Overthrowing a false prophet
Jack Conrad reviews: Chris Knight, 'Decoding Chomsky', Yale University Press 2016, pp285, £18.99
Really important books do not come along very often. But here is one of them.
Chris Knight ranges over subjects as diverse as Marxism, anarchism, McCarthyism and US politics in the 1950s, student protests in the 1960s, art movements during the Russian Revolution, the history of computing, linguistics, psychology, philosophy and the gender relations among our evolutionary ancestors. A short review article cannot really do it justice.
He promises the reader an “intellectual rollercoaster” … and that is what he delivers (piv). The left should celebrate and do its best to popularise Decoding Chomsky.
Before going on, a necessary admission. I know next to nothing about linguistics. I have read only a tiny portion of Chomsky’s writings directly, in the round, as opposed to indirectly, in selected fragments. Finally, I consider Chris Knight a friend and, with this or that proviso, a co-thinker. Hence the more than occasional ‘comrade’ prefix.
Nonetheless, I am convinced that Noam Chomsky must be pulled from his pedestal.
He is, of course, world-famous as a linguist and scientist. He is also world-famous as a political radical, an anti-imperialist and opponent of neoliberal capitalism. Celebrity in science magnifies what Chomsky says in politics. In turn what he says in politics magnifies his celebrity in science. He is certainly a hero for a wide range of leftish and liberal opinion (Chomsky situates his own, rather vague, politics in the anarcho-syndicalism of 1936 Barcelona). Eg, in 2005 readers of Prospect magazine voted him the world’s number one “public intellectual” - Robin Blackburn hurrahed that Chomsky richly deserved such acclaim because of his role in linguistics and trenchant exposure of US crimes.1
Perhaps a parallel can be drawn with Pablo Picasso. His reputation as an artistic revolutionary made him an asset to be promoted by republican Spain and then, later, the French Communist Party. His political notoriety in turn increased the price his works commanded in the auction rooms of Paris, London and New York. I am not suggesting base motives. The political statements of Picasso were doubtless wholly sincere. Nevertheless, only a fool would draw an equals sign between his ground-breaking painting, Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), and his pamphlet, Why I became a communist (1944).
With Chomsky’s first book, Syntactic structures (1957), there “began”, according to one of his fawning acolytes, “the avalanche that was the modern ‘cognitive revolution’”.2 Conventional wisdom nowadays refers to the Chomskyan revolution in linguistics. Needless to say, having one’s name joined with what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift in science is exceptional: eg, the Copernican revolution in astronomy, the Darwinian revolution in biology, the Newtonian and Einsteinian revolutions in physics. Kuhn, it should be added, explained these paradigm shifts as happening through inspired leaps, overcoming mounting contradictions and the promise of achieving simpler, better, more emotionally satisfying solutions. Not on slowly accumulating scientific knowledge.
Before Syntactic structures, language and speech had been widely understood as learned behaviour. As comrade Knight points out, during the 1940s and 50s, the “standard paradigm in scientific psychology” was behaviourism (p23). Pioneered by Russian Nobel Prize winner Ivan Pavlov, behaviourism achieved hegemony in the United States under Burrhus Frederic Skinner.
As a basic principle, Skinner’s ‘radical behaviourism’ discounts the ‘mind’ (eg, ideas, mental states, etc) as an unscientific concept. Instead behaviourism focuses on the human brain and human behaviour - which can be studied, measured, manipulated … and perfected.
Laboratory rats were a favourite experimental stand-in. They could be trained to perform quite complex tasks, provided two procedures were followed. Firstly, the tasks had to be broken down into “graduated steps”. Second, the rat had to be punished or rewarded at each stage. Skinner called this operant conditioning. He concluded that his work on rats could be extended to human beings “without serious modification” (pp24, 25).
It is easy, of course, to explain the appeal of behaviourism to Stalinist bureaucrats and capitalist managers - alike they were interested not in what people feel or think. No, their hope was to ensure prescribed behaviour by pushing the right punishment and reward buttons. That way the population could be conditioned and controlled. Crime, lax work, drug addiction, absenteeism, depression, obesity, etc, would thereby soon be overcome. Everyone, thereby, becomes productive, happy, healthy, well adjusted, obedient members of society. Skinner, it should be added, was in American terms a progressive. Politically Star trek just about sums up his ideal.
