This is meant as a look at some of the areas where Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti differ most visibly in their analysis and biases. Given their similarities, comparing the two provides a rare opportunity at substitution analysis: to quote Chomsky himself, “you can’t do experiments in history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us.” In short, the differences in Chomsky versus Parenti’s positions makes for a useful case study in what ideas genuinely make one a candidate for marginalization, versus what ideas are actually quite acceptable despite their transgressive veneers. Click here for an all-in-one post.
When Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was just Vladimir Ulyanov, the future revolutionary saw a world riven by class exploitation. In his eyes, predatory colonial wars and the robbery of the workers by their masters shared a root cause, which was the existence of a small ruling class that enjoyed great wealth by exploiting the masses. In his text What Is To Be Done?, the answer to the eponymous question was Marxism, spread amongst the workers by a vanguard party. This party would lead a proletarian revolution and create a state in which “all power belongs to the working people,” as defined by the future Soviet constitution. On the same question, Noam Chomsky is typically vague, generally answering with some form of “become an activist.” However, he is unequivocal that those seeking to change the world should not do what Lenin and the Bolsheviks did.
Noam Chomsky is, according to Stephen Gowans, “an endless source of slurs against Leninism, which he equates with ‘counterrevolution,’ a heterodox view of what revolution is.” Gowans further argues that “Chomsky has enormous respect for those who have failed at revolution, and enormous contempt for those who have succeeded.” While it is true that Chomsky has provided a very good defense of the People’s Republic of China, it is also true that he has spent a great deal of his career blasting the USSR. In the course of his career, many listeners have heard the litany of Western horrors enumerated by Chomsky and asked him why conscientious people should not organize along Marxist lines. Notable communist achievements in the realm of anti-imperialism include Lenin’s theoretical work on Empire, the USSR’s support for decolonization and national liberation movements worldwide, Cuba and North Korea’s support of post-colonial African nations, and the general discourse around world peace and harmony as the ultimate goal of socialism. Chomsky’s response from a 1989 lecture is a typical one. The professor argues that he has no qualms about agreeing with the mainstream media on the subject of the USSR, adduces Trotsky’s agreement with fascists, and then essentially repeats the mainline anti-Communist narrative. Chomsky claims that Bolshevism was not “mainstream Marxism,” but a “right-wing deviation,” that Lenin devolved from “left-libertarian socialism” that was “closer to the essence of what socialism was understood to be” into an anti-democratic tyrant, that the October revolution “ought to be called a coup,” and that “some of the first [post-Revolutionary] moves” were “opportunistic” power-hungry moves to “destroy socialism.” Essentially, Chomsky argues that the Soviet Union doesn’t merit a socialist defense because it is not socialist. In Chomsky’s eyes, the USSR was just another “totalitarian” state.
Chomsky pursues this line of attack throughout his career. In the Manufacturing Consent documentary, he equates Josephs Stalin and Goebbels. As Michael Parenti writes in his essay “Another View on Chomsky,” “Like Orwell and most bourgeois opinion makers and academics, Chomsky treats Communism and fascism as totalitarian twins, offering no class analysis of either, except to assert that they are both rooted in some unspecified way to today’s corporate domination. In Z Magazine, four years after the Soviet Union had been overthrown, Chomsky warns us of ‘left intellectuals’ who try to ‘rise to power on the backs of mass popular movements’ and ‘then beat the people into submission…You start off as basically a Leninist who is going to be part of the Red bureaucracy. You see later that power doesn’t lie that way, and you very quickly become an ideologist of the Right’.” As in the case of Lenin, the right-wing deviant. And while Chomsky treats communism as identical to fascism, it’s often the case that the worst thing that Chomsky can say about the excesses of the American system is that it resembles communism (as he perceives it). Chomsky criticizes the secret negotiations and lobbying work that went into crafting the Trans-Pacific Partnership as “adopted in good Stalinist style.” Chomsky blasts the mainstream media spectacle surrounding the 1999 NATO aggression against Yugoslavia as “a virtual orgy of self-glorification and awe of power that might have impressed Kim Il-Sung.”
