Bernard E. Harcourt | Welcome Noam Chomsky

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“Many commentators dismiss anarchism as utopian… One might, however, argue rather differently: that at every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to—rather than alleviate—material and cultural deficit.”

     — Noam Chomsky, On Anarchism (2013)

Professor Noam Chomsky is and has been, for years now, a role model for critical thinkers and practitioners. An engaged intellectual with one of the clearest moral compasses I have ever witnessed, Professor Chomsky continuously shines a light on the injustices that surround us at home and abroad.

From his early, vocal, and staunch opposition to the Vietnam War and his classic 1967 essay on The Responsibility of Intellectuals, to his many engagements today in the midst of our present crises—climate, nuclear, economic, and geopolitical—Chomsky has always challenged our governments, institutions, and those with power to prove that they are legitimately exercising their power and has always held them to task.

Never one to compromise his principled beliefs, Chomsky unfailingly speaks truth to power in the great and long tradition of the parrhesiasts. A modern-day Voltaire or Rousseau or Wollstonecraft, in his humility and brutal honesty Chomsky often reminds me of the greatest parrhesiast in antiquity, the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope.

One of the most constant threads that traverses Professor Chomsky’s political interventions is his challenge to the accepted ways of exercising power. This is tied closely to a long political tradition that sharply questions authority figures, established institutions, and conglomerates of power. In his book On Anarchism, Chomsky defines this tradition as follows—in a passage that captures well Chomsky’s political ethic:

The core of the anarchist tradition, as I understand it, is that power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate. So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.

… It’s the responsibility of those who exercise power to show that somehow it’s legitimate. It’s not the responsibility of anyone else to show that it’s illegitimate. It’s illegitimate by assumption, if it’s a relation of authority among human beings which places some above others. Unless you can give a strong argument to show that it’s right, you’ve lost.[1]

In a way, Professor Chomsky’s core position here could be called—by analogy to the criminal law standard of the presumption of innocence—the “presumption of doubt” as to the legitimacy of authority, of social hierarchy, of established relations of power. And since the Vietnam War, Professor Chomsky has been challenging those who exercise power to justify their actions—and barring that, to seek their dismantling.

On Science and Politics

Professor Chomsky has always maintained that there is an important difference between research in the hard sciences and political inquiry. He has argued that the difference is often exploited, in ideological ways, to favor establishment arguments and thinkers.[2]

Given that he has engaged in both scientific research and political writings, many people have asked about the exact relationship between Professor Chomsky’s scientific research in linguistics and his political positions—whether the first influenced or determined the second, or whether they are essentially separate. This has been a long and recurring debate.

In that debate, I take the position that there are continuities: there are elements of innate notions of human nature and justice that run through Professor Chomsky’s political views and that are consonant with his linguistics research. Chomsky is by no means a social constructivist when it comes to matters of truth and justice, and that bears a resemblance to his theories of linguistics.

At the same time, Professor Chomsky has mostly favored “the better” over “the best” when it comes to political argument and justice. Because of this, Chomsky seldom speaks about utopias, whether practical, concrete, or ideal. It is not always clear whether his hesitation is about not wanting to get into too many details, about a certain form of humility, or about the fact of inevitable human fallibility. But the notion of the “better,” I feel, is in some tension with the notion of innate abilities or characteristics: if there is a natural dimension to justice, then it probably constitutes the ideal we should aspire to.

This tension raises perhaps the most interesting question for us, in this seminar on “concrete utopias,” namely:

If there are objectively knowable conceptions of justice that characterize human life and social existence, then first of all, what are they exactly—it would be most important to articulate them precisely for everyone to embrace—but second, and equally importantly, could those ideals of justice constitute “concrete utopias”? In other words, do they amount to (a) a definite vision of a just society (a more classic idea of utopia), (2) specific practical forms of social organization (a more contemporary idea of concrete utopias), or (3) general principles that allow for critique (not necessarily leading to the formulation of utopic ideals)?

The Chomsky-Foucault Debate

This question can be more specifically articulated on the basis of Professor Chomsky’s 1971 debate with the French philosopher, Michel Foucault. During the course of that discussion, I would argue, Professor Chomsky took two slightly different positions regarding what I would call utopian thinking.

“The vision of a future just society”

At one point, perhaps in reaction to Foucault’s hesitations, Professor Chomsky takes a more adamant position about the need “to try to create the vision of a future just society.”

Foucault had expressed resistance to charting a utopian path. “I would say to you that I am much less advanced in my way; I go much less far than Mr. Chomsky,” Foucault stated. “That is to say that I admit to not being able to define, nor for even stronger reasons to propose, an ideal social model for the functioning of our scientific or technological society.”