Behaviourism had no time for notions of an essential human nature. Our brains supposedly begin as a blank slate and then develop according to environmental circumstances.
Behaviourism therefore took it for granted that children had to be taught language step by meticulous step. When they got something right they should be praised … but when, inevitably, they fell into error they should be corrected. So language is mastered through reward and punishment and by breaking the entire learning process down to small “graduated steps”.
Chomsky - and many others - pointed out that this account was manifestly false. Language acquisition amongst young children is amazingly fast and is to all intents and purposes spontaneous. Merely by listening to and copying adults - and maybe fellow children - an abundant repertoire of words are soaked up and then formed into fluent, brilliantly creative and syntactically correct lines of speech.
And, though parents may speak language X and no other, their children can effortlessly acquire - and distinguish between - language X and language Y. All that is needed is exposure to both languages at a young age.
In 1959 Chomsky wrote a devastating review of Skinner’s Verbal behaviour (1957). Skinner’s attempt to invade the field of language was rudely dismissed as, “in effect, a reductio ad absurdum of behaviourist assumptions”. Chomsky rightly insisted that Skinner’s animal studies have little or no relevance when it came to language and the higher mental abilities of humans. Crucially, argued Chomsky, it appears that we are “somehow specially designed” to acquire language.3 He charged behaviourism with being a “criminal fraud” (p8).
However, behaviourism had already been increasingly diverging from the needs of the ruling class. Behaviourism failed to explain memory and thought. Nor could it provide a realistic psychology of human action. During World War II this became important for the US armed forces. With the development of new military technology came the requirement for “a greater understanding of human performance”. Problems such as how best to train military personnel to use electronic messaging, aiming devices and sonar technology and how to maintain attention to detail while they were under severe stress became vital concerns. Behaviourism proved unhelpful when it came to such matters.4
Then there came computers. The US military began organising computer scientists, psychologists, linguists and arms manufacturers so as “to integrate human operators into their projects and designs” (p28). Parallels were drawn between human thought and the computational functioning of computers. Above all though, the Pentagon dreamt of a “language machine”. Such a machine would act as the interface between military commanders and their weapons systems. Eg, they would issue orders - say in everyday American English - and a missile would act as instructed (pp14-22). Chomsky’s time had arrived.
Metaphorically he too equated the brain/mind with a digital computer. He still calls it an information processing device - people being, in his view, biologically pre-programmed for language. True, nowadays the brain as a computer idea is generally discounted by neuroscientists. More sophisticated and dynamic models have been developed. In fact, the way computers process information have as much relevance to the human mind as laboratory rats have to human behaviour.
Nevertheless, Chomsky’s metaphor was cutting-edge in the 1950s. Moreover, his linguistics were suitably presented as value-free, as objective … and by implication full of military potential. Chomsky did not build a machine or programme a computer. But he would provide a suitable theory of linguistics. Not that anything Chomsky has come up with has been of the slightest use when it comes to missile command and control systems, etc.
Though the whiff of McCarthyism still hung in the air, the young anarchist, Noam Chomsky, secured his academic position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and gained generous support from the military-industrial complex. MIT is, of course, one of the Pentagon’s key research institutions and specialises in emerging military technologies. Not that Chomsky makes any secret of the grants he receives. In the preface to Syntactic structures we read:
This work was supported in part by the USA army (signal corps), the air force (Office of Scientific Research, Air Research and Development Command), and the navy (Office of Naval Research); and in part by the National Science Foundation and the Eastman Kodak Corporation (p15).
Comrade Knight comes to bury Chomsky, not save Chomsky. True, his cognitive revolution swept away behaviourism, but it has produced equal nonsense. And, while Chomsky’s disciples and admirers proclaim him a 20th century thinker ranking alongside Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Ronald Fisher, Decoding Chomsky argues that there are, in effect, two Chomskys: neither of which deserves to be highly rated.
Comrade Knight admires the “passionate and courageous” Chomsky who protested against the Vietnam war, US backing of Zionist Israel, invasion of Iraq, etc. Yet Knight tells of his dawning recognition that Chomsky rules over a pseudo-science:
It … became clear to me that the scientist in Chomsky excluded social topics with the same scrupulous rigour that the activist in him excluded any reliance on science. This disastrous way of fragmenting human knowledge made no sense to me at all (pxi).
