Book Review: “Uncle Sam is wicked”

This collection of essays (American Power and the New Mandarins, by Noam Chomsky, Penguin, 40p.) towers above the majority of polemics arising out of the Vietnam war. It is a withering exposure both of the scholars who use their abilities to expedite mass murder, and of those who criticise them on grounds of mere expediency. It deserves to be read with some of the care, honesty and clarity of thought which evidently went into writing it. For all that, its strength is mainly destructive. When it comes to Chomsky’s alternatives, the weaknesses emerge.

What sickens him is not just the American action in Vietnam, and the arguments for it — but the arguments against. These are often to the effect that the war is a costly blunder, in opposition to America’s long-term interest, that America has no hope of winning, or that more stress should be placed on aid. less on military means. Chomsky is even suspicious of anti-war arguments based on the suffering involved:

  The primary reason for opposition to the war is its cost to us. A second cause is the feeling that the cost to its victims is too great. At first glance this reaction seems to be at a higher moral level than the first, but this is questionable. The principle that we should retract our claws when the victim bleeds too much is hardly an elevated one. What about opposition to the war on grounds that we have no right to stabilise or restructure Vietnamese society . . .

Yet there is a curious discrepancy between his argument and his conclusions. [1] A piece like The Logic of Withdrawal takes up every cudgel available against US involvement in Vietnam, including the “national interest’’ and horror at the brutality of the war (both arguments which the author elsewhere declares to be unsatisfactory). He adds that the US is transgressing international law, and that the Vietcong has mass support in South Vietnam whereas the government does not. But here again, one can infer that Chomsky is not basing his case on these points. Occasional remarks scattered throughout the book make it clear that what really disgusts him is the arrogance of the US in presuming to intervene in far-flung lands as it sees fit, whatever the circumstances: America “has no unilateral right to determine by force the course of development of the nations of the Third World.’’

In short, he mobilises all the conventional arguments for American withdrawal, with great force and eloquence, whilst stating that these arguments won’t do, and offering tantalising hints of a much more radical indictment. But when we try to assemble from these hints what this radical critique amounts to, we find it to be preposterous:

  These scholars designate themselves as ‘the moderate segment of the academic community.’ The designation is accurate; they stand midway between the two varieties of extremism, one which demands that we destroy everyone who stands in our path, the other, that we adopt the principles of international behaviour we require of every other world power.

That is a good example of Chomsky’s bitter irony, but though the second form of “extremism”, which he embraces, might be expected to disturb some, it is patently so unrealistic as to be merely pious. Chomsky is more aware of this than most, for he has gone to great pains to draw parallels between the American Empire and its predecessors, notably Japan and Britain. The similarities are often startlingly close. After all, a nation’s foreign policy flows largely from its economic structure and its relationship, economic, political and military, with other countries. To make appeals to the most rich and powerful nation in history to behave decently is surely a waste of breath. The US did not attain its dominant position by a request for the rights of other nations, and could not maintain it by adopting such a principle. Yet Chomsky even goes so far as to speculate about “massive capital gifts” (from the US!) “to Cuba and China.”

True, domestic reaction against the war might conceivably help to hasten its end, but the great majority of American workers will not be prepared to subordinate what they imagine to be “their” national interest to some form of arbitrary morality. The major reason why dissent from the war effort has become so large (as Chomsky sadly indicates) is that there has been so much “responsible” criticism, i.e. criticism founded on costs, expediency and national interest.

In a recent interview (New Left Review, No. 57) Chomsky gave the following explanation of why America is in Vietnam:

  The United States fought the Second World War, in the Pacific theatre, primarily in order to prevent Japan from constructing its own independent, integrated imperial system which would be closed to America. That was the basic issue which lay behind the Japanese-American war. Well, the United States won. The result is that now it must develop a system in which Japan can function effectively as a junior partner. That means the United States has to grant Japan what it needs as a partner, namely markets and access to raw materials, which for Japan, unlike the United States, are desperate necessities. Now the United States can very well survive without South East Asia. But Japan cannot. So if the United States wants to keep Japan securely embedded within the American system, then it has to preserve South East Asia for Japan. Otherwise Japan has other alternatives. It would turn to China or to Siberia, but that would mean the United States had lost the Second World War, in its Pacific phase. Once again a substantial industrial power would be carving itself out an independent space which, taken to its logical conclusion, would be separate and partially sealed off from the American world system.

So the Vietnam war would seem to be in America’s economic interest. True, Chomsky gave other causes for America’s continuing the war, including its “investment in error”, and in his review of Schlesinger’s Bitter Heritage he points out that whilst ideology has its roots in real or perceived interests it can have a life of its own that may sometimes conflict with the interests from which it arose (e.g. US policy towards Cuba, and arguably, Vietnam).

