The New Radicalism

Noam Chomsky interviewed by an anonymous interviewer

Modern Occasions, 1:3, pp. 317-327, Spring, 1971

QUESTION: Do you believe that the re-radicalization of a good part of the American intellectual community and student body that has occurred in the 1960’s will continue into the 70s? Did this re-radicalization surprise you, as it did a great many people, or did you in any way foresee it? What obstacles, if any, do you see to its further development?

CHOMSKY: The re-radicalization of the 1960’s did surprise me, very much, and for that reason, among others, I have little confidence in my own guesses about the near future. I’ve consistently underestimated — to take one example — the potential of resistance to the war in Indo-China. Five years ago, I never believed that it would be even remotely possible that a generation of youth would courageously refuse to take part in this miserable war, undermining the hopes of the American executive that it could fight a colonial war with a conscript army and forcing it back to the more traditional imperial pattern that is evolving now (there are other factors in this tactical shift, but that would take us far afield). I also did not foresee at all that the conservative ideological consensus would so significantly erode, in large part as a consequence of student activism.

As to the future, I’m reluctant to guess. The movement, so-called, has developed no self-sustaining organizational forms or clear intellectual vision that expresses the understanding, or even the mood of the vast number of mostly young people who feel themselves to be part of it or at least drawn to its fringes. I thought Mitch Goodman’s recent “compendium” [Mitchell Goodman, ed., The Movement toward a New America: The beginnings of a long revolution (Knopf, 1970)] captured rather well this curious combination of formlessness and vitality, confusion and hopefulness. It’s hard for me to believe that students who have taken part in movement activities will slip back very readily to the docility of the 1950’s, though of course there will be continuing efforts to restore the mindless consensus, with a margin of ineffectual dissent, that is such a convenience for the managers of domestic and international society. Many American intellectuals seem to be able to reconcile themselves to the systematic destruction of the peasant societies of Indo-China by American technology, just as many of their predecessors found ways to come to terms with Stalin’s purge or Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is much less true of the youth of the sixties, to their credit, and I suspect that Vietnam — the butchery, the deceit, the timid dissent, the contemptible apologetics — will prove to be a formative experience with long-term consequences. On occasion their revulsion expresses itself as antagonism to technology and science, or even to rationality. But for the most part, in my experience at least, it has led to an appreciation of the depth of sustained commitment that will be necessary if Indo-China is to be saved from obliteration, and an appreciation of the scale of the cultural and institutional changes that must be carried out in the United States if other societies that seek independence are to be spared a similar fate. Faced with the awesome scale of these tasks, many return to private concerns — a move often mistaken for apathy. It is not the apathy of the fifties, and a reservoir of sympathy and potential support remains for those who undertake a more activist role.

I’m personally impressed with the large number of young people who are committing themselves to what they see as a long term effort to bring about a radical transformation of American society. Their efforts to involve themselves in community organizing, developing radical professional groups, and the like, might have long-range significance. Not much of this makes the headlines (except, occasionally, after police or judicial repression, as in Seattle, Philadelphia or right here in Cambridge in the past few months). But with enough persistence and support, it is possible that these efforts might succeed in creating some of the nuclei for a radical movement that will develop from its own internal resources, instead of merely in response to recurrent atrocities in the larger society. It’s important, I think, that such groups continue to have a close relation to university-based movements. They can exploit some of the intrinsic problems (contradictions, if you like) of modern state capitalism. If the universities are to provide the knowledge and skills, as well as the trained manpower, needed to sustain an advanced industrial society, a substantial part of the youth will pass through them and they will have to retain a certain degree of freedom and openness. But if so, a radical consciousness will almost certainly develop as a natural consequence of objective study and thinking that frees itself from mythology and an ideological straitjacket. Dogmatism and achievement are incompatible, in the long run, and though some young people will simply accept what they are told and others may be induced to devote themselves to “making it” as the highest goal in life, it is predictable that there will also be free and compassionate and independent minds to challenge prevailing orthodoxies and search for ways to translate a perception of social injustice to some form of action.

