The New Radicalism
Modern Occasions, 1:3, pp. 317-327, Spring, 1971
|QUESTION: Do you believe that the
re-radicalization of a good part of the American intellectual
community and student body that has occurred in the 1960's will
continue into the 70s? Did this re-radicalization surprise you, as it
did a great many people, or did you in any way foresee it? What
obstacles, if any, do you see to its further development?
CHOMSKY: The re-radicalization of the 1960's did surprise me, very much, and for that reason, among others, I have little confidence in my own guesses about the near future. I've consistently underestimated -- to take one example -- the potential of resistance to the war in Indo-China. Five years ago, I never believed that it would be even remotely possible that a generation of youth would courageously refuse to take part in this miserable war, undermining the hopes of the American executive that it could fight a colonial war with a conscript army and forcing it back to the more traditional imperial pattern that is evolving now (there are other factors in this tactical shift, but that would take us far afield). I also did not foresee at all that the conservative ideological consensus would so significantly erode, in large part as a consequence of student activism.
As to the future, I'm reluctant to guess. The movement, so-called, has developed no self-sustaining organizational forms or clear intellectual vision that expresses the understanding, or even the mood of the vast number of mostly young people who feel themselves to be part of it or at least drawn to its fringes. I thought Mitch Goodman's recent "compendium" [Mitchell Goodman, ed., The Movement toward a New America: The beginnings of a long revolution (Knopf, 1970)] captured rather well this curious combination of formlessness and vitality, confusion and hopefulness. It's hard for me to believe that students who have taken part in movement activities will slip back very readily to the docility of the 1950's, though of course there will be continuing efforts to restore the mindless consensus, with a margin of ineffectual dissent, that is such a convenience for the managers of domestic and international society. Many American intellectuals seem to be able to reconcile themselves to the systematic destruction of the peasant societies of Indo-China by American technology, just as many of their predecessors found ways to come to terms with Stalin's purge or Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is much less true of the youth of the sixties, to their credit, and I suspect that Vietnam -- the butchery, the deceit, the timid dissent, the contemptible apologetics -- will prove to be a formative experience with long-term consequences. On occasion their revulsion expresses itself as antagonism to technology and science, or even to rationality. But for the most part, in my experience at least, it has led to an appreciation of the depth of sustained commitment that will be necessary if Indo-China is to be saved from obliteration, and an appreciation of the scale of the cultural and institutional changes that must be carried out in the United States if other societies that seek independence are to be spared a similar fate. Faced with the awesome scale of these tasks, many return to private concerns -- a move often mistaken for apathy. It is not the apathy of the fifties, and a reservoir of sympathy and potential support remains for those who undertake a more activist role.
I'm personally impressed with the large number of young people who are committing themselves to what they see as a long term effort to bring about a radical transformation of American society. Their efforts to involve themselves in community organizing, developing radical professional groups, and the like, might have long-range significance. Not much of this makes the headlines (except, occasionally, after police or judicial repression, as in Seattle, Philadelphia or right here in Cambridge in the past few months). But with enough persistence and support, it is possible that these efforts might succeed in creating some of the nuclei for a radical movement that will develop from its own internal resources, instead of merely in response to recurrent atrocities in the larger society. It's important, I think, that such groups continue to have a close relation to university-based movements. They can exploit some of the intrinsic problems (contradictions, if you like) of modern state capitalism. If the universities are to provide the knowledge and skills, as well as the trained manpower, needed to sustain an advanced industrial society, a substantial part of the youth will pass through them and they will have to retain a certain degree of freedom and openness. But if so, a radical consciousness will almost certainly develop as a natural consequence of objective study and thinking that frees itself from mythology and an ideological straitjacket. Dogmatism and achievement are incompatible, in the long run, and though some young people will simply accept what they are told and others may be induced to devote themselves to "making it" as the highest goal in life, it is predictable that there will also be free and compassionate and independent minds to challenge prevailing orthodoxies and search for ways to translate a perception of social injustice to some form of action.
In a modern industrial society there will be a need for relatively free and open centers of study and thinking, which will in turn continually create a challenge to irrationality, autocratic structures, deceit and injustice. A radical or reformist social movement will be able to draw upon these centers for participants as well as ideas, while "radicalizing" them by the opportunities it creates for meaningful social action. No movement for social change can hope to succeed unless it makes the most advanced intellectual and technical achievements its own, and unless it is rooted in those strata of the population that are productive and creative in every domain. It is, in particular, a very important question whether the intelligentsia will see itself as fulfilling a role in social management, or rather as part of the work force. The promise of past revolutions has been betrayed, in part, because of the willingness of the intelligentsia to join or serve a new ruling class, a process that can be compared to the willing submission to state and private power in Western state capitalist societies. As a larger component of the productive work in an industrial society comes to involve skilled workers, engineers, scientists and other intellectual workers, new possibilities may develop for the emergence of a mass revolutionary movement that will not be betrayed by the separation of a vanguard intelligentsia from the labor army that it helps to control, either directly or through the ideological instruments it fashions. So one might hope, at least. Conceivably, as many have argued, worldwide student radicalism may be an incipient stage of such a development -- a premature strike of the work force of the future, as Norman Birnbaum put it somewhere.
