Che Gossett and Bernard E. Harcourt | Three Topics with Noam Chomsky

By Che Gossett and Bernard E. Harcourt

After Noam Chomsky presents his preliminary thoughts on the importance of planting “the seeds of the future in our present,” as he writes in his Preface to Michael Albert’s book Practical Utopias, we will ask Professor Chomsky to address three sets of questions.

1/ On The Responsibility of Intellectuals

In February of 1967, you authored a remarkable essay in the New York Review of Books on the responsibility of intellectuals in the midst of the Vietnam War. In a very public manner, you courageously urged intellectuals to speak up in the face of atrocity and catastrophe, and you judiciously and rigorously refuted obfuscations of state violence.  “For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us…” You succinctly and impactfully stated that “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies,” which you contended, “may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment,” and yet you pointed out that  “for the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious.”

How do you envision the responsibilities of intellectuals today?  How has the category of the intellectual changed given the status of the university today? What do you envision as the major tasks and responsibilities of the intellectual working inside the coordinates and parameters of the university today, especially in conjunction and solidarity with social movements?  Finally, do you see this formulation of the intellectual’s vocation – that of speaking truth and exposing lies –  informed by, or in conversation with various currents of radical thought – such as what Cedric Robinson terms “the Black radical tradition,” which refers to the political and intellectual labors of figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, Stuart Hall, Claudia Jones, and others?

2/ On The Chomsky-Foucault Debate

Professor Chomsky, you have mostly favored “the better” over “the best” and in that vein you seldom speak of utopias. It’s not always clear, though, whether this hesitation is the product of your not wanting to get into details, about a certain kind of humility, or about the fact of our inevitable fallibility as humans. I’d like to ask you generally about your hesitations regarding the idea of grounded or concrete utopias. More specifically:

In your 1971 debate with the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, it seems that you took two slightly different positions regarding the value of utopian thinking. 

At one point, perhaps in reaction to Foucault’s hesitations, you speak more confidently about the need “to try to create the vision of a future just society.” Foucault had expressed resistance to charting a utopian path. In response,you argue for the necessity of charting a path forward. You speak 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 your 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, and it reflects a utopian refrain in your work.

Elsewhere in the debate, you are more reserved. Your task, you insist, is to pursue the “better” not the “ideal”. You explained this well in the portion of your 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 remarkably Marxist—he injected talk of the proletariat and class warfare. In response, Professor Chomsky, you defended a notion of justice, not ideal justice, but “better” justice. You 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; he may not, for some reason, do it in fact.

In this passage, you seem less sanguine about having a “vision of a future just society.”

The question that this raises 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, of course, if 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”?

3/ On Anarchism

Anarchism is sometimes dismissed as merely utopian, as opposed to being seen as a viable political formation.  How do you define anarchism, and are there current iterations of anarchism that we can look to today as live examples of “concrete utopian” organizing?


Welcome to Utopia 6/13!