Noam Chomsky: The First Tankie

Russell Michaels

Russell Michaels

Russell is inside his own mind, a comfortable yet silly place. He is also on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar George Turner
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    says:

    That’s like Jeffrey Dahmer becoming an anti-necrophilia activist.

    You mean we’re not yet to the point where the far left’s mantra is “necrophilia is a victimless crime!”?

    To me, Chomsky has always been the left’s crazy uncle who claims he’s a genius (perhaps like Rick on Rick and Morty). According to Steven Pinker’s version of recent linguistic history, Chomsky’s only accomplishment was crippling the field’s progress for many decades with his “universal grammar” theory. In that regard, he might be like the pre-eminent scholar who held back Mayan language studies for decades by insisting that glyphs couldn’t be an alphabetic or syllabic writing system, and viciously attacking any scholar who thought otherwise.

    However, Chomsky’s universal grammar theory may have inspired Neal Stevenson’s plot-device of a Sumerian Ur “microcode” language in “Snow Crash”, so maybe it’s a wash.Report

  2. Avatar Jay L Gischer
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    says:

    The first time I ever heard about Chomsky it was because of Chomsky grammars, which are a thing that has some influence in computer science and programming languages, not to mention speech recognition. Also, I heard about him in the linguistics class I took, where we talked about surface structure and deep structure.

    Chomsky held the thesis that humans had a “language organ” that allowed for them to develop and learn language particularlly well, and in certain pre-defined patterns. These days with all the neural net training, we think that’s false. But it wasn’t a dumb idea.

    So, yeah, I heard about Chomsky’s political views later, and kind of shrugged. Everybody gets to have an opinion.

    So, I kind of don’t understand either why you would take the time to write a hit piece about Chomsky, nor why this site would bother publishing it.

    I’m not going to debate your characterization of Chomsky’s political views, you’ve researched them and know more about them than I do. That’s kind of my point. I’m the liberal, and I don’t care about what he says, but you do.

    You said

    Most people with a brain who know that his previous writings are still readily available know he’s a damn ghoul, but his fanboys treat him like a god.

    This is as fine an example of dichotomous thinking as one can find. What if he’s just a person who has made some very important scientific contributions, and was very wrong about some political beliefs? I mean, that’s not exclusively the province of the left…I give you Milton Friedman and Chile.

    The reason I bothered to write this comment, rather than just drive on is this: We need less of this these days, and more of people trying to reach out, trying to understand how other people think, trying to expand beyond themselves.

    This piece is very aggressive in its language and this gives me the impression that it actively seeks to push away people who disagree. For instance, “Anyone who denies that is a ghoul”. This is the language of polemic, of power, not of engagement. If you don’t feel like engaging, that’s fine. You don’t have to.

    But I do wonder about the choice to publish this piece here, since this site does seek engagement over polemic.Report

    • Avatar George Turner
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      says:

      My view of Chomsky is that his “important” scientific contributions were negative, in that he sent his whole field down a complete dead end for decades, as if evolutionary biology got stuck with “Intelligent Design” theory for thirty years.

      Most people focus their attacks on his politics (he’s one of the few unapologetic Khmer Rouge supporters you’ll find), but plenty of linguists attack have been dismissing his academic work as well.

      What interests me is his writing style, which also shares similarities with some post-modernist “geniuses”. Their sentence structures are extremely complex, with lots of convoluted clauses, and they tend to include poorly defined terms or multiply defined terms, so that a particular statement can have several different possible meanings. They also, quite often, don’t really make any sense but sound deep and profound.

      My theory is that part of your language wiring, or rather a default state of learning language as a child, is listening to adults use very complex sentences full of somewhat familiar words that you don’t really understand. You just accept that the adults are way, way smarter than you are. That they are talking about deep and important subjects because, well, they’re way smarter than you are. It’s as if your brain gives an error code that says “Parsing / translation failure – you possess insufficient learning and maturity to understand this content.”

