Libertarian Socialism

Libertarian socialism (sometimes called Left Marxism, social anarchism,[1][2] or left libertarianism[3][4]) is a socialist political orientation which promote a non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, stateless society without private property in the means of production. Libertarian socialism is opposed to coercive forms of social organization, and promotes free association in place of the coercive social relations of capitalism, key among them wage labour and the state. The term libertarian socialism is used by its adherents to differentiate their philosophy from the so-called "state socialism" represented by states such as China and the former Soviet Union and by Leninist-style vanguard parties. [5][6] Socialist anarchists also use the term to describe themselves.[7][1][2]

Adherents of libertarian socialism believe that a society based on freedom and equality can only be achieved through abolishing capitalism, that is, by abolishing class society and the economic structures through which the means of production are controlled by a small ruling class.[8] Libertarian socialism also concerns itself with the identification, criticism and practical dismantling of illegitimate authority in all aspects of life.

According to Ulli Diemer, “socialism is first and foremost about freedom and therefore about overcoming the domination, repression, and alienation that block the free flow of human creativity, thought, and action.”[9] Libertarian socialists believe that "the exercise of power in any institutionalized form -- whether economic, political, religious, or sexual -- brutalizes both the wielder of power and the one over whom it is exercised."

Libertarian socialists generally place their hopes in decentralized means of direct democracy such as citizens' assemblies and workers' councils.[10]

Political currents commonly described as libertarian socialist include those identified with Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Otto Ruhle, and Paul Mattick, with council communism and syndicalism, with some varieties of anarchism e.g. anarchist communism, anarchist collectivism, and anarcho-syndicalism,[11] as well as mutualism[12], social ecology[13]) and autonomism.

Some libertarian socialists, such as Noam Chomsky, are willing to use the powers of the state until it can be overthrown; he says: "There is no conflict. You should use whatever methods are available to you. There is no conflict between trying to overthrow the state and using the means that are provided in a partially democratic society, the means that have been developed through popular struggles over centuries."[15]


Libertarian socialism is a philosophy with diverse interpretations, though some general commonalities can be found in its many incarnations. Its proponents generally advocate a worker-oriented economic system radically opposed to capitalism (socialism).[16] They propose that this economic system be one that maximizes freedom and minimizes concentration of power or authority (libertarianism).

Libertarian socialists are strongly critical of coercive institutions, which often leads them to reject the legitimacy of the state.[17] Adherents propose achieving this through decentralization of political and economic power, involving the socialization of most large-scale property and enterprise. Libertarian socialism denies the legitimacy of most forms of economically significant private property, viewing capitalist property relations as forms of domination that are antagonistic to individual and collective freedom.[18]

Noam Chomsky, a libertarian socialist.

The word libertarian stems from the French word libertaire (from liberté, meaning freedom), and was apparently used to evade the French ban on anarchist publications.[19] [20][21] In the context of the European socialist movement, libertarian has conventionally been used to describe those who opposed state socialism as practised in the Soviet bloc and advocated by Leninist-oriented parties.

According to Noam Chomsky, a consistent libertarian "must oppose private ownership of the means of production and the wage slavery which is a component of this system, as incompatible with the principle that labor must be freely undertaken and under the control of the producer."[23]

Libertarian socialists seek to replace capitalism with direct democracy, and popular autonomy in all aspects of life,[29].

Opposition to the State

Libertarian socialists regard concentrations of power as sources of oppression, leading them to oppose the state. In this, they are part of a current of thought that goes long back into history. Hal Draper notes that "the 'abolition of the state' is one of the oldest ideas in the history of social dissent, older and more primitive than either socialism or anarchism as ideology or movement."[30] According to Draper, it was Karl Marx who brought the ideas of socialism and radical democracy together -- in self-conscious opposition to the anti-democratic elitist ideologies that characterized existing strains of socialism and anarchism -- as the basis for a revolutionary transformation of society that would eliminate capitalism and the capitalist state. In championing radical democracy, Draper points out, Marx stood in opposition to many anarchists as well as authoritarian strains of socialism, since anarchists rejected all authority, including democratic decision-making. Both anarchists and communists of Marx's time (when the terms socialism, communism, and anarchism were often used more or less as synonyms) typically embraced conspiratorial modes of organization which Marx rejected as elitist.[31]

