'London Review of Books' Debate on 'Decoding Chomsky'

'London Review of Books' Debate on 'Decoding Chomsky'

Chomsky Says (LRB Letters, 1 June 2017)

Hilary Rose says

Jackson Lears asserts that since the 1970s left-wing intellectuals have been drifting away from Chomsky’s rationalist humanism towards a hermeneutics of suspicion (LRB, 4 May). Yet Foucault was politically engaged, especially with the prisoners’ movement, and although today’s Foucauldians may have retreated from the barricades, Chomsky is still a towering figure of the left, unsilenced and unsilenceable.

However, Lears doesn’t mention the contradictions in Chomsky’s radical position, and seems to regard Chomsky’s academic home, MIT, as if it were like any other powerful university. It isn’t. MIT’s chief source of funding has long been the US military. Chomsky sees his linguistics as parallel to pure physics, floating above and entirely uninfluenced by the social; thus being funded by the military cannot influence his science. But since the mid-1970s Everett Mendelsohn, based just across the road in Harvard’s history of science department, has argued – he isn’t the only one – that science and society are co-constructed. Each shapes the other.

Chris Knight, in Decoding Chomsky (2016), tells a story that bears on the happy marriage between Chomsky’s research and the military’s need for a cognitive account of mind. MIT was a prime target of the student movement against the Vietnam War. Chomsky, who was opposed to the war, was caught between the students’ attack on military research at MIT and his reliance on military funding. He was invited by a canny MIT administration to join the committee it had established to discuss the matter. While one activist student on the committee remained hostile to each and every military research project on campus, another joined Chomsky in his more selective criticism. Chomsky’s contribution helped take the steam out of the student revolt.

Hilary Rose
London WC1


Chomsky says (LRB Letters, 15 June 2017)

Hilary Rose’s letter concerning alleged ‘contradictions’ in my ‘radical positions’ relies on an account by Chris Knight that is rich in innuendo and falsification, but lacking in evidence (Letters, 1 June). Knight’s crucial charge, which Rose repeats, is that military funding influenced my scientific work. There is a very simple way to verify the charge: determine whether (and if so how) the work changed from the time I was a graduate student at Harvard with no military funding, to my early years at MIT, when its funding was quite generally military, to subsequent years when I received no military funding at all. Answer: not in the slightest relevant way – which is doubtless why Knight evades this test. Exactly the same is true of the other researchers in the same programme. End of story. And an end to the slanderous charges against all of us.

Further, during the years of military funding in the 1960s our group was at the centre of academic resistance – not protest, resistance – to the war in Vietnam. My own involvement in such activities was even more direct. Knight sidesteps all this.

Rose mentions one specific example, a faculty-student committee on military labs of which I was a member. Following Knight, she misrepresents the issues and the background. In fact the issue of military funding of academic research never came up. As for the labs, it was understood, of course, that whatever the commission determined, the military work would continue. The only question was where. One position, which prevailed, was to end ‘each and every military research project on campus’ (Rose’s approving words). The meaning was obvious: while formally separated from the campus, the military labs would continue their work as before, also effectively maintaining relations with academic programmes, though not visibly. It’s quite true that I didn’t share this concern for the purity of campus, which was a matter of no interest to the Vietnamese or any of the US military’s other victims. Again, no contradiction.

There is much more to say about Knight’s quite astonishing performance and, more important, about the idea that scientific work is necessarily influenced by its source of funding (corporate, military, whatever). That claim, easily refuted, should not be confused with the work of Everett Mendelsohn on science-society relations that Rose adduces. But no need to pursue these matters here.

Noam Chomsky
Cambridge, Massachusetts



Noam Chomsky is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. From the centre and the right he has been vilified for his alleged anti-Americanism, and from the left for his supposed complicity with Pentagon-supported research at MIT. Hilary Rose takes this latter tendency and runs with it, concluding that Chomsky’s putative failure to condemn all military-funded projects at MIT ‘helped take the steam out of the student revolt’. Chomsky is not above criticism, but this is a bizarre claim. Surely there were other more compelling causes for the weakening of anti-war protest: the infiltration of the student movement by FBI agents provocateurs, the ending of the draft, the rise of identity politics. Whatever the ambiguities of Chomsky’s actions at MIT during the Vietnam War, he played a major role in legitimating the anti-war position among the American intelligentsia at a moment when Cold War liberalism was still ascendant and speaking out against militarist pieties required real courage.

There is also an epistemological argument in Rose’s letter, which contrasts Chomsky’s faith in pure science with the historicist view that ‘science and society are co-constructed.’ As a historian I am committed to that constructivist perspective, and there is nothing in my essay to suggest otherwise. What I argued was that Chomsky’s philosophical position is idiosyncratic: he is a rationalist and humanist who believes in the reality of such universal ideals as truth and justice, while at the same insisting that certain problems may remain forever resistant to questions posed by scientific research. From a constructivist view, as I acknowledged, Chomsky’s universalist epistemology may be naive, even fundamentally mistaken. But it may also provide a firmer foundation for political action than a postmodern impulse to question absolutes and universals. In this Chomsky resembles Orwell, whose slogan ‘good prose is like a windowpane’ embodied a simple-minded view of language but also underwrote a commitment to truth-telling in a time of lies.

Jackson Lears
Ringoes, New Jersey


Chomsky Says (LRB letters 13 July)


Much as I admire Noam Chomsky’s politics, I have to take him to task for trying to dragoon sympathisers like myself into accepting his linguistics as ‘science’ (Letters, 15 June). I can’t accept that the biological capacity underlying language didn’t gradually evolve, that it had no precursors but instead sprang up, perfectly formed, via a single mutation, or that it wasn’t designed for communication but remained inactive in speechless individuals for millennia following its installation. These notions are so asocial, apolitical and devoid of practical application that I can only assume Chomsky favoured them to keep his conscience clear: he needed them to ensure that his militarily funded linguistics couldn’t possibly have any military use.

That is the argument of my book: not that Chomsky colluded with his military sponsors but that, given his situation at MIT, he had to move mountains to avoid collusion. In his letter, Chomsky claims that I sidestep his central role in resisting the US war effort in Vietnam. In fact his courageous resistance to the US war machine is my central theme. Had these not been his politics, he wouldn’t have needed to make his work under military funding so utterly useless.

Chomsky says that if my argument were true, it would have been logical for him to have switched between one approach to language and another as military funding waxed and waned. But his entire intellectual milieu was shaped by military preoccupations, the dream of accurate machine translation among them. Chomsky’s concept of language as a stand-alone digital ‘device’ was a product of its time. No one expects an academic who has committed his career to a particular paradigm to discard it just because the funding stops.

I accept that Einstein’s theory of relativity would have been just as scientifically credible whether funded by the church, the military or no one at all. But when something doesn’t work as science, makes no sense, has no practical application and essentially no connection with the rest of science? Then we have to seek a different explanation for its prevalence.

Chris Knight
London SE22



Noam Chomsky may honestly believe that the source of his funding in the 1960s was irrelevant but the funder may have had a different perspective. When a government body funds research, it does so on the basis that it considers the research relevant to the department’s brief. To the funder there is no disinterested knowledge. In the decades following the Second World War, not all military funding was directed at finding better ways of killing or maiming more of the enemy’s population than your own; significant funds were directed at information and control, seen as key in future forms of war. Research funded by the military with these ends in mind ushered in artificial intelligence, informatics, the web, GPS, smartphones and Siri, as well as Chomsky’s revolution in linguistic theory.

Hilary Rose
London WC1


Chomsky has the last say (LRB 17 August)

The distasteful correspondence that Chris Knight and Hilary Rose have carried forward began with their very serious charges against the linguistics programme at MIT, and against me in particular: namely, that we abandoned honest research and scholarship and followed the demands of the military (Letters, 1 June). Though the charges did not merit attention, I did respond, and suggested a simple test: show how our work changed in any relevant respect from what preceded it (Letters, 15 June). There was no change. End of story. All that remains is the need for apologies.

Knight now claims that work I completed before there was any thought of military funding was undertaken ‘to ensure that [my] militarily funded linguistics couldn’t possibly have any military use’ (Letters, 13 July). He further claims that when I continued exactly the same work at MIT, I ‘had to move mountains to avoid collusion’ with the military. Evidently, he couldn’t know whether that claim was true or false. In fact, there was no pressure at all, as is demonstrated by the record of appointments and promotions during the period when the programme he maligns was becoming the main academic centre for resistance (not protest) against the war in Vietnam.

Knight goes on to claim that I have been trying to ‘dragoon’ him into accepting my linguistics as ‘science’. I couldn’t care less what he thinks about my work.

Rose’s response is even worse. She now reduces her charges to the claim that the Pentagon considered ‘the research relevant to [its] brief’. She doesn’t even attempt to justify the claim. Doctrinal verities suffice. (Knight tries, at least: he says that my work was inspired by ‘the dream of accurate machine translation’ – a topic I have never had the slightest interest in, and to which my work has no relevance.) Rose is effectively claiming that the Pentagon was greatly interested in Turkish nominalisation (the first dissertation in our programme), Australian aboriginal languages, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s inquiries into language and the political order, and other work of comparable military relevance. And, by the same logic, that it took a similar interest in the incipient programme in philosophy and other teaching and research programmes sustained in the same manner, including undergraduate courses in radical politics. As for her claim that the military funded these endeavours along with ‘Chomsky’s revolution in linguistic theory’ because they were ‘seen as key in future forms of war’ – I will make no comment, out of politeness.

Noam Chomsky
Cambridge, Massachusetts



By titling this letter 'Chomsky has the last say', the LRB prevented me or Hilary from continuing the debate. Much of what I would have said will be in the new edition of my book, out in January 2018.

War Research in Chomsky's Lab at MIT

War Research in Chomsky's Lab at MIT

Noam Chomsky has repeatedly claimed that at MIT 'there was zero military work on campus'. This claim is difficult to reconcile with the fact that his own workplace, the Research Laboratory of Electronics, has made many important contributions to US military technology.

In 1971, the US Army's office of Research and Development published an article that began with this sentence:


Enumeration of the many RLE research contributions that have had military applications necessarily must be limited to a few examples.

It went on to mention the following examples, stating that they were only a 'few' of the many contributions made:


A classic paper with a 'negative' result saved the military countless dollars by pointing out the limitations of 'super-gain' antennas.

Contributions to the theory of beam-shaping antennas and helical antennas have had important applications. Work on microwave filters examined the possibility of broadband impedance matching.

Pioneering work was done on such diverse topics as ionospheric communication, missile guidance, phased-array antennas, and atomic clocks.

Contributions to signal detection in the presence of noise have been acclaimed as exceedingly important in military and commercial applications.

Early work in communications included trans-Atlantic frequency-modulation tests. Results led to substantial improvements in FM receiver design, special-purpose analog and digital computers, work in tropospheric and ionospheric scatter techniques, and theory of sequential switching circuits.

Major contributions were reported in development of the statistical approach to communication theory, and in information and coding theory.

In [an] environment of active research on communications theory and advanced electronic instrumentation techniques, the stimulus provided by the late Norbert Wiener encouraged the initiation and growth of research related to living systems.

Work was done also on simple automata, possibilities of human sensor augmentation or replacement and measurement techniques were developed to study neuroelectric signals.

In each of these area, RLE made continuing contributions and has had a part in stimulating similar work in other laboratories.

(From: 'Tri-Services Honor MIT Achievements in Military Electronics R&D', Army Research and Development News Magazine, Vol. 12 no.4, July-August 1971, p68.)

Comments and reviews

Decoding Chomsky has been generally well reviewed (e.g. Chronicle of Higher Education, Brooklyn Rail, New Scientist) but clearly upset some readers. If you enjoy shrill partisanship and name-calling, check out these two very hostile reviews: (1) Norbert Hornstein & Nathan Robinson (2) Robert Barksy.

