Noam Chomsky Responds to Chris Knight’s book, Decoding Chomsky: Science and revolutionary politics

by Chris Knight on October 13, 2016


In a British Columbia university radio show, Noam Chomsky has now responded to Chris Knight’s new book, Decoding Chomsky, science and revolutionary politics:

Knight makes an assumption common to those who [are] unfamiliar with government science-technology policy and know nothing about institutions like MIT.

At the time, MIT was almost entirely funded by the military, including the music department, etc. The modern advanced economy was created substantially by government funding in one or another way, often by Pentagon funding of research universities. There was zero military work on campus. You can find the facts from the Pound Commission report on the topic in 1969. Nor did the military involve themselves in any way in what was going on. That of course included my work. Or, for example, the work of colleagues studying American Indian languages, translating work of Wilhelm von Humboldt, etc. Knight is also deeply confused about the work on linguistics that I and others are doing. I explained it to him in response to an email request from him, but he plainly doesn’t understand. Thus he opens with a profound confusion about “universal grammar,” the technical term used for the genetic component of the human language faculty. He thinks this has something to do with some kind of “universal language” that he believes the military were interested in. There was no interest of the sort, and if there had been, it would have had nothing at all to do with our studies of universal grammar. It goes on like that. The whole story is a wreck.

In fact, the Pentagon had so little concern with what we and others were doing that they paid no attention to the fact that our lab also happened to be one of the major academic centers of resistance to the Vietnam war from the early ‘60s, or the fact that I was brought to trial for these activities.

In brief, complete nonsense throughout.[1]

* * * * *

Chris Knight has responded to Chomsky’s statement:

‘There was zero military work on campus’, Noam Chomsky claims in reference to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 1960s. This statement is surprising, since it directly contradicts numerous statements that Chomsky has made in the past. Chomsky knows very well that for 70 years, the majority of scientific research at MIT has been directly involved in the development of military technology.[2]

Naturally, most of this military research was not done in classrooms but in specialised laboratories. This has enabled MIT’s managers to describe these labs as ‘off campus’, even though, as Chomsky himself has said, some of them were only ‘two inches off campus. The labs right next door were doing classified work and people were between [the campus and the labs] all the time.’[3]

The Pounds Commission report – that Chomsky refers to – says that a number of these labs were officially part of the MIT’s School of Engineering and that approximately 500 students worked at various ‘off campus’ military labs.[4]

These military laboratories were so much part of MIT’s campus life that Chomsky himself has said that in the 1960s, ‘there was extensive weapons research on the MIT campus. There were laboratories at MIT that were involved, for example, in the development of the technology that’s used for ballistic missiles, and so on. In fact, a good deal of the missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus and in laboratories run by the university.’[5]

Since the 1960s, most military research at MIT has been done ‘off campus’. However, in the 1980s, MIT’s ‘on campus’ military research still included work on missile guidance, army helicopters and radar for ‘Star Wars’ projects and, more recently, it seems to have included work on robots, drones and ‘battle suits’ for chemical and biological warfare.[6]

Of course, any research establishment that only did applied science would soon run out of new ideas. So the Pentagon knew it had to fund pure science at MIT and elsewhere if it was to remain the world’s No.1 military machine. One side effect of this was that Pentagon funded research has produced many scientific innovations that still have no military use; this includes Chomsky’s linguistics. But that doesn’t mean that the direction of this linguistics wasn’t affected – especially in its formative years – by the vast military funding of both his own laboratory and of MIT as a whole.

Unfortunately, in another response to my book in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Chomsky appears to dismiss this whole issue by saying that ‘there was precisely zero pressure [from the Pentagon].’[7] However, it is notable that anti-militarist students at MIT have looked at things rather differently. For example, in 2001, Michael Borucke wrote:

‘Overt demands on a university are not the only way to influence what can and can’t be done here. The very nature of funding sources themselves also limits the scope of research. It is not likely that the [Dept. of Defense] will fund research it can’t use for military purposes. Faculty must necessarily change the focus of their research if they want DoD contracts.’

In 1985, Rich Cowan was equally critical about ‘MIT’s massive military research budget’. He wrote that ‘[university] military research focuses attention and manpower away from areas that do not have perceived military application.’ He then went on to point out that ‘military funding not only affects the size of academic departments, but also the biases [of] research areas explored.’[8]

Chomsky has been at MIT for 60 years, so perhaps it is not surprising that he finds it difficult to view his university with the critical eye shown by these students. But that is no reason for the rest of us not to confront the realities of MIT or, indeed, the realities of Chomsky’s career and its many contradictions. My book is probably the first to attempt this. I would ask anyone fascinated by Noam’s writings, as I am, to give my book a go – even if Noam does dismiss it as ‘complete nonsense’!


