Zellig Harris: Language and Politics

by Thomas Kollmann, Robert Barsky

An in-depth portrait of Zellig Harris, an influential but unsung figure of 20th Century left politics.

First published: 12 April, 2011 | Category: History, International, Philosophy and Theory, Vision/Strategy

Zellig Harris is arguably one of the most influential and unsung figures in 20th century left politics, perhaps most widely known now as an early mentor of Noam Chomsky. He was, however, a noted linguist and enigmatic teacher who embraced a wide array of approaches to social and economic organisation in his work as a political theorist. Harris was also deeply involved in the debates surrounding the course of Zionism leading up to and during the Second World War. Thomas Kollmann explored the life and work of Harris with Robert Barsky, professor at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee and author of the forthcoming book Zellig Harris: From American Linguistics to Socialist Zionism.

Who was Zellig Harris and what was his political orientation?

Born in Russia into a Jewish family, Zellig Harris (1909-1992) became a central figure in a distinctly American school of academic research on language, centered at the University of Pennsylvania, and a crucial, though little known, figure in radical politics and Zionism. Through his linguistics, his political work, and his approach to Palestine (especially pre-Israel), he exerted considerable influence upon an array of crucial intellectual currents of the Twentieth Century, and along the way came into contact with some of the leading intellectual figures of the Western world, most notably Louis D. Brandeis and Albert Einstein, while fostering a kind of “inner circle” of acolytes, friends, colleagues, and fellow travelers including Murray Eden, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, Seymour Melman, Meyer Rabban, Chester Rapkin and, of course, his renowned student, Noam Chomsky.

Zellig Harris was vehemently anti-Fascist, but he also rejected not only Stalin and the Communist Party, but also the Trotskyites, the Schachtmanites, and other groups that were actively involved in related debates in the United States. He was influenced by individuals who were associated with Marxist thought and by anti-Bolshevik Marxists, such as Karl Korsch, Paul Mattick or Anton Pannekoek. Although not of the generation which endured the pogroms firsthand, he seems to have considered that even in America one must remain wary of those who claimed to speak on behalf of larger groups, and he worked closely with a small vanguard of individuals towards the transformation of capitalist society in directions that reflected his belief in worker self-management, ESOPS (employee stock ownership plans) and the work of the Spanish Mondragon Corporation, the federation of workers’ cooperatives in the Basque country. His political work in these regards continues to resonate, and his approach to Palestine, that emphasized Arab-Jewish cooperation and rapprochement, was prescient.

What was Harris’ role in the student Zionist organisation Avukah and what were the reasons for the decline and fall of Avukah as an organised political body?

Zellig Harris’s involvement in politics began when he joined a small American Zionist student organization called Avukah (1925-1942), which had begun at Harvard but eventually spread to other campuses in the US and Canada; with a membership that peaked at several thousand members, it was to have a defining impact upon Harris’s and many others’ social, political and Zionist work. The Harris family had been involved in Jewish cultural affairs, and was part of the active and engaged social setting in Philadelphia; but for Zellig, it was through his membership as an undergraduate in Avukah, and through close association with students and other faculty advisors, that his politics evolved. The four major political issues that dominated his political work, and which are given voice in the work he undertook for Avukah, were: Arab-Jewish relations, the kibbutz movement in Palestine, Jewish immigration (to Palestine and the US), and the problems of American Jewry.

During its early years, Avukah had been a loose federation of Zionist clubs, each having with its own special program, and without any particular cooperation amongst chapters. In light of rising fascism in Europe in the 1930s, and with the eventual guidance of Harris and a small number of his acolytes, Avukah developed a set of objectives designed to fight fascism, establish a socialist region for suffering persons (including Jews) in Palestine, and form a vanguard (of Jews) for the implementation of policies and ideals for future work. When war broke out, and then when the US joined the effort, Harris feared that Avukah’s anti-nationalist and anti-capitalist work would be undermined, and he labored to keep Avukah on-course and Avukah’s members out of combat by employing them in his linguistics projects, notably discourse analysis and his efforts directed towards developing new techniques for teaching foreign languages. As the New York Avukah vanguard enlisted or was drafted into the war, though, several brilliant Avukah women gained control over the organization, led by Irene Schumer; when they advocated shifting the attention of the organization towards saving the European Jewish community from impending eradication rather than building a ‘good society’ in Palestine and beyond, Harris engineered a coup aimed at dissolving the organization, and it therefore ceased its activities in the early part of 1943.

What was the Frame of Reference project that Harris initiated?

