Noam Chomsky is an influential American author, linguist and political commentator.
He rose to fame through his criticism of Western imperialism and economic exploitation.
Chomsky argues that political and economic elites cynically manipulate populations through skillful use of thought-limiting language and social control mechanisms.
In particular, many know of Chomsky’s iconic 1988 book Manufacturing Consent which is about how the media serves corporate interests at the expense of working people.
However, there is a lot more to Chomsky’s ideology than just these basics.
Here are his top 10 ideas.
The 10 key ideas of Noam Chomsky
1) Chomsky believes we’re born understanding the idea of language
According to Chomsky, all human beings are genetically endowed with a concept of what linguistic, verbal communication is and how it can function.
Even though we have to learn languages, he believes that the capacity to do so isn’t developed, it’s innate.
“But is there an inherited ability underlying our individual languages — a structural framework that enables us to grasp, retain, and develop language so easily? In 1957, linguist Noam Chomsky published a groundbreaking book called Syntactic Structures.
“It proposed a novel idea: All human beings may be born with an innate understanding of how language works.”
This theory is part of biolinguistics and set Chomsky in opposition to many other language scholars and philosophers who believe our ability to speak and write begins with a blank slate.
Still, many others agree with Chomksy and his theory of a “language acquisition device” or part of our brain that is designed and set up from birth to communicate verbally.
One of Chomsky’s most crucial ideas is anarchosyndicalism, which is basically a libertarian version of socialism.
As a rationalist, Chomsky believes that the most logical system for human flourishing is a left-wing form of libertarianism.
Although libertarianism is often linked to the political right in the United States, due to its support for “small government,” Chomsky’s anarchosyndicalist beliefs propose fusing individual freedom with a fairer economic and social system.
Anarchosyndicalism believes in a series of smaller community cooperatives with maximum freedom and direct democracy.
As a strong opponent of the kind of authoritarian socialism practiced by figures like Joseph Stalin, Chomsky instead wants a system where the public shares resources and decision-making.
As influential anarchist socialist Mikhail Bakunin put it:
“Liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.”
Essentially, Chomsky’s belief claims to be a way to avoid the horrors of the USSR and repressive communist regimes while still providing more support and decision-making to members of society.
Similar ideologies are also advanced by other thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin.
3) Chomsky believes that capitalism can’t work
Chomsky is well known for pointing out many of the injustices and excesses of capitalist societies.
But it’s not just how it has played out that he’s opposed to, it’s the concept itself that he disagrees with.
As Matt Davis notes for Big Think:
“Chomsky and others in his school of thinking argue that capitalism is inherently exploitative and dangerous: a worker rents their labor to somebody higher up in the hierarchy — a business owner, say — who, in order to maximize their profit, is incentivized to ignore the impact of their business on the society around them.
“Instead, Chomsky argues, workers and neighbors should organize into unions and communities (or syndicates), each of which makes collective decisions in a form of direct democracy.”
Growing up schooled in the working-class socialism of his Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, Chomsky began reading anarchist works and eventually developed his political ideology as I discussed in point 3.
His critique of capitalism has been consistent throughout his entire life and has been enormously influential.
Capitalism breeds inequality and ultimately fascism, according to Chomsky. He also says that democracies that claim to be capitalist are really just a veneer of democracy over corporate-run states.
4) He wants the Western education system reformed
Chomsky’s father William was a school principal who believed strongly in a progressive educational model.
Education reform and opposition to the mainstream educational system has been a mainstay of Chomsky’s philosophy for his whole life.
In fact, Chomsky first entered into the limelight more than 50 years ago because of his essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals. In that piece, Chomsky said academic institutions had been overrun by corporate-run curriculums and propaganda-style teaching which didn’t help students to think critically and independently.
Growing up, Chomsky was a child prodigy and enormously intelligent. But he doesn’t just credit himself for his progress.
He attended a school up until high school that was highly progressive and didn’t rank or grade students.
As Chomsky stated in a 1983 interview:, his school placed “a tremendous premium on personal creativity, not in the sense of slapping paints on paper, but doing the kind of work and thinking that you were interested in.”
Upon going to high school, however, Chomsky noticed that it was highly competitive and everything was about who was “better” and “smarter.”
“That’s what schooling generally is, I suppose. It’s a period of regimentation and control, part of which involves direct indoctrination, providing a system of false beliefs,” he’s recalled, calling his time in high school a “dark spot.”
What does Chomsky want instead?
“I think schools could be run quite differently. That would be very important, but I really don’t think that any society based on authoritarian hierarchic institutions would tolerate such a school system for long,” he says.
“There are roles that the public schools play in society that can be very destructive.”
5) Chomsky believes might doesn’t make right
Chomsky has consistently maintained his views throughout the years. Although he has major critics and strong supporters, he hasn’t visibly swayed his positions based on their popularity.
He believes that modern societies place too much emphasis on public status and authority and instead says we should aspire to live in communities that prize truth over power.
As Nathan J. Robinson notes in Current Affairs:
“Chomsky’s principle is that you should examine the quality of ideas themselves rather than the credentials of those voicing them.
This sounds easy enough, but it isn’t: In life, we’re constantly expected to defer to the superior wisdom of people who have superior status, but whom we’re pretty sure don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Chomsky is also as much of a pragmatist as he is an idealist, having said many times that he would vote for a candidate he doesn’t like in order to help defeat one he feels is even more dangerous.
He is also far from a “yes man” and, for example, although he is a strong supporter of Palestinian rights, Chomsky has criticized the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement for what he regards employing irresponsible and inaccurate rhetoric to stir people’s emotions.
In particular, he’s taken issue with BDS’ claim that Israel is an “apartheid” state, saying the comparison to South Africa is both inaccurate and propagandistic.
