Libertarian Socialism

(Please also see this web site: Anarchists Against Nationalism and National Socialism)

Libertarian Socialism is a term essentially synonymous with the word "Anarchism". Anarchy, strictly meaning "without rulers", leads one to wonder what sort of system would exist in place of one without state or capitalist masters... the answer being a radically democratic society while preserving the maximal amount of individual liberty and freedom possible.

Libertarian Socialism recognizes that the concept of "property" (specifically, the means of production, factories, land used for profit, rented space) is theft and that in a truly libertarian society, the individual would be free of exploitation caused by the concentration of all means of wealth-making into the hands of an elite minority of capitalists.

Why "Libertarian"?

It is recognized that there are authoritarian systems and behavior, distinct from libertarian, or non-authoritarian ones. Since capitalism's early beginnings in Europe, and it's authoritarian trend of wage-slavery for the majority of people (working class) by a smaller, elite group (a ruling, or, capitalist class) who own the "means of production": machines, land, factories, there was a liberatory movement in response to capitalism known as "Socialism". In almost every case, the socialist movement has been divided along authoritarian, and libertarian lines. The anarchists on the libertarian side, and the Jacobins, Marxists, Leninists, Stalinists, and reformist state-socialists on the authoritarian side. (And liberals more or less split down the middle.)

There was also a movement called "Propaganda by deed", around the late 1800's to early 1900's, in which some anarchists (Such as the Italian Anarchist Luigi Galleani (1861-1931)), believed that violence was the best strategy for opposing the state. This proved a disaster, alienating anarchists from the general population and exposing them to negative characterizations by the press... the "bomb-toting anarchist" is for the most part a creation of the corporate media- before this stigma anarchism was recognized as an anti-authoritarian socialist movement.

Many anarchist groups and publications used the word "libertarian" instead of "anarchist" to avoid state repression and the negative association of the former term. Libertarian Socialism differentiates itself from "Anarchy" as a movement only in that it specifically focuses on working class organisation and education in order to achieve human emancipation from the fetters of capitalism.

Why "Socialism"?

Socialism, in it's traditional and true definition, means "the workers democratic ownership and/or control of the means of production". Such a definition implies that rather than a government bureaucracy for managing such means, there is a focus on highly democratic organisation, education and awareness, and every individual is encouraged to become an active, rather than passive participant in that which effect their lives. Only the workers themselves bear the knowledge of what their own freedom and liberty means, and only they know what is best for themselves, ultimately. Advocates of the state, be they on the left, or the right, have repeatedly defined the meaning of "socialism" to mean arbitrary rule by a set of "leaders", or a political con-game in which socialism is no more than capitalism with a few token adjustments for bearability.

I've heard of "national socialism"... does that have anything to do with "libertarian socialism"?

Definatly not. The National Socialist, or NAZI party controlled by Adolf Hitler in Germany in the 1930's used the word "socialist" in their party name because of the strong awareness workers there had of class divisions and socialist theory at the time. The National Socialist Party was actually a right-wing fascist movement that sought to win over working class people from the left. Workers were basically tricked into believing that the NAZI party would solve their countries economic problems by eliminating Jews and other minorities, and expanding the country. The end result was mass murder of millions of people and a totalitarian dictatorship. Some modern NAZIs and "national anarchists" or "national libertarians" have claimed that there was a "good" version of national socialism associated with Otto & Gregor Strasser... but this national socialism was still racist and exclusionary, and ultimatly led to a madman like Hitler taking power. Now days there are people who call themselves "national socialists" who attempt the same tactics of fooling people... hopefully they will never succeed again. If a national socialist party ever came into power it would be bitterly and ferociously opposed by libertarian socialists all over the world.

What about the American "Libertarian Party"? Don't they already use the word "libertarian"?

