Noam Chomsky and the Compatible Left, Part I

Noam Chomsky recently took to the pages of The Intercept to give his blessing to the US military’s occupation of Syria, solidifying his support for the Pentagon after years of having done so in slightly more anguished terms. As far as the occupation, the only concession to what might once have been considered “Leftist” values is the MIT professor’s acknowledgement that the US is motivated by “power considerations” rather than “humanitarian objectives.” Today, the brief nod to realpolitik is what’s supposed to pass for a progressive anti-war stance.

The Intercept is really a natural fit for Chomsky to deliver this message. The nonagenarian professor has limited years left on earth, and when he passes, Glenn Greenwald and Pierre Omidyar’s website will probably become the new face of the permissible Left. That Chomsky lends his radical imprimatur to a US military occupation in its pages is a testament to what kind of a “Left” Chomsky has helped to create and is bequeathing to Greenwald and Omidyar.

To get an idea of the before-and-after picture, consider two recent pieces from Alfred McCoy, a historian who, like Chomsky, has produced radical scholarship for almost half a century. McCoy has done some of the best work on the CIA’s role in the global heroin trade, the relationship between foreign counterinsurgency and domestic policing, and the United States’ peerless role in developing and exporting new forms of torture. McCoy claims that while researching his landmark book The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, he came under attack by CIA mercenaries; after its publication, McCoy was monitored by the CIA and audited by the IRS, and ultimately had to move to Australia for 11 years in order to keep working. Here is part of a 2015 article on American hegemony, where McCoy explains how the US’s superpower status shares DNA with Nazi Germany and what effects this has had on the world:

So the United States, as the planet’s last superpower or, in Schmitt’s terms, its global sovereign, has in these years repeatedly ignored international law, following instead its own unwritten rules of the road for the exercise of world power. Just as Schmitt’s sovereign preferred to rule in a state of endless exception without a constitution for his Reich, so Washington is now well into the second decade of an endless War on Terror that seems the sum of its exceptions to international law: endless incarceration, extrajudicial killing, pervasive surveillance, drone strikes in defiance of national boundaries, torture on demand, and immunity for all of the above on the grounds of state secrecy. Yet these many American exceptions are just surface manifestations of the ever-expanding clandestine dimension of the American state. Created at the cost of more than a trillion dollars since 9/11, the purpose of this vast apparatus is to control a covert domain that is fast becoming the main arena for geopolitical contestation in the twenty-first century.

Much of the torture that became synonymous with the era of authoritarian rule in Asia and Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s seems to have originated in U.S. training programs that provided sophisticated techniques, up-to-date equipment, and moral legitimacy for the practice… CIA interrogation training became synonymous with serious human rights abuses, particularly in Iran, the Philippines, South Vietnam, Brazil, and Uruguay.

The previous segment is in line with the bulk of his scholarship. Now here are some conclusions from McCoy’s 2017 Intercept interview with co-founder Jeremy Scahill, on the subject of America’s imperial decline and the rise of a multipolar world:

The British empire was relatively benign. Yes, it was a global power, there were many excesses, many incidents, one can go on, but when it was all over, they left the Westminster system of parliament, they left the global language, they left a global economy, they left a culture of sports, they created artifacts like the BBC.

So the US empire has been, and we’ve had our excesses, Vietnam, we could go on. Afghanistan. There are many problems with the U.S. exercise of its power but we have stood for human rights, the world has had 70 years of relative peace and lots of medium size wars but nothing like World War I and World War II… Our successor powers, China and Russia, are authoritarian regimes. Russia’s autocratic, China’s a former communist regime. They stand for none of these liberal principles.

So you’ll have the realpolitik exercise of power, all the downsides with none of the upsides, with none of the positive development. I mean we’ve stood for women’s rights [note: Russia passed women’s suffrage 3 years before the US], for gay rights [Russia legalized gay sex 10 years before the US], for human progress [Russia has a higher literacy rate than the US], for democracy [Russia extended the franchise universally 48 years before the US]. You know we’ve been flawed in efficacy, but we’ve stood for those principles and we have advanced them. So we have been, on the scale of empires, comparatively benign and beneficent. And I don’t think the succeeding powers are going to be that way.

Getting radical scholars—and scholars with radical reputations—to sound like they’re writing for Foreign Affairs magazine is very much The Intercept’s stock-in-trade. “The day after Trump threatened to militarily intervene in Venezuela,” writes Stansfield Smith, “Jeremy Scahill posted his interview with Eva Golinger on The Intercept. Venezuelan-American lawyer Eva Golinger, the author of The Chávez Code: Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela, is known as an outstanding defender of Venezuela during the Chavez era. She hardly goes as far in anti-Maduro criticisms as Scahill, who may fit what Shamus Cooke characterized as ‘the intellectually lazy ‘pox on both houses’ approach that has long-infected the U.S. left,’” according to Smith. “Yet within her valuable analysis, and precisely because of her valuable analysis, both in the interview and in her article Golinger makes some statements that require correction,” he wrote, enumerating 11 points where Golinger provided Washington-friendly misrepresentations of the Venezuelan government. She responded with the popular twofer of claiming lived experience and accusing her critic of hating women.

The billionaire-owned publication is just the latest loudest voice among the permissible “Left,” an ecosystem of which Chomsky is still the most recognizable face. Since the late 1960s, Chomsky has both reflected and shaped this milieu. A reverent 1997 book on the MIT professor written by Robert Barsky, which advertises itself as the closest thing we’ll get to a Chomsky autobiography, contains a major section titled “the Milieu Chomsky Helped to Create,” attesting to the professor’s privileged place in this world. If one considers radical according to its true definition—solving a problem by striking at its root—then it is a world of dissenters who are less radical than ever.

The “Left” has taken quite a journey from the 1960s, the beginning of Chomsky’s career as a political commentator, to now. During that time, what people perceive as “the Left” transformed from something which was usually opposed to the status quo and genuinely radical into something more like what CIA official Cord Meyer called the “compatible left,” an agglomeration of “liberals and pseudo-intellectual status seekers who are easily influenced” by the elites that they purport to challenge, in the words of Doug Valentine. One of the primary purposes of “courting the compatible left,” according to Valentine, was to “court Socialists away from Communists” and into safe channels. Chomsky is a uniquely useful figure for demonstrating how these changes happened, although his more recent work owes a great debt to Barack Obama. The latter’s presidency was a powerful fulcrum for shifting the wider culture of left-liberalism—of which Chomsky is an avatar and gatekeeper—far to the right.

Both have played large roles in turning the Western “Left” into what it is today.

What Made Radicals Radical? What Made “the Left” Leftist?

But before delving more into what America’s most famous dissident is saying now, it’s necessary to get a general sense of the radical political ecosystem in the late 1960s—the point at which Chomsky began his ascent to national prominence. One of the reasons why revolution seemed not only possible but, to many, even inevitable was due to the diverse network of interests and progressive groups working towards similar goals. The radical coalition included a substantial left-liberal milieu of which Chomsky would eventually become the pre-eminent figurehead.

