Truth to Power

Fifty years ago today, Noam Chomsky published his landmark antiwar essay, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals."

Noam Chomsky in 2010. jeanbaptisteparis / Flickr

“It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.” So declared Noam Chomsky fifty years ago today in his landmark anti–Vietnam War essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Writing in the pages of the New York Review of Books, Chomsky asserted that intellectuals have a moral duty to use their training and access to information to challenge American imperialism.

The essay’s core argument — that thinkers can best contribute to social change by using their position to tell truths the powerful wish to keep hidden — remains essential for comprehending Chomsky. And the strengths and limitations of Chomsky’s analysis are a valuable starting point for understanding how left-wing intellectuals today can help defeat resurgent right-wing nationalism and revive the socialist movement.

Intellectuals and War

Though Chomsky is today the best-known intellectual on the Left, he was largely unknown to the public before the publication of “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1928 to Jewish immigrants, Chomsky was a radical from a young age. As a child, Chomsky explored anarchist offices and bookstores run by refugees from fascism; at the age of ten, he wrote his first political essay, bemoaning Barcelona’s fall to Franco. He kept his politics to himself as young man, though, focusing instead on establishing himself as a pioneering linguist who sought to discover a “universal grammar,” a deep structure that lies beneath the surface structures of individual languages.

The antiwar movement pushed Chomsky to use his stature as an eminent MIT professor to challenge US foreign policy. He began participating in the growing teach-in movement, which sought to educate Americans about the real causes and consequences of the war. He was arrested at antiwar demonstrations (first at the 1967 March on the Pentagon, where he found himself jailed next to Norman Mailer).

But Chomsky made his real mark not as an activist but as a writer. “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” — which first appeared in the undergraduate journal of the Harvard Hillel Society, where Chomsky originally delivered it as a speech — had an explosive impact upon its publication in the New York Review of Books. That the New York Review, then a new and highly influential journal, would reprint the essay suggested an opening to radical ideas in liberal circles.

As Chomsky knew, the horrendous destruction of life in Vietnam was based on patent falsehoods. Americans were told that they were defending the sovereign nation of South Vietnam from Communist aggression. In fact, South Vietnam was a puppet state that existed only because the US refused to accept a unified Communist Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson and his officials told Americans that the war would be easily won despite serious private doubts. American soldiers who died or suffered lasting physical and psychological wounds were given little explanation for why they were sent to war. At least until 1968, the mainstream media hid the true extent of the damage the US did to the Vietnamese through forced relocations of villages, excessive bombing of North Vietnam, and the use of chemical warfare.

In “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Chomsky’s main target is not policymakers but intellectual apologists for America’s Vietnam policy such as the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Chomsky criticizes Schlesinger and others for opposing the war for the wrong reason: not because it was morally abhorrent but because it was simply a mistake, a war the United States could not win at an acceptable cost. To Chomsky, Schlesinger and others pretended to be hard-headed realists in analyzing world politics but took it as an “article of faith that American motives are pure and not subject to analysis.” Two years later, in his first and best book, American Power and the New Mandarins, Chomsky would label these intellectuals the “new mandarins” because of their subservience to state power.

Against the “cult of the expert,” which urges citizens to defer to foreign policy analysts, Chomsky proposes a conception of intellectual responsibility that asks intellectuals to use their relative freedom from state repression to oppose American imperialism and aid its victims. “Intellectuals,” Chomsky writes, “are in a position to expose the lies of government, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression.”

Chomsky's Consciousness

Written in a withering, sarcastic tone, Chomsky’s essay is a brilliant polemic against the Vietnam War and American imperialism more generally. But however convincing as a statement about intellectuals’ moral responsibility, its political analysis is incomplete.

Chomsky’s strongly rationalistic philosophy, which also underpins his linguistics, sees all humans as hard-wired to come to the same conclusions. There is a single “truth” — those who refuse to acknowledge it have simply been corrupted by power. Similarly, Chomsky believes we could achieve a socialist society if we could only dispel all the harmful illusions our society promotes. “A radical consciousness,” he argues, “will almost certainly develop as a natural consequence of objective study and thinking that frees itself from mythology.”

But merely exposing lies doesn’t spur social change. And total certainty in a single truth introduces a dogmatism detrimental to democratic discourse. By turning disagreement into a question of an individuals’ moral motives, it invites sectarianism. It also makes coalitional politics difficult. To achieve a concrete goal like ending the Vietnam War, radicals need help. That means not writing off liberals. Finally, Chomsky’s moralistic view of politics sometimes leads to a kind of Manicheanism that overstates the extent, coherence, and perfidy of American power.

In “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Chomsky also hails the “free-floating” intellectual who has the independence to tell the truth. But intellectuals are never independent of social forces and never have been. What truths get told depends more on the balance of political forces than on the cowardice or courage of individual thinkers. Chomsky’s own intervention was only possible because of the rise of the antiwar movement.

Truth and Power

More than speaking truth to power, the Left needs an analysis that allows us to identify and exploit contradictions in the current power structure so we can win short-term victories and organize a social base. This is where intellectuals today can be of the most use. By providing such a power analysis, thinkers can effectively aid the fight against Trumpism and the struggle for a viable socialist alternative.

Chomsky’s conception of intellectual responsibility, though flawed, remains an important contribution to this effort. He insisted that intellectuals not waste their time feeling ashamed of their privilege and instead put their position to good use.

For fifty years now, Chomsky has done exactly that. He’s shown how under the right circumstances, truth-telling can be a radical act. He has invaluably and indefatigably challenged American imperialism through his writings. In our own dangerous times, we need the moral courage that Chomsky has advocated and demonstrated more than ever.

It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth. But it is also their responsibility to show how the change we desire is possible.