The word "libertarian" has been widely used in conjunction with the word "anarchist" and anti-authoritarian strands of socialist organisations, groups, and individuals since the turn of the century. For example, in the US, Sam Dolgoff started the still-running anarcho-syndicalist publication "Libertarian Labor Review" in the late 1980's, and Noam Chomsky has repeatedly spoken about a libertarian socialist solution to the oppression of workers worldwide. In France (Paris, Nanterre, and Bretagne), Italy, Lebanon & Belgium there are separate anarchist publications and/or groups all currently using the name "Libertarian Alternative". In London, England the Soliderity group published a series of periodicals since 1960, one of the most recent entitled "Soliderity: A Journal of Libertarian Socialism", and George Woodcock wrote "Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements" in 1962 (some 9 years before the creation of the US Libertarian Party.) In Cuba in 1959 there existed an anti-capitalist, anti-state organisation called the "Libertarian Association of Cuba". In the 1950's George Fontenis published "The Manifesto of Libertarian Communism". In New York City, July 1954 Russell Blackwell, Esther and Sam Dolgoff formed the Libertarian League, of which for a short time Murray Bookchin was a member. Erlier, in 1949, Gregory P. Maximoff initiated the Libertarian Book Club just before he died in 1950.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) a coalition group called the United Libertarian Organisations (ULO) was created with the intent of spreading truthful information about the revolutionary anarchist activities in Spain. The organisation consisted of groups publishing Cultura Proletaria (Spanish), Il Martello (Italian), Delo Truda (Russian anarchist), Il Proletario (Italian IWW), Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Jewish Anarchist Federation), the American anarchist publication, Vangaurd, as well as the Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union and General Recruiting Union of the IWW, and the Spanish Labor Press Bureau (administered by the CNT-FAI representative in the United States and Canada, the Chicago anarchist Maximilian Olay). The official organ of the ULO was called Spanish Revolution (now available in facsimile from Greenwood Publishing Corporation). Examples of articles are: Rural Collectives in Graus and Imposta; Peasants Build a New Economy; Statistics on Industrial Socialization in Catalonia; Organising the Textile Industry; Industrial Democracy; Running a Department Store; Telephone System Run by Workers; Peasant Communes in Aragon; etc. Anyone interested in constructive economic and social achievements of the CNT-FAI in revolutionary Spain should consult the pages of Spanish Revolution.

In Spain in 1932 Issac Puente wrote the pamphlet "Libertarian Communism", and the CNT adopted libertarian communism as its goal at the 1936 Saragossa conference on the eve of the Spanish Revolution. In France in 1926 the Dielo Trouda group of anarchists who had fled Russia wrote the hotly debated "Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists".

"Sebastien Faure, who founded Le Libertaire in 1895, is often credited with having invented the word 'libertarian' as a convenient synonym for 'anarchist.' However, Joseph Dejacque's use of the word as early as 1858 suggests that it may have had a long currency before Faure adopted it."
[George Woodcock, Anarchism, p. 281 (footnote)]
The term "libertarian" goes back at least to the 17th and 18th century religious debates regarding free-will versus pre-destination, and was used at that time to refer to persons who believed that individuals had full liberty to act as they saw fit.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known usage of "libertarian" was in 1789 as part of "Belsham's Essays", in which he appears to use the term in opposition to "necessitarian". It's hard to say whether there was a direct connection with other uses of the term.

An early socialistic libertarian movement (in deeds if not in name) had it's roots as far back as the French Revolution of 1789 in the poor serfs who saw through the authoritarianism of the Jacobins (and the bourgeoisie in general) who had used these serfs to overthrow the monarchy. [Further information is available from Peter Kropotkin's The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793 (pub: 1909)]

An earlier movement of "libertarian revolutionaries" were a movement from the mid-1600's called "The Levellers". Though they did not use the term "libertarian", they clearly had a libertarian orientation. They had a socialistic and individualistic aspect like the mutualists (mentioned below), and there was an even more socialistic movement called "The Diggers" or "The True Levellers". (There was also a group in San Francisco in the 1960's called The Diggers.)

It should be noted that there were two branches of libertarian socialists in the nineteenth century... the communist libertarians, and the mutualist libertarians. Both accepted the Labor Theory of Value, and the worker's right to the wealth which he or she produces... but they supported different means of achieving the goal of universal equality and freedom for mankind. The mutualists included people such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Benjamin Tucker, and the like. There was even a mutualist libertarian organisation (which came along still later than the French and Spanish socialist's use of the term "libertarian") called the Libertarian League in the 1920's. These people were clearly "Social Revolutionaries" in that the interests of the "working man" were of prime importance to them, though the more communistic libertarians might have called the mutualists "gradualist", they were still, at heart, socialist.

There is ample proof from writings from the mid-1800s that indicate that before the capitalists borrowed the term "libertarian", it was already in use in a political context that one could loosely describe as "pro-socialist". It was not until the 1950's that the capitalistic use of the term came into vogue.

