“The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Fifty Years On: An Interview with Prof. Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky in 2010. Image by JeanBaptisteParis

This interview was conducted in October 2016 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was edited by Taylor Lannamann.

It was originally published in Issue 1 of Poet’s Country, the variating-format journal of contemporary intellectual culture. Copies of the full issue, as well as all recent issues, are available here.


Noam Chomsky’s office is not particularly large. There are several wheeled tables covered by five-foot-high stacks of books, a poster of Bertrand Russell on one wall, sweeping views of Boston Harbor on two others. After meeting first with Bev Stohl, who assists him, we spoke about his work and support for the National Labor Relations Board’s recent ruling in favor of student workers in higher education. Prof. Chomsky’s schedule on this particular Tuesday was, as usual, very busy so with limited time I began asking him about his essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” now 50 years in print, and available to read here.

Do you think intellectuals have become more willing than in the mid-’60s to expose lying in politics, and do you think attitudes have changed toward speaking out since then?

To a certain extent, but only as a reflection of the fact that the whole society is, in many respects, more civilized than it was then. “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” was written before the women’s movement had started and before the anti-war movement had really taken off. It actually appeared in a Harvard undergraduate journal in 1966, and at that time we literally couldn’t have a public demonstration in Boston against the war because we’d be broken up. By students. Seriously. People forget those days.

It was a year or two later — in ’67 and then through ’71 — that things started to change. The militant, visible anti-war movement had begun but was a very brief phenomenon, the feminist movement was barely beginning, and the environmental movement didn’t even exist yet. A lot of things that are part of our legacy just weren’t around at that time. There is a kind of false belief that there was a period in journalism where you had militant, courageous journalists, etc. It’s probably a little better now than it was then, and as a result there’s somewhat more openness. A lot of people in the academy come out of that ferment and were affected by it roughly fifty years ago.

However, it’s still a very marginal phenomenon. Take, for example, the worst crime of this century: the invasion of Iraq. Now, you can find people who will say it was a mistake; you can’t find people who will say in print that it was a major crime. Take the New York Review of Books, where “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” appeared in ’67. Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, had an article there recently in which he referred to the invasion as a “blunder.” Now, that’s like Nazi generals after Stalingrad. And that’s the New York Review, which is considered radical and so on. Try to find it anywhere — it’s obvious that the invasion was a textbook example of aggression. But even Sir John Chilcot’s report, “The Iraq Inquiry,” couldn’t say it.

We waited so long for that report to come out.

It’s good that it came out, but it’s interesting what it skirted.

Do you think the urgency and severity of political issues has any effect on the willingness of intellectuals to speak out? Is it increasingly becoming their responsibility to analyze the genuine importance of issues since others aren’t taking up the task?

First of all, the term intellectual is a weird category, one that didn’t exist in the modern sense until the late 19th century. The Dreyfus Affair is more or less the first case in which the term was used in the modern sense. They were just educated people. But what is an intellectual? The concept is very strange. Suppose you go down the hall and there’s a Nobel prize-winning physicist who spends seventy hours a week in his laboratory. We don’t call him an intellectual. He’s a great physicist, but not an intellectual. Now, take the janitor who cleans his floor, who never went to college. Suppose he happens to have a lot of insight into and understanding about human life, social relations, the political system and so on — he’s not called an intellectual. The people who are called intellectuals are those who use their privilege to speak out about issues of public concern. They’re called intellectuals. It’s a very strange category. They may not know what they’re talking about, but that doesn’t matter — they’re intellectuals! If you trace the history of the people who have been called intellectuals, there’s a pattern you’ll find. It dates way back to classical Greece and the Bible. The people who spoke out independently and critically, wherever they were from, were treated badly in various ways. In Greece it was the guy corrupting the youth of Athens, and he had to drink hemlock. In the Bible it was the prophets, and they were jailed and driven into the desert.

There were others who were highly respected and honored: they were the flatterers of the court, and that’s never changed. Go back to the Dreyfus Affair. Today you honor the Dreyfusards, but not at the time. Émile Zola had to flee France and go to England because of “J’accuse…!”, the open letter he wrote defending Dreyfus and revealing president Félix Faure’s elite anti-Semitism. The Dreyfusards were bitterly condemned by the prestigious figures of that period. The immortals of the Académie française vehemently denounced them: “How dare you talk about these men!” This sort of thing runs right through history with barely a break, and it’s still true today.

Do you think it’s a necessary precondition of intellectuals that they are removed from positions of power?

Most of them are right at the core of power. They’re the administrators. They’re the Henry Kissingers. That’s the intellectual class, overwhelmingly. There’s a fringe of dissidents who by now in the United States and England are not sent to prisons, not tortured, not murdered, but marginalized in various ways — denigrated, denounced, and so on. But that’s a historical pattern with virtually no exceptions. Try to find one.

Why is it that individuals like Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair are not subject to even the most rudimentary legal procedures that might apply to them?

Well, Kissinger himself put it pretty well. He said something about how the responsible intellectuals are those who know how to articulate the interests and concerns of those in power. Which is pretty accurate.

On the other hand, if you undermine systems of power with critical analysis, they’re not going to like it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a faculty department or talking about affairs of state, of course they won’t like it.