However, an argument on the basis of national interest is what Chomsky set out, quite rightly, to avoid. He is outraged at the notion that any calculation can justify America’s part in the Vietnam carnage, yet apparently feels unable to say: “To hell with the national interest.” It might of course be a useful exercise to examine all the arguments just to show that the case for the war will not hold water even within he terms of reference assumed by its advocates. But it is not at all clear that the Vietnam slaughter is, on balance, against the interest of American capitalism. And in any case, Chomsky fails to think through his own really rock-bottom case. What sort of a world would it be in which powerful nations were bound by the same rules of conduct as weaker nations; That is altogether absurd. Nations embody antagonism of interest: their very existence is a sign of that. [2]

Chomsky’s extreme radicalism has thus led him into a hopeless muddle, but if he became more extreme and more radical still, his inconsistency could be resolved. For a coherent, logically sound and morally acceptable indictment of war can be based only on a thoroughgoing anti-nationalism and anti-patriotism. This must entail a recognition that “the national interest” means the interest of the owning and ruling class, that the nation should not be equated with the people. “The national interest” is a term used to conceal the class division between employers and workers by superimposing a geographical division. It is waved in the face of striking workers at home, as well as foreign enemies.

Revolution can wait ?

What is the explanation for this core of confusion within the shell of Chomsky’s glittering erudition? In part it is due to his overpowering abhorrence of the war, and the sense of urgency he feels about it. Everything must be subjugated to the task of stopping the war. He is sympathetic to the idea of social revolution but :

  If the Vietnamese have to wait until we build a serious political movement against all forms of capitalist repression in the United States, then they are all going to be dead . . . we cannot delay on the Vietnam issue in order to build a movement on more long-term issues. . . . Principled opposition to the war will lead directly to principled opposition to imperialism and to the causes of imperialism and hence to the formation of a principled anti-capitalist movement. (NLR interview)

Now this is manifestly wishful thinking. Not any kind of principled opposition to war leads to opposition to capitalism. A pacifist, for example, taking the view that all physical violence is an unqualified evil in all circumstances, would certainly be opposed on principle to the Vietnam war, but there have been such people for generations, and many of them in other respects still support the capitalist system. Again, someone might oppose the US action in Vietnam on the principle that, whilst war itself must be tolerated, the US is at fault by the Geneva agreement. Or that killing soldiers is permissible whilst killing women and children is not. These are all “principles” but they do not, in historical fact, automatically lead to opposition to capitalism. So it all depends what Chomsky means by “principled opposition.” What principles?

Effective opposition to war must be based on revolutionary, Socialist principles. In this case, opposition to war does not “lead to” opposition to capitalism, but principled opposition to capitalism necessarily gives rise to principled opposition to war, which (this should always be made clear) means hostility to both “sides” in every war. [3]

The plea that we cannot delay on some vital topical issue in order to build up a movement to abolish capitalism is a cruel deception. Its unspoken premise is that a total change in society is very distant and somewhat airy-fairy, whereas something like stopping a particular war is hard, real, practical and down- to-earth. In actuality though, it is the attempt to adjust capitalism according to humane criteria which is Utopian, and the call for social revolution which is the only practical solution. For decades sincere people like Chomsky have been hypnotized by some “immediate” issue, and have fallen like him into the habit of talking as if, that issue once removed, the decks will be cleared at last, and some serious attention can then be paid to the task of abolishing capitalism. The fallacy is obvious: capitalism provides an unending procession of such immediate issues, and with each one a crop of new “realists” who argue that this pressing problem must be tackled first, and then, ultimately . . .

When the Vietnam war is over, new horrors of similar magnitude are in store for us. as long as capitalism lasts. [4] If the human species has to wait until all the Chomskys have sorted out all the Vietnams, then we are all going to be dead. One of the consequences of this relegation of revolution to the realm of the “ultimate” is that here is felt to be no need to argue for it in urgent and consistent terms. Thus, when the people who adopt this posture do mention social revolution, they usually discredit it, reinforcing the popular attitude that it is irrelevant to the here and now.
Guilty patriotism
But the real source of Chomsky’s muddles is his patriotism. The word may seem odd in this connection, conjuring up Curtis LeMay and his “Bomb them back to the Stone Age.” Chomsky’s however, is a guilty patriotism, the patriotism of the flagellant. His personal identification with the American nation is overwhelming. That is why his revulsion at the Vietnam butchery finds its expression in demands that the US reform itself.
Time and again he uses the expressions “we” and “us” to mean “America” or even “the American government.” It is alarming that one so sensitive to the implications of words should notice nothing strange about this:

  Like the German Kaiser we believe that everything must be put to fire and sword, so that the war will be more quickly finished — and we act on this belief. Unlike the German Kaiser, our soul is not torn. We manage a relative calm, as we continue, today, to write new chapters of history with the blood of the helpless and innocent.

Because he feels responsible for the actions of the American government he is paralysed when it comes to criticism of America’s antagonists. Thus, in an article on the Pacific war, he draws a convincing parallel between Japanese policy in China and subsequent US policy in Vietnam, but arriving at the subject of Japanese bombing of civilians in Nanking he merely states:

  For an American today to describe these events in the manner they deserve would be the ultimate in hypocrisy. For this reason I will say very little about them.

