Interview with Noam Chomsky

Dr. Noam Chomsky is a world-renowned linguist, cognitive scientist, philosopher and political activist. Dr. Chomsky received his BA and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, and is Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics emeritus at MIT. His work revolutionized the field of modern linguistics. PPR spoke to him about his political views, opinion of socialism, and what might happen during Trump’s presidency.

Penn Political Review: Do you believe that it is possible for socialists to aim to humanize the existing system of production by means of “compensatory redistribution through tax-and-transfer” in order to alleviate the burden of those suffering (as proposed by Bernie Sanders)? Or should socialists just try to achieve the long-term goal of abolishing capitalist economic organizations altogether?

Noam Chomsky: Well, first of all we should recognize that, like most terms of political discourse, socialism has more or less, lost its meaning. Socialism used to mean something. If you go back far enough it meant basically control of production by producers, elimination of wage labor, democratization of all spheres of life; production, commerce, education, media, workers control of factories, community control of communities, and so on. That was socialism once. But it hasn’t meant that for a hundred years. Socialism meant something different. In fact, what were called the socialist countries in Eastern Europe were the most anti-socialist systems in the world. Workers had more rights in the United States and England than they had in Russia, and it was somehow still called socialism.

As far as Bernie Sanders is concerned, he is a decent, honest person, and I supported him. What he means by socialism is New Deal Liberalism. In fact, his actual policies would not have been a great surprise to General Eisenhower. The fact that this is called a “political revolution” is a sign of how far to the right the political spectrum has shifted, mainly in the last 30 years since the neoliberal programs began to be instituted. What he was calling for was a restoration of something like New Deal Liberalism, which is a very good thing.

So, going to your question, I think we should ask: should people who care about human beings, their lives, and concerns seek to humanize the existing system of production by the means you describe? And the answer is sure they should do that, that’s better for people. Should they set out to the long term goal of abolishing capitalist economic organization altogether? Sure, I think so. It has had its achievements, but it is based on quite brutal assumptions. The very idea that there should be a certain class of people who give orders by virtue of their ownership of wealth and another huge class who take on orders and follow them because of their lack of access to wealth and power, that’s unacceptable. So, sure it should be abolished. But, those are not alternatives. Those are things you do together.

PPR: So you think one is the prerequisite of the other?

NC: They go in parallel.

PPR: There are political forces that emerge aiming to take advantage of some people’s desire for a transition to socialism. In the case of Greece, you claimed that it was “hard to see what options Syriza [a left-wing Greek political party] had with the lack of external support.”

Given that Syriza never stepped down even after they were forced to cooperate with the European Union, and even today show no evidence of pursuing socialist motives, how do you think that people can protect themselves from political forces that aim to take advantage of a desire for socialism but won’t follow through?

NC: The fact of the matter is, I think that the real tragedy of Greece – aside of the savagery of European bureaucracy, Brussels bureaucracy and northern banks, which was really savage –

is that the Greek crisis didn’t have to erupt. It could have been taken care of pretty easily at the very beginning. But it happened and Syriza came into office with a declared commitment to combat it, and in fact as I recall they actually called a referendum, which horrified Europe. The idea that people should be allowed to decide something about their own fate is just anathema to European elites… As a result of this criminal act of asking people what they want, Greece was punished even further. The demands of the Troika became much harsher because of the referendum. They were fearing a domino effect; if we pay attention to people’s desires others might get the same idea and the plague of democracy might actually spread, so we have to kill it right away at the roots. Then Syriza did succumb and ever since then they have done things that I think are quite unacceptable.

You ask how people should respond? By creating something better. It is not easy, especially when they are isolated. Greece, alone, is in a very vulnerable position. If the Greeks had had support from progressive left and popular forces elsewhere in Europe they might have been able to resist the demands of the Troika, but they had almost no support. Not even from Portugal, Spain, or other left forces. They were left alone.

PPR: Is it possible to transition to socialism if it is not embraced by a clear majority?

NC: I would hope not, because if it is imposed by a minority it will be another form of dictatorship and autocracy.

PPR: What is your opinion of the way Fidel Castro managed the transitional period during which he tried to move towards his long-term goal of establishing socialism in Cuba, given the disgraceful circumstances he was faced with? What is your response to the allegation that he led this transitional period as a dictator?

