So there's this guy by the name of Paul Bogdanor that apparently has as his mission to discredit Noam Chomsky. I have no real problem with that in principle. If you think somebody harms the world by misleading people and you think discrediting them would help prevent others from being led astray I suppose that's fine.
As an admirer of Chomsky I'm frequently pointed to Bogdanor's work in refutation of Chomsky. Bogdanor is published. In fact he contributed to an anti-Chomsky book by David Horowitz. Whatever one may think of Horowitz, you have to admit he's at least a fairly prominent pundit. So one might on the surface not expect Bogdanor to be a complete hack. Or would you? I guess I'm trying to say that there are degrees of lunacy. Arch neocons like Horowitz of course are not well reasoned people, but while I think Horowitz is way off base he is frequently in the media, has published some widely read books, etc. So it's not like he's completely bonkers.
So I'm told to go look at Bogdanor's Top 200 Chomsky Lies. And so I have. Wow. It's really bad. This is not really worth responding to.
But on the other hand I am regularly pointed to this by Chomsky's critics. Perhaps it would be useful to take some time and address it. Maybe just some of it. To give a sense of how bad it is. That way I can at least have something to point to to explain why considering Bogdanor is not worthwhile.
So here I'm going to respond to the first 10 lies and then maybe in the future I'll respond to more. Or maybe I won't.
OK, so the first thing that needs to be kept in mind when addressing Chomsky's 200 supposed lies is this. What is a lie? If someone disagrees with me, does that mean they are lying? Obviously not. What if they rely on a source and that source turns out to be wrong. Is that a lie? I think it's pretty obvious that it is not.
What if someone makes an error? Does that mean they lied? What if they won't admit their error? That's not a lie. It could be a character defect. It could be worthy of criticism. But it's not a lie. Dictionary.com says that a lie is "a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive." It seems to me that merely knowing what a lie is would shrink Paul's list down to about nothing. But I haven't yet read them all, so we'll see. Here are his "lies" with Chomsky's words in blue, Bogdanor's in red, and mine in black. Bogdanor presents these in a countdown fashion, starting with 10 and ending with 1. I'm going to start with 1 just because it is so outrageous and must be emphasized. I'll take the remainder in the order they come from Bogdanor.
And these first 10 "lies" are under a section "10 Chomsky Lies About Communist Mass Murderers – General"
1. The Lie: “Of course, no one supposed that Mao literally murdered tens of millions of people, or that he ‘intended’ that any die at all.”20
The Truth: Mao spoke of sacrificing 300 million people, or half of China’s population. He warned that the policies he later adopted would kill 50 million people. Grain exported by the communists was sufficient to feed the numbers who starved to death, which they privately estimated at 30 million.21
This one is repeated constantly in discussion forums and blog comment sections as an example of Chomsky apologetics for Communist atrocities. In isolation it does sort of look like that. Bogdanor doesn't actually say that this is what Chomsky is doing. He presents it as if Chomsky thinks Mao wasn't expecting people to die from his policies. So we get a double whammy here. It's presented in a way that leads someone to have a mistaken understanding of Chomsky's views regarding Mao and secondly it's further mischaracterized by Bogdanor.
The solution as is typical is to just read what Chomsky said in context, which you can do here. But I'll summarize Chomsky's point.
Mao instituted polices that lead to famines in China. These killed tens of millions of people. Did Mao set out to starve people? No. What he did was he instituted polices that he knew would lead to massive death. But for him that was worth it. If he could have done it without killing so many he probably would have. But this does not absolve him. He is still guilty and justly condemned for this action.
In the same way Clinton bombed a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan. Did he do it because he wanted to see poor Africans die? Obviously not. But this is the only source for life saving drugs for many poor Africans. Clinton would know that large scale death would result. But he thought it was worth it. The fact that he would have probably preferred to avoid killing many thousands of poor Africans does not absolve him. He engaged in actions that lead to that predictable result. Just as we rightly condemn Mao for tens of millions of starved Chinese peasants we should apply the same principles to our own side. Or if anything we should be even more condemnatory towards our side since these are the ones we can control and are responsible for.
For Chomsky the emphasis is on the fact that Mao cannot be absolved. Bogdanor turns it into a quote that makes it appear that Chomsky is in fact attempting to absolve Mao. He further critiques it as if Chomsky is unaware that massive death was the predictable consequence of Mao's policies. I'd be tempted to call Bogdanor a liar, but in truth I expect he's just lazy.
10. The Lie: “in comparison to the conditions imposed by US tyranny and violence, East Europe under Russian rule was practically a paradise.”
