On Chomsky's book '9-11'

Anti-imperialism without the working class

by Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice, vol. 8, #3, issue #30, December 15, 2002)


. In the days and weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Noam Chomsky gave interviews denouncing the stepped-up militarism which the Bush administration unleashed in the name of fighting terrorism. The first month of these interviews has been collected in the short book 9-11. No doubt Professor Chomsky deserves credit for being among the few prominent public figures that immediately ridiculed the pretensions of the Bush government.

. But 9-11 also shows the weaknesses of the non-class approach to political events. True, Chomsky advocates a sort of anti-imperialism. He lays emphasis on the crimes of the US and major European powers against the subordinate countries. But there is no class struggle in his picture of the causes behind the events of Sept. 11, and of the response to it. He downplays the difference between rich and poor outside of the most advanced industrialized countries, and ignores it within these countries. Elsewhere he may talk about the corporations and the ravages of globalization, but in dealing with the issue of war and peace, he apparently thinks that this is out of place. In 9-11, imperialism comes out of nowhere, not out of the world system of oppression of the poor by the rich. The very word "imperialism" is shunned in favor of just mentioning the name of various countries. And book advocates that the crimes of Western imperialism--beg pardon, of the US and of Europe--will vanish if only governments start obeying international law and reasonable rules of conduct.

. Chomsky's is a protest against imperialism which appeals to Reason with a capital "R", rather than looking to find any mass force which can resist imperialism. If Chomsky is angry about the chauvinism that has taken hold of the "Western intellectuals" whom he denounces, it is because he implicitly looks towards the liberal wing of the establishment to rein itself in. With his moral rhetoric, he sails far above imperialism, but with his practical suggestions, he stays firmly rooted within it.

. These days, with the working class movement in crisis all over the world, this type of anti-imperialism without a social base is very common. It is also as old as imperialism itself. Lenin commented a hundred years ago that

. "In the United States, the imperialist war waged against Spain in 1898 stirred up the opposition of the 'anti-imperialists', the last of the Mohicans of bourgeois democracy, who declared this war to be 'criminal', regarded the annexation of foreign territories as a violation of the Constitution, declared that the treatment of Aguinaldo, leader of the Filipinos (the Americans promised him the independence of his country, but later landed troops and annexed it), was 'Jingo treachery', and quoted the words of Lincoln: 'When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs others, it is no longer self-government; it is despotism. ' But as long as all this criticism shrank from recognizing the inseverable bond between imperialism and the trusts,. . , while it shrank from joining the forces engendered by large-scale capitalism and its development [the working class and its class struggle--JG]--it remained a 'pious wish'. " ("Critique of Imperialism", Ch. 9 of Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, emphasis added)

. Chomsky has been attacked by pro-war liberals such as Christopher Hitchens as supposedly justifying the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. This is the same chauvinist hysteria with which Hitchens attacks the anti-war movement as a whole. True, there are some groups, such as the Workers World Party, who really do think that there is something anti-imperialist in the conflict of any force, no matter how reactionary, with US imperialism. Thus, no matter how misguided WWP thought the tactics of the bombers were, and how much it might sympathize with the victims, the WWP tried to hold back the anti-war movement from directly condemning the bombings of Sept. 11. (1) Chomsky's position on these atrocities, however, is different from that of the WWP. He doesn't see anything positive in their motivation. But a good part of Chomsky's 9-11 nevertheless reads like WWP, because both ignore the class struggle within the dependent countries. Soft-core anarchists like Chomsky, hard-core defenders of state-capitalism like WWP, and pro-war liberals like Hitchens have more in common than any of them would probably like to admit -- they all play down the bitter class conflicts which lie behind the dramatic political events of today.

Chomsky on rich and poor

. Chomsky does refer repeatedly in his book to the issue of rich and poor in the subordinate countries. But it is always to emphasize their common opposition to US policies. He notes that the poor are more fervent, but he lays emphasis on their common grievances with the rich. For example, he writes: "A few days ago the Wall Street Journal reported attitudes of rich and privileged Egyptians who were at a McDonald's restaurant wearing stylish American clothes, etc., and who were bitterly critical of the US for objective reasons of policy. .  .  . : they had a report a few days earlier on attitudes of wealthy and privileged people in the region, all pro-American, and harshly critical of U.S. policies. .  .  . Attitudes in the street are similar, but far more intense, .  .  . " (pp. 30-31, page references, unless otherwise indicated, are to 9-11).

. Presumably Chomsky might support the poor against the rich in this or that class struggle, but when it comes to anti-imperialism, he thinks that the class struggle is irrelevant. And yet, can anti-imperialists in the US help support the development of a revolutionary force of the working and poor masses in the subordinate countries by ignoring the class struggle?