The whole story is a wreck... complete nonsense throughout.
— Noam Chomsky
I can say that this is the best critique of Chomsky from the left that I have ever read. I disagree with Knight quite profoundly on a number of key issues, but in every chapter I learned something new and, in fact, found myself agreeing with him more and more as the book progressed.
— Frederick Newmeyer, author of 'Linguistic Theory in America'.
This is Chomsky from a new perspective, the perspective of a social anthropologist. It connects his science with his politics in a novel and convincing way. Knight has dug deeper and made more interconnections than anyone has done before. The result is truly revelatory.
— Michael Tomasello, author of 'A Natural History of Human Thinking.'
Chris Knight tells a compelling story with startling clarity and forceful elegance, about the bizarre results of studying language, that most human of faculties, by removing it as far as possible from lived human experience. He provides a persuasive explanation for Chomsky’s strategy that reveals striking perspectives on the relationship between science, politics and values.
— Marek Kohn, author of 'As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind.'
Chris Knight has done the intellectual world a favour by exploring, with a critical and comprehending eye, the twists and turns of the thought of Noam Chomsky. Anyone who wants to understand the political and intellectual development of ideas that have dramatically altered modern science and political activism should read this book.
— Daniel L. Everett, author of 'Language: The Cultural Tool.'
Few disagree that language has been a game-changer for the human species. But just how we came by language remains hotly contested. In ‘Decoding Chomsky’, Chris Knight strides into this minefield to bravely replace miraculous leaps and teleology with a proposal that actually makes evolutionary sense.
— Sarah Hrdy, author of 'Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.'
This is one of the most exciting scholarly books I have read in years. Decoding Chomsky will be required reading for anyone at all interested in the history of intellectual and political thought since the 1950s.
— David Golumbia, author of 'The Cultural Logic of Computation.'
Decoding Chomsky reads like a detective novel. So many of the arguments I found right on the mark, but I would recommend it just for the pleasure of reading Knight’s great English prose, particularly his talent for understatement. A truly fantastic work, simply brilliant. I could not put it down.
— Luc Steels, Director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Free University, Brussels.
Decoding Chomsky is a groundbreaking analysis of the wide chasm that now exists between modern language science and Chomsky’s view of language. A must-read for anyone trying to understand the history and trajectory of Chomsky’s ideas.
— Gary Lupyan, University of Wisconsin
This book provides a fascinating account of the disconnect and symmetry between Chomsky’s value-free science and his science-free politics. Knight roots this in the tension between Chomsky ‘s detestation of the US military and his dependence on military funding for his linguistic research.
— Les Levidow, editor, 'Science as Culture'
Intellectually hip and iconoclastic, ‘Decoding Chomsky’ surveys 1950s McCarthyite politics and 1960s student unrest in order to get a handle on the extraordinary influence of Noam’s ideas. If you’re a former New Left protestor against university collaboration with the US war machine or a current 21st-century anti-war student, you’ll find Knight’s chapter on MIT’s historical relationship to the Pentagon – titled ‘The Most Hideous Institution On This Earth’ – especially cutting-edge, ground-breaking and informative.
— Bob Feldman, Students for a Democratic Society Steering C'ttee, Columbia University 1968.
A totally engrossing roller coaster ride. Riveting and revealing, ‘Decoding Chomsky’ gives badly needed perspective to an American icon.
— David Wineberg, Amazon.com
An authoritative, deeply thoughtful and very well written analysis, shedding light on a hitherto incomprehensible tangle. Knight’s revelatory investigation helps me understand why for so many decades I could never make sense of Chomsky’s various pronouncements about the evolution of language.
— ‘Fifth Generation Texan’, Amazon.com
Social anthropologist Chris Knight has, almost miraculously, solved the Chomsky Problem. I’ve been trying to solve it for 20 years; I now feel the euphoria that one of us has solved it. ‘Decoding Chomsky’ is an astonishingly well-written and researched volume that will probably be the most important work in the history of ideas, post World War II, that you’ll read for quite some time. It’s so lucid and well-researched and intellectually and emotionally gripping I couldn’t find a fault with it, though I tried.
— Michael Johnson, 'Overweening Generalist'
Really important books do not come along very often. But here is one of them.
— Jack Conrad, 'Weekly Worker.'
‘Decoding Chomsky’ will make uncomfortable reading for some because while Knight celebrates Chomsky’s anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics, he reminds us of the other Chomsky, the world-famous linguist. Most of us in the labour movement know little and care less about this side of Chomsky’s work. Why should we? It’s highly technical, appears irrelevant to our activism and anyway, who am I to judge? Chris Knight thinks we should care.
— Jackie Walker, 'Labour Briefing.'
Knight offers a sustained argument against the view that Chomsky’s work as a linguistic scientist can be separated (compartmentalised) from the military and state ties of the institution in which he worked, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
— Andrew Coates, 'Tendance Coatesy.'
Knight argues that Chomsky needed to deny any connection between his science and his politics in order to practise both while based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an institution that was heavily funded by the US military. Trenchant and compelling.
— Marek Kohn, 'New Scientist.'
I enjoyed reading this book... If you’ve ever pondered the way Chomsky acts like he’s basically two separate people, you will find this book well-stocked with quotes and anecdotes that outline the strange relationship between Chomsky and Chomsky…
— Lauren Gawne, 'Superlinguo.'
Knight says his ‘subversive intention’ is ‘to serve justice on Chomsky the scientist without doing an injustice to Chomsky the conscience of America.’ Now why should that be subversive? Any voice critical of Chomsky risks being dismissed as yet another right-wing defender of political orthodoxy, but given even the most superficial examination of Knight’s biography one could hardly question that he supports the substance of Chomsky’s views (as do I).

Nonetheless, he shows how Chomsky has acquiesced in – more than that, has participated in and abetted – a radical post-war transformation of the relation of science to society, legitimating one of the significant political achievements of the right, the pretense that science is apolitical.
— Bruce Nevin, 'The Brooklyn Rail.'
‘Decoding Chomsky’ was a decade in the making and may be the most in-depth meditation on ‘the Chomsky problem’ ever published. A compelling read.
— Tom Bartlett, 'The Chronicle of Higher Education.'












Noam Chomsky’s 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals', 50 years on - Video of conference at University College London

Noam Chomsky’s 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals', 50 years on - Video of conference at University College London


Nicholas Allott (co-author of Chomsky, Ideas and Ideals) – Introductory remarks

Jackie Walker (former vice-chair of Momentum) – A black, Jewish activist’s take on the responsibility of intellectuals

Kriszta Szendroi (senior lecturer in linguistics at UCL) – Value-system and intensity; a tribute to the late Tanya Reinhart

Milan Rai (author of Chomsky’s Politics) – The propaganda model and the British nuclear weapons debate


Chris Knight (author of Decoding Chomsky) – Speaking truth to power from within the heart of the Empire

Craig Murray (former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan) – The abdication of responsibility

Noam Chomsky – Video from Arizona

To see Chris Knight's response to Chomsky's comments about MIT's war research, click HERE.



Chomsky at MIT: Between the war scientists and the anti-war students

Chomsky at MIT: Between the war scientists and the anti-war students

It is now fifty years since Noam Chomsky published his celebrated article, 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals'. Few other writings had a greater impact on the turbulent political atmosphere on US campuses in the 1960s. The essay launched Chomsky's political career as the world's most intransigent and cogent critic of US foreign policy - a position he has held to this day.

No one could doubt Chomsky's sincerity or his gratitude to the student protesters who brought the war in Vietnam to the forefront of public debate. On the other hand, he viewed the student rebels as 'largely misguided', particularly when they advocated revolution. Referring to the student and worker uprising in Paris in May 1968, Chomsky recalls that he 'paid virtually no attention to what was going on,' adding that he still believes he was right in this. Seeing no prospect of revolution in the West at this time, Chomsky went so far as to describe US students' calls for revolution as 'insidious'. While he admired their 'challenge to the universities', he expressed 'skepticism about how they were focusing their protests and criticism of what they were doing' - an attitude that led to 'considerable conflict' with many of them. [1]

As is well known, Chomsky's university was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught and researched linguistics in one of its research laboratories funded by the military. Although he sometimes understates MIT's military role, Chomsky has never made a secret of its Pentagon connections. Referring to the 1960s, he explains that MIT was 'about 90% Pentagon funded at that time. And I personally was right in the middle of it. I was in a military lab. If you take a look at my early publications, they all say something about Air Force, Navy, and so on, because I was in a military lab, the Research Lab for Electronics.'[2]

By the late 1960s, MIT's various laboratories and departments were researching helicopter design, radar, smart bombs and counterinsurgency techniques for the ongoing war in Vietnam. In Chomsky's words: 'There was extensive weapons research on the MIT campus. ... In fact, a good deal of the [nuclear] missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus and in laboratories run by the university.'[3] One of the radical student newspapers of the time, The Old Mole, expressed things still more bluntly:

'MIT isn't a center for scientific and social research to serve humanity. It's a part of the US war machine. Into MIT flow over $100 million a year in Pentagon research and development funds, making it the tenth largest Defense Department R&D contractor in the country. MIT's purpose is to provide research, consulting services and trained personnel for the US government and the major corporations - research, services, and personnel which enable them to maintain their control over the people of the world.'[4]

In the light of this, it is hardly surprising that, according to one former MIT student, 'most radical students, as well as many liberal students, wanted first and foremost to stop the war research.'[5] But in 1969, in a contribution to an official MIT report, Chomsky took a significantly different position. Echoing the language of defense and deterrence favoured by the university's military scientists, he proposed that, rather than closing down the military laboratories, 'they should be restricted to research on systems of a purely defensive and deterrent character.' One of the leading student activists at MIT at the time, Michael Albert, later described Chomsky's cautious position as, in effect, 'preserving war research with modest amendments.'[6] I should point out, however, that despite their disagreements, Albert remains supportive of Chomsky to this day, as do other student radicals who have known Chomsky personally over the years.

Back in 1969, MIT's student radicals were keen to take direct action against the university's war research by, among other things, occupying the office of its president, Howard Johnson. Again, Chomsky took a different position and at one point, according to one of his academic colleagues, he joined with other professors in standing in Johnson's office to prevent the students from occupying it. As he said later about such occupations, 'I wasn't in favor of it myself, and didn't like those tactics.'[7]

MIT's radicals not only organised occupations, they also organised a mass picket of the university's nuclear missile laboratories. Determined to put a stop to this kind of disruption, the university eventually had six students sentenced to prison terms.[8] One of these students, George Katsiaficas, served time for the crime of 'disruption of classes'. To this day, he remains indignant about his treatment and says that the phrase, the 'banality of evil' - famously used by Hannah Arendt to describe Nazi war criminals - applies equally to President Howard Johnson. Adopting a quite different tone, however, Chomsky told Time magazine that Johnson was an 'honest, honourable man' and it seems he even attended a faculty party held to celebrate Johnson's success at containing the student protests.[9]

Chomsky has acknowledged that some students did suffer from incidents 'that should not have happened'. But, while student leader Michael Albert described MIT as another 'Dachau' whose 'victims burned in the fields of Vietnam', Chomsky has again and again come to the university's defence.[10] In view of the imprisonments, expulsions and job losses suffered by MIT's radicals, it is hard to know what to make of Chomsky's claim that MIT's anti-war activists 'had no problems' from the university. Nor is it easy to recognise his description of MIT as 'one of the most free universities in the world' with 'the best relations between faculty and students than at any other university.'[11]


Still more puzzling was Chomsky's attitude when Walt Rostow visited MIT in 1969. Rostow was one of those prominent intellectuals whom Chomsky had so eloquently denounced in his 'Responsibility of Intellectuals' article. As an adviser to both President John Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson, Rostow had been one of the main architects of the war in Vietnam. In particular he was the strategist responsible for the carpet bombing of North Vietnam.

Against this background, it was hardly surprising that when Rostow arrived at MIT, his lecture was disrupted by students furious at his presence on their campus.[12] Far from associating himself with such student rage, however, when Chomsky heard that Rostow was hoping to return to his former job at MIT, he actually welcomed the prospect. Then, when he heard that the university was poised to reject Rostow's job application for fear of more student disruption, Chomsky went to Howard Johnson and threatened to lead MIT's anti-war students to 'protest publicly' - not against - but in favour of Rostow being allowed back to the university.[13]

Rostow wasn't the only powerful militarist at MIT to receive support from Chomsky. Twenty years later, Chomsky was, as he says, 'one of the very few people on the faculty' who supported John Deutch's bid to become university President.[14] Deutch was particularly controversial because, as MIT's radical newspaper, The Thistle, explained, he was both an 'advocate of US nuclear weapons build-up' and 'a strong supporter of biological weapons, and of using chemical and biological weapons together in order to increase their killing efficiency.' In fact, by the late 1980s, Deutch had not only brought chemical and biological weapons research to MIT, he had apparently 'pressured junior faculty into performing this research on campus'.[15]

Fearing that the university was about to become even 'more militaristic', MIT's radicals - with the notable exception of Chomsky - joined others on the faculty to successfully block Deutch's appointment. Then, later, when President Clinton made Deutch No.2 at the Pentagon and, in 1995, Director of the CIA, student activists demanded that MIT cut all ties with him. Chomsky once again disagreed, The New York Times reporting him as saying of Deutch that 'he has more honesty and integrity than anyone I've ever met in academic life, or any other life.... If somebody's got to be running the CIA, I'm glad it's him.'[16] And, of course, the most remarkable thing about all this is that, throughout this entire period, Chomsky was churning out dozens of brilliantly argued articles and books denouncing the CIA and the US military as criminals, their hands dripping in blood.

One way of making sense of Chomsky's various contradictory positions is to view them in the light of the public statements made by MIT's managers at the height of the student unrest in 1969. At this time, President Howard Johnson described his university as 'a refuge from the censor, where any individual can pursue truth as he sees it, without any interference.'[17] Underlying such statements was Johnson's anxiety lest MIT's military scientists suffer 'interference' from protesting students and Johnson himself wasn't too consistent in defending this position, readily abandoning it when he declined Rostow's request to return to MIT. Unlike Johnson, however, Chomsky stuck to the university's principles. He remained true to the MIT's non-interference stance, even to the point of defending the right of a potential war criminal, John Deutch, and an actual 'war criminal' (Chomsky's description of Walt Rostow) to hold important posts at the university.[18]

Part of the explanation for all this may have been Chomsky's reluctance to fall out with fellow faculty members, especially those with whom he associated regularly. As he remarked at one point, 'I'm always talking to the scientists who work on missiles for the Pentagon.'[19] But there must have been more to Chomskyís behaviour than this.

In 1969, one MIT student is reported to have justified his opposition to the university's military research on the grounds that 'one doesn't have the right to build gas chambers to kill people', adding that 'the principle that people should not kill other people is more important than notions of freedom to do any kind of research one might want to undertake.'[20] Chomsky, by contrast, extended the principle of academic non-interference to unusual lengths. It was crucial to him that MIT held strictly to the management ideal of the university as 'a refuge from the censor'. After all, a less libertarian policy might have undermined his own conflicted position as an anti-war campaigner working in a laboratory funded by the US military.

None of this makes Chomsky's opposition to US militarism any less genuine or admirable. If anything, his dissidence was all the more remarkable given the context in which it was expressed. My aim here is simply to highlight how conflicted Chomsky must have felt, being a committed anti-militarist in an institution so closely associated with a war machine that was inflicting so much death and misery across the globe.