6) Chomsky is a strong defender of free speech
Although he believes that many right wing ideologies are harmful and counterproductive, Chomsky is a strong defender of free speech.
Libertarian socialism has always strongly favored free speech, fearful of descending into Stalinist authoritarianism or enforced ideology.
Chomsky is not joking around about his support of free speech and he has even backed free speech causes that some might regard as qualifying under the category of “hate speech.”
He has previously defended the free speech rights of French Professor Robert Faurisson, a neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier.
Chomsky believes the Holocaust was one of the worst war crimes in human history but went out of his way to write an essay defending Faurisson’s write to speak his mind without being fired from his job or criminally pursued.
Chomsky was viciously attacked for his position and accused of being sympathetic to Holocaust deniers.
However, he has never wavered in his belief that even outwardly justifiable crackdowns on free speech are a slippery slope that leads to totalitarianism.
7) Chomsky rejects popular conspiracy theories
Although he’s spent a lifetime criticizing the linguistic, political and economic power structures that he believes hold individuals and societies back from their potential, Chomsky rejects popular conspiracies.
Instead, he believes that ideologies and systems themselves lead to the injustice and lies that we see.
In fact, Chomsky believes that popular ideas of conspiracies as secret cabals with sinister agendas cover up the more shocking (in his view) truth:
That we are run by individuals and interests which do not care about our wellbeing or future and operate in plain view.
Far from being “hidden,” Chomsky points to the well-known abuses of agencies like the NSA, CIA and others as proof that no conspiracy is needed.
Government bureaucrats and legislators routinely violate rights and use disasters and tragedies as pretexts to tighten their grip: they don’t need a conspiracy to do so, and standing up to them doesn’t require believing any conspiratorial narrative.
In addition, Chomsky also disbelieves in widespread conspiracies like 9/11 as an inside job or planned pandemics because he thinks that it is overly credulous of a competent and intelligent government.
Instead, he sees power structures as far more reliant on inertia and autopilot: generating the kind of liars and corrupt individuals who will sustain them rather than the other way around.
8) Chomsky believes you must always be ready to change your mind
Despite his lifelong consistency, Chomsky believes that strict labels or political affiliation can hinder the pursuit of truth.
He strongly believes in questioning authority, ideologies and theories – and that includes his own.
In a certain way his life’s work can be looked at as one long conversation with himself.
And although he’s held true to certain theories on linguistics, economics and politics, Chomsky has shown himself willing to be questioned, criticized and challenged for his beliefs.
“One of Chomsky’s most remarkable traits is his willingness to change his own mind, like Bob Dylan suddenly going electric to the consternation of his early fans,” notes Gary Marcus in the New Yorker.
In this sense, Chomsky is actually quite a contrast to the “woke” identity politics of today’s democratic socialist left, which often requires strict adherence to various identities and beliefs in order to be accepted and promoted.
9) Chomsky believes US foreign policy is evil and counterproductive
Chomsky has been one of the most influential critics of US and Western foreign policy in the past century.
He accuses the United States, Europe and Israel of being part of an imperialistic bloc that hides under the mantle of “human rights” in order to economically and politically exploit foreign populations.
In addition, Chomsky highlights the role of the media in hiding war atrocities from Western populations, dehumanizing the “enemy” and presenting falsely simplistic and moralized depictions of foreign conflicts.
As Keith Windschuttle notes in a critical article for New Criterion:
“His own stance has done much to structure left-wing politics over the past forty years. Today, when actors, rock stars, and protesting students mouth anti-American slogans for the cameras, they are very often expressing sentiments they have gleaned from Chomsky’s voluminous output.”
Chomsky shares a trait with libertarians on the right such as Senator Rand Paul and former Congressman Ron Paul that American foreign policy results in “blowback” or revenge from foreign nations who have been mistreated and violated by US foreign policy.
As such, Chomsky argues that even those who don’t care morally about their government’s foreign policy or believe it’s somehow justifiable should be concerned because of the potential for it to eventually lead to attacks on them and their families.
10) Chomsky believes Trump and the Republican party are worse than Stalin and Hitler
Not only does Chomsky believe that right-wing ideas are bad, but he also believes they could literally end the world.
In particular, he regards the “corporate left” and the right to be in the grip of large corporations, the fossil fuel industry and the military-industrial war profit complex.
He strongly opposed the Trump presidency and has said that he regards the modern-day US Republican party as the greatest threat to human life that’s ever existed.
He also claims that Republicans are worse than Hitler. Because the Republican party and modern right don’t take environmentalism or climate change seriously, Chomsky regards them as systematically leading the globe to actual extinction.
He, therefore, considers the Republican party to be worse than mass murderers.
Chomsky made the comments in an interview with the New Yorker in late 2020.
“Yes, he was trying to destroy lots of lives but not organized human life on earth, nor was Adolf Hitler. He was an utter monster but not dedicating his efforts perfectly consciously to destroying the prospect for human life on earth.”
This certainly shows that Chomsky is willing to use his freedom of speech. Needless to say, this opinion has brought on strong opposition and many people are offended by it.
Is Chomsky’s worldview correct?
This is partly a matter of opinion.
Chomsky’s critique of capitalism, mass media and economic inequality has proven prophetic in many ways.
At the same time, Chomsky can be credibly accused of underplaying the problems with redistribution and economic socialist models.
Despite his pragmatism at points, it’s also easy for those on the left or even center to pinpoint Chomsky as overly idealistic.
The right, meanwhile, would generally regard Chomsky as off track and an alarmist who just provides a nice-sounding buzz to a disguised path into disastrous policies.
Whatever your opinion of him, there’s no doubt that Chomsky is one of the most influential intellectuals of our time and a leading thinker and activist of the American left.