Noam Chomsky is a famous American political philosopher and cultural academic.
He’s one of the most influential figures on the left in the past century, and has vigorously stood for his brand of libertarian socialism for his whole career.
Chomsky opposes state force and authoritarianism, believing it leads in a vicious cycle back to fascism.
As an anarchosyndicalist, Chomsky supports small worker councils running their own affairs.
Vladimir Lenin, on the other hand, was the father of Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and strongly advocated the use of political force to achieve the communist vision.
Lenin believed in state force and totalitarian policy as a way to shape the world the way that he and his followers considered necessary.
Here’s why they disagree so strongly.
Noam Chomsky’s view of Leninism
Leninism is the political philosophy developed and spread by Vladimir Lenin.
Its main beliefs are that a committed core group of educated communists must rally the working class and install a communist system.
Leninism emphasizes a belief in fully abolishing capitalism by seizing and maintaining political power by militant means if necessary.
Although it claimed to be focused on raising up the working class and establishing a communist utopia, Leninism led to widespread political oppression, mass murder and disregard for human rights and freedom of speech.
Apologists argue that Leninism was imperfect but was tainted by the fractures and conflicts of Russian society at the time.
Critics like Chomsky argue that Leninism was just a power grab by fanatics who used communism as a veneer to run Russian society for their own benefit.
Chomsky considers Lenin’s philosophy to be dangerous and incorrect.
Critics have accused Chomsky of lumping Leninism and Stalinism together unfairly.
As Chomsky says in response to a woman’s question on this issue:
“I’ve written about it and explained why I think it’s true,” Chomsky says.
“Lenin was a right-wing deviation of the socialist movement, and he was so regarded. He was regarded as that by the mainstream Marxists. We forget who the mainstream Marxists were, because they lost.”
Chomsky references figures like leading Marxist intellectuals Antonie Pannekoek and Rosa Luxembourg as an example of those Lenin denounced and disagreed with.
Chomsky’s point and claim here is that Lenin didn’t truly agree with the communist and socialist ideals of solidarity and liberation from capitalist oppression.
Instead, Chomsky considers Lenin to have believed in a reactionary and authoritarian version of forcing socialism on people as part of a grand ideological and economic project.
Why is Chomsky against Leninism?
Chomsky’s big problem with Leninism is the same as that of mainstream Marxists of Lenin’s day: they believe it was totalitarian statism disguised under a worker’s rights banner.
They regard Lenin’s movement to be defined by an “opportunistic vanguardism.”
In other words, Leninism was the idea of a small elite seizing power on behalf of the people and making society how they wanted. The fact that it was supposedly for the people’s own good is where the lie comes in, according to Chomsky, since the goalposts can always be moved.
This power imbalance of Leninism and its desire to manipulate popular movements is what Chomsky is presenting as a continuation of an imperialistic, elitist mindset.
Marxism understood from the left was all about a spontaneous worker movement, not an intellectual vanguard.
That said, Marx did support the idea that some reeducation and force might be necessary to get rid of capitalistic economic forms and disorganized, unproductive systems in society.
Returning to Russia in spring 1917, Lenin basically appeared to be on board with the communist ideal of workers controlling production and a libertarian socialist model.
But after taking power by the fall, Lenin got drunk on the power, according to Chomsky. At this point, Lenin dismantled factory councils and worker rights, centralizing state control.
Instead of sticking to the freedom-based model he’d espoused before, Lenin went back to an iron fist.
This was actually his real position, according to Chomsky, and Lenin’s venture into leftism was actually just opportunism.
Do Chomsky and Lenin agree on anything?
Chomsky regards most popular movements since the 17th century to have been “spontaneous, libertarian and socialist” in nature.
As such, he agrees with the more liberty-minded and egalitarian statements put out by Lenin in the fall of 1917 when he came back to Russia.
However, he believes – like other mainstream Marxists of Lenin’s day – that Lenin’s temporary turn to a less statist version of socialism was just done to co-opt the popular movement.
The fact of the matter is that Chomsky believes Lenin was a fake leftist.
As a self-considered real leftist, this means Chomsky doesn’t really agree with Leninism because he considers it a disingenuous and cynical movement.
On the other hand, Chomsky and Lenin both support bringing down capitalism.
It is simply that Lenin believes that Machiavellian techniques must be used to actually do and maintain this, whereas Chomsky believes that it will come about naturally if the people raise their voices, boycott and become involved in the political process.
What are Chomsky’s core beliefs?
Chomsky is essentially a libertarian socialist. His philosophy is anarchosyndicalism, which is a left-wing form of libertarianism
His key beliefs revolve around worker coops and decentralized state systems that prioritize personal liberty.
Chomsky has consistently spoken out against what he regards as the incestuous relationship between mass media and corporate, state and military power.
The salesmen of this system are politicians who are journalists, who Chomsky has roundly criticized.
As an “astute politician” himself, Lenin was just one more of the fake figureheads in Chomsky’s view.
The top five disagreements between Chomsky and Lenin
1) Direct democracy vs. elite state power
Chomsky is a proponent of direct democracy, whereas Lenin supported the idea of an elite core who would do what they decided was best for everyone.
