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Chomsky and Academic History

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Karl Marx ­ Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

Noam Chomsky has written more than 30 books over the last three decades. Yet neither the Journal of American History, nor the American Historical Review, nor Reviews in American History has reviewed them. If the journals had overlooked one or two of Chomsky’s books, then the omissions might not rise to the status of a problem, and could be attributed to a combination of reasons each of them incidental to Chomsky himself. If the journals had in fact devoted attention to him, but the preponderance of the attention had been hostile, then they might stand accused of harboring a bias. This is the most respectable way to disagree about such matters. But the journals have not done enough to deserve the accusation. They have not reviewed a single one of his books. Chomsky is one of most widely read political intellectuals in the world. Academic history pretends he does not exist.

Why is this so?

A moment’s reflection rules out the easiest explanations. No formal policy could have held up against multiple changes in the editorships of the journals. Even a tacit conspiracy is unthinkable given the upheavals of the last three decades. The journals have absorbed, presented, and guided an explosion of historical writing on dozens of subjects. How skillfully they have done so is open to debate. But their formal commitment to intellectual pluralism has remained intact. As the editor of the Journal of American History wrote in 2004, “Through our book reviews, we aim to serve as the journal of record for American history.”

Could it be that Chomsky does not figure in the record because he writes about topics of little interest to historians? His books contain arresting arguments about the history of the Cold War, genocide, terrorism, democracy, international affairs, nationalism, social policy, public opinion, health care, and militarism, and this merely begins the list. In addressing these subjects he ranges across the Americas, Europe, and Asia, paying special attention to the emergence of the United States. Two of his major themes, namely, the “rise of the West” in the context of comparative “global history,” are also major areas of interest for professional historians, never more so than today.

Could it be that Chomsky is left out because he does not qualify as a professional historian? The journals have reviewed such nonhistorians as Robert Bellah, Randall Collins, Michel Foucault, Clifford Geertz, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, Richard Rorty, Edward Said, Garry Wills, and John Updike because the books in question show a strong historical component, or contain implications for historiography. (Would it be cheap to add that Chomsky obeys a stricter method than some professional historians have obeyed lately? He presents evidence with an extensive record of citation, and keeps the rhetorical content of his writings extremely low.)

Could it be that Chomsky is left out because he does not divorce his politics from his history? Academic historians regularly use their skills as instruments of political abuse and intimidation, as Sean Wilentz did in his testimony before Congress a few years ago, or as David Landes did in a letter to the New York Times in 2000, in which he wrote, “If Mr. Nader thinks people will forget that he has been willing to bring grave harm to his country, he is in for a big surprise.”

If this sort of thing suggested acceptable grounds for exclusion from the community of scholars, few historians would have learned to honor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.. Not only is Schlesinger manifestly a liberal historian. He has put his skills at the direct service of a great political power. A profession that made the divorce of politics and history a condition of entry would have packed away Schlesinger, Landes, and Wilentz in disgrace a long time ago. Professional history does not (and should not) do anything of the kind. The same point holds with only slightly less force in the case of Henry Kissinger. Reviews in American History, having passed up all opportunities to review Chomsky’s books, described Kissinger’s Diplomacy (1994) as “a masterful, brilliant, and provocative account of world politics and American foreign policy from Cardinal Richelieu to the end of the Cold War.” The review did not take up the question of Kissinger’s war crimes.

Schlesinger’s liberalism mirrors the dominant ideology in history writing. But to stop here would be to dump the whole question into the realm of biases. It would be to employ a loose sociology of knowledge to argue that the journals serve some ideologies to the exclusion of other ideologies. The trouble with this reasoning is that the journals in fact have become open to ideas that claim to have surpassed liberalism: postcolonalism, poststructuralism, and so on. More to the point, they have not been shy in throwing open their pages to Marxism. To speak “objectively,” Eric Hobsbawm remains a member of one of the most murderous political parties of the twentieth century, and his books are vigorously discussed. Why Schlesinger and Hobsbawm, but not Chomsky?

