On Dissidence

Noam Chomsky debates with Stefan Kubiak

E-mail correspondence, January 23, 1996 – April 11, 1996

. Tue, 23 Jan 1996

Dear Mr. Kubiak,

Apologies for the delay in getting back to you.  I’ve been
lecturing in India for several weeks, and just found your

I’m afraid I don’t recall the discussion with Ernest Skalski that
was the basis for the article you read — which is not very
surprising; there are several of these every week, and I lose
track.  Interested to hear your reactions to it.

Your comment that Poles have been used to considering everything
that comes from the West as “the best,” which as far as I know
generalizes to the rest of Eastern Europe, raises a question that
has puzzled and intrigued me for some time.  Poland, of course,
was oppressed by Russian tyranny, as were the other countries and
the people of Russia itself.  But only on rare occasions, such
as the invasion of Hungary, did that oppression begin to approach
what the US has done routinely to Latin America (to pick only one
example) during the same period (and to Central America and the
Caribbean, long before).  Take, say, the treatment of dissidents.

In Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in Soviet domains they
had a hard time.  But they didn’t expect anything like the fate
of the leading Jesuit intellectuals who had their brains blown
out by elite military forces armed, trained, and directed by the
US — and many others like them.  One Polish priest was murdered
by the Polish police.  During the 1980s, there were over a
hundred religious martyrs murdered — often after brutal torture
and rape — by US-run forces in Central America, including an
Archbishop, four American nuns working with the poor, etc.  And
hundreds of thousands of peasants, working people, and others
were murdered, often with extreme brutality, during the same
decade, while four countries were devastated to the extent that
they may not recover.

But though Latin Americans suffered far more, their reactions
where far less self-centered.  Central American Jesuits, for
example, have been very critical of US power, but that has not
led them to be uncritical of Soviet power.  On the contrary, they
have been highly critical of Soviet tyranny and brutality, and
have always expressed great compassion, sympathy, and support for
dissidents in Eastern Europe whose oppression, while real, didn’t
come close to what they were suffering.  Having worked with
oppressed people through much of the world, and read a good deal
of what they write, I know that pattern holds throughout the
world, with one exception: East Europe.

Merely to give one example, take Vaclav Havel, who indeed
suffered under Soviet oppression.  In November 1989, six leading
Jesuit intellectuals were brutally murdered in El Salvador by
elite forces fresh from their US training, the same ones who had
murdered Archbishop Romero and had compiled a monstrous record
of atrocities that has no remote counterpart in the Eastern European
satellites.  A few weeks later, Havel came to the US and gave a
talk at the US Congress, where he had nothing to say about the
fate of his fellow-dissidents under US rule, which is surprising
enough, but furthermore, went on to laud the US as “the defender
of freedom” — an outrageous comment, in the light of the facts.
It is exactly as if some Jesuit intellectual in Central America
who had been oppressed were to have gone to Russia to laud Russia
as “the defender of freedom” before the Supreme Soviet —
something that would have been utterly unthinkable.

Havel is not an evil man.  Rather, he adopts a perspective that
seems pervasive in Eastern Europe, and unique to it, at least in
my experience: the sense that their own suffering has unique
significance, and that everything about the superpower which, for
completely cynical reasons, opposed their enemy is therefore “the
best.” That is something I’ve never understood, though I think
one can think of some reasons for it: East Europeans dissidents,
for example, were unique in the world in that their plight was
the focus of great attention by the world’s most powerful states
and institutions, and by the intellectual classes in the wealthy
countries.  To illustrate with the same example, just about every
minor speech that Havel delivers is featured in Western
intellectual journals and treated with great respect, and
generally the writings and courageous actions of East European
dissidents are very well known.  But the very thoughtful and
eloquent writings of Central American Jesuits and other highly
principled dissidents within the regions of Western power, and
their far more courageous actions in the light of the punishment
they faced, are completely unknown, as are even their names.

These facts are dramatically obvious, and a terrible indictment
of Western intellectual culture and its moral corruption, since
on the most elementary moral grounds the opposite should have
been the case: for any human being, it is the crimes for which
he shares responsibility that should be the primary focus of his
attention, not those of others.  And it may be that this has had
its effect on the sole dissident intellectuals in the world who
had the support and sometimes protection of powerful forces.

In any event, the facts seem clear, and merit explanation — also
some reflection, I should think.

I’d be delighted to hear from you, both to learn more about what
is happening in Poland, and to try to answer any questions you
might have.  In some cases, questions might relate to things I’ve
written about, in which case I’ll be glad to send material, if
you wish.


Noam Chomsky


27 Jan 96

Dear Professor,
Thank you for your message of 23 January. I am very glad to
receive such interesting load of your opinions.
First of all, I would like to respond to your statement that
you cannot understand the Eastern Europeans’ attitude towards the
US,since the latter conduct cynic policy in South and Central
America. I think it is quite understandable. Havel or Walesa are
not the saints. They are ordinary people who led their nations
in extraordinary way toward freedom. There were two powers who
supported them in their efforts: Vatican (morally), and the US
(morally and materially as well). Do you expect that someone whom
a thief saved the life, will criticize his saviour. What is more,
we still need material help from America and other western
countries. Of course, Havel could express the problem without
offending his American hosts, but it is too complex psychological
problem of our leaders to simply accuse them of bad will. I mean
the politicians of small countries are do not feel to have any
moral rights to criticise their benefactors.
The next problem is that of differences between the situation
in South America and in Eastern Europe. We all live in the mental
world of stereotypes and it is impossible to free from them. Our
picture of ourselves was shaped during a thousand years of history. The
political systems changed but the geographical position of Poland
did not. We were always between the Germans, who looked down on us,
and wanted to subdue our country, and the Russian, who represented
the barbarian Asiatic mentality, and who always made attempts to
destroy our (Western by Roman Catholicism)culture. During the 19th
century our nation had to find some ways to survive. The Russians and the
Germans wanted to denationalize the Poles. Our idol was France
at that time, regardless if she was a republic or Napoleonic empire.
We needed the good stereotype. We still need it, so you can
observe temporal love to America. To tell the truth, it is going to its
hard times, because people are disappointed at their hopes for further
material aid. They are disappointed to democracy (nobody is
responsible for anything), and to market economy as well. They
expressed their feelings electing an ex-communist Aleksander
Kwasniewski the president.
If you want to understand our attitude towards the West in the
1980s, you should know something about the life in our countries
under the communist rule. The communists never were brave enough to
admit that they simply loved to have power. They wanted to be admired
and loved by people. They represented false ideology, and many of
them believed they acted for people’s good. The communist party was
a mixture of cynic pragmatists, gangsters, fanatics and servilistic
intellectuals. I remember we were educated to believe that the
Soviet Union is the richest country in the world, people there and in
other satellites, have the highest standard of life, and the economic
difficulties were always “temporal”. The reality was different.
One could buy literally nothing at the shop, save some products which
quality was terrible. People had money, there were not any
unemployment, but if one wanted to gain (yes, “gain”, not simply
buy),  something good, one had to deal with the black market. It was
very hard to get a passport, so when someone managed eventually to the
West, he brought the news about the paradise on the earth.
Moreover, we realised that the communists told lies. Of course, their
propaganda promptly used the information about corruption, racism, and
American policy in South America to show us the hell of the western life.
We began simply to deny everything they told us on TV. We did not
believe them in cases we knew the truth, so we got used not to
believe them in any cases. Another stereotype, nothing else.
What we know about South America is that there always were
“pronunciamentos”. One junta was running another. People love to
thing by stereotypes. We accustomed to think about Latino-Americans as
about the people of no democratic traditions, and no national
definition. Moreover, they live so far away. I realise such thinking is
inhuman, but this is the world of stereotypes. The Jesuits are people of
strong faith. You, dear Professor are a great scholar and philosopher.
You both can afford thinking above the dirty practice, and you
can have very positive influence on the politicians, but do not be
surprise when they turn out to be ordinary, weak and sinful
people, who are not clever enough to manage to connect their activity and
morality. In South America cruel regimes kill people in the name
of their own desire of power. The situation is rather clear,
fighting them is fighting the Evil itself. The US do not help in this
struggle, on the contrary, they often support the murderers. That is true,
but I believe that thanks to you and other people who think in the
same way, it will be possible to improve the situation. Nobody will
shut your mouth. In the communist countries it would have been
impossible, you would have been not only arrested but blamed of being a spy,
racist, nazist or of whatever they liked to accuse you of. They
did not have to kill too many people. We were afraid enough to be
ruled without too much oppression. I belong to the last generation,
whom the communists tried to “wash brains” and make to believe in
socialism and the Great Brother. They failed, but they succeeded in one
point. Many of us still need a Great Brother, but not the old one. It
is very difficult to live safely without a Great Brother.
Excuse me, for bothering you so long. I have just wanted to
express my opinion that the problem does not lies in politics, or
economics, but in psychology. I wonder what you think about it. To tell the
truth we do not know our motivation in most of cases, especially when
we have to act quickly. The psychologists are still not able to
explain it satisfactorily. I think the future will belong to them.
I do not want to take your precious time any longer. Please
if possible share your views with me. I would like to ask you some
questions concerning the languages relativity, because as I wrote
I had not been able to read any of your books. I would like to
write about it next time.
I stay
Yours sincerely,
Stefan Kubiak


Thu, 01 Feb 1996

Dear Mr. Kubiak,

I don’t what to harp on the matter, but I really would urge that
you rethink your interpretation of the attitude of East European
intellectuals — or to be more accurate, East European
dissidents: I am not concerned here with the great number who
justified or supported the violence and repression of their own
states, as most intellectuals have done throughout history, and
as is the norm in the West with only a rare fringe of exceptions,
contrary to much self-serving pretence — facts easily
demonstrated, in fact documented in thousands of pages of
material, if you are interested.

No one expects dissidents to be “saints,” to borrow your word.
But what does require reflection and explanation is the radical
difference between East European dissidents and their
counterparts everywhere else in the world, something that is
dramatically obvious to anyone who has been involved in human
rights issues worldwide, as I have for many years.  I never wrote
about this during the period of Soviet rule (and have scarcely
done so since), because it would be improper to criticize people
who suffer oppression no matter how badly they behave.  But the
unique character of East European dissidents cannot be dismissed
merely by noting that they are not saints.

Closer to the explanation is your observation that they were
supported by the US and the Vatican, unlike dissidents elsewhere,
who were supported by no one with any power or influence.  But
that is a great understatement: they were given massive support
and attention by the entire Western world, quite unprecedented
support, vastly greater than the support given to people within
Western domains who were suffering far worse oppression and were
defending freedom and justice with far greater courage.  The
disparity is so extraordinary that the very word “dissident” in
Western languages refers to East Europeans; no one, except those
few who have extricated themselves from the Western propaganda
system, even uses the word “dissident” for people like the
Central American Jesuit intellectuals who were assassinated in
November 1989 by elite forces armed and trained by the US.  And
while every word of East European dissidents is widely
publicized, hailed, and treasured, try to find even a reference
to the very important and courageous writings of Fr. Ellacuria
and his associates, or other Central American dissidents who had
to flee from slaughter or were simply tortured and killed by
US-run forces.  For example, Fr. Cesar Jerez, the Jesuit
provincial for Central America, who had to flee his native
Guatemala when the US-run mass murderers threatened to kill all
the Jesuits, going to El Salvador where he was the closest
associate of Archbishop Romero, fleeing to Nicaragua after the
Archbishop was murdered by the same US-run terrorist forces.  One
of the reasons why Nicaragua was so hated in the US and by its
Western allies is that it became a refuge for people fleeing from
US terror, much as Paris had become a refuge for people fleeing
from Hitler and Stalin in the 1930s.  People who were far from
being Communists or even particularly “left”: writers, priests,
human rights activists, democratic political figures, and others.