’Chomsky’s Carburetor’ – an interview with Chris Knight.

MIT Briefing Book, 2015, p52.

Science, 9/5/69 p653; ‘Interview with Noam Chomsky’, Works And Days 51-4: Vol. 26/27, 2008-09, p530.

MIT Review Panel on Special Laboratories, p59-69. This part of the report is co-signed by Chomsky.

C.P.Otero, Noam Chomsky: Language and Politics p216.

The Tech, Vol.109 no.6, 24/2/89, p5; MIT News 29/5/15 and 14/11/12 and 23/4/02.

‘The Chomsky Puzzle’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25/8/16.

The Tech, Vol.121. No.38, 29/8/01; Vol.105 no.17, 12/4/85, p5-6.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Fred Welfare October 13, 2016 at 4:25 pm

It does seem disingenuous of Chomsky to claim that MIT is funded by the military and yet does not do any military relevant research. It is also peculiar that Chomsky is tolerated at MIT despite the University’s relationship to military funding. But, it should be clear to readers that despite protests against US military or US government interventions around the world, polls indicate widespread support by the people of US military operations even during the height of the Vietnam War and the plethora of protest demonstrations.


Hansoni October 13, 2016 at 10:36 pm

The premise does appear to be reaching a bit. Military funding or no, there really is no military application to Chomsky’s work. Any Tier 1 research university is going to have government and military funded projects and labs, but they’re still universities.

I have huge respect for Chomsky’s intellectual abilities, his contributions to scholarship, and his welcome focus on citing sources as part of dialectics. He is a go-to in understanding the mechanisms of imperialism and neo-liberalism. He is not, however, a coherent source of inspiration for Anarchist theory — he appears muddled and compromised in those areas. So credit where due, but Chomsky should be side eyed when he goes Lesser Evil.

But then I recommend a very critical approach to Knight’s premise as it appears stretched fairly thin, and I’m also unsure what the motivation even is. Chomsky unquestionably has been a thorn in the side of the very military complex he’s painted as having a tangled relationship with. He has done them no favors.


Rich R. October 14, 2016 at 4:37 pm

Could you please provide a direct link to the interview from the “British Columbia university radio show”? Thank you.


Nim October 18, 2016 at 1:28 pm

The British Columbia radio show is here.

This show is a good introduction to the ‘premise’ and ‘motivation’ for Knight’s book (which is largely a critique of Chomsky’s linguistics from a Marxist perspective). Chapter 1 of the book is available here.

Chomsky has recently spoken about MIT’s military funding on ‘Ralph Nader’s Radio Hour’. On the show, although Chomsky talks about the 1969 student protests against MIT’s military labs, he also claims that MIT’s military funding was ‘not for war work’.

For another view, see this article by one of the participants in these protests:
Stephen Shalom, New Politics, Vol.6(3) No.23.

Or see a wider range of sources here:
‘Readings and photos from the student uprising at Chomsky’s university, MIT, 1967-1972’.


Manuel December 13, 2016 at 2:10 pm

Hmm? I thought the most salient part of Knight’s thesis is his “decoding” of Chomsky’s theories and that the connection with the Defense establishment was that it served the military-industrial complex well to have a theory of linguistics that gave intellectual cover for computer intelligence systems and related concepts?
Did I miss something here?


Aulian Jassange January 14, 2017 at 1:52 pm

not quite. his thesis is more that Chomsky’s focus on language as something that can be located (almost physically, although this is not always clear in Chomsky’s writing) in the biological individual displaced a host of theories that were far more focused on language as a social phenomenon, and that the entire intelligence-defense apparatus was waiting for such a theory to come along. The way Chomsky derided so much of the linguistics that came before him from the anthropological and social perspectives, especially associated with figures like Boas, Sapir, and Bloomfield, happened to serve a number of state/military interests that are also seen operating in other intellectual movements at that time (e.g. analytic philosophy) where critical work has uncovered fairly direct engagement by parts of the defense & intelligence apparatus. The overall goal was to tamp down the amount of political engagement found in fields like philosophy & linguistics because they were seen to engage too closely with Marxism and other social-critical practices. Chomsky happened to be the right guy in the right place at the right time for an intellectual revolution that, in retrospect, is very hard to reconcile with his politics.


