Libertarian socialism is any one of a group of political philosophies dedicated to opposing coercive forms of authority and social hierarchy, in particular the institutions of capitalism and the state. Some of the best known libertarian socialist ideologies are anarchism (particularly anarcho-communism and anarcho-syndicalism), council communism, and autonomist Marxism.
Libertarian socialists believe in the abolition of privately held means of production and abolition of the state as unnecessary and harmful institutions.
The basic philosophy of libertarian socialism is summed up in the name: adherents believe that management of the common good (socialism) is necessary, but that this should be done in a manner that increases individual liberty and avoids concentration of power or authority (libertarianism). Some libertarian socialists say individual liberty and societal harmony are necessarily antagonistic, and libertarian philosophy must balance the two. Others feel that the two are symbiotic, and that the liberty of the individual guarantees the harmony of the society and vice-versa.
Libertarian critiques are based on principles of decentralization of power and authority. Libertarian socialists advocate freedom while denying the legitimacy of private property, since private property, in the form of capital, leads to the exploitation of others with less economic means and thus infringes on the exploited class's individual freedoms.
Libertarian socialists differentiate between the idea of authority based on power, and authority based on knowledge or skills. The term "power", in this instance, refers to the social or physical dominance of one individual over another. They oppose all authority based on political power, economic power, or hierarchy.
Libertarian socialists believe that all social bonds should be developed by individuals who have an equal amount of bargaining power. This means that an accumulation of economic power in the hands of a few is no different than the centralization of political power, since both reduce the bargaining power—and thus the freedom—of the other individuals in society. If freedom is valued, then society must work towards a system in which individuals have the power to decide economic issues along with political issues. They seek to replace coercive authority and hierarchy with direct democracy and voluntary federation in all aspects of life, including physical communities and economic enterprises.
Libertarian socialists believe that productive property should be held communally and controlled democratically. The only exception of course being personal possessions .
Adherents believe there is little difference between threat of physical violence as a means of coercion and coercion using political or economic power. Thus the libertarian socialist argues that the capitalist distinction between economic coercion, which they allow by the centralized accumulation of productive property and wealth, and physical coercion is an untenable dichotomy. Further, libertarian socialists argue that even under such a dichotomy, physical coercion is still endorsed by capitalists in the form of a series of physically coercive institutions that uphold property privilege. Libertarian socialists believe that freedom can only exist in a society that allows for equal bargaining power.
The relationships generated by ownership determine whether something is a possession or property. A property title grants owners the advantage of extorting payment from those who wish to use it when it is not in use by the owner. Possession, on the other hand, is not compatible with this form of extortion because it grants no special rights to those things which are not in use.
Opposition to the state
Proponents are most famous for opposing the existence of states or government. Indeed, in the past many refused to defend themselves in court because they did not wish to participate in coercive state institutions, instead choosing to go to jail or die.
The critique of states is built on the same principle opposing concentration of authority based on power, which they believe inevitably leads to abuse.
In lieu of states, libertarian socialists seek to organize themselves into voluntary institutions (usually called collectives or syndicates) which use direct democracy or consensus for their decision-making process. Some libertarian socialists advocate combining these institutions using rotating, recallable delegates to higher-level federations. Others, however, have advanced strong critiques of federated systems, and these federations have rarely been carried out in practice. Spanish anarchism is a major example of such federations in practice.
Contrary to popular opinion, libertarian socialism has not traditionally been a utopian movement, tending to avoid dense theoretical analysis or prediction of what a future society would or should look like. The tradition instead has been that such decisions cannot be made now, and must be made through struggle and experimentation, so that the best solution can be arrived at democratically and organically, and to base the direction for struggle on established historical example.
Supporters often suggest that this focus on exploration over predetermination is one of their great strengths. They point out that the success of science at explaining the natural world comes from its methods and its adherence to open rational exploration, not its conclusions; whereas traditional dogmatic explanations of naturalistic phenomena have proved almost useless at explaining anything in the natural world.
