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New Left Review I/57, September-October 1969

Noam Chomsky

Linguistics and Politics

It is clear from your writings that you were thinking deeply about politics long before the Vietnam war became a dominant issue in America. Could you tell us something about the background to your present political stand?

I have been involved in politics, intellectually if not always actively, since early childhood. I grew up among the radical Jewish community in New York. This was during the depression and many of my immediate relatives were active in various left-wing and working class movements. The first ‘political’ article I remember writing was in a school newspaper, an article about the fall of Barcelona. The Spanish Civil War, of course, was a major experience from childhood which stuck. I was connected loosely with various types of group, searching for something that was within the marxist or at least revolutionary tradition, but which did not have the elitist aspects which seemed to me then and seem to me today to be disfiguring and destructive. In the ’forties, when I was a teenager, I would hang around left-wing bookshops and the offices of off-beat groups, and periodicals, talking to people—often very perceptive and interesting people who were thinking hard about the problems of social change—and seeing what I could pick up. Then I was much interested in a Jewish organization which was opposed to the Jewish state in Palestine and worked for Arab-Jewish co-operation on a socialist basis. Out of all this, from my relatives and friends, I learned a great deal informally and acquired a certain framework within which my own way of thinking developed. In fact, I more or less got into linguistics this way, through my connections with these political groups. I was very impressed by Zellig Harris, who was the head of the Linguistics Department at the University of Pennsylvania, and I found I had political interests in common with him. He had a kind of semi-anarchist strain to his thought. Then I withdrew during the ’fifties from political involvements, though of course I retained my intellectual interest. I signed petitions, over the Rosenberg case, for instance, and went on occasional demonstrations but it did not amount to much. Then, in the ’sixties, I began to become more active again. Like most people, I had something to do with the civil rights movement. But in retrospect I think I was very slow in getting involved. It was only when the Vietnam war began escalating that I began to take any really active political role. Much too late, I am afraid.

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