In a modern industrial society there will be a need for relatively free and open centers of study and thinking, which will in turn continually create a challenge to irrationality, autocratic structures, deceit and injustice. A radical or reformist social movement will be able to draw upon these centers for participants as well as ideas, while “radicalizing” them by the opportunities it creates for meaningful social action. No movement for social change can hope to succeed unless it makes the most advanced intellectual and technical achievements its own, and unless it is rooted in those strata of the population that are productive and creative in every domain. It is, in particular, a very important question whether the intelligentsia will see itself as fulfilling a role in social management, or rather as part of the work force. The promise of past revolutions has been betrayed, in part, because of the willingness of the intelligentsia to join or serve a new ruling class, a process that can be compared to the willing submission to state and private power in Western state capitalist societies. As a larger component of the productive work in an industrial society comes to involve skilled workers, engineers, scientists and other intellectual workers, new possibilities may develop for the emergence of a mass revolutionary movement that will not be betrayed by the separation of a vanguard intelligentsia from the labor army that it helps to control, either directly or through the ideological instruments it fashions. So one might hope, at least. Conceivably, as many have argued, worldwide student radicalism may be an incipient stage of such a development — a premature strike of the work force of the future, as Norman Birnbaum put it somewhere.

Any successes will no doubt evoke a repressive response by the dominant autocratic institutions. But for the intellectual community and student body, relatively privileged and affluent in a modern industrial society, there are other and more immediate obstacles to the radicalization that seems to me a likely consequence of honesty and compassion. For one thing, a continued “conformist subservience to those in power” (Hans Morgenthau’s accurate phrase) brings narrow personal advantages. Quite apart from this, it is very tempting to immerse oneself entirely in exciting intellectual work — I know this very well from personal experience — but fortunately this becomes quite difficult when some serious and honorable people devote themselves, with courage and conviction, to a struggle for ideals that one knows to be just and deeply important. If this struggle ever becomes a mass movement of the oppressed and exploited, the impulse to contribute to it may intensify, growing both from moral pressure and the desire for self-fulfillment in a decent and humane society.

Perhaps what I say is misleading, given that I inevitably see these problems from the point of view of a certain type of academic intellectual. So let me try to express this possibly distorting factor quite clearly. As for myself, I would like nothing better than to be able to keep to a range of purely intellectual problems that happen to intrigue me greatly. Although it is impossible to overlook the complaint of many students and others that there is no meaningful work, I can’t accept it intuitively. There is a great deal of challenging and meaningful work, though I am skeptical as to whether the fundamental problems of man and society can be studied in any very profound manner, at least in ways resembling scientific inquiry, perhaps because of temporary gaps in our understanding, or perhaps because of deeper limitations of human intelligence. These personal tendencies and beliefs probably lead me to underestimate the potentialities of activism or perhaps even social criticism and analysis, as well as to restrict, no doubt improperly, my own personal involvement. I’m sure it leads me to underestimate the sense of alienation and even despair that seems objectively to be an aspect of what many social critics refer to as the proletarianization of the intellectuals.

Many young radical activists tend to be somewhat contemptuous of “conscience radicalism” that grows out of concern for the suffering of others: Vietnamese, oppressed minorities, exploited workers, for example. They argue, perhaps with justice, that a serious and sustained commitment to radical social change will in general develop only as a response to “one’s own oppression” — often, therefore, caste rather than class oppression, as women, students in authoritarian schools, victims of repressive life styles and cultural patterns, and so on. So far as I can can see a good part of this caste oppression could be relieved, in principle, without any modification of the distribution of power in state capitalist industrial society. As a rational system of exploitation, capitalism has no inherent need for racist and sexist practices and should be quite ready to tolerate a leveling of all individuals into interchangeable parts of the production process or equivalent units of individual consumption, without invidious distinctions of race or sex or ethnic origin. To take another case, the same is probably true of the environmental crisis. No doubt the corporations can be bribed to limit pollution by public subsidy or higher prices, and can even turn ecological concerns to their profit by the manufacture of new commodities. Years ago the Ford Motor Company made an abortive effort to “sell safety.” By now, environmental concerns may well have created a potential market for new accessories as well as opportunities for rapid obsolescence as technology is developed for coping with pollution. I am not trying to minimize the importance of issues that do not relate directly to the structure of autocratic institutions or the pattern of social control. On the contrary, there is surely no more urgent task, in the short run, than preventing American terror from demolishing the societies of Indo-China, even though there is little doubt that American capitalism can easily survive the loss (to its own population) of the Southeast Asian neocolonial system. But a radical movement that looks to fundamental institutional change, to socialization and democratization of the central industrial, financial, and commercial institutions of a modern society, will have to concentrate on different issues. Such a movement seems still remote.

QUESTION: Do you think that an organized movement (perhaps taking the form of a political party) armed with a definite theory and strategy adapted to American conditions is likely to emerge from the new radicalism? In your view, is such an organized movement at once necessary and desirable? If your reply in this respect is affirmative, what ideological and practical political model would you suggest for this renewed attempt so to organize the Left as to make it effective on the national scene?