Although critics claim that they are avoiding questions they cannot answer, libertarian socialists believe that a methodological approach to exploration is the best way to achieve our social goals. To them, dogmatic approaches to social organization are just as doomed to failure as are non-scientific explanations of natural phenomena. Noted anarchist Rudolf Rocker once stated, "I am an anarchist not because I believe anarchism is the final goal, but because there is no such thing as a final goal" (The London Years, 1956).
As Albert Meltzer and Stuart Christie put it in their book The Floodgates of Anarchy , anarchism
- has its particular inheritance, part of which it shares with socialism, giving it a family resemblance to certain of its enemies. Another part of its inheritance it shares with liberalism, making it, at birth, kissing-cousins with American-type radical individualism , a large part of which has married out of the family into the Right Wing and is no longer on speaking terms. (The Floodgates of Anarchy, 1970, page 39.)
Conflict with authoritarian Marxism
In rejecting property and the state, libertarian socialists put themselves in opposition to both capitalist democracy and to authoritarian forms of Marxism. Although anarchists and Marxists are often said to share a belief in the ultimate goal of a stateless society, anarchists criticise most Marxists for advocating a transitional phase under which the state is used to achieve this aim. Nonetheless, libertarian Marxist tendencies such as autonomist Marxism and council communism have historically been intertwined with the anarchist movement. Anarchist movements have come into conflict with both capitalist and Marxist forces, sometimes at the same time, as in the Spanish Civil War, though as in that war Marxists themselves are often divided in support or opposition to anarchism. Other political persecutions under bureaucratic parties have resulted in a strong historical antagonism between anarchists and libertarian Marxists on the one hand and Leninist Marxists on the other (and their descendants, e.g. Maoists). In recent history, however, libertarian socialists have repeatedly formed temporary alliances with Marxist-Leninist groups for the purposes of protest against institutions they both reject.
Part of this antagonism can be traced to the International Workingmen's Association (or the First International), a congress of radical workers, where Mikhail Bakunin, who was fairly representative of the libertarian socialist view, and Karl Marx, whom anarchists accused of being an authoritarian, came into conflict on various issues. Bakunin's viewpoint on the illegitimacy of the State as an institution and the role of electoral politics was starkly counterposed to Marx's views in the First International. Marx and Bakunin's disputes eventually led to Marx taking control of the First International and expelling Bakunin and his followers from the organization. This was the beginning of a long-running feud between libertarian socialists and what they call "authoritarian communists" (or sometimes just "authoritarians").
Some Marxists have formulated views that closely resemble syndicalism, and thus express more affinity with anarchist ideas. The American Marxist leader Daniel De Leon, for example, who joined and reorganized the Socialist Labor Party in 1890, advocated a form of "industrial unionism" (known as De Leonism), which was similar to syndicalism, although De Leon himself made a point of distinguishing between the two ideologies.
Several libertarian socialists, notably Noam Chomsky, believe that anarchism shares much in common with certain variants of Marxism such as the council communism of left-wing Marxist Anton Pannekoek. In Chomsky's Notes on Anarchism , he suggests the possibility "that some form of council communism is the natural form of revolutionary socialism in an industrial society. It reflects the belief that democracy is severely limited when the industrial system is controlled by any form of autocratic elite, whether of owners, managers, and technocrats, a 'vanguard' party, or a state bureaucracy."
Autonomist Marxism and situationism are also regarded as being anti-authoritarian variants of Marxism that are firmly within the libertarian socialist tradition.
These arguments are explored more fully at "Anarchism and Marxism".
Libertarian socialist tendencies
Libertarian socialism is composed a diverse range of tendencies and organizations, with varying degrees of unity depending on specific ideological beliefs. These are of course, only a few of the most historically important factions within libertarian socialism.
Main article: Anarcho-Communism
Anarcho-communism was first formulated in the Italian section of the First International, by Carlo Cafiero , Errico Malatesta, Andrea Costa, and other ex-Mazzinian republicans. Out of respect for Mikhail Bakunin, they did not make their differences from standard anarchism explicit until after the latter's death. In 1876, at the Florence Conference of the Italian Federation of the International (which was actually held in a forest outside Florence, due to police activity), they declared the principles of anarcho-communism, beginning with:
- "The Italian Federation considers the collective property of the products of labour as the necessary complement to the collectivist programme, the aid of all for the satisfaction of the needs of each being the only rule of production and consumption which corresponds to the principle of solidarity. The federal congress at Florence has eloquently demonstrated the opinion of the Italian International on this point..."
