Selected by author and environmental activist Elaine Graham-Leigh
Born in the early 1970s, I am a child of the Cold War. Like many of my generation, I spent countless nights in my childhood lying awake worrying about nuclear war. I’m also a child of an extremely right-wing family, so it was very definitely Russian nuclear bombs I was afraid of. My dad’s verdict on the Miners’ Strike was that Arthur Scargill wanted the Russians to win. I couldn’t quite understand why Scargill would want the Russians to nuke him along with the rest of Britain, but then, adults can be incomprehensible when you’re ten.
I had never heard of Chomsky when as a young adult I came across Deterring Democracy in the public library, but I was beginning to think that I might be interested in politics, so decided to give it a try. It was a couple of chapters into Chomsky’s analysis of US imperialism that the realisation hit me. All those years I had spent fearing the Russians, it was the Americans I should have been worrying about.
Chomsky sets out with unsparing clarity how the idea of the Cold War as ‘a conflict between the forces of light and darkness’ with which I grew up was not an assessment of reality but a construct serving US imperial interests. The ‘superpower conflict of the conventional portrayal has been real enough’ Chomsky argues, ‘but is only a fraction of the truth.’ The truth here includes Chomsky’s analysis not just of US policy towards the USSR, but of US empire building around the globe.
Particularly eye-opening to me were the chapters on US involvement in south and central America. The right-wing media I knew presented countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras either as victims of Soviet meddling, or as inherently violent and unstable by virtue of not being English. Understanding the US role in ‘the hundreds of thousands of corpses, the disappeared, the countless victims of torture, starvation, disease and semi-slave labor’ made it all suddenly make much more sense.
Chomsky’s approach is not without its flaws. It is clearly true that US and other Western governments have particular ideological stances which are pushed out through and reflected in the mainstream media, political commentary, historical writing and so on. In examining this, Chomsky can however sometimes slip into a way of looking at it which verges on the conspiratorial, and which over-simplifies the way in which the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas in society.
Chomsky also has a tendency to minimise the potential for fighting back and the role of the class struggle. As I read more Chomsky, the main frustration was how little indication he gave about what we should try to do about the imperialism he was exposing. His conclusion tended to be ‘just organise’, to which I always wanted to reply, ‘that’s fine, Noam, but how?’ This was less than obvious in the mid-late nineties, before the dawn of the anti-globalisation movement and the founding of Stop the War provided the answer I was looking for.
The central lesson of Chomsky’s work however is that imperialism remains central to the system we’re fighting. If we think that we can fight against austerity and neoliberalism at home without also opposing imperialist wars abroad, we will lose. I remain grateful to Deterring Democracy for teaching me that, and to the public library without which I would never have found it.
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now.
More articles from this author
- Dead Epidemiologists. On the origins of COVID-19 - book review
- Where does sexism come from? - Marxism and Women's Liberation excerpt
- Too Hot to Handle? The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change - book review
- Bit Tyrants: The Political Economy of Silicon Valley - book review
- The limits of identity politics - video
- Dust Bowls of Empire. Imperialism, Environmental Politics and Injustice of ‘Green’ Capitalism - book review
- Is a society without oppression possible? - explainer