Chomsky's moral qualms were particularly apparent at the height of the war in Vietnam when, in October 1968, Chomsky told The New York Times that he felt 'guilty most of the time'.[21] One way to assuage this guilt might have been to resign and, as it happens, around the time that the New York Review of Books published 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals' in its February 1967 edition, Chomsky was thinking of doing just that. The March edition of the Review included a letter from Chomsky saying he had 'given a good bit of thought to ... resigning from MIT, which is, more than any other university associated with the activities of the Department of "Defense"'. However, Chomsky soon had second thoughts which he expressed in a follow-up letter published in the April edition. Whereas in his original letter he had complained that MIT's 'involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible', in the follow-up he claimed - in a surprising about-turn - that 'MIT as an institution has no involvement in the war effort. Individuals at MIT, as elsewhere, have direct involvement and that is what I had in mind.'[22]

So it appears that, despite his sincere and often courageous opposition to the US military, Chomsky felt a simultaneous pull in the opposite direction, prompting him to tone down criticisms of MIT in order to protect his ability to continue with the job he loved. My own view is that the intensity of Chomsky's anti-militarist dissidence can be explained in part by his need to square his continued MIT employment with a political conscience that refused to lie down.

I have no space in a short article to explain how such moral dilemmas influenced not only Chomsky's political work but also his linguistics. Suffice it to say that Chomsky was hired to work at MIT by Jerome Wiesner, a military scientist who, in the 1950s, was arguing 'fervently for developing and manufacturing ballistic missiles.' Wiesner was an adviser to both the CIA and President Eisenhower and it is hard to think of anyone in US academia who was more deeply involved in both the technology and decision making of nuclear war than he was.[23]

Wiesner initially employed Chomsky because, as he said, '[we wanted to] use computers to do automatic translation, so we hired Noam Chomsky and Yehoshua Bar-Hillel to work on it.' In this Cold War period, the US military were investing millions of dollars in linguistic research not only to automatically translate Eastern bloc documents but also to enhance their computer systems of 'command and control' for both nuclear war and, later, for the war in Vietnam.[24]

Chomsky, therefore, found himself from the very beginning of his career working in a largely conservative institutional milieu among colleagues more or less happy to conduct advanced weapons research. Given his own political commitments, on the other hand, he needed to ensure that his own particular contribution would not assist the military in any way. He solved this problem by extricating linguistics from practicalities altogether. Language, under Chomsky's novel definition, became non-communicative, non-social and, in effect, little more than a Platonic abstraction. In short, for fifty years, much of linguistics was driven into an academic dead-end from which it has taken decades to emerge. But all that is another story ....[25]

Chris Knight is author of Decoding Chomsky: Science and revolutionary politics (Yale University Press, 2016).


1. R.Barsky, Noam Chomsky, a life of dissent, p122, 131; N.Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, p17-18.

2. G.D.White, Campus Inc., p445.

3. M.Albert, Remembering Tomorrow, p97-99; C.P.Otero, Noam Chomsky: Language and Politics (2004), p216; S.Bridger, Scientists at War, Ch.6. Of course, any university that restricted its research to the development of military technology would soon run out of new ideas so MIT does a lot of pure science, including linguistics. But, as Michael Albert says, 'War blood ran through MIT's veins. It flooded the research facilities and seeped even into the classrooms.' In the late 1960s, some 500 students worked in MIT's military laboratories. Most worked in the Instrumentation Laboratories that were part of the engineering school and which, in Chomsky's words, were only 'two inches off campus' with people going 'between them all the time'. MIT also did military research 'on campus' for both the Navy and the CIA. Albert p99; MIT Review Panel on Special Laboratories, Final Report, p59-69; Works And Days 51-4: Vol. 26/27, 2008-09, p533; MIT Bulletin, Report of the President, 1969, p237-40, 255; The Tech, 31/10/69, p1, 10.

4. 'Why Smash MIT?', in I.Wallerstein, The University Crisis Reader, Vol.2 p240-3; Albert p113-4.

5. Stephen Shalom, New Politics, Vol.6(3) No.23.

6. MIT Review Panel on Special Laboratories, Final Report, p37-8; Albert p98.

7. J.Segel, Recountings; Conversations with MIT mathematicians, p206-7; N.Chomsky, ëMIT 150 Infinite History Projectí.

8. The Tech, 14/12/71, p8 and The Tech, 4/8/72, p1.

9. www.eroseffect.com/articles/holdingthecenter.pdf; Time, 21/11/69 p68 and 15/3/71 p43; H.Johnson, Holding the Center, p202-3.

10. N.Chomsky, Chomsky on Democracy and Education, p311; Albert p9, 16. Chomsky's ambivalence about any kind of illegal or confrontational action at MIT was shown again, in 2011, when the university cooperated with the prosecution of Aaron Swartz for the 'crime' of downloading Jstor journals from MIT's library. Although Jstor agreed to a deal whereby Swartz would avoid prison, MIT apparently rejected this deal and the threat of decades in prison helped drive Swartz to suicide. When asked about this tragic event, Chomsky did say that MIT should have acted differently. However he also implied that Swartz should have been prosecuted - if only for a 'misdemeanour' - and he even said: 'If you take Jstor and make it public, Jstor goes out of business ... [and] nobody has access to the journals. ... You can't just liberate things, pretending you don't exist in the [capitalist] world.' 'Noam Chomsky at the British Library' (video, at 1hr.30mins.); The Boston Globe, 15/1/13; The Atlantic, 30/7/13. See also: 'Passing Noam on My Way Out, Part 2: Chomsky vs. Aaron Swartz'.

11. The Tech, 14/12/71, p8; N.Chomsky, Class Warfare (1999), p137; White p445-6; R.Chepesiuk, Sixties Radicals, p145; S.Diamond, Compromised Campus, p284-5.

12. D.Milne, America's Rasputin; The Tech, 11/4/69, p1, 8.

13. Barsky p141; 'TV debate between Noam Chomsky and William Buckley'.

14. Chomsky, Class Warfare, p135-6.

15. The Tech, 7/3/89, p2, 16 and 27/5/88, p2, 11; The Thistle, Vol.9 No.7.

16. The Thistle, Vol.9 No.7; The New York Times, 10/12/95.

17. MIT Bulletin, Report of the President, 1969, p3.

18. J.Wiesner, Jerry Wiesner, p582; Johnson p189-90; Barsky p141.

19. N.Chomsky, Understanding Power (2013), p10.

20. The Tech, 22/4/69, p1.

21. The New York Times, 27/10/68.

22. New York Review of Books, 25 March and April 1967.

23. The New York Times, 23/10/94; D.Welzenbach, 'Science and Technology: Origins of a Directorate', p16, 21; L.Smullin, 'Jerome Bert Wiesner, 1915-1994, A Biographical Memoir', p 1, 7-10, 20; D.L.Snead, Eisenhower and the Gaither Report, p189; M.Rosenberg, Plans and Proposals for the Ballistic Missile Initial Operation Capability Progam, piii-iv, 6-11, 17-22.

24. S.Garfinkel, 'Building 20, A Survey'; J.Nielsen, ëPrivate Knowledge, Public Tensions: Theory commitment in postwar American linguisticsí, p 39-42, 194, 338-42; F.J.Newmeyer, The Politics of Linguistics, p84-6. Wiesner went on to say, 'It didn't take us long to realize that we didn't know much about language. So we went from automatic translation to fundamental studies about the nature of language.' Wiesner later became critical of US policy on both nuclear weapons and on the Vietnam war but this did not stop him from continuing to oversee MIT's huge military research program which he, naturally, justified on the grounds of 'academic freedom'. The Tech, 28/4/72, p5; L.Kampf, 'The University in American Power' (audio, at 48mins.).

25. Another academic dead-end, in the form of postmodernism, befell cultural theory and it is notable that MIT also played a formative role in that intellectual disaster. See: B.Geoghegan, 'From Information Theory to French Theory', Critical Inquiry 38 (2011).

'Decoding Chomsky' - the book

Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics

by Chris Knight

Occupying a pivotal position in postwar thought, Noam Chomsky is both the founder of modern linguistics and the world's most prominent political dissident. Chris Knight adopts an anthropologist's perspective on the twin output of this intellectual giant, acclaimed as much for his denunciations of US foreign policy as for his theories about language and mind. Knight explores the social and institutional context of Chomsky's thinking, showing how the tension between military funding and his role as linchpin of the political left pressured him to establish a disconnect between science on the one hand and politics on the other, deepening a split between mind and body characteristic of Western philosophy since the Enlightenment. Provocative, fearless, and engaging, this remarkable study explains the enigma of one of the greatest intellectuals of our time.


“This is Chomsky from a new perspective, the perspective of a social anthropologist. It connects his science with his politics in a novel and convincing way. Knight has dug deeper and made more interconnections than anyone has done before. The result is truly revelatory.”

— Michael Tomasello, author of A Natural History of Human Thinking


“Chris Knight has done the intellectual world a favour by exploring, with a critical and comprehending eye, the twists and turns of the thought of Noam Chomsky. Anyone who wants to understand the political and intellectual development of ideas that have dramatically altered modern science and political activism should read this book.”

— Daniel L. Everett, author of Language: The Cultural Tool


“Few disagree that language has been a game-changer for the human species. But just how we came by language remains hotly contested. In Decoding Chomsky, Chris Knight strides into this minefield to bravely replace miraculous leaps and teleology with a proposal that actually makes evolutionary sense.”

— Sarah Hrdy, author of Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding


“This is one of the most exciting scholarly books I have read in years. Decoding Chomsky will be required reading for anyone at all interested in the history of intellectual and political thought since the 1950s.”

— David Golumbia, author of The Cultural Logic of Computation

© Chris Knight 2016

'Campus best place to keep an eye on the military' - Chomsky on war research

'Campus best place to keep an eye on the military' - Chomsky on war research

Chomsky stressed that if military research were to take place anywhere in society, it should be in universities. (See his Language and Politics, p216-7.)

Chomsky made this argument while major student unrest was occurring at MIT. One of his talks that referred to this was entitled 'The Function of the University in a Time of Crisis'. It is reported that radical students in the audience of this lecture were 'surprised' and 'dismayed' by Chomsky's stance.

Here are two reports from the 30 December 1969 editions of, first, The Boston Globe and, then, The Los Angeles Times:

When Chomsky had made a similar argument around the time of the 1968 Columbia University occupation, many students were equally 'surprised':

Faculty Group Holds Forum on the Nature of the University. (May 13 1968)

The Independent Faculty Group, one of the many bodies which is now developing proposals for the reorganization of Columbia, held the first of a series of discussions Friday evening on the nature of the university.

Earlier Friday the group released a statement calling for ‘a form of discourse less concerned with the punishment of persons and more with the task of understanding and evaluating their behaviour in social and political settings not anticipated by previous disciplinaryprocedures.’

The forum did not address itself directly to the disorders of the past few weeks, but was concerned with the larger concepts of the university that have been the context of political activity here during the crisis.

Associate Professor of Philosophy Robert P. Wolf, after discarding the Marxist view of the university as a ‘capitalist corporation’ and the Clark Kerr model of the university as a ‘social service station’ presented what was obviously his and the audience’s conception: the university as a ‘community of learning’. According to this construct, Professor Wolf explained, the faculty and students literally are the university, while the administrators are their servants.

‘We must decide collectively to act as a university’, Professor Wolff declared. ‘The administration and the Trustees will have no choice but to accede to our conception of a university’. Noam Chomsky, professor of philosophhy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spoke later in the forum after Stuart Hampshire, Professor of philosopohy at Princeton, and Peter Gay, Professor of History. Professor Chomsky, who is a supporter of the Resistance, surprised many in the audience by dissenting from radical arguments in vogue at Columbia.

‘The defects of universities are marginal,’ Professor Chomsky said. ‘Not all the problems of the world are problems of the university.’ The failings of universities are generally the faults of individual members and not of the institutions themselves, Professor Chomsky told the audience. The responsiveness of administrations is usually high, he said, and the opportunities for self-expression are great.

‘Professor Chomsky stated that no gain would result if the Institute for Defense Analyses were forced to leave university campuses. He claimed that the main problem was changing people’s ‘consciousness’ about the war. ‘My task is to change the opinions of those who do war research’ Professor Chomsky said. The only other way of stopping them from working for agencies like the IDA he observed, would be to kill them.

The university is inherently a ‘parasitic institution,’ Professor Chomsky stated. The way to overcome the danger of outside control is by ‘fostering values of academic freedom.’
— Columbia Daily Spectator. New York. Monday May 13 1968, pp. 1, 4.

Chomsky responds to my book

Chomsky responds to my book

Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times (October 31, 2016) interviews Noam Chomsky:

Chomsky here claims that no 'military or classified work' was being done on the MIT campus during the 1960s. Unfortunately, he has previously admitted the opposite on so many occasions that it's hard to know why he considers this a sensible way to undermine confidence in my argument:

There was extensive weapons research on the MIT campus. ... In fact, a good deal of the [nuclear] missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus and in laboratories run by the university.
— Noam Chomsky, 2004. 'Language and Politics' (ed. C. Otero), p. 216.
6 .END WAR RESEARCH AT MITjpg copy.jpg

In fact, as Chomsky explains in a 2009 interview, that claim made by the Pounds Commission was in fact an administrative fiction designed to disguise what was really going on:   

But the real issue in the Pounds Commission was whether to separate the laboratories from the Institute. There were sort of three views that came out. There was what was called the liberals, who said yeah, we’ve got to separate them from the campus. There were the conservatives who said we’ve got to keep them on campus. There were two or three of us, one student, one me, who were called the radicals. Who agreed with the conservatives. We’ve got to keep them on campus, so that people know what’s going on. It’s a focus of attention and concern, and you think about it, let’s not hide it somewhere – where the same relationships are going to continue, but under an apparent administrative break. Well, we lost, the liberals won. They were formally separated.
— Noam Chomsky interviewed by Karen Arenson in 2009. MIT 'infinite history project.'