And so often do his models collapse under the weight of their own contradictions that Chomsky is forced to dump them with bewildering frequency. Nonetheless, his pronouncements come as if from an infallible pope. First there was deep structure. It fell apart. Then minimalism. It too fell apart. Meaning is declared independent of social purpose. Language is not primarily about human communication. Instead, Chomsky searches for an underlying platonic perfection. He never finds it.
Perhaps, knowing the worthlessness of his own theories, Chomsky has resorted to the standard trick of “making himself incomprehensible”. Here I am reminded of Gerry Healy, Antonio Negri and Louis Althusser. All spheres of human endeavour have their specialist language, their shorthand, their jargon. But that does not mean that the most advanced ideas cannot be made accessible to the average intelligent reader (like me). Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky is an example, so is Stephen Jay Gould’s The structure of evolutionary theory and, for that matter, so is Marx’s Capital.
By contrast, Chomsky seeks to obscure, hide, erect barriers. For example, according to Chomsky, the “technical term ‘language’ has no relation at all to the pre-theoretical term ‘language’”. He justifies this by claiming that the “rule system is something real, it is in your head, it is in my head, it is physically represented in some fashion”. Meanwhile, “what is now called ‘language’ does not need any term at all, because it is a totally useless concept … It does not fit with linguistic theory, it has no existence” (p201).
Nor for Chomsky can language be explained in evolutionary and social terms. Darwinism is categorically discounted. Nonetheless, under pressure from an ever growing band of critics, he eventually resorted to a ‘just so’ story.
Chomsky imagines a sudden burst of cosmic radiation. And, following that one-off event, a serendipitous non-Darwinian mutation. Some pre-human ancestor thereby acquired the language facility. Hence an original condition whereby language is implanted, fully formed, perfect … albeit only in one individual. Yet, because of the reproductive advantages this conferred, the language facility slowly spread throughout the entire population. Then one fine day, for no particular reason, people found they could externalise language through speech.
Yes, yes, the mind talks to itself. Each and every one of us does that. But, clearly, what drives Chomsky to adopt his own version of Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 - a space odyssey is not conviction. No, it is his steadfast refusal to engage with those biologists, primatologists, anthropologists … and Marxists, who through their painstaking, collective efforts have actually produced a highly promising - and I would say a thoroughly convincing - hypothesis about the origins of language: the subject of Chris Knight’s concluding chapter (a thesis that begins with his seminal Blood relations).
Using selfish-gene theory, studies of our nearest great ape cousins, models of reproductive strategies and the limits that could be imposed on alpha-male power by female solidarity, Sarah Hrdy, Roy Rappaport, Chris Knight, Camilla Power, Jerome Lewis, Moira Finnegan and others have come up with the necessary insights that surely point to the origins of language. Crucially, the hypothesis that some time in the Late Upper Palaeolithic there occurred a human revolution which overthrew alpha-male domination and ushered in symbolic culture … song and dance provided the foundations for language.
To avoid such social explanations Chomsky has made ever more absurd claims. Since the first human acquired language, they apparently have implanted in their heads every language and every conceivable language. The fact that a young child can go from a war-torn Syria speaking Arabic and then quickly learn Swedish in their new Scandinavian home relies on biological pre-programming, according to Chomsky and his followers. The child already had Swedish in their head.
And not only that. Every human being biologically inherits all conceivable words of all conceivable languages. Hence we find Chomsky claiming that the word ‘carburettor’ is innate to the human condition. So presumably is ‘bureaucrat’, ‘internet’. And, if I coin a new word specially for this article - say ‘Chomskillyness’ - it too would supposedly be innate in every human being. Chomsky would say that I have not invented a new word. No, he would say that I have merely triggered what already biologically existed. As comrade Knight dryly comments, “Thoughts along these lines threatened to blow apart the entire biolinguistic paradigm” (p161).
No-one would argue against young children having a brilliant language facility. That is verifiably true. But language is living, it is made and remade, constantly takes new courses according to historical events, geography, class struggles, incoming cultural influences and unpredictable accidents.