They fled to Nicaragua because there was no other place in the
region where they could be safe from US terror.  Try to find a
word about this in the Western literature.  And I can go on and

The fact is that dissidents in the Soviet satellites (or in the
USSR itself, post-Stalin) were uniquely privileged among
dissident intellectuals around the world in several respects:
first, they received overwhelmingly greater attention and
support; second, their suffering and oppression, though real and
terrible, was not comparable to that of many of their
counterparts elsewhere, a fact dramatically obvious in Latin
America, where the US has ruled with a heavy hand.  That
incidentally continues as we communicate right now.  Take
Colombia, hailed here as a great democracy.  It has one
independent political party.  Since it was formed about 10 years
ago, 2500 of its leading activists have been murdered, most of
them by the military and the paramilitary forces associated with
them; that includes several presidential candidates, mayors, and
others,  The murderers receive half of all US military aid and
training in the hemisphere — on the pretext of a “drug war”
which is taken seriously by absolutely no one with the slightest
familiarity with the topic.  You can learn all about it in the
regular extensive reports of the very same international human
rights monitors (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch) that
recorded the repression in Eastern Europe, though there are the
usual two differences: (1) no one pays attention in this case,
while their reports about Eastern Europe aroused huge (and
proper) outrage; (2) the repression in Eastern Europe did not
begin to compare with what is faced daily in this highly-praised

I incidentally do not exempt myself from this dramatic disparity.

Thus I took personal initiatives in the case of Eastern European
dissidents — several of whom were finally released to go the
West in part as a result of these efforts — that far exceed
anything I did for dissidents in US domains who were suffering
much worse oppression.  I don’t say that with pride.  Rather, it
simply reflects the great ease of opposing repression in Eastern
Europe as compared with the enormous difficulty of even
discussing much worse repression when its roots are in domestic
power.  There is nothing historically unique about this — we can
trace it back to classical Greece and the Bible.  But we do no
one any service by denying very clear and plain facts.

Turning now to the reaction of East European dissidents, as
compared with those elsewhere, the distinctions are equally
dramatic.  Of course, these are generalizations; one will find
exceptions.  But the differences are so extreme that the
generalizations are valid to a very substantial — indeed
overwhelming — degree.

Though this is minor, let me just mention some personal
experience.  As noted, apart from joining in the usual regular
protests and condemnations, and writing very harsh critiques of
Bolshevik tyranny from my very first political writings to the
present, I took far greater personal initiatives in the case of
several East European dissidents (two Russian, one Czech) than
I did in any case elsewhere.  Two of these people, incidentally,
hold views that I regard as utterly atrocious on almost every
topic, a fact I never mentioned of course.  They did make it to
the West, where they were able to find good academic positions.
Of course, I never had a note thanking me for any of these
efforts, nor did I want or expect any such thanks.  But the
situation elsewhere is dramatic.  Even for simply signing
petitions, I have been personally thanked, repeatedly, by people
suffering far worse oppression than these three (whose
oppression, incidentally, amounted to discrimination against them
in the academic world of a kind not unusual here).  The reason
is not that they are bad people.  Rather, Eastern Europeans
generally take it for granted that, naturally, everyone must
dedicate all efforts and concern to them; no one else matters.
That is a radical difference from other areas, including those
where oppression is far worse.  Again, this is a generalization;
there are exceptions.  But it is a generalization of more than
a little validity.

Let’s take again Vaclav Havel, whom we have discussed.  When he
came to the US in February 1990, no one expected him to deliver
a ringing indictment of US terrorism and aggression in the US
Congress; or even to mention US foreign policy; that was not my
point, and I quite agree with you that he had no obligation
to do anything of the sort.  In fact, it would have been
acceptable morally for him not even to mention the fact that six
of his counterparts in El Salvador had just had their brains
blown out by troops armed and trained by the people he was
addressing in Congress; not very admirable, but understandable.
However, nothing required him to grovel before the murderers,
praising the murderers of leading Central American dissidents as
“the defenders of freedom.”

Let’s imagine that Fr. Ellacuria had gone to speak in Moscow and
had discussed the terrible record of atrocities against Central
American intellectuals — and hundreds of thousands of murdered
peasants, union leaders, students, priests,… — going on to
praise Russia as “the defender of freedom.” That would have been
outrageous, despite the fact that he and his colleagues suffered
far worse oppression and terror than anyone did in Czechoslovakia
under the grim Soviet tyranny.  It would not only have been
outrageous, but utterly unthinkable.  Like dissidents I know
about and have been privileged to be associated with throughout
the world, the Central American Jesuit intellectuals expressed
great sympathy and compassion for their counterparts (actually,
much more privileged counterparts) in Eastern Europe, and harshly
condemned Soviet tyranny and oppression.  That was most
definitely NOT reciprocated, as you can readily determine, even
by those who did not sink to Havel’s level, praising the killers
as “defenders of freedom.”

What is true of Havel generalizes to people who do not have the
excuse (which, in my view, is not much of an excuse) of
representing a small country that had recently won its freedom.
Namely, writers, academics, and many others.  Furthermore, it
continues to be true long after they have won their freedom, and
when they are in the West, facing no oppression, only vast
acclaim.  One finds no counterpart to such behaviour on the part
of intellectuals elsewhere in the world, with of course some
exceptions: namely, the most loyal and craven Stalinists, who did
behave in that manner.

These matters, I think, require reflection.

Your historical remarks are interesting, but I do not think that
they are pertinent.  Latin American intellectuals have a history
of hundreds of years of oppression, first in the colonial period,
more recently mostly by the US.  The same is true of Africa,
which suffered far more under European rule than Eastern Europe
did — with the exception of Hitler and Stalin, who did compare
with standard European behaviour, for example, the behaviour of
King Leopold of Belgium, who murdered 10 million people in 20
years in his Congo possessions while greatly enriching himself
and Belgium, a feat that is impressive even by 20th century
standards (and that has virtually disappeared from history, since
the murder was carried out by the wrong hands).  And the same is
surely true of the native American population of the US, who were
reduced from perhaps 8-10 million to 200,000 by 1900.  But
nevertheless, they do not rush to Moscow to praise “the defenders
of freedom” or write other shameful nonsense about the marvels
that the Soviet tyrants brought to the world within their reach.

Furthermore, even if we were to accept what you say about Poland
and Czechoslavakia, it plainly does not hold of Russia itself.
But the Russian dissidents are exactly the same.  Again, I never
said a word about this at the time, for the reasons already
mentioned, and haven’t since.  But simply have a look at what
Russian dissidents (Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, etc.) were saying
about the West and those who were suffering its terror and
violence.  Not very pretty, and quite unlike the compassionate
and honourable behaviour of people suffering far worse oppression
within US and other western domains.  There were a few
exceptions, like Grigorenko, but they were rare indeed.

I know about life under Leninism-Stalinism very well, and also
know that educated Russians and East Europeans knew that the
ridiculous lies promulgated by the leadership were an utter
absurdity.  It is perfectly understandable that they should have
denied anything that they heard on Soviet TV, though not what
they heard over BBC and other foreign radio, to which a large
majority of the population was listening by the 1970s, according
to government-funded studies at Russian Research centres in the
US.  I met enough Eastern Europeans (including Russians) over the
years to know first-hand that they had a reasonable awareness of
what was happening in the world.  And the awe and love of US
power, particularly on the part of the apparatchiks, was
something of a joke.  I can give you some examples if you like,
from international meetings, where the Communist representatives
trying to manipulate everything behind the scenes were working
feverishly to tone down criticisms of their friends in Washington
(particularly Nixon, who they greatly admired) that were proposed
by groups of women from conservative American churches.  It was
quite comical to watch, and pretty standard.

East Europeans certainly had more than enough information to be
aware, if they chose, that in South America it wasn’t just “one
junta running another,” with “no democratic tradition.” They had
more than enough information to know about the massive US role
in undermining democracy, instituting terror and atrocities, causing
massive starvation and disease, in regions rich in resources and
potential, the source of much of Europe’s wealth.  These were,
after all, educated people, with plenty of resources available,
even under Soviet tyranny.  If they chose to prefer self-serving
stereotypes, that simply reinforces my point.  Elsewhere,
independent minds did not, even under far worse oppression.

You are quite right that here in the US I am far more free than
dissidents in the USSR.  But that is not the comparison I am
making.  Rather, I am comparing the dissidents in the Soviet
domains to those in US domains.  That difference is dramatic, and
requires an explanation.

The far greater freedom in the West that you mention is important
with regard to a different topic than the one we have been
discussing.  That freedom, which is very real, confers far
greater responsibility on Western intellectuals.  Therefore,
their moral depravity is vastly worse than anything that you and
I are now discussing.  As amply documented, Western intellectuals
are immersed in the kind of state worship and denial of
atrocities and repression that compares to some of the worst
Stalinist commissars, and that is morally far more disgusting,
since at least the latter could plead fear, while Westerners
cannot.  But that is a different — and very important — matter.

As for the reasons for the dramatic differences between Eastern
European intellectuals and others suffering violence and
oppression, I think you make a good point in attributing it in
part to the effects of Soviet tyranny, and its inculcation of
faith in power.  It may be that this shameful and disastrous
system of tyranny also succeeded in undermining the intellectual
integrity and independence even of its dissidents.  But I suspect
that the major reason for the difference is the one I mentioned
earlier: dissidents in the USSR and East Europe were unique in
that they received enormous respect and support from outside (for
cynical reasons, for the most part, as we can see by comparing
how the same people reacted to atrocities for which they and
their governments were responsible).  And this vast and
unprecedented support and attention probably helped contribute
to their sense that somehow their status was unique.

Whatever the reasons, the phenomenon is real, and I think merits
reflection.  I don’t expect Western intellectuals to undertake
this task.  If they did, they would have to expose their own
depravity — that is, the fact that while professing great
anguish over the fate of East European dissidents, they did not
lift a finger to stop the far worse oppression of dissidents
within US domains as they could have very easily done.  Or even
to refer to it: again, compare the familiarity of Western
intellectuals with the writings of East European dissidents, on
the one hand, and Central American Jesuits, on the other; or any
other reasonable comparison you want to make.  And the last thing
that intellectuals are going to do is to expose themselves.  For
that conclusion, history provides more than enough evidence, to
our shame.

I’d be happy to turn to questions of language and relativity, if
you like.  Frankly, although I think the matters I’ve been
mentioning are of supreme importance, I do not expect them to be
understood or discussed by Western intellectuals, who are much
too subordinated to power in general, and far too lacking in
intellectual independence, to undertake such inquiry.  As to
whether Eastern Europeans will some day have the intellectual
courage to face these matters honestly, I have no idea, nor do
I expect to write about it and discuss it.  My tasks are primarily
where my responsibility lies: at home.  That is a moral truism
if anything is.


