‘Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013’ reviewed by Idir Ouahes

Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013

Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2014. 168pp., $12.95 pb
ISBN 9781608463633

Reviewed by Idir Ouahes

About the reviewer

Idir Ouahes is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Exeter looking at …


Haymarket have once again produced a relevant, concise and representative collection of Noam Chomsky’s political essays and lectures. The unifying theme of the book is clear: who are the “Masters of Mankind” and how do they establish and maintain their rule. A great deal of the answer lies in the active propagation of intellectual myopia and distortion that services elite power. Readers on the Left would do well to consider the importance of this lesson, and its pertinence to critiques of elite power in whichever forms they arise including in the Marxist setting. I will get back to that point at the end of the review of the book’s content. Beginning with a Vietnam-era article on intellectuals, through a review on ‘just war’ ‘theory’, which itself served as rather useful inspiration for this reviewer’s present effort, and finishing with a lecture given at the University of Dublin in response to the global economic crisis, the diverse writings are inspiring for their biting focus and exemplarily clear-cut method.

The first essay, on “Knowledge and Power: Intellectuals and the Welfare-Warfare State”, was published in 1970, a year after Chomsky’s key reply to the Vietnam War in American Power and the New Mandarins. A classic piece of deconstruction by Chomsky, the essay starts with evocative words cited from the World War I pacifist, Randolph Bourne, that form the essay’s subtitle: “War is the health of the state”. This theme having been set out, Chomsky undertakes a viscerally cutting analysis of the “warfare-welfare” state. Taking Bourne’s quote quite literally, Chomsky sees that indeed the state is dependent on warfare as its lifeblood, with war and the subsequent ideological, political and economic subsidies that come with it being defining factors shaping the modern world.

At a deeper level, however, Chomsky demonstrates how intellectual adulation of elite power allows for the management, myopia and misrepresentation of the past in favour of elite control of the state and public opinion. Past American involvement in the Philippines, for instance, encouraged the pauperisation of the peasantry, even as a result of seemingly well-meaning financing by philanthropic organizations such as the Rockefeller fund (31). An uglier exercise in hypocrisy was the employment of I.G. Farben’s legacy companies to manufacture chemical weapons in South Vietnam (29-30). An especially important case raised by Chomsky concerns technocrat-intellectual cum Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. McNamara recognised the strategic futility of the Department of Defense funding the acquisition of ABM systems. Yet McNamara’s half-hearted attempt at refusing purchases of anti-ballistic missiles was overruled by the weaponry lobby. This isolated example underscores the limits of the impact any one individual, no matter their prominence, can have in the face of the near automatic proclivity of the state to bend to class based interest.

Such a situation is aggravated by seemingly wilful intellectual amnesia barring a few exceptions: Chomsky notes the examples of scholar R. L. Nieburg and the Committee for Concerned Asian Scholars, though his own role in history as a voice for truth cannot be doubted. This impasse is particularly relevant to those of the leftist tendencies since many, though not all, intellectual currents on the Left, such as Bolshevism and Trotskyism, have ignored these basic and crucial lacunae. Indeed they often acquiesced in similar strategies of state dominance by the Soviets (23-7). This essay is an incisive and fluid analysis, unpacking for a range of class, state, economic and intellectual discourses to reveal the core power issues at the heart of the matter. It will be the most challenging yet rewarding chapter for most readers. The later chapters get progressively more accessible; perhaps Marx’s Capital inspired this approach on the part of the publishers!

The next selection is itself a book review dealing with so-called just war theory. Chomsky notes the incongruities in Michael Walzer’s attempts to outline exemptions to standard international law. Chomsky has a particular axe to grind with Walzer’s attempt to use Israel’s experience with its neighbours as an example of what is held to be a justified pre-emptive strike exemption. Chapter 3 is an examination of American liberal Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought. Chomsky outlines Niebuhr’s influences and his own impact on intellectual self-perceptions of the American domestic order and the international influence of the US. He deconstructs the foundations of Niebuhr’s thought and places them in the context of other thinkers that are often erased from the canon of American thought such as Sidney Hook. As Hook’s efforts – and Marx’s own reticence to define a post-capitalist society – make clear, this point is pertinent to “orthodox” Marxists as much as to liberal or conservative writers. Chomsky’s habitual instinct for picking out the right quote to correct wrong presumptions is once again evidenced in this essay. By appropriating quotes from and about Niehbuhr, Chomsky renders his reader three services. Firstly, he sketches the path of a complex character who shifted from Christian socialist in the 1920s to quasi-Marxist, and on to becoming the “official establishment theologian” as one biographer put. Yet his rise to this latter position did not occur innocently. Second he traces a public intellectual’s rise to prominence concomitantly with support for an imperial myopia that set aside the darker truths of geopolitical power. Finally, Chomsky’s account shows how Niebuhr’s lionisation was due to Niehbuhr’s own choice to preach a message that was convenient to central power, thus returning to the themes of intellectual’s relationships with the state and capital.