NC: Well, what Castro’s actual goals were, we don’t actually know. He was sharply constrained from the first moment, by a harsh and cruel attack from the reigning superpower. We have to remember that literally within months after his taking office the planes from Florida were beginning to bomb Cuba. Within a year, the Eisenhower administration secretly, but formally, decided to overthrow the government. Then came the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Kennedy administration was furious about the failure of the invasion and immediately launched a major terrorist war and economic war that got harsher through the years. Under these conditions it is kind of amazing that Cuba survived.  It is a small island right offshore a huge superpower which is trying to destroy it, and has obviously depended on the United States for survival for all of its recent history. But somehow, Cuba survived. It is true that it was a dictatorship: a lot of brutality, a lot of political prisoners, a lot of people killed. The transitional period refers to the period after Russian support declined and the US attack on Cuba was ideologically presented as necessary to defend the US from Russia. As soon as Russia disappeared the attack got harsher and there is almost no comment on that. What it tells you is that preceding claims where just outright lies… If you look at US internal documents, they explain very clearly what the threat of Cuba was. So, back in the early 1960s the State Department described the threat of Cuba as Castro’s successful defiance of US policy, going back to the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine established the US claim to dominate the Western hemisphere and Castro was successfully defying that. That’s not tolerable. It is like somebody saying “let’s have democracy in Greece,” and we just can’t tolerate that so we have to destroy the threat at its roots. Nobody can successfully defy the master of the hemisphere, in fact of the world, hence the savagery.

But the reaction was mixed. They were achievements, like health, literacy and so on. The internationalism was incredible. There is a reason why Nelson Mandela went to Cuba to praise Castro and thank the Cuban people almost as soon as he got out of jail. That’s a third world reaction and they understand it. Cuba played an enormous role in the liberation of Africa and the overthrow of Apartheid, sending doctors and teachers to the poorest places in the world, to Haiti, to Pakistan after the earthquake, almost everywhere. The internationalism is just astonishing. I don’t think there has been anything like it in history. The health achievements were astonishing. Health statistics in Cuba were about like in the United States, and take a look at the differences in wealth and power. On the other hand, there was a harsh dictatorship. So there was both. Transition to socialism? We cannot even talk about this. The conditions made it impossible, and we don’t know if there was an intention.

PPR: As far as long-term socialist goals are concerned, do you agree that concrete proposals for socialist structures in the absence of capitalist forces are vital for creating a solid alternative, capable of appealing to a majority?

NC: People are interested in authentic long-term, socialist goals, which is not what is usually called socialism. They should be thinking through carefully how the projected society should work, but not in extensive detail because a lot of things just have to be learned by experiment and we don’t know enough to plan societies in detail by any means. But, general guidelines could be worked out and many of the specific problems can be discussed. That should just be part of people’s popular consciousness. That’s how a transition to socialism could take place. When it becomes part of the consciousness, awareness and aspirations of the large majority of the population. So, take for example one of the major achievements in this direction: the anarchist revolution in Spain in 1936. There had been decades of preparation for that. In education, in activism and efforts, sometimes beating back, but when the moment came with the fascist attack the people had in their minds the way they wanted the society to be organized. We have seen it in other ways, too. Take, say, Europe’s reconstruction after the Second World War. The Second World War had really devastating effects for much of Europe. It really didn’t take them very long to reconstruct state capitalist democracies because it was in people’s heads. There were other parts of the world that were pretty much devastated and they couldn’t do it; they didn’t have the conceptions in their mind. A lot of it is human consciousness.

PPR: There are several movements criticizing the current form of social and economic organization. Most of these movement unite against a common enemy, instead of uniting under a common vision, and also lack concrete alternative proposals. Do you believe that in organizing a socialist front, it is important to back criticism with proposals? Did the people involved in Occupy Wall Street or other movements in the United States do this successfully?

NC: First of all, let’s take the Occupy movement. Occupy was not a movement, it was a tactic. You can’t sit forever in a park near Wall Street. You can’t do it for more than a few months. It was a tactic I had not predicted. If people asked me, I would have said “don’t do it.” But it was a great success, an enormous success, with a big impact on people’s thinking, on people’s actions. The whole concept of concentration of wealth (1% and 99%)… it was there of course, at the background of people’s understanding, but became prominent in the mass media (in the Wall Street Journal, for example) and it led to many forms of activism, it energized people and so on, but it was not a movement. The Left, in a general sense, is very much atomized. We live in highly atomized societies. People are pretty much alone; it’s you and your iPad.

The major organizing centers, like the labor movement, have been severely weakened in the United States by policy. It didn’t happen like a hurricane. Policies are designed to undermine working class organization and the reason is not only the unions fight for workers’ rights, but they also have a democratizing effect. These are institutions in which people without power can get together, support one another, learn about the world, try out their ideas, initiate programs, and that is dangerous. That’s like a referendum in Greece. It is dangerous to allow that.

We should recall that during the Second World War and the Great Depression there was an upsurge in popular, radical democracy. In all over the world. It took different forms, but it was there, everywhere. In Greece it was in the Greek revolution, and so on. And it had to be crushed. In countries like Greece, it was crushed by violence. In countries like Italy, where the US forces entered in 1943, it was crushed by attacking and destroying the anti-German partisans and restoring the traditional order. In countries like the United States it was crushed not by violence – capitalist power doesn’t have that capacity here – but starting in the late 1940s huge efforts were undertaken to try and destroy and undermine the labor movement. It picked up sharply under Reagan, it picked up again under Clinton, and after that the labor movement has been really weak, and in different countries it has taken different forms. But that was one of the institutions which did let people come together to act cooperatively and with mutual support and others have been pretty much decimated as well.