In lieu of states, libertarian socialists seek to organize themselves into voluntary associations such as community and workers councils which use direct democracy or for their decision-making process. Marx used the terms 'free association' and 'community of freely associated individuals' to describe the kind of society he envisioned. Some libertarian socialists advocate using rotating, recallable delegates to higher-level federations.[32]

Contemporary examples of libertarian socialist organizational and decision-making models in practice include a number of anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movements[33] such as Zapatista Councils of Good Government and the Global Indymedia network. There are also examples of indigenous societies around the world whose political and economic systems could be described as anarchist or libertarian socialist. For libertarians, this diversity of practice within a framework of common principles is proof of the vitality of those principles and of their flexibility and strength.

Since the time of Marx, libertarian socialism has not been a utopian movement, tending to avoid prediction of what a future society would or should look like. According to Marx, it is up to socialists today to prescribe "recipes for the cookshops of the future."[34]. Marx believed that any attempt to spell out schema for a future society was inherently futile, as well as elitist. Following Marx, the tradition instead has been that such decisions cannot be made now, and must be made through struggle and experimentation, so that the best solutions 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 the scientific method comes from its adherence to open rational exploration, rather than dogma and predetermined predictions.

Because libertarian socialism encourages exploration and embraces a diversity of ideas rather than forming a compact movement, there have arisen inevitable controversies over individuals who describe themselves as libertarian socialists but disagree with some of the generally accepted principles of libertarian socialism. For example, Peter Hain interprets libertarian socialism as minarchist rather than anarchist, favoring radical decentralization of power without going as far as the complete abolition of the state[35] and libertarian socialist Noam Chomsky supports dismantling all forms of unjustified social or economic power, while also emphasizing that state intervention should be supported as a temporary protection while oppressive structures remain in existence.

Relationship to Marxism

The libertarian socialist tradition has its roots in both socialist and anarchist political currents. According to Maximillien Rubel, Karl Marx was "the first to provide a rational basis for the anarchist utopia and to put forward a project for achieving it." [36] Rubel points out that while Marx had his differences with certain anarchists like Bakunin and his followers, whom he regarded as elitist, manipulative and unprincipled, Marx never wavered from his insistence that achieving communism required the abolition of both capitalism and the state.

Libertarian socialists and anarchists are in agreement in rejecting both capitalism and the state. However, Marxists believe that forms of direct democracy should be the basis for a future society, whereas many anarchists reject any form of democratic decision-making. Nonetheless, libertarian Marxist tendencies such as council communism and autonomist Marxism have historically been intertwined with the collectivist strains of the anarchist movement, such as social anarchism, anarchist socialism, or communitarian anarchism.

Anarchist movements have come into conflict with both capitalist and some types of socialist forces, sometimes at the same time, as in the Spanish Civil War, a conflict in which anarchists and left Marxists fought against liberals and the Communist Party, as well as the fascists. Other political persecutions under bureaucratic parties have resulted in a strong historical antagonism between anarchists and libertarian Marxists on the one hand and Leninists and their derivatives such as Maoists on the other.