Chapter 4 is a lucid dismantling of the “American Dream”. Chomsky demonstrates the great gap between business rhetoric and economic realities. The growth of corporate propaganda, lobbying and ‘framing the issues’ in the twentieth century has been a direct response to growing democratic power as noted by Chomsky and his inspiration in this regard, Australian professor Alex Carey. Yet the vitality of democratic growth and the possibility of “winning” the state over to popular needs remains evident, as public opinion polls demonstrate despite vast ideological pressure to discourage such views. Citing the business press on one hand and pillars of American thought such as Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey on the other, Chomsky shows how control of history is a critical requirement for both the functioning and dismantling of such ideological pressure (81-2). Chomsky thus demonstrates how to undertake what he has sometimes termed exercises in “intellectual self-defence”. The chapter is an approachable introduction to classic Chomsky, breaking down some of the common assumptions drilled into citizens from an early age. Perhaps the editors might have started with this chapter, rather than the denser and context-specific first chapter. Regardless, even veteran Chomsky followers would do well to consult the footnotes in order to open new avenues of learning, for instance in the work of Professor Carey.

The later chapters are lectures that are mostly available online. Although the print versions offer an interesting supplement to the spoken material, more of the obscure essays written for journals would have been welcome in this collection. Nevertheless, though these next chapters deal with broader issues, the theme of intellectual cover for elite conservation and arrogation is evident. Chapter 5 is a lucid exposition of the real validity of the “us and them” by flipping over elite understanding of such a worldview. Chapter 6 relates how the “institutional irrationality” of the system of power is geared toward encouraging environmental disaster from which “there’s nobody around to bail you out”, unlike the financial crisis (133). Chapter 7 expands on the way the irrational institutions of “really existing capitalism”, meaning the state-sponsored ‘capitalist’ networks that actually operate, encourage crises. Readers of this Review of Books will note the great resonance of these themes with respect to studies by Marx and of Marx.

In an article aimed at the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, published in 1873 and entitled “political indifferentism”, Marx began by imagining laying bare the logic behind arguments he characterised as defeatist “doctors in social science” who he felt only superficially supported struggle of the working class. “If the apostles of political indifferentism”, he wrote, “were to express themselves with such clarity, the working class would make short shrift of them … being insulted by these doctrinaire bourgeois [“advocates”] … who are so stupid … as to deny to the working class any real means of struggle.” Marx here is adamant, contra Proudhon, that real class struggle should not be discounted by those sitting in intellectual ivory towers. A particularly reminiscent element of Chomsky’s work is the critique of Proudhon’s simplistic characterisation of legal regulation running against the capitalist market. How was it, asked Marx, “that forty years ago a law … contrary to the economic rights of free competition, was promulgated in England … he [i.e. Proudhon] might perhaps have discovered that this right [i.e. to free markets] … exists only in the Economic Manuals written by the Brothers Ignoramus”.

Yet a year later, Marx’s sketch of a response to anarchist thinker Mikhail’s Bakunin’s caustic deconstruction of the “Marxist” position on the role of the state was oddly vague. He attempted to dismiss Bakunin’s concerns by suggesting he had failed to note the importance of economic conditions for political maturity. For Marx: “Mr Bakunin … understands absolutely nothing about the social revolution, only its political phrases. Its economic conditions do not exist for him.” Yet this dogma, which also obstructed Marx from dealing with the colonial question, would go on to be espoused, often forcefully, by some of his inheritors. Marx may have felt he had the upper hand on Bakunin in his conceptualisation of the political consciousness of various classes at various stages of history. Yet history would have the last laugh. In an earlier essay Marx had displayed his respect for history’s lessons by writing: “History is the judge — it’s executioner, the proletarian”. In the wake of the horrors of the Soviets and Maoists, perhaps one can flip the epigram to become: “Orthodox Marxists were the executioners — History, the judge.” Bakunin’s position on the state seems to have been firmly confirmed.

On this precise, though inevitably essential, point of the role of the state in organising the transition away from capitalism, Marx seems to have held on to dogma. Yet in many other realms, the dialectical combination of deep thought and keeping up with events was evident and again reflects Chomsky’s approach in Masters of Mankind and elsewhere. Speaking on 14t April 1856 in London to mark the anniversary of the People’s Paper, Marx analysed the 1848 revolutions’ significance that evoke so many themes discussed by Chomsky, from the revolutions of 1968 and 2011, to the introduction of new technologies. He wrote:

The so-called revolutions of 1848 were but poor incidents … Steam, electricity, and the self-acting mule [read: electronics, the internet and mass production] were revolutionists of a rather more dangerous character than even citizens… But, although the atmosphere in which we live, weighs upon every one with a 20,000 lb. force, do you feel it? No more than European society before 1848 felt the revolutionary atmosphere enveloping and pressing it from all sides … On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire. In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary: Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it; The newfangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want; The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character… Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance. All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.

Professor Chomsky’s work over the decades, documenting familiar themes while addressing new developments such as environmental catastrophe and state subsidies to advanced sectors of the economy, has upheld Marx’s intellectual struggle just as much as self-proclaimed “Marxist” “theory”. Finally, readers will notice the footnotes at the start of each essay which show the location of original publication (ranging from academic books to the Cleveland State Law Review). I note this small detail to end the review with this small proof of the dedication this consequential and steadfast scholar has shown in sharing his incisive analysis regardless of the limits to his medium.

27 April 2015

One comment

  1. Why does Bakunin get a free pass from so many anarchists and others? Kropotkin he wasn’t. He is no libertarian, no friend of democracy and he is not the least bit squeamish re advocating the most extreme violence and out and out terror. He condemns himself through what he himself writes–though perhaps not with the idea that some of his more outrageous statements would be widely disseminated.

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