There are a lot of people that form movements around particular commitments, like gay rights. It is important, but it does not link easily to, say, economic rights, and it often looks like it’s opposed to them. The attempt to bring these together has yet to be done in a truly effective way, and I think it can be. The Sanders and Corbyn movements, the Podemos and others could move in that direction.

PPR: Do you believe that Trump’s presidency could actually lead to “friendly fascism,” or is he just another side of the political establishment? Does his rise provide ground for re-defining and uniting a socialist movement under a common vision in the United States?

NC: The answer to that is basically up to you and your friends. It depends on how people, especially young people, react. There are plenty of opportunities, and they could be taken. If they are, I think we could have something like that, but it is basically a choice. It is not inevitable by any means. Just take what is likely to happen. Trump is highly unpredictable. He doesn’t know what he plans. What might happen for example, is this: a lot of people who voted for Trump, working class people, voted for Obama in 2008. They were seduced by the slogans “hope” and “change.” They didn’t get hope, they didn’t get change, they were disillusioned. This time they voted for another candidate who is calling for hope and change and has promised to deliver all kinds of amazing things. Well, he is not going to deliver them. So, what happens in a couple of years, when he hasn’t delivered them and that same constituency is disillusioned, what’s very likely, is that the power system will do what it typically does under such conditions: try to scapegoat the more vulnerable to say, “Yeah, you haven’t gotten what we promised, and the reason is those worthless people, the Mexicans, the blacks, the Syrian immigrants, the welfare cheats. They are the ones who are destroying everything. Let’s go after them. The gays, they are the ones to blame.” That could happen. It has happened over and over in history with pretty ugly consequences. And whether this could succeed depends on the kind of resistance that will be mounted by people just like you. The answer to this question should be directed to you not to me.

PPR: One of the main arguments against socialism is that human nature is by definition selfish and competitive, so people can only flourish in a capitalist environment, which requires those characteristics. Do you agree?

NC: Bear in mind that capitalism is a tiny period of human society. You never really had capitalism, you always had one or another variant of state capitalism. The reason is capitalism would self-destruct in no time. So the business classes have always demanded strong, straight intervention to protect the society from the destructive effects of market forces because they don’t want everything destroyed. So we had one or another form of state capitalism during an extremely brief period of human history, which tells us essentially nothing about human nature. If you look at human societies and human interactions, you can find anything. You find selfishness, you find altruism, you find sympathy.

Let’s take Adam Smith, the patron-saint of capitalism, what did he think? He thought the main human instinct was sympathy. In fact, take a look at the word “invisible hand.” Which, of course, you learned about, or you think you’ve learned about. Take a look at the actual way in which he used the phrase. There is almost no relation to what is claimed. Actually, it is not hard to find out, because he only used it twice in any relevant sense. Once in each of his two major books. In his major book, The Wealth of Nations, the phrase appears once, and it appears to what amounts to a critique of neo-liberal globalization. What he says is, he is interested in England; in England the manufacturers and merchants invested abroad and imported from abroad. They might benefit but it will be wrongful to England. Their commitment to their home country is sufficient, so they are unlikely to do this and therefore, by an invisible hand, England will be saved from the impact of what we call neo-liberal globalization. That is one use. The other use is in his other major book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which people do not read much, but for him it was the major book. He is an egalitarian, he believed in equality of outcome, not opportunity. He is an enlightenment figure, pre-capitalist. He says, suppose in England, one landowner got most of the land and other people would have nothing to live on. He says it wouldn’t matter much, because the rich land owner, by virtue of his sympathy for other people would distribute resources among them, so that by an invisible hand, we would end up with a pretty egalitarian society. That is his conception of human nature. That is not the way invisible hand is used by the people who you took courses with or whose books you read. That shows a difference in doctrine, not in fact. What we actually know about human nature, is that it has all of these possibilities.

PPR: As we observed in recent examples, misuse of power especially in the transitional period is a serious obstacle in an effort for the establishment of socialism, and can lead to what you have referred to as “miserable tyranny.” What do you think democracy should look like in the transitional and steady state stages of socialism?

NC: First of all, as I said, I don’t really think there have been transitional periods to socialism. There have been efforts, but they have usually been destroyed by a combination of external force and internal corruption. The way the two interact with one another is a question of empirical inquiry for different times, so I don’t think we can draw any conclusions, except that there is a lot of struggle.

This interview has been condensed and contains minor edits for clarity and grammar.