There are plenty of left-liberal activists from the era who can make for a useful case study in taking the temperature of this milieu, but Carl Oglesby might be the most illuminating. Oglesby was a labor activist who became a president of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Like Chomsky, he also published books and articles of political analysis, and like Chomsky, he identified as a non-Marxist Leftist. In his 1967 essay “Vietnamese Crucible, he called for activists to look beyond the “socialist radical, the corporatist conservative, and the welfare-state liberal” and seek answers from the traditions of “American democratic populism” and “the American libertarian right.”1 “Crucible” was a 170-page analysis of American capitalism and imperialism, particularly as it related to Vietnam and the Cold War, the “first major statement in book form from the ‘New Left.’” Unlike Chomsky, Oglesby’s eminence as a radical analyst and scholar was due to his status as a movement leader, not due to his elevation by ruling class institutions like the New York Review of Books and MIT.

Oglesby described himself as a “radical centrist” and a “centrist libertarian.” He delves into this in his memoirs, where he describes his political beliefs and says that they make him “a centrist rather than a typical New Leftist.”2 “Chomsky is regularly identified by the media as a prominent anarchist/libertarian communist/anarcho-syndicalist (pick as many as you like),” observes one of Chomsky’s many chroniclers. “More importantly he places himself within this political spectrum.”3 But it would be the height of idealism to put stock in the idea that people’s self-professed political identities carry much weight. There are all sorts of reasons why someone would fail to correctly situate themselves politically, beyond just being incorrect. In 2008, when the Bush brand was radioactive, Bill O’Reilly called himself an anarchist, too. Filmmaker John Milius describes himself as either an anarchist or a fascist depending on his mood. Tim Allen recently said that he’s not really a Trump supporter per se, more of “kind of an Anarchist.”

Yet despite Oglesby’s self-identification, his place in the struggle caused him to develop the sort of organically materialist thinking that comes from marrying objective study to revolutionary action. In the pages of his seminal 1976 book The Yankee and Cowboy War, which remains one of the best books on America’s ruling classes, he ended up sounding like a Communist:

The distinction between the East Coast monopolist and the Western tycoon entrepreneur is the main class-economic distinction set out by the Yankee/Cowboy perspective. It arises because one naturally looks for a class-economic basis for this apparent conflict at the summit of American power. That is because one must assume that parties without a class-economic base could not endure struggle at that height.

The whole thrust of the Yankee/Cowboy interpretation…posits a divided social-historical American order, conflict-wracked and dialectical rather than serene and hierarchical, in which results constantly elude every faction’s intentions because all conspire against each and each against all.

Also worth quoting is Oglesby’s dissection of a piece by liberal columnist Andrew St. George, who purports to explain Vietnam and Watergate through psycho-history and “inept empire” bumbling:

St. George knows or surmises that a conflict shoots through the CIA, through the presidency, through the entire executive system, and that effective presidential command and control are the more deeply in doubt the deeper one goes into the heart of the national defense and security establishments. Then why try to explain breakdowns, when they occur, as though they were the result of “turning away from reality, from empirical data, provable facts, rational truth, toward image-making and self-deception?” Why ignore the overwhelming differentials of policy and faction at play in these breakdowns? It is not Nixon himself, the Joint Chiefs, or the CIA whom Nixon, the Chiefs, and the CIA are deceiving, it is only ordinary people. Nixon knew he was secretly bombing Cambodia. The Joint Chiefs knew they were secretly bombing exempted targets in North Vietnam. The defense and security establishment knew that “peace with honor” was a slogan with a hatch in the bottom, and that the “peace mandate” Nixon would secure with it was prestructured for easy transmutation into a war mandate. Watergate cannot be reduced to a question of Nixon’s personal psychology. He was not deceiving himself, only others. He was not deceiving his class.

Whatever words he chose to describe himself, Oglesby’s analysis was moving towards something objectively Marxist, because his radical movement necessitated a Marxist analysis if there was any hope of understanding reality accurately, acting on it, and then changing it. Oglesby’s work is a useful lesson in how the nature of the era’s liberatory struggles forced even the “centrists” to act and think in a substantively radical way if they wanted to be effective instead of irrelevant.

The nature of the struggle meant that plenty of revolutionaries ended up following similar intellectual paths. Malcolm X began his adult life as a petty criminal before gaining what the Nation of Islam called knowledge of self and joining the conservative black nationalist NOI. But his revolutionary work was a liberation struggle and not an academic exercise, so as theory was tested and revised, X came to sound like a Communist. “Show me a capitalist and I’ll show you a bloodsucker,” he said in 1964 after returning from his final trip to Africa. He even delivered lessons in dialectical and historical materialism, like “Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture… It’s only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.” He explained the base-superstructure relationship in terms that anyone could understand, analogizing capitalism surrendering white supremacy or evolving into socialism as akin to a chicken laying a duck egg: “A chicken just doesn’t have it in it to produce a duck egg. It can’t do it. […] The system in this country cannot produce freedom for the Afro-American. It is impossible, period.”4 He came to see race and class as interlinked, and explained that the annihilation of white supremacy would not come without the end of capitalism, as he said in a speech delivered 3 days before his murder: “It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of black and white, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.”5 This was increasingly common. In response to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, where King connected imperialism abroad to white supremacy at home, an FBI memorandum warned that King’s condemnation was “a direct parallel of the communist position on Vietnam.”6

The subtitle to Oglesby’s The Yankee and Cowboy War is Conspiracies from Dallas and Beyond. The book is a thoroughly researched and compellingly argued analysis of America’s two main ruling class power blocs, what he terms the “Yankees” of the Eastern establishment and the newer, more petty-bourgeois “Cowboys” of the South and Sun Belt economies. Like hundreds of other researchers, Oglesby believed that a coalition of reactionary interests orchestrated a coup in Dealey Plaza, and he posits numerous major events in then-recent history as battles in this war between the ruling blocs.

At that point in time, there was no overwhelming stigma associated with what is today termed “conspiracy theorism,” partially because there was so much evidence of covert action. Author and researcher Peter Dale Scott uses the term “deep politics” or “parapolitics” to describe the political forces that act under the surface of the everyday public political procedures. Oglesby elaborates:

We see the expressions and symptoms of clandestine America in a dozen places now—the FBI’s COINTELPRO scheme, the CIA’s Operation Chaos, the Pentagon’s Operation Garden Plot, the large-scale and generally successful attempts to destroy legitimate and essential dissent in which all the intelligence agencies participated, a campaign whose full scope and fury are still not revealed. We see it in the ruthlessness and indifference to world, as well as national, opinion with which the CIA contracted its skills out to ITT to destroy democracy’s last little chance in Chile. We see it as well, as this book argues, in the crime and cover-up of Dealey Plaza, the crime and cover-up of Watergate.

Clandestinism is not the usage of a handful of rogues, it is a formalized practice of an entire class in which a thousand hands spontaneously join. Conspiracy is the normal continuation of normal politics by normal means.

In 1991 there was a surge of interest in the JFK assassination due to Oliver Stone’s film JFK. A couple years later, Chomsky responded with the strange statement that “the left has just been torn to shreds because they see CIA conspiracies… secret governments [behind] the Kennedy assassination. This kind of stuff has just wiped out a large part of the left.” As is the case when he’s counseling compliance, Chomsky provides no evidence to support his claim.

The idea that theories not accepted by the mainstream media should be ignored is a recurrent theme with America’s greatest dissident. But during the 1960s and ‘70s, plenty of radicals and left-liberals engaged in good research and analysis of covert action and weren’t afraid to propose conclusions based on the evidence. Dalton Trumbo used the work of two major conspiracy researchers as the basis for a proto-JFK titled Executive Action, released in 1973. In a making-of documentary about the film, Executive Producer Edward Lewis and star Burt Lancaster discuss what brought them to the film. What they have to say illustrates both that it was even possible for a political radical to influence mainstream tastemakers, and that those mainstream figures were more willing and able to consider unsanctioned narratives about the world:

Lancaster: The subject matter, and the possibility of saying that a conspiracy was the result of the president’s death was a little shocking to me. It was something I didn’t want to believe.

