The contradictions of Noam Chomsky

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On top of earning the tribute “father of modern linguistics,” Noam Chomsky is one of the world’s most widely read left critics of U.S. foreign policy.

Chomsky educates and often dazzles with a mountain of historical documentation supporting his case against horrifying U.S. practices. Chomsky’s readers learn in excruciating detail that the U.S. government is the planet’s number one purveyor of terror, wars, lies, and plunder. They learn, as well, that all this is done for corporate profit, and is enabled by a highly developed propaganda system that works through the media and the schools.

But what happens upon reaching the summit of this mountain of information? Chomsky’s painful portrait of a murderous capitalist system cries out for radical change. Unfortunately, he opposes the practical revolutionary measures needed to replace that blood-stained system with the socialist alternative.

There is something radically wrong with this picture.

Parties for and against working people. Chomsky correctly indicts the Democrats and Republicans as two wings of a single “business party,” united in their “contempt for democracy.”

He condemns the typical politician of both parties as saying whatever “the pollsters have told him will increase his chances of gaining office,” only to “do what is demanded of him by those who have provided him with resources” once elected. “This has always been true,” says Chomsky.

Yet, in 2004, he urged voting for Democrat John Kerry over Republican George Bush, and he now writes favorably about Barack Obama. His political prescription contradicts his own analysis of the problem.

And, while coming out for “lesser evil” Democrats over the “greater evil” Republicans, Chomsky is against the actual alternative — building a vanguard party that can lead a mass movement to take power.

The goal of revolutionary parties is to organize and lead humanity’s oppressed majority to take power away from the capitalist minority. But Chomsky says that such parties, modeled after the Bolshevik Party under Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin, are “elitist.” According to Chomsky, they see themselves as attempting to “lead the stupid masses towards some future they’re too dumb to understand themselves.”

It’s odd that, in Chomsky’s view, a capitalist party that holds the masses in contempt can be supported, but a Leninist party cannot.

More fundamentally, his slur against Leninist parties does not hold up. Such a party participates as an ally in the struggles of working people against all forms of oppression. It works tirelessly, just as Chomsky does, to educate people about the brutality of policies carried out to benefit a tiny few. What does this demonstrate if not true respect?

A vanguard party aims to convince the masses of people that they have a right to free themselves from the chains of the profit system, and that they have the power to do so. Leaders of a Leninist party come from the ranks of the oppressed, and they understand that a revolution cannot be made against the wishes of the masses.

Misidentifying Stalinism’s roots. Like many others, Chomsky is a critic of the problems of capitalism who is hostile to one of the crucial tools for a socialist solution, the revolutionary party.

Chomsky considers himself to be a socialist of a certain type. He distinguishes two currents of socialism. Leninists are “authoritarian socialists.” Anarchists, like himself, are “libertarian socialists.”

According to Chomsky, a Leninist party, acting in the name of the working class, only uses the latter as a means to achieve power. Then such a party leads inevitably to Stalinist totalitarianism.

And Chomsky puts the evil of Stalinism on the same level as the evils of corporate tyranny and even fascism. Therefore, the vanguard party cannot be supported.

Libertarian socialism, says Chomsky, is better because it works for “a highly organized society, completely organized and nothing to do with chaos, but based on democracy all the way through. That means democratic control of communities, of workplaces, of federal structures, built on systems of voluntary association, spreading internationally. That’s traditional anarchism.”

But that’s also traditional Leninism and Trotskyism. Chomsky simply has it wrong to see Stalinist decay as an inherent result of the Bolshevik program.

On coming to power in Russia in 1917, the Bolshevik Party launched the most emancipatory program the world has ever seen. Power was in the hands of workers’ councils, or soviets. Women won complete legal freedom, including the right to choose abortion. Discrimination against gays and lesbians was outlawed. School children could no longer be physically punished.

Unfortunately, the pressures of poverty, famine, and a civil war backed by imperialist armies turned the once revolutionary Bolshevik Party into a counterbureaucracy, whose main goal became keeping itself in power and retaining its access to scarce material goods.

This was anything but a “natural” outcome of Bolshevism. Leon Trotsky formed the Left Opposition, and later the Fourth International, to fight against this anti-Leninist aberration. He paid for it with his life, murdered in Mexico by an agent of Stalin’s machine.

The question of state power. Trotskyism retains the Leninist understanding of the absolute need for a revolutionary party that can lead society to Chomsky’s desired “democracy all the way through.”

Without such a party there can be no democratic transformation of society. The capitalist ruling class really is as vicious as Chomsky describes, and its power must be taken away before long-lasting changes become truly possible. Until that happens, every progressive reform is at risk.

Anarchists are enemies of any kind of state, refusing to make a distinction based on whose class interest the state serves. Leninists share the desire for and belief in a future stateless society. But they understand that the seizure of state power in the here and now is a necessary step to that future, which can only begin to be fashioned once workers are in the driver’s seat. And the struggle for power requires leadership and organization — in other words, a revolutionary party.

There can be no realistic talk of creating a peace-loving world, without exploitation and oppression, unless the issue of power is addressed. This is where Chomsky falls short, along with his anarchist cothinkers. Passionate against the inhumanity of capitalism, his antagonism to the revolutionary party leads him to grope to find some “lesser evil” from the capitalist stew.

Moving toward the solution. And this antagonism also explains why Chomsky’s writings contain certain very conspicuous omissions.

Nowhere does Chomsky point out the obvious fact that without a revolutionary party, U.S. imperialism would have crushed the Cuban revolution a long time ago.

And because he denies the need for a vanguard party to begin with, of course Chomsky cannot identify women’s leadership as central to its success. (Although this perhaps does not explain how rarely Chomsky discusses women’s issues at all.)

Chomsky’s anti-Leninism also prevents him from drawing logical conclusions in his criticisms of the U.S. role in the world. For example, it is one thing to express outrage over U.S. material support for the 1973 military coup against Chile’s socialist President Allende. But it is a serious political error not to also explain that Allende’s coalition with “lesser evil” capitalist parties tied the hands of the Chilean people, and left them unprepared to defeat the inevitable imperialist attack.

Similarly, but right now, Chomsky fails to warn of the tragedy that awaits the peoples of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador if they trust in leaders still tied to capitalism to make radical, comprehensive change.

The only way forward is to build a revolutionary party that is committed to workers’ democracy and that unconditionally defends the rights of society’s most abused and dismissed.

Without a revolutionary party, defeat is inevitable. With a revolutionary party, working people and the oppressed can win.  

Steven Strauss is a Baltimore neurologist, anti-war activist, and author of The Linguistics, Neurology, and Politics of Phonics. Email him at

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