One of the most annoying traits of nonviolence skeptics is that they tend not to hold violence to the same rigid standard of success. For skeptics, nonviolence must always work right away, after only one attempt. If it doesn’t, then it’s a failure. Can you imagine a US military general giving up on violence after a loss or set back? Of course not. A good general is persistent and learns from his mistakes. So wouldn’t the same be true of a person waging a campaign of nonviolent resistance?
More annoying than the skeptics who take this position, however, are nonviolent activists who give up after a couple failures. It’s as if they believe what the skeptics are telling them, when history clearly shows that nonviolence works, but almost always after a long campaign with many ups and downs. In an interview aired on Democracy Now! yesterday, Noam Chomsky expounded on this point:
You just can’t become involved part-time in these things. It’s either serious and you’re seriously involved, or, you know, you go to a demonstration and go home and forget about it and go back to work, and nothing happens. I mean, things only happen by really dedicated, diligent work. I mean, we’re not allowed to say nice things about the Communist Party, right? That’s like a rule. But one of the reasons why the New Deal legislation worked, you know, which was significant—you know, just changed the country—was because there were people who were there every day. Whether it was a civil rights issue, a labor rights issue, organizing, anything else, they were there, ready to turn the mimeograph machines—no internet—organize demonstrations. They had a memory. You know, the movement had a memory, which it doesn’t have now. Now everyone starts over from fresh. But it had a kind of a tradition, a memory, that people were always there. And if you look back, it was very heavily Communist Party activists. Well, you know, that was destroyed. And it’s one of the—the lack of such a sector of dedicated, committed people who understand that you’re not going to win tomorrow, you know, you’re going to have a lot of defeats, and there’ll be a lot of trouble, you know, and a lot of things will happen that aren’t nice, but if you keep at it, you can get somewhere. That’s why we had a civil rights movement and a labor movement and so on.
The rest of the interview is well worth watching, as Chomsky goes into rare detail of his own activist history during the Vietnam War. Although it’s clear Chomsky believes in nonviolent action, it’s often ancillary to his normal foreign policy talking points. That’s why this interview is so refreshing. It’s a reminder that even the man who knows perhaps the most about the evils of this world hasn’t ever been willing to give up.
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Glad you highlighted this piece as I thought it was one of the most important parts of the interview.
The question is, how do you balance a life of activism with your personal life? The demands of activism are so great on your time that as Chomsky says, its something you either get involved with fully or not at all.
But surely if you go this far, it is to the detriment of the rest of your life. Not a very encouraging prospect.
Hi Nick. Thanks for your comment! I think you posed a really tough, but important question. I’d like to hear what others, especially those who have been active for a long time, have to say about it. I would like to think that becoming a committed activist isn’t something you do to the detriment of the rest of your life. Perhaps someone who wants a cushy retirement in a gated community might think of it as a detriment (not saying you do!), but I think it’s a life with different possible rewards.
Also, to put things in perspective, activism in rich western countries isn’t the same as elsewhere. We risk far less. It may not be “the pleasantest experience,” as Chomsky put it, “but it’s not the kind of risk that dissidents take in other countries.” So, although he means it in sort of a negative sense, most activists in rich Western countries are going to live a pretty normal life.
Hi Bryan, I completely agree that activists in the West have it relatively easy compared to elsewhere. But I wasn’t really talking about the physical threat, more the personal costs that activism entails.
I’m sure Chomsky for example has spent most of his life seeing far less of his family than he would have liked due to his phenomenal activism efforts aside from his lingustics work.
This is what I think Chomsky was talking about when he said: “You just can’t become involved part-time in these things. It’s either serious and you’re seriously involved, or, you know, you go to a demonstration and go home and forget about it and go back to work, and nothing happens.”
It seems activism is an all or nothing choice which is quite intimidating. However, I’m sure Chomsky would say that at the end of the day, it all comes down to how much you personally are prepared to put in. As you say, activism itself has its own rewards that may compensate for what you lose out on personal life wise.
How inappropriate for a man living comfortably on an MIT professor’s salary to make such a statement about “part-time” activists. This is typical arrogant, self-righteous condescension from Chomsky. I have no feelings of inadequacy whatsoever for incorporating my activism into my life, where it holds a solid sacred place alongside my work, which I love, and my family, which I love even more. It makes me a well-rounded, more generous and expansive person, thus strengthening my nonviolent activism rather than diluting it. I will never allow Noam Chomsky to accuse me of being half-hearted or insincere in my efforts. I have not given up, as he sweepingly assumes about us “part-timers”.
That comment from Chomsky is tone-deaf, out-of-touch, and insulting. I wasn’t aware that the number of hours I am supposed to log for my activism has to pass the Chomsky-approved quota. Perhaps he would like to pay my bills? Perhaps he would like to babysit two toddlers? Perhaps the professor should sit down with a single working mother who, miraculously, still manages to find time to attend a demonstration every now and again when she’s able. According to Chomsky’s reasoning, that woman lacks dedication. To me, she is admirable, and making a much more powerful and profound statement with her presence. More powerful than Chomsky ever could from his armchair in Cambridge.
Not only is Chomsky’s comment disjointed and incoherent, like 80% of everything he writes and says, it positively reeks of contempt for people. Ordinary people. That it is spoken from an Ivy-League academic makes it all the more offensive. But I would expect nothing less from a man who callously dismissed the firsthand eyewitness accounts of Cambodian refugees under the Pol Pot regime.