The Truth: The communists murdered 4 million people in the Ukraine; 753,000 in Poland; 360,000 in Romania; 300,000 in Belarus; 200,000 in Hungary; 100,000 in East Germany; 100,000 in Lithuania; 70,000-100,000 in Yugoslavia; 30,000-40,000 in Bulgaria; 20,000 in Czechoslovakia; and 5,000 in Albania. Other atrocities included the murder of over 500,000 POWs in Soviet captivity and the mass rape of at least 2 million women by the Red Army.
The source is available here. The context is a speech a speech in Congress by Vaclav Havel who contrasted the Soviet Union and the US as one being a nightmare the other a defender of freedom, to great applause. Chomsky is not one to deny that the Soviet Union was a hideous and murderous regime. His point is that the US is a very murderous regime as well, and likewise a nightmare for many that suffer under its boot. The cartoonish presentation from Havel and self congratulation of those in Washington is kind of hard to take.
He asks us to consider Southeast Asia, Central America, and the West Bank. The West Bank is regarded as the world's largest open air prison by many respectable people. Malnourishment is severe. Unemployment is around 40%. Occasionally bombs are falling. The Soviet Union cannot claim a bombing campaign against any country that is on the scale perpetuated against Southeast Asia for their crime of preferring the wrong government. And in Haiti, with 70% unemployment where the lucky employed at the time Chomsky wrote this were making 38 cents per day, had a Haitian went to sleep and woke up in Poland, with high employment levels, state provided health services, and a functioning education system, they'd have probably thought they'd died and woke up in Paradise.
That's not to say that the Soviet Union was not responsible for massive atrocities. But in some places where US tyranny and violence is imposed, things are actually worse. I'd say that assessment, rather than being a lie, would more accurately be described as the truth. But if you don't agree that's fine. Reasonable people might not reach the same judgments on matters like this. So in other words one could decide that Chomsky is wrong, but you couldn't say that he lied.
9. The Lie: “Western norms require that we compare Eastern and Western Europe to demonstrate our virtue and their vileness, a childish absurdity… Elementary rationality would lead someone interested in alternative social and economic paths to compare societies that were more or less alike before the Cold War began, say Russia or Brazil… Such comparisons, if honestly undertaken, would elicit some self-reflection among decent people…”
The Truth: In Russia, Lenin’s food confiscations inflicted famine on over 33 million people, including 7 million children, and left 4-5 million dead; Stalin’s assault on the peasants killed another 8.5 million, half of them children.4 Brazil experienced nothing of the kind.
What is the relevance of listing various Soviet crimes? The point is that saying "Our culture is so much better because Britain is a better place to live than the Ukraine" is silly because Britain has been different for centuries. Russia and Brazil started at similar places prior to the Cold War. Since then Brazil has been subjected to US domination and Russia has been subjected to Soviet domination. In some ways perhaps Brazil is better, but in other ways (economically, with regards to access to health services) Russia is better. Honest comparison require that we consider countries that started from similar places. How is this a lie?
8. The Lie: “Internal [Soviet] crimes abated [after 1945]; though remaining very serious they were scarcely at the level of typical American satellites, a commonplace in the Third World, where the norms of Western propriety do not hold.”
The Truth: In 1947, the Soviets withheld food from famine victims, causing up to 1.5 million deaths.6 During 1945-53, there were over 300,000 officially recorded deaths in the Gulag; by 1953, the slave population exceeded 5.2 million.7 No American satellite – whether in Europe or in Latin America – was guilty of anything even remotely comparable.
Take a look at what Chomsky offers in the context of this quote. Some evidence, this time in the form of testimony from a Guatemalan refugee, that in fact his assessment as we approach the 90's was true. Reasonable people might disagree. Chomsky if he were so inclined might offer additional evidence to support his claim. Bogdanor might offer counter evidence. All good. It's not a lie in any case.
7 The Lie: “In the Soviet sphere of influence, torture appears to have been on the decline since the death of Stalin… Since it has declined in the Soviet sphere since the death of Stalin, it would appear that this cancerous growth is largely a Free World phenomenon.”8
The Truth: Until the late 1980s, the Soviets ran 1,000 concentration camps where at least 2 million inmates endured constant violence. Torture was systematic in Soviet satellites in the Third World.9
Chomsky cites an Amnesty International report to justify his claim. Regurgitating the findings of respectable investigative human rights agencies is not lying.