Part of this antagonism can be traced to the International Workingmen's Association, the First International, a congress of radical workers, where Mikhail Bakunin, an anarchist who nontheless advocated an elitist conspiratorial style of revolutionary organization, clashed with Karl Marx. Ironically, while Bakunin accused Marx of being "authoritarian", Bakunin himself was a leader of the International Alliance, a secret organization which Bakunin hoped to turn into a "revolutionary General Staff composed of devoted, energetic and intelligent individuals who are above all sincere - not vain or ambitious - friends of the people, capable of serving as intermediaries between the revolutionary ideas and the popular instincts." Marx commented that "To say that the hundred international brothers must 'serve as intermediaries between the revolutionary idea and the popular instincts,' is to create an unbridgeable gulf between the Alliance's revolutionary idea and the proletarian masses; it means proclaiming that these hundred guardsmen cannot be recruited anywhere but from among the privileged classes." Bakunin and his followers were eventually expelled from the International. Bakunin went on to publish pamphlets, together with his associate Nechaev, advocating a new "anarchist" social order, to be erected "by concentrating all the means of social existence in the hands of Our Committee" accompanied by the proclamation of compulsory physical labour for everyone and compulsory residence in communal dormitories.

Libertarian socialists such as Noam Chomsky, on the other hand, believe that the council communism advocated by Marxists such as Anton Pannekoek may be 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, Neo-Marxism and Situationism are also regarded as being anti-authoritarian variants of Marxism that are firmly within the libertarian socialist tradition. Similarly, William Morris is regarded as both a libertarian socialist and a Marxist.

Anarchist communism

Anarchist 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.[56] 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...

This report was made in an article by Malatesta and Cafiero in the (Swiss) Jura federation's bulletin later that year. Cafiero notes, in Anarchie et Communisme, that private property in the product of labour will lead to unequal accumulation of capital, and therefore undesirable class distinctions.

Anarcho-communists hold that the liberation of the individual, as well as the abolition of wage slavery and the State, requires the introduction of a free distribution economy, and therefore the abolition of the market.[57] In this belief they are contrasted with some anarchists and libertarian socialists who advocate collective ownership with market elements and sometimes barter. Some anarcho-communists assert that a gift economy can be operated by collectives through direct democracy.

As Peter Kropotkin put it, "We must recognize, and loudly proclaim, that every one, whatever his grade in the old society, whether strong or weak, capable or incapable, has, before everything, THE RIGHT TO LIVE, and that society is bound to share amongst all, without exception, the means of existence at its disposal." (Conquest of Bread ch. 3)

Syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism

Syndicalism is a branch of the socialist movement that sees democratically controlled labour organizations as having a central role in the struggle against capitalism and in creating a socialist economy. Anarcho-syndicalism fuses this approach with anarchism.[58] Anarcho-syndicalists view labour 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 syndicalism are:

  1. Workers' solidarity
  2. Direct action
  3. Workers' self-management

Workers' solidarity means that syndicalists believe all workers -- no matter their race, gender, or ethnic group -- are in a similar class relationship to the employer class, and should act together on the basis of their common interests. 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 struggle.

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.[59] In practice, though, 'direct action' is such a general concept that it can lead in widely differing directions. In Italy after the First World War, a section of the syndicalist movement joined Mussolini's fascist movement, which also used direct action against the state and espoused pro-working-class rhetoric. The theories of Georges Sorel (1847-1922), a leading proponent of syndicalism and revolutionary mass action, served as an inspiration for both anarcho-syndicalist and fascism movements in Europe.

Syndicalists believe that workers' organizations (the organizations that struggle against the wage system, which, in syndicalist theory, will eventually form the basis of a new society) should be self-managing. They should not have bosses; 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 labour in his 1938 pamphlet Anarcho-Syndicalism.

The International Workers Association is an international anarcho-syndicalist federation of various labour unions from different countries. The Spanish Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo played and still plays a major role in the Spanish labour movement. It was also an important force in the Spanish Civil War.

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 libertarian socialism. The central argument of council communism, in contrast to those of Social democracy and Leninism, is that workers' councils arising in the factories and municipalities are the natural and legitimate form of working class organisation and government power. This view is opposed to the reformist and Bolshevik stress on vanguard parties, parliaments, or the state.

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 time. 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 was used by the Bolsheviks 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.

Council communists viewed the Soviet Union as a type of 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.

