Chomsky 1997: The New Party Is a "Social Democratic Version of State Capitalism"

An interview with Noam Chomsky from 1997 has the far-left professor describing his involvement with the New Party at about the time that Barack Obama Obama joined and sought an endorsement from the group. Contrary to claims made by founder Joel Rogers (some of which have been shown to be false), Chomsky says the New Party is not just the left wing of the Democratic Party, but a socialist alternative.

Media Matters has written a post about Kurtz's discovery of some 1996 New Party meeting minutes. MMFA uses Ben Smith's 2008 report to claim the New Party was just the left wing of the Democratic Party:

Rogers described the party's platform including national health insurance and wage insurance, quality education, and environmentalism. Those are positions that basically placed the New Party, ideologically, well within the left half of the Democratic Party. The aim, in fact, was to be the "conscience of the Democratic Party," Rogers said, though they also endorsed the occasional Republican.

As for "socialist"?

"'Socialist' means is you try to whatever extent to move the means of production under public ownership," Rogers said. "The New Party was never about that."

Ben Smith has already admitted that part of his 2008 story was wrong. And I think we've convincingly established that Joel Rogers word shouldn't be trusted on this issue for the rest of it. Fortunately, we don't have to take Rogers' word on the nature of the New Party. In 1997, Noam Chomsky explained what the New Party was and what it's goals were:

Brief comments [on the New Party], because I'm in a rush, and don't want to delay.

1. Am I a member? Yes.

2. Do I think it's a constructive idea? Yes.

3. Is it just a "reform movement within capitalism"? Yes.

4. Am I against capitalism? Yes.

5. Is there a contradiction between 3 and 4? No.

6. How is the New Party different from liberalism? Hard to answer without some clarification. If by "liberalism" is meant the Democratic Party, it is plainly different from liberalism. If what is meant is some kind of social democratic version of state capitalism, presumably not -- at least now, though the project is one that has a possible evolution in mind, and in prospect, I think.

First of all, you can see that in Chomsky's view, the New Party is not part of DNC liberalism. This completely contradicts the thrust of Joel Rogers statement and Media Matter's post relying on it to make the same point.

But after saying what the New Party isn't, Chomsky goes on to say what it is. It is liberalism in the sense of a "social democratic version of state capitalism." Let's unpack this. 

First off, "state capitalism" has a wide range of possible meanings, the majority of which are tied up in Marxism and socialism. However, we should note that Chomsky himself defined state capitalism in a recent interview as something not very different than what we have already in America, i.e. a capitalist system in which the government plays a major role.

But Chomsky didn't identify the New Party as state capitalism, he identified it as "some kind of social democratic version of state capitalism." That narrows things down considerably because "social democracy" is plainly a species of socialism. As Wikipedia notes, the origin of the term is in a specific critique of Marxism:

The social democrats, who had created the largest socialist organizations of that era, did not reject Marxism (and in fact claimed to uphold it), but a number of key individuals wanted to reform Marx's arguments in order to promulgate a less hostile criticism of capitalism. They argued that socialism should be achieved through evolution of society rather than revolution.

If you continue reading, you'll learn that after WWII, most social democrats took the view that capitalism should not be abolished (per Marxism), just controlled by the state, up to and including ownership of the means of production. This idea was especially popular in Europe and led to the development of the kind of social democratic parties that still exist across the continent. Indeed, Chomsky goes on to mention a number of these parties. But ultimately the goal of social democracy is always an evolution toward socialism. Here's Chomsky again:

Should we also try to change institutions? Absolutely. How do we do it?...The natural way to approach these goals is to press to the limits the options available within the institutions, so that people come to understand, from their own thinking and experience, what these institutions are, and how they work. That means what is sometimes ridiculed as "reformism" (including what all of us participating in this forum are doing right now); but it should be considered, in my opinion, the only serious path towards revolutionary change -- at least, for those who want that change to be towards freedom, not new forms of authoritarian domination.

So a "social democratic version of state capitalism" amounts to a reformist socialism (as opposed to revolutionary Marxism) or we might more simply say euro-socialism. That's where Chomsky places the New Party on the spectrum circa 1997 when Barack Obama was a dues paying member. Coincidentally, that's right where some have suggested Barack Obama fits on the political spectrum to this day. Does any of this matter, especially now? I'll address that question in my next post.


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