CHOMSKY: Five years ago I would have regarded such a development as virtually out of the question. Now I’m not so pessimistic. There are many indications of a significant change of general mood, with regard to the problems of industrial society. It is hard to believe that any American sociologist would now seriously propose that the fundamental problems of the industrial revolution have been solved and that the triumph of democratic social evolution in the West signals the end of domestic politics for intellectuals who must have ideologies or utopias to motivate them to social action (Seymour Martin Lipset, in 1960). No doubt many would find Hans Morgenthau’s analysis somewhat extreme, when he argues that there is no possibility for a rational solution to the basic problems of contemporary American society within the present framework of distribution of power — virtually a call for revolution, if not an expression of hopeless despair. But this point of view is, in any event, no longer as remote from the mainstream of thinking as it was in the period of celebration of the achievements and promise of the capitalist welfare state, only a few years ago. The change is not limited to intellectuals. I’ve noticed a very obvious shift in the same direction among many other parts of the population, just from personal experience in talks and meetings. For example, in an industrial suburb of Boston in 1965 I was regarded as a dangerous extremist for suggesting that the United States had no right to bomb North Vietnam. In 1969, in the same town, I spoke to an audience of perhaps ten times the size on problems of modern American society, with an ensuing discussion, quite lively, on fundamental problems of capitalism and the possibilities for workers’ and community control of industry — unthinkable ideas just a few years earlier. There was discussion, but not assent (except, very substantially, with regard to the Indo-China war). Soon there may be assent. To mention another case, the involvement of students in the efforts of Miners for Democracy and other similar examples throughout the country — again, not widely publicized — are encouraging signs. Or consider the recently formed Labour-University Alliance. Though one would not know it from reading the tiny news item buried on the radio-TV page of the New York Times, the founding group includes important labor leaders (Leonard Woodcock of the UAW, for one) as well as the president of the National Student Association and other student and faculty participants from various parts of the country who have been active for years in the peace movement and other domestic causes. George Wald deserves great credit for having given the initiative to this development, which is potentially quite important, I think. Working-class opposition to the war has been poorly reported, for the most part. For example, the UAW executive has made strong official statements, which received virtually no mention in the press, and referenda and polls over the years (e.g., Dearborn in 1966, Detroit in 1970) suggest significant, largely unarticulated antiwar sentiment. Whatever criticisms one may make of the unions, they still are the most democratic institutions in the United States, and might recover their position as a leading force for decency and social change. An alliance with left-wing university-based groups, student and faculty, might be significant in the long run. Conceivably, a labor party, or something of the sort, might develop at some stage, particularly, if the crisis of inflation-with-recession proves unresoluble. A reformist mass party could be very important in the United States in impeding the drift towards what Bertram Gross recently called “friendly fascism” and in defending both democratic rights and the most elementary needs of the poor and the exploited. It might also help provide a framework for badly needed discussion of the mythology of American state capitalism, rarely challenged in the last decades. The recent and forceful challenge to the myth of American international benevolence, carefully fostered by apologists for state power in the cold-war years, should be accompanied by a serious challenge, on a broad scale, to the claims to legitimacy of the private empires that dominate the domestic and international economy, and the state executive that largely serves their interest. Many radicals fear that the growth of a mass reformist party of working people and the “underclass” would divert energies from more radical social change, but I’m personally not sympathetic to these objections. On the contrary, it seems to me that it might very well offer new scope to educational and organizational efforts of a more radical character, which would be all to the good. All of this is speculation, of course, but it seems to me less remote from reality than it might have seemed just a few years ago.

In more direct response to your question, it seems perhaps not unrealistic to look forward to a mass political movement that will be devoted to badly needed reforms, anti-imperialist and anti-militarist, concerned with guaranteeing minimal standards of health, income, education, industrial safety and conditions of work, and overcoming urban decay and rural misery. Within it, or related to it, there might develop a variety of more radical movements that explore the possibility of dismantling the system of private and state power and democratizing basic social and economic institutions through cooperatives and community and workers’ control, and that organize and experiment to these ends. I would hate to see the Left too well organized at this stage (not much fear of this in any event), though one would hope that destructive factional squabbling could be overcome in favor of sympathetic and fraternal disagreement and, where possible, cooperation among those who have rather different ideas about what are, after all, rather obscure and poorly understood matters.