      Is it possible that the natural human reaction to hearing your language spoken like that (in a complex form that you can almost, but not quite, make sense of), is probably to assume the speaker is talking way above your pay grade? If so, there should be a sweet spot of sentence structure and technical terms that would trigger this reaction, where an entire room full of academics would assume the guy at the podium is even smarter than they are.

      It would basically be a cheat, an exploit, a little linguistic trick that can fool most of the people most of the time. That might really be Chomsky’s only skill. Query someone who just attended a post-modernist lecture some time.

      “How was the lecture?”
      “It was great! He is sooooo brilliant!”
      “What did he say?”
      “It’s hard for me to explain. It was about a lot of complicated things. Totally fascinating.”
      “Can you give me an example?”
      “No, not really, it was way over my head. But brilliant, truly brilliant.”

      No information was actually conveyed, just an impression of brilliance.

      Preachers often do something similar when they convince a crowd that they have the Holy Spirit, or that God is moving through the congregation. It’s a form of performance art.Report

    • Russell Michaels Russell Michaels
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      says:

      Denial of the Cambodian Genocide was not a small thing, brophalom. Part of why no one in the Western world took it seriously. 8% of the country’s population died every year that Pol Pot was in power, on average.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling
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        says:

        I don’t think Chomsky ever had that kind of influence outside the far left, who had no influence on American policy.

        Though after the Vietnamese government overthrew Pol Pot, the Unites States, under both Carter and Reagan, supported the Khmer Rouge’s guerilla war against the government that replaced it. Realpolitik, you know.Report

  3. Avatar Stillwater
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    says:

    Alternate title: “Russell has FEELINGS about Noam Chomsky.”Report

    • Russell Michaels Russell Michaels
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      says:

      Maybe look into denial of the Cambodian Genocide. Or, the awful things he says about Israel that are preached as if gospel by some of the worst regimes in the world. Maybe.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater
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        says:

        I’ve read dozens of books by Chomsky, including several on Linguistics (I even read Aspects of a Theory of Syntax!). I’ve read at least two (2) of his books on Israel. Most of his political work is, as he says, merely clerical: he just collates newspaper clippings of things Officials have said and etc. As I read him I’ve never understood him to be a champion, an advocate, or even sympathetic to totalitarian states despite efforts to make him appear so. He criticizes the US (because he’s a US citizen) and he criticizes some aspects of Israel (presumably because he’s Jewish), which, by the Irrefutable Logic of Partisanship, means he’s rootin for the other side.

        Here’s my favorite thing he’s done or said though:

        Report

  4. Avatar Brent F
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    says:

    My anti-Chomsky radicalization was an interview where he called Lester B Pearson a war criminal. Something to do with not cutting of defense trade with the US during Vietnam.

    Just as relevant to assessing him is what he’ll maximize compared to what he’ll minimize.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater
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      says:

      I don’t know the specifics of the accusation you’re referring to, but it seems strange to me to criticize him for calling someone a war criminal when his view is/was that the Vietnam War itself was a war crime, a view which most (??) people now agree with.Report

      • Avatar George Turner
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        says:

        Except perhaps for the North Vietnamese soldiers who feel they were lied to, conned, and used as cannon fodder by Hanoi, and of course all the South Vietnamese.

        Noam Chomsky also says that Eisenhower was an indictable for war crimes in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia. He says Kennedy was far, far worse, invading Vietnam and burning civilians with napalm and chemical weapons and driving people into concentration camps, while in Cuba he led a massive campaign of international terrorism. These are indictable war crimes.

        But Johnson was a vicious war criminal, too, expanding the war in Indochina, killing three or four million people. He invaded the Dominican Republic to crush democracy. He supported the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Johnson should be indicted for war crimes.

        To Chomsky, Nixon is so off the charts that he doesn’t even need to address it. Just hang him.

        Ford supported the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which came as close to mass genocide as anything in the modern era, because Ford is a genocidal war criminal who should’ve been indicted.