The above report was actually made in an article by Malatesta and Cafiero in the (Swiss) Jura Federation's bulletin later that year.
Anarcho-communists hold that the only road to true liberation of the individual, as well as the abolition of wage slavery and the state, is the complete abolition of market systems; whereas some other anarchists and libertarian socialists advocate collective ownership with market elements and sometimes barter. Anarcho-communists believe the only true liberation comes with a gift economy operated by the collective under direct democracy.
In anarcho-communism, profit no longer exists. Not only that, but goods are given away as gifts in the certainty that others will also give products back. In an industrial setting, this would occur between worker syndicates as well as between individuals. If one syndicate does not share their products, they will not receive resources from other syndicates, making it in their best interest to share.
Main article: Anarcho-syndicalism
Anarcho-syndicalism is a branch of anarchism which focuses on the labor movement. Anarcho-syndicalists view labor unions as a potential force for revolutionary social change, replacing capitalism and the state with a new society democratically self-managed by workers.
The basic principles of anarcho-syndicalism are:
- workers' solidarity
Workers' solidarity means that anarcho-syndicalists believe all workers—no matter their race, gender, or ethnic group—are in a similar situation in regard to their boss' (class consciousness). Furthermore, it means that, within capitalism, any gains or losses made by some workers from or to bosses will eventually affect all workers. Therefore, to liberate themselves, all workers must support one another in their class conflict.
Anarcho-syndicalists believe that only direct action—that is, action concentrated on directly attaining a goal, as opposed to indirect action, such as electing a representative to a government position—will allow workers to liberate themselves.
Moreover, anarcho-syndicalists believe that workers' organizations (the organizations that struggle against the wage system, which, in anarcho-syndicalist theory, will eventually form the basis of a new society) should be self-managing. They should not have bosses or “business agents”; rather, the workers should be able to make all the decisions that affect them themselves.
Rudolf Rocker was one of the most popular voices in the anarcho-syndicalist movement. He outlined a view of the origins of the movement, what it sought, and why it was important to the future of labor in his 1938 pamphlet Anarcho-Syndicalism.
The International Workers Association is an international anarcho-syndicalist federation of various labor unions from different countries. The Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo played and still plays a major role in the Spanish labor movement. It was also an important force in the Spanish Civil War.
Main article: Council Communism
Council communism was a radical Left movement originating in Germany and the Netherlands in the 1920s. Its primary organization was the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD). Council communism continues today as a theoretical and activist position within Marxism, and also within libertarian socialism. The central argument of council communism, in contrast to those of Social democracy and Leninist communism, is that workers' councils arising in the factories and municipalities are the natural form of working class organisation and state power. This view is opposed to the reformist and Bolshevik stress on vanguard parties, parliaments, or governments.
The core principle of council communism is that the state and the economy should be managed by workers' councils, composed of delegates elected at workplaces and recallable at any moment. As such, council communists oppose state-run "bureaucratic socialism". They also oppose the idea of a "revolutionary party", since council communists believe that a revolution led by a party will necessarily produce a party dictatorship. Council communists support a workers' democracy, which they want to produce through a federation of workers' councils.
The Russian word for council is "soviet," and during the early years of the revolution worker's councils were politically significant in Russia. It was to take advantage of the aura of workplace power that the word became used by Lenin for various political organs. Indeed, the name "Supreme Soviet," by which the parliament was called; and that of the Soviet Union itself make use of this terminology, but they do not imply any decentralization.
Furthermore, council communists held a critique of the Soviet Union as a capitalist state, believing that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia became a "bourgeois revolution" when a party bureaucracy replaced the old feudal aristocracy. Although most felt the Russian Revolution was working class in character, they believed that, since capitalist relations still existed (because the workers had no say in running the economy), the Soviet Union ended up as a state capitalist country, with the state replacing the individual capitalist. Thus, council communists support workers' revolutions, but oppose one-party dictatorships.
