A rebel with an endless cause

June 23, 1995

Simon Targett talks to the establishment scourge Cambridge has honoured with a doctorate, Noam Chomsky.

The college flags were unfurled, and the Duke of Edinburgh was leading a procession of professors around Senate House Yard. Cambridge was a portrait of tradition. Moments later, the famous choirs of King's and St John's burst into song, and an orator delivered a series of Latin tributes to a court of distinguished men and women assembled in Senate House. There were the familiar establishment faces: the former judge Lord Oliver, the historian Sir Keith Thomas, the physician Dame Sheila Sherlock and the millionaire businessman Paul Judge. There was also Noam Chomsky.

It was odd to see Chomsky there last Thursday. He is one of the great anti-establishment figures of the 20th century. But his reputation as a dissenter is rooted in his part-time political writing and Cambridge was giving him an honorary doctorate chiefly for his renowned professional work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on linguistics, which has become the new orthodoxy.

Cambridge might equally have rewarded Chomsky for his political work. Only the previous week, Amherst College, a prestigious East Coast establishment, was giving him an honorary degree for his political activism. And it is his contribution to the political field rather than the linguistics field - brilliant though that is - which really explains his enormous popularity, unequalled by any other living intellectual. According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, he is one of the most cited writers of all time, appearing just above Hegel and Cicero and just below Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, the Bible, Plato, Aristotle and Freud.

The breadth of his following is also remarkable. The day after establishment Cambridge had turned out in mortar board and gown to welcome him, an assorted gathering of 2,500 politically-minded people packed into the Methodist Central Hall just opposite Westminster Cathedral to hear him deliver his speech, "Human Rights in the New World Order", to the Liberty Human Rights Convention. There were suits and skinheads, tattoos and nose rings, leaders of the Luton Exodus Collective and the Cuban Solidarity Movement, and pony-tailed purveyors of Squall: the Magazine for the Sorted Itinerant.

On the face of it, and especially given the differing audiences, it is hard to see how Chomsky's two worlds connect. In some ways they do not. Speaking on a crackly telephone line from the master's lodge at Christ's College - the guest of the biochemist Sir Hans Kornberg - Chomsky himself talks of his "parallel tracks", thereby suggesting that they are distinct, quite separate. Yet he also acknowledges "a very abstract link to do with conceptions of human freedom which really go back to the Enlightenment".

This passion for human freedom, for equality and democracy, has moved him since childhood. Born in Philadelphia in 1928, and brought up by parents who were Jewish East European immigrants, Chomsky's early education was provided by a trendy Deweyite experimental school which did not encourage ranking and competition between pupils. There, aged 12, he wrote his first political article on the Spanish civil war "for the fourth grade newspaper". It lamented the rise of fascism. Years later, the Cambridge historian Jonathan Steinberg described a Chomsky article on the Spanish civil war as "a remarkable piece of history" even before he discovered that it had been based on this earlier pre-teenage work.

Chomsky's move to an elite academic high school was something of an eye opener. "It was a real shocker," he remembers. The grading, the selection, the sense of hierarchy, the system of prestige - these were things which left him with "negative" memories. But it prepared him well for the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, where he went in the late 1940s. He proved a smart student, yet as he now says, he "really had no particular intention of going on in the academic world".

As an undergraduate, he was active in what he calls "radical politics with an anarchist or left-wing Marxist flavour", he was fascinated by the kibbutz movement, and he had every intention of moving to the Middle East to promote Arab-Jewish co-operation within a socialist framework. Yet he remained in academia, partly because of the influence of the great linguistics professor Zellig Harris, who was also active politically.

Penn eventually awarded him a PhD certificate in 1955, and the same year he secured a research post at MIT. Within two years, he had written his seminal work on linguistics, Syntactic Structures. His academic career then took off and by 1961, when he was just 32, he had been appointed to his first chair. Scholarship dominated his life until 1964, when the war in Vietnam forced him to make what he recalls as "a serious and uncomfortable decision". As he once said: "The question I had to face was whether to become actively engaged in protest against the war - that is, engaged beyond signing petitions, sending money, and other peripheral contributions. I knew very well that once I set forth along that path, there would be no end."

An important influence was Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher and civil rights campaigner, whose frail silver-haired features today look down from the wall in Chomsky's MIT office. Ray Monk, who is writing a biography of Russell, says: "If there is one intellectual in the Russellian tradition of having one foot in political radicalism and one foot in technical philosophy, then it is Chomsky." Chomsky, who corresponded with Russell in the mid-1960s, reveals that he was influenced by Russell "partly as an intellectual and partly as a person". As he puts it: "There are things to criticise about him. He was a human being after all. But overall, he comes across as an honourable and decent human being."

