7 February 2012 **** Also published on my ZBlog **** Front Page

Zellig Harris: An appreciation

By Tapani Lausti 

Robert F. Barsky, Zellig Harris: From American Linguistics to Socialist Zionism. The MIT Press 2011.  

Young people around the world are again getting excited about the possibility of an alternative future. Many of them are seeking books for ideas and strategies. Zellig Harris's political work could be one interesting source, although he probably suffers from the fact that his student in linguistics, Noam Chomsky, is much better known. Chomsky's political books are already on many reading lists and his comments are easily found on the internet. So the question arises how much Harris can offer as his work is overshadowed by Chomsky.

One could answer the question in this way: Studying the intellectual culture from where Chomsky comes is in itself a worthwhile effort since in this way one acquires a broader understanding of the history of the American left, and also of the important role of Jewish intellectuals in its ranks. Robert F. Barsky is an excellent guide since he is also the author of Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (The MIT Press 1997).

Harris's book The Transformation of Capitalist Society (Rowman & Littlefield 1997), published after his death, is certainly worth reading. It offers interesting insights into the workings of capitalism and the possible ways of going beyond its boundaries. A couple of decades before the 2008 financial crisis woke up the world to the instability of the capitalist system, Harris had already seen it all coming.

Indeed, in the last sentence of the book Barsky writes: "To look back to Harris's (.) work today, in the light of the current crises, worldwide, could provide the means to reimagine our relationship to production and a template to creating cooperation rather than competition among people now living in a failing system that seemed so brutally entrenched." (p. 284)

Harris understood early on how capitalism in its greed for big profits moves from production to various financial schemes. Also, as capital concentrates on fewer and fewer corporations, there is less room for continuing capital accumulation. Profits may begin to decline. Certainly the system cannot be maintained forever, if only because of limited natural resources. Parallel to this development Harris pondered how working people may begin to see a change of system in a positive light. He did not see a revolution coming but instead believed in gradual change.

Harris thought that change can be based on already won political and social rights. He was interested in employee share ownership plans and the possibility of gradual growth of employee ownership and control. Barsky describes Harris's premises for change thus: "He was always anti-status quo, antifascist, and for some version of society informed by democratic socialism, anarchosyndicalism, and council communism; but being a pragmatic person, he also had to consider the current state of society, if only to determine a pathway toward peaceful and sensible transformation." (p. 275)

In the light of current developments, it is interesting to read how Harris considered the possibility of "special openings", "unbearable situations" or "special opportunities for action". He would probably have been keenly interested in the Occupy movements. Harris also studied past windows of opportunity for radical action, wrong turns taken and failures to use available possibilities. He emphasized the importance of trying methods and strategies in real cases within the present society. It wasn't enough just to formulate theories while waiting for political change.

Harris took a keen interest in self-governing innovations like collectivist communes and cooperatives that share profits and control their workplaces. The successes of the Kibbutz movement in Palestine/Israel were important to him when he wrote about workers' self-organizing. He had himself worked in a kibbutz where he was known as "Carpenter Harris". People there knew that he was a world famous intellectual but his modesty made an impression. Later he was painfully aware how the original socialist ideals of the Kibbutzim were damaged by growing militarist, capitalist, business-minded and religious attitudes in Israel.

As an undergraduate Harris joined the student Zionist organization Avukah. There he met people who would be important for him in linguistics, politics and Zionism, the central themes in his life. At the heart of the Avukah ideology was for Robert Wallerstein "Zionism and socialism. There was going to be a utopia in Israel, built around the Kibbutzim. It was going to be a bi-national state with the Arab and Jewish workers working together to overthrow the capitalists." (p. 55)

Harris was not a typical activist. His life-long commitment to science and rationality left him aloof from many radical opposition movements since he thought that to move into the streets would not advance the intellectual work that he thought was required to change America. Barsky comments that Harris "was reluctant to be public about his politics, to the very end of his life." (p. 80)

As a linguist Harris is, of course, best known. Based on conversations with Harris's colleagues Barsky emphazises his invaluable achievement: "The discovery of syntactic 'transformations' by him and then his pupil Noam Chomsky in the'50s of the century was profound in a way for which there are few parrallels in any discipline. Transformations — the basis of generative grammar — were new concepts in the sense in which the great discoveries in the history of science were 'new'." (p. 132)

Harris's most influential book was Methods in Structural Linguistics (1951). Barsky quotes the anthropological linguist Norman McQuown about the importance of this book: "Harris's contribution [is] epoch-marking in a double sense: first in that it marks the culmination of a development of linguistic methodology away from a stage of intuitionism, frequently culture-bound; and second in that it marks the beginnings of a new period, in which the new methods will be applied ever more rigorously to ever widening areas in human culture." (p. 42)

As to Chomsky's relationship with Harris, Chomsky's late wife Carol Chomsky had this to say: "Noam admired him enormously, and I think it's fair to say that Zellig Harris was responsible, in so many different ways, for the direction that Noam's intellectual life took then and later." (p. 122) However, Chomsky and Harris seemed to see somewhat differently what linguistics is all about. This, perhaps, prevented them from working together.

Harris's life story connects with many leading left intellectuals of the 20th century. Albert Einstein, Erich Fromm, Paul Mattick, Seymour Melman and others were all part of the world of exciting intellectual endeavours and political activities which Barsky sums up thus: "Many of these links — to Fromm's work, to psychoanalytic efforts aimed at understanding attitudes, to anti-Bolshevik Marxism, and to the development of adequate theories of social change — will resurface in the story of Harris, finding their ultimate expression in his Transformation of Capitalist Society, half-a-century later." (p. 259)


See also:


Finnish readers, see my review of The Transformation of Capitalist Society.

Visit the archive: Noam Chomsky, Languages, Social thinking


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