So how does Chomsky get away with it? For Knight the answer lies in his ability to claim a special status. When speaking as a scientist, “Chomsky is forever invoking a particular kind of authority. Not worldly authority, not the say-so of this or that colleague or respected figure in his field, and certainly not the received wisdom of the moment.” What Chomsky relies on is “something closer to ancestral authority, to the pantheon of science, to eternal truth, as revealed by the likes of Plato, Descartes, Copernicus and Galileo”. In other words, Chomsky falls back on what the French social anthropologist, Pierre Bourdieu, terms “authorised language” - the kind of language used by a priest, a monarch or any institutionally authorised speaker making their routine or stereotyped pronouncements.5
Anarchism v Marxism
Now we come to the political Chomsky, the Chomsky who apparently thinks about capitalism in a manner “broadly consistent with Marxism” (p113). Here, I have a disagreement with comrade Knight.
To say the least, Chomsky has no liking for Marxism. He openly despises its Leninist (and Trotskyite) variety. Lenin and Trotsky are both treated as akin to fascists. Indeed Chomsky “tends to single out Marxist intellectuals as particularly dangerous advocates of behaviourism”. Eg, discussing “the contemporary intelligentsia”, he accuses them of aspiring to exercise power as “either ideological managers or state managers” (p199).
Comrade Knight’s intention is not to go into the record of Lenin or Trotsky. But what Knight sees in Chomsky’s vehemence, his spitting denunciations of Marxism, is something wider. Chomsky’s linguistics were used in the academy as a weapon to marginalise Marxism. Perhaps a little unfairly Knight says the US elite were not “greatly inconvenienced by Chomsky’s moral conscience or his relentless exposure of their undoubted crimes”. His role as the “conscience of America” may even in subtle ways have helped deflect criticism, indicating as it did that America was, despite everything, a ‘free country’.
Chomsky’s role in splitting politics from science “must certainly have seemed helpful”. After all, the outcome was a “tongue-tied, politically inarticulate science alongside mindless, scientifically illiterate activism”. A “disaster for the global revolutionary left”, says Knight (p200).
However, I would add that comrade Knight is himself wedded to a version of Marxism that stresses protest, moral outrage, exemplary actions, picket-line struggles, etc. Hence he seeks to reconcile Marxism and anarchism. Eg, he dismissively writes of the “decades of often fruitless disputes between anarchists and Marxists” (p240). Would that include the Marx-Engels Poverty of philosophy (1847), Political action and the working class (1871), The Bakuninists at work (1873)? A flaw - after all, his book is subtitled “science and revolutionary politics”.
Anarchism, on principle, shuns what Marxists call politics. That is the necessity of fighting within the existing institutions of the working class: trade unions, co-ops, Labour Party, Communist Party, etc, and thereby moulding the working class into class capable of establishing its own state (a fully democratic semi-state sometimes called the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’).
Fielding candidates for local councils, the House of Commons, the European parliament, etc, is angrily denounced as sowing illusions. Even when no illusions are sown. Eg, the Bolsheviks in 1907 and 1912. Fundamentally, of course, anarchism is theoretically based on the spontaneous, the ideal of elemental power, the individual or collective deed as the vital trigger. By contrast Marxism stresses high theory, consciousness, programme, historic patience, digging deep roots, building mass organisations, holding back short-termist instincts, inculcating the long view, etc.
While there is no reason to doubt the convictions of genuine, class-struggle anarchists, the two outlooks, Marxism and anarchism, are fundamentally incompatible. “Anarchism,” remarked Lenin, “is bourgeois individualism in reverse”; it is the “product of despair”.6 That is why anarchism has no worthwhile revolutionary strategy, no worthwhile theory and has produced no worthwhile results. Hence, we must seek to win good anarchists to Marxism, not bend Marxism in the direction of anarchism.
Comrade Knight takes a similarly dismissive attitude to the polemics of the left. He writes of the “sectarian disputes … for which the left is infamous” (p192). And yet he is clearly an admirer of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
Did they succeed in spite of their “sectarian disputes” with the Narodniks, economists, Mensheviks, Bundists, Socialist Revolutionaries, etc? No, I would suggest that they succeeded because of these so-called “sectarian disputes”. Lenin’s polemics such as What the ‘Friends of the People’ are and how the fight the social democrats (1894), One step forward, two steps back (1904), Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution (1905), etc, were crucial.
