Personal influences

Noam Chomsky

Excerpted from The Chomsky Reader, 1983

QUESTION: You’ve rarely written much on the kinds of experiences that led to your politics, even though, it seems to me, they may have been deeply formed and influenced by your background.

CHOMSKY: No. I’ve not thought about it a great deal…

QUESTION: For example, I am struck by how seldom you mention literature, culture, culture in the sense of a struggle to find alternative forms of life through artistic means; rarely a novel that has influenced you. Why is this so? Were there some works that did influence you?

CHOMSKY: Of course, there have been, but it is true that I rarely write about these matters. I am not writing about myself, and these matters don’t seem particularly pertinent to the topics I am addressing. There are things that I resonate to when I read, but I have a feeling that my feelings and attitudes were largely formed prior to reading literature. In fact, I’ve been always resistant consciously to allowing literature to influence my beliefs and attitudes with regard to society and history.

QUESTION: You once said, “It is not unlikely that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do.”

CHOMSKY: That’s perfectly true and I believe that. I would go on to say it’s not only unlikely, but it’s almost certain. But still, if I want to understand, let’s say, the nature of China and its revolution, I ought to be cautious about literary renditions. Look, there’s no question that as a child, when I read about China, this influenced my attitudes — Rickshaw Boy, for example. That had a powerful effect when I read it. It was so long ago I don’t remember a thing about it except the impact. And I don’t doubt that, for me, personally, like anybody, lots of my perceptions were heightened and attitudes changed by literature over a broad range — Hebrew literature, Russian literature, and so on. But ultimately, you have to face the world as it is on the basis of other sources of evidence that you can evaluate. Literature can heighten your imagination and insight and understanding, but it surely doesn’t provide the evidence that you need to draw conclusions and substantiate conclusions.

QUESTION: But it might be very influential in making one sensitive to areas of human experience otherwise not even asked about.

CHOMSKY: People certainly differ, as they should, in what kinds of things make their minds work.

QUESTION: You seem a little reticent about it.

CHOMSKY: Well, I’m reticent because I don’t really feel I can draw any tight connections. I can think of things that I read that had a powerful effect on me, but whether they changed my attitudes and understanding in any striking or crucial way, I can’t really say.

QUESTION: What kind of schools did you go to as a child?

CHOMSKY: I was sent to an experimental progressive school from infancy, before I was two, until about twelve years old, until high school, at which point I went into the academic, college-oriented school in the city.

QUESTION: In New York?

CHOMSKY: In Philadelphia. That experience, both the early experience in the progressive school and the later experience in the academically oriented high school, elite high school, was very instructive. For example, it wasn’t until I was in high school that I knew I was a good student. The question had never arisen. I was very surprised when I got into high school and discovered that I was getting all A’s and that was supposed to be a big deal. That question had never arisen in my entire education. In fact, every student in the school I had previously attended was regarded as somehow being a very successful student. There was no sense of competition, no ranking of students. It was never anything even to think about. It just never came up that there was a question of how you were ranked relative to other students. Well, anyway, at this particular school, which was essentially a Deweyite school and I think a very good one, judging from my experience, there was a tremendous premium on personal creativity, not in the sense of slapping paints on paper, but doing the kind of work and thinking that you were interested in. Interests were encouraged and children were encouraged to pursue their interests. They worked jointly with others or by themselves. It was a lively atmosphere, and the sense was that everyone was doing something important.

It wasn’t that they were a highly select group of students. In fact, it was the usual mixture in such a school, with some gifted students and some problem children who had dropped out of the public schools. But nevertheless, at least as a child, that was the sense that one had — that, if competing at all, you were competing with yourself. What can I do? But no sense of strain about it and certainly no sense of relative ranking. Very different from what I notice with my own children, who as far back as the second grade knew who was “smart” and who was “dumb,” who was high-tracked and who was low-tracked. This was a big issue.

Well, then I got to high school, the academic high school in the public school system, which was supposed to be a very good high school, and it was a real shocker. For one thing, as I said, there was the shock of discovering that I was a good student, which had never occurred to me before. And then there was the whole system of prestige and value that went along with that. And the intense competitiveness and regimentation. In fact, I can remember a lot about elementary school, the work I did, what I studied and so on. I remember virtually nothing about high school. It’s almost an absolute blank in my memory apart from the emotional tone, which was quite negative.

