Noam Chomsky and the
Political Psychology Anti-Imperialism

by Ted Goertzel

for a Swedish translation click here

from Clio's Psyche, December 2003, pp. 90-91

To understand the psychological roots of American foreign policy we must include the opponents as well as the supporters of the current administration. And there is no more prominent opponent of American foreign policy than Noam Chomsky. Chomsky's reputation as a scholar is based on his path-breaking work in linguistics. But he is perhaps even better known, especially in third world countries, as a tireless crusader against American "imperialism".

Chomsky travels the world giving speeches to audiences of angry radicals, often on college campuses. He uses his intellectual brilliance and massive reservoir of factual knowledge to intimidate anyone who challenges him in debate. Yet he is quiet and unassuming in his personal manner, seldom raising his voice. He appears to be a dispassionate intellectual, following the truth wherever it leads him. Yet the content of his remarks reveals a passionate ideologue.

Research on the psychology of radical activists helps us to understand this mismatch between Chomsky's ideas and his personal style. In the 1970s, Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter administered Thematic Apperception Tests to a large sample of "new left" radicals (Roots of Radicalism, 1982). They found that activists were characterized by weakened self-esteem, injured narcissism and paranoid tendencies. They were preoccupied with power and attracted to radical ideologies that offered clear and unambiguous answers to their questions. All of these traits can be found in the work of Chomsky and other anti-imperialist intellectuals.

Leftist activists are prone to believe that their own thinking is rational and objective, while that of their opponents is distorted and biased. This is clearly true of Chomsky. He write long historical and analytical tomes, full of facts of figures. He speaks softly and maintains a veneer of scholarly objectivity. Yet no one can miss the bitter anger just beneath the surface. As Larissa MacFarquhar observes in her brilliant essay on Chomsky, he "chooses to believe that his debates consist only of facts and arguments, and that audiences evaluate these with the detachment of a computer. In his political work, he even makes the silly claim that he is presenting only facts - that he subscribes to no general theories of any sort. His theories, of course, are in his tone - in the sarcasm that implies 'this is only to be expected, given the way things are.'" ("The Devil's Accountant," The New Yorker, March 31, 2003, available on LexisNexis Academic Search Premier).

One of the most common critiques of leftist intellectuals, especially Karl Marx and his followers, is that they claim to be objective, scientific observers, although their work oozes anger. They also studiously avoid offering alternatives to the policies they are criticizing, expending all their energy on attacking the enemies they blame for all the world's problems. As Chomsky's wife observed, "an early question in every Q. & A. is 'you've told us everything that's wrong but not what we can do about it,' And they're right. He hasn't. So he gives what to me is a fake answer: 'you've got to organize'."

The unwillingness to offer alternatives reveals a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. If they offered their own policy ideas they would be vulnerable to criticism. They would run the risk that their ideas would fail, or would not seem persuasive to others. This is especially difficult for anti-capitalists after the fall of the Soviet Union. It has also been difficult in the war against terrorism because Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are such unsympathetic figures. Psychologically, it is easier to blame America for not finding a solution than it is to put one's own ideas on the line.

Politically, there are two different elements in the American anti-war movement: the socialists and the pacifists. The pacifists oppose war and violence in general, the socialists oppose it only when used by the ruling classes. These belief system are not really compatible, but they work well together in practice because they have much in common psychologically. They share the same target of externalization, American business and political leaders. They both deny their own aggressive impulses and blame their enemy for all the world's problems. As the British psychoanalyst R.E. Money-Kryle (Psychoanalysis and Politics, 1973, p. 92.) observes, "those who cling to a vision of a world without strife, or even competition, deny at least some part of the predatory aggression that threatens to disturb their relations with their fellows."

In her biography of Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding, Cynthia Kerman (Creative Tension, 1974, p. 130) quotes him as saying "I am consumed by the moral disease of anger," and "if I wasn't so violent I wouldn't have to be a Quaker." Later in his life, however, Boulding denied that his pacifism had anything to do with his personal psychology, attributing it entirely to logical reasoning and religious faith. This is not any more persuasive in his case than it is in Chomsky's.

It is just as easy to find psychological roots for the anger that many pacifists and anti-imperialists feel as it is for the beliefs of people who support American government policies. Pro and anti-imperialist activists are opposite sides of the same coin. Both seek a world view which gives meaning to their lives and puts them on the side of good against evil. Both project their unwanted feelings onto their enemies. Both are very concerned with expressing their values and asserting the correctness of their views.

A more rational and realistic perspective might be that of the "owl" instead of the "hawk" or the "dove". The owl's goal is to seek out a policy that will work instead of one that expresses his or her values. This is difficult because it is hard to know what will work, or even to evaluate policies once they have been implemented. Thus, when asked whether the war with Iraq was justified, the Dalai Lama responded "it's too early to tell." Neither the hawks nor the doves are comfortable with the ambiguity of the real world. By casting politics in a moralistic framework that reflects their personal needs, they make it more difficult for us to deal with some very difficult real world problems.