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The Bertrand Russell Archives

The Bertrand Russell Society
Chomsky and Bertrand Russell

One of the few adornments in Chomsky's office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a large poster of Bertrand Russell. As a young man, Chomsky discovered the British mathematician, logician, and philosopher who came to realize (quite a bit later in life than Chomsky) that the ruling classes own the means of production and are therefore driven to legitimize their power. Russell was an inspiration to Chomsky. First, he was an important influence upon Chomsky's thinking about philosophy and logic; second, he had a similarly profound commitment to the cause of popular liberation; third, he was closely affiliated with the university world as a scholar, while simultaneously acting on behalf of the oppressed lower classes; and fourth, he upheld his views even if it meant jeopardizing his reputation, or even his freedom.

Chomsky recently compared Russell to Albert Einstein on the question of social conscience:

Compare Russell and Einstein, two leading figures, roughly the same generation. They agreed on the grave dangers facing humanity, but chose different ways to respond. Einstein responded by living a very comfortable life in Princeton and dedicating himself to research that he loved, taking a few moments for an occasional oracular statement. Russell responded by leading demonstrations and getting himself dragged off by the cops, writing extensively on the problems of the day, organizing war crimes trials, etc. The result? Russell was and is reviled and condemned, Einstein is admired as a saint. Should that surprise us? Not at all. (31 Mar. 1995)
This comparison points to the deep sympathy Chomsky had, from very early on, for those who involved themselves in activist work and concrete political action such as marching, signing petitions, and promoting small- and large-scale libertarian movements. In remarking on Einstein, he also hints that the pursuit of personal comfort and gain, although not in itself contemptible, can nonetheless stem from a pernicious wish to separate oneself from the rabble ­ the very people who are oppressed or enslaved by the system. But Chomsky is quick to state that marching is not in itself a virtuous activity, just as theorizing about social problems is not necessarily ivory towerish; what matters is which particular issue is being promoted by these activities. Russell was on the right track, and this is perhaps one reason why, in Chomsky's opinion, he was vilified "when he took the path of political activism once again in the late '50s, and to the end of his life." That he received such treatment "was pretty shocking." Chomsky remarks, "Of course, it was never a bed of roses before, including a jail sentence during World War I, [being] kicked out of his Cambridge College (Trinity) for lack of sufficient patriotism, barred from teaching at City College in New York as a freethinker and other crimes, and on, and on, through most of his life. It even infects professional philosophy. He's known mostly for his work early in the century, when he was still a nice gentlemanly type" (25 July 1995).

The necessity of such personal sacrifice seems inevitable to Chomsky. But it must finally be accepted as secondary to the larger work that remains to be done, work that, while never losing sight of the ultimate goal of a "good society," has to begin with local action: "there are all sorts of people struggling very hard to make the world ­ if not `good,' then a little better. And they desperately need help" (18 May 1995). Carlos Otero, Chomsky's good friend, sees in this kind of attitude what is a clearly anarchosyndicalist position.

A committed anarchosyndicalist is not satisfied with being a good arm-chair revolutionary ­ one who has made every effort to understand the contemporary world in the light of what is best in the libertarian socialist tradition, drawing from the achievements of the past lessons that will enrich the culture of liberation. Anarchosyndicalists are prepared to take their stand with those who wish not only to understand the world, but also to change it. They are perfectly aware of the power of non-violent resistance and direct action. . . . They are also more than willing to participate anonymously in the spontaneous actions of popular forces that are capable of creating new social forms in the course of the struggle for complete liberation, fully conscious that social creation enhances and promotes the very intellectual creation that inspired it. ("Introduction" 38)

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Chomsky's early life, indeed his whole life, was and has been literally consumed by a desire for understanding and a penchant for political commitment. The important events, passions, and alliances in his early life were almost all linked to intellectual pursuits. Chomsky recalls: "I had, from childhood, been deeply involved intellectually in radical and dissident politics, but intellectually. At that point, I was feeling so uneasy with the usual petition-signing and the like that I couldn't stand it any longer, and decided to plunge in. I hated the decision. I'm really a hermit by nature, and would much prefer to be alone working than to be in public" (qtd. in Falk 596n1). This description of the deeply involved intellectual hermit applies as much to Chomsky the present-day activist and professor as it does to the child and teenager of the 1930s and 1940s.

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