If I think back about my experience, there’s a dark spot there. That’s what schooling generally is, I suppose. It’s a period of regimentation and control, part of which involves direct indoctrination, providing a system of false beliefs. But more importantly, I think, is the manner and style of preventing and blocking independent and creative thinking and imposing hierarchies and competitiveness and the need to excel, not in the sense of doing as well as you can, but doing better than the next person. Schools vary, of course, but I think that those features are commonplace. I know that they’re not necessary, because, for example, the school I went to as a child wasn’t like that at all.

I think schools could be run quite differently. That would be very important, but I really don’t think that any society based on authoritarian hierarchic institutions would tolerate such a school system for long. As Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis have pointed out, it might be tolerated for the elite, because they would have to learn how to think and create and so on, but not for the mass of the population. There are roles that the public schools play in society that can be very destructive.

QUESTION: What was your college experience like?

CHOMSKY: I was probably lucky in that respect. I never really went to college. I did finally get a Ph.D, and I did go through the first two years of college, but after that I did not really attend college, but after that, I did not really attend college in the normal manner.

I attended the University of Pennsylvania, living at home, of course, which meant several hours commuting, and working, mainly teaching Hebrew school afternoons and Sunday, sometimes evenings as well. There was no thought in those days of attending college in any other way in our circles, and no financial means to do so. The first two years of college were pretty much an extension of high school, except in one respect. I entered with a good deal of enthusiasm and expectations that all sorts of fascinating prospects would open up, but these did not survive long, except in a few cases — an exciting freshman course with C. West Churchman in philosophy, for example, and courses in Arabic that I took and became quite immersed in, in part out of political interests, in part out of an interest in Semitic linguistics that derives from my father’s work in that area, and in part through the influence of Giorgio Levi Della Vida, an antifascist exile from Italy who was a marvelous person as well as an outstanding scholar. At the end of two years, I was planning to drop out to pursue my own interests, which were then largely political. This was 1947, and I had just turned eighteen. I was deeply interested, as I had been for some years, in radical politics with an anarchist or left-wing (anti-Leninist) Marxist flavor, and even more deeply involved in Zionist affairs and activities — or what was then called “Zionist,” though the same ideas and concerns are now called “anti-Zionist.” I was interested in socialist, binationalist options for Palestine, and in the kibbutzim and the whole cooperative labor system that had developed in the Jewish settlement there (the Yishuv), but had never been able to become close to Zionist youth groups that shared these interests because they were either Stalinist or Trotskyite and I always been strongly anti-Bolshevik. We should bear in mind that in the latter stages of the Depression, when I was growing up, these were very lively issues.

I intended to drop out of college and to pursue these interests. The vague ideas I had at the time were to go to Palestine, perhaps to to a kibbutz, to try to become involved in efforts at Arab-Jewish cooperation within a socialist framework, opposed to the deeply antidemocratic concept of a Jewish state (a position that was considered well within the mainstream of Zionism). Through these interests, I happened to meet Zellig Harris, a really extraordinary person who had a great influence on many young people in those days. He had a coherent understanding of this whole range of issues , which I lacked, and I was immensely attracted by it, and by him personally as well, also by others who I met through him. He happened to be one of the leading figures in modern linguistics, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. His interests were very broad, linguistics being only a small corner of them, and he was a person of unusual brilliance and originality. I began to take his graduate courses; in fact the first reading I did in linguistics was the proofs of his book Methods in Structural Linguistics, which appeared several years later. At his suggestion, I also began to take graduate courses in philosophy — with Nelson Goodman, Morton White, and others — and mathematics — with Nathan Fine — fields in which I had no background at all, but which I found fascinating, in part, no doubt, thanks to unusually stimulating teachers. I suppose Harris had it in my mind to influence me to return to college, though I don’t recall talking about it, particularly, and it all seemed to happen without much planning.