Here is how Chomsky describes the true situation in a further 2009 interview:

There wasn’t any classified work on campus, but it was two inches off campus. The labs right next door were doing classified work and people were between them all the time.
— 'Lessons from history'. Edward Carvalho interviews Noam Chomsky. Works and Days, 51//54: Vols. 26 & 27, 2008-09, p. 530.
Knight does the better job of destroying Chomsky’s story by showing a constant, failing effort to make the unshakeable idea work. Wolfe makes the tale more dramatic, but probably less convincing. And Wolfe hangs his drama on secondary issues. He badly misunderstands the whole matter of recursion, for example.
— 'Babel's Dawn'

Abstracts for the UCL conference

Jackie Walker. ‘I don’t want no peace’, a black, Jewish activist’s take on the responsibility of intellectuals

Professor Chomsky’s 1967 essay, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, was written in the context of the ongoing American invasion of Vietnam. American post Second World War optimism was dissolving as stories of defeat, American use of chemical warfare and scenes of drug hazed GIs on the rampage overlapped with televised, home grown footage of white barbarity against fellow black citizens. For people of colour, always excluded from the dream of America, this ‘fall from grace’ was simply another encounter with the truth as they lived it; an America built on genocide, enslavement and oppression.

Today, while Trump’s presidential campaign suggested a desire for decreased US involvement overseas, his rhetoric implies an America unwilling to accept limitations to its power, with calls for a fight to the finish with Isis and assurances of increased support for Israel. While this time round the bogey-man is Muslims rather than Communists, there’s a whiff of McCarthyism to Trump’s policies, a move that sounds a warning for all who campaign for a better world.

The overriding demand for justice Peter Tosh speaks of, or rather sings of, strikes against strategies of the Establishment that appear to valourise peace and quietude while enforcing a violent and destructive status quo.

Chomsky’s assertion that intellectuals have a responsibility to speak truth remains a potent call to arms today. Of course, intellectuals are not a homogenous group. Many promote, or turn a blind eye to the oppressions of the Establishment – after all, bolstering the status quo can bring huge rewards, and control over university academics, with austerity cuts and job insecurity, has increased

While I share Jewish heritage with, I believe, others on this panel, it is my black voice that speaks in this session. So while I occupy this intellectual space for this moment, as a black woman I inhabit a markedly different set of realities. No post-war uplift has raised blacks from ghetto to power. Historical injustices against blacks remain barely acknowledged, let alone commemorated; it is with trepidation people of colour raise their head above the parapet to speak truth to power on any issue, even those that relate to their own history and experience.

In Britain, black academics lack the numbers to be significant. The best universities and schools are mostly closed to us. People of colour remain excluded in all spheres of life, except in popular culture, sport and in prisons. Divorced from the structures of power, even the concept of ‘the intellectual’ needs fundamental rethinking if it is not to be practically meaningless for blacks.

However, while separation from power is a particular problem for black intellectuals, it’s a problem shared among all who seek global transformations.  To effect fundamental change we must break through the isolation that separates us from the forces which can change the world – the mass of the people.


Kriszta Szendroi. Value-system and Intensity – A tribute to the late Tanya Reinhart

This paper will be concerned with two things: the idea of a universal value-system, and intensity. I will first recall an intellectual journey that two Hungarian thinkers, Lajos Szabó and Béla Tábor, undertook in 1937 in their essay entitled The Indictment of the spirit, which was translated by István Cziegler into English for this occasion. In parallel with the arguments proposed by Noam Chomsky in his ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, this journey will reveal that the failure of intellectuals to uphold truth is a systematic failure. It is systematic not only in the sense that it is wide spread, but also in that it is self-preserving.

Our next stop must then be introspective: do we intellectuals conduct ourselves within our own fields in such a way that we first ‘establish a universal scale of values [...] and let all our actions fall somewhere on that scale in a way which always realizes the highest possible grade of the scale’? Their answer – 80 years ago – was a resounding no. I will illustrate with various examples that the situation has certainly not changed for the better. At a time when we deplore the devaluation of experts and expertise, we must take their words very seriously. But what is this ‘universal set of values’ and why do we need them? Truth indeed must be one of them, and, I would argue, others must be added. A system of values, as opposed to a single value, allows for measurement, or a scale. We can, and must measure values, and we can and must measure our actions in relation to those values. Our value system must be hierarchically organised, and complex enough to be an effective measure of our actions in the technological age.

From matters of the head to matters of the heart. A person I loved very dearly died exactly 10 years ago. Her life was an intense, burning flame. I will try and convey to you this intensity by telling you about her, about the person I met, because as Martin Buber said, ‘All real living is meeting’. I will tell you what I have learnt from her about life, about linguistics, and about the world.

My conclusion will be that truth has no chance without intensity. We must be torch-bearers. There can be no separate matters of the head and matters of the heart.


Milan Rai. The Propaganda Model and the British Nuclear Weapons Debate                    

According to the Chomsky-Herman Propaganda Model, the mainstream media in industrial democracies limit freedom of expression by restricting the spectrum of thinkable thought, and by effectively suppressing uncomfortable facts. A clear example is given by the debate around nuclear weapons in Britain in the postwar period. The mainstream public debate has been framed as a contest over the morality of nuclear ‘deterrence’. ‘Deterrence’ has been defined in this debate as promising nuclear retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack on the homeland.

This framing of the debate makes it unthinkable that ‘nuclear deterrence’ could be aggressive rather than defensive, that it could be aimed at nuclear weapon states who have not used their nuclear weapons – or non-nuclear weapon states, and that ‘deterrence’ could have little or nothing to do with defence of the homeland. When we investigate the policy debate within the foreign policy establishment and the record of nuclear deployments, we find that British nuclear deterrence has indeed been aggressive rather than defensive, that it was been aimed at non-nuclear weapon states as well as nuclear weapon states that have not used nuclear weapons, and that homeland security has been secondary at best in driving British nuclear policy.

All these facts have been obscured by public discussion and mainstream media reporting of nuclear weapons. The very fierceness of the British nuclear debate has tended to strengthen the fundamental assumptions that the state means well and acts defensively.



Chris Knight. Speaking truth to power – from within the heart of the Empire                

For fifty years, Noam Chomsky has been speaking truth to power not from a safe distance – anyone can do that – but from right up close and personal. The intellectuals responsible for what Chomsky in the 1960s rightly described as war crimes in Vietnam were in many cases academics and scientists conducting research as part of his own professional milieu at MIT. 

How ironic that the world’s best-known anti-militarist dissident, tirelessly calling the military and their apologists to account, should be none other than the prominent linguist who has spent his working life in a research institute heavily involved in weapons design.

How easy can it have been? How precisely do you work alongside military scientists while maintaining your anti-militarist principles? Chomsky himself claims that MIT was an easy place in which to work. No pressures from anyone, no difficult choices to make. On that account, preserving moral integrity was always straightforward, requiring no special ingenuity or courage.

It is this claim that I find so hard to believe. Chomsky is surely being too modest. If you check the historical record, it turns out that during the Vietnam War, the dilemmas became painful enough for him to consider resigning. Here is Chomsky in his own words, written in March 1967 and published in The New York Review of Books:

‘I have given a good bit of thought to … resigning from MIT, which is more than any other university associated with the Department of Defense . . . I think that its involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible. One should, I feel, resist this subversion in every possible way.’

This surely suggests that the pressures on Chomsky were immense. Reconciling his continued employment with his conscience would require correspondingly immense ingenuity, tenacity and courage. To my mind, this makes Chomsky’s steadfastness in speaking truth to power all the more impressive and remarkable.


Craig Murray. The Abdication of Responsibility                                      

Chomsky sets out a hard test at the end of his essay. He quotes Dwight Macdonald: ‘Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.’ 

I intend, as myself a whistleblower who paid the price with his career and livelihood, to claim that right. I take this as license to be freely condemnatory in what follows!

After a brief period in the 60’s and 70’s when progress appeared to be made in western societies in personal freedoms, in social mobility and reduction of wealth inequality, things have now regressed. In the 70’s it was still possible to subscribe in essence to the Whig historical theory of Progress, and indeed I did so.

We now live in darkened times. The surveillance state has become all-pervasive. Obama’s persecution of whistleblowers should give pause to the many who seen to think intolerance was invented by Trump.  The imperialist projection of American power has widened in scope and ambition since Chomsky wrote.

It is worth noting the clear-eyed recognition in Chomsky’s work that the Soviet Union was also a rival empire. Even while deploring irrational Russophobia and the continual threat posture of encirclement – which Chomsky also notes in its essay – I always find it is worth reminding people that Russia itself still is an empire. Much of its current land – and I mean Russia itself not the former Soviet Republics - was acquired in the nineteenth century by imperial conquest precisely contemporary with British acquisitions in India or indeed the westward expansion of the USA. These territories are majority muslim. Russian imperialism really is a thing.

Chomsky’s essay refers to academics with influence in the public sphere, and I suspect in general that influence has reduced.  But we must also mark that the scope of atmospheric freedom has declined significantly in the last few decades.

Universities are now expected to function as corporations. The bottom line has become all-important, and the notion of a democratic self-governing community has vanished after an onslaught of macho corporate governance culture, including the ludicrously high levels of remuneration for executives such a culture involves. Furthermore, the value of universities is frequently defined by government in terms of the commercially viable knowledge it can pass to the corporate sector, or the well-conditioned corporate labour it can churn out. Tenure is shrinking. Funding has become short term and dependent on continual measurement of research outputs, putting the funders in de facto academic and intellectual control.

I am afraid I suspect that the junior faculty organising 1967 teach-ins to which Chomsky refers would have their careers substantially damaged today. Indeed I suspect a young Chomsky would be instructed to give up other interests and devote himself solely to a narrow definition of linguistics.

As a historian I enjoyed Chomsky’s castigation of some of that profession. It caused me to reflect on the ‘historians’ whose views on public policy are sought in the UK and who are called up by the media as commentators. Andrew Roberts, David Starkey, Niall Fergusson.  All are on any analysis well to the right of the political spectrum. Fergusson has made a career or regurgitating the nonsense which Chomsky derided in his essay.

Indeed, it is impossible now to imagine that the public intellectuals the BBC admired 50 years ago, such as Bertrand Russell and AJP Taylor, would ever be given significant air time now. Support for nuclear disarmament or the nationalisation of major industries would put them way beyond the window of permitted thought. The vicious media assault upon Jeremy Corbyn shows the reaction to even the mildest radicalism.

This process of narrowing of permitted political thought is long term. In 1880, Gladstone, campaigning in an election that brought him to power for his second term as Prime Minister, stated in terms in a major speech that Afghans fighting British troops were justified in doing so because Britain had invaded their country. 

‘If they resist, would you not do the same’? Gladstone asked. It is a simple moral test. But who can doubt that in the UK or the US today, to say that anybody fighting ‘our’ troops might be justified would bring a unanimous hellstorm of media condemnation combining false patriotism with militarism?

Still less is there interest in the media in exposing the truth and holding the government to account. In the UK recently, the Attorney General gave a speech in defence of the UK’s drone policy, the assassination ofpeople, including British nationals, abroad. This execution without a hearing is based on several criteria, he reassured us. His speech was repeated slavishly in the British media. In fact, The Guardian newspaper simply republished the government press release absolutely verbatim, and stuck a reporter’s byline at the top.

The media have no interest in a critical appraisal of the process by which the British government regularly executes without trial. Yet in fact it is extremely interesting.

The genesis of the policy lay in the appointment of Daniel Bethlehem as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Chief Legal Adviser. Jack Straw made the appointment, and for the first time ever it was external, and not from the Foreign Office’s own large team of renowned international lawyers. The reason for that is not in dispute.  Every single one of the FCO’s Legal Advisers had advised the invasion of Iraq was illegal, and Straw wished to find a new head of the department more in tune with the neo-conservative world view.

He went to extremes. He appointed Daniel Bethlehem, the legal ‘expert’ who provided the legal advice to Benjamin Netanyahu on the ‘legality’ of building the great wall hemming in the Palestinians from their land and water resources.  Bethlehem was an enthusiastic proponent of the invasion of Iraq. He was also the most enthusiastic proponent in the world of drone strikes.

Bethlehem provided an opinion on the legality of drone strikes which is, to say the least, controversial. To give one example, Bethlehem accepts that established principles of international law dictate that lethal force may only be used to prevent an attack which is ‘imminent’. Bethlehem argues that for an attack to be ‘imminent’ does not require it to be ‘soon’. Indeed you can kill to avert an ‘imminent attack’ even if you have no information when and where it will be. You can instead rely on your target’s ‘pattern of behaviour’, i.e. if he has attacked before, it is reasonable to assume he will attack again and that such an attack is ‘imminent.’

There is a much deeper problem that the evidence against the target is often extremely dubious. Yet even allowing the evidence to be perfect, how for the state to kill in such circumstances is not death penalty without trial for past crimes, rather than frustration of another ‘imminent’ one, is beyond me. 

You would think that background would make an interesting story. Yet the entire ‘serious’ British media published the government line, without a single journalist, not one, writing about Daniel Bethlehem’s controversial past, how he got the FCO job, or the fact that his proposed definition of ‘imminent’ has been widely rejected by the international law community.

The public knows none of this. They just know drone strikes are keeping us safe from deadly attack by terrorists, because the government says so, and nobody has attempted to give them other information.

50 years on, I think we can say that, as a general rule, the responsibility of intellectuals to tell the truth has been well and truly abdicated. More than ever is truth telling at odds with careers prospects, and most ‘intellectuals’ care a great deal more about their career than about the truth.


The Chomsky Enigma

The scientific community needs to defend itself against political interference, no matter how cleverly it is concealed. If science is to come first, we don’t have a choice as to whether to become politically active. If you’re inactive, you’re colluding in someone else’s politics.
I prefer to think of Chomsky as the conscience of America. Once you view him in that light, the mysteries begin to clear.
We’re all supposed to keep political activism
locked up in a separate box, insulated by a firewall from science. Mindless activism on the one hand; tongue-tied science on the other – that’s been the tragic result.
The brain-equals-digital-computer theory marginalises anthropology. Computers don’t have a sense of humour, don’t understand irony
or metaphor, don’t try to cheat or lie, don’t have sex, don’t pursue political agendas.
The thread connecting Khlebnikov via Jakobson to Lévi-Strauss and Chomsky was a certain conception of freedom — a yearning for necessity imposed not externally but from within.
Q: So a school of linguistics originating among Russian revolutionary anarchists ends up being sponsored by the US military-industrial establishment?

