A Flawed Political Biography

NOAM CHOMSKY: A LIFE OF DISSENT by Robert F. Barsky, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Reviewed by Stephen R. Shalom

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 23, Summer 1997]

Stephen R. Shalom recently co-taught an on-line course on U.S. foreign policy with Noam Chomsky. He is on the editorial board of New Politics.

IN ONE RESPECT, NOAM CHOMSKY IS AN EASY SUBJECT FOR A BIOGRAPHY. Rarely has there been a person more willing to share his views: he writes -- at prodigious length -- to anyone asking a serious question, spending some 20 hours a week on correspondence; he keeps up a frantic pace of speaking engagements, submits to innumerable interviews, and participates in Z magazine's on-line "ChomskyChat" forum.

But in another respect, a biography of Chomsky is a formidable undertaking, for the biographer has not only to digest a massive oeuvre of published work, but be well versed in linguistics, philosophy, political theory, history, foreign policy, political economy, and sociology of the media, if only to explain what Chomsky has been up to. One could of course narrow the focus, and write a political biography of Chomsky, covering only his contributions as one of the most important left political figures of the last half century. This is the daunting task that Robert F. Barsky sets for himself in his Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. His effort, however, is largely unsuccessful, and an adequate political biography of Chomsky has yet to be written.

The book has some strengths. Barsky doesn't misrepresent Chomsky's views, and is thus light-years ahead of the mendacious commentators over the years who have accused Chomsky of being a Communist sympathizer, an anti-Semite, an America-hater, and the like. Sharing Chomsky's left-libertarian political outlook, Barsky is able to use the biography as an opportunity to present the case for freedom and justice, and is able to show, in a non-reductive way, how Chomsky's views on language as an infinitely creative human capacity are related to his political ideal of social arrangements which allow people to most fully develop their creative potential.

Suspicious of personality cults, Chomsky discourages biographers (he says he hasn't even gone to see the movie about him, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media). Barsky sensibly decided that by concentrating on Chomsky's political milieu, much of value could be learned without offending democratic principles. And, after all, in writing a biography of Chomsky one is writing not just about a political thinker, but a political activist as well, someone who has lent his tireless efforts to day-to-day struggles for social justice. But to effectively describe and chronicle the events of Chomsky's life and context demands greater familiarity with the U.S. political scene and first-hand knowledge of the relevant years than Barsky, writing from Canada, appears to have. (The book includes an odd section on "Chomsky and Montreal" and describes a Montreal political alliance, only to tell us that "Chomsky himself had no contact with the Montreal group"; the people quoted most often in the book, after Chomsky himself, are two Canadians who have had negligible contact with Chomsky.)

Gaps in personal experience, of course, can be filled by the hard work of research, but Barsky seems not to have done very much of that. He interviewed almost none of the people who have figured importantly in Chomsky's political or personal life (Carol Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Louis Kampf, Michael Albert, or Morris Halle, among others). He didn't go through the critical reviews of Chomsky's work written in the United States (every review he cites comes from London); it is true that Chomsky's writings have often been ignored in the U.S. press, but certainly his lengthy exchanges with Lionel Abel, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Richard Hernnstein, Michael Walzer, and Paul Berman were politically important and worthy of note, as were sympathetic critiques from such people as Brian Morton. Despite the claim on the book jacket that Barsky quotes from Chomsky's "unpublished correspondence, including the author's own long correspondence with Chomsky," none of Chomsky's letters to anyone other than Barsky were used. And of the many extensive interviews with Chomsky by David Barsamian and Michael Albert available on audiotape, only one is cited.

Early on, Barsky lists some of the organizations, publications, and individuals that have not been adequately discussed in relation to Chomsky's political work that will fill his book. But many of these Barsky barely discusses at all: the Institute for Workers' Control (0 mentions), the Leninist League (0 mentions), Modern Occasions (0 mentions), New Politics (1 passing mention), The Spokesman (0 mentions), and Jerry Rubin (1 passing mention).

Far too often, Barsky quotes a Chomsky letter to him without seeking any corroboration. For example, Barsky says that:

In 1981, an interviewer for Nouvel Observateur modified the replies to questions he had sent Chomsky in order, as Chomsky himself put it, "to accord with [the newspaper's] ideological needs."

It is commendable to allow Chomsky to explain himself in his own words, but the basic job of a biographer, it seems to me, is to check these things out, comparing Chomsky's replies with what appeared in the paper. Barsky doesn't do that. Moreover, although Barsky lists many of Chomsky's published works in his bibliography (omitting the vast majority of his non-book publications), the bulk of his citations come from the handful of letters he received from Chomsky. But, since letters are necessarily less carefully formulated and less well documented or double-checked than published works, Barsky is presenting a far less convincing version of Chomsky's arguments than is already publicly available.

