© Tweed the Younger
I note at every available turn my debt to Professor Noam Chomsky. He was my “gateway drug” into what I will call “radical thought”: systematic means of critically thinking about the world. I first came across Chomsky in 2009, and was instantly addicted. Here was a man who finally was “a truth-teller on an epic scale” , who was not a slave to bourgeois-ideological forms, who said purely that what was.
Chomsky is a notable opponent of what we can broadly call ‘postmodernism’. (I emphasize ‘broadly’ here: I do not wish to at this point entertain a discussion on what postmodernism is or isn’t.) Chomsky accuses the postmodernists of a serial obscurantism, of using complicated constructs to obfuscate the inner meaning of their work, which, when the constructs are stripped away, is nothing more profound than what can be explained to an eight year old. He goes further and notes that this is how one can become a renowned academic . Stating simple truths in their bare form will earn you no mass fallowing. In this vein, he notably takes to task Jacques Lacan, whom he beautifully (beauty does not necessarily imply accuracy, mind you) characterizes as “an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan.” Although I have never seen him comment on Slavoj Zizek directly, we can assume that the latter’s ‘eccentric’ (for lack of a better yet non-pathological term) and status as a “card-carrying Lacanian” would draw Chomsky’s ire.
Zizek, on the other hand, has openly criticized Chomsky-the-social-commentator (I take time here to clarify that I have no meaningful conceptual understanding, nor necessarily any significant interest, in Chomsky-the-linguist) on many occasions. This Chomsky is best characterized by his mantra, “if you look at the facts” or “here, we have to look at the facts”…
Chomsky’s work is an indispensible tool in uncovering the dirty facts edited out of the bourgeois world’s self-conception. However, Zizek contests Chomsky’s reliance on facts as the answer. The notion here is that there is little we do not already know: we well know that the CIA plays dirty games in Latin America, that the government arranges the sale of weaponry to prop up military dictators in the Third World, and so on. (Zizek and a chorus of others echoed this attitude through ostensibly ironic proclamations made in reaction to the WikiLeaks drama, claiming that, despite the hysteria, the documents released did not reveal anything not already known.)
The schism lies herein. Zizek insists on the necessity of theory, and would claim that, if facts were enough to spark a radical transformation, it already would have happened, since the facts are already known. Much of this is quite possibly reducible to the respective political sympathies of the two. Zizek, despite his lack of internal consistency at times, quite clearly has both and emotional and intellectual sympathy for the Marxist-Leninists (and Bolshevik-Leninists) of yore, who shared his belief in the primacy of theory. Trotsky can be quoted here:
Just as a surgeon, on whose scalpel a human life depends, distinguishes with extreme care between the various tissues of an organism, so a revolutionist, if he has a serious attitude toward his task, is obliged with strict conscientiousness to analyse the structure of society, its functions and reflexes.
Meanwhile, Chomsky self-identifies as an anarchist. His chief 20th Century sympathies lie not with the Bolsheviks, but with the Catalonian Anarchists of the 1930s. He criticizes Leninism along familiar lines: a cadre of intellectuals, privileging themselves, exploit popular movements to seize state power, and then use that power ruthlessly as they see fit . He emphasizes the core principle of socialism - workers’ control over production – and argues it is absolutely inimical to Leninist history, augmenting traditional anarchist reasoning with a touch of Left-Marxism, citing Rosa Luxemberg and Anton Pannekoek’s polemical criticisms of Lenin.
In the cited video, Chomsky glosses over a certain crucial fact as if it were incidental. He states, “Lenin was a right-wing deviation from the mainstream Marxism, and he was so regarded. We forget who the mainstream Marxists were because they lost. We only remember the guys who won.” It is true, the Bolsheviks won, and the Spartacists lost. It is also true that the Catalan anarchists lost, albeit at least in part due to pressures exerted within the Spanish Republic by the Stalinists, who sought a cross-class, anti-fascist alliance, and thus took steps to turn back the clock on property relations. Eric Hobsbawm argues that this was the necessary stance, that “only the Communist position could have won the war.”
As far as I can identify, there are two problems, the first enveloping the second. First: did the Leninists win, while the other revolutionary socialists lost, because they were more disciplined, armed with more theory, and so forth? And within that: assuming that this clause is true, that the Leninists won and Stalinists maintained due to their discipline, is this within-itself a justification, or by embracing hierarchy, brutality, bureaucracy, and so forth, have we lost the emancipatory kernel that propelled us forward to begin with?
This is no easy question, and I will duck out from it now to jump to the next topic. I will simply state, that there are places for different actors to take different places on multiple fields of struggle. It is perhaps pathetic and arcane to ask for ‘Left unity’ here and now; this stuff has been going on since Marx and Bakunin, who am I to foster a reconciliation? Above all, we should remember that the Zizeks and Chomskys of the world are on the same team, and that theoreticians and factual explicators cannot only coexist, but should interact, in dialectical praxis.