As a “libertarian anarchist” or anarchosyndicalist, Chomsky believes that using central state power is almost always wrong, even when it’s supposedly in the interest of
“By this he means one who challenges and calls for the dismantling of all unjustified authority and oppression, one who fights for the realisation of the full development of each individual and the collective, through a government of “industrial organisation” or ‘council communism’.”
2) Worker coops vs. a centralized government economy
Chomsky supports worker coops and a worker-controlled economy.
After taking power, Lenin moved to abolish worker coops and centralize state control.
Already by the beginning of 1918, Lenin was following his ideology that a “labor army” would be needed to get all the peasants and commoners in line behind the great leader.
As Chomksy said, “that has nothing to do with socialism.”
In fact, Chomsky regards Leninism as just another form of top-down authoritarianism that lets a small elite wield unjust power over workers and families.
“The great appeal of Leninist doctrine to the modern intelligentsia in periods of conflict and upheaval. This doctrine affords the ‘radical intellectuals’ the right to hold State power and to impose the harsh rule of the ‘Red Bureaucracy,’ the ‘new class,’” Chomsky writes.
3) Critical thought vs. state ideology
Chomsky has always been a strong advocate of progressive education that teaches students critical thought and to question authority.
Lenin, by contrast, stood behind an education system that enforced Soviet dogma with rigid conformity.
In his essay “the Soviet Union versus Socialism,” Chomsky claims that the USSR and Leninism were just a false front to stop any real positive change from happening.
“The Soviet leadership thus portrays itself as socialist to protect its right to wield the club, and Western ideologists adopt the same pretense in order to forestall the threat of a more free and just society.
“This joint attack on socialism has been highly effective in undermining it in the modern period.”
4) Truth vs. power
Chomsky considers truth to be more important than power or being on the “right” side.
For example, Chomsky is very against Israeli actions in Palestine, but also considers the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement to be bogus and full of exaggerated propaganda.
According to Chomsky, Lenin actually “reconstructed the czarist systems of oppression” in Russia and his brutal use of the Cheka and secret police are a perfect example of that.
At the same time, Chomsky’s claim that centralization and state power ran counter to Marxism is contested, since Marx did say that centralization would be necessary to crank up production and distribute wealth to exit the hamster wheel of the capitalist system.
5) Free speech vs. loyalty
Chomsky believes in free speech even if it includes statements he considers harmful or completely wrong.
Lenin and the subsequent Soviet governments who came after him believed strongly that public opinion had to be controlled and corralled.
Lenin used the secret police to relentlessly round up, persecute and imprison those who spoke out against his government.
Chomsky, by contrast, believes that even very unpopular or offensive opinions need to be protected speech.
In fact, Chomsky (who is Jewish) drew major controversy in the past for even defending the free speech rights of an ardent neo-Nazi.
If you’re on the left and believe in socialism, you may be wondering who’s more correct: Chomsky or Lenin?
Many Western leftists might say Chomsky, since he uses rationality, moderate positions and non-violence as the basis of his ideals.
Others, however, argue that Lenin was actually more realistic and that Chomsky is more or less a poser speaking from the comfort of his armchair, while Lenin was embroiled in a real war and struggle, not just theory.
While this may be unfair given Chomsky’s own street-level activism and work in civil rights for years, it’s certainly true that Chomsky has never been a national political leader who’s led a coup or revolution.
Indeed, Chomsky has plenty of opponents on the left, such as Dash the Internet Marxist who writes that:
“Noam Chomsky’s political hot takes are like a toxic brain fungus that infect all leftist discourse that they come into contact with,” Dash writes, adding that what angers him most are:
“The number of anarchists endlessly using those fucking obscene hot takes on Lenin and Marx from Chomsky, as the (one and) only source they need to spew the nonsense.”
The chief disagreement with Chomsky on Leninism from some on the left is that he’s wrong about Lenin being a counter-revolutionary or insincere.
They see this as convenient rhetoric that lets Chomksky avoid all the unpleasantness and authoritarianism associated with Lenin’s harsh reign without admitting that some of it may have been inevitable or the product of the times and Russian context itself.
Critics also accuse Chomsky of excusing the brutal and dictatorial regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia while demonizing Lenin as an example of rank hypocrisy.
“In Chomsky’s writings at the time, Pol Pot is quietly implied to be some noble exception with the best of intentions, but Vladimir Lenin is a ‘right-wing opportunist self-serving dictator?’
“Why does Chomsky offer the revolutionary benefit of the doubt only here, in the absolute most incorrect situation in the latter half of the twentieth century for which to have extended benefit of the doubt?” Dash asks.
Chomsky and Lenin are on very different sides of the left spectrum.
That’s because Chomsky supports a decentralized, pro-freedom vision of socialism, while Lenin ended up supporting a more centralized, pro-loyalty version of socialism.
While some of their goals regarding the abolishment of capitalism align, their solutions are wildly different.
The fact of the matter, however, is that Leninism was an ideology that developed in the raging furnace of revolution and civil war, while Chomsky’s ideas have been developed in the lecture halls of MIT and some protest marches.
Nonetheless, it’s clear to see that from an ideological standpoint the two men part paths at their understanding of the proper role of the state and political authority in dismantling capitalism.
It’s also clear that Chomsky has a much different view of what true socialism and Marxism should be in practice as compared to Lenin.