The essence of Harris’s lifelong efforts, particularly in the work that he did under the auspices of what he called the Frame of Reference project (FoR), was to understand and eventually motivate changes in underlying social attitudes. The unwieldy set of notes and writings that constitute the current state of the FoR project (deposited to the New York Public Library by Seymour Melman) was the result of it having been written by different people, who would contribute pieces on the basis of their respective expertise and interest. The text that remains, which takes the form of a 1,000 page diffuse collection of unsigned and largely unorganized observations, was mostly written by Harris and by people of the generation before Murray Eden and Seymour Melman. This group was comprised of a half a dozen or so colleagues and friends including Fred Karush (who became a distinguished immunologist and professor of microbiology) and Lawrence B. Cohen, who investigated decision making on production by industrial workers, an important antecedent to the work of both Zellig Harris and Seymour Melman. With the exception of the posthumous book by Harris called The Transformation of Capitalist Society, no publication ever emerged from the decades of work undertaken under the direct auspices of FoR, and many people involved in the project came to feel strong resentment towards Harris for withholding the work, and this led to a souring of relations amongst some of the key contributors who feel to this day that Harris held the reigns of this small group too firmly in his own hands.

I had a chance to interview some of the members who contributed to FoR, including Murray Eden, William Evan and Seymour Melman, and all of them described a process whereby a discussion relating to the project would be elaborated and developed by members of Harris’s circle who, based on their respective perspectives and expertise, would then turn their findings over to Harris at their next meeting, or send them to him through the mail. The process unfolded on the basis of an elaborate outline which provided a road map, so that each contributor would know where things were supposed to fit. Many of the Avukah and FoR efforts described in Transformation relate to Harris’s attempt to asses the general attitudes that prevail in a given society, and then direct actions that would lead towards a good society that would include co-ops, kibbutzim, ESOPs and worker-controlled production in worker-owned factories.

More specifically, the Frame of Reference project draws from social science investigations, and, moreover, Marxist theory; nevertheless, Harris believed that pure Marxist vocabulary doesn’t cover many of the new problems faced by contemporary society in part because it was “developed at a time when physical sciences were simply mechanistic, and are not well suited to express processes that are in constant (though uneven) change and whose interaction with each other cannot be disregarded.” Current conditions are assessed from a more comprehensive standpoint, but the critique is specifically “radical,” with the assumption that contemporary methods of scientific inquiry allow for new optimism. For Harris, these new scientific and technical methods for investigation can be put to the service of effective political action. This is not to say that individuals cannot take “effective political action by use of intuitive judgments or after trial and error,” but rather that this type of inquiry can help bolster efforts aimed at effective action through interdependent consideration of intuitive and “scientific” approaches, another common thread between his linguistics and his politics.
What were the results of the project?

It’s possible to read the Transformation of Capitalist Society book as having emerged from the kinds of analyses undertaken, but never systematized, in the FoR project. In Transformation, Harris begins with criticisms of contemporary society and possibilities for change, then moves to a description of social structures with a delineation of methodological considerations, and then turns to the central question of decision-making in the production of goods under capitalism, including both strengths and instabilities inherent in the current system. Consistent with his interest in the evolution of (workers’) attitudes analyzed in FoR, he assesses possibilities for social change, including the question of what induces action, before moving on to post-capitalist directions for this change. He looks back to history to find the roots of capitalist society and then, in some very interesting sections, recalls actual alternatives to capitalist organization including collectives (like kibbutzim) and workers councils. Then, he sets forth a description and blueprint for a post-capitalist society, turning eventually to his support for ESOPs. Finally, in sections which bring his ideas up-to-date, as it were, he assesses the aftermath of Soviet communism, as well as a range of strategies and issues relevant to the task of exposing and then benefiting from capitalism’s weaknesses.

The Transformation book draws from insights of the FoR project to conclude that: a capitalist society necessarily operates under conditions of growth and decline; this cycle produces economic downturns which can be very severe; under these conditions certain segments of the economy become unprofitable and are therefore abandoned by the owners in favor of other sectors; workers in the failing sectors are therefore offered the opportunity to take control of their workplaces; and finally, because they have a greater say and a greater stake in the success of the operation, they will operate in a more efficient and, therefore, more profitable fashion and this will lead to fundamental changes in their attitudes about the workplace and their own approach to decision-making therein. For Harris, these are the conditions which make employee shared ownership plans viable, particularly in less profitable sectors, and, in the short term at least, non-capitalist production could survive alongside of the capitalist sectors of society since competition between the two realms would be minimal.

