Public Intellectuals and Radicalism
The fact that Chomsky was immersed, primarily, in a scientific environment had a profound impact on his perception of the role of the intellectual, the way that institutions in this society function, and the value to society of science. His extremely well-developed, libertarian-inspired political sensibilities, and his awareness of individuals and groups far more radical than those of the late 1960s, was the source of his acute skepticism about the ability of many high-profile contemporary activists to contribute anything of lasting value. Chomsky therefore involved himself in popular struggles with activist communities, rather than with the endeavors of well-known figureheads of the left. "I knew Marcuse [who was the guru of the New Left and certainly the most politically active of the Frankfurt School members in the United States] and liked him," he writes, "but thought very little of his work. I liked Fromm's attitudes but thought his work was pretty superficial. Abbie Hoffman I knew a bit (I lent him some money, in fact, expecting that he'd probably use it to jump bail, as he did). King was an important figure, thanks primarily to the platforms created for him by SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] workers and other activists. Guevara was of no interest to me; this was mindless romanticism, in my view"(31 Mar. 1995).
It is interesting that the people Chomsky mentions here, although all important contemporary figures, vary tremendously in the approaches they took to the social unrest of the 1960s. It is also interesting that heading Chomsky's list are Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm. The two men were highly regarded intellectuals associated with prestigious universities, and they were political activists much like Chomsky. (Fromm, incidentally, had been an inspiration to Zellig Harris.) But, unlike Chomsky, they directed their efforts towards conducting complex, and ultimately influential, analyses of revolution and history (Marcuse) and violence and psychology (Fromm), which Chomsky evidently considered to be of little real value.
Here, again, we see the peculiar strain of anti-obfuscation
or, better still, anti-intellectualization that Chomsky deploys
against those who speculate in what he considers to be unscientific
ways about behavior. This trait gives many who are familiar with
Chomsky's linguistics and his politics pause; they cannot come to
grips with the vast distance between Chomsky the philosopher,
linguist, and cognitive scientist, who formulates intellectual
concepts of the most complex kind, and Chomsky the activist, who
denigrates the activities of those who speculate from a non-scientific
perspective about revolutions, the social psychology of the masses,
and the underpinnings of violent behavior. Had Chomsky not refused the
role of activist oracle, which he probably could have played
successfully had he adopted a more appeasing political stance, he
might have proceeded to engage in the kind of clement rabble-rousing
to which Americans are accustomed. He did reject that option, and
those on the left who chose to support status-quo positions suffered
for it. There is no simple rationale for this dichotomy that Chomsky
embodies, but somewhere in the ongoing debate about science versus
nonscience, self-aggrandizement versus serious work, the knowable
versus the unknowable, we may discover some answers.