Lewis: We then arranged a meeting for him, Trumbo, and myself. Dalton told him how he became converted to believing in the film, gave him the books. Burt, who’s a very serious actor, began reading.

Lancaster: And slowly I began to develop the feeling that there was a very strong possibility on the basis of the evidence and the things that I read, that Kennedy could very well have been killed by a conspiracy.

Mae Brussell, the era’s most prominent left-liberal anti-fascist conspiracy researcher, said that analysis of the Kennedy assassination had a major effect on opening up the field of radical analysis. “If Kennedy’s assassination had one purpose, it may have been to open up the field of muckraking and exposing, because from the time of World War I up through Kennedy’s death, so many, many crimes and murders were done and covered up. But this might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Alternative theories about the Kennedy assassination were so common that the CIA invented the “conspiracy theory” slur in 1967, in document #1035-960, which proposed using “friendly elite contacts” and “propaganda assets” (their words) in the media to promote that idea that “charges of the critics are without serious foundation, and that further speculative discussion only plays into the hands of the opposition. Point out also that parts of the conspiracy talk appear to be deliberately generated by Communist propagandists. Urge them to use their influence to discourage unfounded and irresponsible speculation” (It’s all very similar language to that used by Cass Sunstein in his 2008 article on combating “conspiracy theories”). “In spite of the risks, assassination is sometimes the most efficient technique for eliminating opponents of the state,” writes Al Szymanski, “The major drawback of assassination is that should it ever be exposed as the work of the state or the capitalist class, a very serious legitimacy crisis could ensue.”7

Speaking about the assassination of JFK, artist/activist Dick Gregory said “If we would like to believe that the FBI would do all this viciousness and all of these things to an individual and would stop short of killing him, then we’re out of our minds. In America today, if we believe the CIA would deal with foreign assassinations and would not consider that at home, that’s like saying ‘the mafia runs crooked gambling tables in South America but honest ones in America.’ It just ain’t true.” Gregory saw no contradiction between theorizing about elite conspiracies based on an analysis of evidence and his wider activist work. He even ran for president in 1968 on a ticket with Mark Lane, author of the JFK conspiracy analysis Rush to Judgment, an act which earned Gregory a spot on Nixon’s enemies list. Gregory and Lane also co-authored a book analyzing the case for Federal involvement in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A jury in a civil trial later found in favor of a conspiracy in the King murder, to no ill-effect on the health or credibility of “the Left.”

This period revealed such conspiracies as the CIA’s wide-ranging involvement in creating front groups to influence, shape, and police the wider radical culture, a conspiracy theory confirmed and elaborated on in publications from Ramparts to Redstockings to The Berkeley Barb. The flagship publication of the underground press, Paul Krassner’s The Realist, was home to Mae Brussell’s column, so readers could see the case for a given conspiracy and derive their own conclusions. Great, substantive radical analysis of covert actions continued into the 1990s through publications like Phil Agee’s CovertAction Information Bulletin, a journal to which Chomsky has himself contributed.

The doctrine of plausible deniability means that we’ll never see an invoice from the Mafia to J. Edgar Hoover for the assassination of Martin Luther King, but since such, yes, conspiracies are part of how the ruling class maintains power, theorizing soundly on them is an essential element of understanding that power. Moreover, disavowing conspiracy analysis altogether opened up an enormous entry point for fascists and other creatures of the extreme-right to successfully vacuum up curious information-seekers.* Noam Chomsky does not explain why, if “conspiracy theories” had such a deleterious effect on “the Left,” the CIA went to such great lengths to stigmatize them. Despite the fact that he’s beaten the “coincidence theory” drums for decades, Chomsky occasionally shows that he really does understand that conspiracies are an essential part of ruling class praxis. He did so in 2017 when he blamed Donald Trump for masterminding false-flag terrorist attacks that hadn’t even happened (if it’s counterproductive to theorize about real events, surely it’s infinitely more foolish to peddle conspiracy theories about imaginary things, as Chomsky did here).

Many more ideas that Chomsky would help turn into “common knowledge” would have looked and sounded very strange to those engaged in the liberation struggles of that era.

Take his instruction for people to vote Democrat, a demand which has gotten so unwavering and tendentious that Chomsky now refuses to brook any argument (observe the note at the top). As the black liberation struggle intensified and moved from seeking legal redress to revolutionary change, movement leaders including Dr. King and Malcolm X identified white liberals and moderates as bigger obstacles to creating a truly democratic society. Malcolm X had for many years thought very little of the various American communist and socialist parties, mostly due to their rejection of the progressive aspects of black nationalism and their advocacy of “lesser evil” alliances with the Democratic Party. X compared taking guidance from groups with these shortcomings to drinking from a bottle with “the skull and crossbones on the label” in 1964.8 That same year, when he was asked about the Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater campaigns, X pointed out that

If Johnson had been running all by himself, he would not have been acceptable to anyone. The only thing that made him acceptable to the world was that the shrewd capitalists, the shrewd imperialists, knew that the only way people would run toward the fox would be if you showed them a wolf. So they created a ghastly alternative. And it had the whole world—including people who call themselves Marxists—hoping that Johnson would beat Goldwater.

I have to say this: Those who claim to be enemies of the system were on their hands and knees waiting for Johnson to get elected—because he is supposed to be a man of peace. And at that moment he had troops invading the Congo and South Vietnam!9

Author and journalist Robert Vernon echoed the sentiment a year later in a critique of a posthumous hatchet-job on Malcolm X written by liberals Bayard Rustin and Tom Kahn:

Note carefully whom Rustin and Kahn single out as enemies. Not the power structure, but the racist power structure, i.e. the Dixiecrats and other who oppose civil rights overtly. These certainly are enemies of black people, but they are not the only enemies we have in this God’s country.

One conspicuous enemy of black people not listed here is His Imperial Highness, Emperor of the Congo, South Vietnam, and the Dominican Republic, and Lord and Master of the Seven Seas and All Shores Adjacent Thereto. Eastland and Goldwater are not the ones who run this racist country, although they do have much to say. They could be considered the enemy only by liberals who are concerned exclusively with integration, civil right, and assimilation of middle-class Negroes into this best of all possible societies.10

When “lesser evilists” talk about a Democratic Party still substantively beholden to America’s working class, they’re describing the party of 50 years ago much more than they are the party of today. But even during this era, the idea that workers owed the Dems their votes, even only for strategic reasons, would have sounded very strange. In May 1968, a month after Dr. King’s assassination, movement leaders went ahead with the Poor Peoples’ March. Only a few years after Lyndon Johnson and a Democratic Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, King’s successor Ralph Abernathy declared “We have been taught by 200 and 5 years of bitter experience that we cannot trust the leadership of this nation. We cannot trust the elected representatives of Congress. We cannot trust the Administration, whether Republican or Democrat, to fulfill the promise of America to the disinherited.”11

James Kunen, an SDS activist who chronicled a year of rebellion at Columbia University in 1968, said “I will give [America] one more chance. But if the Democrats do not nominate [Eugene McCarthy], whom against my better judgment I love, or if they do nominate [McCarthy] and he turns out to be what I suspect but won’t admit he is, then I will have no recourse but to acknowledge that democracy is not only dead, but is also not about to be revived through democratic means.12 Another former activist recounts that “Most of us who have built the antiwar movement demonstration by demonstration, dorm meeting after dorm meeting, are so sickened by the corruption of American politics that we refuse to participate” in the 1968 election.