Consistent as well with certain sections of the FoR project, Harris discusses the virtues of producer cooperatives, including the Owenite examples, the Rochdale movement, the anarchist collectives in Catalonia, the Shanghai workers movement of the 1930s, the small-scale workers collectives in France, Italy, India and El Salvador, and, moreover, the Mondragon Cooperative Group in the Basque area of Spain. Recalling Harris’s longstanding interest in the he work of Erich Fromm (who is mentioned in the FoR project but for some reason isn’t recalled in the Transformation book), Harris talks about the psychological effects of encouraging workers to become responsible and active participants in work (subjects of Fromm’s 1959 “Freedom in the Work Situation”, and The Sane Society). With reference to friend Paul Mattick, Harris also discusses Workers’ councils, those examples of “self-governed industrial production” which “fitted closely with those trends in European radicalism (such as anti-Bolshevik Marxists, e.g., Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, with antecedents in the syndicalism of Georges Sorel) that framed the issues in terms of the ongoing interests and potentialities of industrial workers beyond the single goal of seizing political power, in particular by means of a party”, the Bolsheviks, “speaking in the name of a generalized proletariat but in actuality ruling over it” (pp.124-5). In the end, he says, “the methods and strategies have to be tried out in real cases within the present society, and not just thought out in theory while waiting for political change” (pp.170-71). This is the challenge that Harris left, and which a society of alienated workers and disenfranchised individuals were to follow-up on, in their own interest and in the interest of preserving the planets resources.

From your account of Harris, he often appears to have been quite secretive and elitist. Do you think his penchant for creating small groups or ‘vanguards’ to develop his ideas about social change was in conflict with the ideals he was committed to?

It’s interesting to consider Harris’s ideas about developing a vanguard in relation to the approach taken by his most famous student, Noam Chomsky. Harris, like so many from the “Old Left”, described in the wonderful documentary film “Arguing the World”, were both fearful regarding their position in American society, and skeptical about the role that undirected masses could play in determining a plan for the dismantling of capitalism. In retrospect, I do think that this secrecy and this form of elitism was counter-productive, and the New Left’s approach that insisted about open confrontation led to significant advances for such areas as civil rights and union membership (now both under attack). But Harris was born in Russia, and like so many of his colleagues and collaborators from the Old World, he felt, justifiably as it turns out, that his every move was scrutinized by US officials, so I think that we need to imagine how he experienced the world alongside of similarly-concerned Jewish intellectuals including Franz Boas and Albert Einstein. And if you look at the project he had set up for himself, especially in regards to the objectives of the Frame of Reference, he felt that he needed to establish a clear template or roadmap for change; similarly, Frankfurt School intellectuals like Adorno or Horkheimer did release their work for into the public space, but it was so richly dialectical and obscurantist, it could hardly be cited by ordinary workers in their efforts to gain rights against a powerful status quo (the exception of course is Herbert Marcuse, one of the very active figures in the New Left). The elitism is striking, though, and I think that Chomsky’s entire demeanor and approach challenge the very tenets upon which it was based, whether consciously or not, I’m not sure.

Harris’ academic research benefitted from U.S. government funding during and after the Second World War. Are there any hints as to what the ‘strategic reasons’ might have been for government agencies’ interest in his work?

The US government was made to be very aware of its weaknesses in areas of coding, decoding and language work (such as ESL) during WWII, and I think that the military consciously strove to develop frameworks for all of these areas by funding the very best American linguists (who, in many cases, were foreigners and mostly Jewish). According to Chomsky, the military was, and still is, sufficiently bloated, diffuse and impossible to control, as to allow for funds to sneak away towards projects that were valuable in themselves, including his own, and you can see in many of the research projects funded postwar that some mention is made of military funding. We see the same thing today, in a host of realms. I also think that the US military recognized, and from an imperialist perspective wanted to aggrandize, its powers worldwide, which required, necessarily, new abilities in the teaching and learning of languages. Furthermore, the military was optimistic about work, by Zellig Harris and others, that offered new hope for machine translation and content analysis, tools that would allow for large-scale (say) wiretapping, digestion and synthesis of large amounts of information (in Russian and other languages) and so forth; so when you read research proposals from this period, there’s often a heavy emphasis upon the new horizons of opportunity offered by linguistics for work of this nature. So it’s fascinating, on the one hand people like Boas, Chomsky, Einstein or Harris were distinctly anti-status quo, even revolutionary, but their work was deemed essential for postwar America. This makes for interesting reading, particularly of documents such as declassified FBI files like the Boas file I discuss in my book.

Do any of Harris’ methods or ideas seem naïve or misguided to you?