Council communists also believed in diminishing the role of the party to one of agitation and propaganda, rejected all participation in elections or parliament, and argued that workers should leave the reactionary trade unions and form one big revolutionary union.
Main article: De Leonism
Developed by Daniel De Leon, Marxism-DeLeonism is a form of Marxism.
De Leon combined the rising theories of syndicalism in his time with orthodox Marxism. According to De Leonist theory, militant industrial unions are the vehicle of class struggle. Industrial unions serving the interests of the proletariat will bring about the change needed to establish a socialist system. How this differs from anarcho-syndicalism is that, according to De Leonist thinking, a revolutionary political party is also necessary to fight for the proletariat on the political field.
According to the De Leonist theory, workers would simultaneously form socialist industrial unions in the workplaces, and form a socialist political party which would organize in the political realm. Upon achieving sufficient support for a victory at the polls, the political party would be voted into office, giving the De Leonist program a mandate from the people. It is assumed that at that point, the socialist industrial unions will have attained sufficient strength in the workplaces for workers there to take control of the means of production. The De Leonist victory at the polls would be accompanied by a transfer of control of the factories, mines, farms and other means of production to workers councils organized within the industrial unions. De Leonists distinguish this event from the general strike to take control of the workplaces advocated by anarcho-syndicalists, and refer to it instead as a general lockout of the ruling class, although in reality the two concepts are very similar.
The existing government would then be replaced with a government elected from within the socialist industrial unions, and the newly elected socialist government would quickly enact whatever constitutional amendments or other changes in the structure of government needed to bring this about. Workers on the shop floor would elect local shop floor committees needed to continue production, and representatives to local and national councils representing their particular industry. Workers would also elect representatives to a central congress, called an "all-industrial congress", which would effectively function as the national government. These representatives would be subject to a recall vote at any time. De Leonism would thus reorganize the national government along industrial lines with representatives elected by industry, not by geographic location.
Violence in anarchism
Many libertarian socialists see violent revolution as necessary in the creation of an anarchist society. Along with many others, Errico Malatesta argued that the use of violence was necessary in creating an anarchist society; as he put it in Umanità Nova :
It is our aspiration and our aim that everyone should become socially conscious and effective; but to achieve this end, it is necessary to provide all with the means of life and for development, and it is therefore necessary to destroy with violence, since one cannot do otherwise, the violence which denies these means to the workers. 
For a further discussion of the role of violence in anarchism, see "Anarchism and non-violence".
Criticisms of libertarian socialism
A common criticism, made both by non-socialist libertarians and by non-libertarian socialists, is that a free market will spontaneously arise unless it is suppressed by force (with the exception of a market in information intagibles such as software, music, films, and literature). Typically, non-socialist libertarians believe that a capitalist economy is natural, rather than artificial, so it would naturally develop in the absence of regulating factors. Thus they argue that a truly socialist libertarianism would be an oxymoron. Conversely, non-libertarian socialists don't want a capitalist economy to develop, so they insist on maintaining the state (often in an altered form) to prevent this.
The libertarian socialists disagree with both groups of critics, instead arguing that a socialist society can develop and endure without coercion.
Some claim that far from spontaneously arising in the absence of suppression, capitalist economic relations actually require active political suppression in the form of property law that is enforced either by a state or by private forces (see: Property is theft). Others (especially anarcho-syndicalists) believe that trade unionism, direct action, and mass organisation among free individuals would negate capitalism which, similarly, can only be saved by coercion. There are few, if any, libertarian socialists who think that violence should play an institutional role in a future society. Some anarchists, who have been called anarcho-pacifists, reject violence altogether. Thus, they claim that it is a straw-man to suggest that libertarian socialists would violently restrict voluntary economic relations between individuals in the absence of a state. Rather, they believe that capitalist economic relations require public or private enforcement because they are involuntary themselves, thus resistance against private property enforcement is a form of defense.
Similarly, they argue that free relations in a socialist economy cannot be enforced by an authoritarian state. Such a state would instead rule out free relations or cause them to quickly deteriorate given the nature of centralized power.
Adherents of the Austrian School of economics argue that the distinction between "personal" and "productive" property is specious, and that consequently paradoxes in their division are doomed to arise regardless of the delineation chosen.
