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Noam Chomsky on the importance of persistence


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.