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Rash Thinker Who is in Two Minds

Roger Scruton,
The Times,
September 19, 1996

Noam Chomsky, Powers and Prospects (Pluto Press, 1996).
Noam Chomsky, Class Warfare (Pluto Press, 1996).

Noam Chomsky is famous for his contributions to the infant science of linguistics; he is also famous for his denunciations of America, its government, its culture, its foreign policy and its allies. The two Chomskys are quite unrelated. The first writes clearly and eloquently, with a scrupulous respect for the principles of scientific discourse.

The second writes a seething and hectic prose, from which little of substance can be gleaned apart from the self-intoxicated anger of the writer, and which is marked by an utterly unscrupulous attitude to all arguments and opinions other than Chomsky’s own. Both Chomskys appear in Powers and Prospects, which begins with a lucid overview of Chomskian linguistics and cognitive science.

According to Chomsky, the surface order of a sentence derives from a “deep structure.” The apparent grammar should be distinguished from the underlying syntax, contained in the “transformation rules” which generate sentences from structures that are common to all human brains. These structures are the linguistic “universals,” stored in the human brain by a long process of evolution.

Stated thus crudely, the theory seems more like an ambitious programme for a future science than the outline of a present one. But the work of Chomsky and his followers has made the picture more precise, and the belated discovery that Frege, Russell and Tarski had already produced transformational grammars - albeit for artificial languages - has given a renewed impetus to Chomskian linguistics.

Chomsky, who long ago ceased to be a cautious thinker, has not learnt all the lessons contained in Frege. And when he enters philosophical territory he impetuously assumes that his expertise in linguistics gives him the right to settle matters by ex cathedra decree. Nevertheless, it is clear that, were he to devote his intellectual powers to the philosophy of language and mind, he would have much to say.

Unfortunately Chomsky no longer has time for such pursuits. He is much exercised by the moral responsibility of the intellectual, in a world where power is in the wrong hands. And the responsibility of the intellectual, he informs us, is to tell the truth, especially the unpalatable truth about the society which produced him. The fact that Chomsky has not, in the past, told the truth about communism is well enough known, though not to Chomsky. Still, this does not disqualify him as a critic of Western civilisation, and there is no doubt that his intemperate diatribes against the prevailing political order are received with rapturous applause wherever student radicals enjoy the benefits of that civilisation - including the benefit, unknown in the regimes which student radicals tend to support, of listening to intemperate diatribes against the prevailing political order.

The vision offered in the speechifying part of Powers and Prospects, and in the sycophantic interviews contained in Class Warfare (interviews with David Barsamian) is more or less indistinguishable from that espoused by the 19th-century anarchists and their Bolshevik disciples. According to Chomsky we must work for a world without power and domination, in which nobody is oppressed by anybody else, and in which liberty, equality and fraternity are the ruling principles. But to achieve this result we need to oppress the oppressors - and this means using the power of the State to break the capitalists, the ruling elites, the multinationals, the holders of property. To demolish power, therefore, we must first increase it, by transferring power from private hands to the centralised bureaucracy. This bureaucracy, being controlled by Chomsky and his fans, will use power for the public good.

It is just possible that Chomsky has had time to study the invariable result of this way of thinking, whether in Russia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, or modern Africa. But his criticisms of actual utopian experiments are muted at best, and seem to be included in order to prove how fair-minded Chomsky is. It requires courage, Chomsky constantly implies, to expose the lies and subterfuges of capitalist power. For, as everyone knows, the media and the intellectual establishment in America are devoted to a huge cover-up operation, designed to conceal the crimes of America and its allies.

The issue that Chomsky raises - whether crimes committed by friendly powers are to be exposed as vigorously as crimes committed by foes - is too important to be discussed in this adolescent way. Even if you can get through these self-righteous speeches without constant recourse to the vomissory, you will not be the wiser for the experience.