Chomsky’s class-free conflation of communism and fascism is a continual feature of his work. In a subsequent Z Magazine article on “Market Democracy in a Neoliberal Order,” Chomsky again claims that the configuration of modern corporations links socialism to the Nazis: “The intellectual backgrounds for granting such extraordinary rights to ‘collectivist legal entities’ lie in neo-Hegelian doctrines that also underlie Bolshevism and fascism.” Now, I’m as ill-equipped to discuss “neo-Hegelian doctrines” as I am to analyze what strand (or deviation) of Marxism was practiced by Lenin, but I do know history, and Chomsky is espousing a thoroughly ahistorical perspective on the relationship between fascism and capitalism, or fascism and liberalism. The ruling classes in various powers have often enjoyed the utility that fascism serves against restive working class elements. In speeches like “The Functions of Fascism” and “The Real Causes of World War II,” Parenti elaborates on this through substantive historical exegesis. Parenti explains why the US, UK, and France chose to reject Stalin’s offer of an anti-fascist alliance, and how rich industrialists throughout the West benefited from fascist strikebreakers. Not for nothing does Martin Niemöller’s famous poem begin with “first they came for the Socialists…” There are mountains of historical evidence that capitalist states tolerate or even prefer fascism in times of crisis—admiration which is often reciprocated, as in the case of Adolf Hitler drawing inspiration for Nazi race laws from Western colonialism and Jim Crow. The latter is one of the comparisons made by Domenico Losurdo in his text “Stalin and Hitler: Twin Brothers or Mortal Enemies?,” which finds in favor of the latter interpretation by marshalling a great deal of evidence, in stark contrast to Chomsky’s vague references to “neo-Hegelian doctrines.” In fact, Chomsky’s conception of modern corporatism as a truly bad kind of capitalism places him in the company of doctrinaire liberals, who argue that capitalism was mostly fine until Ronald Reagan came and ruined it. Chomsky’s claims that American democracy has become unmoored and is “drifting” towards plutocracy situates his criticism as a liberal one—the idea that a country born as slaveholding settler-colonial empire could function in an essentially benign way is plenty of things, but socialist is not on the list.
In post-9/11 editions of Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, the “anti-communism” filter has been updated to “counter-terrorism” for the War on Terror era. This might seem a reasonable enough change, though it now aligns communism with both the nihilistic killings of al Qaeda as well as Nazism. However, two articles in 2015 show that Chomsky’s tweak to Manufacturing Consent might have some shortcomings. First was the article “Flakes Alive!” in Baffler magazine, deriding the “truthers, tankies, and tofu” that ruin socialism for decent Democrats. By way of smearing these “flakes” at New York’s annual Left Forum, the author identified the “wackjob nadir” as a panel that “featured at least one ‘tankie,’ slang for Soviet apologist, or actual Stalinist.” Left Forum bills itself as the “largest annual conference of a broad spectrum of left and progressive intellectuals, activists, academics, organizations and the interested public.” Left Forum is the largest conference for Leftists, but even a single defender of the Soviet Union is outré enough to earn smears from even a progressivey-leftish publication. The USSR was both the first large-scale experiment in a worker’s state, and the largest socialist nation in the world—why shouldn’t defenders of the Soviet Union, even defenders of Stalin, be present at such a gathering, numbering in the dozens or the hundreds? Unlike communists, discouraged even from attending something called “Left Forum,” terrorists will get bylines depending on political expediency. In July 2015, as part of a wider Western rebranding effort, a representative of the bin Ladenist group and al Qaeda-ally Ahrar al-Sham was invited to make his organization’s case at length in The Washington Post. So a decade and a half into the War on Terror, the media is still more comfortable with terrorists than they are with communists, even a quarter-century after the end of the Soviet Union. In fact, even al Qaeda-types get their own bylines when they are aligned with the goals of the US State Department. Just as fascists have historically been used by capitalists as strikebreakers and shock troops, so have Western governments utilized terrorist groups as proxies. As in the case of fascism, though, the relationship of the ruling class to various reactionary paramilitaries only figures into Chomsky’s speechifying when he is listing a disempoweringly long list of atrocious hypocrisies. Due to the professor’s anti-communism, “terrorism” is merely another totalitarian category along with Marxism-Leninism.
