A Brief Review of the Work of Professor Noam Chomsky

[Moss Roberts was invited by the widely circulated Chinese magazine Nanfang Renwu Zhoukan to write an article introducing Chinese readers to the work of Noam Chomsky. The essay appeared on January 11, 2007. This is an expanded version of the original Chinese article.]


Noam Chomsky, born December 7, 1928, and raised in the city of Philadelphia, is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at MIT. Like his father, William, a respected scholar of the Hebrew language, Professor Chomsky knows Hebrew and published a study of its phonetic system. His own early training as a scholar of the Old Testament and its commentaries introduced him to the rabbinical tradition of intensive critical questioning of texts and the idea of an ‘activist mind.’


Well before the state of Israel was established in 1948, in the household of his parents the questions of the Zionist movement and the settlement of Jews in Palestine were as important as the study of the Hebrew Bible. Family life brought the young Chomsky into the milieu of socialists and idealists who in the 1930s and 40s strove for social reform in the US and for the creation of Israel as a secular state based on collective principles of social justice, and co-existing peacefully and productively with its Arab neighbors. Thus even as a youngster his interest in language and in politics were connected and had begun to influence each other. Robert Barsky’s biography, called Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, and published by MIT Press in 1997, contains a useful discussion of his early years. Today, Professor Chomsky is distinguished for his innovative work in the field of linguistics, but his wider public renown is due to his authoritative voice as a critic of US foreign and domestic policy.


As a scholar of linguistics, Professor Chomsky is one of the founders of a school called generative transformational grammar. This school of linguistic research and analysis develops the theory that the power to acquire and utilize language is inborn and found only in humans. This theory rejects the idea that the capacity to learn and produce language develops only mechanically through external conditioning. A child’s speech does not simply imitate what has been heard. Rather, external conditioning is actively received and worked upon as the mind (renxin) grows and develops the ability to generate new ideas and new sentences. The mind is the principal agent, the creative factor. By the age of five or six the result of this process is the basic mastery of a language, the ability to transform “finite words and rules” into, as Barsky says, “an infinite number of sentences.” The process unfolds throughout life.


Professor Chomsky’s position on language may remind some of Mencius’ affirmation (opposing Gaozi and Mozi) of the existence of human nature (renxing). For Mencius, man is not merely a blank entity to be shaped by external conditions but has an endowed active potential to be developed through cultivation and learning, ideally under a benevolent sovereign. Man’s disposition toward the social virtues is natural says Mencius, just as Chomsky views the capacity for language use as natural. Since language is the mode of human socialization, the two philosophies are compatible, though Mencius has higher expectations for government than Chomsky does. Mencius’ key term ‘benevolent government’ (renzheng) is not found in Professor Chomsky’s writings.


Of course, when Professor Chomsky affirms the existence of a “human nature with innate powers” independent of social and historical conditions, his philosophical sources are not Confucian but rather such Enlightenment thinkers as Spinoza and Descartes. Professor Chomsky acknowledges the influence of Descartes’ view of language as a unique human endowment, categorically different from machine-like animals (Barsky 108). The 17th century Jewish thinker Spinoza, who understood God in terms of nature and reason, is another source of Professor Chomsky’s thinking. Human nature is a crucial category in all of Professor Chomsky’s thought. His 1970 television debate on the subject with Michel Foucault (who gives more weight to external conditions) was published in September 2006.


When Professor Chomsky turns to social questions, one may observe him working on ideas of free development similar to those underlying his theory of language. He holds that humans do not need much in the way of external control in order to form wholesome and productive social relationships. He “wants to see a society moving toward voluntary organizations and eliminating as much as possible the structures of hierarchy and domination, and the basis for them in ownership and control” (Chomsky on Democracy and Education, p. 298, RoutledgeFarmer, 2003). In his view such powerful forces as official propaganda and state coercion distort human psychology and relationships and thus stifle intellectual development and social life in general. An opponent of the all mighty State, Professor Chomsky identifies himself as part of the anarchist tradition (defined as voluntary or anti-authoritarian socialism with institutions controlled by and serving workers). He also speaks of himself as a ‘left libertarian’ or a ‘libertarian socialist.’


