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Democracy and Power

Noam Chomsky

4. The Nationality Question in the Contemporary World1

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  • 1 Informal talk at Shankar Lal Hall (Delhi University) on 14 January 1996.

1This talk was arranged at short notice, rather spontaneously, and my feeling is that the best thing to do in this short session may be to devote most of the time to interchange and discussion. I’m sure you have lots of things in mind, and I would be happy to try to address the issues you are interested in. This is an extremely broad topic, and instead of my speaking about it, it would be more constructive for me to react to what you think is important. However, since I was asked to speak, I will start with a few general comments on this very broad issue.

2The question I was asked to address is how imperialist forces have been repressing national struggles. Fine topic. There’s another topic that could also be discussed, and I think should at least be brought into consideration. The topic is how nationalist struggles, when they succeed, suppress the populations that were mobilized to carry out these struggles. Because one striking feature of nationalist struggles, over the centuries, including this century, is that while they often present a liberatory face and use revolutionary rhetoric, they are generally rather conservative, even reactionary. Very often, a reactionary nationalism presents itself as revolutionary, and in a sense, it is so in the context of liberation from foreign oppression, but it is led by ideologies and leaders who themselves institute new forms of domination and authoritarianism. You don’t have to look very far from your own experience to see that – simply look at the recent history of India. But that’s repeated, over and over again. I have had close personal involvement with many Third World liberation struggles and domestic ones of a similar character, I have been deeply engaged with them for many years, and I have rarely seen an exception to this. However radical and revolutionary the rhetoric may seem, it is usually a cover for new forms of repression and domination that take over once the national struggle ceases. That’s another aspect of the whole question that should be borne in mind. A nationalist struggle may be entirely justified, but that does not mean that it is revolutionary, even if its rhetoric is revolutionary.

3So there is one question, as to what extent nationalist struggles themselves are opening the way to new forms of repression of the general population. Putting that topic aside, another question is, how great powers (those who are in a position to manipulate and dominate the world order) use their power to repress efforts at liberation and independence, including nationalist struggles. So take the last half-century, when the United States has been a dominant force in the world, although the pattern goes way back. The US simply took over from England, France, Holland, and others, who had been doing the same thing for centuries. In this last half-century, the US has been a sort of guardian of the interests of the wealthy sector of the industrial world. It has been interested in suppressing any challenge to that system of domination and control. That means it has been opposed to nationalist struggles, and it doesn’t matter what their political character is – they can be from what’s called the left, or the right, or anywhere. The US will oppose them if they seek independence or autonomous development. The official phraseology is that they refuse to act in a way that is complementary to the needs of the industrial West, meaning the dominant elements in the industrial West. So if some radical revolutionary movement is willing to subordinate its interests, in political and economic development, in a fashion that will be complementary to the interests of the West, it’s tolerable. On the other hand, if a parliamentary democracy, following all the proper rules, attempts to pursue a course of independent development, it will be crushed. That’s the history of the past half-century, case after case. I can run through particular examples, but I think you must be familiar with them.

4Let me turn to a related issue, namely how the dominant ideologies of intellectual classes (not only in the First World but also in the Third World) mask the repression of independence, and nationalist struggles, and create other illusions. There is a kind of consensus position about what is happening in the world today. It was expressed, for example, in a review of the world situation, on New Year’s Day in the New York Times, by a respected commentator. Reviewing the world scene, he says something like this – with the end of the Cold War, it was broadly assumed that we would have new opportunities for entering a period of justice, freedom, and all sorts of wonderful things, and then it quickly became clear that this wasn’t true, because of the savage ethnic conflicts that arose, mostly in the former communist world. It became clear that we are now in the era of resurgent nationalism, and there are now new challenges to the civilized West. So we are back in trouble again. Bright hopes for the future have been dashed. The consequence of this, and that’s an accurate account of the international consensus, is that the civilized countries of the West must adopt a new position towards intervention. They must now consider the need for a new category of intervention, namely humanitarian intervention. That means radically revising the theoretical framework of international law and world order. I stress “theoretical,” because it’s never observed in practice. The core element of the framework of international law expressed in the United Nations Charter is that the use of force is excluded in international affairs, except in a very narrow category of cases, in particular, in self-defense against armed attack from another state. So if someone attacks you along the border, you’re allowed to use force in self-defense, until the Security Council acts. That’s it. Period. Apart from that, the use of force in international affairs is excluded, except under explicit Security Council authorization. Well, if you look at the past half-century, you’ll see how well that law has been kept. But anyway, that’s the theoretical framework. The picture now is that we have to revise the theoretical framework and accept the responsibility for humanitarian intervention on the part of the civilized powers, in reaction to this new period in which savage ethnic conflicts are arising, primarily in the former communist world. That’s the consensus, and this was an accurate description of it.