Chomsky’s virulent anti-communism is said to be an outcome of his “anarchist” politics. Chomsky often describes himself as a “libertarian socialist” who opposes any form of coercion. Since Chomsky purports to believe that “the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them” (like any anarchist), the professor claims that his ideal government configuration is an anarcho-syndicalist configuration, like those in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. It isn’t true that Chomsky dismisses all unjust forms of oppression—the professor displays a stunning glibness on the subject of eating meat, demonstrating a lack of knowledge with even the basics of animal exploitation or the voluntary nature of carnivorism. Kevin Dooley also explains that Chomsky’s anti-imperialism is situated in a nation-based critique, rather than a class-based one. This comports with the largely class-free analysis that brings Chomsky to embrace the Inept Empire theory. This is significant, since a class-based perspective is the cornerstone of socialism, libertarian or otherwise. Chomsky’s advocacy for voting for the Democratic party—so-called “lesser-evilism”—is also a ratification of certain power structures. His anti-communism, which conflates communism with Nazism, precludes him from similar advocacy in defense of actually existing socialism. However, for all his talk of American horrors, Chomsky suggests a tactical alliance with certain perpetrators of these crimes. In his essential text “Left Anti-Communism: the Unkindest Cut,” Parenti points out that
Left anticommunists find any association with communist organizations to be morally unacceptable because of the “crimes of communism.” Yet many of them are themselves associated with the Democratic Party in this country, either as voters or members, seemingly unconcerned about the morally unacceptable political crimes committed by leaders of that organization. Under one or another Democratic administration, 120,000 Japanese Americans were torn from their homes and livelihoods and thrown into detention camps; atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with an enormous loss of innocent life; the FBI was given authority to infiltrate political groups; the Smith Act was used to imprison leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and later on leaders of the Communist Party for their political beliefs; detention camps were established to round up political dissidents in the event of a “national emergency”; during the late 1940s and 1950s, eight thousand federal workers were purged from government because of their political associations and views, with thousands more in all walks of life witchhunted out of their careers; the Neutrality Act was used to impose an embargo on the Spanish Republic that worked in favor of Franco’s fascist legions; homicidal counterinsurgency programs were initiated in various Third World countries; and the Vietnam War was pursued and escalated. And for the better part of a century, the Congressional leadership of the Democratic Party protected racial segregation and stymied all anti-lynching and fair employment bills. Yet all these crimes, bringing ruination and death to many, have not moved the liberals, the social democrats, and the “democratic socialist” anticommunists to insist repeatedly that we issue blanket condemnations of either the Democratic Party or the political system that produced it, certainly not with the intolerant fervor that has been directed against existing communism.
Like the other left anti-communists, while Chomsky tolerates these Democratic horrors, the actions of socialist People’s Democracies are too horrifying to support in even an anguished manner. Chomsky supports a tactical alliance with liberalism, but never such a tactical alliance with Bolshevism. Chomsky concedes, for instance, that the treatment of Latin Americans by the US is worse than what many suffered under the USSR, going so far as to claim that “Soviet dominion was in fact that unique historical perversity, an empire in which the center bled itself for the sake of its colonies, or rather, for the sake of tranquility in those colonies.” Had Chomsky been more open to the work of Lenin, he may have concluded that exploitation of colonies is a sine qua non of empire. However, the facts often do not compel a reassessment of what constitute the “lesser evil.”
