ZEIT Campus: Professor Chomsky, you are not only one of the most quoted scholars of the world. For 45 years, you have been a political activist. When one looks at politics today, one must ask: Can “public intellectuals” like yourself accomplish anything?
Noam Chomsky: How can you ask that question?
ZEIT Campus: There is war in Afghanistan. The world suffers in the consequences of the economic crisis. The social gap grows more and more.
Chomsky: The problem is simple. Most intellectuals are servants of power and counsel governments. They call themselves experts; they have sought prestige for centuries, not only today. However every society has critical intellectuals at its edges. Both types have influence: the servants of power and the dissidents.
ZEIT Campus: We are still skeptical. What have you changed in the past 45 years?
Chomsky: I personally did not change anything. I was part of a movement and this movement accomplished many things. The world today is fundamentally different from the world 45 years ago. The actions for civil rights, human rights, women’s rights and environmental protection, resistance against oppression and violence have substantially influenced the world. I cannot understand how you can argue nothing has changed.
ZEIT Campus: Do you believe the world is better today than 40 or 50 years ago?
Chomsky: Obviously! Walk along the open fields here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Half of the students are women; a third belongs to an ethnic minority. People are dressed more casually and are engaged for all possible things. This place was very different when I came here 50 years ago. Then you saw white men, formally dressed and only interested in their own work. You could see the same development in Germany and all over the world.
ZEIT Campus: But are students more political? Today’s generation is often reproached for being disinterested in the world.
Chomsky: I think that reproach is false. The period of high politization at the universities was very short — from 1968 to 1970. Before that, students were apolitical. Consider the Vietnam War, one of the greatest crimes since the Second World War. Four or five years went by until some form of visible protest stirred in the US. That quickly ebbed away in the 1970s. The mood was very different before the Iraq war. To my knowledge, the Iraq war was the first war in history where there were demonstrations before it began. My students missed the lectures to demonstrate. That would never have happened 50 years ago. The protests did not prevent the war but limited it. The US was never able to do in Iraq a fraction of what it had done in Vietnam.
ZEIT Campus: Were those protests only a straw fire?
Chomsky: No. The politization today is much greater than in the 1950s. Forms of lasting activism developed that enabled many of our battles to be won. For example, there was a continuous progress in women’s rights. If I had asked my grandmother whether she was oppressed, she wouldn’t have known what I was talking about. My mother said: “I am oppressed but I don’t know what to do!” My daughter would shout to me after such a question: Our world is more human!
ZEIT Campus: Do you believe in historical progress?
Chomsky: Progress is slow but dramatic over long time horizons. Think of the abolition of slavery or the development of freedom of expression. Rights are not simply bestowed. People who joined forces and banded together realized them. Still progress is not a linear development. There are also times of backward steps.
ZEIT Campus: If there are times of progress and times of backward steps, will the world be better in 50 years than today?
Chomsky: What will be in 50 years depends strongly on what the young generation does today. Two great dangers threaten the existence of the world: our relation to the environment and the danger that starts from nuclear weapons. If we do not champion environmental protection more vigorously today, we could be mired in a grave environmental crisis in 50 years, let alone the risks of nuclear weapons. The terrible catastrophe of Fukushima reminds us that the non-military use of nuclear power is fraught with extreme risks. We cannot ignore this under any circumstances!
ZEIT Campus: In 60 years students of today will be as old as you. What must they do to look back on their life with satisfaction?
Chomsky: Naturally they could say they lived contentedly with friends, children and fun. But to really lead a fulfilled and satisfying life, they should recognize problems and contribute to solving them. If they cannot look back at 80 and say “I have accomplished something!,” then their life will not have succeeded.
ZEIT Campus: At 82, are you satisfied with what you achieved?
Chomsky: Being satisfied is impossible. My life has too many dimensions, family, profession, politics and several others. In some areas I am satisfied but not in others. The problems of this world are quite great. Inequality in the US is at the level of the 1920s and the economy still has tremendous influence in our society. I cannot be satisfied!
ZEIT Campus: Political engagement like yours is rare among scholars. Are you sometimes furious at the “servants of power” as you say or at professor colleagues who only concentrate on their academic work?
Chomsky: I consider it immoral to be a supporter of a power system. However that does not mean that I am furious at anyone. Scholars per se do not have deeper political insights than other persons and are not morally superior to others. But they are obligated to help politicians seek and find the truth.
ZEIT Campus: That sounds like you are becoming mild in old age.
Chomsky: No. My views and attitudes have not changed in the course of the decades. I still believe what I believed as a teenager.
ZEIT Campus: Is that good — to still believe what you believed almost 70 years ago?
Chomsky: Yes, when fundamental principles are involved. Obviously I have changed my opinions in many questions — but my ideals are the same!
ZEIT Campus: You often say you are an anarchist. What do you mean by that?
Chomsky: Anarchists try to identify power structures. They urge those exercising power to justify themselves. This justification does not succeed most of the time. Then anarchists work at unmasking and mastering the structures, whether they involve patriarchal families, a Mafia international system or the private tyrannies of the economy, the corporation.
ZEIT Campus: What was the key experience that made you an anarchist?
Chomsky: There was none. When I was twelve years old, I began to go to secondhand bookshops. Many of them were run by anarchists who came from Spain. Therefore it seemed very natural to me to be an anarchist.
ZEIT Campus: Should all students become anarchists?
Chomsky: Yes. Students should challenge authorities and join a long anarchist tradition.
ZEIT Campus: “Challenge authorities” — a liberal or a moderate leftist could accept that invitation.
Chomsky: As soon as one identifies, challenges and overcomes illegitimate power, he or she is an anarchist. Most people are anarchists. What they call themselves doesn’t matter to me.
ZEIT Campus: Who or what must challenge today’s student generation?
Chomsky: This world is full of suffering, distress, violence and catastrophes. Students must decide: does something concern you or not? I say: look around, analyze the problems, ask yourself what you can do and set out on the work!