5This description raises some questions of fact and some questions of value. The questions of fact are very quickly answered. They include whether it is, in fact, true that there is a new period of savage ethnic conflict, particularly within the former communist world. The main question of value is, if that’s true, does it authorize the self-defined civilized countries to institute humanitarian intervention to save the poor people of the world, the barbarians, from their mutual slaughter?

6As I said, the factual questions are very quickly answered – namely, it’s all total and utter nonsense. There are major changes in ethnic conflicts, but they don’t have much to do with what’s being discussed. The major change actually took place around fifty years ago. Ethnic and national conflicts actually go back to the origins of recorded history, there’s nothing new about that. But there was a major change in 1945. Up until then, the worst ethnic conflicts in the world were internal to the industrial world itself. It was Europe that was the locus of most of the violence and destruction. Europe was very destructive in the rest of the world too, but what it was doing internally was much worse. So for centuries the French and Germans were dedicated to slaughtering one another, and so on, across every combination that you can find inside Europe. It goes back to the pre-imperial and pre-colonial period. It goes back a thousand years.

7Well, that came to an end in 1945, and that’s a big change in the history of ethnic conflict. You can be quite confident that there will be no further savage ethnic conflict internal to the industrial world. And it’s not because of any spiritual transformation, or anything of that kind. It’s simply that the means of destruction have become so extraordinary, that the next time Europeans try to slaughter one another it will mean the end of everyone. There can’t be another war, because they have constructed such devastating means of mutual slaughter that another episode in this long history of ethnic conflict would lead to a cataclysmic end. It is for this reason that savage ethnic conflict among the resurgent nationalisms of the industrial world declined – in fact pretty well terminated. That is a major change in the history of ethnic conflict, but it’s not much discussed, although it’s by far the most dramatic change.

8Within Europe, this led to two contrary developments of much interest. I won’t go on about it, because that’s not what you are interested in, but they are quite significant. One is a move towards federalism, and the other is a contrary move towards regionalism. Both of these are happening in Europe today. On the one hand, there is a general move towards a European Union – a kind of federal Europe with a good deal of centralization of power, particularly financial power in the Central Bank, which could become a major economic and political force in the world. On the other hand, there is also a striking increase in localized regionalism: a revival of local languages and traditions, separatism, devolution – a move towards what’s sometimes called a Europe of the regions, in which the currently existing states will themselves break up. That’s already happening to an extent in Spain, it may happen in England and there are tendencies in that direction in other parts of Europe. It is, in part, a reaction to the centralizing trend, which is suppressing national identities and boundaries in a broader union. So these two tendencies are developing sort of in parallel, and there is plenty of internal conflict. Take a country like Belgium. The internal conflicts within Belgium, religious and linguistic and so on, are very bitter, and if it was a poor country you would see mass slaughter there. In a rich country, these things are sublimated and modified into other forms, mainly for the reason I mentioned, that mass slaughter is far too dangerous. So that’s Europe – big changes inside Europe.

9What about the rest of the world? Has there been resurgent nationalism and savage ethnic conflict since the end of the Cold War? Not at all. If you take a look at ethnic conflicts around the world today, virtually none of them have to do with the end of the Cold War. There are a few, but almost all precede that. In fact, about the only ones that have any connection with the end of the Cold War are those that are internal to the former Soviet empire. Inside the former Soviet empire, you find some rise of ethnic and national conflict after the empire collapsed – in Chechnya, Azerbaijan, the Caucasus, Armenia, among other examples. But there is nothing very special about that. It’s perfectly normal, in fact inevitable, that when a system of tyranny, oppression and domination collapses, there will be turmoil within what was formerly subdued and controlled. Every imperial system that has eroded, or withdrawn, or collapsed has been followed by such violence and conflict. You know what happened when the British Empire collapsed, here and everywhere else. The same happened with the French empire and Dutch empire. The end of empire typically opens up opportunities that had been subdued under imperial control, which often take the form of ethnic conflict and national rivalry. In contrast with the ends of the European empires, the end of the Soviet empire has been remarkably peaceful. There has been plenty of violence, but nothing there even begins to compare with the end of European empires in the past fifty years. I won’t talk about England, France and Holland, which you know. But take the most recent European empire – just twenty years ago the Portuguese empire collapsed. This was one of the earliest empires, but one of the weaker ones. Its collapse instantly led to a huge outburst of ethnic conflict, violence, massacre and slaughter far exceeding anything that has followed the end of the Soviet empire. The Portuguese empire was both in Africa and in Southeast Asia, and in both places huge massacres instantly began.