Noam Chomsky


6 Feb 96

Dear Professor,
Thank you for your answer to some of my doubts. Now I think I has
understood some of your points. Nevertheless, I would like to
precise the subject we are talking about. Your criticism is
directed towards the Eastern European dissidents, whom you consider equal
to intellectuals. Certainly, many of them are not intellectuals.
In Poland, for instance, our chief dissident, Lech Walesa, who
in 1991 became a president, has never claimed to be an intellectual.
He is a simple worker with a great talent of a leader, and
political instinct. He is not an educated man so people voted for a
communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, who can express his thoughts in nice
pseudo-intellectual words. Polish intellectuals (if they can be so
called) are a small group, mostly in one of our parties:the Union of
Freedom, and because of their typical for intellectuals hesitation, this
party becomes less and less popular. As far as I understand your point
of view, you would see intellectuals, or so-called dissidents, as
persons who express their opinions from the position of God the Father,
from the position of universal morality. Furthermore, they should
teach the mankind about this morality. In general, I can agree with
you. People all over the world need someone who will take a role of
the ancient prophets. On the other hand, when one of those
intellectuals becomes a politician, unfortunately he must often resign from the
role of a heaven-sent teacher, responsible for all the world and its
inhabitants. First of all, he is responsible for his own nation,
because he was democratically elected by the people of his
country. Peoples opinion in this case cannot be disdained. I’ll give you
an example. When Tadeusz Mazowiecki (the first non-communist prime
minister in Poland)after his prime ministerial office, became a
representative of the UN in Bosnia, my father (a worker) said:
“What is he going there for? We have enough our own problems.”
My father’s opinion was not unique among the people. They cannot
understand that we should be active in international affairs.
The politicians have to consider such opinions. Otherwise, they
could speak to nobody.
You said that Havel’s speech in the US Congress, was as if
Central American Jesuits had come to communist Moscow and praised the
Russians for being “defenders of freedom”. I must say that this
comparison entirely does not suit to the reality. First, Havel,
being a politician rather than an intellectual dissident, wanted to
build democracy in his country, so he turned to the USA as to the
democratic power which really helped him and other Eastern-European
politicians to overthrow the communism. It is quite understandable. And now
imagine the situation when Jesuits turn for help to the power
which had never helped any priests, in whose political doctrine there
is fighting not only the Church but religion in general. Catholic
priests knew very well that they have nothing to look for in Moscow, as
well as Havel knew that there was much to look for in Washington.
We both understand that democratic countries rarely were
“exporters” of democracy. Ancient Athens or revolutionary France
were condemned by their allies, because they acted in the name of
their own citizens’ interest. The only lesson the politicians can derive
from those examples is to convince the superpowers that it is their
good business to support democracy, because counting on their good
will or sense of morality will probably fail.
To be understood better I would like to explain what I mean
speaking about “democratic tradition”. To me, a country with such
a tradition has in its history rather long period when it was ruled
democratically, or with some elements which led to democracy
(parliament for example.) If you write about two hundred years
of fights for freedom, it does not indicate that the South Americans
can manage with democracy. Lech Walesa in Poland was a genius as
a union leader, a man of political struggle. As a president of
the republic he seemed not to know what to do and how to behave in
particular situations. He could not respect the situation, that
his own friends had different opinions. Thanks God, when he failed
the election, he did not make a revolution. Fortunately, he
understands the rules of democracy. I cannot imagine such situation in South
America or in Africa. There if someone recognize himself to be
a “saviour of the nation” will never give up his position to
someone who is from the entirely opposite political “gang”. We have got
examples of some South American “dissidents” who had searched
help in Moscow. I mean Fidel Castro. Of course, Battista was really
an American tool for ruling Cuba. But compare life in Havana at that
time and now. What is the alternative for South America? Everybody
will answer: democracy. But it is difficult to trust people, whose
mentality has not grown to democracy. One may arrest all the bosses of the
Mafia in Sicily, but what is the use of it, if there will appear
a young boy, stronger and cleverer than his friends, who will
require “respect” from them? This way of thinking has been being made for
hundreds of years. Two hundred years of fighting for freedom
means nothing in this context. By the way, to us, Europeans, two
hundred years is too short time to talk about any tradition.
Gustave le Bon in his “Psychology of the Crowd” wrote that
nations could change their forms of government but they would always
return to the system they had been used to. He wrote it at the end of the
19th century, but in many cases it turned out to be true. For the
Poles, Russia was always the country which wanted to destroy us as a
nation. During the period of partitions of Poland, they simply wanted us
to speak Russian, to confess the Orthodoxy, to be Russians
altogether. After the revolution, Russia changed the political system, but
was still an empire with strong will to subdue her neighbours.
Stalin’s idol was not Marx, Engels or even Lenin, but Ivan the Terrible.
His descendants were less cruel, but they were still tzars. For
the Poles, Russia is a danger. After the World War II, the West left
us to the disposition of the Soviets. I must admit that socialist
ideas were quite popular among Polish workers, but first of all, people
considered this sort of socialism as another face of Russian
occupation. Imperial thinking in Russia can be observed even
today. Russia has totally NO democratic tradition, and I am afraid,
their present democrats are as “imperial” as Bolshevics or tsarist
nobles. Let’s take Solzhenitsyn. When asked about his opinion on the
Chechnya massacres, he answered that people required to much from him,
when they wanted him to express his point in every case. From his
earlier speeches it is clear that the great intellectual is an imperial
Russian nationalist.
Yesterday I wrote a fragment of an interesting book by Tina
Rosenberg,”The Haunted Land:Facing Europe’s Ghosts after
Communism”, New York 1995, Random House. I think she understands
problems of Eastern Europe very well. She is a journalist. Previously, she
worked in South America and had written “Cain’s Children”. I would like
to read those books, and I will when they are available in Poland.
You’ll have no trouble to get them and read. I think Rosenberg
is more objective than I am. From the fragment I read I can hope it
is a very good piece of knowledge of Europe. She underlines a very
important item, that in Eastern Europe the communist system was
murderous, and after the death of Stalin, even people involved
in the machinery of the regime, could recognize themselves to be
honest. In South America there are governments of murderers.
Dear Professor, I do not want us to vie with each other in
atrocities in communism and South American dictatorships. I agree
with you when you condemn the government of you country for its policy
in South America. We praise your country because the US helped us,
regardless their reasons. Thanks God, Poland was “on the US’s
way” to overcoming their communist competitors. During the whole 19th
century nobody helped Poland in her fight for independence. The
only politician who did anything with my country was Napoleon
Bonaparte. Many contemporary politicians and intellectuals realized that he
just needed Polish boys to his army. He established the Duchy of
Warsaw (not Poland), a little country entirely controlled by the French,
but the official language was Polish, and it was enough to believe
in him as in our saviour. In the World War I, the western countries saw
an interest in establishing independent Poland. Jozef Pilsudski, who
had created some Polish troops beside the Austro-Hungarian army,
was by some politicians considered a traitor. (Austria and
Germany were partners of Russia in partition of Poland.) In 1916 he
refused to take an oath on the faith to the German kaiser, and was
arrested by his allies. Thanks to that fact he could be recognized by France,
Britain and the US, as a leader of independent Poland. We respect
the memory of Pilsudski, because he eventually created our
independence. The West needed a country between themselves and Bolshevik
Russia. France needed an ally behind Germany. It is understandable, that
they thought about their business, but the effect was independent
Poland. During the World War II the West left us alone twice.
They did not help us in 1939, and in 1945. As to 1939, they could stop
Hitler effectively, but they did not. In 1945 I can understand
them, they could not risk another war for Poland. The basic manual of
politicians is not the Bible, but “Il Principe” by Machiavelli.
In my opinion, the only method you, and your supporters may
undertake to stop atrocities in South America, is to convince
your politicians that it is much better business for the US to support
democracy and freedom in this region than to maintain murderous
juntas. If you only protest from the position of an intellectual,
no one will pay attention to your voice. Unfortunately, no
country is “on the way” to manage his own business in South America, to
help its countries to establish democracy. There is no political
power to do anything against the US. But I believe that the US
government is convincible sufficiently, so that someone wise and
experienced would persuade it the moral policy.

Dear Professor, I am sorry for bothering you so long. Please
forgive me my insolence in this moment. I would like to know how
many languages you know, and how you had learned them. Your name
is famous among any philologists, but I would like to tell my
students about you. I teach in secondary school history and English. I
believe that one of the most important points of my job should be
motivation of my students. In my opinion it will very good when they can
hear about such a famous person as you are. They do not like school,
and foreign languages frighten them most. I would like to encourage
them by positive examples. You are the best.
Thank you once again, dear Professor, I am waiting for your
interesting remarks. I always share of them with my friends. They
usually cause a “brainstorm”.
I stay
Yours Sincerely,
Stefan Kubiak


Wed, 14 Feb 1996

Dear Mr. Kubiak,

Apologies for the delay.  I’m utterly swamped with mail and
e-mail these days, and can’t keep up with the deluge.  Most long
letters I just cannot try to answer.  But I have a special
interest in this correspondence, and therefore will try to keep
up with it as best I can.

I’d like to follow your suggestion and try to focus the subject
of discussion more precisely.  But that may require some work.
I think it is becoming clearer as we proceed that we are beginning
from very different assumptions.  As a result, we have not yet
been able to identify even the areas of disagreement, let alone
to try to resolve them, though I suspect that if we can begin to
communicate, we may find that we are not that far apart on
fundamental issues or even matters of fact.  At least, we should
be able to identify the areas of disagreement, I hope also to
reduce or maybe eliminate them.

The simplest way to proceed, I think, is by my taking up the
points you raise in your letter, in order.

Walesa.  You’ve mentioned him several times, but I haven’t.  The
reason is that I didn’t want to bring in an extraneous issue.
Now that you raise it yet again, I’ll comment.

I realize that in Europe, and even more so in Eastern Europe, a
rather sharp distinction is made between “intellectuals” and
“simple workers” (I borrow your terms).  As you put it, Walesa
is not an “intellectual,” just a “simple worker.”

That distinction means much less in the US, and to me, it means
essentially nothing: in fact, I think it is a remnant of deeply
authoritarian attitudes that ought to be overcome.  One of the
things I very much like about the United States is that
“intellectuals” aren’t taken very seriously, unlike Europe.  That
is one aspect of the general levelling of class differences in
the domain of personal life (not in other domains, of course)
that I find a very attractive feature of American culture and
society.  In Europe and elsewhere, I’m constantly annoyed by the
deference that is shown to privileged people, intellectuals in
particular.  And I’m often appalled by the way they act, and by
their expectations as to how they should be treated.  Here, I’ve
rarely felt so embarrassed as when accompanying Eastern European
visitors to dinner — professors (often nice people),
apparatchiks, specialists on America who I presume came from the
KGB or something like it (most of them somewhere to the right of
the Republican party and fawning with adoration about the US and
its policies, particularly their most disgusting features), and
the like.  The way they treated waiters, for example, simply made
one’s flesh crawl.  The same is true of Europe rather generally,
though it rarely reaches this level (unless one moves to the more
comic extremes of the British aristocracy, and then there’s a bit
of self parody involved, so it isn’t quite so bad).  One aspect
of all of this is the distinction between “intellectual” and
“simple worker.”

To make the matter more concrete, yesterday I spent much of the
day at a seminar at Harvard with a group of “simple workers”:
trade unionists who have a 10-week session there.  It’s a regular
event.  I’ve been doing it for years, often for lengthy follow-up
sessions and private meetings.  Most the participants are from
the US, but there are others from around the world, sometimes
(not this year) Eastern Europe.  I don’t know much about Walesa,
but don’t see why he should be any different.

At yesterday’s meeting, I opened with the same kind of talk I’ll
be giving tomorrow evening at Brandeis University under the
auspices of the graduate department of political science.  Or
just about anywhere else.  There are some differences.  People
with different lives and backgrounds tend to have somewhat
different immediate concerns, for many reasons; and more educated
people tend to be more deeply indoctrinated, particularly those
who would be called “intellectuals,” and hence are typically
engaged in some form of doctrinal management, as part of what
might be called “a commissar class.” But there aren’t any broad
differences, at least in my experience since childhood, outside
of some faculty clubs in elite universities and literary salons
in New York, and the like.