        Carter kept Indonesia supplied with weapons so they could keep the genocide rolling. When Congress eventually blocked him, Carter got his vice president to get Israel to keep supplying weapons to Indonesia so the genocide wouldn’t be thwarted. Then Carter flooded Israel with military aid so they could attack their neighbors and crush the Palestinians. Carter should’ve been indicted for war crimes.

        Reagan is a no-brainer for Chomsky, who says he should have been indicted for international terrorism. Bush invaded Panama in a war of aggression, and he refused to consider diplomatic solutions with Iraq, and committed numerous war crimes with glee, including biological warfare. Bush should’ve been indicted for war crimes.

        Bill Clinton crushed Iraq with a policy of mass starvation, blew up a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant with cruise missile, killing tens of thousands of Sudanese with one missile. In the Middle East, Clinton tossed out previous agreements and destroyed international law in the region, and helped the Israelis crush Palestinians, military occupy their land, and seize it for themselves. By any measure, Bill Clinton should’ve been indicted for war crimes.

        Then of course comes George W Bush, and his wildly illegal war for oil, for which he should’ve been indicted for war crimes, unquestionably.

        But Chomsky says that Obama was even worse than W Bush and Tony Blair, killing innocent people all over the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa in all sorts of ways, waging an illegal war in Libya, and in Syria, and Iraq, and where ever else Obama felt like killing innocent people. He should of course be indicted as a war criminal.

        The only remaining post WW-II president, and perhaps the only one Chomsky wouldn’t indict for war crimes (I couldn’t find him calling for indictment), is Donald J Trump, who hasn’t started any wars. Chomsky says Trump is “culpable” in the deaths of Americans (Chomsky hates Trump’s Covid response), but “culpable” is quite different from Trump’s genocidal, murderous, expansionist, imperialist, war criminal predecessors like JFK, Carter, and Obama.

        But Pol Pot is just peachy.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater
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          says:

          I don’t recall him saying any US presidents should be prosecuted for war crimes (he may have), but other than that (and your comment about Pol Pot) I think he’d mostly agree with your descriptions of those illegal/criminal US actions. You’re forgetting one thing about Indonesian slaughter of the East Timorese, though: Chomsky argues that Carter green-lit it while in Jakarta (I think).Report

          • Avatar George Turner
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            says:

            I was pretty much quoting Chomsky in the above because I can’t remember how to link Youtube videos so they show up like videos. Chomsky was a hard core defender of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and has said that the death toll was unreliable propaganda made up by American imperialists, or due to US actions, etc. He’s famous for not recanting his support for the regime.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater
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              says:

              He criticized one author’s published numbers which were, I believe, either actually wrong or unsupported by any evidence.Report

              • Avatar George Turner
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                says:

                Chomsky criticized nearly all the evidence against the Khmer Rouge. He would explain away everything that impugned their reputation as brilliant social reformers who were building utopia in the face of US imperialism and genocide. When it became obvious that he supports virtually anyone the West finds heinous, most folks who aren’t on the far left lost interest in indulging him, or wading through the push-pin logic of his overwrought political diatribes.

                Chomsky is one of the early, prominent US academics who adopted the stance that white America, corporations, and US capitalism are the ultimate evil in the entire world, and that everybody else is better, or just reacting to our evil, including Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, and Osama Bin Laden.

                It’s a bitter, irrational self-hatred, but the far left says he’s right about it all, while the center-left points to his brilliance and reputation, and likely feels sheepish that they’re not completely down with the program, and probably feeling guilty about benefiting from all that American capitalist oppression and genocide.