6. The Lie: “Imagine the reaction if the Soviet police were to deal with refuseniks in any way comparable to the Israeli [anti-riot] practices that briefly reached the television screens.”10
The Truth: The Soviet police held 10,000 dissidents in psychiatric prisons and concentration camps. An estimated 50,000 were sent to uranium mines to die of radiation poisoning.11 Such practices elicited no reaction because the Soviets did not allow them to reach the television screens.
How is it a lie to imagine how people would react to certain violent images? Who is denying that the Soviets did in fact murder these thousands and more? Who is denying that they prevented such images from being broadcast? Nobody. But we should consider how we might have reacted if the images in fact had been broadcast. It's bizarre that Bogdanor regards this as a lie.
5.The Lie: “[Regarding] China’s actions in Tibet… it is a bit too simple to say that ‘China did indeed take over a country that did not want to be taken over.’ This is by no means the general view of Western scholarship.”12
The Truth: The Chinese invasion provoked massive popular uprisings. Mao welcomed the Tibetan resistance because it could be crushed by force. State terror and man-made famine had killed up to 500,000 Tibetans by the mid-1960s.13
Once again Chomsky goes on to source that claim and otherwise discuss the complexities of regarding it as expansionist. If Chomsky has been misled by his sources (Ginsburgs and Mathos) this cannot be called a lie.
4 The Lie: “It’s clear, I believe, that the emphasis on the use of terror and violence in China was considerably less than in the Soviet Union and that the success was considerably greater in achieving a just society.”14
The Truth: China’s communists officially stated that they had executed 800,000 in the first few years of their dictatorship; unofficially, they admitted to the massacre of 2 million in just one year. Concentration camps held an estimated 8 million, with 280,000 killed annually. The communists publicly declared that they had persecuted 20-30 million as class enemies in their first decade and that there were 100 million victims of the Cultural Revolution.15
What happened in China was really bad, but a reasonable person might have regarded what happened in the Soviet Union at that point as worse, especially given that Chomsky wrote this in 1971. Strange that this is regarded as a lie.
3-The Lie: “There are many things to object to in any society. But take China, modern China; one also finds many things that are really quite admirable… [In China] a good deal of the collectivization and communization was really based on mass participation and took place after a level of understanding had been reached in the peasantry that led to this next step.”16
The Truth: The communists reduced 550 million peasants to slavery. They forced at least 90
million to work on furnace-building projects alone. When famine resulted, they cut the food ration and used mass terror to stop the peasants eating their own harvest. Victims, including children, were tortured, buried alive, strangled or mutilated.17
I think to pretend that any one society fits neatly into a category of "pure evil" is really kind of infantile. You really aren't going to be able to find any society about which something positive can't be said. If pointing that out makes someone a liar then stating truths is lying. Nobody is disputing that the communists reduced 550 million peasants to slavery and engaged in a myriad of other horrors. Despite that there are obviously going to be SOME positive things that can be said about Chinese society at that time.
Chomsky wrote this in 1971, praising some of the structures that had been developed by that time. Note the reference to "modern" China. What has happened in China since then? Only the most massive reduction in poverty that has ever happened in human history. GDP/person in inflation adjusted dollars was $700 in China in 1971. By 2009 it had increased 10 fold. If you can't say something good about that society you are blind. This does not undo the past and present horrors, which are real and are acknowledged by Chomsky. But you can still draw lessons from their society.
2-The Lie: “Also relevant is the history of collectivization in China, which, as compared with the Soviet Union, shows a much higher reliance on persuasion and mutual aid than on force and terror, and appears to have been more successful.”18
The Truth: Its culmination was the Great Leap Forward, the worst man-made catastrophe in history, in which 30 million died.19
I think it's worth looking at the full quote here. After the word "successful" we get this: "See Thomas P. Bernstein, "Leadership and Mass Mobilization in the Soviet and Chinese Collectivization Campaigns of 1929-30 and 1955-56: A Comparison," China Quarterly, No. 31 (July-September 1967), pp. 1-47, for some interesting and suggestive comments and analysis."
So what is Chomsky saying? Collectivization in China was more successful than in the Soviet Union and likewise China was more reliant on persuasion and mutual aid. Does this mean that Chinese policies didn't induce massive famines or massive purges as well? No. Does Bogdanor present any reason for concluding that Chomsky's assessment is wrong? Once again no. He cites his source, which presumably would back his claim. If his source is wrong or if he's misused it, go out and prove it. To just respond to every non-nefarious observation about China with "But so many in China died" is beside the point.
I frankly don't see a single lie here. Bogdanor would think Chomsky is wrong on some of these points. I wouldn't agree with him. But how are these lies?