In their book on the Black Panther Party, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. describe what the Democratic Party did next: “At the disastrous Chicago convention in August 1968, the Democratic Party leadership had pushed through a prowar candidate and prowar platform against the will of the Democratic Party base and lost the presidency as a result. But since then, the Democratic Party leadership had increasingly called for an end to the Vietnam War.”13 Regardless, 5 years later, Mae Brussell said “I was a registered Democrat in those days [the Kennedy era]. I wouldn’t support the Democrats now because there is no ‘Democratic’ Party. There’s just one party in Washington and it’s called the Military-Industrial Party.”

During this time, radicals did not look primarily towards the Democratic Party for alliances and inspiration, but to the newly post-colonial world. All this writing and theorizing was in service of revolution, so those who had done so successfully were natural sources for guidance. “They say travel broadens your scope,” Malcolm X told a meeting of the Militant Labor Forum in 1964, “and recently I’ve had an opportunity to do a lot of it in the Middle East and Africa…I noticed that most of the countries that have recently emerged into independence have turned away from the so-called capitalistic system in the direction of socialism.”14 X called the Congo’s first president, Patrice Lumumba, “the greatest black man to ever walk the African continent.” He pointed to the cases of Algeria, Kenya, and China as examples of why armed struggle was the path to liberation. “In late 1964, Malcolm X sought to collaborate with Cuban-Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara in his upcoming secret campaign to assist the Lumumbists in Congo… Malcolm X was attempting to recruit African-American veterans into an ‘Afro-American Brigade’ that would have fought alongside the Cubans and the Congolese in 1965.”

One chronicler notes that in the case of the SDS “early international contacts with representatives of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, the Republic of North Vietnam, Cuba, European Communist parties, and assorted Third World guerrilla groups were important in forging an international perspective for the Movement in its later stages.” A New Republic columnist noted that “the most striking fact about the young radicals was the extent to which they identified with the Viet Cong.”15 Julius Lester, a spokesman for SNCC and speechwriter for Stokely Carmichael, wrote that “we are trying to follow in the footsteps of Lenin, Mao, and Fidel.” Eldridge Cleaver travelled to Cuba, Algeria, China, and North Korea; the Black Panther Party’s required reading list included Malcolm X, Mao, Frantz Fanon, and Che Guevara. “We must establish a true internationalism with other anticolonial peoples,” said George Jackson, “Only then can we expect to be able to seize the power that is rightfully ours, the power to control the circumstances of our day-to-day lives.” “Comrade Che is alive,” wrote Lester after the Argentine’s assassination, “on East 103rd street.”16

In contrast, Chomsky said “Guevara was of no interest to me; this was mindless romanticism, in my view.”17 Speaking of mindless romanticism, even then, as the eyes of Western revolutionaries were looking to Cuba, Africa, and Asia, the professor was pointing to the anarchist Erewhon of Spain circa-1936 as “the most convincing example” how to do revolution—namely, “a very sudden, spontaneous” revolution. In contrast to those post-colonial Third World states beginning the path to self-determination, Chomsky highlighted this lovely sounding place as “a nearly classic example” of non-violent revolution to be emulated, “which was successful at least for a year or two in developing a collective society with mass participation and a very high degree of egalitarianism and even economic success.” These comments were part of a debate with several thinkers including Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag on the subject of non-violence. Unlike the others, Chomsky at least had positive things about the socialist societies being built in China, Vietnam, and Cuba (Arendt said “As to the Viet Cong terror, we cannot possibly agree with it, just as we couldn’t agree with the terror of the National Liberation Army in Algeria. People who did agree with this terror and were only against the French counter-terror, of course, were applying a double standard.” And as liberals know, hypocrisy is the worst crime of all, certainly worse than colonialism). But to have inveighed against these revolutions at this time would have been to lose all credibility in activist circles, which is why you’d be hard-pressed to find revolutionaries of the era who had much interest in the thoughts of Hannah Arendt.

Nevertheless, while making these concessions to prevailing radical sentiment, Chomsky muddied the water quite a bit by using the term “non-violence” interchangeably with the concept of “enjoying popular support” and then proposing that revolution would happen as it “did” in Spain, through “a possibility of spontaneous revolution” which would somehow restrict itself to using violence only in ways that were morally unimpeachable. If so few revolutions conform to the Chomsky template it may be because for the people of Algeria, the Congo, Cuba, and Vietnam, life under imperialism and colonialism was intolerable. They couldn’t wait for morally pure revolutions that erupted everywhere non-hierarchically because they were not making revolutions in heaven, where such ideal conditions are possible. They had to radically change this world under the constraints that existed in real life. Chomsky sometimes invokes anarchish-sounding ideas to compel compliance: when arguing that bombing Libya would be a “humanitarian intervention,” he said “it would be too strong to hold that [the burden of proof for believing the White House] can never be satisfied in principle—unless, of course, we regard nation-states in their current form as essentially holy.” This is a non-sequitur—it does not follow logically that one who doesn’t believe in Western “humanitarian interventions” “regards nation-states as holy,” but it does help Chomsky paint skeptics and anti-imperialists as people motivated by irrational worship of the nation-state.

Towards the end of the discussion, a man in the audience made the points that 1) the Cuban revolution was both violent and enjoyed widespread popular support, 2) the discussion did not touch on the major revolutionary factor in American life, namely black resistance, and 3) the discussion was mostly academic navel-gazing: “It seems to me that until you can begin to show—not in language and not in theory, but in action—that you can put an end to the war in Vietnam, and an end to American racism, you can’t condemn the violence of others who can’t wait for you.” In his hagiography of Chomsky, Robert Barsky muses that the professor’s work “is built upon particular precepts that are explained with regard to individual issues (Vietnam, Cambodia, the Middle East), but that it implicitly poses, without fully answering, questions… Chomsky will not tell us how to act.”18 “[T]he question about which I have least to say…is the question of the forms resistance should take,” the professor said in an article published in December 1967 titled “On Resistance.” Chomsky claimed to agree that the recent Pentagon protests had signaled a shift from “dissent to resistance,” but he was far less clear about what either term actually entailed, other than to say that “resistance requires careful thought, and I do not pretend to have very clear ideas about it.” In this area, Professor Chomsky has provided the most useful framework for understanding the difference between himself and the rest of the radical milieu. Speaking on the subject of scientific inquiry, Chomsky explains the dichotomy between problems and mysteries:

Our ignorance can be divided into problems and mysteries. When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.

For countless activists, changing the world was a problem to be solved. For Chomsky, it was and remains a mystery to bedevil us. For some reason, of all the revolutionaries of the era, the man who would become the face of the Western “Left” was one of the few people who wasn’t grappling with the issue of how to actually make revolution.