                Unlike the left, which happily lets folks go full totalitarian genocidal Marxist and still be in the big tent, the right draws sharp lines that are not crossed without getting booted and ostracized. William Shockley, Nobel Prize winner who co-invented the transistor, is a case in point. We decided he was freakin’ nuts, a bug-eyed racist and a paranoid conspiracy theorist, and that was pretty much the end of his public and academic life. But Chomsky soldiers on, ranting and raving like Ted Kazinski, Anders Breivik, or Timothy McVeigh, but delivering his overwrought paranoid analysis in a calm, measured tone that makes him sound like someone who must be brilliant. So his audience thinks “Of course it makes sense that the G-8 is using world capital markets to pay Israel to crush the Palestinians so the genocide in the Congo can continue unnoticed! It’s all part of the Bilderberg plan for world domination!”. He makes the folks at 4Chan and QaNon look like rational investigators, but to this day part of the far left still sits and listens to him with rapt attention.

                I think the fundamental reason for that is that is far enough out on “the spectrum” that he doesn’t give off the usual visual and subconscious cues that someone is a manic, paranoid, “fevered”, or just “not all there” in the head. Had he exhibited such physical symptoms, he’d probably have been sent to wherever Shockley went.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater
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                says:

                Unlike the left, … the right draws sharp lines that are not crossed without getting booted and ostracized.

                Heh.Report

              • Avatar Slade the Leveller
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                says:

                Reply of the year.Report

              • Avatar George Turner
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                says:

                And yet it’s true. If you support a genocidal Marxist dictators, or advocate for human extinction, or call for the complete elimination of private property, or you demand that all white people should pay reparations or get put into camps, or proclaim Jews to be mankind’s greatest threat, you’ll still probably get asked to deliver a speech at the DNC convention.

                In contrast, Ron Paul is about the right boundary of the Republican party, and he was on very shaky ground. Anybody further out is just dismissed as crazy and given the boot.

                The Republican party kicks people out from both ends, whereas the Democrat party has no exit door on the left. Che Guevara shirts are in still in fashion, even though it’s like wearing a Josef Mengele tee.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater
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                says:

                Seen on Twitter:

                Liberals were right about George W Bush and they’re right about Donald Trump. The Republican Party is a political party incapable of governing the nation without ushering in death, devastation, and national humiliation. Just the facts.

                Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling
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                says:

                “Very fine people. On both sides.”Report

              • Avatar George Turner
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                says:

                Joe Biden seems to be basing his whole campaign on that lie. There were very fine people on both sides, which were the people Trump was talking about after condemning the scumbag white nationalists who also showed up, along with Antifa, who are also scumbag white nationalists who are just too dumb to realize it.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels
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                says:

                “All those elitist intellectuals in Phnom Penh were looking down at us country folk. They kept calling me a Communist, so eventually I said screw it, I’ll join the Communists. It’s really their fault, when you think about it.”Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling
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                says:

                Given Roy Moore and Dennis Hastert, we know what the GOP doesn’t kick people out for.Report

              • Avatar George Turner
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                says:

                And where is Roy Moore? Oh, he’s not in office and he’s not even on the ballot. He came in fourth in the Republican primaries, getting only 7.2% of the Republican vote, because Republicans didn’t want to have anything to do with him. He was too far to the right, or whatever direction he was.

                Dennis Hastert has finally gotten out of prison, which is just part of the normal career path for any Illinois politician, one Obama may well share with him.

                Meanwhile AOC handily won her primary, even as she basically advocates for totalitarian communism, unemployment, and rampant crime, if not mass human extinction. Her fellow squad members, who focus more on exterminating Jews and Christians, will no doubt retain their seats.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater
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                says:

                And where is Roy Moore? Oh, he’s not in office and he’s not even on the ballot.

                Where is Donald Trump?

                {{this’ll be good…}}Report

              • Avatar George Turner
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                says:

                Donald Trump isn’t on the right. He’s a recently former Democrat who was the darling of the left until he asked about Obama’s birth certificate. Then they went nuts and haven’t regained any sanity since.