10In Africa, this took the form of South African-based attacks against Angola and Mozambique, designed to make sure that they would not separate themselves and follow an independent course. Angola and Mozambique were controlled by the Portuguese. Once the Portuguese empire collapsed, they started moving in an independent direction and South African-based attacks immediately began, backed by the US and England. The UN Commission on Africa made an estimate of what the damage had been, and they estimated that in the Reagan years alone (in 1980-88, during the period of so-called “constructive engagement”) the US and UK-backed South African attacks in Angola and Mozambique caused over a million and a half deaths, and 60 billion US dollars in damage. That’s a huge amount of destruction, and the sources of it are essentially the industrial West: Britain and the US, with some support from France, and other countries too, including some Third World countries operating through South Africa as the medium. Somehow, that’s not supposed to count in the history of ethnic conflict, although it vastly exceeds anything that followed the end of the Russian empire. In Angola, it’s still going on.

11Well, that’s Africa. What about East Asia? Exactly the same story. In Southeast Asia there was one Portuguese colony that immediately began to move towards independence – namely East Timor. It was instantly attacked by Indonesia, within days of the Portuguese withdrawal. And that is the worst slaughter since the Holocaust, relative to population, far exceeding any other. If you look at the per capita death rates in East Timor in the late 1970s, they were much higher than in any other country. Now, the terror has subsided somewhat, and during the last couple of years East Timor has been perhaps second to Liberia in terms of per capita death rate. That’s still very high. Now, why doesn’t that count? Well, the reason is that Indonesia was the proxy for the western powers in Southeast Asia, in the same sense as South Africa was in Africa. So the Indonesian attack on East Timor was decisively backed by the US, which provided most of the arms and diplomatic support, and later by England, which took over as the leading supporter. Other countries supported it also, including regional powers. You might have a look at India’s role, it’s not too pretty. This is the Southeast Asian analogue of what happened in Africa: huge massacres, far exceeding anything that’s followed the end of the Cold War. But it doesn’t count, and there’s a simple reason for it, namely agency. In the case of the end of the Portuguese empire, the terror and destruction trace right back to western powers, and therefore, they are immune from discussion by respectable intellectuals. Incidentally, that includes respectable Third World intellectuals; I don’t want to suggest that this is a western phenomenon. They do the dirty work, but that’s because they have more power.

12Now, let’s take a look at the post-Cold War period – the period when this new era of ethnic conflicts is supposed to have emerged. Obviously, the list does not include any of these cases, because they happened earlier and have to do with the end of other empires. In the former Soviet empire, yes, there are some conflicts. I mentioned the cases; they are significant, but not enormous compared with the conflicts that arose at the end of other empires. The major ethnic conflict that occurred since the end of the Cold War has been Rwanda; that’s by far the biggest massacre. But that has nothing to do with the end of the Cold War. That’s been going on for twenty or thirty years, and it has to do with the end of the Belgian, and French, and British empires – they are all involved there. There was a big slaughter in Burundi twenty years ago, part of the same conflict, and there was another one this year. The European powers were involved in various complicated ways – mostly France, in this case. But again, that has nothing to do with end of the Cold War.

13The conflict that has received most of the attention is in the former Yugoslavia. That’s been very brutal, particularly in Bosnia, although nothing like the scale of any of the others. For example, with all its horrors, the conflict in Bosnia does not begin to compare with what happened in Angola in the same years. But that’s where the focus is – on the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans. Here again, it has nothing to do with the end of the Cold War. The former Yugoslavia was a western, mostly US, client. The break-up of Yugoslavia and the conflicts that took place there have a good deal more to do with structural adjustment programs that were instituted in the 1980s, and their usual disruptive effects, than with anything related to the end of the Cold War. Since Yugoslavia broke up, the western powers and Russia have been maneuvering and trying to figure out how to reconstruct it in a way that will restore their own domination. Now, they don’t have quite the same interests. Russia is not strong enough to be part of the game, but even the European Union and the US have a somewhat different picture of how Yugoslavia ought to be reconstructed. They both want to have control, so Germany would like to control it, and so does the US, and they have somewhat conflicting interests. But basically, they agreed for some time that the way to resolve the conflict would involve a partition of Bosnia between a Greater Croatia and a Greater Serbia, and then the question is who is going to control Greater Croatia and Greater Serbia. Well, the US (by far the stronger among the two contending powers) has apparently won that. The US waited until the conflict had sort of simmered down, with the two sides more or less balanced in military force and exhausted after plenty of mutual slaughter. At that point, the US moved in to separate the warring parties and to institute a plan, in effect a partition. They may call it something else, but it amounts to a partition between a Greater Croatia, which is already pretty much a US client, and a Greater Serbia which it is hoped will become a US client. If that works out, the US would have effectively restored the situation that existed before the break-up of Yugoslavia, with US dominance in the Balkans. And that’s quite important for US strategic planning.