For those not familiar with the term, ‘libertarianism’ is an outgrowth of Enlightenment liberalism. In advocating freedom of individual development, libertarianism is part of the Anglo-American tradition of suspicion of official authority and institutions as arbiters of society and morality. As capitalism developed, however, libertarianism became almost the opposite of the more familiar doctrines of liberalism which look to benign state power to protect by law individual rights. In American politics today right-wing libertarians (many of whom came into prominence when Reagan was president) also oppose a strong (or too strong) state and Washington’s war policies, because they strengthen the state at the expense of all other values and interests. This is why terms like right and left do not easily apply to Professor Chomsky. He calls himself a ‘left’ libertarian partly because of his support for government policies that improve the lives of poor people (both in the US and abroad), partly because the left is by far the weaker force in US politics, and partly because of his early hopes for a socialist Israel. But more often than not his focus is on epistemology, how the mind processes political language and reaches conclusions. As for Marxism, he sees it as useful for critical analysis but has little sympathy for it when it serves as an ideological instrument of state control or for justifying official positions.


Professor Chomsky’s critique of the State is mainly directed toward his own. He turns his analytical anger on Washington’s cruel maltreatment of third world people, its ruthless foreign policies and disregard for international law, its abuse of US citizens and residents, and its violations of democracy and Constitutional Law. He argues that this pattern of behavior became dominant after World War II left the US state in a position of unchallengeable power. It was US aggression against Vietnam that most powerfully influenced him to become a critic of US foreign policy. His essays on the war are collected in American Power and the New Mandarins (1969) and in At War With Asia (1970); these books remain relevant today. Chinese readers may have a particular interest in what he has written about the Vietnam War since the US invasion was justified in the US and round the world by the need to contain China. Fortunately for China and America, the Vietnamese successfully contained Washington’s power and thus opened the door to a period of relative peace and partial prosperity in eastern Asia in the last thirty years.


In his latest work, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (2006), he challenges another myth of the Vietnam War, that US military force can impose democracy on other peoples. He argues that the real motives of Washington are for material and strategic gains and not for the ideals (freedom, democracy) so often claimed as motives (Chapter 4 “Democracy Promotion Abroad”). For Professor Chomsky, Washington is no exception as it follows the historical pattern of earlier empires whether Roman or British. He suggests that “the more there is a need to talk about the ideals of democracy, the less democratic the system usually is” (Chomsky on MisEducation, p. 17, 2000).


Professor Chomsky’s logic is to apply universal principles when judging the behavior of government. In Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (p. 4) he writes, “Those who are seriously interested in understanding the world will adopt the same standards whether they are evaluating their own political and intellectual elites or those of official enemies. . . . Truth [is] veiled by intentional ignorance that makes a crucial contribution to ongoing crimes.” He regards the quest for truth and the struggle against official evasion and mendacity as the “responsibility of intellectuals.”


In his own work Professor Chomsky diligently measures his government’s actual behavior against its idealized but false representations widespread in media and educational institutions. He shows how these misrepresentations serve the goal of indoctrination and “manufacturing consent,” which is the title of one of his most important books and also of a film made about him. In Failed States (103) he writes: “It is no easy task to gain some understanding of human affairs. In some respects, the task is harder than in the natural sciences. Mother Nature doesn’t provide the answers on a silver platter, but at least she does not go out of her way to set up barriers to understanding. In human affairs, such barriers are the norm. It is necessary to dismantle the structures of deception erected by doctrinal systems. . . .”


Thus the core of Professor Chomsky’s approach is as much about thought and language as about politics. He seeks to uncover how indoctrination systems work to prevent people from gaining a real and practical understanding of the major questions of our world, and how they enable intellectuals to exempt their government from criticism of the very same evils for which they easily (and rightly, but safely) condemn other governments. Nothing troubles him more than this double standard. Thus he says that polls show about 70 percent of Americans agreeing that the war in Vietnam was immoral, while most intellectuals and officials prefer to call the war a well-meaning mistake, something they would never say about Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan or Czechoslovakia. We see the same practice in the moralizing of crimes: bombing is called humanitarian, invasions are rescues, political adversaries are evil tyrants, etc. However, Professor Chomsky also observes that this hypocrisy of misrepresentation shows that Washington is well aware that Americans would not accept the real purposes of its policies and have to be fooled into accepting immoral acts of violence. This further suggests that Americans like all people have a natural universal aversion to immorality that has to be taken into account by the rulers.