And while Chomsky had few ideas about what activists should do, he also differed from his peer group in that he had lots of idea about what activists shouldn’t do. “Dissent and resistance are not alternatives but activities that should reinforce each other,” he said, adding that tax refusal and draft resistance were two acceptable options. However, other than these two techniques, it was still time to mostly talk (“I think it should be emphasized that the days of ‘patiently explain’ are far from over”) and not do anything too extreme (“The argument that resistance to the war should remain strictly nonviolent seems to me overwhelming”). The professor conceded that America’s war machine could theoretically be hampered by non-violent means like strikes and sabotage, but “I am skeptical, however, about their possible effectiveness.” Moreover, direct action would be too dangerous to the protestors (“Forcible repression would not, therefore, prove very difficult”) and the real danger would be to the engineers and graduate students whose Pentagon-funded research was benefiting the scientific community when it wasn’t exterminating the Vietnamese (“Therefore the long-range threat [of strikes and sabotage], whatever it proved to be, would be to American humanistic and scientific culture”). Finally, anti-war protestors had to be circumspect about applying too much pressure to the unconvinced: “We must not, I believe, thoughtlessly urge others to commit civil disobedience, and we must be careful not to construct situations in which young people will find themselves induced, perhaps in violation of their basic convictions, to commit civil disobedience.” So ultimately, after a couple thousand words ostensibly “on resistance,” one was left with a general sense that the war was bad and that only a couple tactics which would result in incarceration (not paying your taxes and evading the draft) were legitimate.

The New York Review of Books received a couple letters in response to “On Resistance,” to which Chomsky responded. One writer, William X, identified himself as a black revolutionary who had been forced underground, and he raised many good points about what kind of counsel the professor was offering the movement:

Chomsky’s article is unsatisfactory for reasons he himself admits to—he does not see where resistance is going and he does not believe that the organized draft resistance he discusses will be very effective. I feel the difficulty lies in a too narrow view of resistance: while Chomsky feels the Washington demonstrations and anti-war protest generally are aspects of (or only “symbolize”?) the move “from dissent to resistance,” all he writes about is one form of draft resistance and various forms of dissent. Are the current demonstrations a move from dissent to resistance or not?

I hope I have begun to make several points clear. The first is that the most effective anti-war activities are those which are the most disruptive, the most costly, those which most undermine the authority of the government domestically and in its war policy. In this light the ghetto rebellions must be seen as one of the activities which most affect the war — and therefore those elements of the white middle class opposed to the war must work to protect participants (whether or not they agree with the aims or means of those involved, I would say). The anti-war and anti-draft demonstrations are also in this category.

Because the above is so, the kind of specific draft resistance Chomsky and “The Resistance” advocate is the least effective—it causes men to volunteer for prison. […] I have met others, both black and white. I think we would agree that Chomsky’s notion of the alternatives—the military, prison, or exile—is too limited, constrained by lack of experience and by lack of a full comprehension of what is to be done. Our attitude is, prison or exile, yes, before the military—but the cost of trying to catch us will be theirs. We have work to do, or simply lives to live, and don’t intend to make their job easier or our lives more miserable.

William X seems to have had much clearer ideas on resistance and the wider movement, so we might wonder why The New York Review of Books didn’t offer him a column instead of the MIT professor. In response, Chomsky reiterated that draft resistance was the way to go—although when pressed about the shortcomings of this tactic, he said that “No one can evaluate the effectiveness of various tactics with any precision,” which makes one wonder what’s the point of the exercise. While the pseudonymous William X mentioned numerous concrete ways that direct action helped hobble the war machine even without shutting down the Pentagon, Chomsky said quite a lot of words without saying much of consequence (“resistance can be, and I feel quite generally is, undertaken as a political act”) before coming back around to his initial claim that draft resistance is the one good option, with the not-terribly-substantive rationale that it “raise[s] the general level of political and moral consciousness.” The professor did not engage with X’s point that the cause would be better serviced by radicals aiding their communities, rather than martyring themselves in prison, other than to adjure that “Punishment of resisters will deepen this disaffection [with the government], and may channel it in new directions.” He offered no evidence for this claim. As far as the black militancy giving the ruling class its greatest nightmares, Chomsky simply said “I have said nothing about ghetto rebellions. These may affect the war, in one or another way, but they are not acts undertaken with the end of bringing about American withdrawal, and must, I think, be considered in a totally different context.”

For what it’s worth, the government of North Vietnam and the Vietnamese National Liberation Front did not believe that black rebellion was of a “totally different context,” and they very much felt that these affected the war. According to a CIA cable from August 1967:

Neither the American bombing raids nor the spiraling food prices and rice shortages seriously affect the morale of the North Vietnamese. The race riots and the emerging “black power” movement in the United States, which the North Vietnamese government considers the beginnings of a popular revolution in the United States, have had a most salubrious effect on the North Vietnamese morale. The North Vietnamese government believes the Civil Rights disturbances will force the United States to divert money and manpower from its commitment in the Vietnam War.

The United States Government will be forced to divert large sums of money to educational, housing and social reforms to maintain the loyalty of the underprivileged elements and prevent them from joining the ranks of the Civil Rights dissidents. The North Vietnamese believe that the United States will have to maintain more troops in the United States to control the rioters.

In a diplomatic cable from the same month, North Vietnam’s Ambassador to China, Ngo Loan, articulated that North Vietnam was comfortable setting conditions for talks with the US because “world opinion was against the US and that negro riots in the US were part of this overall picture” (pp. 5-6). The cable continues:

He [Ambassador Ngo] also pointed out that the American position was weakened by the pressure of world opinion on the US and by the internal problems of the Americans, particularly the recent race riots which he considered had a direct connection with the resistance of the American negroes against the war in Vietnam. In this connection he recalled that the French did not REPEAT not lose Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu, but in Paris.

It’s not very hard to understand the connection: every National Guard and Airborne infantry unit tied down in America’s cities was a unit incapable of exterminating the Vietnamese. Uprisings and sabotage rooted in the anti-racist struggle, as happened on the aircraft carriers Kitty Hawk and Constellation, meant ships that couldn’t fire on Vietnam. One didn’t need access to classified signals intercepts to deduce this, either. In spring 1965, professor Robert Browne advocated for combining the black freedom and anti-war movements on the grounds that “the civil rights movement represents the moral conscience of America and therefore belongs in the vanguard of the Vietnam protest.”19 At the end of an April 1968 anti-war conference in New York, SNCC telegrammed a message to NLF representatives which said “our effort to destroy domestic colonization of black people is an aid to your struggle. Our two peoples have a common enemy and a common victory to win.”20 So on this crucial issue, Chomsky demonstrated an extraordinary myopia, at the very least. He was surely one of only very few thinkers whose advice during this era amounted to “talk” and “get arrested.”