Manuel January 14, 2017 at 2:46 pm

Thanks, I think my over-simplification was really intended to say something similar, Aulian. I am wondering how others see Knight’s analysis as coinciding with that of Everett ( ?


Red Allover December 19, 2016 at 4:58 am

No one seems to notice that Mr. Chomsky is a life long anti-Communist activist who hates what he calls “Leninist tyranny” just as much as any right winger. Let’s take the Vietnam War. Were he put in Mr. McNamara position how would his activities differ?
Presumably a Defense Secretary Chomsky would have fought Communism less violently or been less hypocritical in justifying such violence. But given his implacable hatred of the Communist enemy how much would his actions have differed?
That a typical petty bourgeois intellectual with his ignorance of revolutionary theory and his utterly reactionary idea of innate language knowledge–putting him to the right, philosophically of Thomas Aquinas–should be considered an intellectual hero by the American left shows how right wing and ignorant they are without knowing it!


Manuel December 19, 2016 at 11:32 am

I would be interested in any writings, interviews, or other forums from Chris Knight elaborating on his critique on Chomsky’s theories of an in linguistics. I would also welcome other citations from other authors as well. As far as Chomsky being a “thorn in the side” of military establishments, I would say he has played more of superficial thistle spear easily removed or brushed away. Chomsky appears “leftist” because the liberal bourgeois are so conservative and the sectarian left appear so insane and, especially on Syria, but not only there are such reactionaries when it comes to actual people struggling in the erratic ways “we” do given the nature of the world stage and every unevenly developed country. It’s not surprising that even some purported leftists water at the mouth when they hear some academic with well-heeled credentials (you know, from the military-influenced academy and what passes for intellectualism among U.S. and even European academics) spout off “against imperialism”. Those same over-thirsty-for-legitimacy liberals parading around as leftists often ignore Chomsky’s rightist attitudes to actual revolutionary politics and condescending–at best–attitude to struggles of the Palestinian people and others such in the Middle East. Chomsky serves a useful idiot for the bourgeoisie because he offers apparent “criticism” but in truth is a loyal opposition and not much more. He “deplores” oppression, but his prognoses offer no true solutions.


Manuel December 19, 2016 at 11:33 am

Sorry, I meant to say “of and in” linguistics


patrickmul December 26, 2016 at 12:37 am

I think Noam is on this occasion spot on with the comment ‘The whole story is a wreck.’ but so is his shattered stand over the liberation of the Iraqi peoples from the former tyranny. ‘His’ so called peace movement went from big to little because the whole story that it desperately tried to cobble together became a wreck and that movement split on every major event after the liberation was achieved with the overthrow of the Baath tyranny. It began with the refusal to recognize the US change of policy and the dogmatic pronouncements that what the world was seeing was just business as usual.

The situation has now descended to the wreckage of a ‘anti-imperialist’ pseudoleft that backs a rat like Assad.
‘It is now a decade after the 2005 series of elections in Iraq disproved Chomsky’s original narrative and the struggle against tyranny across the whole region is raging; so the following compilation article (comprised of newspaper articles, interview transcripts and blog comments etc.) is here updated and rewritten to place on record a more thorough repudiation of the Znet /Chomsky approach to the Iraq war, both at the time and currently. ‘

If people want to think this attack on the Chomsky line through and openly debate be prepared for a large dose of cognitive dissonance. IMV Syria has totally bankrupted your Neverland ‘movement’ but it was the walking dead when at it’s largest at the start of 2003. My claim is that ‘Draining the swamp’ theory is now the only argument still standing, and most of you are not even aware of what that argument is.


Bob Black January 14, 2017 at 1:24 pm

Chris Knight’s book makes many points I made, usually in other ways, in “Chomsky on the Nod,” in my book Defacing the Currency (2013). It interested me, but not Chris Night, that Chomsky’s anarchism (which he concealed into the 1980s) is bogus. Chomsky advocates a sort of national syndicalist state ruled from the “plan factory,” with centralized “financial institutions” and wage-labor. For the Third World, which is conveniently distant, he has always defended Third World authoritarian nationalists with Marxist intellectuals as leaders (Chomsky is really a Marxist, although not a very good one): Mao’s China, Ho’s Vietnam, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, etc. But for here, is loudly anti-revolutionary, because we have elections, so, the system is reformable. He always votes for Democrats, although historically anarchists have been abstentionist. In the 1990’s he favored increasing the powers of the Federal government, something he no longer repeats but (like his many previous linguistics theories) he has never repudiated. He told the Occupy movement, in effect, to go home.


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