14That part of southern Europe has always been regarded as the periphery of the Middle East. In fact, until the mid-1970s, Greece was actually within the Middle East section of the State Department. It wasn’t even considered a part of Europe, and pretty much the same applies to the Balkans: it’s part of the peripheral system surrounding the Middle East oil reserves, which is quite a system. It goes from the Portuguese Azores, where there are military bases, through southeastern Europe, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan (reconstructed as a part of this system), Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and off to naval bases in the Pacific. This global system is the base for possible intervention in the Middle East, to preserve US control over the world’s major energy resources. Southeast Europe is a part of that system, and the US would like to reconstruct it as a kind of a base, and is hoping to do it right now. There is more to it than that. There’s also a conflict, again, between Europe and the US on how to gain control over the restored Third World in the East. With the Cold War over, most of East Europe is being returned to its traditional Third World status, from which it attempted to escape. And the question is, who is going to dominate and control it? So there’s the same kind of conflict between Europe and the US there as there was over Latin America and other places, and a base in the Balkans gives a certain leverage. So there’s global planning behind all this.

15There is no need to go further into this, the main point is that it has nothing to do with the end of the Cold War, and the same is true if you run through the other cases. As far as humanitarian intervention is concerned, let me just mention that the idea is not as new as has been claimed. It goes back at least 150 years, and its origins are interesting. The first discussion of humanitarian intervention that I know of is particularly interesting, because of the unusual integrity and intelligence of the person who was responsible for it, namely John Stuart Mill. It would be hard to find a person of such honesty and integrity in educated circles today. And he did write a paper on humanitarian intervention in 1859. If you change a few names, that paper says everything that is being said today, and it’s kind of interesting to look at it.

16The question that arose in 1859 was whether England should intervene in the conflicts in Europe, or follow the moral principles, which are now called international law, and say that you should not use force unless you are attacked. Mill opposed the dominant position in England which said, look, it’s none of our business, we’re not being attacked – let those guys fight it out. He opposed this on the grounds that England was not a normal country. It was a saintly and angelic power. It had no base motives, it was completely blameless, it wanted only equality and fraternity among people. In fact, he said England is so angelic that nobody can understand us; they attribute to us all sorts of base motives and don’t see that we are just saintly creatures. Nevertheless, despite the fact that people are attributing to us these bad motives because they can’t understand our magnificence, we should overcome our natural tendency to keep away from their struggles and should intervene. In particular, we have to understand that in conflicts between civilized nations and barbarians, the barbarians have no rights. Therefore, it is absurd to criticize the British for what they do in India or the French for what they do in Algeria, because that’s arguing on the assumption that they are conflicts between civilized nations. They are not, they are conflicts between civilized nations and barbarians, where barbarians have no rights, and it’s our duty as angels and Knights of the Round Table to intervene and solve the problems.

17That was in 1859, and the timing is as interesting as the content. John Stuart Mill was a high official in the East India Company, as had been his father, the great liberal James Mill, and he certainly knew what was going on in India. You remember what was going on in India about that time, it was right after the suppression of the “Indian Mutiny” (as it’s called in the West) with extreme barbarism, and the facts were very well known in England. There were parliamentary enquiries, and protests, and so on. Right after this episode of extraordinary barbarism, and with the horrendous second Opium War underway in China, a person who is almost unparalleled in integrity and understanding is capable of writing about how this saintly power has a right to intervene to defend civilization, and to defend the barbarians themselves from their uncivilized ways. Well, unfortunately, that’s like what is happening today, except that it involves an even higher level of dishonesty. One can give other examples.

18Going back to humanitarian intervention, this term is remarkable for its vacuity. You can’t easily find examples of it in history – there may well be no such thing. When power systems use force, it is not for humanitarian purposes. If you can think of an exception to this, I would like to hear about it. Of course, every intervention is described as humanitarian, no matter what it is, including the Nazi conquests. But the fact of the matter is that these stories are untenable.

19Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been involved in five military operations: Panama, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia and now Bosnia. I won’t talk about it unless you’re interested, but there is not a single case that can be described with a straight face as impelled by humanitarian motives. In each case, the usual narrow considerations of self-interested powers are the ones that motivate the intervention, despite the pretenses. In that respect, there has been no change. So the consensus picture seems to me to have no merit whatsoever. In fact, it is a tribute to the obedience of educated classes that this absurd story can be presented without ridicule. Again, I don’t mean just the West here.

20These are the kinds of illusions that mask the repression of independence and nationalist struggles. As I said, there is also a complementary question about the nature of nationalist struggles, and whether they are really liberation struggles, or struggles to institute new forms of oppression. That seems to be the sort of issue that should be considered when one thinks about the ethnic question in the contemporary world.

Question and Answer Session

21Question: What is nationalism, and how do we define a nation? Is language the criterion, or religion, or ethnicity? If so, then every few thousand people make up a nation. Please comment. Also, we face a dilemma because many people feel that this nation-state with its European historical basis is an outdated concept. At the same time, every nationalist struggle takes political guarantee for its identity. How do you resolve this dilemma?

22Chomsky: Well, the question about the criteria for nationhood has no answer in my opinion. The only way to decide whether some group of people deserves to be considered a nation is to ask them. If they say we’re a nation, okay they’re a nation. Beyond that, there are virtually no criteria. If you look at the things that are called nations, they are so in every imaginable fashion. So I don’t think it’s a meaningful question. People seek modes of identification and association with one another. They do it in all sorts of conflicting ways; they do it on the basis of friendship, religion, talking the same language, living near each other, whatever. Now, you also have transnational associations among people working in the same discipline, people who never met one another but are communicating all the time. There are all sorts of modes of mutual association. Some of them have been codified in things called nations, but it’s not a meaningful concept. If people say they are a nation, and call for a right of self-determination, basically they have that right. Then you get into the question of conflicting rights, but that’s a general problem. Any effort to assert legitimate rights will, quite commonly, run into the fact that it interferes with other legitimate rights. That’s human life. That’s the way relations among people work, and in a sort of civilized setting you try to work it out the best way you can.

23Now, the nation-state was one form of answer to this question, and yes, it was a European invention. It emerged from centuries of terror, massacres, slaughter and devastation; you know the Hundred Years War, Thirty Years War, and so on. To impose the nation-state system in Europe was a brutal and bitter affair, which took hundreds of years and finally resolved itself in 1945, but only for the reason that I mentioned: the next effort to change the nation-state system would have led to total destruction. Therefore, the nation-state system was established. But it’s a very unnatural system. You can see that from the savagery with which it was imposed, or sort of emerged. It is only very loosely related to people’s natural interests. Therefore, it had to be imposed and redefined and reconstructed, and so on, by extreme violence. If you look at the history of the European conquest of most of the world, you find the same thing. It did leave a residue of nation-states, but they so radically cross-cut the natural forms of association that the imposition of nation-state systems has simply bred new and destructive forms of violence, which kind of reconstruct the internal history of Europe.

24Is there a way out of this? Well, I think in the longer term the way out of it would be to try to erode the nation-state system altogether. I mentioned this move towards a Europe of the regions, devolution of the states into regional areas with some loose kind of federalism among them. It’s probably a healthy development. To carry it out will not be a simple matter in Europe, and it will be even less simple in other parts of the world, but it’s a pretty natural way for these questions to be ultimately resolved. However, that requires an erosion of other forms of domination and control, because this nation-state system is only one, remember. It’s one that happens to have coalesced around another form of domination, national economies, which are themselves based on extreme forms of coercion and domination. Now, we have the systems of transnational corporate capitalism, which are state-based but quite global in character, and are developing their own forms of government at a transnational level. That’s what the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO) are, in effect. So all sorts of complex structures of hierarchy and authority, illegitimate authority, are interlinked, and in my opinion, they all ought to be dismantled. But that is going to require very extensive and committed popular struggle. Maybe at some point it ought to take the form of national liberation struggles, but if so, that should be done with question marks. And it’s only one part of a much bigger story.

25Question: Do you think that there is a change in imperialism’s strategy vis-à-vis the Third World states, in the context of the end of the Cold War and also of economic globalization?