Any successes will no doubt evoke a repressive response by the dominant autocratic institutions. But for the intellectual community and student body, relatively privileged and affluent in a modern industrial society, there are other and more immediate obstacles to the radicalization that seems to me a likely consequence of honesty and compassion. For one thing, a continued "conformist subservience to those in power" (Hans Morgenthau's accurate phrase) brings narrow personal advantages. Quite apart from this, it is very tempting to immerse oneself entirely in exciting intellectual work -- I know this very well from personal experience -- but fortunately this becomes quite difficult when some serious and honorable people devote themselves, with courage and conviction, to a struggle for ideals that one knows to be just and deeply important. If this struggle ever becomes a mass movement of the oppressed and exploited, the impulse to contribute to it may intensify, growing both from moral pressure and the desire for self-fulfillment in a decent and humane society.
Perhaps what I say is misleading, given that I inevitably see these problems from the point of view of a certain type of academic intellectual. So let me try to express this possibly distorting factor quite clearly. As for myself, I would like nothing better than to be able to keep to a range of purely intellectual problems that happen to intrigue me greatly. Although it is impossible to overlook the complaint of many students and others that there is no meaningful work, I can't accept it intuitively. There is a great deal of challenging and meaningful work, though I am skeptical as to whether the fundamental problems of man and society can be studied in any very profound manner, at least in ways resembling scientific inquiry, perhaps because of temporary gaps in our understanding, or perhaps because of deeper limitations of human intelligence. These personal tendencies and beliefs probably lead me to underestimate the potentialities of activism or perhaps even social criticism and analysis, as well as to restrict, no doubt improperly, my own personal involvement. I'm sure it leads me to underestimate the sense of alienation and even despair that seems objectively to be an aspect of what many social critics refer to as the proletarianization of the intellectuals.
Many young radical activists tend to be somewhat contemptuous of "conscience radicalism" that grows out of concern for the suffering of others: Vietnamese, oppressed minorities, exploited workers, for example. They argue, perhaps with justice, that a serious and sustained commitment to radical social change will in general develop only as a response to "one's own oppression" -- often, therefore, caste rather than class oppression, as women, students in authoritarian schools, victims of repressive life styles and cultural patterns, and so on. So far as I can can see a good part of this caste oppression could be relieved, in principle, without any modification of the distribution of power in state capitalist industrial society. As a rational system of exploitation, capitalism has no inherent need for racist and sexist practices and should be quite ready to tolerate a leveling of all individuals into interchangeable parts of the production process or equivalent units of individual consumption, without invidious distinctions of race or sex or ethnic origin. To take another case, the same is probably true of the environmental crisis. No doubt the corporations can be bribed to limit pollution by public subsidy or higher prices, and can even turn ecological concerns to their profit by the manufacture of new commodities. Years ago the Ford Motor Company made an abortive effort to "sell safety." By now, environmental concerns may well have created a potential market for new accessories as well as opportunities for rapid obsolescence as technology is developed for coping with pollution. I am not trying to minimize the importance of issues that do not relate directly to the structure of autocratic institutions or the pattern of social control. On the contrary, there is surely no more urgent task, in the short run, than preventing American terror from demolishing the societies of Indo-China, even though there is little doubt that American capitalism can easily survive the loss (to its own population) of the Southeast Asian neocolonial system. But a radical movement that looks to fundamental institutional change, to socialization and democratization of the central industrial, financial, and commercial institutions of a modern society, will have to concentrate on different issues. Such a movement seems still remote.
QUESTION: Do you think that an organized movement (perhaps taking the form of a political party) armed with a definite theory and strategy adapted to American conditions is likely to emerge from the new radicalism? In your view, is such an organized movement at once necessary and desirable? If your reply in this respect is affirmative, what ideological and practical political model would you suggest for this renewed attempt so to organize the Left as to make it effective on the national scene?
CHOMSKY: Five years ago I would have regarded such a development as virtually out of the question. Now I'm not so pessimistic. There are many indications of a significant change of general mood, with regard to the problems of industrial society. It is hard to believe that any American sociologist would now seriously propose that the fundamental problems of the industrial revolution have been solved and that the triumph of democratic social evolution in the West signals the end of domestic politics for intellectuals who must have ideologies or utopias to motivate them to social action (Seymour Martin Lipset, in 1960). No doubt many would find Hans Morgenthau's analysis somewhat extreme, when he argues that there is no possibility for a rational solution to the basic problems of contemporary American society within the present framework of distribution of power -- virtually a call for revolution, if not an expression of hopeless despair. But this point of view is, in any event, no longer as remote from the mainstream of thinking as it was in the period of celebration of the ac