It is only bad to mislead through selective quotation when N. Ferguson does it

A while back I pointed out how Brad Delong naively outsourced his reading of Terry Eagleton to Tyler Cowen. Turns out, Cowen is not a neutral reader, (un)willingly taking sentences out of context to reverse their meaning. A criticism of Stalin is presented as a defense. An argument for democratic control is presented as a case for totalitarian omelete making (cracking a few eggs). I assumed this was a simple accident on Delong’s part. I may have been wrong.

Here is Delong’s recent post quoting Chomsky on violence (italicized is Chomsky; rest is Delong):


The Legitimacy of Violence as a Political Act?, Noam Chomsky debates with Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, et al.:

I think the course of collectivization in China and the Soviet Union can also be instructive. 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.

But everybody except for Hitler, Pol Pot, and the Kims clears the “better than Stalin” bar…


The title of the debate, along with these specific sentences, gives the reader the impression that Chomsky’s goal is to defend some particular instances of violence as legitimate because they are “better than Stalin.” Certainly, if Chomsky’s point was that “better than Stalin” was meaningful grounds for legitimizing violence, Delong would be quite right to be upset. If we follow the actual link we see two things.

First, and this is not a surpise, Chomsky is not a pacifist. He thinks there are legitimate uses of violence. Oh dear. This puts him in the company of Stalin, Hitler, Brad Delong, every single POTUS in history, people who support the existence of prisons, John Brown, and billions of other people. Nothing to see here.

Second, he is comparing China and the Soviet Union to make a very particular point that is in no way apologetic of any state. Here is the full paragraph Delong selects from:

For example, the detailed studies of Viet Cong success, like those of Douglas Pike, indicate quite clearly that the basis for the success, which was enormous, was not the selective terror, but rather the effective organization which drew people into beneficial organizations, organizations that they entered out of self-interest, that they to a large extent controlled, that began to interlace and cover the entire countryside. Other studies also show that it was the attractiveness of their programs for rural Vietnam that led to the NLF successes, which by 1965 had led in effect to their victory. I think the course of collectivization in China and the Soviet Union can also be instructive. 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. And I think the most convincing example — the one about which not enough is known and to which not enough attention is paid — is the anarchist success in Spain in 1936, which was successful at least for a year or two in developing a collective society with mass participation and a very high degree of egalitarianism and even economic success. Its successes, which were great, can be attributed to organization and program, not to such violence as occurred, I believe.

Do the sentences Delong selects do a good job making Chomsky look bad to a liberal-progressive audience? Sure. Do the sentences Delong selects represent the argument Chomsky is making? Surely not. If Chomsky is such an apologist for state violence (as long as it is “better than Stalin”) why is the most convincing case anarchist Spain? If anarchist Spain is his most “convincing example,” why doesn’t Delong include that in the original quote? Oh yeah, because Chomsky’s point is clearly the opposite of what Delong wants to present it as. After recognizing that there are some legitimate uses of violence, Chomsky is actually hedging his claim. Violence is legitimate if it helps avoid a greater violence. Chomsky accepts that, but also points out that in many cases political success is dependent on non-violence; in these cases violence is counterproductive, unneccessary, and therefore unjustifiable. He is making the case for taking non-violent activity more seriously, and being more critical of the exercise of violence. The point is not that China was less violent, therefore above reproach. He is saying that China being both less violent and more just than the Soviet Union is not a coincidence, but rather evidence that we should seek even less violent means to produce even more just results. Let us let Chomsky continue (very next paragraph):

Such examples seem to suggest that there is a relationship between absence of terror and the degree of organization, meaningful programs and spontaneity, on the one hand, and success in achieving a just society on the other. This is a sort of Luxembourgian and anarchist conception, that a just society cannot really be imposed on the masses of people but must arise out of their own spontaneous efforts, guided by their own developing insight. I think that this is a valid conception which has some support from modern history. A final case I’d like to refer to is the anti-war movement in the United States, where I think the argument for nonviolence is overwhelming — so overwhelming that I don’t think I need argue it here.

Yup. Chomsky sure loves state terror.

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