I, like many leftists, cut my teeth on Noam Chomsky. To be fair, back in those days I was still very right-wing, but that was mainly because I was a total Russophile. Since my conservatism was no longer tied to jingoistic patriotism, Chomsky’s indictments of America’s crimes were attractive to my Rage Against the Machine-loving self at that time. I was reading Chomsky right around the time of NATO’s campaign against Serbia in Kosovo, the event that seemed to have spawned dozens of Western Russophiles.
ABOVE: Anthem of my senior year.
The thing about Chomsky is that he’s fine when you’re 16-21. I was about 16 or 17 when I used to read his work. If you’re 25 or older and still paying respect to Chomsky, I pity you. By a certain age you start to realize that every Chomsky piece is going to feature the same standard tropes.
-Whenever it’s about a conflict involving the US, Chomsky will point out how the American media always focuses on the atrocities of the other side, and rarely on its own. Chomsky was the first guy in history to notice this.
-Between elections, voting doesn’t change anything because both parties are the same. But every time there’s a major election, voting Democrat will make enough of a difference to justify voting.
-Various historical leaders are “monsters,” but some “monsters” were okay because they were on our side. In any case, monsters of all types were monsters because they wanted power.
-St. Chomsky gets to criticize every existing socialist society while asserting the innocence of his vaguely-defined libertarian anarcho-syndicalist system. Nobody knows just how the working classes will establish this anarcho-syndicalist system, but rest assured that it will be entirely without bloodshed or coercion of any kind. If you can criticize it, it’s not what he had in mind.
Now you might be wondering why I seem so pissed off at Chomsky today. Well you see, Chomsky is a guy who loves attacking Lenin and Marxists, disingenuously implying that Marxists only want “power,” and that Marxist theory appeals to them because it allows them to achieve that power by claiming they are some super elite “vanguard.” This is a clear misunderstanding of Lenin’s idea of a vanguard party. Yet while Chomsky will attack Marxists at the drop of a hat, he apparently has no problem not only defending Putin’s authoritarian state, but also preaching its talking points, as he did in an interview with Democracy Now.
It’s obvious that Chomsky hasn’t done much homework on Ukraine judging by his numerous digressions into Cold War history while he ignores more relevant, recent developments. First, Chomsky starts by repeating the Russian talking point about the alleged agreement not to expand NATO after the collapse of the USSR.
“But the crucial issue was this. Gorbachev agreed to allow Germany, a unified Germany, to join NATO, a hostile military alliance. It’s a pretty remarkable concession, if you think about the history of the preceding century, half-century. Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia several times, and now he was agreeing to have Germany join a hostile military alliance led by the only superpower. But there was a quid pro quo, that Germany—that NATO would not move one inch to the east. That was the phrase that was used in the interchanges, meaning to East Germany. And on that condition, they went forward. NATO immediately moved to East Germany. When Gorbachev vigorously protested, naturally, he was informed by the United States that it was only a verbal commitment, it wasn’t on paper. The unstated implication is, if you are naïve enough to think you can make a gentlemen’s agreement with us, it’s your problem. They didn’t say that; I’m saying that. But NATO moved to East Germany; under Clinton, moved right up to Russia’s borders.”
First of all, verbal agreements don’t cut it in the modern world. There are these things called treaties. You know, like the agreement Russia signed in Budapest to guarantee the borders of Ukraine. Also note that like every pro-Kremlin “geopolitical” expert, Chomsky makes it seem like NATO expansion was some kind of eastward rolling conquest, forgetting that countries joined NATO of their own accord. Notice how he totally ignores the security concerns of those smaller countries, as well. Russia’s concerns as a major regional military power are justified, but small Baltic nations with significant Russian populations such as Latvia and Estonia apparently lack the right to appeal to a military alliance out of their own concerns. Here Chomsky is playing a strange game of great power politics for a man who is supposedly so “anti-authoritarian.” Also, before moving on, if you needed any more evidence that Chomsky has no idea what he’s talking about, pay attention to the line where he says Clinton expanded NATO to Russia’s borders. Excepting the separate Kaliningrad region, NATO did not have significant contact with Russia’s borders until 2004. You know, in Clinton’s third term.
Getting back to Chomsky’s RT talking points, note how he only defends the security concerns of Russia. Those are natural and just. Ukraine had no right to be concerned about having a Russian military base on its territory. Moldova has no right to be concerned that Russia propped up an unrecognized country within its borders as an excuse to station troops there. Ditto with Georgia. Now I’m not making a moral judgement on any of those conflicts, particularly in the latter where there were two different non-Georgian ethnic groups who actually wanted independence. The point I’m trying to make is that Smaller nations on the borders of Russia have their own legitimate security concerns that people like Chomsky just ignore. Oh wait, I’m sorry, they don’t always ignore the security concerns of small nations. When those small nations are concerned about the machinations of the US or its allies in their region, the geopolitical hacks and Chomsky are happy to start screaming about imperialism and bullying.
Before moving on, I want to address the point Chomsky makes at the beginning of that passage, because it deserves special attention. Chomsky points out that German alone had supposedly almost destroyed Russia several times. Well, not quite. In WWI, Russia mobilized its forces before Germany. It also launched an offensive into East Prussia before the Germans hit back. Much of the fighting on the Eastern Front of the First World War took place in territory that was essentially colonial property of the Russian Empire. As for the Second World War, we are talking about a much larger Germany, led by a dictator with an openly aggressive worldview that glorified conquest, specifically in the east. It’s also worth noting that Germany launched its invasion of the USSR in concert with a number of smaller countries which had territorial designs on the Soviet Union. There simply is no legitimate claim to say that a unified Germany in 1991 represented the same threat that Nazi Germany posed. Again, if historical aggression justifies concerns, why not consider those of Poland, for example?