Anyway, it worked, but I had a highly unconventional college experience. The linguistics department consisted of a small number of graduate students, and in Harris’ close circle, a very small group that shared political and other interests apart from linguistics, and was quite alienated from the general college atmosphere. In fact, our “classes” were generally held in the Horn & Hardart restaurant across the street or in Harris’ apartment in Princeton or New York, all-day sessions that ranged widely over quite a variety of topics and were intellectually exciting as well as personally very meaningful experiences. I had almost no contact with the university, apart from these connections. I was by then very deeply immersed in linguistics, philosophy, and logic, and received (highly unconventional) B.A. and M.A. degrees.

Nelson Goodman recommended me for the Society of Fellows at Harvard, and I was admitted in 1951. That carried a stipend, and was the first time I could devote myself to study and research without working on the side. With the resources of Harvard available and no formal requirements, it was a wonderful opportunity. I did technically receive a Ph.D. from Penn in 1955, submitting a chapter of a book I was then working on — it was quite unconventional, so much so that although pretty much completed in 1955-56, it wasn’t published until 1975 as the Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, and then only in part. But I hadn’t actually been there since 1951 and had no contact with the university apart from Harris and Goodman. So my college experience was unusual to say the least.

QUESTION: Was it after college that you went to live on a kibbutz in Israel?

CHOMSKY: I went for a few months when I was at the Society of Fellows, in 1953. The kibbutz where we lived, which was about twenty years old, was then very poor. There was very little food, and work was hard. But I liked it very much in many ways. Abstracting it from context, this was a functioning and very successful libertarian community, so I felt. And I felt it would be possible to find some mixture of intellectual and physical work.

I came close to returning there to live, as my wife very much wanted to do at the time. I had nothing particularly attractive here. I didn’t expect to be able to have an academic career, and was not particularly interested in one. There was no major drive to stay. On the other hand, I did have a lot of interest in the kibbutz and I liked it very much when I was there. But there were things I didn’t like, too. In particular, the ideological conformity was appalling. I don’t know if I could have survived long in that environment because I was very strongly opposed to the Leninist ideology, as well as the general conformism, and uneasy — less so than I should have been — about the the exclusiveness and the racist institutional setting.

What I did not then face honestly was the fairly obvious fact that these are Jewish institutions and are so because of legal and administrative structures and practice. So, for example, I doubt if there’s an Arab in any kibbutz, and there hardly could be, because of the land laws and the role the institution plays in the Israeli system. In fact, even the Oriental Jews, some of whom were marginally at the kibbutz or in the immigrant town nearby, were treated rather shabbily, with a good deal of contempt and fear. I also visited some Arab villages, and learned some unpleasant things, which I’ve never seen in print, about the military administration to which Arab citizens were subjected.

Now I had some fairly strong feelings about all of that at the time. In fact, as I mentioned, I was very strongly opposed to the idea of a Jewish state back in 1947-48. I felt sure that the socialist institutions of the Yishuv — the pre-state Jewish settlement in Palestine — would not survive the state system, as they would become integrated into a sort of state management and that would destroy the aspects of the Yishuv that I found most attractive.

But, if we abstract away from those factors, the external environment, it was a kind of anarchist community.

QUESTION: What did you do on the kibbutz? Did you find the intellectual life stimulating? And why did you leave?

CHOMSKY: Remember that I was only there for about six weeks. I was completely unskilled, so I was doing only unskilled agricultural work, under the guidance of kibbutz members. I actually enjoyed the work very much, though for how long I would have, I don’t know. As for intellectual life, this kibbutz was Buberite in origin, mainly German Jews who were quite well-educated though one of the people I came to know best was a Christian immigrant who had left a large farm he owned in Rhodesia out of hatred for the racist society there, and who was really a first-class agronomist with many interesting ideas. There were very interesting people there, but it was surreal in some ways. This was 1953, at the time of the Slansky trials in Czechoslovakia and the last stages of Stalinist lunacy. These late Stalin purges had a strong anti-Semitic element, but people there actually defended them. They even defended the trial of a fellow kibbutz member who was an emissary of the kibbutz movement there and was charged with being a spy, which they knew to be false. Not all did, of course. Those who thought about these things — many did not — were orthodox Marxist-Leninists, and I could discern no visible departure from a fairly rigid party line, though there may well have been much that I never saw.