His excessive reliance on these letters leads Barsky to be dependent on Chomsky's unverified memory -- which is extraordinary, but not infallible -- leading to errors, probably compounded by Barsky's own garbling of what Chomsky told him. Z Magazine and South End Press, says Barsky, "were born from the Rosa Luxemburg student group at MIT, for which Noam Chomsky and Louis Kampf were faculty advisers...." The student group (of which I was a part) was Rosa Luxemburg SDS. SDS is mentioned only once in the book, in a Chomsky quote about its self-destruction, but in fact when national SDS split into its Progressive Labor and Weather factions, many of us in Boston sought an independent course, while retaining the SDS name. At MIT we called ourselves Rosa Luxemburg SDS because we admired Luxemburg's critique of Leninism and rather liked the idea of using a woman's name (we probably didn't pay much attention to her position on nationalism). We were much influenced by the views and example of Chomsky and Kampf, but they were not our "faculty advisers"; we would have sooner gotten haircuts than to have allowed anyone to serve as our "faculty advisers." (Chomsky repeats this error in his interview/essay in The Cold War and the University [New York: New Press, 1997].) Mike Albert was a member of RL-SDS and some years after leaving MIT went on to found South End, along with some other people, none of whom had been part of RL-SDS. "Other students," says Barsky, "including Steve Shalom and Peter Bohmer, also went on to participate in the collectives." I have no idea what he's talking about.

THIS BOOK TOO OFTEN GIVES INSUFFICIENT DETAIL to make a convincing case for those who don't already share Chomsky's broad political perspective. So, for example, in comparing Chomsky with Irving Howe, Barsky notes that although Howe criticized the Vietnam War, he did so in deplorably narrow terms. I think Howe's position on the war was indeed terrible, but to convince the unconvinced one needs to cite specifics, which Barsky doesn't do. And major aspects of Chomsky's political analysis -- for example, his views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict since the 1950s or on the media or his recent writing on domestic U.S. political economy -- are hardly covered at all. So this volume can hardly serve as a basic introduction to Chomsky's politics.

Nor does it offer much sustenance to already committed leftists. Many of the debates within the left in which Chomsky has participated are treated much too briefly or omitted altogether. Thus, nothing is said about the question of civil disobedience (the subject of an illuminating exchange in the New York Review of Books during the Vietnam War) or the relation of the anti-intervention movement to the Sandinistas (debated in the pages of this journal ten years ago), or on intervention in Somalia, Haiti, or Bosnia, or on a multitude of other issues on which Chomsky has commented.

Chomsky's views on the student movement and the role of the university are discussed, but inadequately. Chomsky tells Barsky that in 1968 he "paid virtually no attention to what was going on in Paris," as could be seen from his writings. But Barsky doesn't press him to explain why. Yet Chomsky's position here certainly raises questions, given that French student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit wrote one of the most important manifestos for left-wing anarchism, and that, as Barsky notes, for a brief moment it looked "as though the student-worker links that had begun to form could advance the cause of radical social change." But there is no follow-up from Barsky.

MIT was a major military contractor, and much of what happened there was funded by the Pentagon. Even Chomsky's work was supported by the military. In the late 1960s, as the student movement reached its peak, war research on campus came under increasing attack, particularly projects being done at two MIT labs. Barsky quotes Chomsky as recalling the political line-up: right-wing faculty wanted to keep the labs, liberal faculty wanted to break relations with the labs formally (so that the same work would be done but invisibly), while "the radical students and I wanted to keep the labs on campus, on the principle that what is going to be going on anyway ought to be open and above board...." But this obscures the fact that most radical students, as well as many liberal students, wanted first and foremost to stop the war research and thus to convert the labs to non-military pursuits. We didn't want the war research to go on in divested labs, nor did we want it to go on in affiliated labs. We wanted the war research stopped, period. Barsky's account, characteristically, is too sketchy to enable the reader to grapple with the issue.

Chomsky has always sympathized and stood with those struggling for a better world. He has often criticized movements for social change, but his criticisms have invariably been motivated by the passionate belief that only a movement that can subject itself to ruthless self-criticism has a chance of victory, or is worthy of that victory.

For Noam Chomsky, political commitment has always been combined with independence of mind and tenacious research. Any biographer of Chomsky ought to possess these same qualities.

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