And that is presumably why he also says very little, in fact nothing, against the North Vietnamese regime or the Vietcong. Every conceivable argument, sound or not, must be mobilised against the American colossus. Therefore, when US policy is under attack, the idea that Chinese expansion might be a threat is vigorously pooh-poohed, but in another context, when it is necessary to stress the independence of Hanoi, the view that “the principle raison d’etre of such a powerful army in North Vietnam today is to protect North Vietnam against possible Chinese aggression” is quoted with approval.
This is dangerous because governments always try to make out that those who oppose their wars, are supporters of the enemy. There is no point in providing them with convincing evidence for their accusation. Chomsky is well aware that state capitalist Russia and China are only less brutal than the US to the extent (if at all) that they are less powerful. He knows that Victnam-style atrocities do not spring from any peculiarity of the American nation, except that it is on top. He knows too that North Vietnam is no paradise (to put it mildly), that it is dependent upon aid from Russia and China, and that an American withdrawal will amount to an extension of the Russian and/or Chinese spheres of influence. A call for American withdrawal is simply a call for a slightly different carve-up of the world by the big powers. It is time Chomsky faced up to the implications of these facts.
Where now
The bulk of this book, in its dissection of mainstream American ideology, is excellent. The deceptions and self-deceptions of this school often read like self-parodies, for instance the solemn warning from one expert that a pacification programme requires survivors to be pacified. Or the reminder, addressed to an American commander bragging of the latest US “victories”, that the victories seemed to be getting closer to Saigon.
Yet “there is no particular merit in being more reasonable than a lunatic,” as Chomsky himself remarks. He must therefore be judged primarily on his recommendations for political action. He could sometimes be more explicit in his references to social revolution, though some of these are promising:

  A democratic revolution would take place when it is supported by the great mass of the people, when they know what they are doing and they know why they are doing it and they know what they want to see come into existence. Maybe not in detail but at least in some manner. A revolution is something that great masses of people have to understand and be personally committed to. (NLR interview).

This view is as alien to the anarchist tradition as to the bolshevik — though it is certainly a corollary of Marx’s assertion that the emancipation of the working-class must be the work of the workers themselves. All the more unfortunate that Chomsky is attracted to anarchism, and has apparently been put off Marxism by its misrepresentations. He quotes Bakunin’s summary (which is all lies) of Marx’s doctrine with every indication that he believes it to be an accurate account.
His observations on Spain are (so far as the knowledge of this reviewer extends) substantially correct, but whatever the possibilities of the popular movement before it was crushed by the “Communists” it was undoubtedly (like the Makhno revolt in Russia, another prize exhibit in the anarchist pantheon) a product of backward agrarian conditions. consequently haunted by scarcity and doomed by the march of industry. This in no way belittles the heroism of many of those involved: it simply indicates the limited relevance of such events to the problems of an increasingly white-collar proletariat in vast conurbations during the second half of the century.

It is not likely that the evolution of Chomsky’s ideas has stopped. Hopefully, future writings may contain a more serious approach to the urgent need of today: worldwide social revolution. For all its flaws, even the present volume can be expected to put serious questions into many thousands of minds, and is therefore, with reservations, welcome.


[1] Not to be resolved by taking into account the dates of the separate articles, though this does reveal a trend towards greater clarity.
[2] A similar lack of realism is displayed by those who imagine the UN could ever cease to be in the pockets of the big powers.
[3] The double think of the US government is unsurpassed, but some elements of the “peace movement” have a good try, e.g. the sleight-of-tongue by which support for a pro-war demand (Viet- cong victory) is represented as “antiwar.” See Why Socialist oppose the Vietcong in the Socialist Standard, October 68. Also useful is the pamphlet Rape of Vietnam by Bob Potter, though this writer is disturbed to find himself approaching the position of hostility to both sides, and evades it with the remark “One can’t be ‘neutral’ while aircraft are flying over one’s home dropping bombs.” an announcement for which both the German and British governments in the last war might well have commended him.
[4] When there is a Socialist movement of more than derisory strength it will of course unite across frontiers to use its influence to try and stop particular wars within capitalism. But its approaches would be made not to the governments, requesting them each to capitulate. but to the workers called upon to fight, pointing out that only their masters’ interests are at stake in the war. This has been the message of the Socialist Party in two World Wars and during Korea and Vietnam though with no expectation of achieving anything towards preventing these conflicts, given the solid support for capitalism of the great majority of workers. A situation where a massive Socialist movement, not yet a majority, was confronted with a war, might never arise. Firstly, because the rate of the spread of Socialist ideas might at that stage be expected to increase, so that world revolution would be imminent, with it the abolition of war. Secondly, because governments might be deterred from the initiation of wars by the knowledge that very substantial proportions of their populations could be relied upon to sabotage the war effort.