QUESTION: Both here and abroad the New Left (as it is somewhat loosely termed) has frequently exhibited tendencies closely relating it to the classic anarchist tradition. Are you in sympathy with such tendencies? If you are in sympathy, in what concrete ways can anarchist aspirations be realized in modern centralized economies such as we live in at present in the West?

CHOMSKY: In my personal opinion, anarcho-syndicalist and, in general, libertarian socialist ideals are quite appropriate for an advanced industrial society. There is no longer any material necessity for human beings to be used as tools of production. As syndicalists have been pointing out since the turn of the century, even if one grants that managerial skills are “specialized” and beyond the direct competence of the work force (the extent to which this must be true under the material and cultural conditions that a rational use of modern technology could provide is another question), there is no reason why managers should be answerable to private capital rather than the work force and the community. Back in 1912, an important document of a Welsh miners movement pointed out that “The men who work in the mine are surely as competent to elect (managers) as shareholders who may never have seen a colliery. To have a vote in determining who shall be your foreman, manager, inspector, etc., is to have a vote in determining the conditions which shall rule your working life.”

It’s often argued that centralization of planning and control is a technological imperative. I have yet to see a coherent argument for this. In fact, it is difficult to see why the same technology that permits centralized decision-making might not also be adapted to free workers from stupefying labor and provide them directly with the information needed to make rational decisions democratically. In any institution-factory, university, health center, or whatever — there are a variety of interests that ought to be represented in decision-making: the work force itself, the community in which it is located, users of its products or services, institutions that compete for the same resources. These interests should be directly represented in democratic structures that displace and eliminate private ownership of the means of production or resources, an anachronism with no legitimacy. A centralized bureaucratic state offers little if any improvement, so far as I can see, over rule by a corporate oligarchy weakly constrained by parliamentary institutions, but possessing the centers of production, finance, and information.

The New Left has reawakened interest in industrial democracy, workers’ control, possibilities of free association of producers, and has also contributed to a renewed concern for human needs that are socially and collectively expressed in place of the ugly and now destructive “possessive individualism” of an anachronistic social system, and in general, concern for freedom from domination by state or private power. I think it has made a real contribution, in these respects. I’m not suggesting that the New Left has made some new theoretical contribution in these areas. On the contrary, we’ve barely recovered the level of understanding achieved at the time of the great decline of Western radicalism after the first world war. But it has definitely reawakened interest in these questions, more by its general mood and spirit than by any analytic work. Capitalism (as well as the state capitalist or state socialist varieties of autocracy that have developed in industrial societies) requires, for its efficient functioning in the interest of its rulers, a docile and acquiescent population, much as an imperialist state demands passivity and ignorance from its population. By challenging authoritarian patterns of thinking and behavior and stressing the fundamental human need for free creative work and democratic popular participation in the management of affairs, in every area of life, the New Left threatens to undermine these autocratic structures. If this has taken place in an indefinite and often chaotic manner, with little organization or ideology, nevertheless the changes of mentality and conception, as well as behavior, are visible enough, and in many ways very hopeful, I think. I recognize, incidentally, that my picture of the New Left is quite different from that of many other commentators; I can only say that much of this commentary appears to me distorted and inaccurate. This reminds me of something I ought to have said in connection with the struggles against “caste oppression.” Though in principle they are not, it seems to me, anticapitalist, nevertheless the impulse for liberation may not be easily contained, and might lead on directly to a significant challenge to authoritarian institutions, to centralized control, and to coercive industrial as well as cultural patterns.

QUESTION: What, in your view, are likely to be the cultural effects of the new radicalism? In posing this question, I have in mind the university system in this country as well as literature, art, and such humanistic disciplines as history, sociology and psychology.

CHOMSKY: As far as the universities are concerned, I think that the effects of the new radicalism have been in general very positive. The universities have been opened, as never before in my lifetime, to new ideas and independent thinking outside of the natural sciences. During the years of the hegemony of cold-war ideology and glorification of liberal state capitalism, the universities became willing servants of state and private power, not only at an ideological level, but in their direct contributions to social management, so-called counterinsurgency (i.e, techniques for the repression of popular movements), militarization of American society (vastly extended under the Kennedy administration, as Seymour Melman, for one, has pointed out), and the like. Student radicalism has raised a belated and very healthy challenge to this subservience. The politicization of the universities in these years was so profound that it was virtually unnoticed, just as a fish does not notice that he swims in the sea — what else could there be? Such inability to perceive one’s own ideological commitments is the extreme limit of subordination to prevailing ideology. But this is a thing of the past, and I doubt that the efforts to reinstitute the conformism of the past generation will be successful in the universities, unless there is a resort to outright force. While noting this, I think one must be aware of the danger of a new politicization of the universities by militant factions within. The danger is slight, and is being enormously exaggerated for political reasons, but that should not lead one to overlook it. We should try to keep the universities as free and as open as possible, recognizing that the primary forces threatening freedom and openness are the powerful institutions, state and private, that dominate the outside society, and their representatives and spokesmen within the university itself.