In 1967, scholars and activists from around the world met in Stockholm, Sweden to hold a war crimes tribunal for American imperialism in Vietnam. The tribunal was named after the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who organized the body and is often identified as Chomsky’s primary intellectual antecedent. SNCC’s Julius Lester provided a blistering criticism of the tribunal that should be read in full. Lester’s 1969 book Revolutionary Notes is a fascinating text to compare to Chomsky’s work from the same period because it comments on many of the same events and phenomena from the perspective of a black radical activist, rather than that of a white anti-Communist academic. So in December 1967, a month and a half after the March on the Pentagon, Chomsky took to numerous fora, including his New York Review of Books article “On Resistance” and the debate with Arendt and Sontag, to parse the finer points of non-violence (and offer few conclusions other than “draft resistance is a good idea, most other things aren’t”). In contrast, Lester’s article on violence is a page and a half long, and begins with “Violence is neither good nor evil. It is. So if we are going to fight to humanize America, i.e. make revolution, let us not concern ourselves with moral arguments overt the necessity of violence.” Chomsky said that while dissent and resistance were complementary, he didn’t really have clear ideas about the latter—other than the fact that the only moral way to resist was to volunteer for prison. In his August 1967 essay “Protest and Resistance,” Lester wrote “To resist is not to go to jail when sentenced, but only when caught and surrounded… To resist is to make the President afraid to leave the White House because he will be spat upon wherever he goes to tell his lies.” Lester even wrote a brief article on American media which contains the nucleus of Herman and Chomsky’s critique enumerated in Manufacturing Consent: “the New York Times is more ‘liberal’ because it is opposed to the bombing of North Vietnam. The Daily News is conservative because it wants the bombing escalated. Yet the two newspapers agree that ‘communism’ should be stopped.”21

Lester’s article on the Russell Tribunal in particular is interesting for how it anticipates and critiques the phenomenon of which the MIT professor would be the exemplar; namely, the shift in radicalism’s center-of-gravity from activism and revolution to academia and journalism. It’s worth quoting at length, especially in the light of Chomsky’s contemporary ideas about the inherent power of information, his claim that public opinion constitutes a “superpower,” his support of “free speech absolutism,” and his revising the history of what actually ended the Vietnam War (“a group of women standing quietly”):

To accomplish its task, the Tribunal brought together some of the greatest intellectual minds of the West—Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Isaac Deutscher, as well as such European radicals as Lelio Basso, Italian Socialist; Vladimir Dedijer, former Yugoslav partisan; and Mehmet Ali Aybar, Turkish socialist.

These were the people who sat for eight days listening to the evidence that had been collected by the four investigating teams sent to North Vietnam, and the evidence was overwhelming. For the first time, it was proven conclusively that the U.S. was systematically bombing schools, churches, hospitals, hamlets, cities, and dikes. It was brought out that the U.S. was using a new kind of antipersonnel bomb.

The Tribunal’s judgment was, of course, that the U.S. was guilty of aggression in Vietnam, that the U.S. was guilty of bombing civilians in North Vietnam. Having said that, what was said? The judgment had not changed the political reality, which was the war in Vietnam.

The judgment had been made. They had not been silent, as had the citizens of Germany when the smoke from the crematoria had filled their nostrils. They had marshaled many documents of evidence to show that the U.S. had broken international law.

Of course they had. The world is not governed by law, but by power, and the U.S. had the power to break or make any law that is in its interest to do so.

Thus, the law is a fiction and will remain so until Justice takes off her blindfold, puts down the scales, and picks up a machine gun… Many Third World political activists viewed the Tribunal as did a diplomat from Mali, who said “What is the Tribunal going to do? Give Johnson four years in jail?”

America is fighting for its own salvation, and you can publish a million photographs of napalmed babies and by the time you’ve finished, you’ll have a million more to publish.

Since World War II, a mystique has grown up around “acts of conscience,” as if it were enough, in and of itself, to speak out in the face of injustice. Undoubtedly it is better to speak than not to speak, but the result is too often the same—the political realities remain unchanged.

Aside from the information that the Tribunal has amassed and published, it was probably more of a danger than an asset. In an age of revolution, an “act of conscience” is a luxury that cannot be afforded. As Fidel Castro has said, “The job of a revolutionary is to make revolution.” The effect of the Tribunal was not toward revolution. Even if it had been toward disruption it would have been more valuable. But it refused to deal with the question of racism [When Lester’s fellow SNCC delegate Courtland Cox discussed the racial element of black GIs being sent to die in Vietnam, “it was Isaac Deutscher who said in patronizing tones, ‘I trust, gentlemen, that we will not inject race into the discussion.’ And he continued into various clichés about race not being that important, etc.”] But it refused to deal with the question of racism; it refused to place U.S. aggression in Vietnam in an international context.

Thus, the nature of the war has only been dimly illuminated and the war itself remains unchallenged. Instead, we have more napalmed babies to contemplate and more atrocities to shock our moral consciences, while David Rockefeller opens a branch of Chase Manhattan in Saigon and the U.S. builds an American-style suburb for 50,000 servicemen outside Saigon and expressways to lead into that city and Danang.

In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with a war crimes tribunal. But the manner in which the session at Stockholm was run amounts to an abdication of responsibility if one’s aim is to be politically effective. If the only aim was to salve the consciences of a few European radicals, I’m certain that they are sleeping well these nights, though the bombs still fall.22

Lester writes that numerous Asian delegates grew frustrated by the insistence that race be kept out of the tribunal and tried to leave; they had to be repeatedly entreated to stay. The American delegates, including Oglesby of the SDS and Cox of SNCC, tried to leave at one point because they did not see any relevance of the tribunal to their anti-war activism; they, too, had to be talked into staying. According to Tom Hayden, Oglesby used to agree with Chomsky that a well-reasoned anti-imperialist argument could convince bourgeois systems managers to lay down their arms. “He used to think you could argue with Pentagon intellectuals like Robert McNamara and get them to change their minds… But he later decided there would have to be a fundamental power shift.” Chomsky has, if anything, gone the other way. Lester even took aim at the “what about their agency?” crowd decades before analysis of the international dictatorship of the United States came to be derided as an example of reverse-Orientalist America-centric solipsism, as so many blue-checks do today: “Sartre’s reply was, ‘America is not the center of the world.’ No, it isn’t. It is the world.” Notice, too, how it was white intellectuals chastising black revolutionaries for being inordinately fixated on America. Reflecting on how Sartre thwarted “every attempt to broaden the scope and approach of the Tribunal,” Lester mused that “I couldn’t help but feel that Sartre was as much my enemy as LBJ.”23

In December 1967, Chomsky was already saying that “we live under conditions of almost unparalleled freedom.” At this point, the murders of civil rights activists like Medgar Evers were well known, especially in radical circles. As early as 1958, four months after Malcolm X was designated Elijah Muhammad’s successor, a mole in the Nation of Islam named John Ali passed the plans for Malcolm X’s Queens apartment to the FBI. The NYPD invaded X’s home and fired into his office, though they missed killing him. His food was poisoned in Cairo in 1964 (X claimed that the waiter was a white man whom he’d seen in New York), and he was successfully assassinated in 1965. X had been denied entry into France a few weeks before his death despite having entered the country successfully within the previous year, and one African diplomat told journalist Eric Norden that it was because the French government knew his assassination was imminent and didn’t want it to happen on their soil. “The United States is beginning to murder its own citizens,” the diplomat said.24

Hundreds of prominent artists, including Ernest Hemingway, Pearl S. Buck, George Bernard Shaw, and Sinclair Lewis, were monitored by the FBI (they usually incurred Hoover’s ire for their opposition to fascism in the ‘30s and ‘40s). David J. Garrow says “well before 1950 most Americans in public life realized that the FBI’s enemies list was one that no self-concerned person wanted to be chosen for.”25 Richard Wright, the first bestselling black American author, was on the list, and when his best friend Ollie Harrington ribbed him about his “paranoia,” Wright said that “any black man who is not paranoid is in serious shape. He should be in an asylum and kept under watch.”26 It was common practice for prominent activists, particularly black ones, to have their passports revoked, and Wright was investigated by HUAC and had his passport revoked twice. He sought refuge in France, where he was monitored by America’s secret police. One author writes that state intimidation was prevalent enough among the 30,000 Americans in Paris that they “espoused different views in public and in private. If they read left-wing newspapers, they did so in the privacy of their homes.”27 Wright told French media about his surveillance and American racism before dying of a heart attack at 52 despite being in decent health and not suffering heart trouble (Ollie Harrington and Wright’s daughter, Julia, believe it was an assassination). Wright died the year before Paul Robeson was MK-ULTRA’d in Moscow. Robeson’s passport had been confiscated, too. A Supreme Court ruling returned it to him, but when he chose to continue his activism, the CIA poisoned him. The core of the Black Panther Party convened in 1966 and police harassment was routine by the next year. In October 1967, Huey Newton was involved in a shootout with Oakland police for which he was tried for murder. He claimed that it was a police assassination attempt on his life, a claim that was supported by the later release of a CIA hit list with his name on it.