Within the political mainstream

There was a strong left-libertarian current in the British labour movement and the term "libertarian socialist" has been applied to a number of democratic socialists, including some prominent members of the British Labour Party. The Socialist League was formed in 1885 by William Morris and others critical of the authoritarian socialism of the Social Democratic Federation. It was involved in the New Unionism, the rank and file union militancy of the 1880s-90s which anticipated syndicalism in some key ways (Tom Mann, a New Unionist leader, was one of the first British syndicalists).

Katja Kipping and Julia Bonk in Germany, and Ufuk Uras and the Freedom and Solidarity Party in Turkey, are examples of a contemporary libertarian socialist politicians and parties operating within a mainstream government.

Within the New Left

The emergence of the New Left in the 1950s and 1960s led to a revival of interest in libertarian socialism.[62] The New Left's critique of the Old Left's authoritarianism was associated with a strong interest in personal liberty, autonomy and led to a rediscovery of older socialist traditions, such as left communism, council communism, and the Industrial Workers of the World. The New Left also led to a revival of anarchism. Groups which were important in developing these libertarian ideas included Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Situationists in France, the Correspondence Publishing Committee, the News and Letters Committees), Facing Reality, and Black & Red in the United States. Figures associated with these currents included C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Cornelius Castoriadis, Martin Glaberman, Fredy Perlman, and Murray Bookchin.

Journals like Radical America, Black Mask, and the Fifth Estate in the United States, Solidarity, Big Flame and Democracy & Nature, succeeded by The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, in the United Kingdom, and The Red Menace in Canada, introduced a range of left libertarian ideas to a new generation. Social ecology, autonomism and, more recently, participatory economics (parecon), and Inclusive Democracy emerged from these currents.

Social ecology

Social ecology is closely related to the work and ideas of Murray Bookchin and influenced by anarchist Peter Kropotkin. Social ecologists assert that the present ecological crisis has its roots in human social problems, and that the domination of human-over-nature stems from the domination of human-over-human.[64]

Politically, social ecologists advocate a network of directly democratic citizens' assemblies organized in a confederal fashion. This approach is called Libertarian Municipalism. Economically, social ecologists favour libertarian communism and the principle, proclaimed by Kark Marx, "from each according to ability, to each according to need."

Criticism of libertarian socialism

Some capitalist libertarians argue that freedom and equality are often in conflict with one another, and that promoting equality (as valued by socialism) will inherently require restrictions on liberty (as valued by libertarianism), forcing the society to choose one or the other as their primary value.

Libertarian socialists typically dismiss the perceived contradiction between freedom and equality as a red herring. Noam Chomsky states that, "human talents vary considerably, within a fixed framework that is characteristic of the species and that permits ample scope for creative work, including the appreciation of the creative achievements of others. This should be a matter of delight rather than a condition to be abhorred."[65]

Libertarian socialists generally would also argue that the form of libertarianism espoused by capitalist libertarians contradicts liberty as well as equality, pointing out that private ownership of the means of production engenders exploitation.

Libertarian socialists believe that criticisms by libertarian capitalists stem from a misconception that conflates simple possession with private property as a legal and social institution. For libertarian socialists, the latter produces exploitation and oppression and so reduces individual freedom for the working class to the ability to change masters.[70] As such, they argue, liberalism fails to understand how private property undermines liberty.[71] For libertarian socialists, "[t]o demonise state authoritarianism while ignoring identical albeit contract-consecrated subservient arrangements in the large-scale corporations which control the world economy is fetishism at its worst."[72]

Libertarian socialist periodicals


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Introductory articles

Further reading

Libertarian socialist websites

Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index

Anarchism  –  Anarchism Critiques  –  Anti-Marxism  –  Class Analysis  –  Class Conflict/Class Struggle  –  Emancipation  –  First International  –  Freedom  –  Left, The  –  Left History  –  Libertarian Politics  –  Libertarian Socialism  –  Libertarianism  –  Mark, Karl  –  Marxism  –  Marxism Overviews  –  Radical Political Theory  –  Revolution  –  Revolutionary Politics  –  Social Change  –  Socialism  –  State, The  –  Strategies for Social Change

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