It was a short visit, and I returned to Harvard, planning to come back, maybe to stay, in a few years. My term at the Society of Fellows was supposed to end in 1954, but I had no job prospects and asked for a year’s extension, which I received. My wife, meanwhile, went back to the kibbutz for a longer visit. We planned then to return to stay, but by then I had obtained a research position at MIT and was very much involved in my own linguistic work. For one reason or another, without any particular conscious decision at any point, we never did return.

QUESTION: Were you active in political organizations in earlier years in the United States?

CHOMSKY: I didn’t have any affiliation to any group, the Zionist left or elsewhere. Partly it was that I’m not much of a “joiner,” I guess. Furthermore, every organization that I knew of, on the left at least, was Leninist, either Stalinist or Trotskyite. I was always very anti-Leninist, and I simply didn’t know of any group at all that shared my views. This was true of the Zionist left, and of much of the American left at the time, as far as I knew. This is the early forties that we’re talking about. Quite frankly, I didn’t see any significant difference between the Trotskyites and the Stalinists, except that the Trotskyites had lost. They of course saw a big difference. There are some differences, but basically I thought they were exaggerated. That’s what I felt at the time, and I still do feel that essentially. So there was no group that I knew of that I could have had any affiliation with. But I was personally very involved in lots of things that were happening.

QUESTION: Did you come out of a political family? Was politics something that was discussed within the family?

CHOMSKY: Well, my immediate family, my parents, were normal Roosevelt Democrats, and very much involved with Jewish affairs, deeply Zionist and interested in Jewish culture, the revival of Hebrew, and generally the cultural Zionism that had its origins in the ideas of people like Ahad Ha’am, but increasingly, in mainstream Zionism. The next range of family, uncles and cousins and so on, was in part Jewish working class, or around that kind of social group. A number of them were Communists, or close to such circles, very much involved in the politics of the Depression period. In particular, one uncle who had a lot of influence on me in the late thirties and later, had a newsstand in New York which was sort of a radical center. We’d hang out all night and have discussions and arguments, there or in his small apartment nearby. The great moments of my life in those years were when I could work at the newsstand at night and listen to all this.

QUESTION: What part of the city was that in?

CHOMSKY: That was at the kiosk at Seventy-second Street and Broadway, if it’s still there. There used to be four newsstands there. There were two on the way that most people left the subway station, which was to Seventy-second Street. And there were two on the other side, where few people ever left. He had one of those. It was very exciting intellectually, but I guess they didn’t make much money selling newspapers. In the late thirties, it became a center for some European emigres and others, and it was quite lively. He had been through a lot of the Marxist sectarian politics — Stalinist, Trotskyite, non-Leninist sects of one sort or another. I was just beginning to learn about all of that. It was a very lively intellectual community.

The Jewish working-class culture in New York was very unusual. It was highly intellectual, very poor; a lot of people had no jobs at all and others lived in slums and so on. But it was a rich and lively intellectual culture: Freud, Marx, the Budapest String Quartet, literature, and so forth. That was, I think, the most influential intellectual culture during my early teens.

QUESTION: Were you also brought up in certain aspects of the Jewish cultural traditions?

CHOMSKY: I was deeply immersed in that. In fact, I probably did more reading in that area than any other until I was maybe fifteen or sixteen.

QUESTION: You rarely draw on it in your public writings. Are there reasons for that?

CHOMSKY: No, it didn’t seem to be particularly relevant. It’s there, I mean, it certainly had a good amount of influence on me. For example, the brilliant nineteenth-century Yiddish-Hebrew writer Mendele Mocher Sfarim, who wrote about Jewish life in Eastern Europe, had tremendous instinct and understanding It cheapens it to call it proletarian literature, but it gave a kind of understanding of the lives of the poor with a mixture of humor and sympathy and cynicism that is quite remarkable. I also read fairly widely in the works of the nineteenth-century Hebrew renaissance — novels, stories, poetry, essays. I can’t say what long-term effect this reading had on me. It certainly had an emotional impact.

QUESTION: There seem to be in your thinking certain insights about society and intellectuals that span the course of your adult life. So much so that you are not surprised by what often seems to shock others. You are not shocked when intellectuals perform certain ideological functions — you expect this of them. You are not surprised when American power operates by cloaking itself in an idealistic garb to conceal its pursuit of various interests — you expect it of such power. And so on. Your insights seem less derived initially from prolonged historical observation than a sense of how things are expected to operate.