Moving on, Chomsky doubles down on stupid with this quote.
“Just a couple of weeks ago, U.S. military equipment was taking part in a military parade in Estonia a couple hundred yards from the Russian border. Russia is surrounded by U.S. offensive weapons—sometimes they’re called “defense,” but they’re all offensive weapons. And the idea that the new government in Ukraine, that took over after the former government was overthrown, last December, late December, it passed a resolution, overwhelmingly—I think something like 300 to eight or something—announcing its intention to take steps to join NATO.”
I don’t know anyone who makes it a serious point to label the US military equipment in question “offensive” or “defensive.” That distinction doesn’t exist for a lot of military hardware. One thing is for sure- nobody is or was contemplating an invasion of Russia. Also the vote he’s referring to was in December, and it was only to remove Ukraine’s non-aligned status. Note that this was several months into a war with Russia, which annexed a part of their territory and had been propping up an insurgency to grab another part of it. Chomsky apparently thinks that Ukraine should just lie back and let it happen.
“No Russian leader, no matter who it is, could tolerate Ukraine, right at the geostrategic center of Russian concerns, joining a hostile military alliance. I mean, we can imagine, for example, how the U.S. would have reacted, say, during the Cold War if the Warsaw Pact had extended to Latin America, and Mexico and Canada were now planning to join the Warsaw Pact. Of course, that’s academic, because the first step would have led to violent U.S. response, and it wouldn’t have gone any further.”
This prompted a question about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which must have relieved Chomsky a bit because it gave him a chance to talk about something he actually knew something about. It’s irrelevant, but at least he’s not totally ignorant. The problem with the comparison is this. Chomsky, like many of his generation, did not approve of the United States’ positions toward Latin America. Justifiably so, of course, but the problem is that you can’t have it both ways, saying that Russia has the right to a sphere of influence on its borders while condemning the US for its Monroe Doctrine-derived policies in Latin America. Furthermore, in such a hypothetical scenario, we should ask why these Latin American countries would be joining up with a hostile military alliance in the first place. If the US started to make moves suggesting it was going to pull another Texas-scenario somewhere in Mexico, they would be justified in joining some foreign military alliance. Same goes for countries like Moldova or Latvia. The invasion of Ukraine proved them right. Ukraine was not joining NATO. It wasn’t even joining the EU. Ukraine is hoping, quite naively, for NATO membership now, only because somebody annexed part of its territory and is prosecuting an illegal war within its borders.
You might be hoping that I have more Chomsky quotes to rip apart, but you’ll be sadly disappointed. Most of that transcript consists of him babbling about the Cold War and Ronald Reagan, all of which have absolutely dick to do with the situation at hand right now. Think I’m exaggerating? Look at how the interview begins:
AMY GOODMAN: Also in Russia, the murder this weekend on Friday night of the opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. A former deputy prime minister turned dissident politician, Nemtsov was shot dead Friday night near Red Square. He was going to lead a major rally that was critical of Vladimir Putin on Sunday. It grew much larger after his death, with tens of thousands, perhaps 50,000 people, marching past the Kremlin carrying signs reading, “I am not afraid.”
Noam Chomsky, if you can comment on what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine?
NOAM CHOMSKY: What’s happening is quite ugly. And I think the criticisms are mostly accurate, but they’re kind of beside the point. There’s a background that we have to think about. It’s fashionable now in the United States and Britain to condemn Putin as some sort of a distorted mind. There’s an article in Psychology Today analyzing his brain, asking why he’s so arrogant. He’s been accused of having Asperger’s; an irritable, rat-faced man, as he’s described by Timothy Garton Ash and so on. This is all very reminiscent of the early 1950s, when I was a graduate student then. At that time, the U.S. had overwhelming power, and it was able to use the United Nations as a battering ram against its enemy, the Soviet Union, so Russia was, of course, vetoing lots of resolutions, condemning it. And leading anthropologists in the United States and England developed a—began to analyze why the Russians are so negative, what makes them say no at the United Nations all the time. And their proposal was that the Russians are negative because they raise their children in swaddling clothes, and that makes them negative. The three or four of us at Harvard who thought this ridiculous used to call it diaperology. That’s being re-enacted—a takeoff on Kremlinology. This is being re-enacted right now.
Virtually nothing in that paragraph really answers her question. I don’t recall Chomsky saying anything about Nemtsov, even in a critical manner. If she wanted a straight answer to that question, she probably should have interviewed Mark Ames. Chomsky also uses this absurd weasel word tactic whereby he absolves himself of supporting Putin by saying:
“But the fact is, whatever you think about Putin—OK, irritable, rat-faced man with Asperger’s, whatever you like—the Russians have a case.”
Ummm…no, Putin, not “the Russians” because Putin doesn’t rule in their interests, does not “have a case.” Keep in mind we’re talking about a man who didn’t think Lenin had a case for war communism during the Russian civil war, supposedly on the basis anarchist principles, and yet here we are in 2014 and this “anarchist” is more than happy to defend a right-wing, authoritarian regime on the basis of the same great power imperialist logic he’d never tolerate coming from an American leader. There’s a word for this- hypocrite. Actually I can think of a couple more- moral coward.
It’s time for the left to grow out of its adolescence and stop listening to these relics of the past and their outdated politics.