Here is one example of such deception: in Failed States (p. 47-48) Professor Chomsky writes as follows about the US destruction on November 9, 2004 of Falluja General Hospital in Iraq: “The word ‘conflict’ is a common euphemism for US aggression, as when we read [in the New York Times] that ‘now the Americans are rushing in engineers who will begin rebuilding what the conflict has just destroyed’ — just ‘the conflict,’ with no agent, like a hurricane.” Professor Chomsky expresses his outrage at the way a leading newspaper contrives to obscure moral responsibility for destroying a hospital filled with patients and medical personnel while reassuring readers that some kind of meaningful rescue is underway.


Professor Chomsky has often written letters to the press to complain about and correct such misrepresentations. His letters are almost never published. He recognizes that major newspapers and even television stations do at times carry partial criticism of policies, but he remains frustrated at how little influence the occasional critic has. He appreciates the fact that there are small oases in the system, places where free critical inquiry does go forward, sometimes at elite universities like his own. These places have value but also create the illusion of a wider freedom of discussion that does not exist. At the same time he argues that a good part of the educational system participates in indoctrination to create consensus. Sheer force and fear, used freely in the Third World, would not work so well on the American middle class. One of the books in which he explores this question is Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (1989). Professor Chomsky’s effort to expose governmental wrongdoing brings together his study of language and mind and his study of politics. Professor Chomsky’s approach is epistemological: he is interested in the process of thinking. He seeks to understand how official positions are communicated to the public, how they are learned and accepted, but also how citizens can think for themselves and overcome official misrepresentation.


Independent thought, self-generated transformative critical thought as a basis for well-informed collective activism for rational humane goals, therefore, are perhaps the highest moral values for Professor Chomsky. Informed citizen activism (including legal protection for it) is the necessary preventative or corrective for bad policies. This helps explain his great admiration for Bertrand Russell, the famed English philosopher and anti-war activist, who joined public demonstrations against British governmental injustice and its eagerness for war-making. Despite the unequal struggle against official policies and their misrepresentations, Professor Chomsky usually is cautiously optimistic. He believes that human nature and the natural powers of mind will in the long run prevail, just as he believes that –however limited — human progress has been made over the last 500 years.


In his many books on the subject of Washington’s policies abroad and at home, Professor Chomsky writes about government policies not as an expert but as an informed citizen taking responsibility for his government. He believes that a person with an ordinary level of education and intelligence when given relevant facts and honest analysis should have no difficulty figuring out the meaning of events despite official efforts to obscure the facts, interests, and motives behind policy choices. For this reason Professor Chomsky writes plain straightforward English and is sometimes critical of academic theories couched in overly complex language. He finds much fashionable post-modernist and post-colonialist academic writing too pedantic and too far from common discourse even when he might agree with the ideas expressed.


Perhaps the main myth Professor Chomsky seeks to expose is that Washington has a benevolent and god-given leadership role to play among the nations of the world, and that whatever nation happens to be the principal enemy of the moment deserves to be demonized: yesterday Russia, Vietnam and China; today Iraq, Iran, and Korea; tomorrow — who knows? Focusing on a mythical evil, be it communism, terrorism, or some other ‘ism,’ is for him a device to promote war (cold or hot) and to deceive Americans into supporting bad means for unreal ends. For Professor Chomsky the reality is that Washington has supported oppressive dictatorships all round the world: in Indonesia, the Congo, Central America, Latin America, the Philippines, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, South Korea, and elsewhere. These dictatorships earn Washington’s support by opening their economies to corporate exploitation of their natural resources and their labor. Foreign (multi-national) corporate goals rarely serve the local people of smaller nations and are usually injurious to them. Therefore, at times, extreme violence against one small nation is useful in getting others to obey Washington’s orders without too much protest. He notes that a majority of Americans are kept uninformed about these large world realities.


In condemning the failure of Washington’s policies to live up to the ideals that most Americans aspire to, Professor Chomsky might be compared to Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah, who condemned the leaders of the Jews for breaking their binding covenant with God. He wants to call on Americans to honor their promised ideals, and hold themselves responsible and their leaders to account for violations of their own professed ideals. As for his own role, his ability to speak and publish, he understands that to be effective, a mature and sophisticated propaganda system has to make a little room for the occasional critic or dissident (if it must), but only at the margin, ensuring that critical messages are unlikely to get far enough to cause much to change.