It seems to me that the humanistic disciplines have been revitalized by the recent challenges to orthodoxy in history and the social sciences, and that the opportunity exists for real progress in these areas. But it will take hard and sustained work. The power of the propaganda apparatus of the state and private institutions is immense. Consider, as an example, the Vietnam war. Though the state executive has, point by point, lost all the arguments, it has nevertheless succeeded in imposing the framework of official fantasy on the general debate. Most critics within the mainstream of opinion tacitly accept the claim that the war pits North Vietnam against South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, backed (perhaps mistakenly or in an unacceptable manner) by the United States. The media are virtually unanimous in adopting this framework of discussion, even those segments of the press that oppose the war. The documentation to refute these assumptions is overwhelming, and has been presented (with no refutation or even serious discussion) over and over again. Not with sufficient intensity or scope, however, to overcome the hegemony of the state propaganda apparatus.

In psychology, the narrow concern for control of behavior and the general strictures of behaviorism, absurd on intellectual grounds, are no longer dominant among serious scientists, though a culture lag, in part ideologically determined, grants them unjustified prestige elsewhere. To what extent this development is related to the new radicalism might be debated. Probably there is some relation, though I think it is actually not great. In literature and the arts I am incompetent to judge.

QUESTION: Do you think that the political awareness of American scientists has changed in the past few years in any significant fashion? What are the prospects of the scientific community (or at least a good part of it) acquiring sufficient radical consciousness enabling it to resist the demands and numerous exactions and impositions of the Pentagon as well as of private corporations intent on profit-making regardless of the damage to the human and natural environment?

CHOMSKY: This question is an extremely important one, in my opinion. Take the specific matter of counterinsurgency. There can be little doubt that the power to control or destroy popular movements is increasing, through technology. Popular movements depend on human will and courage, which has limits. The technology of surveillance and destruction can “progress” without significant limits. Furthermore, pseudo-scientific patterns of discourse, much cultivated by the social and behavioral sciences, provide a new and useful ideological device for those who hope to mask force and coercion in technical terminology of problem-solving that may delude people who have no idea what science is about. That most of this is drivel does not, unfortunately, limit its effectiveness. A serious attack on the development of the technology of control and destruction, as well as exposure of the coercive ideologies that try to capitalize on the prestige of science and technology, will surely have to engage scientists in a very determined effort.

More generally, as I mentioned earlier, a movement for social change in an advanced industrial society will get nowhere unless it offers the widest scope for freedom and cultural progress and draws to itself the intellectual workers, including scientists, who will find in this movement their natural home. Of course, over the past three or four years, there have been notable changes in the attitudes of scientists and others towards the problems you mention. In place of the general unquestioned submission to external demands, there is now some concern over the uses to which one’s work will be put and the social effects to which it may contribute. Concrete changes reflecting these concerns are very slight, to my knowledge. There have been some administrative changes. For example, at my own university, after extensive student educational and organizational efforts, and some very effective protest and agitation, a $60 million a year laboratory that is devoted largely to advanced guidance systems for missiles and the related technology of space exploration has been technically “divested,” though as far as I know, this has led to little if any substantive change in its actual relations to the university or the work undertaken in the laboratory. A second laboratory, of roughly the same size, where work continues (so far as I know) on counterinsurgency and military problems remains, as before, within the university structure. Efforts at conversion to some socially useful purpose have, not surprisingly, been ineffective, for reasons that have little to do with the university. It is far from obvious that the enormous government subsidy to advanced technology and the industries that rely upon it can be directed away from destruction and waste (military and space, for example), for reasons that have been discussed at length. In this respect, science and technology are in a real bind. They can go out of business, or submit to the demands of external powers. I don’t want to exaggerate — for example, a great deal of government-financed research in the universities (including much of the research financed by the DOD) is pure science in the best sense. The point is that scientists, even as an organized group, could probably have little effect on a pattern of state investment and subsidy that is intimately related to problems of management of the economy and global power. Radical organization of scientists and engineers is a possibility, perhaps, but its importance will be directly contingent on the emergence of a mass popular movement to which it can contribute, and in which it can be absorbed as an important constituent element.