10 February 2012 **** Front Page

Zellig Harris, Avukah and the sit-ins

By Robert Barsky

Tapani Lausti's insightful blog (Zellig Harris: An appreciation) draws attention to the value of neglected works for current efforts aimed at ameliorating the plight of people who feel brutalized, forgotten and ill-treated by dominant norms and institutions. Harris himself placed heavy stock in a scientific framework, for both the analysis of society and proposals for revolutionizing it, and this makes much of his work (particularly his language work) inpenetrable for most people; but, as Lausti points out, Harris also offers clear-headed assessments of existing frameworks for change, including ESOPs, co-ops, worker self-management and non-statist organizations of communities. Reading Harris alongside of Chomsky, we have the feeling that significant effort is directed by ruling elites at undermining what actually works, in everything from national health care programs to banking co-ops to state-run organizations. So many debates focus upon inventing new models, which become distractions towards our considering useful models from the past.

As such, Lausti does a remarkable service to readers interested in seeking out valuable guides from the past, as signposts for the future. And what's interesting about the Harris milieu, as I'm learning more now in light of my continued work on the Avukah milieus, is that returning to earlier paradigms helps us overcome tensions in the present. As a tangible example, I'm now in on-going discussions with many people Lausti mentions in this article, including those in the Avukah milieu who were close to (for example) Zellig Harris and Seymour Melman. Many of them have subsequently moved miles away from where they were as young idealist Zionist Trotskyites, but when we discuss prevailing attitudes about, say, Arab-Jewish relations in Palestine, or the objectives of New York intellectuals of the 1930s, the whole tenor of their comments change, and avenues that have been closed-off by time or neglect, magically re-open.

By Lausti's calling attention to the relationship between forgotten (but valuable) efforts, and opportunities presented today by (say) those involved in the sit-ins, gives us hope that we can bring potentially-valuable conversations to bear upon current crises, without invoking current obstacles to even considering them.


Robert Barsky, professor at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee and author of Zellig Harris: From American Linguistics to Socialist Zionism (The MIT Press 2011), The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower (MIT Press 2007, 2009), Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (The MIT Press 1997).

See also:

Visit the archive: Noam Chomsky, Languages, Social thinking


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