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Libertarian socialism

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Libertarian socialism is a political philosophy dedicated to opposing coercive forms of authority and social hierarchy, most famously the institutions of government and capitalism. It has gone by various names: libertarian communism, anarcho-communism, left-anarchism, and sometimes simply anarchism. Libertarian socialists believe in the abolition of privately held means of production and abolition of the state as unnecessary and harmful institutions.

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Anti-capitalism
3 Opposition to the state
4 Political roots
5 Philosophical arguments
6 Criticisms of Libertarian Socialism
7 Historical Origins
8 Further reading
9 External links


Libertarian socialists usually call themselves anarchists except when necessary to disambiguate or disassociate themselves with others, typically the anarcho-capitalists, who use the same term. Libertarian socialism should not be confused with pro-market libertarianism, the philosophy associated with groups such as the United States Libertarian Party. The two philosophies are only alike in their professed love of liberty and in their opposition to statism, hence the similarity in name; but are drastically different regarding the legal issues of private property. In this article, the terms libertarian socialism, libertarian communism, anarcho-communism and left-anarchism are used as synonyms.

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 preserves individual liberty and avoids concentration of power or authority (libertarianism). Some libertarian socialists say individual liberty and societal harmony are necessarily antagonistic, and anarchist 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.

All the critiques that anarchists develop are based on principles of decentralization of power and authority. So, while anarchists have a critique of capitalism similar to Marxism, they diverge in that anarchists also reject capital due to its tendency to lead to concentration of power (in the form of wealth). This critique highlights the distinction between libertarian socialists and Libertarians (in the North American sense): libertarian socialists advocate freedom while denying, to a greater or lesser extent, the legitimacy of private property, since private property in the form of capital leads to the exploitation of others with lesser economic power, and thus infringes on the exploited class's individual freedoms. Libertarians, by contrast, believe that liberty is impossible without the enforcement of private property economics.


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. For them, the only moral private properties are personal possessions.

Unlike anarcho-capitalists, anarchists believe there is little to no difference between threat of physical violence as a means of coercion and political or economic coercion. Thus the libertarian socialist argues that the anarcho-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

Anarchists are most famous for opposing the existence of states or government. Indeed, in the past many anarchists 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 according to anarchists 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. (For an example of anarchist federations, see Spanish anarchism.)

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.

Anarchists 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 anarchists are avoiding questions they cannot answer; anarchists believe that no one knows all of the best ways to produce certain outcomes within society, and that a methodological approach to exploration is the best way to achieve our social goals. To an anarchist dogmatic approaches to social organization are just as doomed to failure as are non-scientific explanations of natural phenomena. The 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).

Political roots

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 Marxism

In rejecting property and the state, libertarian socialists put themselves in opposition to both capitalist democracy and to Marxism. Although Anarchists and Marxists are often said to share a belief in an the ultimate goal of a stateless society, Anarchists criticise Marxism for advocating a transitional phase under which the state is used to achieve this aim. Historically the movement has often been ignored in the much more visible conflict between Marxism-Leninism and capitalism. Anarchist movements have come into conflict with both capitalist and Marxist forces, sometimes at the same time, as in the Spanish Civil War. Other political persecutions under either party have resulted in a strong historical antagonism between anarchists and Leninist Marxists (and their descendants, i.e. Maoists). In recent history, however, anarchists 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 DeLeonism), 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 intuitive understanding 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 closely resemble libertarian socialism.

These arguments are explored more fully at Anarchism and Marxism.

Philosophical arguments

Anarcho-communism is a sub-category of anarchism which emphasizes the collective experience as distinct and important in the pursuit of freedom. All forms of Anarchism recognize the experience of collective identity to some extent, but the Anarcho-Communists, starting with Peter Kropotkin and extending out through Alexander Berkman, Nestor Makhno, and many others recognized that there was more to experiences which were less individualistic than meets the eye.

Implicitly, the Anarcho-Communists followed a Kantian scheme of classification: like Kant they divided life into its individualistic parts, which have a parallel with Kant's Pure Reason, and the less obvious parts of life which characterize our relations to one another, which parallels Kant's Practical Reason. To put it bluntly: no matter how autonomous we might be to ourselves when we're alone, once we start interacting with the world and with other people our change in circumstance calls for a different perspective.

This follows from our biology. The parts of life that Kant singled out in his work on Practical Reason are generally not well understood. How does the experience of work actually feel? What do we actually think when we work? Because of some sort of biological limitation when people deal with these aspects of life they tend to resort to using obscure and abstract metaphors and analogies to explain what they're talking about.

This is where the difference between Anarchism and Anarcho-Communism shows up most clearly: the Anarcho-Communists have taken on these hard to explain aspects of life, have desired to understand them, and have integrated strategies for liberation involving these aspects of life into their overall point of view.

The catch with these aspects of life is that while mental liberation might be amazing, becoming aware of the collective substructure of life and society leads to deeper liberation than is commonly thought possible.

So in this respect the Anarcho-Communists see themselves as pursuing a fuller definition of liberation than other anarchists.

Violence in anarchism

Many anarchists 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. [1]

For a further discussion of the role of violence in anarchism, see Anarchism and 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. Typically, non-socialist libertarians believe that it is part of human nature to take care of oneself and one's immediate loved ones, so in the absence of the state, a capitalist economy will develop to allow this. Thus a truly socialist libertarianism would be an oxymoron, they argue. 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 believing that a socialist society can survive without coercion. They sometimes respond 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 (as in anarcho-capitalism) by a private enforcement agency. There are few, if any, libertarian socialists who think that violence should play a 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 communist 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. Left anarchists 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.

Historical Origins

Pre-"anarchism" libertarians

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[1]. 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. 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[1].

There were also movements such as the Free Spirit in the Middle Ages.

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 the 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 Diaz and the installation of the moderate Francisco 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 Mayans, advocated for a program of radical land reform under the slogan "Tierra y Libertad", or "Land and Liberty". This demand, laid out roughly in the Zapatista's 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 (peonage). This Zapatista movement was eventually augmented by intellectuals from Mexico City, including the anarchist Antonio Diaz Soto Y Gama and the brothers Jesus 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, 1917), 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 anarchist 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 [1]). 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") were an anarcho-syndicalist labor union that was prominent in labor struggles in early 20th century America. They advocated 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[1]).

Other prominent anarchists and libertarian socialists include:

Further reading



External links

See also: anarcho-capitalist critique of left-anarchism, anarcho-punk, Anarcho-syndicalism, Anarchist Black Cross, Anarchism in Spain

Contrast: hierarchical organization