On Chomsky’s Books

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Renato Pompeu

Jornal da Tarde, October 19, 1996

QUESTION: Some critics say that your books about political, social and economical problems describe with cunning precision the mechanisms of power that oppress the immense majority of people in the world, including most people in the rich countries. But these critics say also that you in those books do not present feasible solutions to the problems you describe. How do you see these criticisms?

CHOMSKY: Let me begin with the praise. If it were even close to true, I would be more than satisfied, and — to turn to the criticism — so would the people with whom I cooperate: in particular, those who invite me to give talks and who read my books and the journals in which I write.

It is entirely true that I do not try to “present feasible solutions” to the problems of the world in general, or to the specific problems that are faced by people who are struggling for justice and freedom. Nor does anyone else, except for people who are actually participating in the struggles and facing the issues on a daily basis. Over the years, I have often been involved in direct action and organizing myself. If a visiting intellectual had appeared at one of our meetings to offer “feasible solutions” to the problems we were trying to deal with, we would have regarded it as pretentious absurdity, and rightly. That has always been understood by those who have hoped to understand and change the world. At a general level, one can do no more than repeat the obvious: for example, Bakunin’s useful proposal to plant the seeds of the future within the current society by constructing alternative institutions that are more free and just. Marx did not even make suggestions. At the more practical level, of course there are many ideas, almost always coming from direct participants in struggle.

Some writers, particularly of the libertarian left, have offered detailed accounts of how a future society should be organized and should function (Marx, in contrast, had virtually nothing to say beyond a few scattered phrases). As a young teenager, over 50 years ago, I read with great interest Diego Abad de Santillan’s book After the Revolution, in which he criticized the course taken by his anarchist comrades in Spain and prescribed in considerable detail the social arrangements he thought they should be constructing. That is rarely attempted, and I think for good reason. We simply do not know enough to draw such pictures with any precision. We can seek to realize certain ideals, and can pursue concrete objectives. But answers have to be discovered through experiment and struggle, as always in the past.

Let’s be specific. My latest book, [Powers and Prospects] which just appeared, is based on talks that I gave in Australia, initially at the invitation of the East Timorese Refugees Association there, then other activists and organizations. They would have considered it ridiculous (as would I) for me to come to Australia to tell them how to deal with their problems. The Timorese were interested in interpretation, analysis, discussion, outreach to the wider community, funding, a stimulus to their own cultural and organizing activities, and so on: not solutions to their problems, which they understand far better than I. The same is true generally: for example, when I speak at a benefit for striking workers in Illinois, or for a Catholic Workers group organizing in the slums of Oakland, or for a feminist organization working with poor rural women in Hyderabad — and on, and on (I merely mention a few recent examples). They are not seeking solutions to their specific problems from an outsider who knows much less about them than they do. And they are not much interested in inflated pronouncements phrased in elegant rhetoric. They know, without my advice, that solutions will come from education, organizing, action adapted to circumstances, and a vision of the future that we all try to grasp and describe as best we can.

I happen to have in front of me a 1996 UNICEF study on the state of women and children throughout the world. It presents a horrifying account of their fate. Keeping just to one aspect, the report describes maternal death and serious injury as “the most neglected tragedy of our time,” and deplores the “conspiracy of silence” that perpetuates a tragedy that could easily be overcome, with simple and feasible solutions that we all know. It is only one of many. Take Brazil, a country of extraordinary wealth alongside of hideous misery and terror. An UNCTAD study reports that Brazil’s per capita income at the height of the “economic miracle” was over five times that of India, but 67% of Brazilian households (and a stunning 75% of urban Brazilians) consumed less than minimal daily nutritional requirements, as compared to 46% of Indians. India has one of the worst records in the world, but Brazil is in a class by itself. From another and equally valid point of view, take the city in which I live, Boston. It is one of the richest in the world, a center of science and arts, and particularly medicine. A few years ago, the city hospital had to open a malnutrition clinic for children, for the first time, one consequence of the “structural adjustment” programs that are being imposed. The hospital reports that cases increase sharply over the winter, when parents have to make the agonizing choice whether to feed their children or heat their homes. When we compare the resources available in the richest country in the world with the state of much of its population, the conclusions are grim.