I suspect that the answer lies less with Chomsky’s arguments, and still less with his professional status, than with his intentions. The history of liberalism and Marxism in the academy has been the history of a science of concepts. The main responsibility of the liberal or Marxist intellectual, accordingly, has been to discover new material, which often involves correcting and recorrecting biases in past scholarship, a sort of intellectual forensics. The science of concepts not only parallels the development of institutions; it requires their continual enlargement and aggrandizement. All this should be obvious from the plain fact that liberal and Marxist historians have conquered institutional power and prestige across the country, and have effected a virtual monopoly on serious intellectual discussion.

Contrast this with Chomsky’s anarchist interpretation of responsibility. “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.” Strictly speaking, the difference is not mutually exclusive. Yet one cannot read Chomksy’s books easily conclude that truth is something to be surrounded by a gang of concepts, or driven into the corners of institutions and “think tanks” (a phrase which ought to discredit itself in the presence of an mind awake.) He does not say, with the post-liberal thinkers, that academic intellectuals need a whole new vocabulary to understand reality. He does not think of historical writing as a pathway to power, tenure, faculty club dinners, fund-raising, or anything else of this sort. He does not leave a clear idea of power in view, in part because his anarchism teaches him to view social status as a form of domination.

This explanation might be crude, but it can explain how the current generation of professional historians, many of them beginning in the restless mood of the 1960s and 1970s, have fitted themselves so effortlessly into the hierarchical arrangements of academic life. They have liberalized it to include once-marginalized social groups, but have done nothing to reverse the repression of labor power. The difference between a free professional and a university employee ought to be as wide as possible. Today the difference has been erased, and the history’s professional societies have left it undefended. The historians now preside over a structure of domination far greater in its scope and power than at any time in the past.

The question of power also explains why even history journals dedicated explicitly to radical analysis have ignored Chomsky. The Radical History Review has reviewed exactly one of his books, which it called “absurd.” Whatever else the RHR has achieved since its founding in the 1970s, it represents the triumph of the career radical, the academic historian who is not merely unpunished for radical statements, but actively rewarded with money, prestige, book contacts for “radical readers,” and so on. It is damnably difficult nowadays to tell the difference between a young business executive and a “radical historian.”

Whatever the reason, the consequences of the exclusion have been terrible, for both parties. The isolation forces Chomsky to meet tests of personality nobody else is asked to meet. Everything from the tone of his writings to the recesses of his biography come up for harsh review. His critic finds a factual error and meets it with a cry of “aha!” If no factual errors are at hand, the critic cries “too simple,” and instead of engaging in research and discussion that might give the argument more nuance or variety, the critic stops reading altogether. Such are the excuses available to the self-satisfied. Accreditation, not argument, likewise dominates the reaction of the followers. They become attracted to Chomsky because of his isolation, and impute to him quasi-magical qualities. (A glance at his published interviews will indicate how frequently he attempts to discourage his cult-like following.)

The journals, by excluding one of the most influential voices in contemporary political discussion, disqualify themselves as serious forums. More than this, they betray a selective commitment to intellectual freedom. For one of the lessons we have learned from those post-liberal ideas is that censorship involves subtle relationships between culture and social processes. Silence can be produced and sustained as easily as argument.

The profession’s recovery of principle is not the only reason for putting a halt to its exclusion of Chomsky. Most of the reviews and articles in the journals are mind-numbingly boring. They lack vital connections to pressing human responsibilities. They meet the demand for “relevance” without posing the question, relevant to what? It is the great misfortune of liberal and Marxist historians to be writing in the age of conservative ascendency. For decades they have managed the ideological interests of parties close to power, only to discover, belatedly, that their metaphysics of progress have betrayed them. So they grind down their concepts into finer and finer points. But in forsaking the fields of “intelligence” for the technologies of “reason,” they produce an effluvia of permanent surrender. Probably so many young people find Chomsky bracing and invigorating because so much else in our culture is passionless and purposeless.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me repeat. The point is not that Chomsky is free of faults, or that he is correct in his use of fact and interpretation, or that my explanations are correct. The burden here is rather light. It is merely to show that he deserves to be included in the pages the leading journals in history. Perhaps one big forum on “Chomsky and the History of American Foreign Policy” would reestablish good faith. Who could not fail to learn something from a debate between Chomsky and John Lewis Gaddis? Perhaps a book review would be a good start.

JOHN H. SUMMERS can be reached at: summers@fas.harvard.edu

 

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