Chomsky was correct in predicting that the political path would be an endless one. Since the early 1960s, he has been in constant demand as a speaker, everywhere from church halls and colleges to 2,500-seater auditoriums. It has often been a painful experience, and he once spent some time in prison. But if it has been painful, it has also been productive, and he is now guaranteed an awe-inspired audience. Yet it is not his oratory that people come for: Chomsky is no Martin Luther King. They come instead for his morality, his reason, his tenacity, and his tireless struggle to improve the human condition.

Much of his political writing has been devoted to a scathing critique of American imperialism, and especially the way that the intellectuals - those he calls the "secular priesthood" - have served the establishment by writing what is in essence propaganda. His earliest work, American Power and the New Mandarins, addressed this theme, and his argument was founded on a meticulous reading of official documents, one of his hallmarks. Propaganda is a wicked abuse of language - which his linguistics teachings suggest is a mechanism of human freedom - and a form of brutality. In a later study, Manufacturing Consent, he observed that "propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism".

Chomsky has been a thorn in the side of every administration since the early 1960s, and a vehement opponent of Henry Kissinger, who this week received an honorary knighthood at Buckingham Palace. The outrage is still there. As he says: "One of the few things Kissinger understands about international relations is that if you are the one with the clenched fist, if the other side is defenceless, you can beat him up." But he does not reserve his criticism for the Republicans. For him, Republicans and Democrats are "basically one party", something he reinforces by referring to Richard Nixon as "the last liberal president" and to Jimmy Carter as a conservative who "came in with Reaganite policies".

Although his parents were "normal Roosevelt Democrats", Chomsky has never been persuaded by political parties. "I'm not much of a joiner," he says. If anything, he prefers the term "libertarian socialist". This independence has continued during the Clinton years. Like every other post-war president - who Chomsky says would all have been hanged if the Nuremburg laws had been applied - Clinton "has made it very clear that he wants to be hanged too". The "bomb the Serbs" policy in Bosnia is all too typical of American foreign policy generally. "We're happy to kill from a safe distance," he notes, "but that's it."

The imperial, superpower mentality is something Chomsky despises. "I don't think there should be dominant powers in the world," he says. This means he is critical not only of American treatment of Somalia and Haiti, but also of Britain. Drawing on his unparalleled knowledge of government papers, he reveals that the "special relationship" has never been appreciated on the other side of the Atlantic, that American administrations think that "as one of Kennedy's top advisers put it, 'England is our lieutenant but the fashionable word is partner'".

Chomsky still focuses on foreign policy. Much of his London speech last week was given over to exposing the crimes of US administrations. But increasingly, domestic issues are looming large because "these hit people where it hurts". He makes it plain that he is not "un-American", stressing that the "US is - in many non-trivial respects - the most free and democratic society in the world". Yet he is now observing trends which show that the country is "moving in directions which people ought to be very worried about".

In his Westminster speech, he pointed to the sense of disillusionment in the United States, suggesting that "you probably have to go back to Europe after the Black Death to find something similar". The audience laughed. But they soon quietened down when he added "I'm not joking". Down the line from Cambridge, he said life in the United States during this supposed New World Order is fast deteriorating: "Walk around any American city and it begins to look like a third world city. Inequality is increasing very rapidly. There is tremendous opulence, but this is narrowly concentrated. The mass of the population is literally sinking." The consequent fear, the lack of hope, these are engendering extremism and fundamentalism - which explains the private militias and the Oklahoma bombing, and even the cults and the Waco massacre. As he puts it: "Religious fanaticism in the United States is probably beyond anything in the world."

The federal government can be blamed. But Chomsky also blames the all-powerful corporate and financial sectors, which will be the subject of his next book, out later this year and provisionally titled Roll Back. As he explains: "There has been a recognition on the part of the very powerful sectors that they have the population by the throat. They have an opportunity not just to fight a holding action against the increase of human rights and labour rights and democracy, but actually to roll it back and to restore the utopia of the masters of the kind that was dreamed of in the 1820s."

It is sometimes easy to think that Chomsky is himself pursuing a utopian perfection, that he is unreasonably suspicious of everyone in power. But he rejects any suggestion that he is demanding too much: "I don't see why human decency is not a practical possibility. There's nothing utopian about trying to improve destructive and arrogant and murderous actions." It is this straightforward appeal to man's humanity - echoing his hero Russell's ambition of "making the world as a whole happier, less cruel, less full of conflict between rival greeds, and more full of human beings whose growth has not been dwarfed and stunted by oppression" - which makes Noam Chomsky still such a magnetic political figure.

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