                So Trump is busy pardoning black people who were rotting in jail because of Joe Biden’s crime bill, which Bill Clinton gleefully signed. Trump is renegotiating trade deals that crushed American workers – that Bill Clinton signed. Trump is tossing out agreements with Iran that will result in Israel being blown off the face of the Earth, which Barack Obama and John Kerry bragged about.

                Basically, Donald Trump is doing the left’s job of protecting poor, minorities, and the great American people because the left is too busy trying to get Islamic dictators to kill us or Marxist dictators to rule us, at least when they’re not busy selling us out to corporate interests or China.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels
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                says:

                Conservatives are at war with Trump.
                They have always been at war with Trump.Report

              • Avatar greginak
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                says:

                “darling of the left” oh that is good crazy pants shit there g. I don’t have the drugs to come up with that kind of derp.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater
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                says:

                Donald Trump isn’t on the right.

                Obviously. I mean, if he were he’d have been booted long ago for violating those sharp lines folks on the right draw. The only explanation for why they don’t ostracize him like they did Roy Moore is because they think he’s actually a Democrat.Report

              • Avatar George Turner
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                says:

                And most of the never-Trumpers are where on the political spectrum? Trump does all kinds of things that upsets them, like meeting with union leaders like he’s labor’s best friend, meeting with black leaders like he’s their best friend, etc.

                Is Trump to the right of Kanye West or to the left of Kanye West? We’re not sure.

                Is he left of Tulsi Gabbard on foreign wars, or to the right of Tulsi Gabbard on foreign wars? We’re not sure. He’s certainly far to the left of Obama and Clinton, because he hasn’t started a war with anybody, whereas they’d start wars at the drop of a hat.

                He is certainly no where near “the right”, much less the extreme right, on foreign policy, economics, or social issues. He just hates corrupt, racist politicians, and that’s why Democrats think he’s Satan incarnate. He’s slamming their team!Report

              • Avatar Stillwater
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                says:

                George, you said “the right draws sharp lines that are not crossed without getting booted and ostracized”, you then used Roy Moore as an example of this principle in action!, yet the *same people* who you claim booted Roy Moore support Donald Trump even though the “sharp line” appears to apply in both cases.

                Hence, I call bullshit on the idea that conservatives have sharp lines that cannot be violated.*

                *Well, except after the fact. COnservatism cannot fail, it can only be failed by RINOs and all that nonsense.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater
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                says:

                Moderation for spelling out a naughty word!Report

        • Avatar Chip Daniels
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          says:

          Somehow this defense –
          “If you indict one President for war crimes, you would have to indict them all!”
          seems…poorly thought out.Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    If you’ve never seen Ali G interview Noam Chomsky, please watch this and boggle at what we thought was funny in the oughts.

    Report

  6. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    says:

    Chomsky has only ever been on my radar as someone who did linguistics work, and had opinions the far left found attractive.

    The former is only mildly interesting to me as trivia (I lack the background to really appreciate it), and the latter… What college professor from the 60s didn’t fit that bill?Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon
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      says:

      Or to put this another way, getting upset that Chomsky was a far lefty is like getting upset that HP Lovecraft was a racist.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater
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        says:

        One thing about Chomsky: when he was initially publishing all the scathing critiques of US foreign policy which branded him a lefty, only a handful of people believed him. Now, almost everyone who pays attention knows (eg) that the US backed Pinochet in Chile, or overthrew Arbenz’ government in Guatemala. I’m not sure how writing about that stuff makes Chomsky a lefty, though….Report

    • Avatar Jaybird
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      Have you ever seen the Chomsky/Buckley Firing Line show?