. Chomsky stresses the need to look at the various grievances against the US and other imperialist powers that exist in the world. This is not for the sake of winning over the "bin Laden network". He briefly remarks that it has done great harm "for 20 years" and that the condition of the "poor and oppressed" masses "are not the concern of the terrorist networks". It is to deal with the "reservoir of anger, fear, and desperation" among the masses, and he says that this is the proper way to reply to the bombings of Sept. 11. (p. 27)

. Yet he goes out of his way to repeatedly deny that "economic globalization" has anything to do with this mass discontent. He holds that "what happened on September 11 has virtually nothing to do with economic globalization, in my opinion. " (p. 35) He puts aside that hundreds of millions of people are suffering at the hands of the neo-liberal economic order being imposed around the world, and that this has a great deal to do with their anger, fear and desperation. But to deal with this, means to bring up class questions. The poverty and starvation, inherent in capitalism in general but now justified and intensified under the neo-liberal banner, is regarded differently by the rich and poor in the subordinate countries. There is not a common attitude between privileged, pro-American elites and the desperate masses "on the street". So, to keep to his theme of the common stand of the rich and poor in the third world, he has to set "globalization" aside.

. Chomsky does talk about reactionary governments in the dependent countries, and how Western imperialism supports them. But he ignores the issue of the class and economic basis of these governments. He presents these governments as irritating the rich and privileged equally with the poor. He tells a tale of bad governments and bad policies, but classes drop out of the discussion.

Chomsky does talk about imperialist powers violating international law. But this law provides no protection for people suffering from capitalist exploitation and the ravages of multinational corporations. So Chomsky has to set aside such issues, including globalization, if he is to present international law as a solution to the conflict between Western imperialism and the oppressed masses around the world.

Appealing to the liberal bourgeoisie

. It may sound strange to say that Chomsky is appealing to the liberal bourgeoisie in the US, as isn't Chomsky valiantly fighting them by putting forward his long lists of imperialist crimes? Doesn't he denounce "liberal doves" and Western establishment intellectuals? Nevertheless many of Chomsky's arguments are tailored to appeal to the liberal establishment. Even government officials might well be upset by the idea that American policy is so bad that it has united the "rich and privileged" and the poor in opposition. One couldn't expect them to back the development of a revolutionary movement against the exploitation of American and local capitalists. But, Chomsky apparently reasons, they might be worried by a foreign policy so inept that it has united even past imperialist allies and pro-American moneyed elements against the US government.

. Moreover, Chomsky's prescription is to replace imperialism by reliance on international law and international organizations. He is demanding of the American government "at least minimal commitment to international law" (p. 25). He reminds the reader several times that the World Court condemned Reagan's bloody "contra" war on Nicaragua (pp. 25, 84), and he looks towards positive results from "independent sources like the UN or credible NGOs" (p. 107). Who runs these institutions? The existing governments, the existing bourgeoisie, in short, the imperialists themselves. Did these institutions actually stop the murderous contra war against Nicaragua? Of course not.

. Chomsky doesn't say that the mass struggle is the answer to imperialism. He doesn't talk about the class struggle and the organization of the poor and working masses. His appeal isn't to them, but to the existing powers-that-be. And he makes sure to provide them some reassurance. He is careful to tell them that he isn't too radical, and that he shares the bourgeois view that communism and fascism are identical. Thus he goes out of way to denounce "Stalin, Hitler, and Mao" (pp. 47, 67 -- and he doesn't distinguish between Stalinism and Leninism). And he is silent about any radical idea or sympathy of his own. Even where he clearly is making an anti-imperialist appeal, he doesn't actually use the term "anti-imperialism".

. His example of how to deal with world problems is--believe it or not!--how British imperialism deals with the IRA. He writes "When IRA bombs were set off in London, there was no call to bomb West Belfast, or Boston. Rather, steps were taken to apprehend the criminals, and efforts were made to deal with what lay behind the resort to terror. " (p. 24, also p. 62) He ignores the decades of British use of torture and troops against the Irish people, and he praises British imperialism's supposed commitment to justice in northern Ireland.

. Chomsky repeatedly seeks in 9-11 to find arguments that are "uncontroversial", agreed to by everyone. But by everyone, he implicitly means the liberal bourgeoisie, for certainly not everyone would be so happy with taking British imperialism as a model, or with the general performance of the UN, the NGOs, and the World Court of Justice.

