Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Book Review from the forthcoming August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Wolfgang Sperlich: Noam Chomsky. Reaktion Books.

This is a volume in the Critical Lives series, so it opens with a brief biographical sketch of Chomsky, noting that he was influenced by writers such as Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick. It's good to learn that by his early teens Chomsky was not just opposed to Stalinism but was also "a pretty committed anti-Leninist". Then comes a chapter on his contributions to linguistics and philosophy, though to be honest you'd need to have some prior idea of his views here to make much sense of Sperlich's presentation.

The main chapter is entitled 'Political Activist', and it presents Chomsky's writings on various political issues, concentrating on his exposures of US foreign policy. This is a decent guide to Chomsky's attacks on the US government, military and establishment, from Vietnam to Nicaragua, the Middle East to the aftermath of 9/11. Unfortunately there's little attempt at elaborating Chomsky's own views on how society should be organised, other than labelling him variously as an anarcho-syndicalist and a libertarian socialist. He's quoted at on point as saying, "capitalist relations of production, wage labor, competitiveness, the ideology of 'possessive individualism' - all must be regarded as fundamentally antihuman." Also that a consistent anarchist must oppose wage slavery and private ownership of the means of production.

Chomsky has often expressed his support for 'left wing' governments in the developing world. With regard to the president of Brazil, Sperlich writes, "I ask Chomsky if Lula da Silva shouldn't have abolished the state of Brazil by now and introduced council communism or anarcho-syndicalist freedom. Chomsky answers that it's easy for us to say such things because we do not have to live with the consequences - Lula da Silva has to." Perhaps Chomsky should have said that it was a bloody stupid question, based on the assumption that a political leader can introduce a new social system.

The last chapter summarises Chomsky's work on the mass media as a tool for suppressing the truth and presenting a pro-capitalist view of the world, for (in the title of one of Chomsky's books) 'Manufacturing Consent'.

So this is a useful if unexciting guide to Chomsky's ideas. And until I read Sperlich I didn't know there is a radio station called Radio Chomsky, even if it is in New Zealand.
Paul Bennett