      It’s amazing.Report

  7. Avatar Dan
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    Doing three minutes of research turns up a video of Chomsky talking about the evils of the Soviet Union and calling it totalitarian. He’s been anti-Stalin his whole career, the opposite of a tankie. Your level of laziness, ignorance, and idiocy is truly something to behold. Do you feel no sense of embarrassment writing stuff this false?

    https://youtu.be/06-XcAiswY4Report

    • Avatar George Turner
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      So the communists weren’t actually socialists. Um hmm…. On one side of that debate would be hundreds of millions of people living in the Soviet Socialist Republics who spent 70 years living as socialists. On the other side would be, um, Noam Chomsky, whacky linguist who supported Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

      But, he does at least agree with the German’s of the 30’s, who adamantly argued that the Bolsheviks weren’t true socialists, unlike their own party that was founded on faith, hope, charity, and breathing room for the German speaking peoples.

      And that’s the thing about socialists. They’ll slaughter each other, and anyone else, over who represents “true socialism”, much like Shia and Sunnis killing each other, or Protestants and Catholics during Europe’s vicious religious wars. All three cases result from rigid and intolerant religious purity and a profound disregard for freedom, human life, and conscience.

      They are all ardent believers, but in terms of reality, they’re no different from a Ferengi, a Romulan, and a Klingon at a Star Trek convention brawling on the floor over an obscure aspect of warp field dynamics. It’s merely a question of which version of “delusional stupidity” will win the fight.Report

      • Avatar Dan
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        says:

        Lol, you can play all the word games you want, doesn’t change anything. The author claims Chomsky was pro-Soviet when the reality is the exact opposite, he’s on record denouncing the Soviet Union for 60 years. You’re demonstrably wrong in the most obvious way and when confronted all you can do is go on some rant trying to change the topic. It’s pathetic, the hallmark of a truly ignorant individual with no capacity for learning.Report

        • Avatar George Turner
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          Yes, I will report to a camp at once, tovaritch!

          Meanwhile, Noam Chomsky’s claim that the Soviet Union was as far from socialism as possible just shows what an absurdly stupid person he is. Pretty much any Marxist version of true socialism involves the collective ownership of the means of production. The Soviet Union had that. Nothing in Marx speaks against the centralized control of the means of production. In fact, Marx speaks about running things with a worker’s state council, and frankly, you want your factories run by people with big brains who are in on state economic planning, not people who sweep the floor.

          What Chomsky, in his ignorance, is railing against is that the Soviet Union wasn’t anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism, where there really is no government bureaucracy. Anarcho-syndicalism is distinct from socialism, thus the use of a different word for it. He’s essentially screaming that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics wasn’t the Union of Anarcho-Syndicalist Republics.Report

          • Avatar Dan
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            says:

            🤣 No it didn’t. Wow, just… wow you’re dumb. The Soviets couldn’t even select their own leadership. The Soviet Union was more like state capitalism. In socialism there isn’t supposed to be a state. You’ve obviously never read Marx. It’s cringe to watch you keep embarrassing yourself.

            And to re-iterate, as I will in every single reply because it was the only thing I said in the original comment, Chomsky was anti-Stalinist and therefore not a tankie. You got nailed on being dead wrong and now you’re all flustered and trying to divert to all this other crap to try and sound smart and you’re only further revealing how absolutely clueless you are.Report

            • Avatar George Turner
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              says:

              As Reagan said, communists study Marx. Anti-communists understand Marx. As the former head of the US communist party youth wing wrote, “How could so many people believe something so stupid for so long?”

              Of course, Engels had to do most of the work because Marx just hid in his basement writing a bizarre conspiracy theory about what “working” must be like. He wrote a book called “Das Kapital” without even knowing what “capital” was. He thought it was the means of production, but actually it’s deeds and titles in a functioning property system.

              It’s always amusing to see an American who sells surfboard wax in a mall kiosk claiming that he knows more about socialism than the hundreds of millions of people who lived socialism every day. Whose education was built on studying Marx, whose work was erecting giant statues of Marx, and who executed vast numbers of people who weren’t sufficiently on board with Marx.Report

  1. August 25, 2020

    […] recently saw an article in Ordinary Times by Russell Michaels that claimed Chomsky was the first “tankie” or an apologist for authoritarian or totalitarian communist regimes. One potential title to this […]Report

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