I didn’t mention Walesa because I didn’t want to go into this.
Whether he deserves the title “intellectual” more or less than
Havel is an individual matter, having nothing to do with what the
two of them do.  I’ve certainly known “simple workers” who merit
the term much more than distinguished writers whom I’ve known.
Many of the people called “intellectuals” do mostly clerical
work, or parrot what they’ve been told.  Many of the people
called “workers” are independent-minded, thoughtful, and very
knowledgeable.  True, “intellectuals” tend to be far more
privileged, so they are more likely to use big words and literary
references.  But that’s not relevant.

I’m sure Poles react to Walesa and Kwasniewski exactly as you
say; it’s what I would have expected, knowing nothing about this
specific matter.  For the same reason, when I was asked by
European intellectuals to sign joint statements with Jean-Paul
Sartre, it was front-page news in Paris and ignored here, quite
right.  The reason is that people here are more sane (in my
opinion) than Paris intellectuals.  The first time I was arrested
here, in civil disobedience against the Vietnam war, there were
front-page headlines in Paris reading “Chomsky en danger.” Here,
there was no mention anywhere, even in the local paper.  That’s
precisely the right reaction: I was arrested, so were 1000 other
people whose names no one had ever heard of.  What’s the
difference?  Answer, none.

It is, in my opinion, a defect of societies that have yet to shed
feudalistic characteristics that the distinctions are taken
seriously.  Here, fortunately, they are taken much less
seriously, and I don’t make them at all, except when I have to
adapt to conventional usage to be understood.

When I use the term “dissident intellectual,” I mean a person who
thinks independently (hence an intellectual) and rejects the
doctrines favoured by the powerful (hence a dissident).  Maybe
the person is a steel worker, maybe he writes plays or teaches French
literature at Harvard.  That’s not to the point.  I omitted
mention of Walesa simply so as to bypass these matters, which I
know are understood very differently in Europe, even more so in
Eastern Europe.

You interpret me as seeing “intellectuals, or so-called
dissidents, as persons who express their opinions from the
position of God the Father, from the position of universal
morality,” people who should “teach mankind about this morality.”
You add that you “agree with me.” But you do not.  I reject the
view you are attributing to me — totally, completely, as
adamantly as I can.  I do recognize the view that you think I am
expressing.  But to my mind, it falls in the domain of games
played by “respectable intellectuals” for careerist or other
reasons, usually in the service of external power.  I have
nothing to do with it.  I condemn it and regard it as shameful.

I don’t know any more about “universal morality” than the trade
unionists I was talking to yesterday, nor did it ever occur to
them that I did or that I thought I did.  And neither they nor
I regard it as our task (or anyone else’s) to “teach mankind about
this morality.” I hope you don’t mind my being frank, but I’m
sure they would react to the words of yours that I just quoted
about as I do, though anyone familiar with European intellectual
culture, and in particular the form it has taken in Eastern
Europe, understands where the thoughts are coming from.

You say that “people all over the world need someone who will
take the role of the ancient prophets.” Two comments.  First, the
factual assumptions that underlie it are dramatically false, and
false in ways that I would like to suggest merit some
reflection.  Second, I disagree strongly with the intended

You are expressing a standard Leninist line, echoed in virtually
the same words by the mainstream of 20th century Western
intellectuals — something I’ve documented at length, if you are
interested — and pretty much the position of the Grand
Inquisitor.  But before getting to that, let me recall the facts
about the “ancient prophets,” which I’m sure you know as well as

Those called “prophets” in the Bible are more or less what are
called “intellectuals” these days.  They presented geopolitical
analyses and other commentary on public affairs, and also
expressed their views about moral issues.  Since what we are
reading is a rendition of societies of several millennia ago,
they all claimed to be speaking in the name of one or another god.
The prophet-intellectuals came in the two familiar varieties:
roughly commissars and dissidents.  As always, the commissars
were greatly honoured and privileged; they are the ones that
people listened to, the Bible tells us.  Centuries later, they
were called “false prophets.” The dissidents are those who
centuries later were called “prophets”; they are the ones to whom
you are referring as the “ancient prophets.” They were reviled,
imprisoned, driven into the desert; virtually no one listened to
them.  Furthermore, the man who was in my opinion the greatest
of the prophets stressed that he was NOT an intellectual (not a
“prophet or the son of a prophet,” in the terminology of the
day), but rather a simple farmer.  It’s worth pondering the
actual words of the persecuted and reviled dissidents, and
there is also much to learn about the history that the Biblical
account records.  It’s been relived over and over again through
the ages, most recently in the USSR and its satellites and in
Western elite culture, in surprisingly similar ways.

The facts about the “ancient prophets” matter illustrate exactly
my points.  The version of history you presuppose, which is
precisely the opposite of what the Bible clearly and
unambiguously records, reflects the assumptions of the Grand
Inquisitor (Lenin, Wilsonian liberals, etc.): that people need
commissars to lead them, perhaps speaking for one or another god
(the Bible is polytheistic), perhaps for the Central Committee,
perhaps for the corporate boardroom, perhaps pure careerists,
perhaps hoping to gain state power by exploiting popular struggle
(Leninism, naturally a doctrine of great appeal to “radical

Precisely what people do NOT need is a “prophet” in the sense in
which you are misusing the term.  They can think very well for
themselves, thank you, and there is no one smart enough to teach
them the principles of “universal morality”; certainly
“intellectuals” have nothing to preach about these topics, no
more than the simple farmer who was not a prophet or the son of
a prophet.

It seems that we are in different universes here, I’m afraid,
which may be one reason why we are not communicating too well.
I completely reject the assumptions that you are taking for granted
throughout, and that you identify as the area of our agreement.

I hope at least it is clear that we disagree precisely where you
thought we were agreeing, and maybe in fundamental ways.  Just
on grounds of logic, all of this has to be cleared up before we can
even hope to communicate about these important matters.

The idea that “politicians” or “intellectuals” are concerned with
international affairs while workers are not may well be true of
your personal experience; I’ll take your word on that.  My
experience is completely different, and the reading and study
that I have done suggests to me that my experience is far from
unique or even unusual.

My father came from a tiny village in the Ukraine and on arriving
here worked in a sweatshop.  My mother’s background was similar.
Both were very much interested in international affairs; my
father’s interest goes back to the Shtetl, where he taught
himself Russian in part for that reason (a terrible heresy in the
society in which he grew up, run by totalitarian Rabbis with the
power of the Czar behind them).  My relatives here were mostly
working class.  Many had little formal education.  The one who
influenced me more than anyone in my life never got beyond fourth
grade.  They were first-generation immigrants — seamstresses,
labourers, etc. — mostly unemployed when I was growing up during
the depression.  Some managed to make it through school and had
become school teachers.  Some were involved in petty commerce.
I’ve yet to find a milieu that reaches anything like their level
of intellectual ferment, excitement, and engagement: Stekel’s
most recent disagreement with Freud, what was really happening
in the Spanish Civil War, the latest performance of the Budapest
String quartet, contemporary avant-garde literature, etc.

Another person who I met in my early 20s and whose work I found
pretty impressive was a tool and die maker who had little formal
education: Paul Mattick, one of the most important writers of the
group that was around Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Karl
Korsch, and other left Marxists (radically anti-Leninist, of
course).  I didn’t agree with a lot of what Mattick said,
particularly about the importance of Marx (about which I’ve
always been sceptical).  But as an intellectual he surely ranked
well above what I was reading in intellectual journals (including
the left) or hearing among the distinguished Cambridge
intelligentsia.  I suspect he and his circle are unknown in
Poland.  If so, that illustrate the stultifying effect of the
Leninist and Western propaganda systems.

You say that politicians are interested in international affairs,
not working people.  That’s news to me.  I’ve known many people
in Congress and government — and in distinguished faculties of
international affairs.  Their interest and knowledge is often
extremely narrow, and they are often remarkably ignorant:
McNamara and Kissinger are two dramatic examples, which I have discussed
in print.  Many of them focus like a laser on some minute area
of professional work, understanding nothing a millimetre to right
or left.  I’ve documented a lot of this, and can add a great deal
more from experience.  I’ve found far higher levels of just plain
factual knowledge, let alone understanding, in churches in Kansas
or working class areas in Detroit than in many a faculty club,
and certainly more than in congressional offices, where one
expects — and finds — very little knowledge and less
understanding, at least from the man sitting behind the desk and
producing the oratory.  Off in the background there are often
young people (legislative assistants) who do the actual thinking
and writing, and they are sometimes quite good.  The same is true
incidentally in the most distinguished news rooms, as one quickly
discovers on the briefest exposure.

You turn next to Havel.  You point out that his coming to speak
before Congress is not quite analogous to the (hypothetical) case
of Fr. Ellacuria coming to speak at the Supreme Soviet, because
Havel was a politician seeking support from the US and Central
American Jesuits were not in a comparable position.  You are
correct.  No analogy is precise, or it wouldn’t be an identity,
not an analogy.  But the analogy I drew was quite accurate for
the point I was making, in my opinion.

But we need not tarry on that.  Let’s pick an analogy that
overcomes your objection.  Suppose that the Stalinist system
still survived and that Aristide or Mandela were to go to Moscow
to praise the bloody murderers there as “defenders of freedom,”
in the hope of getting some support — support they desperately
need.  To make the analogy closer, suppose Aristide or Mandela
were to do this a few weeks after security forces armed and
trained by the Kremlin had blown out the brains of six leading
Polish intellectuals — a pea on the mountain of the atrocities
that they were trained, armed, and guided to carry out by the
Kremlin.  How would you react to this (hypothetical) performance
on the part of Aristide or Mandela?  Why don’t you react exactly
the same way to the (quite actual) performance by Havel?  It
seems to me a fair question.

I’ll mention again something I’ve probably already told you.
I’ve never discussed Havel’s behaviour in print.  More exactly,
I did mention his address to Congress, but without bringing up the
shocking and shameful context, specifically, the events he knew
had just taken place in El Salvador.  Rather, I mentioned his
remarks only in discussion of the reaction of enlightened
left-liberal opinion to them, a reaction that falls far below
Havel in the level of its depravity, for reasons I presume are
obvious.  Thus in the hypothetical analogue, the most slavish
commissars in Russia would doubtless have praised Aristide or
Mandela effusively, in the same terms used by left-liberal
opinion in the US in worshipping Havel for having lauded the
“defenders of freedom” who had once again murdered the leading
dissidents in their client states.  I don’t know how to put it
any more clearly.  If this does not appal you, we really do live
in different moral universes.

You go on to make some remarks about “democratic tradition” and
about South America “managing with democracy” which, I’m afraid,
I simply do not comprehend.  I therefore cannot comment.  What
you say about Parliaments and democracy is particularly
surprising, and I doubt that you mean what your letter said.  In
any event, surely parliaments are no indication of democracy,
contrary to what you assert.  Russia had a parliament, even a
beautiful democratic Constitution.  Similarly, after Woodrow
Wilson’s Marines invaded Haiti and violently disbanded its
Parliament because it refused to accept a US-written Constitution
that allowed US investors to buy up Haiti’s land, the idealistic
Wilson insisted that the Marines run elections to install a new
Parliament.  So they did: under the guns of the Marines, 5% of
the population voted for a new Parliament, which in turn voted
for Wilson’s new Constitution by 99.98%.  So Haiti was a
democracy with a Parliament and a wonderful Constitution, by the
criteria you are suggesting (which are, incidentally, accepted
as valid in this case by George Kennan, leading Harvard specialists
in international affairs, etc.).

