Sunday, August 22, 2010

“Common sense raised to genius”

Book Review from the August 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hopes and Prospects. Noam Chomsky, (Hamish Hamilton, 2010)

Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most important intellectual figures in both the sciences and the humanities, and one of the ten most quoted writers of all time, ranking with Marx, the Bible and Shakespeare, has admitted that his speeches are very boring. But, he says, that’s the way he likes it. It means that, when people turn up to listen to him, and millions do, they’re doing so because they’re interested in the issues Chomsky is talking about, not in Chomsky himself as some kind of intellectual celebrity.

And seeing as many of Chomsky’s books are collections of his previous speeches, you might expect his books to be pretty boring too. You’d be right. Reading his books is like trying to sprint through a waist-high river to the opposite bank: it may not look like you’ve got far to go, but it will certainly take you much longer than you think. However, the real question is, is it worth getting to the other side? With Chomsky, the answer is always yes.

Doug Henwood once said that he set up his (excellent) Left Business Observer newsletter because he was convinced that what was needed was a “better empiricism” – in other words, if socialists could just get the facts out there, politics would sort itself out. He soon realised that things are not quite that simple, but still, “better empiricism” is a necessary if insufficient condition for a socialist education. I can think of no better way of acquiring this “better empiricism” than with a regular and constant diet of Chomsky, no matter how bland it might seem to your taste buds.

His latest book, Hopes and Prospects, a collection of recent speeches, is much like all his others. But yet again, this is not the criticism it might appear. Chomsky is always the same, yet he’s always armed with the most original details and devastating facts, the latest scholarly research and reports, and a common-sense analysis that leaves you thinking that you could have done it all yourself. Indeed, it’s Chomsky’s firm belief that you could have done. His analysis is, as an introductory guide to him once put it, common sense elevated to genius.

Again like his other books, Hopes and Prospects is supposed to hang together on a theme: in this case, American foreign policy and popular struggles in Latin America. But in fact, the essays range effortlessly, perhaps even eccentrically, over the whole world, ranging from the dawn of human history to current affairs, from what was in The New York Times last month to the history of economic thought, from the Nuremberg trials to those who today commit Nazi-style crimes and yet are praised as altruistic idealists by liberal intellectuals. He is a one-man scholarly resource, an always-reliable first port of call for socialists and anti-capitalists who want to back up their arguments with facts.

The main criticism to level at Chomsky, although he would not see it as a criticism at all, is that he is insufficiently Marxian. He understands, as he puts it in the book, that many of the crimes he documents are “rooted in deeper features of prevailing socioeconomic and political systems”. But he is unconvinced of the power of Marxist theory. Elsewhere, he questions whether it even is a theory (he means he is doubtful that it can serve anything like the same role as theory in the natural sciences). To go into this is beyond the scope of this review, but it means that Chomsky is able to applaud efforts to democratise capitalist commodity production, without having anything much to say about whether it might be necessary to go beyond this if humanity is ever to achieve a truly free society.

Stuart Watkins