26Chomsky: Well, you know, these categories I don’t think are awfully helpful. Is there a new strategy for imperialism? Well, there is, there are new strategies reflecting new situations. I mean, the same principles operate, but there are new contingencies, so there are new strategies for dealing with them. On the other hand, the category of imperialism itself is pretty misleading, in my opinion. Take, say, the US, which is the dominant world power, so we could say that “imperialism” means anything the US is doing. However, US power is, to a very large extent, directed towards the US population. Is that imperialism? I don’t know. It’s what is happening. And there’s nothing novel about the fact that a large part of the victims of US power is the population of the US itself. The same was true for the British Empire. If you do a sort of cost-benefit analysis of the British Empire, what Britain gained and lost from it, people have tried to do this and it sort of balances. The costs and benefits of empire appear to be pretty well balanced, a conclusion which seems reasonable.

27If you ask whether America won or lost the Vietnam War, it’s a meaningless question. Some in America gained, namely the ones who designed the policy, and some in America lost, namely the ones who did the work for them. That’s a pretty common pattern. So when you ask what is the strategy of imperialism, this question presupposes that the nation-state is an entity that acts in world affairs, but that’s not really true. The nation-state has to be looked at in terms of its internal structures of domination and control. When you look at those, you get quite a different picture, and that becomes even clearer when you move to a more globalized system of domination, as in the period of transnational corporations. For example, take a simple question, such as whether the United States is declining in its economic power in the world. It is very commonly said that US economic power is declining, relative to other countries. That’s true, if you take the US to mean the geographical area, what is called the US on the map. If you look at the share of this geographical area in, say, manufacturing production, it is declining. On the other hand, if you define the US as a corporate power based in the US, if you take General Motors to be part of the US even when it operates in Poland or Mexico or whatever, and of course, that’s the way it is thought of by the people who run the country, then it turns out that the US share in manufacturing production is not declining, it’s probably increasing. It’s just that these entities are distributing themselves, so as to gain cheaper labor and avoid environmental regulations, and so on, but the profits come back to the same sector in the US. The accountants for General Motors don’t care whether exports are from Mexico or Michigan – it’s the same thing. From that point of view, defining the US that way, its economic power is not declining, and that’s a reasonable way to think about it.

28Now, if we think about power systems as being class identified, then yes, their strategies change. One of the major developments in the contemporary world is that in the US and England, and increasingly in other industrial countries, the dominant classes (the ones who fundamentally run the place) are conducting a war against their own population. In fact, they are trying to turn around their societies into societies more or less on the Third World model. That’s an important part of the new strategy of imperialism, which means that for a good part of the working population in the US, the country is moving towards Third World conditions. Being such a rich country, it’s not going to look like India or Mexico, but the structures are more and more similar. That’s the new strategy.

29As far as running the international order is concerned, the use of violence is a last resort. You use it if you have to; if there are other techniques of control, you use them. And in the past twenty years or so, other techniques of control have come into operation. For instance, throughout the Third World, elite elements (including those who led nationalist struggles, I should say) are increasingly interested in associating themselves with international imperialism and serving as its agents, and instituting in their own countries policies that will benefit the privileged sectors of the world internationally and harm the mass of the population of the world internationally. That’s called structural adjustment, which is being advocated by elite elements who will benefit from it themselves throughout much of the world, including India. That’s the new strategy, and this new strategy has a lot of power behind it because of very substantial changes in the international economic order. These are new strategies designed for new contingencies, but I think that looking at it in terms of an imperial power dominating other countries misses a lot; for instance, it misses the role of Third World elites in implementing the same system for their own benefit.

30Question: World order seems to be a perennial obsession with the western rulers (from Alexander to the Ottoman, British and French empires), whereas in the East, this has not been the case. What accounts for this difference?

31Chomsky: The statement is just not true. If you look at the history of the East you get the Mongol invasions, the Mughals, and so on – it simply is not true. I mean, if you look at the last couple of hundred years, yes, the major power centers have come from a fringe of northwest Europe. That’s a historical fact. But it certainly is not a fact about long-term world history, not by any means. The Persian Empire, for instance, did not come from the West. Every power that’s existed has tried to extend its sway in one or the other form. There were periods of relative openness, for example, in East and Southeast Asia in the period before European colonialism (probably the only period in which something like a free trade regime actually was in place over substantial time). Not that it was pretty – it was very brutal and ugly, but it happened to be a relatively free trading area. Well, the Europeans broke into it and disrupted it and introduced new forms of violence, and so on, but the idea that the effort to control the world came from the West is not true. It’s not sustained by a look at world history.

32Question: How does South Africa fit into your analysis, with the end of apartheid, and the fact that South Africans are no longer good facilitators for western capital?