While a number of pro-capitalist "Libertarian" organisations and publications tend to have recently appeared in the United States and a few other countries, these entities serve the interests of small business owners, landlords, investors and some upwardly-mobile professionals. Essentially secular neo-conservative organisations, with strong inspiration from the writings of the ultra-capitalist Ayn Rand, economist Murray Rothbard, and science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Typical of these advocates of the sacredcy of private property is a distortion of the theories of the moral individualist philosophers of the 19th century (Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, Josiah Warren, Henry David Thoreau, etc.) who respected the rights of the individual but were highly critical of the concentrations of wealth and power which led to capitalism and economic oppression since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Due to the elite privilege for the few over the many inherent in a 'pure' capitalist system, "libertarian" capitalism is un-democratic and anti-libertarian. For more information see the essay "Libertarianism: Bogus Anarchy", by Peter Sabatini, and a TV interview with Noam Chomsky.

The Libertarian or sometimes-called "anarcho-" capitalist movement was a reaction from the political right-wing against US president FDR's sweeping social democratic laws passed as a response to a powerful labor movement in the 1930's. The libertarian left had little interest in nationalizations or state-social-programs, arguing that they placed power into the hands of elite managers and not the workers themselves. The destruction of the original libertarian movement in the United States, (by mass deportations and imprisonment), as well as in Europe (The Fascist victories in Spain, Italy and Germany) left a vacuum in which was possible for one Dean Russell of the capitalist "Foundation for Economic Education" to write an article in the FEE publication, "Ideas on Liberty" of May, 1955 entitled "Who is a Libertarian?" which advocated that the right should "trademark and reserve for our own use the good and honorable word 'libertarian.'" In other cases, conservative Science Fiction writers such as Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson used the term in their writing to depict fictionally virtuous forms of capitalism. It should be noted that these writers and others like them (Ann MaCaffrey, Daniel F. Galouye, Keith Laumer, etc.) supported the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. For more information see the article "Starship Stormtroopers" by Micheal Moorcock.

What these people did not know or chose to ignore was that at least two US libertarian socialist organisations already existed, one formed in July 1954 called the Libertarian League, started by Russell Blackwell, and the other formed in 1949 and called the Libertarian Book Club, an idea initiated by Gregory P. Maximoff, and formerly established by a number of anarchists, including: Bill & Sarah Taback, Joseph & Hannah Spivack, Joseph Aaronstam, Ida Pilot (a professional translator) and her companion Valerio Isca, and Esther and Sam Dolgoff. The Libertarian League of the 1920' was a simmilarly socialistic organization, but no longer existed. The Libertarian Book Club is based in New York City, and is still active today.
(This information is from the book "Fragments: A Memoir", by Sam Dolgoff, Pub. 1986 Refract Publications, Cambridge, England)

In Webster's New International Dictionary, the definition of 'Libertarian' is stated to be: "One who holds to the principle of free will; also, one who upholds the principles of liberty, esp. individual liberty of thought and action." Clearly, in comparison to the authoritarian Soviet Union and Red China of the 1940's and 50's, liberal capitalism could be made to appear more "libertarian" than socialism if one were to accept that China and the USSR were the definitive examples of "socialism". But, if one were to have listened to the original socialistic libertarians (the anarchists) all along, it would have been clear that both the "socialism" of so-called "Communist" countries, and the idea of a "libertarian (or anarcho-) capitalism" were a farce.

Finaly, it should be noted that most of the modern pro-capitalist "libertarian" writing suffers from a severe defect: they overlook the fact that capitalism in every form ever tried throughout history is inherently authoritarian (i.e the boss/worker relationship), and thus incompatible with libertarianism in any form. However, if you ignore and skip over those portions that talk about capitalist ideas, there are some really eloquent arguments for individual rights, liberties, and responsibilities in these writings.

Unlike right-wing Libertarians, Liberals and Social Democrats, libertarian socialists reject participation in the mainstream representative voting process. Libertarian socialism is, in effect, a revolutionary theory and approach to political life. Libertarian Socialism's anti-state stance might even give it the label "Laissez-fair socialism"- if a politician (or capitalist) were to approach some anarchist workers in France and ask them what it was he could do for them, they would reply, "Laissez-nous faire."- essentially, "leave us alone". Libertarian socialists understand that it is the workers who create and maintain everything in the world, and they do not need leaders to direct them in the affairs of their lives. What is the least a government could do for workers? Keep the Government and capitalists off their back-- but it is far better to avoid the need for "politricksters" and capitalist rulers in the first place.