I do think that Harris’s linguistic methods were naïve and misguided, at least retrospectively, but they were erected on principles that were deemed solid at the time, even scientific, so of course I have the advantage of hindsight. There were those who were close to Harris’s project but leery, and increasingly leery, about the results he anticipated, and here again the most significant voice is that of Chomsky. But we can read as well in the National Science Foundation project analyses that I cite in my book that many reviewers grew increasingly skeptical about Harris’s approach, and increasingly concerned about the degree to which he was isolated from research done beyond his own community of co-workers, most notably at the University of Pennsylvania. But there’s another view here too, which is that Harris and Chomsky have very different research agendas, with Chomsky looking specifically and deeply into the workings of the human mind, with an aim to understanding fundamental apparatuses that make up our ‘human nature’. Harris was looking for more concrete results, and such areas as voice recognition, formal analyses of language, and certain communications models all claim 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.

On the political side, he was in some ways ahead of the curve, particularly if you read the Avukah documents I cite concerning Zionism and Arab-Jewish relations. From my perspective he had a non-nationalistic approach to imagining revolutionary movements, which was translated concretely into the idea that Palestine could become a model socialist region, and not a Jewish country containing socialist encampments in the form of Kibbutzim. For him, the Kibbutz was a model to be emulated, just as the ESOP was an economic system that could be supported in an effort to transform capitalist society by a slow shift in attitudes growing out of concrete advances put forward by him and his vanguard of colleagues.

Although he kept working on the goal of worker owned and managed industry throughout his adult life, in his later years Harris abandoned some of the political positions he had held in Avukah and in general drifted somewhat from radical politics. What do you think accounts for this?

I think that the outcome of World War II, the realization of the extent of Nazi atrocities, the details of the Holocaust, the solidification of national power, the dissolution of the kinds of radical left wing movements that existed in the inter-war period, and the foundation of the state of Israel, must all be considered in examining his own shifts in approach. This is not to say that he didn’t keep working on many of the ideas developed during his active Avukah days, up to 1942, because he did, albeit quietly. But I also think that he was always a scientist, always looking to perfect his science, in language and political thinking, and for this he worked more in a kind of metaphysical laboratory than in the streets, more in careful contemplation than in open dialogue. So I’m not sure if he abandoned anything really, but the actual results of his work cannot be examined in the same way as when we look back on those remarkable Avukah pamphlets and newspaper articles. The exception to this of course is his posthumous book, The Transformation of Capitalist Society, but by the time it came out, it seemed anachronistic, and it most certainly has not imposed itself upon contemporary discussions, even in areas where it might, including current efforts to dismantle union members’ rights, for example.

Overall, what do you think are the main reasons why it is important for us to learn about Harris today?

I think it is valuable to return to the life and work of Zellig Harris, and his colleagues and co-workers, to understand and address some crucial contemporary issues relating to politics and the study of language. Specifically:

First: Zellig Harris’s views about the steps needed to transform capitalist society to a ‘good society’ that meets the needs of workers, creates workplaces that are both more productive and more innovative, and, moreover, contributes to the general good of society, was in many ways prescient. He anticipated that the yawning gap between worker self-management and worker satisfaction would create a strong sense of disaffection and disengagement amongst the workforce, and that if people weren’t given a ‘buy-in’ to their labor they’d feel a sense of alienation that would ultimately lead to lower productivity and quality of production.

Second: In an era of dramatic attacks upon worker rights, and the undermining of advances made over the past half-century, it’s salubrious to look back to Harris’s work, and in particular his interest in the ways that ESOPs and the Mondragon movements, in particular, could change attitudes amongst workers and consumers, and effect broad change in the direction of worker self-management and worker ownership of means of production en route to a “good society”.

Third: We are now harvesting some of the fruits of Harris’s work, or at very least his ambitions, in the realm of language studies; Google translators, voice recognition programs, automatic translation efforts, and even software like the Rosetta Stone language teaching, all hearken back to projects he initiated from the 1940s onwards.

Fourth: Harris’ interest in Arab-Jewish relations, and his insistence that Palestine be a region and not a country, and a place for persecuted people and not a homeland specifically for the Jews, were all built on an idea that imposing a Jewish country into that region would lead to centuries of struggles and antagonism.

Fifth: Harris was a linchpin, a person who connected people as diverse as Nathan Glazer, Murray Eden, Seymour Melman, Louis Brandeis, Bruria Kaufman, Albert Einstein and Noam Chomsky; and to understand their approaches to their work, it’s crucial to return to what they learned from, or undertook with, Zellig Harris.

Finally: Harris is an archetypical Jewish American immigrant, who brought socialist and communist ideas, alongside of a deep devotion to the United States and what it (potentially) stood for, to his work, in the professional and social realms.

Thomas Kollmann is an independent journalist based in London

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?