In response, Professor Chomsky argued for the necessity of charting a path forward. Chomsky spoke of there being two tasks for the intellectual: critique and utopia, in essence. One task, the more classically critical, is to dissect power structures—in Chomsky’s words, “to understand very clearly the nature of power and oppression and terror and destruction in our own society.” The other task is to set forth a vision: “to try to create the vision of a future just society.” This second task is the more utopian, in my eyes, and it reflected a certain utopian refrain in Chomsky:

In fact, if we are thinking of social transformation or social revolution, though it would be absurd, of course, to try to sketch out in detail the goal that we are hoping to reach, still we should know something about where we think we are going, and such a theory may tell it to us…. It is of critical importance that we know what impossible goals we’re trying to achieve, if we hope to achieve some of the possible goals. And that means that we have to be bold enough to speculate and create social theories on the basis of partial knowledge, while remaining very open to the strong possibility, and in fact overwhelming probability, that at least in some respects we’re very far off the mark. (My emphasis)

Notice that the limitation that Chomsky imposes on utopian thinking is mostly here a matter of not wanting to go into details, and also a matter of human fallibility. But there is a real emphasis on being “bold enough to speculate and create social theories on the basis of partial knowledge.” Chomsky explicitly refers here to “the vision of a future just society.”

“Better, not ideal”

Elsewhere, though, Professor Chomsky is more restrained. His task, he insists, is to pursue the “better” not the “ideal”. He explained this well in a portion of his debate with Foucault that concerned the concept of justice.

Foucault had taken an agonistic view of justice, arguing that justice is just another word for class struggle. His language at the time was stunningly Marxist—he injected talk of the proletariat and class warfare. Foucault argued that

if justice is at stake in a struggle, then it is as an instrument of power; it is not in the hope that finally one day, in this or another society, people will be rewarded according to their merits, or punished according to their faults. Rather than thinking of the social struggle in terms of “justice”, one has to emphasise justice in terms of the social struggle.

In other words, for Foucault, talk of “justice” is a weapon that is deployed in power struggles. There is no neutral or objective definition of justice; and there is no ideal of justice as an end point. Instead, people deploy the term in struggle. Foucault was showing his cards as a nominalist.

Professor Chomsky disagreed strenuously and defended a notion, not “ideal” justice he said, but of “better” justice. Chomsky argued:

It seems to me that the difference isn’t between legality and ideal justice; it’s rather between legality and better justice.

I would agree that we are certainly in no position to create a system of ideal justice, just as we are in no position to create an ideal society in our minds. We don’t know enough and we’re too limited and too biased and all sorts of other things. But we are in a position—and we must act as sensitive and responsible human beings in that position—to imagine and move towards the creation of a better society and also a better system of justice. Now this better system will certainly have its defects. But if one compares the better system with the existing system, without being confused into thinking that our better system is the ideal system, we can then argue, I think, as follows:

The concept of legality and the concept of justice are not identical; they’re not entirely distinct either. Insofar as legality incorporates justice in this sense of better justice, referring to a better society, then we should follow and obey the law, and force the state to obey the law and force the great corporations to obey the law, and force the police to obey the law, if we have the power to do so.

Of course, in those areas where the legal system happens to represent not better justice, but rather the techniques of oppression that have been codified in a particular autocratic system, well, then a reasonable human being should disregard and oppose them, at least in principle [if] he may not, for some reason, do it in fact.

Now, this is a tricky passage for me, as a legal theorist. I would argue, as a lawyer, that if we do in fact know what “the law” is, and we believe that the state and private corporations should “obey the law,” then we are pretty close to an ideal conception of justice. And I would maintain, instead, that our political struggles are about defining how the law should be interpreted—that there is never such a thing as “the law” out there (no natural law, nor objective, neutral law), but always a struggle over what the law should be. But let me put that aside for a moment, because it would push us in a different direction.

On the matter at hand—the issue of utopic thinking—Professor Chomsky here argues for a “better,” rather than “ideal” conception of justice that is more limited than the earlier “vision of a future just society.”

The tension between the two possible readings may be reflected in other work as well. In his Preface to Michael Albert’s book Practical Utopias, for instance, Chomsky embraces the ambition of making “constructive efforts to planting the ‘seeds of the future in the present.’ ”[3] In that foreword, though, Chomsky does not engage the future so much as diagnose our present crises. There too, I sense a hesitation to elaborate on practical utopias.

A Matter of Justice

Ultimately, the question that this presents is whether there is a tension between a more objective or naturalistic conception of justice on the one hand, and the hesitation on the other hand to specify the contours of a concrete or practical utopian achievement.

Now, finally, if all of this is too theoretical and abstract—if, in the end, the question of utopian thinking is beside the point and too academic—then the question boils down to a far more concrete one: What is a more definite statement and measurable standard of what we might call “a better society and also a better system of justice”?

Our seminar at Columbia University is the perfect occasion to explore these questions and tensions with the goal, as always, of advancing toward a more just society.

I am thrilled that my colleague, Che Gossett, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, has brought us together for this session with Professor Noam Chomsky and will facilitate the discussion.

Welcome to Utopia 6/13!


[1] Chomsky, “Part 4. Interview with Harry Kreisler, from Political Awakenings (March 22, 2002), in On Anarchism, available at

[2] Chomsky, “Part 4. Interview with Harry Kreisler, from Political Awakenings (March 22, 2002), in On Anarchism (“Nature is tough. You can’t fiddle with Mother Nature, she’s a hard taskmistress. So you’re forced to be honest in the natural sciences. In the soft fields, you’re not forced to be honest. There are standards, of course; on the other hand, they’re very weak. If what you propose is ideologically acceptable, that is, supportive of power systems, you can get away with a huge amount. In fact, the difference between the conditions that are imposed on dissident opinion and on mainstream opinion is radically different.”)

[3] Chomsky “Preface” at p. xiii.