Operation CHAOS began in August 1967; it would eventually have computerized files on 300,000 dissidents. One Puerto Rican activist involved in the anti-war and independence movements described the typical treatment meted out to people like him: “The FBI and the CIA started to visit my neighborhood, the boarding house where I live and the one where I had lived, the places I often go to, the place where I used to work.”28 “The fear of surveillance being as effective as surveillance itself,” writes Doug Valentine, “the result was that many Americans refrained from writing letters to their representatives or otherwise participating in the democratic process, knowing that to do so was to risk wiretaps on their phones, FBI agents’ reading their mail, being blackmailed for past indiscretions, made victims of vicious rumor campaigns, losing their jobs, or worse.”29 Covert actions against radicals were so widespread that even Joseph Califano, President Johnson’s top aide and the man responsible for coordinating the White House’s response to domestic unrest, was shocked at how many conspiracies were carried out. After the Church and Pike Committee revelations, Califano marveled “I had to wonder… were there two White Houses in 1967?”30 Muhammad Ali, America’s most famous anti-war resister, said that his April 1967 decision to refuse induction had “jeopardize[d] my life walking the streets of the South and all of America.”31 James Kunen describes turning on the TV one night and seeing something that disturbed him:

[O]n the Les Crane show were the founder of the W.E.B. DuBois Clubs and a former member of a DuBois Club. The former member had for two years worked as an undercover agent for the Chicago police, infiltrating the DuBois Club in San Francisco. He was with the Red Squad of the police, and all the while he was a member of the John Birch Society.

He supported the HUAC’s Luce Report, which recommended issuing ID cards to blacks and shipping suspicious individuals to detention camps… He was a backwards and hateful man, and he was in the employ of the police. So, there are secret police. There are red squads. There are agents and provocateurs. There are. I know that. It makes me sick. You know that, too.32

Malcolm X called 1964 “one of the most violent years in the history of America.”33 What Chomsky described as a time of “almost unparalleled freedom” another author calls the beginning of “what must have been one of the most violent periods in American history since the labor struggles of the 1890s.”34 At the same time, many activists were operating under fewer illusions than Chomsky: “The myths of freedom that exist in this country have lulled us into thinking that we can preach revolution under the constitutional provisions of free speech and thereby escape the consequences of that preaching,” wrote Lester. “That is true only as long as the preaching does not constitute a threat to the system. America loves a part of that preaching because it indicates the weaknesses that need to be eradicated if the system is to preserve itself.”35 Case-in-point: the CIA, through its Congress for Cultural Freedom, published excerpts of Richard Wright’s Black Power in several of its magazines (including Encounter) in order to demonstrate that the US was dealing with the blight of Jim Crow. Then it murdered him.

As far as the effects of anti-communism’s increasing stranglehold among the intellectuals of the permissible Left following the revolutionary high tide,** I’ll leave the last word to this CIA report on the rightward shift of the French intelligentsia:

Anti-Americanism formerly also stood as a mark of intellectual status… Now, the opposite is true; finding virtues in America—even identifying good things about US Government policies—is looked upon as an indication of discerning judgment.

This climate of intellectual opinion will almost certainly make it very difficult for anyone to mobilize significant opposition among intellectual elites to US policies in Central America, for example. It is also likely to deny to other European intellectuals—notably, in Scandinavia and West Germany—who are hostile to US policies and interest the powers [and] now need to create a West European consensus on transitional issues, such as disarmament.

It’s great that Chomsky and other anti-communist scholars helped bring light to the Reagan White House’s genocidal dirty wars in Latin America. It’s less great that their Red-bashing and “neither Washington nor Moscow” equivocation helped enable the slaughter of over half a million people. But at least we got a lot of devastating Chomsky lectures out of it.


Read Part II here, Part III here, and Part IV here

* One of the main reasons why most of the “conspiracy” community offers so much wild speculation, utter bullshit, anti-Semitism, and fascism is because left-liberal academics surrendered this field to the ultra-right. It is impossible to calculate how many curious and skeptical people fascists successfully propagandized with racist trash by practically owning the field of conspiracy theorism, but even one is too many, particularly given that this did not need to happen at all. The CIA invented “conspiracy theories” as a delegitimizing slur, Chomsky and generations of status-conscious writers made it happen, and then generations of people slunk away from analysis of covert actions out of fear of being labeled insane. Fascists saw this wide-open field and took full advantage of it. Why would they have done any differently?

If an internet user gets an odd feeling about the Islamic State’s origin story, and justifiably thinks they detect the fingerprints of Langley, to whom will a Google search direct them? Progressive scholars who take “conspiracy” analysis seriously, like Peter Dale Scott, Douglas Valentine, Michael Parenti, Robert Parry, Dave Emory, Russ Baker, or John Potash are as obscure as Chomsky’s fans claim the MIT professor is. That user might see Chomsky say “there is no merit to conspiracy theories circulating in the region that hold that the US planned the rise of this extraordinary monstrosity.” Since Chomsky offers little evidence for his contention, a person who values critical thinking might keep searching so that they can make up their own mind, and they will see a lot of circumstantial evidence which does indeed implicate Washington—like the fact that numerous ISIS commanders (including their minister of war) were trained by Blackwater. If they keep searching they will most likely stumble upon Alex Jones, whose InfoWars operation is handsomely funded and who is happy to offer speculation mixed in with heavy doses of anti-Semitic nonsense and extreme-right misinformation.

Willis Carto, one of the central figures in American Holocaust denial, began an effort to widen his appeal at least as early as 1984, when he founded something called the Populist Party. Carto’s Populist Party borrowed the name from the earlier labor party and plastered it onto a group for white supremacists and other fascists. Anti-Semitism at their first major meeting was so prevalent that “one group of farm activists from the Midwest left the meeting after complaining that too many of the attendees were obsessed with Jews.” [Chip Berlet & Matthew Nemiroff Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, The Guilford Press, 2000. p. 191]

At the same time, Carto had something of a small media empire. His Noontide Press publishing house put out books with such charming titles as Auschwitz: Truth or Lie—An Eyewitness Report, Hitler At My Side, and For Fear of the Jews. His magazine Spotlight, on the other hand, began aggressively recruiting the sort of people who had, prior to the 1980s, had their ideas taken seriously by radicals. The first was Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, the primary inspiration for the “Mister X” composite character in Oliver Stone’s JFK. Prouty wrote a 1973 book called The Secret Team, but in the mid-1980s he was hired by Spotlight and Carto added loads of anti-Semitic misinformation to Prouty’s work. What Prouty called “the Secret Team,” Carto rechristened “the Secret Jewish Team.” CIA whistleblower Victor Marchetti co-authored a best-selling Agency exposé in 1973 titled The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, which Langley tried to suppress via legal action. Marchetti, too, was recruited by Spotlight in 1989, as was author Mark Lane several years later.

