comes across as somewhat combative in places, for example here:

There is a logical problem of applying different standards when it comes to dealing with an ‘Indian Corporation’ today as opposed to an American or a French corporation because the Tata group is as multinational as any other major world corporation. The only possible argument could be a tactical one—“Does boycotting a corporation like the Tatas harm the interests of disempowered communities in terms of employment generation, etc? 

To anyone who knows what Noam Chomsky has stood up for all his life, this is bound to sound somewhat gratuitous. Even less defensible is the call that comes a little later in the open letter, one that asks Chomsky “to not become a tool in the Tatas’ propaganda against the Adivasi people of India”. It is not easy to hear this as a call to a comrade-in-arms, or even a fellow traveller. The lines clearly speak to a sense of moral superiority of the writers of the letter. And I don’t think this sentiment is limited to only those who signed that open letter. The fact that, after the programme fell through, there was something close to what can only be described as euphoria in some sections of the Indian Left (over Chomsky’s perceived ‘embarrassment’) does, I think, bear me out. It was as though a pretender to the true revolutionary spirit had been discovered in his true colours, and every true-blue revolutionist couldn’t have been happier. 

Also read: The Pandemic Has Only Exposed the Suicidal Tendencies of Capitalism: Noam Chomsky

This is not the place to debate the merits of the boycott proposition: I will only say that it is far from being an open-and-shut case. What is more important to note is that a certain misgiving about Noam Chomsky’s progressive credentials is not uncommon among the Left in even his home country, the USA. For example, in the run-up to the 2020 US Presidential elections, Chomsky unequivocally advocated the ‘pushing of the lever for the Democrats’, while some inside the Left discouraged voting for Joseph Biden because of Biden’s obvious limitations as a candidate. In several interviews given prior to the voting day, Chomsky was often scathing in his critique of those sections of the Left that condemned what they derisively called ‘lesser-evil voting’, i.e., the taking of what they considered was the easy way out of the question of electoral choice. (This was so even though Chomsky, as always, remained the most astringent critic of the Democratic Party’s economic policies.) He posed the basic issue with characteristic simplicity:

If you don’t push the lever for the Democrats, you are assisting Trump. We can argue about a lot of things, but not arithmetic. You have a choice on Nov 3. Do I vote against Trump or help Trump?

Those on the Left who obsessed about the dearth of choice were, Chomsky felt, focussing, ‘laser-like’, on elections alone, to the neglect of what serious political activism should really consist in, namely, educational, polemical and organisational work. Chomsky also believes that, in doing this, the Left was unwittingly buying into establishment propaganda, which habitually projects common citizens as mere spectators of, and not participants in, political processes: so all the citizens presumably needed to do was to cast their votes and leave the serious business of politics to political activists.

To Chomsky the classical libertarian socialist, this denial of agency to ordinary citizens is deeply problematic. To institutional Left, on the other hand, privileging the mass of common citizens over the political leadership was an excellent idea – provided that idea was not sought to be translated into action in the foreseeable future. No wonder then that the Left’s distrust of Chomsky’s politics has persisted till this day. Prior to the 2020 elections, in fact, Chomsky’s open advocacy of the Biden candidature was not infrequently in the cross hairs of the American radical Left.                                   

Also read: Noam Chomsky and the Question of Individual Choice in a Vastly Unequal World

Why does Chomsky always seem to ‘stand at a slight angle to the universe’ of given wisdom (to borrow E.M. Forster’s memorable phrase) in everything he does? The answer is not far to seek, though it has several components. One, Chomsky always insists on thinking everything through to the end. No halfway house for him in anything he ventures on, no ceding of ground to high rhetoric, or to radical impetuosity.