Libertarian socialists generally disagree that the division is specious, but agree that it is difficult; thus the decision cannot be trusted to the state (as most socialists propose), but can be made by the people involved in individual cases. Others believe that the distinction they make is not between personal and productive property, but rather between property that is "in use" or part of a broader use pattern and property that is "out of use" or used to extort labor from a second party.
Although anarchism is generally considered to be a development in Western philosophical and political thought, some would disagree. Rejection of coercive authority can be traced as far back as Ancient China, where Taoism is declared by some to have been the oldest example of anarchist doctrine. In fact, similar rejections of authority can probably be found in every society, if one looks hard enough; whether or not they are anarchist is a question for debate. Anarcho-primitivists assert that for the longest period of human history, human society was organised on anarchist principles. This is often framed as a conflict between dominator cultures and archaic partnership cultures. However their critics claim that such a projection of their abstract principles is simply an adaptation of the mainstream project of western value systems onto the rest of the world.
In the West, an anti-authoritarian tendency can be traced to Ancient Greece, with philosophers like Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic philosophy, who was, according to Peter Kropotkin, "[t]he best exponent of anarchist philosophy in ancient Greece". Zeno distinctly opposed his vision of a free community without government to the state-utopia of Plato. "He repudiated the omnipotence of the state, its intervention and regimentation, and proclaimed the sovereignty of the moral law of the individual." Zeno argued that although the necessary instinct of self-preservation leads humans to egotism, nature has supplied a corrective to it by providing man with another instinct—sociability. Like many modern anarchists, he believed that if people follow their instincts, they will have no need of law-courts or police, no temples and no public worship, and use no money (free gifts taking the place of the exchanges). Zeno's beliefs, however, have only reached us as fragmentary quotations.
There were also movements such as the Free Spirit in the Middle Ages and the Diggers (True Levellers) during the English Civil War.
In fact, some anarchists assert that anarchism is not so much a movement as an historical tendency; indeed, Bakunin saw thought and rebellion as the principal tenets of human nature as well as of anarchism. However, there was certainly no coherent ideology that called itself "anarchism" until the nineteenth century, when anarchism—then often referred to simply as "revolutionary socialism"—emerged as the libertarian side of the growing socialist and communist movements of that period.
Anarchism: a new word
Most of the labor movements of the time were fiercely anti-capitalist, and the resulting organisations produced many utopian visions for how they wished to transform society. Anarchism developed and flourished in this environment, and had a profound mutual relationship with labor movements until well into the 20th century.
Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian philosopher and the intellectual heir of Pierre Joseph Proudhon (who adopted the term anarchist in its modern political meaning) was the first major proponent of the philosophy of libertarian socialism. Bakunin summarized the philosophy: "We are convinced that freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice, and that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality." Bakunin's conflict with Marx (discussed above under "Conflict with Marxism") was the most visible and well-known split between "authoritarians" and "libertarians" to take place in the nineteenth century working class movement.
The next major step in the development of libertarian socialism came with Peter Kropotkin, a Russian scientist who developed the philosophy of anarchist communism. His writings included The Conquest of Bread and Fields, Factories and Workshops. Kropotkin gave up his nobility and refused the offered position of secretary of an important geographical society on moral grounds. He traveled across the world, using his training as a geographer to catalog productivity, and concluded that an admirable lifestyle could be achieved for all with only five hours of work per day for part of your adult life. He also elaborated an idea called mutual aid, which he believed humans were naturally driven towards.
The spread of ideas: anarchism's influence
Since the 19th century, anarchist ideas have spread through the labor movement, and influenced many radicals and revolutions.
In the Russian Revolution, after the overthrow of the tsarist state, many revolutionary movements sprang up all throughout the collapsing Russian Empire. Notable amongst these was an anarchist peasant movement in Ukraine, usually known as the Makhnovists due to the influence of Nestor Makhno, an anarchist peasant/general. The Makhnovists organized resistance against the White counter-revolution, and later on against the consolidation of power by the Bolsheviks, but were eventually crushed.