In any event, what you say in this paragraph I certainly do not
accept if I read it literally, and I don’t know how to read it
in any other way.

You say that Fidel Castro is a “dissident” who searched for help
in Moscow.  That is indeed the way the matter is described in
US-Soviet propaganda — which were quite similar, incidentally,
not only in this case.  The facts are a bit different.

Castro was more or less a traditional Latin American caudillo but
of the populist type (not entirely unlike Torrijos, for example).

He had no ties to Russia, and was anti-Communist.  But he was
independent, and the US would never tolerate that in Cuba for
reasons that go back to the 1820s, when they were articulated
with great clarity by Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and
others; I’ll suggest sources if the facts aren’t familiar.
Within a few months after his taking power in Jan. 1959, planes
based in Florida were bombing Cuba.  In March 1960, the
Eisenhower administration made the formal decision (in secret)
to overthrow the government of Cuba.  At that time, its own
evidence, we now know, was that Castro was an independent
authoritarian who had the overwhelming support of the population,
that he was anti-Communist, and that there were no Russians in
sight.  The US then invaded Cuba, and when the invasion failed,
launched the world’s most intense campaign of international
terrorism, with horrendous effects, as well as a tight embargo,
which Cuba could no more survive than Latvia could have survived
an embargo and huge terrorist attack by the USSR.  No one was
willing to defy the monster, and at that point Castro turned to
Moscow for support, which it lent him for perfectly cynical
reasons.  How significant this tie to Moscow was to US power we
can easily determine: first, note what happened before the ties
were established; second, note what happened after they were
broken.  QED.

To describe this as a “dissident” turning to Moscow for support
is a little thin, to put it mildly.  And note that it has not the
slightest resemblance to Havel’s behaviour in 1990.

You say that life in Cuba is worse today than it was under
Batista.  That’s a remarkable statement.  Try to find any
reputable source on Cuba, however extreme its mimicry of the
Stalinist commissars, that would accept that judgment.  The basic
facts are readily available and not controversial, and quite
different from the vulgar propaganda that you seem to be relying

Despite the extraordinary attack by the US, which has escalated
since the collapse of the USSR, quality of life standards in Cuba
(health, life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality, etc.) are
barely below the level of the US and Canada, and far higher than
the rest of the hemisphere (Costa Rica, for instructive reasons
that I’ve written about, is an exception).  That is even more
remarkable in the light of the fact that none of the other
countries had been subjected to 35 years of brutal attack by the
master of the hemisphere.  Of course, if we pay attention only
to the top few percent in wealth, then your conclusions are correct.

The rich sectors in Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, etc., are
far better off than people are in Cuba.  If we deign to look at
roughly 80-90% of the population, the conclusions are radically
different.  The large majority of people in these countries could
scarcely dream of the conditions of Cuba.  Furthermore, that is
not only well known, but it is one major reason for the fanatic
hatred of Cuba on the part of US elites, who have always regarded
Cuba as a “virus” that might “infect others” by the dread
demonstration effect, to borrow Henry Kissinger’s words when he
was justifying the overthrow of Chilean democracy by a gang of
neo-Nazi murderers and torturers.

I’m a bit surprised, and suggest that you have a look at the
facts, which are not in dispute.

Your scepticism about Latin American democracy is equally
curious.  Chile had a long and vibrant democratic tradition until
it was overthrown by a US-backed military coup, because the US
will tolerate democracy in its sphere only if the results come
out “the right way.” That’s incidentally fairly explicit; I’ve
given plenty of documentation, if you are interested.  Guatemala
had ten years of quite successful democracy, until it was
overthrown by a US-run military coup — in this case, with really
horrendous consequences, which persist.  Costa Rica has long been
as democratic as any European country.  I can proceed.  Again,
I’d suggest that you look at the facts, not just at propaganda,
and certainly not Gustave le Bon.

On Solzhenitsyn, I would again suggest that you look at the
facts.  True, he was willing to fight courageously for himself
and his friends, abandoning his Stalinist commitments when he too
became a victim.  And he did some work that is interesting and
important.  But his hatred of freedom and democracy, and his
shameful moral views, were so outlandish that in the US — where
he had been venerated because of his attacks on the official
enemy — he was bitterly condemned and then utterly disregarded
as an embarrassment.  I doubt that anyone here even heard what
he said about Chechnya, and few would have cared.

You asked about Tina Rosenberg.  She is indeed a good journalist,
and her work on Latin America is in general useful and honest.
I’m not sure what question you are asking about her, so cannot

You say you do not want us to compete “in atrocities in communism
and South American dictatorships.” If you think that is what we
are doing, you have misread the earlier correspondence.  I’d
suggest that you have another look, and I think that will be

You say that you praise the US because the US helped you.  That’s
your privilege.  I doubt that Mandela would say that he praises
the USSR because it helped him (as sometimes it did, for cynical
reasons).  For reasons as cynical as those that led the West to
support you, the USSR supported the democratically-elected
government of Nicaragua (that term will probably surprise you,
but if so, you can overcome the surprise by looking at the facts,
specifically, the conclusions of strongly anti-Sandinista Latin
American and European democrats and others who observed the 1984
election).  But my good friend Father Cesar Jerez would never
praise Russia for helping him (as it did) in the way you praise
the US for helping you.

To explain, let me give you a little background, suppressed by
the commissar culture, and not to be permitted into official
history.  But true, and instructive about the reality that
Eastern Europeans typically do not want to look at.

Fr. Jerez was a Guatemalan, an important figure in the Catholic
Church: he was Jesuit Provincial for Central America.  He fled
Guatemala when the US-run state terrorists threatened to murder
all the Jesuits.  He went to El Salvador, where he was the
right-hand man of Archbishop Romero, and the actual author of an
important letter which is suppressed here in the mainstream, but
is well known to the kinds of people I was talking about before,
say in churches in Kansas: not “intellectuals” but people who
care about truth and justice.  It was a letter sent by the
Archbishop to President Carter, pleading with him to stop sending
military aid to the junta, because it would be used to slaughter
people fighting for their elementary human rights.  Carter of
course sent the aid, and the Vatican immediately called Fr. Jerez
to Rome, having been instantly informed by the US that it must
put an end to the doings of this “troublesome priest.” He went
to Rome, saw the head of the Jesuit order, and had an audience with
the Pope, who, despite his shameful role in support of terror and
oppression in Latin America, at least in this case did not
specifically order him to stop his cooperation with the
Archbishop.  Romero was murdered a few days later by US-supported
state terrorists, and Jerez fled to Nicaragua, which in those
years was the refuge for human rights activists, writers,
priests, democratic political figures, etc.; it was rather like
Paris in the ’30s, then a place of refuge for anti-fascists and
anti-Stalinists.  Fr. Jerez did not support the Sandinistas, but
he agreed with the World Court (and Latin American opinion apart
from the superrich and ultra-jingoist right) that Washington’s
“unlawful use of force” (as the World Court termed it) — i.e.,
aggression — must be instantly terminated (it was escalated at
once by congressional liberals).  Fr. Jerez was surely glad that
the cynical thugs in the Kremlin were helping Nicaragua survive
the US attack.  But he would NEVER, NEVER have dreamt of uttering
the words you use.

Again, I would suggest that these matters merit some reflection.

Your advice to me reflects a failure to understand how democracy
works.  A democracy is not ruled by “politicians,” and one does
not implore them to do nice things.  What one does is engage
oneself with people — in churches in Kansas, in working class
areas of Detroit, everywhere — who want to educate themselves
and others, and to organize to compel the politicians to do nice
things, or replace them by others who will do so.  That’s
elementary, or should be.

I’m sorry if this sounds harsh.  I don’t mean it to be.  I think
there are reasons why decent honourable people in Eastern Europe
think and act in ways that are so radically different from their
counterparts elsewhere, including those I have mentioned and many
others like them.  The main reason, I think, is that dissidents
in Eastern Europe were uniquely privileged.  I am not referring
to the fact — and fact it is — that in the post-Stalin period
their travail, though shameful and terrible, was nothing like
what was endured by their counterparts in Central America,
Africa, and many other places.  Rather, I am referring to the
fact that they were the only dissidents anywhere who had the
overwhelming support of the most powerful forces in the world,
and of their articulate intellectuals as well as their general
populations.  For the governments and articulate intellectuals,
this was pure cynicism for the most part, as easily demonstrated.

But the support was real, overwhelming, and without any remote
analogue.  One result is that Eastern Europeans developed a very
distorted picture of themselves and of the rest of the world.
I’m sure that is what accounts for the difference between Havel
and his counterparts in US domains.  And as you know far better
than I, I’m taking Havel merely as an illustration; the
phenomenon is far more general, and exceptions are remarkably

Turning to the matter of languages, I know English, of course,
and happen to know Hebrew because I grew up with it, was
intensely interested in the language and culture and everything
associated with them, and sustained the interest.  But that has
virtually nothing to do with my work in linguistics (though it
did, 50 years ago).  Other languages I know only from reading;
a casual acquaintance.  Thus I can read French, which I never
studied, but can’t use the language.  I did happen to study
Arabic for several years, 50 years ago, when I toyed with going
to live in what was then Palestine, later Israel.  But that was
independent of any concern for linguistics.

The basic answer to your question is that I don’t know any
languages, apart from my native language.  I know a fair amount
about languages, but that’s from reading work done on those
languages.  My knowledge of languages is more or less like the
kind of knowledge that many biologists have about plants and
animals.  There are plenty of fine biologists, Nobel prize
winners for example, who might not be able to tell a lion from
a tiger.

As in the other areas of our discussion, the analogies shouldn’t
be pressed too far, but the basic point holds.

I absolutely agree with you about motivating students.  That’s
about 99% of teaching, in my opinion (based on experience from
teaching children as I worked my way through college, to teaching
advanced graduate courses today).

Much enjoy thinking through what you have to say, and I hope we
can clear away misunderstandings and reach what I expect is a
common core of basic beliefs and attitudes.


Noam Chomsky


26 Feb 96 19:23:29

Dear Professor,

Thank you very much for your last message. It was a big material
to think about. Thank you for that.

First of all I must apologize for my language mistakes. I has
recently checked my messages to you and I realized that I had made a lot
of them. Please, forgive me. I use any while between my classes at
the college to come to our computer lab and to write a few words to
you, but unfortunately I usually have to hurry to another classes
before I check my text. That is the same reason that I do not look for the
best phrases to express my thoughts, and try to write as much as
possible at once. Please forgive me.

Thank you for the painful but very helpful lesson. I really had
to rethink some of my points. And in this moment it occurred to me
that I can afford changing my mind or look at some problems from
different positions, when many of politicians cannot. It is horrible that
societies are so understanding. Everyone should learn everyday,
and there is no shame to make the mistake, it is corrected. In the
world of democracy when someone becomes an expert after the hard
studies of his/her office, it is time for him to go, the society do not want
him any more.