A: Yes. And to understand that trajectory is to decode a good chunk of the twentieth century.
— Chris Knight, 'The Enigma of Noam Chomsky.'

John Deutch - Chomsky's friend in the Pentagon and the CIA

John Deutch - Chomsky's friend in the Pentagon and the CIA

In December 1995, The New York Times reported that Noam Chomsky approved of the appointment of his fellow MIT academic, John Deutch, as head of the CIA. Until then, Deutch had been No.2 at the Pentagon. These are Chomsky's reported words:

'[Deutch] has more honesty and integrity than anyone I've ever met in academic life, or any other life. If somebody's got to be running the CIA, I'm glad it's him.'[1]

Similar support for Deutch was expressed during an interview published in 1996 in the book Class Warfare. Asked about Deutch, Chomsky replied:

'We were actually friends and got along fine, although we disagreed on about as many things as two human beings can disagree about. I liked him. We got along very well together. He's very honest, very direct. You know where you stand with him. We talked to each other. When we had disagreements, they were open, sharp, clear, honestly dealt with. I found it fine. I had no problem with him. I was one of the very few people on the faculty, I'm told, who was supporting his candidacy for the President of MIT.'[2]

If many of Chomsky's MIT colleagues felt differently about Deutch, it was for understandable reasons given the man's long-standing role as a Pentagon adviser.

Deutch headed two Pentagon panels on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Along with Alexander Haig, Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld, he was an influential advisor on President Reagan's Scowcroft commission, which in 1983 recommended the deployment of the MX missile.[3] Then, when the Cold War came to an end, he became anxious that the US military might turn away from nuclear weaponry by, for instance, removing tactical nuclear weapons from ships and submarines.[4]

MIT's student activists called Deutch the 'War Provost'. One said that his activities 'really changed the atmosphere at MIT'; he complained that Deutch's involvement made the university 'more militaristic'.[5] These activists evidently feared that if Deutch did become MIT President, as Chomsky wanted, then the whole university would become even more deeply involved in military research of the most barbaric kind.[6]

For more on this whole episode see these articles:

'Myth and Reality in Chemical Warfare', Chemical and Engineering News, February 1982. - The radical students at MIT accused Deutch of actively supporting the development of chemical weapons. In this article, Deutch confirms this by writing: 'There is no alternative to deploying a credible CW [Chemical Warfare] capability.'

'Military Provost', Science for the People, March/April 1988, p6. - This article summarises Deutch's deep involvement with nuclear, chemical, biological and fuel/air weapons.

Articles from MIT's official newspaper, The Tech:

'Examining John Deutch's Pentagon connections', The Tech, 27 May 1988 (Vol. 108 Issue 26)
- Deutch encouraged MIT to apply for 'army contracts for mycotoxin research'. His enthusiasm for biological warfare research led MIT Professor Vera Kistiakowsky to complain that 'he has no business being in the education business.'

‘Twenty years later, MIT still doing military research projects’, The Tech, 24 February 1989, (Vol. 109 Issue 6)
- Daniel Glenn explains how ‘MIT is currently engaged in several hundred research projects for the Department of Defense.' Unclassified on-campus research projects include "hardening of integrated circuits to withstand nuclear attack’'… "target identification using infrared radar" … "optical signal processing for' missile guidance" … "arctic military facilities"… "application of composite materials for Army helicopter blades’' … '’SDI space-based radar".’

'MIT research heavily dependent on defense department funding', The Tech, 28 February 1989 (Vol.109 Issue7)
- Daniel Glenn reports that 80 per cent of MIT's research funding comes from the Pentagon.

'Teach-in focuses on research and activism', The Tech, 7 March 1989 (Vol.109 Issue 9 p2, 16)
- An MIT nuclear engineering student reports that Deutch helped 'MIT secure $2.3 million dollars in defense department funding for chemical and biological weapons research.'

A fuel-air bomb.

A fuel-air bomb.

Articles from MIT's activist newspaper, The Thistle:

'Who is John Deutch', The Thistle, (Vol.9 Issue7)
- We learn of Deutch's innovative work on 'fuel-air bombs, one of the most devastating non-nuclear weapons in existence'. It is reported that as well as being 'a long-term advocate of US nuclear weapons build-up, [Deutch] is also a strong supporter of biological weapons, and of using chemical and biological weapons together in order to increase their killing efficiency.'

'An open letter to [MIT] President Vest', The Thistle, (Vol.9 Issue7)
- MIT's Alternative News Collective writes that 'Deutch not only supported research into chemical/biological weapons, … he pressured junior faculty into performing this research on campus.' On the issue of the CIA, the Collective asks: 'How should MIT treat an Institute Professor who has just been chosen to lead a terrorist group? It is time that MIT fired John Deutch.'

'Institute Professor John Deutch heads CIA: What next?', The Thistle, (Vol.9 Issue7)
- 'What is the nature of MIT? Is it a "neutral" educational institution, or is it just another piece of the Pentagon-CIA-Weapons Manufacturers establishment, that has had - and continues to have - a negative impact on most of the world?'

An MX missile.

An MX missile.

Extract from a letter to Chris Knight by Daniel Glenn, a former MIT student activist and author of some of the above articles:

I was not aware of Chomsky's support of John Deutch and do find it surprising.

As part of my activism at MIT, I was part of a protest at my 1989 graduation ceremony in which we protested the hypocrisy of the administration and faculty for wearing black arm bands in support of the student movement at Tiananmen Square. The administration had banned the distribution of the student newspapers for the first time in MIT's history, because we were publishing information about the interlocking directorships of John Deutch and other MIT administration officials and its connection to their support of military expenditures.

We smuggled copies of The Thistle into the graduation ceremony under our robes that detailed those connections. And four students, including myself, unfurled banners on the stage and shook John Deutch's hand with a banner in the other that read: 'MIT War Research Kills'. The banners were in the style of the Tiananmen Square student banners. ... We did feel vindicated in our concerns about the direct line from MIT's research funding and faculty connection's to the military when John Deutch was appointed as Deputy Secretary of Defense and then CIA Director.

... I did take Noam Chomsky's course on activism and society, and we did engage with him on a number of occasions about our political efforts with the university, and his presence at the university is one of the reasons I was willing to go to MIT. I thought that if he could be there, then I could learn from that institution in spite of its deeply troubling connections to the technology of warfare. I was surprised to learn that he was limited by the politics of academia to teaching within his primary subject area of linguistics, in spite of being such an esteemed intellectual in political science. The course we took from him was not an official course in the university.

I am a great admirer of Noam Chomsky, and would not want to disparage him in any way. I do find this particular issue interesting and somewhat troubling, but I do imagine that he had to make compromises of many kinds over his decades as a resident radical in an institution so entrenched in the military-industrial complex; and he its most profound and substantive critic.


1. The New York Times article (10/12/1995) also said that Deutch was reforming the CIA by reviewing its paid informants across the world so they could 'identify the crooks and the fingernail-pullers, to weigh the information they provided against their records, and to sack them if they failed the test.' The article, in other words, implied that Deutch was OK with CIA 'nail-pullers' as long as they provided useful information.

2. N.Chomsky, Class Warfare, Interviews with David Barsamian, p135-6.

3. The Washington Post, 9/12/77; New York Times, 29/3/86; B.Scowcroft, Report of the President's Commission on Strategic Forces, 1983.

4. The Washington Post, 12/3/83 and 26/12/86 and 3/12/87; Technology Review, Vol. 95 (February 1992).

5. 'MIT students allege defense conflict', UPI, 2/6/89; The Tech, 27/5/88 and 24/1/90 and 2/3/90, p7.

6. It seems highly unlikely that Chomsky really wanted more military research at MIT. As he said, his attitude was more that 'whether [a university is] being directly funded by the CIA or in some other fashion seems to me a marginal question.' Milan Rai, Chomsky's Politics p. 130.

Bruce Nevin's review

Bruce Nevin's review


Brooklyn Rail logo.jpg
Knight says his ‘subversive intention’ is ‘to serve justice on Chomsky the scientist without doing an injustice to Chomsky the conscience of America’ (xiii). Now why should that be subversive? Any voice critical of Chomsky risks being dismissed as yet another right-wing defender of political orthodoxy, but given even the most superficial examination of Knight’s biography one could hardly question that he supports the substance of Chomsky’s views (as do I).

Nonetheless, he shows how Chomsky has acquiesced in—more than that, has participated in and abetted—a radical post-war transformation of the relation of science to society, legitimating one of the significant political achievements of the right, the pretense that science is apolitical.

Chapter One

Noam Chomsky began his political career as a scientist employed ostensibly to research machine translation in an electronics laboratory built to replace an earlier one in which radar had been developed for the armed services during the Second World War.[1] Since childhood, he had been keenly aware of politics, identifying himself as a libertarian socialist. He hated the military in general and the Pentagon in particular. On the other hand, his income, once employed as a young scientist, came almost exclusively from the US Defense Department.  

To align his scientific career with his political conscience, Chomsky resolved from the outset to collude neither politically nor practically with his employers’ aims. He recalls that in the 1960s, during the US carpet bombing of Vietnam, there came a point when he felt so compromised ‘that I couldn’t look myself in the mirror anymore’.[2] Unless he took decisive action, he too would be complicit in that crime. The pressures he experienced had the effect of splitting him in two, prompting him to ensure that any work he conducted for the military was purely theoretical – of no practical use to anyone – while his activism was preserved free of any obvious connection with his science. To an unprecedented extent, mind in this way became separated from body, thought from action, and knowledge from its practical applications, establishing a paradigm which came to dominate much of intellectual life for half a century across the Western world.  

If you know anything about Noam Chomsky, you will not be surprised that we begin with superlatives. Think Galileo, Descartes or Einstein. Chomsky is the foremost intellectual of modern times, who ‘did for cognitive science what Galileo did for physical science’, to quote a respected authority.[3] Chomsky has radically altered our perception of the human condition, overturning established thinking in what has been described as a Galilean revolution. Since launching his intellectual assault on the academic orthodoxies of the 1950s, he has succeeded – almost single-handedly – in revolutionizing linguistics, elevating it to the status of a genuine natural science. ‘If a Nobel Prize were offered for linguistics,’ comments one intellectual historian, ‘he’d get the first one. Then they’d have to stop giving it out. No-one else comes close.’[4] Much has changed over the past six decades, but Chomsky remains to this day the most powerful force in contemporary linguistics.  

But he is more than that. At one point, Chomsky was hailed as ‘the most visited person on the internet’ and ‘the most quoted man alive today’.[5] In 2005, he was declared the world’s top public intellectual after winning 4,827 out of 20,000 votes in a poll conducted jointly on both sides of the Atlantic.[6] In 1992, the Arts and Humanities Citation Index ranked him as the most cited person alive (the Index’s top ten being Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, Freud, Chomsky, Hegel and Cicero). The Social Science Citation Index gave a similar picture, as did the Science Citation Index. ‘What it means’, according to the librarian who checked these statistics, ‘is that he is very widely read across disciplines and that his work is used by researchers across disciplines . . .’ She added that apparently ‘you can’t write a paper without citing Noam Chomsky’.[7] Things may have changed since the 1990s, but to many people Chomsky’s achievements remain unparalleled in modern times. Chomsky, we are told, is ‘the scholar who is to the period initiated by the cognitive revolution of the mid-1950s what Descartes was to the first phase of the age of modern philosophy’.[8] It is widely held that ‘nothing has had a greater impact on contemporary philosophy than Chomsky’s theory of language’.[9] He has been described by the New York Times as ‘arguably the most important intellectual alive’.[10] One of his biographers goes even further, describing him as someone ‘who will be for future generations what Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Mozart, or Picasso have been for ours’.[11] In the words of a recent intellectual historian:  

More than any other figure, Noam Chomsky defined the intellectual climate in the English-speaking world in the second half of the 20th century . . . not only did Chomsky redefine the entire academic discipline of linguistics, but his work has been something close to definitive in psychology, philosophy, cognitive science, and even computer science.[12]

‘He has shown’, explains a senior figure in modern linguistics, ‘that there is really only one human language: that the immense complexity of the innumerable languages we hear around us must be variations on a single theme . . .’[13]  

Knowing Chomsky personally has been described as ‘a bit like knowing Newton’.[14] Chomsky has also been called the ‘Einstein of linguistics’.[15] ‘Like Einstein’s theory of relativity,’ we are told, ‘Chomsky’s ideas about linguistics have spread in their influence, and their effects are gradually filtering down to the lives of ordinary people.’[16] ‘Noam Chomsky is the closest thing in the English-speaking world to an intellectual superstar’, writes Guardian journalist Seamus Milne. ‘A philosopher of language and political campaigner of towering academic reputation, who as good as invented modern linguistics, he is entertained by presidents, addresses the UN general assembly and commands a mass international audience.’[17]  

In 2014, Chomsky gave an invited talk to a Vatican foundation in Rome. There was a certain irony in this in view of the well-known atheist’s perceived status as the Galileo of our age. According to The Tablet’s report, the Vatican’s Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest Foundation – the body responsible for the event – goes back ‘to the commission set up by Pope John Paul II to investigate the Galileo affair’.[18] Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, introduced the speaker warmly as ‘one of the princes of linguistics’.  

It is for his work in linguistics that Chomsky is honoured and celebrated. Yet he seems to be not one person, but two – each as extraordinary as the other. Addressing a largely separate audience, Chomsky has over the years become far and away the Western world’s best-known political dissident. His books and articles on political topics far outnumber his publications on linguistics. When we turn to his political writings, however, we find academics less enthusiastic. While popular with students, these publications, it has been pointed out, ‘rarely appear on undergraduate reading lists nor do they, on the whole, enter the fray of mainstream debates about social and political organization’.[19] It would be hard to name a wealthy corporate funding agency or scholarly foundation that has honoured Chomsky explicitly for his politics. The Vatican, no matter how supportive in other ways, would hardly invite him to talk about revolutionary socialism or anarchism.  