Mexican Revolution — The revolutionary period in Mexico was an extended period usually considered to have begun with the overthrow of the dictator Porfirio Díaz and the installation of the moderate Francisco I. Madero. Instrumental in this transfer of power were the likes of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, a mestizo peasant from the state of Morelos. Zapata and his followers, the Zapatistas, mostly Native American, advocated a program of radical land reform under the slogan Tierra y Libertad, or "Land and Liberty". This demand, laid out roughly in the Zapatistas' Plan de Ayala , sought to break up the large landholdings (fincas) which maintained power in the hands of the landlords (finqueros) and kept the indigenous peasants chained into a system of lifelong debt slavery (peonaje). This Zapatista movement was eventually augmented by intellectuals from Mexico City, including the anarchist Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama and the brothers Jesús and Ricardo Flores Magón (who coined the phrase "Land and Liberty" that Zapata adopted). These intellectuals, more articulate than the illiterate peasants (probably including Zapata himself), became the voice for the Zapatista movement. Zapata quickly broke with Madero, who he felt was not moving quickly enough in the area of land reform, and continued to fight his government and the successive governments of Victoriano Huerta and Venustiano Carranza. Madero, Huerta, and Carranza fought each other for control of the Mexican state, but all agreed that Zapata was a thorn that had to be removed. Eventually, after many years of fighting, Carranza succeeded in having Zapata assassinated (on April 10, 1919), and subduing the Zapatista forces.
Especially significant in the worldwide anarchist movement was the anarchist activity in Spain which reached a peak during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and resulted from many decades of anarchist agitation and education. The vibrant and widespread support for anarchism resulted in a social revolution that occurred alongside the fight against fascist forces. During the civil war, the anti-fascist forces were comprised of various factions including communists and anarchists. Anarchist groups controlled both territory and factories for a time during the war, especially in Catalonia. Fights broke out between the communists and anarchists in some cities, culminating in the Barcelona May Days of 1937. One of the major anarchist groups from that time, the CNT (Confederación National del Trabajo), still exists in Spain (see ). Though the fascists won and the anarchists came into conflict with the fascist rebels, liberal democrats and authoritarian communists, many fled overseas (especially to France) and helped bring anarchist ideas to labor movements around the world.
Labour organisations such as the CNT have often been the focal point of anarchist activity. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or "Wobblies") are an anarcho-syndicalist labor union that was prominent in labor struggles in the United States during the early 20th century. They advocate the formation of "one big union" comprised of all workers everywhere. The IWW made use of militant tactics in order to effect their demands for improvement in worker's conditions, including sabotage, and popularized the "wildcat strike", a sudden, unannounced work stoppage, as a means of fighting. While they never advocated straight out violence, they were clear in their intent to defend themselves if attacked, and fought back with force against policemen and Pinkerton security guards. The Wobblies were openly revolutionary (as many labor unions were at the time) and saw their struggle for worker's rights only as a tool towards the eventual worker takeover of factories that the syndicalists envisioned at the time. They were racially inclusive, recognizing that black workers and white workers faced the same oppression (in a time when many labor unions were exclusive). They faced fierce resistance, both from the bosses themselves and from the federal government, particularly during the time of the Palmer Raids. This resistance, and the slow process of attrition of revolutionary potential as labor unions forced concessions from the capitalists, reduced the IWW to tatters by the early twenties. They still survive in some form and are organizing workers to this day (see).
Other prominent anarchists and libertarian socialists include:
- Anarchism, George Woodcock (Penguin Books, 1962) (For many years the classic introduction, until in part superseded by Harper's 'Anarchy: A Graphic Guide')
Anarchy: A Graphic Guide, Clifford Harper (Camden Press, 1987) (An excellent overview, updating Woodcock's classic, and beautifully illustrated throughout by Harper's woodcut-style artwork)
The Anarchist Reader, George Woodcock (Ed.) (Fontana/Collins 1977) (An anthology of writings from anarchist thinkers and activists including Proudhon, Kropotkin, Bakunin, Bookchin, Goldman, and many others.)
The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (a 1974 science fiction novel that takes place on a planet with an anarchist society; winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel.)
Contrast: Hierarchical organization
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