In “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” you talk about the relationship between “scholar-experts” and “free-floating intellectuals.” I remember a British politician who said, as part of the campaign for the UK to leave the EU, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” Do you think we need a finer distinction between these experts who are providing justified, evidence-based criticism and those who aren’t?

I remember that comment, but my recollection is that it was just anti-intellectualism, saying “We don’t need you smart guys, we just do it by instinct and we do the right thing.” Doing the right thing — like becoming a Stormtrooper. It’s not that you don’t need knowledge and understanding, it’s that you don’t need a specialized class who arrogate to themselves the right to monopolize and claim understanding and knowledge. The ones who call themselves the technocratic and policy-oriented elite — basically the central committee in a communist state — that’s the group we don’t need. But it doesn’t follow that you don’t need to understand and interpret and critically analyze. That kind of expertise you should need, but it’s anybody’s legacy, not just the people who happen to make it to power (who do so for Kissinger’s reasons, typically). The same is true not just in positions of political power, but also in the general intellectual world. Though of course there are exceptions, especially in freer societies.

On the subject of power and exposure, Judith Butler received criticism from the State of Israel for accepting the Adorno Prize in 2012, and Thomas Piketty, just after the release of Capital in the 21st Century, refused the French Légion d’honneur, saying “It’s not the government’s role to decide who is honorable”. How should intellectuals navigate this issue of prestige and exposure? Do you think Piketty’s decision was an important one to make?

It never meant much to me. What matters is what you do, not who decides to honor you. I wouldn’t decide to accept an honor from a totalitarian state, let’s say. But suppose someone accepts an honor from the British government; they do a lot of rotten things, but it doesn’t seem to me a major issue. The question is: what’s the nature of the honor, who’s bestowing it, and what are you doing for it? It’s what you do, not who decides to say something nice about you.

It’s ironic that the Israeli government criticized Butler for being anti-Semitic. Every educated Israeli knows, because they’ve studied the Bible, that the first use of the concept of the “hater of Israel” is from King Ahab, who called the prophet Elijah to him, and condemned him for critical discussion of the evil king. He said, “Why are you a hater of Israel?” That’s the origins of the concept of the self-hating Jew.

There’s a pre-existing or inherent enmity, then, between critics and kings?

I think it’s the same structure. The concept that you’re a hater of Israel if you condemn the acts of the king is a deeply totalitarian concept that associates a political power with the society, the culture, the civilization. It’s embodied in the center of power, so if you criticize that center of power, you hate the whole society, which is a typical totalitarian concept. It’s quite striking that it is exists in Israel. And in the United States, too, with the concept of anti-Americanism. You don’t find that in most societies, you find it in totalitarian states. In the old Soviet Union, critical intellectuals were called anti-Soviet. Deep totalitarian concepts go straight back to the Bible and it’s quite astonishing when you find them in free societies.

Those kinds of all-encompassing attitudes are so prevalent that to call them totalitarian would seem a radical stance to take.

I think it’s a pretty obvious stance. Totalitarian means you identify the society, the people, the culture with the controlling power system. So if you criticize the king, you’re anti-Israeli if you criticize the Kremlin, you’re anti-Russian; criticize the White House, you’re anti-American.

Many intellectuals — particularly researchers and specialists — might claim they don’t know enough about one particular geopolitical crisis to publicly comment on political affairs in general. Is being an intellectual in this respect a hindrance? Should each intellectual take on more than what she specializes in?

Let’s take the biggest problem that humans face — climate change. It’s true that, say, a historian may not look into the question of why 400 particles per million is a crisis point in the destruction of the environment. For that, they will turn to experts. But you don’t have to be a specialist to understand that this is maybe the most serious problem in the entire history of the human species. You just have to be a literate person. And it’s the literate, intelligent people who don’t have to have any particular specialty. It could be the janitor cleaning the floor. They’re ones who have to make a decision about the crisis, and they’re perfectly capable of doing so, turning to specialists to ask whether the critical turning point is 400 or 450. You need a specialist for that knowledge, but not to understand the nature of what’s happening. It’s the same with every other issue. You don’t have to be a specialist in East European history to know that if NATO is building up military forces on the Russian border, it’s going to be a threat to Russia. You don’t have to be a genius to figure that out.

What do you think about this disconnect between the warnings of specialists — who are clearly pointing to emerging crises as well as to solutions — and the level of existing political will? Why don’t decision-makers listen to scientists with the open-mindedness that would be necessary to save human lives from various crises?

Take say, another critical issue, not of the scale of climate change, but significant for people — healthcare. That’s important to people. The US healthcare system is an international scandal. It has twice the per-capita costs of other societies, and some of the worst outcomes. The reason is that it’s privatized. For decades a majority of the population has wanted a public healthcare system — did anybody pay attention? That’s not the way political democracy works. It does not reflect public opinion. And regarding the other issue — global warming — remember that a huge number of people, for various reasons, do not understand the problem. It has not been presented to them in a way they can understand.

The United States has a special problem. This is a deeply fundamentalist society, maybe the most extreme in the world, and almost half the population thinks global warming can’t be a problem because Jesus is returning in twenty or thirty years. These are problems of education and understanding. You look at the media presentation of the issues and it’s a kind of “he says, she says” sort of thing. So what are people supposed to do? How do they decide? They give the answer that one of the others gives. Because they think they don’t know enough.

Noam Chomsky in 2011. Photo by Andrew Rusk