Again and again, Chomsky has stressed that the two great ‘temptations’ in his life – his politics and his science – pull him in opposite directions. He may try to connect the two, but it never works – his two interests ‘just don’t seem to merge’.[20] Chomsky views his hectic life, therefore, as a ‘sort of schizophrenic existence’,[21] made possible by a fortunate glitch in his brain which causes it to function ‘like separate buffers in a computer’.[22]  

Science, says Chomsky, is politically neutral – hence irrelevant to his activist concerns. The search for theoretical understanding, he explains, ‘pursues its own paths, leading to a completely different picture of the world, which neither vindicates nor eliminates our ordinary ways of talking and thinking . . . Meanwhile, we live our lives, facing as best we can problems of radically different kinds.’[23]  

 Chomsky does not encourage his scientific colleagues to care too much about his politics. Neither does he need his activist supporters to worry about his science. If you haven’t the necessary expertise, he advises, ‘you’re just not part of the discussion, and that’s quite right’.[24] In this, he has been successful. Over the years, most of his activist supporters have accepted that his linguistics is simply none of their business.  

Chomsky’s colleagues and employers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) seem to have known little about his politics until the mid-1960s, when he first began taking to the streets in opposition to the Vietnam War. Already celebrated for his linguistics, he soon began commanding a mass audience, helping to organize draft card burning and other direct action against all aspects of the war. In October 1967, with many thousands of others, he attempted to form a human chain around the Pentagon – an event famously celebrated in Norman Mailer’s book Armies of the Night.[25] ‘The dominant memory’, Chomsky later recalled, ‘is of the scene itself, of tens of thousands of young people surrounding what they believe to be – I must add that I agree – the most hideous institution on this earth . . .’[26]  

 Walking up to a line of troops in front of the Pentagon building, Chomsky appealed directly to them through a loudhailer. As he was speaking, the soldiers advanced. Chomsky’s activities that year shot him to prominence, propelling him toward his current status as the best-known academic dissident in the world. From the 1960s until the present day, it would be hard to think of a US military adventure that has not faced moral and intellectual opposition voiced passionately and effectively by Noam Chomsky.  

More single-mindedly than any other Western academic, Chomsky has shone a spotlight on the high-tech terrorism inflicted on much of the planet since the United States displaced Britain as the world’s leading superpower. He has a low opinion of most of his fellow intellectuals, especially the self-appointed experts who dominate the universities and media outlets. Accusing them of Orwellian double-speak, he describes how they replace the dictionary meanings of words with diametrically opposite doctrinal meanings, such that ‘War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.’[27] Corrupting the meaning of words, Chomsky argues, is a good way of dumbing people down, preventing them from talking about shared problems and in this way keeping them under control.[28]   

Chomsky illustrates the technique by showing how, following the 1962 American invasion of Vietnam, double-speak was used to cover up the crime. There had been no invasion. ‘For the past 22 years,’ he later explained, ‘I have been searching in vain to find some reference in mainstream journalism or scholarship to an American invasion of South Vietnam in 1962 (or ever), or an American attack against South Vietnam, or American aggression in Indochina – without success. There is no such event in history.’[29] Any journalist mentioning the invasion would have met with incomprehension:  

Such a person would not have been sent to a psychiatric hospital, but he would surely not have retained his professional position and standing. Even today, those who refer to the US invasion of South Vietnam in 1962 . . . are regarded with disbelief: perhaps they are confused, or perhaps quite mad.[30]  

This, for Chomsky, illustrates what he terms ‘Orwell’s problem’ – the problem of explaining how people can know so little even when the evidence is before their very eyes. The explanation, he writes, lies in the extraordinary sophistication of the US media’s steady stream of double-speak and propaganda. To solve Orwell’s problem, Chomsky observes, ‘we must discover the institutional and other factors that block insight and understanding in crucial areas of our lives and ask why they are effective’.[31] While noting the importance of this problem, however, Chomsky does not find it particularly intellectually exciting, because, in his view, it is not susceptible to the methods of science.   

Having described Orwell’s problem, Chomsky then tells us that he has another problem, which is the exact opposite. He calls it ‘Plato’s problem’. This time, it is not the ignorance of people which seems so baffling, but their extraordinary knowledge and understanding. Plato’s problem belongs to the sciences and is ‘deep and intellectually exciting’ to Chomsky.[32] He cites the case of a child acquiring its first language, apparently knowing the essentials from birth without having had time to learn anything at all.  

The problem is this: how does that child succeed in working out so complex a theoretical structure as the grammar of its native tongue when it receives no instruction, is not corrected for mistakes and hears only a fraction of the creative sentences that she/he will be able to express? The solution to Plato’s problem is innate knowledge. Chomsky’s ‘argument from poverty of the stimulus’, as he calls it, states that the child doesn’t need to learn anything because she knows the basics already, thanks to her genetic nature.[33]   

Chomsky is aware that talk of ‘genetic nature’ or ‘human nature’ upsets many intellectuals, especially followers of Michel Foucault and others on the political left. But he shows no patience with such people:  

Yes, I speak of human nature, but not for complicated reasons. I do so because I am not an imbecile, and do not believe that others should fall into culturally imposed imbecility. Thus, I do not want to cater to imbecility. Is my granddaughter different from a rock? From a bird? From a gorilla? If so, then there is such a thing as human nature. That’s the end of the discussion: we then turn to asking what human nature is.[34] 

Chomsky rejects the ‘rather obscure’ Marxist notion of the dialectic, dismissing it as ‘a kind of ritual term which people use when they are talking about situations of conflict and so on’.[35] He shows no appetite for dwelling on contradictions: ‘Plato’s problem . . . is to explain how we know so much, given that the evidence available to us is so sparse. Orwell’s problem is to explain why we know and understand so little, even though the evidence available to us is so rich.’[36]   

How do we know so little? That’s Orwell’s problem. How do we know so much? That’s Plato’s. Chomsky makes no attempt to reconcile these two problems, leaving the contradiction between their flatly opposed assumptions unresolved. Which problem is chosen depends on who is speaking, whether activist or scientist. Chomsky’s ‘two problems’ seem not only different but utterly unconnected with one another, as if to deliberately illustrate the gulf between the two compartments of his brain.  

In his scientific role, Chomsky’s commitment is to Plato, whose point of departure is the doctrine of the soul. Plato, Chomsky reminds us, asked ‘how we can know so much, given that we have such limited evidence’.[37] ‘Plato’s answer’, says Chomsky,   

was that the knowledge is ‘remembered’ from an earlier existence. The answer calls for a mechanism; perhaps the immortal soul. That may strike us as not very satisfactory, but it is worth bearing in mind that it is a more reasonable answer than those assumed as doctrine during the dark ages of Anglo-American empiricism and behavioral science – to put the matter tendentiously, but accurately.[38]  

Chomsky acknowledges that talk of the soul does sound a bit medieval. To improve the way it sounds to modern ears, he rephrases it: ‘Pursuing this course, and rephrasing Plato’s answer in terms more congenial to us today, we will say that the basic properties of cognitive systems are innate to the mind, part of human biological endowment.’[39] Chomsky’s purpose, then, is to bring Plato up to date. He terms his modernized version of the ancient philosophy, ‘internalism’ – the restriction of scientific attention to patterns inside the head.   

It is interesting to ask how our subject’s activist voice connects with that of the scientific linguist. A reviewer for the New York Times phrased the question this way:   

On the one hand there is a large body of revolutionary and highly technical linguistic scholarship, much of it too difficult for anyone but the professional linguist or philosopher; on the other, an equally substantial body of political writings, accessible to any literate person but often maddeningly simple-minded. The ‘Chomsky problem’ is to explain how these two fit together.[40] 

Leaving aside the ‘simple-minded’ jibe, it is true that reconciling the two Chomskys is no easy matter. In establishment circles, the linguist is celebrated, the activist ignored or even reviled. A good example is the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who praises the scientific Chomsky’s ‘important and original ideas’ which ‘nobody in his right mind’ would dismiss – while writing off the political Chomsky as ‘a spoilt brat’.[41]   

Ask Chomsky to define his politics and he will typically describe himself as a libertarian socialist or ‘some kind of anarchist’.[42] Anarchism, for him, means freeing people from authority, although he qualifies this by cautioning that no genuine anarchist will disregard the intellectual authority of Western science. He also clarifies that the freedom advocated by the libertarian right – the freedom of powerful people to do as they please – has no place in his political philosophy. We will always need rules: ‘Any effort to create a more human existence is going to inhibit somebody’s freedom. If a kid crosses the street in front of me when I have a red light, that inhibits my freedom to run him over and get to work faster.’[43] In many immediate contexts, Chomsky advocates not less regulation of individual or corporate behaviour, but more.   

Chomsky’s political positions ‘haven’t changed much since I was about 12 or 13’.[44] ‘There is a remarkable consistency to Chomsky’s political work’, confirms his biographer, Robert Barsky, who adds: ‘The same cannot, of course, be said of Chomsky’s linguistic work.’[45] Indeed, to the outsider it seems that Chomsky discards and replaces his former scientific theories at almost breathtaking speed, making it difficult to pin down precisely what they are. As one critic complains:   

The history of Chomskyan theory is a study in cycles. He announces a new and exciting idea, which adherents to the faith then use and begin to make all kinds of headway. But this progress is invariably followed by complications, then by contradictions, then by a flurry of patchwork fixes, then by a slow unraveling, and finally by stagnation. Eventually the master announces a new approach and the cycle starts anew.[46]  

One consequence is that if you browse through a textbook on modern linguistics – or perhaps a popular introduction to Chomsky’s work – you are likely to find everything already out of date. Most authors begin, for example, with tree diagrams depicting noun phrases, verb phrases and their ordering in accordance with rules – notions abandoned long ago by Chomsky himself. Again, almost everyone still devotes page after page to Chomsky’s insistence that core principles of grammar are part of our genetic endowment – despite the fact that, since turning to ‘Minimalism’ in the mid-1990s, he has been stressing just how few of these principles should be traced back to the genes.[47] A final example is the idea that Chomsky refuses to debate the evolutionary emergence of language in Homo sapiens. You are likely to hear much of this well-known self-denying ordinance – despite the fact that Chomsky has since changed his mind, in 2016 co-authoring a book devoted entirely to ‘language and evolution’.[48]   

Such apparent swings between extremes are characteristic of Chomsky’s intellectual odyssey. Yet beneath all such fluctuations, one bedrock assumption underlies his work. If you want to be a scientist, Chomsky advises, restrict your efforts to natural science. Social science is mostly fraud. In fact, there is no such thing as social science.[49] As Chomsky asks: ‘Is there anything in the social sciences that even merits the term “theory”? That is, some explanatory system involving hidden structures with non-trivial principles that provide understanding of phenomena? If so, I’ve missed it.’[50]   

So how is it that Chomsky himself is able to break the mould? What special factor permits him to develop insights which do merit the term ‘theory’? In his view, ‘the area of human language . . . is one of the very few areas of complex human functioning’ in which theoretical work is possible.[51] The explanation is simple: language as he defines it is neither social nor cultural, but purely individual and natural. Provided you acknowledge this, you can develop theories about hidden structures – proceeding as in any other natural science. Whatever else has changed over the years, this fundamental assumption has not.   

Chomsky is famed, then, not only for his many changes of mind, but also for his lifelong commitment to that basic idea. His particular theories – ‘auxiliary hypotheses’ in the terminology of Lakatos[52] – keep changing from month to month, year to year; meanwhile, the protected core remains intact. So a further theme in this book will be to explore whether these seemingly incompatible characteristics – the variability on the one hand, the fixity on the other – are linked. If the auxiliary hypotheses keep getting abandoned and replaced, it may be because the theoretical core is preserved immune to change. After all, it is precisely when nothing works – when for deep reasons nothing can possibly work – that peripheral changes must continually be made.   

While happy to keep changing his auxiliary hypotheses, Chomsky has at all times remained committed to the following:  

 • Insofar as linguistics is a truly scientific discipline, it is restricted to the study of ‘I-language’ – a system of knowledge internal to the individual. (‘To summarize, we may think of a person’s knowledge of a particular language as a state of the mind, realized in some arrangement of physical mechanisms. We abstract the I-language as “what is known” by a person in this state of knowledge. This finite system, the I-language, is what the linguist’s generative grammar attempts to characterize.’)[53]  

• At a deeper level, scientific linguistics is the study of Universal Grammar (UG), defined as the innate cognitive equipment enabling humans to acquire such an I-language. (‘ . . . the study of generative grammar shifted the focus of attention . . . to the system of knowledge that underlies the use and understanding of language, and more deeply, to the innate endowment that makes it possible for humans to attain such knowledge . . . UG is a characterization of these innate, biologically determined principles, which constitute one component of the human mind – the language faculty.’)[54]  

• Scientific linguistics is therefore a branch of natural science. Set apart from social anthropology or sociology, it excludes investigation of human social interaction, politics, communication or culture. In particular, it has no place for the popular notion of ‘E-languages’ (‘external’ languages) such as ‘Chinese’, ‘Swahili’ or ‘English’ conceived as culturally distinct traditions. (‘Rather, all scientific approaches have simply abandoned these elements of what is called “language” in common usage . . .’)[55]  

• Linguistic variation is superficial. (‘The Martian scientist might reasonably conclude that there is a single human language, with differences only at the margins.’)[56]  

• Strictly speaking, a child does not need to ‘learn’ from others how to speak its native tongue, since it is equipped with the basics already. (‘Learning language is something like undergoing puberty. You don’t learn to do it; you don’t do it because you see other people doing it; you are just designed to do it at a certain time.’)[57]  

Extensions and elaborations include these:  

 • A child acquires its native tongue by discarding one language after another from the vast repertoire of tongues installed in its head from birth. (‘It’s pretty clear that a child approaches the problem of language acquisition by having all possible languages in its head but doesn’t know which language it’s being exposed to. And, as data comes along, that class of possible languages reduces. So certain data comes along and the mind automatically says “OK, it’s not that language it’s some other language.”’)[58]  

• Lexical concepts – including even industrial-age ones, such as carburettor – are not variable products of history and culture, but are somehow natural givens. (‘However surprising the conclusion may be that nature has provided us with an innate stock of concepts, and that the child’s task is to discover their labels, the empirical facts appear to leave open few other possibilities.’)[59]  

• Although language is a biological organ, it did not evolve by natural selection. Language is simply too different from anything else in nature for Darwinian theory to be relevant here. (‘There is no reason to suppose that the “gaps” are bridgeable. There is no more of a basis for assuming an evolutionary development of “higher” from “lower” stages, in this case, than there is for assuming an evolutionary development from breathing to walking; the stages . . . seem to involve entirely different processes and principles.’)[60]  

• Unlike other biological adaptations, language is close to perfect in design, suggesting the work of ‘a divine architect’. (‘The language faculty interfaces with other components of the mind/brain . . . How perfectly . . .? If a divine architect were faced with the problem of designing something to satisfy these conditions, would actual human language be one of the candidates, or close to it? Recent work suggests that language is surprisingly “perfect” in this sense.’)[61]   

Chomsky concedes that many people find such ideas utterly baffling. How can a biological organ exist if it did not evolve? How can a child acquire its first language without learning from others about the words and rules? By what conceivable mechanism can German, Guugu Yimithirr and all possible languages be deposited in a child’s head? How can carburettor have been installed in the brain during the Stone Age, when people hadn’t even invented the wheel? Why on earth would anyone expect a biological organ to be ‘perfect’?   