33Chomsky: Well, South Africa is one case where a liberation struggle succeeded. It was very bitter and hard won, but it did have a level of success, and towards the end it didn’t meet much opposition from the traditional rulers (the US and Britain, and even the South African elites – white elites – were sort of willing to go along with it). I think the reasons were several. One reason is that they didn’t have much of an alternative except extreme forms of violence which would have been harmful to themselves. And secondly, because they assumed, possibly with justice (we’ll see in the next few years), that the black leadership would assimilate itself to their system and become stratified in such a way that they would join. They would simply model the traditional system of domination with some of their own faces in the executive boardrooms. There is a likelihood that this will happen. There is a big internal struggle in the black community now in South Africa over this issue, and how it will work out you can’t tell. But if it does happen, it will be very typical of nationalist struggles. Your own history is an example.

34Question: Lenin says that every state power is essentially an instrument of oppression of one class by another. Hence the need for evolution of state power per se. Do you agree with this?

35Chomsky: First of all, I wouldn’t particularly call that Lenin’s thesis; it’s been everyone’s thesis. For instance, it was stated very explicitly, in almost the same words, by Adam Smith long before Lenin, when he pointed out that laws and governments are combinations of the rich to oppress the poor. Basically the same point with different words, and that’s like a truism of history. That’s what laws and governments are: instruments of oppression by which those who are able to control decision-making, for whatever reason (either they have more guns or they control the economy or whatever it may be), try to oppress everyone else. So it’s not Lenin’s thesis.

36On the other hand, to mention Lenin is relevant, because he is a prime example of how it works. The vanguard party that took power in Russia in 1917 was dedicated to crushing the popular movements and turning them into what Lenin and Trotsky called a “labor army” that would serve the authoritarian leadership. That was their goal. That was the ideology, that is what Bolshevism was. It was a perfect example of a system of highly authoritarian domination masking itself in the rhetoric of popular struggle, and its real nature became clear instantly. The first thing that Lenin and Trotsky did was to crush every spontaneous working class or other organization or association that had developed in the pre-revolutionary period, from factory councils to Soviets and everything else. And they did it in a very principled way, the reason being their ideology. You can’t accuse them of misleading anyone. It goes right back to the origin of Lenin’s thought – that the mass of the population was too stupid and ignorant to do anything for themselves, so they have to be beaten into a better future by us, because we are the smart guys and know how to do it. That’s what vanguard party theories are all about. Lenin was bitterly condemned for that by the mainstream of the Marxist movement, people like Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek and others, even Trotsky, in the early part of the century. His thought was deeply anti-popular, anti-democratic and authoritarian, and as soon as he took power, he implemented it. So I think Leninism is a perfect example of the phenomenon that’s being described. And when I was referring to the fact that nationalist struggles often mask their deeply reactionary and oppressive character in revolutionary rhetoric, this is one case that merits careful attention from that point of view.

37If we look at the history of Lenin’s thought, it’s kind of interesting. In the early years it’s very authoritarian. That’s when Lenin was sharply condemned by people like Luxemburg and others, for developing a concept which would put the party as the ruler of the working class, the central committee as the ruler of the party, and the maximal leader as the ruler of the central committee – which is exactly what happened; it was a very good prediction from the mainstream Marxist movement. That’s characteristic of Lenin’s thought from his early days until 1917, and from 1918 on. If you look at the intermediate period of 1917, you get a different Lenin. His 1917 writings, like the April Theses and State and Revolution, have a kind of libertarian-left, anarchist character to them. That ended as soon as he took power. There are various ways of interpreting that. The natural way, I think, is that Lenin was a supreme tactician, and he realized that in order to gain popular support during a period of conflict he had better express the ideas of the masses, so he moved to the left. But as soon as he took power, he moved back to the right where he’d been all along. That’s one interpretation, but I think a fair one, and not untypical of nationalist and revolutionary movements, I should say.

38Question: Going back to the US, what about ethnic conflicts, involving the Blacks, Hispanics, and so on? Will the melting pot eventually blow its lid off?

39Chomsky: These are not predictable things. I happened to be talking, at breakfast this morning, with an Indian meteorologist who was describing some of his work to me. He said that it is now well-accepted that it is theoretically impossible to predict tomorrow’s weather. It’s not just because of lack of data; there are principled reasons (having to do with non-linear systems and chaos theory) why you can’t predict tomorrow’s weather now. That’s probably true. Similarly, it’s impossible to predict the results of conflicts within very complex systems like human society. You can see the conflicts, try to understand them, and do something to resolve them, but these are not things you can predict.