Marxist critics like Michael Parenti and Stephen Gowans argue that contemporary anti-communism is closer to a religion than a concrete analytical framework. In “Left Anti-Communism,” Parenti claims that “Many on the US Left have exhibited a Soviet bashing and Red baiting that matches anything on the Right in its enmity and crudity. Listen to Noam Chomsky [whose] imagery is heavily indebted to the same US corporate political culture he so frequently criticizes on other issues.” Calling Chomsky “an inexhaustible fount of anticommunist caricatures,” Parenti takes Chomsky and others to task for cheering the end of the USSR: “In [Chomsky’s] mind, the revolution was betrayed by a coterie of ‘communist thugs” who merely hunger for power rather than wanting the power to end hunger. In fact, the communists did not ‘very quickly’ switch to the Right but struggled in the face of a momentous onslaught to keep Soviet socialism alive for more than seventy years. To be sure, in the Soviet Union’s waning days some, like Boris Yeltsin, crossed over to capitalist ranks, but others continued to resist free-market incursions at great cost to themselves, many meeting their deaths during Yeltsin’s violent repression of the Russian parliament in 1993.”
In contrast to Chomsky and the other left anticommunists who celebrated the dissolution of the USSR (against the wishes of three-quarters its people), Parenti presents the end of socialism in Europe as the beginning of a great tragedy. In his speech “Reflections on the Overthrow of Communism,” Parenti describes the service to foreign investors rendered by Boris Yeltsin and his government and what a catastrophe it was for the Russian people. Indeed, under the neoliberal pillage of the former USSR, the most conservative UNICEF estimates hold that 3.5 million citizens were killed Union-wide (A Bureau of Medical Journalism report puts the number at 5 million Russians alone). In a class-based analysis one will never find reading Chomsky, Parenti connects the end of the USSR to the decline of social democracy in North America and Western Europe. As Stephen Gowans points out, “The Soviet Union was a concrete example of what a publicly owned, planned economy could produce: full employment, guaranteed pensions, paid maternity leave, limits on working hours, free healthcare and education (including higher education), subsidized vacations, inexpensive housing, low-cost childcare, subsidized public transportation, and rough income equality.” This provided what Michael Parenti calls “the threat of a good example.” Parenti says
One of the things that helped workers win concessions was ‘the threat of communism.’ The pressure of being in competition with socialist nations for the allegiance of peoples at home and abroad helped to set limits on how thoroughly Western leaders dared to mistreat their own working populations…That competition also helped the civil rights struggle. During the 1950s and 1960s, when US leaders were said to be competing with Moscow for the hearts and minds of non-white in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, it was considered imperative that we rid ourselves of Jim Crow and grant equality to people of color in the US…With the overthrow of socialism in 1989-91, transnational corporate capitalism now seemed to have its grip on the entire globe. Yet an impatient plaint soon could be detected in conservative publications. It went something like this: ‘If everywhere socialism is being rolled back by the free market, why is there no rollback here in the United States? Why do we have to continue tolerating all sorts of collectivist regulations and services?’
The brutality of neoliberalism and the evisceration of Western welfare systems are not the result of an aberrant version of capitalism, but the end of socialism’s “good example.” Gowans quotes Joseph Stalin, who issued a prophetic warning in 1954: “What would happen if capitalism succeeded in smashing the Republic of Soviets? There would set in an era of the blackest reaction in all the capitalist and colonial countries. The working class and the oppressed peoples would be seized by the throat, the positions of international communism would be lost.” Stalin’s prediction came true, though one isn’t likely to know it from reading Chomsky. Unlike Marxist critics writing in relative obscurity, Chomsky sees profound national divisions between the workers of different states.
All of this—his comfort with liberalism and the Democratic part, his mostly class-free analysis, his tolerance of numerous hierarchical forms of oppression, his deference to American nationalist mythology—beg the question about what sort of “libertarian socialist” Chomsky is. These factors on aggregate support the idea that Chomsky is hardly an anarchist at all, but rather a social democrat with an atypically lucid critique of America’s foreign policy and corporate media.