Chomsky retorts that any scientist must work not with the complexities of life, but with abstractions, whose advantage is their simplicity:  

It goes straight back to Galileo . . . for Galileo, it was a physical point – nature is simple, and it’s the task of the scientist to, first of all, discover just what that means, and then to prove it. From the tides to the flights of birds, the goal of the scientist is to find that nature is simple: and if you fail, you’re wrong.[62]  

While philosophers of science might go along with this, not all would agree that Chomsky’s own theories can be said to have passed this test. A widespread perception is that, far from simplifying things, Chomsky’s interventions have immersed linguistics in tunnels of theoretical complexity, impenetrability and corresponding exasperation and interpersonal rancour without parallel in any other scientific field.[63]   

It would be wonderful if language did reveal simple logical form, like the formula for a snowflake – Chomsky’s current claim.[64] But demonstrating that an idea is simple is not the same thing as showing that it works. Some assumptions are just too simple. In much of what follows I will be exploring whether there are grounds for suspecting that, in Chomsky’s case, what looks like oversimplified nonsense really is oversimplified nonsense. I am certainly not the first to suggest the possibility that Chomsky’s core assumptions are nonsensical – many others have done that before me.[65] But, to my knowledge, few have delved further to explore the sociological conundrums which arise. Why would the dominant military, corporate and academic institutions sponsoring cognitive science in post-war America value a contribution of baffling incomprehensibility which, on close examination, turns out to make no sense at all?   

I agree that this is a difficult concept to digest. Why would such powerful institutions choose to value nonsensical doctrine at the expense of empirically based science? Various possibilities have been suggested, all worth exploring. The view that Chomsky is another Galileo or Einstein is far from universally held. Many critics view the aura surrounding him as essentially scientism – adherence to an idealized concept of science as eternal truth.[66] The philosopher John Searle remarks: ‘But these guys think they’re doing something called Science with a capital “S”. And it’s almost a religion.’[67]   

When science becomes religion, Searle complains, no conceivable counter-evidence can possibly weaken the faith. Sacred postulates command loyalty not by providing evidence or logical argument, but by provoking endless wonderment.[68] The more striking and unlikely, the better. Religious beliefs have been defined as ‘hard-to-fake commitments to counterintuitive worlds’.[69] Think of transubstantiation or virgin birth. Showing that you can believe in ‘six impossible things before breakfast’[70] is a good way of demonstrating commitment. When converts express faith in far-fetched postulates and go on to proselytize, they have passed the all-important commitment test.[71] The more circular, meaningless or self-contradictory the beliefs, according to this view, the greater their value as tests of commitment, the more costly the work of maintaining them in people’s heads – and, therefore, the more energetically and passionately they are defended and proclaimed.[72]   

In their 1983 book, Language, Sense and Nonsense, two Oxford philosophers analysed Chomskyan linguistics and its offshoots not exactly as religion, but as ‘the pseudo-sciences of the age, grounded in conceptual confusions and protected from ridicule only by a facade of scientific procedure and mathematical sophistication’.[73] In similar vein, the linguist Geoffrey Pullum describes the hold exercised by Chomsky’s recent theorizing as ‘the most influential confidence trick in the history of modern linguistics’.[74] Many view Chomsky’s entire theoretical framework as, to quote Larry Trask, ‘more a religious movement than an empirical science’.[75] Chomsky’s former MIT collaborator Paul Postal likens the linguist and his followers to an end-of-the-world movement, noting how charismatic cult leaders so often feel obliged to appear undaunted as their predictions are repeatedly disconfirmed: ‘People’s ability to “save” their ideas from even the most devastating counterexamples is thus extraordinary. I suspect that that fact goes a long way toward helping us understand what goes on in a field like linguistics.’[76]   

A related point is made by Rudolf Botha in his highly original book, Challenging Chomsky.[77] Botha pictures Chomsky as a skilled fighter at the centre of a vast intellectual labyrinth whose forks and hidden pitfalls are used aggressively to defeat anyone foolish enough to intrude. Nobody ever wins in a battle with ‘the Lord of the Labyrinth’, because the Master makes sure that each contest will take place on terrain which he himself has landscaped and designed. The cleverest feature of Challenging Chomsky is that Botha presents his book as a defence of the Master and his fighting skills. In the course of celebrating these skills, however, the author reveals them to be not conscientious scholarship, but devious, Machiavellian tricks designed to ensure victory by moving the goal-posts or tipping up the board – in other words, sheer foul play. Reading Botha’s sobering account made me reflect that my own book is an attempt to avoid the fate of so many by declining to enter the maze.   

But many problems remain. Why was that maze ever built? Who financed its construction and why? What secret concealed at the heart of that maze matters so much that none of us should ever be allowed to discover it? Botha is convincing in conceiving Chomskyan linguistics as an intentionally constructed maze whose awesomely complex features have been designed for the purpose of demoralizing and confusing all intruders. But no critic has satisfactorily explained why labyrinthine nonsense on such a scale – if nonsense it is – should be corporately funded and institutionally endorsed. This is the conundrum I will address in the chapters to follow.



1. Harris and Harris 1974.

2. Chomsky; quoted in Chepesiuk 1995.

3. Neil Smith; quoted in Jaggi 2001.

4. Harris 1998.

5. Dean 2003, viii.

6. Barsky 2007, ix; Guardian, 18 October 2005.

7. MIT News 1992; quoted in Achbar 1994, 17.

8. Strazny 2013, 207.

9. Harman 1974, vii.

10. Chomsky 1989.

11. Barsky 1997, 3.

12. Golumbia 2009, 31.

13. Smith 1999, 1.

14. Albert 2006, 63.

15. Leiber 1975, 19.

16. Cogswell 1996, 7.

17. Milne 2009.

18. Cartlidge 2014, 8.

19. Edgley 2000, 1.

20. Chomsky 1988a, 2.

21. Chomsky 1988f, 98–99.

22. Chomsky 1996a, 15.

23. Chomsky 2000b, 115.

24. Chomsky 1988h, 16.

25. Mailer 1968.

26. Chomsky 1967b.

27. Chomsky 1992, 86–87.

28. Chomsky 1996a, 128.

29. Chomsky 1988e, 225–226.

30. Chomsky 1988e, 225–226.

31. Chomsky 1986, xxvii.

32. Chomsky 1986, xxix.

33. Chomsky 1980a, 66.

34. Letter dated 15 December 1992; in Barsky 1997, 208.

35. Chomsky 1988a, 189–190.

36. Chomsky 1986, xxvii ff.

37. Chomsky 1986, xxv.

38. Chomsky 1991a, 15.

39. Chomsky 1991a, 15.

40. Article on 25 February 1979; quoted in Achbar 1994, 19.

41. Scruton 2016, 118–119.

42. Chomsky 1988k, 744.

43. Chomsky 1998a, 17–18.

44. Chomsky 1988j, 697.

45. Barsky 1997, 95.

46. Williamson 2004, 234.

47. Chomsky 2007a.

48. Berwick and Chomsky 2016.

49. Chomsky 1988a, 36–37.

50. Chomsky, personal communication to A. Edgley, 21 February 1995; Edgley 2000, 154.

51. Chomsky 2000b, 2.

52. Lakatos 1970.

53. Chomsky 1986, 40.

54. Chomsky 1986, 15, 24.

55. Chomsky 1986, 15, 24.

56. Chomsky 2000b, 7.

57. Chomsky 1988a, 174.

58. Chomsky 2016b, 1 hour 17 seconds.

59. Chomsky 2000b, 65–66.

60. Chomsky 2006a, 59.

61. Chomsky 1996b, 29–30.

62. Chomsky 2012, 88.

63. Harris 1993.

64. Berwick and Chomsky 2011; cf. Chomsky 2007b, 20.

65. Baker and Hacker 1984; Seuren 2004.

66. Baker and Hacker 1984, back cover.

67. Searle 2003, 55.

68. Rappaport 1999.

69. Atran 2002, 264.

70. Wolpert 2006.

71. Alcorta and Sosis 2005; Atran and Norenzayan 2004.

72. Rappaport 1999.

73. Baker and Hacker 1984, back cover.

74. Review comment on back cover of paperback edition of Seuren 2004.

75. Trask 1999, 109.

76. Postal 1995, 140.

77. Botha 1989.



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MIT's Anti-War Protests 1967-1972

The protests that erupted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1960s were an important part of the wider student unrest that shook the US in this period.

Noam Chomsky has often talked sympathetically about these protests, which focused on MIT's development of both nuclear weapons and weapons used in the Vietnam war. However, Chomsky also has a strong loyalty to MIT – at one point describing the university as ‘the freest and the most honest and has the best relations between faculty and students than any other ... [with] a good record on civil liberties’ – and it seems this loyalty has prevented him from giving a full account of these events. The following links show the remarkable story of what happened when students at the centre of the US’s university-based war research program decided to rebel.

New York Times copyright applied for.

New York Times copyright applied for.

  • Chris Knight, Decoding Chomsky, science and revolutionary politics, Chapter 4.
  • Noam Chomsky:

‘The responsibilities of intellectuals’, New York Review of Books, February 1967.

Letter in New York Review of Books, March 1967 – where Chomsky said MIT’s ‘involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible.’

Letter in New York Review of Books, April 1967 – where Chomsky said ‘MIT as an institution has no involvement in the war effort.’

TV debate with Michel Foucault, 1971 – where Chomsky said MIT ‘embodies very important libertarian values' but that he hoped his presence there helped ‘to increase student activism against a lot of things that MIT as an institution does.’

'MIT review panel on special laboratories final report', October 1969 – includes contributions by Noam Chomsky and Jon Kabat (now known as Jon Kabat-Zinn).

  • 'Why smash MIT?', The Old Mole, November 1969 – where radical students said: 'MIT isn’t a center for scientific and social research to serve humanity. It’s a part of the US war machine. Into MIT flow over $100 million a year in Pentagon research and development funds, making it the tenth largest Defense Department R&D contractor in the country. MIT’s purpose is to provide research, consulting services and trained personnel for the US government and the major corporations – research, services, and personnel which enable them to maintain their control over the people of the world. NAC’s (November Action Coalition’s) campaign was directed against MIT as an institution, against its central purpose.'
Courtesy of MIT Museum

Courtesy of MIT Museum

Courtesy of MIT Museum

Courtesy of MIT Museum

Associated Press copyright applied for.

Associated Press copyright applied for.


'SDS sits-in on Dow recruiter', 7 November 1967. (Vol.87 Issue 43)

'Sala [army deserter] sanctuary established', 1 November 1968. (Vol.88 Issue 41)

'March 4 activities fill Kresge', 7 March 1969. (Vol.89 Issue 8)
See also 'Beyond March 4', the founding document of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

'Rostow defends [Vietnam] policies in Kresge confrontation', 11 April 1969. (Vol.89 Issue 15)

'Johnson confronted on I-Lab', 22 April 1969. (Vol.89 Issue 18)
In this article, one student justified his determination to stop MIT's scientists from doing military research by saying that 'one doesn't have the right to build gas chambers to kill people.' He went on to explain that 'the principle that people should not kill other people is more important than notions of freedom to do any kind of research one might want to undertake.'

‘150 students peacefully disrupt CIS, 14 October 1969. (Vol.89 Issue 36)

Reports on the anti-war November Actions: 31 October and 4-6 November and 9 November 1969. (Vol.89 Issue 41-3)

'Noam Chomsky: a journey to North Vietnam', 5 May 1970. (Vol.90 Issue 23)

'Overkill', 15 September 1970 p5. (Vol.90 Issue 30)

'Krasner loses final appeal', 5 October 1971 p1,3,5. (Vol.90 Issue 37)

'Battering ram: the occupation of the president's office', 7 December p5 and 10 December p5 and 14 December 1971 p4. (Vol.91 Issue 53-5)

'MIT may be dangerous to the world', 28 April 1972 p5. (Vol.92 Issue 21)

'Riot police hit MIT campus', 12 May 1972. (Vol.92 Issue 25)

‘19 appeal trespass cases’, 4 August 1972 p1, 13. (Vol.92 Issue 28)



  • An extract from Ricky Leacock's documentary, November Actions, on MIT's student protests in 1969:


  • 'Vietnam – the American holocaust' documentary, 2008:



  • Walt Rostow, Henry Kissinger and President Lyndon B Johnson in the White House:

Students staging a protest against research into nuclear and other weapons at MIT in 1969/1970. (Jon Kabat is facing the megaphone.)


