Beyond the Chomsky-Harris Comparison

Zellig Harris

by Robert F. Barsky

I began corresponding with Noam Chomsky in the late 1980s, on a range of issues that concerned me as a young graduate student studying language and literature, but interested in human rights and the history of radical movements. From the very beginning, my letters to him were personal, in part because he insisted in the very first line he ever wrote to me that I drop any kind of formalities when communicating with him, and in part because I was fascinated by all of his writings, especially those relating to politics, and this led me to pursue discussions with him relating to a whole array of interests, including language theory as it relates to power and propaganda; refugee issues, and the history of anarchism.

My eldest son was an infant at the time, enrolled at the McGill University daycare, and one of his classmates was the son of Lisa Travis, a linguistics professor who had studied with Chomsky, and who had been close to the biographer Jay Parini. As I understand it, Parini was asked to write Chomsky’s biography, probably on the basis of an article he’d written in 1988 called “Noam is an Island,” for Mother Jones, and when he declined, he suggested my name, since he knew of my correspondence with Chomsky. My interest in Chomsky’s work was multifarious, but I was most interested in pursuing a study of the “milieus” that had inspired his attitudes, rather than in his “life story.” A central figure in these early milieus was his teacher, and a longtime friend of his father, named Zellig Harris; and when I first met Noam, in the crowded MIT office he occupied in the famously dilapidated Building 20, he told me that I should write about Zellig Harris rather than himself, because Harris was “more interesting.” Twenty years later, I fulfilled a kind of tacit promise I made to Noam on that day, and this book is the result. I have written it on the basis of rather slim archives relating to Harris’s life and work, complemented by dozens of interviews with people, most of them now in their 80s and 90s, who knew him or worked alongside of him in his different realms of interest. I’ve also begun work on a film that will compile these interviews and explain the importance of Harris and the community with which he worked, because my conversations with them seem to me exciting, and invaluable.

Zellig Harris deserves our attention today for no other reason than the relationships he had with seminal figures of the 20th Century, including Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, Erich Fromm, Nathan Glazer, Paul Mattick, Seymour Melman, Arthur Rosenberg, and dozens of others who worked with him on linguistic, political and Zionist issues. And of course anyone interested in Chomsky’s work would benefit immeasurably by studying the differences between his and Harris’s approaches to linguistics, including studies of discourse analysis and propaganda, and politics, most notably in the contrast between Harris’s socialism and Chomsky’s anarchism. In the canon of political figures, Harris fits most clearly into the kind of anti-Fascist and anti-Bolshevik Marxism of the Old Left (nicely described in the film “Arguing the World”) while Chomsky, who insists upon vocal and active resistance to repression, violence and imperialism, embodies the engaged ambitions of the New Left.

But beyond the fascinating Chomsky-Harris comparison, there are entire realms of work to which Harris contributed that were marked by his approach or, perhaps even more importantly, could have been marked by his approach in ways that are still instructive. These can be broken down into roughly three areas:

Firstly, for anyone interested in the history of linguistics and information theory, Harris was a major figure who sought concrete results for contemporary applications, in such areas as voice recognition, discourse analysis (for which he is considered a pioneer), formal analyses of language, and certain communications models. He made significant advances that are used in real world situations all the time, and some of these projects, such as the Linguistics String Project at NYU, derive from some of Harris’s insights. He was also a noted Semiticist, and contributions he made to that field early on in his career have stood the test of time.

Second, he outlined in the posthumous book called The Transformation of Capitalist Society, the only published overview of his political interests, an assessment of anti-capitalist projects that remain salient, including Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), approaches to worker self-management — including those that were originally developed in the frameworks of council communism, — and collectives and communes including Kibbutzim and the Mondragon cooperatives. Much of this work grows out of a nearly life-long effort he initiated called the Frame of Reference project, an effort to understand and eventually motivate changes in underlying social attitudes. The unwieldy set of notes and writings that constitute this was the result of it having been written by different people, who would contribute pieces on the basis of their respective expertise and interest, including a half a dozen or so colleagues and friends who, I have learned, grew very bitter at Harris’s penchant for hiding his political work and refusing publication of any of it until he deemed it completed.

Finally, and perhaps most critical for a contemporary reader, Zellig Harris was a major figure in Avukah, a little-known but seminal Jewish Zionist student organization that was founded at Harvard in 1925 and dissolved, on Harris’s instigation, in 1943. Avukah was stringently anti-Fascist, openly in favor of Jewish-Arab rapprochement and cooperation, and specifically against the founding of a Jewish state in Palestine. At its height, in the early 1940s, Avukah boasted several thousand members in campuses spread throughout the United States, but focused especially in the Northeast and directed out of offices in New York City that were peopled by students of Harris, including Nathan Glazer, Al Kahn, Seymour Martin Lipset, Seymour Melman, Meyer Rabban, Irene Schumer, and Ruth Slotkin. I’ve provided extensive documentation of Avukah in this book because Harris had been a student member thereof, and then its president, and looking back to what was published under its auspices helps us to re-consider the history and also the current issues relating to Arab-Jewish relations.

Harris believed that Palestine should be a socialist region, not even a state, but more a compendium of cooperatives (Kibbutzim) that would be administered on the basis of a federation that could technically expand, perhaps even worldwide, to represent the needs and interests of oppressed peoples against the exclusionary and repressive power structues inherent in capitalism. The Avukah Student News, for instance, would make it clear that oppressed Arabs living in Palestine (at that time a majority) had much that was in common with oppressed Jews, and that their attitudes could be developed towards this realization with the assistance of a vanguard of Jews, and hence the importance of Harris’s surrounding himself with an elite group of Avukah students who would advance these interests. One way to do this was to enlist his students to work with him on linguistic matters, so even Bruria Kaufman, Einstein’s principle assistant and eventually his wife, and Nathan Glazer, who was to be a crucial figure for the continuance of Avukah’s ideals, worked on linguistic matters, as did many others who went on to make contributions to a range of fields, most notably Murray Eden and Seymour Melman. By the time Chomsky began working with Harris in the late 1940s, Avukah had already been dissolved by Harris because he feared the direction it was taking as the men went off to fight in the War, and the women, who increasingly held power, demanded that Avukah focus its efforts on saving Jews from the Holocaust rather than advancing the revolution. But even then, the resonance of Avukah remained, as did the work of the Frame of Reference, and, still today, knowledge of each of these projects casts a remarkable light upon the 20th Century, broadly conceived.

About the Author:

Robert F. Barsky is the Alexander Heard Distinguished Service Professor (2011-12) at Vanderbilt University, and the founding editor of the journal AmeriQuests. He is the author of Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (1997, 1998), The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower (2007, 2009), and Zellig Harris: From American Linguistics to Socialist Zionism, all published by the MIT Press, as well as Constructing a Productive Other (1994), Introduction à la théorie littéraire (1997) and Arguing and Justifying (2001). He is currently writing a book and making a film about the radical Zionist student organization called Avukah.