Chomsky on bin Laden and the fundamentalists

. Chomsky has been attacked by pro-war liberals such as Christopher Hitchens for allegedly not being outraged by terrorist attacks such as those of Sept. 11. In fact, Chomsky would love to see bin Laden and company arrested and punished. He believes that the terrorist acts caused great harm. Chomsky believes in progress by convincing the establishment of the claims of reason, not by bombing.

. But if Hitchens has slandered Chomsky, and he certainly has, this is not the full story. If Chomsky has been somewhat wounded by this debate, it is not simply because Hitchens throws a lot of mud. In part, it is a self-inflicted wound. The book 9-11 shows why. Chomsky puts aside the issue of bin Laden as essentially irrelevant. He essentially pictures the bombings as part of a clash between the Western powers and the rest of the world, the people in this periphery supposedly having more-or-less common aspirations and views. He does not call for a struggle of the working masses of the world against its enemies, including Western imperialism and the reactionaries of the subordinate countries. A few parenthetical remarks about how bin Laden has done some horrible unspecified harm to the Palestinians and other oppressed masses in the world can hardly erase the overall impression.

. The book 9-11 opens, after a few preliminaries, with a dramatic image of the events of Sept. 11 as a new stage in an historical world struggle. Chonmsky lists the crimes of US expansionism over the centuries. But, he says, in the struggle between the US and its victims, "for the first time, the guns have been directed the other way. That is a dramatic change. " He adds that "Exactly what this portends, no one can guess. But that it is something strikingly new is quite clear. " (p. 12) This is vivid; it's compelling; and it's false.

. For one thing, there have been many times when truly anti-imperialist forces have fought the US government, which is not what is going on with bin Laden. But the main problem is that in Chomsky's dramatic image, there are only two sides in the world: the US and the rest of the world. He overlooks the different class forces in the world, whether inside or outside the US. He doesn't see that the crimes of Sept. 11 occurred in a clash between two reactionary forces, both of which are oppressing the masses. There's US imperialism, squeezing the world, and there's the Islamic fundamentalist extremists, working to consolidate a powerful pan-Islamic bourgeoisie as a rival to US imperialism.

. In his dramatic image of the significance of what happened on Sept. 11, Chomsky leaves out a discussion of the actual forces represented by bin Laden. He doesn't find this very significant. He simply says that the perpetrators of 9-11 "are a category of their own", which he leaves unspecified. But if one wishes to support the movement of the working masses around the world, the issue of what political force is represented by Laden is not something that can be ignored. The masses are faced with two forces, both hostile to them, each fighting each other, each pointing to each other's crimes. Wherever the working masses in certain regions rise on their own behalf, they find themselves opposed by both these forces.

. While glossing over the actual nature of bin Laden, Chomsky never fails to say that the perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks "draw support from a reservoir of bitterness and anger over U.S. policies in the region". It is certainly true that the Islamic fundamentalists do appeal to this, and also that this bitterness is an important political fact. But by never presenting the different trends within this bitterness, and never talking about what bin Laden is actually fighting for, he creates a misleading picture of what is going on in the world.

. Eventually, 15 pages later, Chomsky states briefly that the bombings carried on on Sept. 11 did great harm. But this doesn't speak directly to whether the bombings were simply horribly misguided, or whether the goal being pursued was bad. At first sight, this might seem a minor distinction. But groups such as the WWP do make this distinction, because they regard that, insofar as they are in conflict with the US, the Taliban and bin Laden and the fundamentalists are anti-imperialist. And indeed, there is a major difference between a group fighting for a just cause, but doing so very badly and discrediting itself by committing crimes, and a group fighting to be another oppressor of the masses. While few readers of 9-11 might have thought about this distinction while reading Chomsky's brief remarks about the bin Ladenites, they would not fail to notice that, whenever Chomsky talks about bin Laden, it just a short remark, generally buried in a much longer passage about the just demands of the masses.

. Chomsky may talk this way in the belief that to refer to any problem but the crimes of the Western governments would weaken the condemnation of Western imperialism. The idea seems to be that, whenever some other crime is mentioned, it must be immediately counterbalanced by saying that the Western governments are worse. But by doing this, he doesn't enhance the struggle against imperialism, but weakens it, because this means failing to support the movement of the workers and the oppressed in the subordinate countries.

. For that matter, if would-be anti-imperialists learn to ignore class contradictions in the Third World, can they really be expected to champion class issues in the imperialist countries? It is no accident that Chomsky's brushing aside of class contradictions in the Third World in 9-11 is supplemented by his appeal to the liberal bourgeoisie in the US and Europe. He ends up replacing the idea of struggle against all the class enemies of the working masses, with advocating the peaceful reconciliation of all the governments and exploiters of the world, which would allegedly be achieved if only the Western governments were reasonable. In this, anti-imperialism is reduced to comparing who does the worst atrocities, the stronger exploiting classes of the US and Western Europe or the weaker exploiting classes of other countries.