As early as in his 1967 essay On Resistance, when civil society mobilisation in the US against the Vietnam War was nearing its peak with Chomsky fully committed to the protest movement, he calmly surveys the options available to war resisters, weighing the pros and cons of each option down even to what look like minutiae, and stressing the likely efficacy or otherwise of every possible kind of disruptive action open to the movement. And he repeatedly cautions potential resisters against embracing spectacularly heroic, but in effect unavailing, options. This brings us to the second important ingredient of Chomsky’s thought process: the optics of social action hardly ever appeals to him; appearances mean next to nothing to Chomsky. He is focussed narrowly on the cost that a mode of resistance will likely entail for the government, and he is not prepared to worry about the acceptability of that method in the eyes of non-participants. Next, individual choice is always for him the cardinal principle. Even though the cause of the war resisters was a just and humane one, each individual participant involved in the collective action needed to be allowed absolute freedom to choose what method, if any, suited him best.

We must not, I believe, thoughtlessly urge others to commit civil disobedience, and we must be careful not to construct situations in which young people will find themselves induced, perhaps in violation of their basic convictions, to commit civil disobedience. Resistance must be freely undertaken. 

Finally, Chomsky never loses sight of the overarching moral principle:

Resistance is in part a moral responsibility, in part a tactic to affect government policy. In particular, with respect to support for draft resistance, I feel that it is a moral responsibility that cannot be shirked. 

The moral underpinning of Chomsky’s attitude to social action is not by any means a philosophical construct, however.  It is alive, pulsating with a sense of  community that he believes encompasses all the participants in the action: 

I also hope, more sincerely than I know how to say, that it (i.e., war resistance) will create bonds of friendship and mutual trust that will support and strengthen those who are sure to suffer.

Also read: In the Age of Faltering Democracies, Noam Chomsky Is More Relevant Than Ever

This moral sense, grounded in an astute recognition of the potentialities and limitations of social action, is the pivot around which Chomsky’s activism has turned for all of his adult life. The individual is quite as important in his scheme of things as the community, the means as salient as the goal towards which they strive; and again, clear-eyed realism is no less vital to his programme than ideological integrity. In other words, he is free from all traces of dogma. And I think it is Chomsky’s abhorrence of all dogmas that the institutional Left finds   hard to come to terms with. 

At one level, the Left’s discomfiture is not difficult to understand – even appreciate – for Noam Chomsky has always defied pigeonholing. No better example of his inability (or unwillingness, or both) to conform to any commonly accepted standard of consistency exists than l’affaire Faurisson which erupted in France in the early 1980s. Robert Faurisson, a British-French academic, had made his ‘name’ as a Holocaust denier, claiming, among other things, that there was incontrovertible proof that Nazi gas chambers were a fiction, the genocide of the Jews never took place, and The Diary of Anne Frank was an elaborate forgery. Faurisson wrote at length to ‘substantiate’ his bizarre theories. An uproar ensued. University of Lyons, where Faurisson taught, suspended him and he was denied access to the university facilities. Some French and foreign intellectuals protested the university’s action, citing academic independence and the right to free speech. A petition was then put into circulation, defending Faurisson’s right to write as he wanted to.

When Chomsky was approached with a request to endorse the petition, he agreed without hesitation. There was now a bigger furore, and Chomsky (who himself had described the Holocaust as “the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history”) was accused – among others, by leftwing intellectuals like Pierre Vidal-Naquet – of backing a pseudoscholarly anti-Semite engaged in insanitary ‘research’. Chomsky responded by saying that even the most loathsome extremist should not be denied his right to free speech. Indeed, Chomsky argued, it was precisely such cases that tested a society’s adherence to democratic principles. Many of his admirers were aghast, but Chomsky himself saw no reason to be contrite. Truth is, there have been several other instances also when he defended the freedom of speech of someone he strongly disapproved of, or even excoriated. 

Such a man can hardly be expected to fit into any ideological straitjacket. So the Left’s occasional unease with Chomsky is not only understandable, it is indeed to be expected. But doesn’t a critique of Avram Noam Chomsky need to be tempered with the recognition that, in him, our world has “the greatest living challenger of unjust power and delusions”, as Edward Said memorably said? I think it does, and if we are to hope to liberate ourselves from the bonds of illegitimate authority, we can scarcely do better than learn from Chomsky’s example.

Anjan Basu can be reached at [email protected].