Book review: ‘Hegemony or Survival’ by Noam Chomsky

This article first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Socialism and Liberation magazine. 

In the fervor following the victorious 1917 socialist revolution in Russia, a new form of diplomacy was born. Men and women, who had spent decades in the underground revolutionary movement, meeting with workers in factories and soldiers on the battlefield, were now statespeople with a world forum.

Whereas before that date diplomacy meant stodgy speeches meant for the elite and their bureaucrats, revolutionary


Chomsky criticizes U.S. hegemony and “preemptive war.” Here, U.S. troops in Iraq.

Photo: Reuters/Khaled Al-Mousily
diplomats were now using their new platforms to speak over the heads of the imperialist diplomats directly to the world working class. Peace negotiations between the infant Soviet government and German imperialism, for example, became an opportunity for revolutionary leaders to appeal to the German, British, French and U.S. soldiers to turn their guns against their own ruling classes.

Whether or not Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez had that model in mind when he spoke to the United Nations on Sept. 20, those were the footsteps that he was following. Full of defiance and brimming with optimism, his speech was a call to the world’s people “for the birth of a new era, to prevent hegemony and prevent further advances of imperialism.” Click here to read the full text of Chávez’s U.N. speech.

What was unique about Chávez’s appeal over the heads of diplomats and heads of state was that its resonance among the U.S. working class was measured just as surely as a seismograph measures earthquakes. Chávez had opened his speech recommending a 2003 book by Noam Chomsky, “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.”

In the next days, the book flew off shelves around the country.

On the online bookseller, the book shot from 20,664th place to the number one best seller within two days. Chomsky’s publisher, Metropolitan Books, printed an extra 25,000 copies of the book. Prior to Chávez’s speech, some 110,000 copies of a run of 250,000 had been sold.

Condemning the empire

Chávez called Chomsky “one of the most prestigious American and world intellectuals.” Indeed, Chomsky—a renowned linguist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—is one of the few U.S. academics who speaks consistently against the U.S. empire. His over 100 books document countless crimes of U.S. imperialism in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

“Hegemony or Survival” is no exception. Written just as the Pentagon was launching its invasion of Iraq, Chomsky paints a dire portrait of the state of humanity. He opens the book by speculating whether the human race is a “‘biological error,’ using their allotted 100,000 years to destroy themselves and, in the process, much else.”

The largest part of the close to 300-page book is devoted to exposing the hypocrisy of the U.S. government as it wages wars in the name of peace and democracy. He devotes considerable time to exposing the lies and shifting justifications for the war against Iraq—a critique that today, three years after the invasion, is widely recognized.

Chomsky pays particular attention to the Bush administration’s doctrine of “preventative war”—a type of war, he argues, that “falls within the category of war crimes.” He quotes the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy report as declaring, “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling the power of the United States.”

While he quotes others to emphasize this U.S. “grand strategy,” he does not mention that this doctrine had been spelled out 10 years earlier in a Pentagon white paper leaked to the New York Times on March 8, 1992. The Times headline read, “U.S. strategy plan calls for insuring no rivals develop.”

‘Dangerous times’

A main thrust of “Hegemony or Survival” is that the U.S. quest for world dominance has endangered the fate of the human race and the planet. He compares the world situation in 2003 with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961, when then-president John Kennedy threatened to unleash nuclear war unless the Soviet Union withdrew nuclear missiles from Cuba.

Chomsky accurately puts the missile crisis in the context of the history of U.S.-sponsored terrorism against Cuba, which began within months of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. He reviews the CIA efforts backing terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles against Cuba and anyone deemed to be a supporter of the Cuban government.

He also notes that U.S. backing for Israeli terror against Palestine and Lebanon have created an unstable political climate in a region where Israel, Pakistan and India already possess nuclear weapons—the kind of “weapons of mass destruction” that the United States supposedly went to war in Iraq to deter.

Most of the book is a critique. It is a condemnation of the U.S. drive toward world dominance. But Chomsky does attempt to present a hope for an alternative in the closing pages of the book.