Feasible solutions to such problems are readily at hand. And in the longer term, solutions cannot be provided in slogans, but only as the outcome of dedicated struggle, from which participants learn as they proceed, sometimes failing, sometimes achieving a good deal. So it has always been. There are no magic keys. What is needed is will, informed by such understanding and vision as we can collectively achieve.

QUESTION: Do you agree that well-informed intellectuals, that is, the persons that read your books about these human problems, can do little to solve them? What do you suggest to your readers as a course of practical action?

CHOMSKY: There may be a misunderstanding here. The people who read what I write are mostly activists, organizers, and the general public, not elite intellectuals. As for “a course of practical action,” the choices are those I have already mentioned: for specific issues, there are specific suggestions, mostly developed by participants. At a general level, there are obvious lessons of history and common sense. People who have the good fortune to be able to become “well-informed intellectuals” can, if they choose, participate in the struggle for a better world, contributing what they are best able to do — which may range from direct action and organizing to giving talks and writing books and articles. There cannot be any general prescription for “the best course of practical action.” For what end?

QUESTION: Is it not the case that you trust that, as your scientifical studies about generative grammar says, human beings, having (whatever language they speak) an innate common grammar in their minds, of which the grammars of living languages are differentiated manifestations, every person in the world that may read your book about social problems will be able to understand them perfectly?

CHOMSKY: It should not be controversial that, with regard to capacity for language, there is a crucial difference between a rock, a bee, a chimpanzee, and my granddaughter. To put that truism in different words, there is an innate human language faculty of which particular languages are manifestations. But from that it does not follow that I can understand a book on quantum physics, or play a Bach cello sonata, or build a house. I don’t have the knowledge or the talent.

In the realm of human affairs and social problems, however, understanding is quite shallow; even in the hard sciences understanding tends to drop off rather quickly when we go much beyond big molecules. There is no reason why discussion of issues of direct human concern cannot be discussed in terms accessible to anyone. If I fail to do that, it is my fault. And that may be true, or so one might guess from the fact that of my own books, the many collections interviews reach by far the widest audience.

QUESTION: But does not the full understanding of these books require a high level of information and intellectual formation, not available for most of the oppressed people in the world — the very people you are trying do defend?

CHOMSKY: In my personal experience, which is quite extensive, what I write and say is accessible to — as you put it — “the very people I am trying to defend.” Instead of taking my word for it, have a look at the introduction to the book of mine I mentioned earlier, which just appeared. It is written by a Timorese refugee in Australia, and is very much like thousands of letters I receive, and more discussion in meetings and in person than I could possibly remember. In contrast, I would not expect these books to be understood by elite intellectuals, and they generally are not. The reason is not that the material is difficult; as mentioned, there is nothing in these realms that is very profound. Rather, what I write departs too far from the doctrinal frameworks of privileged sectors, including many intellectuals (across the spectrum, I might add). Again, Bakunin had penetrating and apt comments on these matters, which I have quoted now and then.

I should add that “a high level of information and intellectual formation” is not some esoteric possession of intellectuals. Quite the contrary, even in my own personal experience. My relatives when I was a child were mostly working people, some with only a few years of school. It was one of the most intellectually exciting and lively environments I have ever experienced — and I mean high culture: Freud, Marx, Tolstoy, Faulkner, the Budapest string quartet, the latest Shakespeare performance, etc. In mid-19th century Boston, the home of the US industrial revolution, young women working in the mills, artisans, and so on, were immersed in contemporary literature and culture. In contrast, I know many highly respected intellectuals whose work and understanding is — out of politeness, I will not complete the sentence.

QUESTION: What do you suggest for the common persons that want to attack the mechanisms of oppression that you describe so precisely in your books? What can they do?

CHOMSKY: I am afraid I can only repeat what I have already said. Perhaps I might add that I never hear these questions from the “common persons who want to attack the mechanisms of oppression,” whether in villages in rural India, or from activists and suffering people in the richest countries in the world. They may invite me to speak, and read what I write, and ask questions. But not these questions, and for good reasons. They understand even better than I do that whatever contribution I can make … lies elsewhere, not in telling them badly what they already know far better than I do.