  • This sit-in appears to be in, or near, MIT’s Center for International Studies where academics were working with the US military on torture and assassination programmes in Vietnam. (Michael Albert, Remembering Tomorrow p99-101; The Tech, 14/10/69.)


  • This photograph shows the moment that students broke down the door to the office of the president of MIT, Howard Johnson. The students were protesting against the expulsion of the anti-war student president, Michael Albert. After this incident, as one MIT professor said, 'the faculty came down with a giant iron fist' and three students ended up serving prison sentences. (The Tech, 14/12/71)

A Chomsky Reading Guide

A Chomsky Reading Guide



The Essential Chomsky
- A collection of his best articles.

Understanding Power
- A selection of Chomsky’s interviews on everything from linguistics to anarchism.

American Power and the New Mandarins
- Chomsky's first political book, including his take on the Spanish Revolution.

The Fateful Triangle
- The classic analysis of the USA’s relationship with Israel and the Palestinians.

Manufacturing Consent
- Another classic, this time on the US media.

Year 501
- A damning history of US imperialism.

Hegemony or Survival
- Chomsky’s view of US foreign policy at the time of the disastrous occupation of Iraq. Hugo Chavez displayed this book during his 2006 speech at the UN.

After the Cataclysm
- Probably Chomsky’s most controversial book. (For a critique of this book see: ‘Chomsky on Cambodia’. For Chomsky’s response to his critics, see: Steven Lukes’ website. For further clarification of Chomsky’s reluctance to criticise national liberation movements, see his 1974 comment about the London Solidarity group.)

The Architecture of Language
- A short summary of Chomsky’s linguistics.

The Science of Language
- The clearest exposition of Chomsky’s latest theories on language and philosophy. (For a critique, see: Journal of Linguistics, 'A 'Galilean' Science of language' by Christina Behme.)


Zellig Harris’ influence on Chomsky was ‘enormous’. Harris is pictured here, left, beside his friend, the council-communist Paul Mattick. Chomsky had many discussions with Mattick but considered him ‘too orthodox a Marxist for my tastes’.  

Zellig Harris’ influence on Chomsky was ‘enormous’. Harris is pictured here, left, beside his friend, the council-communist Paul Mattick. Chomsky had many discussions with Mattick but considered him ‘too orthodox a Marxist for my tastes’.



Noam Chomsky, A Life of Dissent - Robert Barsky
- The most thorough biography of Chomsky.

Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals- Neil Smith
- The most thorough summary of Chomsky’s linguistics.

‘Chomsky on the Nod’ - Bob Black
- A harsh critique of Chomsky by the polemical anarchist author.

‘Language, Mind and Society’ - Brian Bamford
- Did Chomsky have this issue of the anarchist journal, The Raven, banned? Decide for yourself.

‘The Interpreter’ - John Colapinto
- An useful journalistic introduction to the most recent controversies in the ‘language wars’.

‘There is No Language Instinct’ - Yvyvan Evans
- A clear description of what some linguists believe is wrong with Chomskyan linguistics. (Evans’ recent book, The Language Myth, goes into more detail.)

Decoding Chomsky - science and revolutionary politics - Chris Knight

Why Smash MIT? – 1969 article from 'The Old Mole'

This photograph shows the moment that students broke down the door to the office of the president of MIT, Howard Johnson. The students were protesting against the expulsion of the anti-war student president, Michael Albert. After this incident, as one MIT professor said, 'the faculty came down with a giant iron fist' and three students ended up serving prison sentences. (The Tech, 14/12/71) Courtesy of MIT Museum.

This photograph shows the moment that students broke down the door to the office of the president of MIT, Howard Johnson. The students were protesting against the expulsion of the anti-war student president, Michael Albert. After this incident, as one MIT professor said, 'the faculty came down with a giant iron fist' and three students ended up serving prison sentences. (The Tech, 14/12/71) Courtesy of MIT Museum.



This article from the Cambridge, Massachusetts, radical student publication, The Old Mole, was written at the height of protests against Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s role in military research in November 1969. (From I.Wallerstein, University Crisis Reader vol.2 p240-3.)


MIT isn’t a center for scientific and social research to serve humanity. It’s a part of the US war machine. Into MIT flow over $100 million a year in Pentagon research and development funds, making it the tenth largest Defense Department R&D contractor in the country. MIT’s purpose is to provide research, consulting services and trained personnel for the US government and the major corporations – research, services, and personnel which enable them to maintain their control over the people of the world.

NAC’s (November Action Coalition’s) campaign was directed against MIT as an institution, against its central purpose. It focused, however, on seven specific projects which are illustrative of the worst kinds of projects the Institution carries out for imperialism. Last week’s actions are part of a continuing campaign to end these seven projects:

MIRV and Helicopter

MIRV (Multiple Independently-targeted Re-entry Vehicles) and the Helicopter Stabilization Project: These projects are being done at the Instrumentation Laboratories, which are considered capable of the most sophisticated and reliable guidance work of any lab in the country. The MIRV is designed to give the US a first-strike capability: the capability of launching a nuclear attack without being destroyed in return. Each MIRV missile contains many warheads each of which can be aimed at a different target. While MIRV gives US imperialism fantastic world-wide power, the helicopter stabilization project is designed specifically for counter-insurgency projects like Vietnam. It’s goal is an all-weather guidance and stabilization system for helicopters, which would alleviate many of the present difficulties in establishing aim from rapid-fire machine-guns in helicopters in Vietnam, especially in bad weather.


ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) and MTI (Moving Target Indicator): these projects are being done at the Lincoln laboratories, established in 1951 ‘for the purpose of creating effective solutions to urgent national defense problems’ (MIT President’s Report 1968). ABM, like the MIRV, is intended to give the US a first-strike capability. And, as Senator Richard Russell has said, ‘The first country to deploy an effective ABM system . . . is going to control this world militarily.’ The MTI is a radar system that allows guerrillas moving through dense foliage to be detected three miles away by a helicopter travelling up to 200 miles per hour, in all weather, day or night. Test models are already in use in Vietnam.


Com-Com Project and International Communism Project: Both of these projects are being done at MIT’s Center for International Studies. The CIS was established in the early 1950s to deal with some of the ‘social science problems’ in the implementation of US foreign policy. It was funded by the CIA from its inception until 1966, when Director Max Millikan announced that ‘for practical and not moral reasons’ ties were officially cut. Millikan came to the center after a two–year stint as assistant director of the CIA.

The Com-Com Project is directed by Ithiel de Sola Pool. Pool is a political ‘scientist’ who has spent much time in Vietnam in the past few years as part of the DoD’s [Department of Defense’s] Chieu Hoi program (a program to induce Viet Cong defection). Com-Com is a program of technical and communications research in psychological warfare. Com-Com is a program of technical and communications research in psychological warfare.

The International Communism Project was originally funded by the CIA (now by the Ford Foundation) to provide analysis of intelligence information about radical and revolutionary movements throughout the world on the basis of public documents. (At least one of CIS’s two Old Mole subscriptions must go here.) The US intelligence apparatus would like an independent check and analysis of this information done outside the government, which the project has provided.

Project CAM (or, the Cambridge Project): This project, conceived by Pool, former ARPA (Advanced Projects Agency of the DoD) official J.C.R. Licklider, and ARPA official Bob Taylor, will receive $7.69 million from the DoD over the next five years. It is intended to develop general theory which will help solve those DoD and US Government problems which are considered ‘behavioral-science problems’. It will use existing data collections of such things as interviews with NLF [Vietnamese National Liberation Front] defectors and peasant attitudes. As Pool has stated, ‘[Some students] are under the impression that the Project will deal with counter-insurgency problems and peasant attitudes. These topics of research are nothing new. They have been going on all the time in various sectors of the community. These areas would be strengthened by the project . . . ’

Phony Conversion

In reaction to the demands that those seven projects be stopped and the planned November Actions around them, MIT President Howard Johnson and other members of the administration have attempted to make it seem as if the Lincoln and Instrumentation Labs are going to be ‘converted’. They replaced the I-Labs Director, C. Stark Draper (the guided missile expert) with Charles L. Miller, who is supposed to be interested ‘urban problems’. They announced a new research policy at the two Labs.

However, their ‘new’ research policy turns out to be very much like the old one. The labs will continue to do everything short of the final development of weapons systems. Thus, according to the ‘new’ criteria, the ABM, MTI, and the helicopter stabilization projects were all acceptable and even the initial research into MIRV would be permitted.

In either case, administrators have said that all projects will continue until completion. In addition, a memorandum from Miller to Johnson which was made public by the NAC on Oct. 28 showed that funds for any sort of ‘conversion’ are not forthcoming. Miller himself referred to ‘conversion’ (always in quotes in his memo) as a ‘misleading illusion’.

George Katsiaficas on 'Decoding Chomsky'

Sit in at MIT 1969/70. Courtesy of MIT Museum.

Sit in at MIT 1969/70. Courtesy of MIT Museum.

On 17 May 2016, George Katsiaficas kindly replied as follows to my e-mail request that he check over my manuscript. I reproduce here his comments with his permission.


Hello Chris,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on your book, which appears to be a very tightly conceived and clearly written project. I only had time to read the pages which you sent to me as the email attachment.

To summarize, I think your coverage of Noam is compassionate but that you need to better portray the complexity of MIT’s “libertarianism”.

Noam Chomsky and I share great libertarian values.  You seem not to be aware of this since you wrote (in reference to the disruption of Walt Rostow’s talk) "We do not know what George Katsiaficas thought at the time, …” I was at the speech that was disrupted, and I was very upset with those student radicals (among whom I did not count myself yet) who chose to stop Rostow’s talk.  After the event, we argued passionately, long into the night, and as a result I became friends with these radicals and ultimately joined their circles. Yet I retained my libertarian values – and still do.

The example I proudly point to is my defense of Joseph Mlot-Mroz, a man we called Joe the Polish freedom fighter, a right-wing anti-Semitic lonely protester who showed up at all of our demonstrations with huge signs reading “Stop the Jewish-Communist Conspiracy.” One day, when we were having a meeting in Kresge Auditorium with hundreds of people, the MIT campus police suddenly arrested Joe for being on campus outside the auditorium. As they had him face down on the grass, I knocked two of the policeman over and attempted to free Joe from their grasp. (I had been designated as being in charge of security for our event and acted on my own initiative.)

For my actions, my fellow radicals were very quick to criticize me, and the MIT administration brought campus charges against me and attempted to expel me. At the disciplinary hearing, again at Kresge Auditorium, hundreds of people showed up and prevented the hearing from moving forward, at which point MIT, thoroughly embarrassed by my standing up for Joe’s right to speak, dropped the charges against me.

While you maintain that MIT defended libertarian values,  clearly that was not the case in this particular incident.  

Secondly, you repeat the statement that some of us disrupted classes, an action for which I was one of the two students so accused and sentenced to prison for two months (which you note). However much it may have been said that we disrupted classes, we did not. Let me explain. It was and is an MIT accepted practice that students and members of the community may enter a classroom and ask the instructor’s permission to make brief announcements of campus events. This can occur as many as three or four times during any class.

When the office of the president was occupied, emotions ran high on campus, particularly among those who regarded as sacrosanct institutional hierarchy, especially the authority of the president. Peter Bohmer and I entered three classrooms to announce a meeting for members of the MIT community to discuss the occupation of the president.

In two of the classrooms, the professors recognized me and immediately screamed at me, put their hands on me and expelled me from the room. I did not resist and left, as did Peter. In the third classroom, the professor asked me by name to leave the leaflet I was carrying so he could make the announcement at the end of class. He explained there was a mathematics quiz in the next class and that he needed to keep the focus. I left our leaflet for him and exited immediately.

At our trial in Superior Court, the two professors who had expelled me (technically assaulted me) testified that I disrupted their classes. The third professor was not allowed to testify on a motion from an MIT attorney who assisted the district attorney in the prosecution. This third professor’s testimony would have clearly shown that our intent was not to disrupt or even to remain in the classroom if so requested by the professor. If we did not intend to disrupt classes, we should have been found innocent under the law. Not only did MIT silence the third professor, but he was subsequently not rehired (he did not have tenure and was part-time, as I recall). 

Again these are not the actions of a libertarian institution.

Howard Johnson’s special assistant was a wonderful man named Constantine Simonidis. He was my friend, as was Howard Johnson before I joined Rosa Luxembourg SDS. (Johnson had given me a full presidential scholarship after my freshman year.)

After my mother was also sent to prison, Constantine was able to secure her early release from the notorious Charles Street prison after she spent a week locked up. Although MIT issued an injunction preventing me from returning to campus after I was released from prison, I made inquiries about why MIT had so viciously prosecuted us, and here is what I learned was the reason: On a cold winter night, we had had a demonstration marching throughout campus that ended at the president’s house on the Charles River. One of the more rambunctious members of the parade climbed onto a ledge and peered into a window on the second floor.

Apparently, by chance, he was looking directly at the partially clothed wife of president Howard Johnson, who was startled and frightened by the unkempt appearance of a stranger whom she must’ve thought was attempting to break into her bedroom. It is understandable that the president directed his underlings to take actions against those deemed the leaders of such a raucous group, but that would not be the action of a libertarian or even liberal leader. Howard Johnson could have called me up and asked what happened. He had previously called me to request that I be the only undergraduate on the commission that investigated the special laboratories.

For more on Howard Johnson, see my review of his book, Holding the Center: Memoirs of a Life in Higher Education by Howard Johnson, (M.I.T. Press, 1999) in New Political Science, March 2002.

Available at: http://eroseffect.com/articles/holdingthecenter.pdf

I hope you will consider updating your discourse on MIT, even if only in a footnote.

Best wishes,