I would like to know what for you democracy is. You wrote that
parliamentarism does not indicate democracy at all. Of course you
are right, but what should democracy be? We realize that indirect
democracy like that in ancient Athens is impossible nowadays. On
the other hand many politicians repeat that nobody has ever invented
anything better than democracy. To many of them it becomes a
status quo, and nothing can be done to improve the situation. In Eastern
Europe after the first years of democracy the euphoria for the
system has weakened. People in 80s were fighting not only for democracy
but for personal material prosperity as well. We have got democracy,
but we are far from being rich. This is the main reason why people
are disappointed with democracy, so they voted for the communist.
Democracy is a system in which everybody is quarrelling with
everybody, nobody is responsible for anything, and political elites enrich
themselves at the cost of “a simple worker” (it’s not mine, I’ve
heard this expression several times from the workers.) There is
still a stereotype of the working-class and its opposition or enemy.
Why in Eastern Europe we make such distinction between workers
and educated people. To tell the truth in our daily life we did not.
But in discussions there appears the problem of this distinction from
time to time. I shall try to explain it to you.
I do not want to begin with the Polish tradition of 10% of the
nobles in 17th century.(To compare in France there were 2%)The stupid
custom of recognising oneself something better than the others is very
old. But let’s take the history of the 20th century. You mentioned
your parents. I must say that the situation is entirely different from
that before the Second World War. My mother’s grandfather was an
illiterate. He was a peasant in the very small village. Everyday
he wanted his sons (who attended to school) to read him a newspaper.
When he was over sixty he taught himself to read and was able to
get to his beloved news himself. His son (my grandfather) was a
peasant too. Apart from his usual work, he was active in the Young
Farmers’  Organization. They conducted a library, organized self-educating
circles etc. And now a Polish village during the period of
“worker- peasant alliance”,which was the “leading force” in society: The
only entertainment was drinking vodka. I could observe that situation
myself. Nobody was interested in raising his qualifications.
Young people were not able to achieve something attractive but on the
other hand they weren’t afraid of hunger of poverty.
My father’s father:he was a worker in Lodz. He was a fan of
history so my aunt could inherit quite a big collection of historic books.
He wanted her to educate. Before the war it was almost impossible
for the worker’s daughter, the fee was too high. There was a
“worker’s university” in Lodz led by the socialists (not communists, because
they were interested in overthrowing the state and in becoming a part
of the USSR). Unfortunately the war broke out. After the war my aunt
could study history as she dreamt of. All her life she felt to
be a communist, and I do not find it strange. My father did not study
too much, and became a forester, and then a worker in the power
station. Let’s have a look at Lodz or any other Polish city today. I have
many friends from my primary school, with whom I keep contact. Most
of them are workers. You could hardly find a book in their houses.
A newspaper is bought once a week, mainly for TV programme for the
next week. Sometimes I can hear confession that they had always been
dreaming of not having to learn any longer. They really are not
mentally handicapped, on the contrary, some of them were very
intelligent. The communism killed the survival instinct, and
ambition too. Today, when I am a teacher(I am a historian, as my aunt
was), I can observe my students, and it is plain to me that their future
life depends not so much on their knowledge but their ambition
supported by hard work. Unfortunately, most of my students do not believe
in possibilities of success, and do not even try to do something
with their future. They do not know anything about both home and
foreign affairs although they think to do so. They repeat the opinions
of their frustrated parents who themselves do not understand much.
Statistic researches have shown recently, that only 20% of adults
in the Polish countryside understand TV news. My friends are still
my friends and neighbours, but there are some subjects I do not
discuss with them, because the communism convinced them that a worker
must be right, and simultaneously discouraged them from education. The
communism provided free education for everybody, but most of the
people did not want to take the opportunity, and I do not think
that we should still flatter the present working class.

You criticized me for attributing you with ideas which you do not
share with me. I mean that statement about the ancient prophets.
I thought about the prophets of the Bible of course. I did not
want to write that the world needs the teachers in the leninist
meaning of the word. Of course we do not need ideologists to “know better”.
But when you, or other person (I try not to use the word
criticise a politician for doing something wrong, you simply take
a part of a biblical prophet. I did not mean those official
prophets gathered around the Temple and connected with priests and
monarchy. The greatest of them acted against them. They performed in the
name of God (or gods if you prefer that), but it was simply the same
sense of morality, that we all have. I believe so. I think that we all
have an innate sense of morality or a sort of “moral logic”, but
upbringing and wrong education may destroy it. So there must
always be people who clearly remind everybody of the simplest rules of
common life, and I think you are one of them when you say to the Eastern
European politicians:”It is not all right, gentlemen. There is
much to be improved all over the world, and you shouldn’t call a tyrant
“defensor of democracy””. I think we both have the same moral
universe, but I always try to understand the motives of the
others. I can understand politicians, but it does not indicate that I
praise them or share their opinions.

Dear Professor, there were many other items in your letter, I
would like to refer to. Unfortunately, my next classes are coming, and
I have to finish. I must admit with a shame that I am far from
being expert on South America affairs, and thank you for the lesson.
I would like to ask you about your educational way. What schools
did you attend, when did you begin to be interested in linguistics,
and what was your way to your theory like. If possible write
something about your work now please. I wonder what kind of meeting with
the workers was that you mentioned. I am looking forward to your next

Yours sincerely,

Stefan Kubiak
Thu, 29 Feb 1996

Dear Mr. Kubiak,

Afraid I’m in a pretty big rush, but don’t want to let your
message disappear into the huge pit of to-be-answered.  Quick

I wasn’t aware of any language mistakes or other problems.  I’m
sure there are plenty in my messages, also always in a rush, like
yours, no chance even to proofread or edit.

What’s democracy?  A long story, too long to go into here.  There
are many dimensions: it’s not a yes-or-no affair.  In general,
a society is democratic to the extent that the population can enter
in a meaningful way into the design and management of public
affairs.  In totalitarian states of the fascist-Communist type
(not much difference, in my opinion), the options for such
participation vary from near zero to a lot more, depending on
details of social organization (which vary).  In terror states
of the type the US has run for a long time in its region, there is
a formal right of participation, as long as you don’t mind being
murdered.  So El Salvador in 1980 had complete freedom of press;
it’s only that of the two journals that were not entirely
supportive of the US-run regime, one was blown up by the security
forces and the editor driven out of the country under death
threat, and the other closed when the editor and journalists were
found hacked to death in a ditch.  This was not considered
interference with freedom of the press here, and indeed was
scarcely reported.  Similarly, Colombia is described by Bill
Clinton and the press and even scholarship as a vibrant
democracy, which even has had an independent political party for
a few years; true, 2500 of its activists have been murdered,
mainly by the security forces and their paramilitary associates,
including presidential candidates, mayors, etc. — a small
fraction of the human toll.  But that doesn’t interfere with
democracy, so there is no complaint when the US directs half its
military aid in the hemisphere to the security forces, to
preserve democracy.

In my view, there is virtually no democracy in such
circumstances, even if there is a formal right to vote, and the
same is true in societies in which most of the population is
traumatized or impoverished or marginalized.  Take the US, with
very stable democratic institutions.  Over 80% of the population
feel that the democratic system doesn’t function for “the
people”: the government serves “the few” and the “special
interests.” Are they wrong?  Not really.

Suppose that decisions over investment, production, commerce,
etc., are in the hands of unaccountable private tyrannies.  Is
the system democratic?  According to accepted dogma today in the
US, the answer is that it is.  According to mainstream American
social thinkers like John Dewey, who devoted most of his work to
problems of democracy, the answer is definitely no.  The
independent working class press in the US last century also took
that for granted, without ever having heard of radical
intellectuals (luckily for them).  These would be truisms in free
societies, in my opinion.

I’ve written a lot about these topics, as have others.  There’s
a fine book called “Democracy” by my colleagues and friends Joshua
Cohen (well-known political philosopher) and Joel Rogers
(professor of law and sociology), published by Penguin.  I think
they have a lot to say, though it’s not quite what I would say,
not surprisingly.

I was much interested to read your account of Polish life (about
which I know much too little, I’m afraid).  Perhaps I wasn’t
clear when I wrote about my own parents.  Remember that they were
Jewish.  My father lived in a tiny village in the Ukraine, and
the family was quite poor (I told you what happened when he got
here); similarly, my mother’s family.  But they were not
peasants.  They had peasants doing their dirty work for them.
I doubt that you would have found a Jewish woman cleaning the house
of a Ukrainian involved in petty commerce and the like; the
contrary was common.  My grandfather lived here for about 50
years, in a completely Jewish ghetto in Baltimore.  Never learned
a word of English.  I often had the feeling he was still in the
Ukraine, and was wondering why the peasants here were black.

On the prophets, I don’t think we are disagreeing, at least if
I now understand you (sorry if I didn’t before).  The point that
I think should be stressed is that the model of the prophets and
false prophets has been repeated in one or another form
throughout recorded history.  It tends to be forgotten now that
the prophets were despised and punished, the false prophets
revered and rewarded — and as I mentioned, one of the greatest
of the prophets emphasized that he was not a prophet (i.e., an
intellectual in our terms) but an ordinary working person.
That’s something found through history too, right in this area
from the early industrial revolution, in fact, and well into my
childhood.  It’s taken a lot of effort to turn working people
into creatures “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a
human being to be,” as Adam Smith put it (from memory, but
something like that) in his sharp critique of division of labor
and warning that the government must act to prevent it from
working its mischief in any civilized society.

True, there are lots of differences among societies, but this is
an important strain, now mostly obliterated.

I’m not sure what meeting with workers I mentioned.  If it was
in January, it was a meeting with younger trade union activists who
come here for a 10-week seminar, at the Harvard business school.
It is a program that was designed 60 years ago to tame and
“civilize” the work force (socialization is a major commitment
of the elite universities), but in the past few years the program
has for various reasons become a really lively center of working
class education and militancy.  I go there regularly, and it’s
always fascinating.  Or maybe I was referring to something else;
I don’t recall.  Sorry.

On my own background, it was very strange.  As a child, my
interests were mostly political (a mixture of anti-Bolshevik
mostly anarchist left and what was then called Zionism and is now
called “anti-Zionism” — a long story in itself).  I might well
have dropped out of college at about age 17, mainly out of
boredom, when I happened to meet Zellig Harris through political
connections of this type.  He was the leading linguist in the
country, and a pretty remarkable person, who influenced a lot of
young people, including me.  In ways too long to recount, I ended
up back in college, doing graduate work in several scattered
fields but with no undergraduate or real professional training;
I still don’t have any.  Technically, I have a phd (from Harris at
U. of Pennsylvania), but it was a sort of private affair — I was
doing my own work, which no one even looked at, and which had
essentially no home in the academic world, and was almost
entirely unpublishable (the 1000-page book I was writing, mainly
for myself and a few friends, was published in part 20 years
later, mainly for historical interest).  I got to MIT because I
was unemployable, having no credentials, and this is a
science-based university, where they didn’t care.  I was hired
in an electronics laboratory (I can hardly tell a radio from an
electric toaster), on a project that I said I wouldn’t work on
because I thought it was ridiculous (machine translation).
Luckily for me, the director of the lab, a well-known
scientist-engineer who was later Kennedy’s science adviser,
thought the work I was doing looked intriguing, so I was hired
anyway, and stayed, mainly because I like the atmosphere so much.

A few years later a colleague-friend and I were able to start a
graduate linguistics program.  I also taught some of the earliest
philosophy courses here, and was able to help get a graduate
philosophy program started.  Meanwhile work developed in all
sorts of directions.

That’s a very brief outline.  Don’t know if you want the (very
big) gaps filled in, but could try sometime if you like.


Noam Chomsky


9 Mar 96

Dear Professor,

Thank you for your message of February 29. As usual, getting to
know your opinions and learning more about you is very interesting and
useful for my future work.