CHOMSKY: I guess I just always assumed it. It seems to me to follow from the simplest and most uncontroversial assumptions about motivation and interests and the structure of power.

QUESTION: And yet in some ways those assumptions are at the heart of what outrages individuals about your thoughts and writing. They have to be dismissed because if people were to confront them, they’d have to write differently about the United States.

CHOMSKY: Well, it’s interesting that it doesn’t enrage anyone when I say this about enemies of the United States. Then it’s obvious. What outrages them is when I try to show how these patterns also exhibited in our own society, as they are. If I were talking to a group of Russian intellectuals, they would be outraged that I failed to see the idealism and commitment to peace and brotherhood of the Russian state. That’s the way propaganda systems function.

QUESTION: But do you wonder why so many share such assumptions — and you do not?

CHOMSKY: Well, maybe part of the reason is that in a certain sense I grew up in an alien culture, in the Jewish-Zionist cultural tradition, in an immigrant community in a sense, though of course others reacted to the same conditions quite differently. I suppose I am also a child of the Depression. Some of my earliest memories, which are very vivid, are of people selling rags at our door, of violent police strikebreaking, and other Depression scenes. Whatever the reasons may be, I was very much affected by events of the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, for example, though I was barely literate. The first article I wrote was an editorial in the school newspaper on the fall of Barcelona, a few weeks after my tenth birthday. The rise of nazism also made a deep impression, intensified perhaps because we were practically the only Jewish family in a bitterly anti-Semitic Irish and German Catholic neighborhood in which there was open support for the Nazis until December 1941.

QUESTION: Yet the “New York intellectuals” have become prime exponents of a virulent anticommunism that denies almost all the insights you start with as “common sense.”

CHOMSKY: In part, I think, age maybe was a lucky accident in my case. I was just a little too young to have ever faced the temptation of being a committed Leninist, so I never had any faith to renounce, or any feeling of guilt or betrayal. I was always on the side of the losers — the Spanish anarchists, for example.

QUESTION: Do you look back and see this as exceptional?

CHOMSKY: Oh, yes. I always felt completely out of tune with almost everything around me. As I mentioned, I never joined any organized group because of sharp disagreement and skepticism about them, though emotionally I was drawn to such youth groups as Hashomer Hatzair, which in those days professed a commitment to socialist binationalism in Palestine and kibbutz values, as well as the Hebraic culture that I was very much a part of.

In fact, I was rather skeptical about the Second World War. I didn’t know anybody who shared that skepticism, literally not a single person. But I used to go to the Philadelphia public library — this must have been 1944 or 1945, when I was about fifteen or sixteen — to read sectarian leftist literature of a very strange nature. For example, groups like the Marlenites, who probably you’ve never heard of, who were trying to show that the war was a phony war, that it was simply a war designed by the capitalists of the West, acting in conjunction with the state capitalists of the Soviet system to try to destroy the proletarians of Europe. I never really believed the thesis, but I found it intriguing enough to try to figure out what they were talking about. Enough rang true to make me very skeptical about much of the patriotic interpretation of the war. I also recall being appalled by the treatment of German POWs. For some reason, there were some in a camp right next to my high school, and it was considered the red-blooded “thing-to-do” to taunt them across the barbed wire. That struck me as disgraceful at the time, though I was much more of a committed anti-Nazi than the kids engaging in this sport. I recall bitter arguments about it.

I remember on the day of the Hiroshima bombing, for example, I remember that I literally couldn’t talk to anybody. There was nobody. I just walked off by myself. I was at a summer camp at the time, and I walked off into the woods and stayed alone for a couple of hours when I heard about it. I could never talk to anyone about it and never understood anyone’s reaction. I felt completely isolated.

As for the things that I was involved in directly, like the Zionist issues again, the position that I held, while I wouldn’t say I was the only person in the world to hold it, nevertheless it was very far from the mainstream. It was a position that did have some standing and some support in the Zionist movement. But it was also one that was distinct from those of any of the existing movements, except for ones that were Stalinist or Trotskyite, therefore out for me, so I couldn’t join in. I don’t know how far back it goes. But, anyway, ever since I had any political awareness, I’ve felt either alone or part of a tiny minority.