In 2011, Noam Chomsky criticized his friend and fan Hugo Chávez for “possibly” assaulting Venezuelan democracy and veering too close to a “pathology of caudillismo.” In the face of criticism by supporters of the Bolivarian revolution, Chomsky and Media Lens criticized The Guardian for a “dishonest” and “deceptive” misrepresentation. However, as Stephen Gowans points out, there was nothing dishonest or deceptive about The Guardian’s reporting; Chomsky did indeed make the case that the Chávez administration was veering towards authoritarianism. Chomsky’s description of Chávez’s putative caudillismo is shot-through with the same anti-communist non-analysis that hobbles his discussion of actually existing socialism. Chomsky claims that “anywhere in Latin America there is a potential threat of the pathology of caudillismo,” situating the pathology of a certain type of strongman as something immanent to that part of the world. What makes a caudillo so unique to Latin America—is it the caudillo’s hat, or his love of cigars? Chomsky doesn’t say what makes the Spanish-speaking world such fertile ground for this kind of tyranny. Instead, one is left to wonder if it’s more of Chomsky’s frequent nation-based rather than class-based analysis, along with the anti-communist nonsense that would equate a democratic socialist like Chávez with the brutal fascist dictators of Operation Condor. For someone who could probably give a rough history of every US intervention in Latin America, from the first Northern filibusters to Honduras, 2009—and include everyone from Jacobo Arbenz to Salvador Allende—Chomsky seems unwilling to make any concessions to the reality of imperial meddling. The degree to which a state uses its productive forces for the betterment of its people, rather than foreign investors, is the degree to which it will find itself under attack. As Jean Bricmont writes in Humanitarian Imperialism “If it is true, as often said, that most socialist regimes turn out to be dictatorships that is largely because a dictatorship is much harder to overthrow or subvert than a democracy. It follows that the repeated assaults by the Western ruling classes against every form of socialism have provoked a sort of artificial selection that allows only dictatorial forms to survive” (p. 47). However, as accurate as Bricmont may be, it has remained the case that elections in 21st century Venezuela are very free, and Chomsky is essentially repeating State Department propaganda in the first place. Gowans continues:
it doesn’t take a high-profile intellectual of Chomsky’s caliber to figure out that the establishment press will use all the ammunition it can lay its hands on to vilify Chavez, and the best ammunition of all is that which comes from the Left. It’s one thing for a US state official to raise concerns about Chavez. You expect it. It’s quite another for a leftist intellectual to do the same. It’s hard to swallow the canard that poor old Noam–whose understanding of the media is second to none–blindly stumbled into an ambush…hadn’t the co-author of Manufacturing Consent figured this out long ago?
I think it would be fair to suppose he has. That he went ahead anyway, and allowed the press to add his criticisms of Chavez to what he himself calls the “vicious, unremitting attack by the United States and the west generally” on Venezuela, could mean one of two things.
Either Chomsky is a press-hound. Or he’s not as much of a friend of Chavez as Carroll–and a good number of leftists-think. Or both.
When the people who own everything are interested in selling something to the rest of us, they go through media proxies. These vectors deliver the desired messages to their target audiences, and these vectors are salespeople chosen for their appeal to the demographic. The same principles apply for selling anything; Breaking Bad delivers viewers who are interested in stories of entrepreneurial artisanal craftsmen to advertisers the same way Barack Obama delivered progressive college students to Wall Street and the Pentagon. As a perceptive media critic, Noam Chomsky understands this, explaining that the ruling class requires:
something to tame the bewildered herd and that is public relations or manufactured consent… the media, the schools, the popular culture has to divide for the political class… it has to instill the proper beliefs. And if the specialized class (politicians and media figures) can come along and say ‘I will serve your interests’ (to the elites) then they will be allowed to be part of that group…. that means they have to have instilled in them the beliefs and the doctrines that will serve the interests of private power. Unless they can master that skill they are not part of the specialized class.
However, Chomsky typically exempts himself from this system and the specialized class that serves elite interests—proving once again Tarzie’s contention that “I don’t think Chomsky gets how Chomsky applies to Chomsky.” From his strident left anti-communism, it’s clear that one of the services Chomsky renders is selling unrelenting enmity for actually existing socialism to his readers. As Stephen Gowans observes, “If we were to follow his lead and emulate the failures, while eschewing the successes, we would be sure to arrive at…a political dead-end.” All the more reason for Chomsky to enjoy such a prominent platform. This is in stark contrast to Michael Parenti, who defends socialism—the system that capitalists fear the most, since it has the power to erase the privileges and plenty they enjoy at the expense of humanity.