First of all, I would like to share with you my impression on a
play I have recently seen in our local theatre. It was written by Edward
Redlinski, who had spent about six years in New York. The play
is based on his book “Szczuropolacy”(“Rat-Poles”), and its title is
“The miracle in Greenpoint”. The author expressed his total
disappointment at America and Americans’ way of life. I suspect
he exaggerated much, because he chose some extreme examples of the
Poles who tried to survive in the jungle of the New York Polish ghetto
and simultaneously informed their families in Poland about their
great successes. The play shows, in my opinion, another stereotype of
America, this time the stereotype of Edward Redlinski: country
where everything is evaluated by its price in dollars, people do not
believe in anything but dollar and so on. Some of my friends were
living in America for some years and most of them still consider
the US as the most wonderful country in the world. Despite all those
discrepancies between descriptions of America, there are some
noticeable observations in the play. Redlinski states that a
great many Poles are in deep love with America. That is partly true. I
personally was fascinated by American freedom of the units and
her democracy, in my opinion in those days, a perfect system. To tell
the truth in a way I am still fascinated by the phenomenon of your
country. I’ll return to this topic. Another very true Redlinski’s
observation is that Poles are on the way to lose their identity
by accepting American patterns of behaviour, business and customs.
One of the heroes of his play says: “We’ve already got America in
Poland but a little worse.” Yes, we’ve got MacDonald’s, Disney
(Disney is rather all right if we compare his films with entirely stupid
“Superman”,”Batman” or any others psychopathic “-men”), jeans etc.
That is not so tragic, because those things were known in Poland
even during the communists’rule. But why the most awful drunkard’s den
is called now in English “Drink Bar”, why the smallest shop with
candies is called in English “Shop” or “Store”? Of course we may count
on foreign tourists, but if you come to such a “shop”, nobody will
understand you, because they do not know English. The conclusion
is that it is not America what came to Poland. It is the most
horrible part of Greenpoint. Mentality of some groups of my countrymen
changed tragically. Thinking with categories of profit wins more and more
people. In Lodz for example people are as neurotic as Poles in
Greenpoint. In Bialystok there is still more traditional approach
to life – family, religion and patriotism in old fashion. But the
invasion of pseudo-americanism is plainly seen even here.
The tragedy of “The Miracle in Greenpoint” is in the fact that
the only man who stands against the prostitution of teenage girl,
whose “manager” is her own father, is a narrow-minded greedy catholic
fanatic, who had dreamt that Madonna had promised him ten million
dollars of the LOTTO award. It must be connected with the whole
precess of Polish overthrowing communism in 1989.

When we wanted communism to collapse, the most of the nation
acted unanimously against the Polish United Workers’Party. After the
victory the anticommunist opposition divided itself into small parties.
They become each other’s enemies, and they entirely disdained the
post-communists, who stayed more or less(rather more) united. The
latter won the parliamentarian election in 1993 and presidential
election in 1995. What can be noticed is that during those six years of
democracy people did not understand what “Solidarity” fought for. Lech
Walesa as far as I remember was speaking about “the possibilities for
industrious and ambitious people”, he did not promise everything
for everybody, as the Left parties are used to doing in any country.
The catholic fundamentalists hoped the country would be ruled by
strict religious values.(By the way, those values are indeed
universal, and most of the people would like to live according
to them, but they could not agree with the role which the catholic
politicians claimed to play, the role of the guards of morality.)
The liberals wanted the free market economy, but simultaneously
they began to believe in everything the western economists and
businessmen would “teach” us. As a result, a lot of our production plants
belong to the western capital, because our politicians promptly sold
them as quickly as they could. I do not know if they took bribes, I want
to believe that not. Today, the former “Solidarity” is divided
between the numerous Right parties (tradition, religion and horribly Left
economic program – “religious ideal communism”), Trade Union
“Solidarity”, mostly friendly to the parties mentioned above, and
Union of Liberty, a center party of liberals and democrats. The
latter are not homogeneous, there are socialist and people of views
similar to those of American Republicans. There is one Left party derived
from “Solidarity”, small Union of Labour. And on the Left wing
strong and dangerous post-communists, who promise working people much,
have a program very similar to that of our liberals (free market), and
who apparently want to keep power centralised, so they disturb in
works on increasing self-government institutions. They cannot fulfil their
promises to the workers, teachers etc, because our country is too
poor, but what everyone can plainly observe the biggest
“capitalists”, businessmen, entrepreneurs etc. are the prominent members of
their party. What is more tragic, people can see that, but they prefer
the communist capitalist to the groups of neurotic fanatics who
constantly are in argue with each other. What I could observe,
most of the people will express their love to democracy and freedom,
but to tell the truth they would prefer to live like cows – to be
milked from time to time, but at the same time to have someone to feed
them. Lack of the sense of responsibility and American desire for
success make them weak tools in hands of cynic politicians.

I personally believe that we have to start working on democracy
at school, and I’ll do my best to reform Polish educational system,
which provides students with a lot of useless knowledge, not
giving them very necessary skills and sense of social cooperation.
This is a problem which interests me much, and if you would like
to know something about it I’ll describe that system.

Returning briefly to America. You know, whatever one says about
America, it could be true. To someone America is a crib of modern
democracy, to another she is a country of tough hard working
people, to anybody else she is a country of murderers of the Indians and
exterminators from Vietnam,to some people she is full of cunning
businessmen, to the others she is a country of the best trade
unions, to me she is a country of splendid universities, courageous
journalists, and Noam Chomsky. There are million faces of
America, so it is nothing strange that people love her, but accepting all her
features, denying one’s own identity is very dangerous.

Dear Professor, I would like to know if you would be interested
in visiting Poland. I talk to my friends and lecturers about our
correspondence, and we would be very happy to receive you in our
college. It is affiliated with the Bialystok Branch of the
University of Warsaw. Our branch has ambition to become an independent
university soon. It would be a great honour to us to have such
aguest as you are. Please, write what you think about it.

I have got a lot of questions to you, but unfortunately I must
leavethe computer lab for the class of British Phonetics.
Waiting for the message from you, I stay

Yours sincerely,

Stefan Kubiak


12 Mar 1996 10:29:01 EST

Dear Stefan,

I wonder if you would mind, at this point, if I revert to the
American habits that come naturally to me and drop formalities.

Your letter was most interesting.  I’m having it run off hard
copy so I can think about it some more.  Quick reaction.

Like your friends, I actually consider the US to be “the most
wonderful country in the world.” When I go anywhere else, I’m
appalled by many things: the deep internalization of class
differences, the lack of intellectual independence or respect for
freedom of expression, and much else.  Take England, pretty much
like the US.  I’ve spent a lot of time there, and simply cannot
get used to the fact that since I’m a RESPECTED INTELLECTUAL with
a big salary, I’m treated with deference and respect.  It’s not
easy for me to talk on equal terms in England to the taxi driver
or the TV cameraman or the waiter or the guy fixing the water
pipes.  In the US, it’s taken for granted.  That’s a wonderful
thing.  During the sixties, I was always amused when I co-signed
some silly pronouncement with Jean Paul Sartre.  In France, it
was a headline in Le Monde.  Here, it wouldn’t even be reported,
because there is no interest in the fact that two intellectuals
said something — an attitude I greatly admire.  The first time
I was arrested here for civil disobedience, in a protest against
the Vietnam war, there was a headline in the French press
(“Chomsky en Danger”).  The Boston press didn’t mention it,
correctly, because several hundred other people were arrested
too, who merit attention no less than I do.  I can continue, but
these are among the really fine things about this country, not
appreciated elsewhere.

I should say that all of this is much less true of the privileged
educated elites — the people in the Harvard Faculty Club, or at
the New York literary soirees, or the editorial offices or
corporate suites.  They are just as comical and ridiculous as
their European counterparts.  But fortunately, most people here
regard them as ridiculous — as they are — unlike Europe or most
of the third world, where such people are taken quite seriously.

So Redlinski is right not only about many Poles, but even about
some people whose parents fled from the Ukraine, and who remain,
like their parents, “in deep love with America” — not the way
its commissar class portrays it, but as it really is.

It’s far from a “perfect system.” In fact, the socioeconomic
system is a scandalous catastrophe.  But there are a lot of very
good things here that I have yet to find in most other corners
of the world.  Though I’ve found them in some places, I should add.
For example, I was in India a few weeks ago, and was able to take
off a day in the West Bengal countryside, the site of peasant
struggles in the post-independence period, and horrifying
repression during the Indira Gandhi years (the ’70s).  The
outcome has been some very impressive levels of self-government
in rural villages, something unique in India, and hard to
duplicate anywhere in the world.  The attitudes and behaviour of
poor peasants towards authority and privilege was very heartening
to see, as well as the overcoming of caste and tribal
differences, the role of women, the enthusiastic engagement of
people in running their own affairs.  The poverty is terrible by
Western standards, but they have a lot to teach us.  Poles would
do far better to look there for models, or to the slums of Haiti,
or many other places I know of from personal experience.  And
privileged Americans should be looking to such places too, if
they were interested in learning what democracy and freedom are
about.  Not too likely.

As for your observation that it is “the horrible part” of America
that is being mimicked abroad, that’s entirely true.  But also
understandable.  The people who are doing the selling are the
worst and most depraved segment of American society, and the most
privileged and powerful, not by coincidence.

On Polish liberals wanting “the free market economy” and
believing “everything the western economists and businessmen
would `teach’ us.” It is true that professional economists,
like other educated people, may well believe the “free market”
drivel they produce.  But the business world has always known
better.  Like all other developed countries, from England to the
East Asian NICs, the US has never been willing to submit
privileged sectors to market discipline.  That’s for the poor at
home and the third world.  The business classes have always
demanded, and obtained, protection and massive subsidy from a
powerful nanny state.  That continues today, without change.  If
Polish liberals prefer to believe the rhetoric rather than
looking at the facts, that simply shows how little they have
advanced from the days when many of them believed what they read
in Pravda.

I’d be interested to hear more about your ideas on reforming
Polish education.  An important task, everywhere.

As for visiting Poland, I’d like to very much.  I’ve never been
in Eastern Europe.  Applied for a visa once, in Czechoslovakia
(1968), but was turned down, not surprisingly.  Visiting
totalitarian societies has never had any appeal for me.  Now, of
course, it’s very different, and I’d like to work it out.
Problem is that demands are awfully heavy, and I’m scheduled
years in advance, almost without a break.  But it’s something I’d
very much like to do, before too long.  I’ve had many
invitations, but always from professionals who want me to talk
about my more technical work.  I like to do that, but not only
that.  I never go anywhere unless I can spend time on problems
of human concern, not just those I find intellectually fascinating.



16 Mar 96

Dear Noam,
Thank you very much for your last message. It is a great honour
for me to come to the less formal way of communicating. In Poland
relationship between scholars and students are almost always very formal. What
is more noticeable, the less quality as a professional one
represents the more respect he require. Moreover, they cannot understand
that informal behaviour does not imply less respect. It is connected
with the system ruling our education. I would like to change it
entirely, but I will need allies to be successful.

The Polish teachers are often proud that when a Polish
schoolchild emigrates to the US, he/she is much better at math or geography
than his/her American mates. The teachers consider then Polish
syllabus far more better than American one. They seem not to notice that
the only thing which is more demanding is the very ambitious
syllabus, but the results of the most of students are pitiable. I teach in
the secondary school, but previously I used to work in primary
schools. What I can say is that Polish school try to teach very large
piece of material, but nobody can give a reasonable answer for what. Young
people cannot develop their personalities because they simply
have not got time for their interests. The most of their time is devoted
to the subjects they hate. Furthermore, they realise very well that
half of that knowledge will never have even chance to be used.
Motivation in Polish school is close to zero. On the other hand when someone
turns attention of society to that problem, is considered as one
who wants to bring up a generation of illiterates. Polish parents are
mostly conservative and always stand their own old teachers as
examples of true educational virtue, though they used to hate
them when they were students. Thus if a teacher tries to be “too”
democratic, the parents alarm the school principle.