Critics of Professor Chomsky have said that he pays too much attention to Washington’s wrongdoing and not enough to those of other governments. To this charge, his answer is simple. As one committed to universal principles, he is aware and critical of the wrongs others commit, but he reserves his main energy for studying the state that he is a citizen of, and therefore bears primary responsibility for, his own. Students of early Chinese thought will notice an important Confucian principle in this approach, namely that one must make one’s self (one’s society, one’s nation) a good example before trying to rectify others: Zheng ji, zheng ren.


From a Chinese point of view it might seem that despite changes in rhetoric (democracy instead of civilizing) modern international law, trade practice, and war-making have changed little from the days when gunboat diplomacy imposed unequal treaties on China (and many other colonies) in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Smaller third world economies are vulnerable to the negative policies of the IMF and World Bank. Free trade is often coercive trade that blocks free trade in agricultural products. The only thing protecting China as it has advanced from colonial status through revolution to stakeholder in the global system of trade and diplomacy is its strong state. Here is an important problem that Professor Chomsky does not address. How does China fit into his general political analysis? How would he analyze the entire course of the Chinese revolution, with its emphasis on state-building, from Sun Yat Sen to Mao Zedong and those who came after him?


Although he mentions China occasionally and recognizes its sufferings from Western imperialism, Professor Chomsky rarely explores its history or culture in detail. Perhaps this is because his negative attitude toward the State contradicts the larger political traditions and modern history of China. The result is a dilemma. How can a weak state fight imperialism? It was the revolutionary post-1949 Chinese state that played a key role in restraining Washington’s aggressions in Asia. It is the post-revolutionary Chinese state that has played a key role in protecting the Chinese economy from the World Bank, the US Treasury and Department of Commerce and even the Pentagon. In the ideological shift away from Communist egalitarianism and class struggle the Chinese leadership turned to Confucianism as a means to exert its authority over the population and also as a means to reclaim the cultural allegiance of all Chinese around the world (and their investment capital). This reassertion of the traditional culture serves in addition as a barrier to the ‘soft penetration’ of Christians on a mission.


Thus when it comes to the role of the state as a moral force with patriarchal leaders who discipline and educate the people Chomsky’s libertatian anarchism as a political philosophy must part company with Confucianism, however quietly, even if Confucian theories of the mind seem compatible with Chomsky’s theories of man’s innate capacity for language and morality.


As the ideology of political order, Confucianism combines the political and the moral in a way that is rare in the modern West, where religion and the state are normally separated into different if not independent spheres. In the West, law justifies state power while religion then claims for itself the sphere of morality. Perhaps because of the joining of government and morality (zhengzhe zhengye as Confucius says, “governing is a matter of moral rectitude”), China is far more secular in its political ideology than the US or the Muslim nations.


If religion is marginal or dispensable for most Chinese, a good number of Americans in the grip of missionary illusions still believe that they have the cure (religion, human rights, democracy) for many of the problems that China faces, even if these “cures” have to be forced on the Chinese. A number of Chinese share such views. Many Christians still believe in the medieval mission of converting the Jews and look upon the Chinese as equally good candidates for conversion. Chomsky’s writings are a useful antidote to such illusions of benevolent intervention, showing in detail how noble ideals are perverted to serve the most inhuman economic and strategic ends. As Mark Twain wrote in 1900, those missionary idealists who have gone to convert the Chinese to Christianity should return home at once to save their own desperate countrymen from the sin of participating in the lynching of blacks: “The Chinese . . . are plenty good enough just as they are; and besides every convert runs a risk of catching our civilization . . . O kind missionary, O compassionate missionary, leave China! Come home and convert these Christians!” (“The United States of Lyncherdom”).



Moss Roberts is Professor of Chinese at New York University. Recent articles by him include “Bad Karma in Asia” (in Harootunian and Miyoshi, LEARNING PLACES) and “‘We Threaten the World’” (in Ross and Ross, ANTI-AMERICANISM). He has also translated works of Chinese literature and philosophy. He was a founding member of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, which published the journal Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. Among the initial board members of that journal was Noam Chomsky.

Leave a comment