Surely one of the biggest problems afflicting the contemporary left is that most groups pretend that they, and they alone, exist. Each squats in its own silo. Each maintains a studied silence about the others. They tell us that the Tories ... are bad. Rightwing Labourites ... are bad. But nothing about the historic, strategic and tactical lines of demarcation on the left. Read Momentum, Left Unity, Socialist Worker, The Socialist, Labour Briefing ... or the “original” Labour Briefing. In truth we come in 57 varieties. That ought to be frankly admitted and dealt with through honest, and if necessary hard-hitting polemics.
Let us move on. Comrade Knight’s claim that there are two Chomskys is not plucked out of thin air. It originates with Chomsky himself. Revealingly, he talks of his life as being “schizophrenic” and having a split brain, “which causes it to function ‘like separate buffers in a computer’” (p3). In other words, he claims to keep his science and his politics in two distinct departments. His politics do not inform his science and his science does not inform his politics. Strange, you might think, given that the whole field of linguistics is infused with politics. Eg, though language is a universal phenomenon of human society, how people refer to each other, name things, count, etc, is stamped by culture and specific social relations.
In part Knight puts this schizophrenia down to sublimated guilt. Chomsky is employed by MIT, works alongside weapon designers and those in the thick of the US military-industrial complex. He could not live with himself if he admitted that his academic work had political relevance.
Anyway, Chomsky set out to ensure that his linguistics suffered from not the least taint of the political, the cultural, the social. In this he claims to have taken linguistics from one of the ‘soft’ sciences and elevated it, so that it can stand alongside physics in terms of rigour and mathematical precision. Despite that claim Chomsky unashamedly says: “I hate experiments” (p171). Doing experiments is, though, surely, fundamental to physics: eg, Cern’s large hadron collider. However, Chomsky’s various theoretical models are either discarded or are designed to avoid empirical testing. Not that that seems to bother Chomsky.
A short aside. Especially in the Anglo-Saxon world it has been a common but regrettable practice to arrange the sciences into a strict hierarchy, with physics at the top, followed by chemistry, biology … and finally psychology, anthropology, linguistics, political economy at the bottom. Amongst biologists and social scientists this has resulted in what has been punningly called ‘physics envy’.
Interestingly, however, the renowned evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, warns against the danger of reducing biology to a mathematical basis in his book What makes biology unique? Indeed he insists that biology should be recognised as a “legitimate autonomous science alongside physics”.7
And, of course, Marxists rightly argue that human beings and human society are the most complex phenomenon in the known universe. Atomic particles and sub-particles, chemical elements, plant development, animal behaviour, etc, are in comparison extraordinarily simple. Therefore attempts to mathematicise the study of humanity, to cut it down to the level of physics, chemistry or biology is to strip out its unique complexity. The result can only be an empty husk - reductionism. Hence, when Marxism is referred to as a scientific socialism, we are not talking about generating mathematical formulas, carrying out disinterested laboratory experiments or making exact predictions.
The science in scientific socialism originates not with a claim that Marxism applies the methods of natural sciences. What Marx meant by wissenschaftlicher Sozialismus (scientific socialism) was a theorised understanding of the real forces and laws at work in society, adding to social, historical and practical knowledge, making sound, rational proposals … as opposed to mere journalistic commentary, propagandist condemnations, sentimental dreams and baseless speculations.8
With that in mind it is worth considering Chomsky’s numerous political books. Many of them are thoroughly researched and make good reads. Manufacturing consent (with Edward Herman), The fateful triangle and American power and the new mandarins come to mind. But, divorced from science (including scientific socialism), what we have is journalistic commentary, propagandist condemnations and baseless speculations.
That Chomsky still enjoys a reputation as a revolutionary speaks of counterrevolutionary times.
1. The Guardian October 18 2005.
2. David W Lightfoot’s introduction to N Chomsky Syntactic structures New York 2002, pv.
5. See P Bourdieu Language and symbolic power Cambridge MA 1991, pp107-17.
6. VI Lenin CW Vol 5, Moscow 1977, pp327-28.
7. E Mayr What makes biology unique? Cambridge 2007, p20.
8. For a useful discussion of this see H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 4, New York 1990, pp6-9.