Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Unsuspected competence

I have been revisiting Noam Chomsky's essay, 'Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship' (*), which largely deals with the Spanish Civil War. It reaches broadly the same conclusions as, say, Orwell in his 1942 essay, 'Looking Back on the Spanish War' or Anthony Beevor in his 1982 book. In fact, despite Chomsky's complaint about "the elitist bias that dominates the writing of history", it is not unfair to describe this as a new "accepted wisdom", as a review of 8 Mar 2006 in the Morning Star does.

The specific context for Chomsky's essay is the publication of Gabriel Jackson's The Spanish Republic and the Civil War: 1931-1939 (Princeton, 1965), from which Chomsky quotes (p89):
"the revolutionary tide began to ebb in Catalonia" after "accumulating food and supply problems, and the experience of administering villages, frontier posts, and public utilities, had rapidly shown the anarchists the unsuspected complexity of modern society" (pp. 313-14).
Chomsky picks up this idea of "unsuspected complexity", chasing the hapless phrase down the pages, twisting the knife and culminating with 
So far as the frontier posts are concerned, the situation, as Jackson elsewhere describes it (p. 368), was basically as follows: "In Catalonia the anarchists had, ever since July 18, controlled the customs stations at the French border. On April 17, 1937, the reorganized carabineros, acting on orders of the Finance Minister, Juan Negrin, began to reoccupy the frontier. At least eight anarchists were killed in clashes with the carabineros." Apart from this difficulty, admittedly serious, there seems little reason to suppose that the problem of manning frontier posts contributed to the ebbing of the revolutionary tide. The available records do not indicate that the problems of administering villages or public utilities were either "unsuspected" or too complex for the Catalonian workers— a remarkable and unsuspected development, but one which nevertheless appears to be borne out by the evidence available to us. [p97]
At his best, Chomsky is quite good, which makes it all the more annoying when most of the time he is such a transparent fabricator.

*  American Power and the New Mandarins, Vintage Books / Random House, 1969. I gave a link to an online version in my previous post. I have no wish to undermine Chomsky's intellectual property, which may be a sort of pension for him, but if you wish to see the footnotes, you may care to try the hint I gave at the end here.

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