The 1980s were a period replete with very real conspiracies, conspiracies which went all the way from the jungles of Latin America, the mountains of Central Asia, and America’s inner cities to the Oval Office. These included Reagan’s October surprise, Iran-Contra, the CIA’s involvement in the crack epidemic, Operation Cyclone, the dirty wars in Latin America, etc. Progressive journalists including Robert Parry and Gary Webb did great work exposing many of these conspiracies, as did the Christic Institute, which among other tasks successfully sued the perpetrators of the 1978 Greensboro massacre. Still, at this point, anti-conspiracist hardliner Chip Berlet observed that “chances are that when the talk turns to conspiracy the same sources will be cited: the Christic Institute; the right-wing, anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby and its Spotlight newspaper; and Lyndon LaRouche publications.” (As someone with beliefs about political power, Berlet believes many conspiracy theories: “Chip Berlet repeatedly denounces conspiracy investigations while himself spending a good deal of time investigating Lyndon LaRouche’s fraudulent financial dealings, conspiracies for which LaRouche went to prison. Berlet never explains why the LaRouche conspiracy is a subject worthy of investigation but not the JFK conspiracy.”)

Most whistleblowers are conservatives seeking to reform the system, but the abdication of conspiracy analysis by left-liberal thinkers certainly made it easier for disillusioned insiders to be courted by fascists. When Stone asked Prouty about his involvement with Carto and the Institute for Historical Review, the Colonel said he was “neither a racist nor an anti-Semite… but merely a writer in need of a platform.”


** Some notes on anti-Communism during the height of the radical era:

  • Many of the nascent radical movements repudiated the Communist movements of the past, in order to emphasize their ideological independence. Longtime activist Peter Bohmer says that one of the biggest failings of the movement was making these concessions to official anti-Communism and failing to learn from the earlier radical movements: “We didn’t do enough of this in the 1960’s and 1970’s, e.g. learning from those who faced repression during the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950’s. We need to build multi-generational movements and groups.”
  • Anti-communism among the various New Left groups was a mixed bag—James Kunen of the SDS wrote “We have red flags flying from the roof. I explain to a cop on the sidewalk below that these stand for revolution, not for communism.” [Kunen, The Strawberry Statement, p. 31] Despite all the concessions that the New Left made to official anti-Communism, Chomsky was still substantially more prone to Red-bashing than his contemporaries. In his Firing Line appearance he agreed with William F. Buckley that the People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe were places where “Stalinist imperialism very brutally took control and still maintains control.” Compare this to Carl Oglesby’s “Vietnamese Crucible,” which refers to the same events as “Stalin’s seizures within East Europe to build a buffer zone against aggression from a rebuilt Germany.” [Oglesby, Containment & Change, p. 16]
  • The new left movement of the 1960’s grew up independently of the Marxist-Leninist tradition. Its roots were in the pacifist and social democratic tradition. It moved to Marxism-Leninism because of identification with the struggles of the Cubans, Vietnamese and Chinese (during their Cultural Revolution). The characteristics of these three revolutions did not seem to us to have anything in common with the image of Communism/Soviet Union that we had been conditioned to accept, and thus we became strongly predisposed to a Maoist type argument that the Soviet Union’s brand of ‘Communism’ really was a capitalist of the Nazi type, i.e., what we had believed all along, while the ‘Communism’ of China, Cuba and Vietnam was a qualitatively different phenomenon–people’s power, or the realization of the true; socialist ideas of equalitarianism, democracy and control of production by the common people. The Maoist alternative allowed formerly strongly anti-communist youth to easily make the transition to Marxism without having to, question the fabricated stereotype of Soviet communism they had grown up with, while romanticizing Cuban, Vietnamese and Chinese Communism, portraying the two types as having nothing in common.”
  • Writing about the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Julius Lester said: “This will undoubtedly be interpreted by some as covert approval of Russian intervention in Czechoslovakia. It is not. Nor is it disapproval. Perhaps the correct position on the matter is that taken by China and Cuba—condemnation of both Russia and Czechoslovakia. Neither country is a model of socialism that anyone is following, and serious questions can be raised about whether either country is totally worthy to be called socialist. But all of that is irrelevant to our infant movement’s taking sides because we see pictures of tanks entering a city and, like well-conditioned animals, we scream that he at whom the tank is aimed has been wronged. This kind of reaction reveals an all too typical American syndrome—apolitical morality.” [Julius Lester, “The Russian Occupation of Czechoslovakia,” Revolutionary Notes, p. 162]

Works Cited:

1. Carl Oglesby, “Vietnamese Crucible,” Containment and Change, MacMillan, 1967, pp. 164-65

2. Carl Oglesby, Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Antiwar Movement, Scribner, 2010. p. 53

3. Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Anarchism, AK Press, 2005. p. 7

4. Malcolm X Speaks, ed. George Breitman, Grove Press, 1965. p. 33

5. Ibid.pp. 35-39

6. Frank Donner, Age of Surveillance, Vintage Press, 1981, p. 218

7. Albert Szymanski, The Capitalist State and the Politics of Class, Winthrop Publishers, 1978, p. 306

8. Breitman, Malcolm X Speaks, p. 28-29

9. Ibid., pp. 201-2

10. Ibid., pp. 128-29

11. Ralph Abernathy, quoted in Igor Geevsky & Viktor Smelov, U.S. Documents Reveal Conspiracy to Stifle Dissent in America, Novosti Press Agency, 1978, p. 91

12. James Kunen, The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, Random House, 1969, p. 151

13. Joshua Bloom & Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, University of California Press, 2016, p. 347

14. Breitman, Malcolm X Speaks, p. 32

15. Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS: The rise and development of the Students for a Democratic Society, Vintage Books, 1973, p. 262

16. Julius Lester, Revolutionary Notes, Grove Press, Inc., 1969, p. 152; p. 6

17. Robert Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, The MIT Press, 1997, p. 134

18. Ibid., p. 148

19. Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America: an Analytic History, Doubleday Anchor, 1970, p. 45

20. Ibid., pp. 255-56

21. Lester, Revolutionary Notes, p. 51; p. 41; p. 4

22. Ibid., pp. 9-18

23. Ibid., p. 19

24. Karl Evanzz, The Judas Factor: the Plot to Kill Malcolm X, Basic Books, 1993, p. 278. Kwame Nkrumah and Gamal Nasser believed X’s assassination to be imminent, too, so they offered him positions in their respective governments, but he declined because his struggle was in America.

25. David J. Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King: From “Solo” to Memphis, W. W. Norton & Company, 1981. p. 79

26. Hazel Rowley, Richard Wright: the Life and Times, The University of Chicago Press, 2001 pp. 490-91

27. Ibid., p. 452

28. Juan M. Rivera-Negrón, “Mobilize the People,” We Won’t Go: Personal Accounts of War Objectors, ed. Alice Lynd, Beacon Press, 1968. p. 148

29. Doug Valentine, The Phoenix Program, p. 326

30. Joesph Califano, quote in Nikolai Yakovlev, Washington Silhouettes: a Political Roundup, Progress Publishers, 1985. p. 261

31. Muhammad Ali, “The Champ,” We Won’t Go, pp. 230-1

32. Kunen, The Strawberry Statement, p. 138

33. Evanzz, The Judas Factor, p. 212

34. Sale, SDS, p. 5

35. Lester, “Legalisms of Repression,” Revolutionary Notes, p. 34