Nobody knows what the targets of Polish school are. Much of
knowledge, almost no skills, and a state of alienation of education. I
borrowed the term “alienation” from Marx (his “alienation of labour”) and
Feuerbach (“alienation of religion”), but I think it is the best
word to describe the problem. In my opinion, since the time when
children stopped being educated by their parents in hunting, crafts and
agriculture, and the institution of school appeared, mankind have
been observing the process of alienation of education, which more or
less has been loosing its contact with reality. Of course it depended
on historical period, country and culture. In Poland the situation
is tragical. When I wrote an article and sent it to “Gazeta
Wyborcza” (I think the best newspaper in Poland), they answered that they
published only Famous People’s opinion. I do not belong to those
who can be easy offended, because the problem is too serious to give
up. I thanked them for accelerating me towards becoming a Famous
Person. The next day they published an article of Dr Samson, the
psychologist. He criticised the teachers in such a rude way that it was
embarrassing to read. Moreover, he did not suggest any solution of the
problem. In Poland we have the greatest number of the critics, criticising
is our national custom, but it results with nothing. Everybody love to
pretend to do something, nobody takes responsibility.

The universities in Poland are ridiculous equally. It is
difficult to find a scholar who is courageous enough to publish his original
idea. If the “scientific work” is not full of footnotes(they can occupy
more than half a page), in which the author recalls other
“scientific authorities”, his book or article will be considered as
worthless. Horror. The same stupid opinions are repeated over and over
again. It is very difficult to achieve the doctor degree before one’s
thirties. If one wants to become a professor, he must wait till
he is about fifty or sixty. I hope the situation will soon change, but
many of us would like it to be changed immediately, because we do not
have time to waste.

Well, I have criticised “the critics”, but I have not written
anything about my ideas of improvement of the Polish educational
system. If it does not bother you, I’ll write it in my next message.
I have to go downstairs to my class.
It is fantastic to hear that you are interested in visiting
Poland. I talked to my lecturers about it. My teacher of psychology
received that news enthusiastically. She said that the Department of
Psychology would be interested in your visit very much. What is important,
it is a rich enough department, which can be a sponsor of our
invitation. You know, I am afraid they will expect you to give one lecture,
my teachers of English would be happy to listen to your lecture on
linguistics, but I think it will be enough. The rest of your time
you could spend visiting interesting places in Poland. I can assure
you, there is much to see. The suggestion of the university people is
that you come during the academic year (October-May), and the best
would be if you come to us from somewhere in Europe. They say our branch
cannot afford the ticket from America. But I think everything can
be done all right for both you and our university.
Please, if you find some spare time, write to me, and tell me
what the date would be the most convenient to you to visit us.



04 Apr 1996

Dear Stefan,

Don’t know what was the matter with the MIT computer.  Anyway,
your message did get through, though I just got it.  I’ve been
away, speaking.  Usual routine.

It was most interesting to hear what you had to say about Polish
education.  Incidentally, I don’t recall off-hand about the word
itself, but I’m sure that the concept of alienation was not
original with Marx.  It was common in the intellectual circles
in of French-German Romanticism in which he grew up, and is explicit
in von Humboldt, at least.

It’s pretty common to criticism the US educational system as
shallow, and it surely has its faults, many of them.  But I’ve
never agreed with much of the criticism.  At the college level
particularly, the American system seems to me far and away the
best one I’ve found anywhere.  And at earlier levels, the fat
that attention is given to allowing children to develop their
personal interests, skills (including social skills), and so on,
has always seemed to me basically a good feature, actually one
that should be emphasized far more (I was lucky myself in that
I was at an experimental progressive Deweyite school from 18 months
— my parents both worked — to age 12; the best educational
experience I’ve ever had, or seen).  What you describe about
Polish universities in particular seems to me rather like the
European norm, though it has been changing some, I suppose: the
Professor a tyrant whom one obeys, etc.  Many of the problems you
mention are found here too, though much more in the humanities
and social sciences than in the natural sciences, at least in my
experience.  Not that natural scientists have better genes.  It’s
simply that you can’t be part of the game unless you keep pretty
honest (deceit will be quickly exposed, generally), and
innovative and creative, and students, at least at the better
universities, aren’t really “taught” the sciences — it’s more
like picking up a craft in an apprenticeship relation, with the
students expected to challenge, disprove, and innovate.  Very
different from other areas, even here, more so elsewhere.  One
of the reasons I’ve never thought of leaving MIT, to tell you the
truth.  In fact, one of the achievements of my which friend
Morris Halle and I are most proud is that the field of
linguistics, insofar as it grew from here, has retained those
characteristics elsewhere, including large parts of the world.

About visiting, I really would like to do so, though it won’t be
easy to arrange.  But I should say that I almost never go
anywhere unless I combine “professional” and “political” talks
— using the conventional categories, which I don’t like much
myself.  About the only exception is Japan, the only country I
know, outside of dictatorships (where I don’t go), where very few
educated people, including students, seem interested in much
beyond very specific technical concerns.  And where,
incidentally, the educational system has characteristics of the
kind you describe, sometimes in a kind of caricature.  It’s often
reminded me of some very interesting work done by a group of the
most outstanding Japanese economists, published about 10 years
ago, in which they reviewed, in several volumes, their postwar
economic development.  They’d all been trained in the West, and
were of course being given all sorts of expert advice (sometimes
orders) under the US occupation and afterwards.  But as they
report it, they decided not to follow the prescriptions of US
classical economics, but rather a different model of state-guided
development, borrowing in part from their own tradition, but in
part from the Marxist-Bolshevik model — with the difference that
they would be honest and efficient, not corrupt gangsters.  It’s
not totally false.



11 Apr 96

Dear Noam,

Thank you very much for your last message. I hope everything is
all right with the servers.
We were talking about education in Poland. Recently has the communist
minister of education been criticised in my country for doing
nothing for the field he’s responsible for. He answered that the best way
for the opposition to introduce what they want is to win the next
election. The arrogance of people in charge is horrible. Our
present minister of education used to be known as a chief Marxist
theoretician during the communist period. I remember his books when I studied
history. We were obliged to read some extracts from his pseudo-
sociological elaborates. His presence at the ministerial post is
like a return of the mythological monster. Most of people in Poland
don’t take it so seriously as I do, because they simply are not
interested in the problems of education.

I personally believe that the system of alienated education
can be eliminated by wiser motivating. Now the only motivation a
teacher can provide his student with is fear. I can observe my students
how stressed they are, when I require the basic knowledge of history.
The problem is that I am controlled too, so I have to realize the
national syllabus, although it is far too large and useless. My
lessons often look like “The Hotline News”, because I try to tell
the students everything within 45 minutes. They can’t make notes, and
unfortunately they can’t use their manuals, because I have no
time to explain them how to use the manual or any written text
effectively. I myself learned to read effectively as late as my last year of
my university period. And I don’t mean “mind-mapping” or other so
popular American methods of fast reading. I simply taught myself to
select the most important things and to go through the material from
general information to detailed. Nothing new, but if someone had told me
about it earlier, he would have spared me a lot of stress. I want
to do that to my students but I simply don’t have time, because I
must give them FACTS. Of course I exaggerate because I take a risk and
devote some of my time for teaching them some skills, but it is
not a solution. A solution is a structural change of educational

What I always discuss with my friends-teachers is the problem
of discipline in the class. Sometimes I can’t understand that they
seem to think about the discipline as about a goal for itself, not as
about a mean to achieving a goal. They unconsciously want to make
young people constantly obedient, so after finishing school such
a graduate is still helpless, naive and he/she looks for
someone”wiser” to manage him/her. Nothing strange that so called “people of
success” didn’t used to be good students. They were independent instead.

Well, I don’t have much time, but I’d like to share with you
the impression the movie “Underground” made on me. I don’t know if
you have seen this picture by Emir Kusturica. I saw that film three
days ago and I can’t stop thinking about it. It made me think about
the mechanism of human hatred, of forgetting the basic human norms,
and the causes of those. I’m thinking of all those stupid events
which seemingly means nothing, and actually may cause big catastrophes.
I hope people will learn to use psychology to prevent themselves
from using violence. By the way, I wonder what your opinion about the
US forces intervention is. I know you were against the Americans in
Vietnam, I know your opinion about the role of the US government
in South America, but what do you think about the necessity of
intervention in such places as former Yugoslavia. Should the
strongest powers let people in Rwanda or Kurdystan murder and be
What is your opinion? Please write about it. After the
Kusturica’s film I’m starving for various opinions about it.

Please, if possible write when your timetable let you to come
to Poland. I realise you are busy, but if you can tell me when
approximately you’ll be free enough to visit my country. I can
assure you there is much to see here.

I’m waiting for your answer.



15 May 1996

Dear Stefan,

Neither offended, nor bored.  Just overwhelmed.  I’m racing madly
trying to keep up with a very intense hour-by-hour schedule, and
correspondence has fallen into a pit.  I’ll be in touch as soon
as I extricate myself, in a few weeks, I hope.

Rights of the superpowers to intervene?  Why the superpowers?
Thus in Bosnia, there was one country that was willing to
intervene, and could have done so: Iran.  No one took it
seriously, me included, because there is no reason to believe
that their intervention would be “humanitarian” in any sense, or
helpful.  Is the record of the superpowers better than that of
Iran, in this regard?  Fact is that the category of “humanitarian
intervention” is singularly empty.  When we consider the reasons,
which are pretty clear, the question takes on a different light.

One has to ask, in each case, what would be the consequences of
direct military intervention, which is bound to be for completely
cynical reasons, as throughout history; I can’t think of an
exception.  Sometimes cynical acts are still justifiable.  Thus
one might argue that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in
1978-9 — which probably is the best candidate for “humanitarian
intervention” — was justified, because it terminated Pol Pot’s
atrocities; and, predictably, led to huge outrage in the West and
severe punishment of Vietnam for this crime.  To be sure, their
motives weren’t humanitarian; they are like everyone else in that
respect.  But the cynicism of the reaction is pretty spectacular.

Take the cases you mention.  In Chechnya intervention is not an
option, unless we want to face nuclear war.  It’s like asking
whether Russia should have intervened when US-run terrorist
forces were killing tens of thousands of people in Central
America in the ’80s: certainly not.  What about Palestine?  The
major problem there precise IS great power intervention: namely,
the US refusal for 25 years to permit any diplomatic settlement,
and its insistence on ramming through its own extreme
rejectionist program, as it has now done.  I’ve written about
this, if you are interested.  What about Bosnia?  It’s
interesting that no serious proposal for Western military
intervention was ever put forth (and the one offer that was made,
Iran, was never considered).  I think it’s easy to see why.  The
US is now proceeding to implement the effective partition of
Bosnia that has been at the core of European-US policy all along,
but in a way that will kick out the Europeans after they were
faced with the dirty work, so that the US can restore something
like the status quo ante, with as Croatian (quasi-fascist) client
state and, Washington hopes, the same with Serbia.

A lot more to say about all the cases, but this seems to me the
essence.  In general, before considering the abstract “right of
intervention,” we should pay careful attention to sociopolitical
and historical realities — at least, if we are concerned with
the fate of the victims.