The hope, he argues, lies with “the second superpower, world public opinion”—a description coined in February 2003 by the New York Times in the wake of massive worldwide anti-war demonstrations.

“One can discern two trajectories in current history,” Chomsky writes, “one aiming toward hegemony, acting rationally within a lunatic doctrinal framework as it threatens survival; the other dedicated to the belief that ‘another world is possible,’ in the words that animate the World Social Forum, challenging the reigning ideological system and seeking to create constructive alternatives of thought, action and institutions.”

The limits of Chomsky’s critique

For those reading Chomsky’s books for the first time, perhaps inspired by Chávez’s U.N. speech, “Hegemony or Survival” may be a helpful step in political development. His critique of U.S. hegemony is radical in the sense that he presents it systematically, not as an accidental course chosen by this or that administration but as a historical project that has been developing according to its own logic since at least 1945.

For many, that critique may help move beyond the limits of debate framed by the big-business media, where “loyal opposition” is determined by loyalty to the imperialist project.

But for serious activists who are ready to dedicate their time and effort to challenging U.S. imperialism and taking on


Building an alternative to U.S. imperialism—Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro, Evo Morales, Havana, April 29.

the project of fighting for “another world,” there are severe limits to Chomsky’s critique.

First, he argues in essence that the basis for challenging the U.S. empire is moral rather than material. After showing the hypocrisy of the U.S. “war on terrorism,” Chomsky writes: “More follows if we are willing to enter the moral arena in a serious way, going beyond the merest truisms and recognizing the obligation to help suffering people as best we can, a responsibility that naturally accrues to privilege.”

Putting aside whether the truly “privileged” owning elite has ever accepted a responsibility to help suffering people outside the pages of the Bible or other religious texts, this outlook is not what has inspired the great social movements of history. Those movements—like the civil rights and Black liberation struggles, the mass strikes and protests of the 1930s, not to mention the revolutionary movements that have developed around the world—have been motivated by the self-interest of the oppressed peoples. It has been the movements of the “suffering people”—presumably Chomsky’s view of the oppressed classes and peoples—that have been the motor for social change.

By seeing the challenge to U.S. hegemony within an undifferentiated “world public opinion,” Chomsky fails to identify the real agent of change: the working-class and oppressed people, in the United States as much as in the rest of the world. This is the class whose interests are really distinct from imperialist hegemony, despite the efforts of the ruling class to buy off sections with privileges and confuse the rest with propaganda.

Because he does not see any hope in the working class, he also falls into a more serious trap: anti-communism. While he credits the socialist projects in the Soviet Union and elsewhere for what he calls “economic nationalism,” he abandons his critical attitude toward U.S. propaganda when it comes to the socialist countries, dismissing them as “totalitarian.” He does not acknowledge the real limits that the Soviet Union placed on the U.S. goal of world hegemony, much less the gains for the working class and peasantry in general.

Such slurs are not just restricted to the former socialist countries. In discussing Colombia, for example, he describes the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army (FARC-EP) and other revolutionary groups as “yet another army terrorizing the peasantry and, more recently, the urban population as well.” This slander is worthy of the very U.S.-backed Colombian government that he criticizes, denying the hope that millions of Colombians have placed in the success of the revolutionary insurgency against the most vicious death squad violence.

All this is to say that Chomsky provides critique without any real program for change. His stated program only leads into the dead ends of liberalism and social democracy—pillars of U.S. hegemony in the political arena.

When Chávez held up Chomsky’s book, it was with the spirit of defiance. It was a message to the people of the United States: Look, you too can challenge the imperial government’s right to carry on war, terrorism and conquest in your name.

Of course, Chávez himself is presenting a solution to the rule of the empire with the continued development of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. His invitation to read “Hegemony or Survival” is best accompanied with his challenge to Bush:

“I have the feeling, dear world dictator, that you are going to live the rest of your days as a nightmare, because the rest of us are standing up, all those who are rising up against U.S. imperialism, who are shouting for equality, for respect and for the sovereignty of nations.”

Click here to read the full text of Chávez’s U.N. speech.

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