What about individual liberty?

Libertarian Socialism is an anti-authoritarian form of socialism and the main principles are liberty, freedom, the right for workers to fraternize and organise democratically, the absence of illegitimate authority and the resistance against force. Libertarian Socialists hold that the people can make the best judgments for themselves when given enough information and therefore stress education rather than regulation. In current society, the individual worker is separated from her or his fellow workers and not permitted to organise against his or her own exploitation... the state is the force which permits this lack of freedom to continue.

Libertarian Socialists see humankind divided in a struggle between different social classes: the property-owning class, and the working class. Libertarian socialists are against all forms of coercion, state and capitalist, and do not seek to regulate human behaviors by way of the state, including such issues as possession of firearms, drugs, sexual conduct between consenting individuals, and related issues.

Libertarian Socialists see such things as gun control, "speech codes", drug, alcohol, pornography and prostitution prohibition as a waste of time, and an unnecessary violation of individual choice. Most of humanities woes arise from the inherently coercive, undemocratic and un-libertine capitalist and state systems which human society is currently forced to follow. The answer is not regulation or limitation, but organisation and education with a working-class emphasis. Libertarian Socialists reject the "social democratic" solution of keeping the state & military apparatus around but raising taxes to support social programs. These are merely "band-aids" for problems which under capitalism will never go away, and always threaten to get worse. World problems will not be solved by "professionals", free-market entrepreneurs, the ruling capitalist class, politicians or stateist bureaucrats. Only the people, organised and educated, can solve their own problems.

Libertarian socialists believe in a form of the free market - but a truly free "market" (of ideas and aspirations, not money and wealth), not the capitalist construct that exists today which is based on a minority controlling the world's resources and the rest forced to work for them or pay them rent. A free market where workers are free to organise unions without fear of repression, and where exploitation of workers through profits does not exist. People who run their own individual businesses (or trades) without exploiting anyone would be left alone.. but large projects would be based on mutual free associations, which would last for the duration of the project - where each member affected would have an equal say in how the project is carried out and what wages are paid. Instead of huge government or corporate structures, individuals would truly have control over their lives when working together, or alone. In a true free market, production facilities would be owned and controlled by the workers themselves, not capitalist bosses or government bureaucrats. Libertarian communists specificly wish to abolish money, the basis for the concentration of power (wealth).

What do Libertarian Socialists feel about Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia?

It has always been impossible for workers to challenge capitalism effectively so long as divisions of people based on gender, skin color, or sexual orientation have continued. Racism in particular has been used from the start as a way of dividing workers along an arbitrary basis and weakening any chances for solid organisation. So long as there is always someone being looked down upon, someone forced to accept lower wages because of their low status in society, wages in a competitive system can always be pushed to what the lowest and most desperate will accept. It should also go without saying that there is no scientific proof of the existence of separate human "races" which are truly incapable of getting along, nor is there scientific proof that women are inherently physically weaker or less intellectually capable than men. The issue of "hate speech" and pornography must always take into account the importance of artistic freedom and the necessity to criticize what one disagrees with. When it is clear that a conscious effort is being made to denigrate or divide a group of people from another, with some economic or political goal as it's motivation, libertarian socialists would resist such actions on the basis that they would divide and weaken any chance for eventual liberation from capitalism. Finally, so long as any group is prejudiced against, humanity will wage war against itself for irrational reasons, using such divisions as a means to an end when seen fit. If people understand that they too can be discriminated against, based on ANYTHING about them, it should be obvious that such discrimination, like any other human activity, has potential to be self-destructive in it's consequences.

What libertarian socialist organisations exist?

Currently the most prominent organisations along libertarian socialist lines are the International of Anarchist Federations (IFA), and the syndicalist union known as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers Association (IWA), and various anarchist organisations & groups world-wide.

Are there any major libertarian socialist theorists?

Aside from the significant number of anarchist theorists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin and Alexander Berkman, some important contributors to libertarian socialist theory and philosophy would be Noam Chomsky, Daniel Guerin, and Murray Bookchin.


(This article was originally written in mid-late 1995 and later updated.)

Further Info:
"Libertarian Socialism" (article)
"Libertarians - What's in a Word?" (article)
Liberty for the People
Prominent Anarchists and Left-Libertarians

Last update: September 1, 2001
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