When people fear the government, there is tyranny.
When government fears the people, there is liberty.
- Thomas Paine


Alan Spector

The following was an off-the-cuff e-mail response during a debate on the Progressive Sociology Network. It should be considered as such, a point of debate, rather than as a carefully developed, documented analysis.

While I would also defend Chomsky from the pro-imperialist critiques made of his analysis, I also see in Chomsky some "ordinary liberalism" posing as anarchism. (Or maybe they are not so different either?) Marxism is often critiqued as being "totalizing" or attempting to fit facts arbitrarily into an over-deterministic analysis, and that is certainly a valid critique of many in the Marxist tradition.

But its overall analysis has proven quite durable, even capable of explaining the collapse of socialism. In any case, I believe it is flexible enough to account for change without being so flexible as to have to abandon its root propositions that the exploitation of labor is the cause of alienation and class struggle, with all the twists and turns and different ways that expresses itself in human social life. Reductionism, which reduces complex social processes and organizations to either a one-dimensional "economic" striving for money or food by individual humans OR to psychological/cultural artifacts that are irreducible both stand in the way of developing a more accurate understanding of these complex interactions. Marxism can be the framework for this, but Marxism is more than just the dialectical method; what is distinctive about Marxism is its strong connection to the "political-economic" processes of the control of some people by others (classes) by the control/exploitation of their labor.

In contrast are the many analysts who still look at the world in terms of "good guys and bad guys." This often devolves into a kind of simplistic psychological determinism posing as a complex analytical rejection of economic determinism, and where the term "relative autonomy" ends up being a rather extreme "autonomy", with barely a slender thread connecting it to the roots of alienation, the control of people by other people, primarily through the control over their labor. So instead, there are "bad guys" and "good guys" (or "enlightened folks" versus "un?/pre? anti-enlightened folks”?)

In my opinion, that is what the pro-US military "Marxists" do, but in a way, that is what Chomsky (and of course Nader and others) also do. Because their bad guys are often the same as my bad guys, I sometimes tend to overlook that weakness. On the individual level, it is vitally important to understand what the motivations of actors are. But without an understanding of how huge social events are connected to the broader political-economic processes--capitalism/imperialism (not simply "globalization") at this point in history, we can err on the side of simplistically ending up with "heroes and villains." This can be quite psychologically satisfying (for some on the Left as well as the Mainstream and the Right), but it resonates with a core ideological underpinning of capitalist propaganda.

The conflict over Afghanistan is "fundamentally" tied to the control of wealth. Just as the anti-U.S. forces are relying on a metaphysical ideology (religion) to motivate their soldiers, so to are the pro-U.S. forces relying on a metaphysical ideology ("We are the champions of the Enlightenment...or at least we pay lip service to that and its better to deal with liars who pretend to believe in liberal values than those who explicitly reject them!") (Understanding how and why these ideologies motivate people is of course extremely important.)

The belief in a "core goodness" of some part of U.S. imperialism because it currently tolerates some liberal freedoms for some in the U.S. is as much mysticism as the belief that Jesus or Allah or Jehovah is supporting one or another group of warriors. The consistent evidence of terror and brutality caused by imperialism should be overwhelming enough evidence of that.

But back to the first point: to the extent that some on the Left (whether "Left-Left" like Chomsky or "Right-Left" like Hitchens and some on PSN) rely on "good guys and bad guys" as the heart of their analysis, they will help lead people away from understanding what it takes to fundamentally change the world.

Alan Spector ( is Professor of Sociology at Purdue University Calumet. He has been an anti-imperialist activist for thirty years and is former chair of the Section on Marxist Sociology of the American Sociological Association. This piece has been carried with the permission of the author.



 Current Issue

 The Blanket