. The fact is, that the working masses can't raise their head in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc. without facing a bitter opposition from the fundamentalists, as well as facing the pressure of Western imperialism. One can't say, fight Western imperialism today, and leave the local bourgeoisie and reactionaries till tomorrow. If one is allied to the working masses of these countries, one must fight both at once, as various left-wing forces are doing. When Chomsky puts one force aside, he weakens the anti-imperialist struggle by depriving it of the only forces which can lead it to victory, that of the working masses. The UN isn't going to abolish imperialism. The International Court of Justice isn't going to do it. Maybe Chomsky himself says this a million times elsewhere. But in the book 9-11, he appeals to faith in these institutions, and to the common reason of rich and poor alike.

Relying on the conscience of the elite,
not the class struggle

. For all Chomsky's denunciation of the crimes of Western imperialism, he basically appeals to the Western elites. He hopes that the Sept. 11 bombings will awaken them to the need for better policies. He ends his book with an answer to the question about the role and priority of social activists of this time. He says, in part, that "The opportunities are surely there. The shock of the horrendous crimes has already opened elite sectors to reflection of a kind that would have been hard to imagine not long ago, and among the general public that is even more true. Just to speak about personal experience, aside from near-constant interviews with national radio-TV-press in Europe and elsewhere, I have had considerably more access even to mainstream media in the U. S. then ever before, and others report the same experience. " (p. 118)

. Here again we have the same relation of rich and poor, elite and non-elite, as appear elsewhere in this book. There are "elite sectors" that are coming around to reasonable views, while the role of the "general public" is be more fervent in these same views.

. Even at the time Chomsky was writing, it was already clear that the "war on terrorism" was going to increase repression at home and militarism abroad. But Chomsky was complacent about this danger, saying that he did not think that there would be "a long-term restriction of rights internally in any serious sense. The cultural and institutional barriers to that are too firmly rooted. .  .  . An aroused public within the more free and democratic societies can direct policies towards a much more humane and honorable course. " (p. 35)

. The problem, Chomsky seems to think, is mainly with the media. Chomsky wrote that "we should not underestimate the capacity of well-run propaganda systems to drive people to irrational, murderous, and suicidal behavior. " (p. 69) But, as we have seen, Chomsky also believed that the "mainstream media" was opening up to more discussion as a result of Sept. 11. He overlooked the flood of chauvinism, and judged from the fact that he and some other public figures received more requests for interviews. He missed the entire atmosphere of repression and fear that was being created among the population at large.

. This is surely an anti-imperialism detached from the masses and from the class struggle. Chomsky misses the intensified offensive against the working people that the "war on terrorism" has meant for workers in the US, and he brushes aside the complex struggle against both Western imperialism and fundamentalism facing the masses in many other countries. He puts his hope in the world institutions of imperialism, and he believes that an open media will push these institutions onto the straight and narrow. He doesn't call for the organization of the masses to fight the dangers of the present period, but hopes that the shock of the bombings of Sept. 11 will awaken the current elites to their responsibilities.

. Chomsky thus ignores the class forces that have a real interest in fighting imperialism. To encourage a real anti-imperialist struggle requires bringing the class issues to the fore, not pushing them under the rug in order to find a common standpoint with the privileged and elite. This means bringing to the fore the real situation facing the masses. It means showing how the current world crisis flows out of the intensification of the class exploitation of the working masses out of the world, and not ignoring the economic issues that divide capitalist and worker, rich and poor. It mean giving an accurate picture of the different political forces involved in the events of Sept. 11, and not brushing this aside. Chomsky's may have written many books about the crimes of Western imperialism and the workings of the system. But his prescription for how to cure imperialism is simply self-deception.


(1) See the section "Anti-imperialism, real and sham" of "Imperialism in the light of the Afghan war" in Communist Voice, Jan. 9, 2002, pp. 28-30, for WWP's stand on both the Sept. 11 bombings and the Taliban. However much the WWP condemns the reactionary history of the Taliban, it regards that the US-Taliban war was not reactionary on both sides, but was anti-imperialist resistance on the side of the Taliban. Similarly, the WWP doesn't recognize that both US imperialism and the Hussein regime are reactionary. Indeed, it is much more enthusiastic about Saddam Hussein than it was over the Taliban. But, faced with opposing views in the anti-war movement, it mainly seeks to keep the anti-war movement from openly condemning such "anti-imperialists". (Return to text)

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