40These ethnic conflicts in the US are somewhat misinterpreted, usually because of a failure to recognize that race and class are closely correlated. Race is a funny notion; it doesn’t have any real meaning. What’s called race, you know, like Black, Hispanic, that sort of thing, versus White, is very closely related to class differences. And a lot of what are called racial conflicts are, in fact, class conflicts. In the US, this is masked by the fact that class is an illegitimate word. The only people who are allowed to use it are the business world. They use it all the time. They’ve always thought in terms of classes, crushing the masses, and so on. In fact, if you look at the business press, it looks like vulgar Marxist literature with all the values reversed. But outside the business world, one of the things you are taught when you become educated is that the United States is a classless society, everyone is middle class and there are no class conflicts. And US cultural domination in the world is such that most of the rest of the world adopts the same illusion. But of course there are class conflicts in the US, as the business world knows very well, and they happen to be closely correlated with race conflicts. So when people talk about race, it’s often a mask for class.

41The commitment to denial of class struggle in the United States is so extreme that the census bureau does not even provide statistics related to class. It’s one of the few countries where you can’t find out what the mortality rate from heart disease is among working people, because there are no statistics for class. There are statistics for race, and people who have tried to work through the statistics have found significant differences, say, between Blacks and Whites in nutrition, mortality rates, and all these standard quality-of-life indices. But when you extract the class factor, you find that a large part of those differences are class differences. Within each class, there are also race differences, but they are small relative to the class differences, and that runs through everything. When people talk about the race and ethnic problem in the US, they are really talking fundamentally about the class problem, with racial and ethnic overtones to it that complicate it further. One can try to understand this, and try to do something about it, but predicting what will happen is impossible.

42Question: We know the problems, but do you have the solution? Also, you have been rightly critical of professional academics in the US and elsewhere. In Third World countries with a high proportion of illiterate people, what role do you envisage for the educated middle class?

43Chomsky: To start with, I’m skeptical about people knowing the problems. I don’t think we know the problems; there are many illusions in the way we look at the problems – all of us. And I think it’s a major task to extricate ourselves from systems of illusion and distortion, and to figure out what the problems are. I don’t know of any area where that is not true. We are all victims of tremendous amounts of ideological domination; I really think the problems have to be thought through. So one part of the solution is to try to get a sensible understanding of what’s going on. Now, that’s not the kind of thing that intellectuals do in a seminar room. If you do that in a seminar room, you will end up with some other distortion having to do with the privilege of people of power, their right to rule and all that stuff. You can predict that without any trouble at all. The way you learn what the problems are is by engaging yourself with people who are struggling.

44That brings us to the question of the role of intellectuals. Well, it’s not to talk to each other: that may be fun, but it’s a waste of time. Their role, if people are illiterate, which is indeed a huge problem, is to help them overcome illiteracy. And first of all, what are intellectuals? I do not even know what the word means. Most of the people who have intellectual positions, let’s say professors in universities, most of them do clerical work. They are called intellectuals for all sorts of reasons, but it’s not because of the quality of the work they do. I have known taxi drivers who are more intellectual, so it simply doesn’t correlate. Intellectuals are people who use their minds. Well, everybody uses their minds. Some people are in a position where they can’t do it very much, because they are forced to kill themselves to survive. When you have to work fourteen hours a day to put food on the table for your children, you don’t have much time to use your mind. If you’re forced to perform repetitive tasks over and over again for a long time, you even lose your mind. Again, that’s an insight that goes back to people like Adam Smith from classical liberalism. Which is why Adam Smith, contrary to what everyone is taught, opposed the division of labor. He said that in any civilized country the government is going to have to do something to block it, because it will turn people into creatures “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to be.” So you can’t be an intellectual if you have lost your mind by being forced into degrading tasks. Now, the people we call intellectuals are those who have a sufficient degree of privilege and authority to be able to use their minds if they feel like it. The job of those people is the same as that of anyone else who has privilege that he or she shouldn’t have. The people in this hall, including myself, have privilege we shouldn’t have. Well, we’ve got it, and there’s no point pretending that we don’t – we have education, and training, and too much money, and that sort of thing, and we should use it to try to help people who don’t. That means learning from them, working with them, offering them what we can from our own resources. So that they can find out what the problems are, and help us find out what the problems are and work out common solutions. I have my own ideas as to what kinds of solutions there are, but people have to work out their own ideas.

Notes de fin

1 Informal talk at Shankar Lal Hall (Delhi University) on 14 January 1996.


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