What is Libertarian Socialism?
By Ulli Diemer
We call ourselves libertarian socialists. But why the adjective?
Why libertarian socialism? Is libertarian socialism any different
from socialism as it is generally understood?
The problem, and the reason for the adjective, is that there exists
no definition of socialism that is "generally understood".
The dilemma of socialism today is first of all the dilemma of the
meaning of socialism, because the term has been applied to
such an all-encompassing range of persons, parties, philosophies,
states, and social systems, often completely antagonistic to each
other, that the very term 'socialism' has become virtually meaningless.
There are more variations of socialism currently in existence than
there are varieties of soup on the supermarket shelves, more socialist
parties with the correct line than religious sects with a monopoly
on salvation. Most of the earth's people are now governed by states
calling themselves socialist, states displaying among themselves
the familiar antagonisms usually held to be hallmarks of capitalist
imperialism, as well as every kind of social system presently in
existence, from declining tribalism to advanced industrialism. Can
there be any meaning worth salvaging in a label that has
been claimed by Kautsky and Lenin, by Mao and Brezhnev, by Gandhi
and Hitler, by Ed Broadbent and Karl Marx? Does the term connote
anything more than "just" or "good" to its proponents,
"bureaucratic" or "bad" to its enemies?
The temptation is strong to abandon the label entirely, to adopt
some new term to indicate the kind of social change we propose.
But to do so would be to attempt to side-step a problem that really
cannot be avoided. For the terminological confusion is not accidental.
Nor is it 'merely' a matter of words. It is rooted in the fact that
the dominant social system always acts to integrate that which it
cannot destroy -- movements, ideas, even words -- and therefore
destroys them precisely by integrating them, by claiming them. It
denies the very possibility of an alternative to itself, and proves
this impossibility by absorbing the alternative and emptying it
of meaning, by adopting new forms and new language which create
the illusion of choice and change while perpetuating the same essential
relations of domination. Since the main challenge to capitalism
has always come from that which called itself socialism, it is hardly
surprising that capitalist social relations have survived in half
the world by calling themselves socialist. 'Socialism' has become
another name for capitalism, another form of capitalism: in 'victory',
socialism has been more totally buried than it ever could have been
in defeat. Capitalism has dissolved the socialist alternative by
stealing away its name, its language, and its dreams. We have to
take them back, for without words there can be no concepts, and
where there is no language of freedom, there can be no dream of
Consequently, we cannot simply abdicate the terminology of socialism
and arbitrarily invent new labels. To do so would be futile, both
because any new terms will be similarly sucked dry if they acquire
popular recognition, and because the existing language of freedom
refers to meanings and history that must be recovered from those
who now suppress them by laying claim to them. Words such as 'socialism',
'revolution', 'democracy', and `freedom' do contain within themselves
a critique of the existing order. That critique can be realized
only by reconquering it and giving it new life, not by abandoning
it and searching for another.
For this reason, we start with the term 'socialism' and precede
it with the adjective 'libertarian', which begins to elaborate that
term, and which simultaneously makes it a new term, by differentiating
it from all the other 'socialisms'. Perhaps most important, the
adjective 'libertarian' raises questions in the minds of those who
encounter it, whereas the term 'socialism' by itself tends to let
itself be taken for granted, to act as an uninteresting vessel which
each person fills with his preconceived ideas.
And by raising questions, the term libertarian socialism initiates
the first step in a process of criticism that must be applied equally
to capitalism and to 'socialism' as it is "generally understood".
This process of criticism has not yielded any finished results that
can be presented as a comprehensive picture of libertarian socialism.
Indeed, the very concept of critique stands in opposition to the
idea of having finished results. What is presented here are some
beginnings, some themes for elaboration. Most of the ideas presented
here are not new, but neither are they generally accepted.
What is implied by the term 'libertarian socialism'?
· The idea that 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.
We do not equate socialism with planning, state control, or nationalization
of industry, although we understand that in a socialist society
(not "under" socialism) economic activity will be collectively
controlled, managed, planned, and owned. Similarly, we believe that
socialism will involve equality, but we do not think that socialism
is equality, for it is possible to conceive of a society
where everyone is equally oppressed. We think that socialism is
incompatible with one-party states, with constraints on freedom
of speech, with an elite exercising power 'on behalf of' the people,
with leader cults, with any of the other devices by which the dying
society seeks to portray itself as the new society.
· An approach to socialism that incorporates cultural revolution,
women's and children's liberation, and the critique and transformation
of daily life, as well as the more traditional concerns of socialist
politics. A politics that is completely revolutionary because it
seeks to transform all of reality. We do not think that capturing
the economy and the state lead automatically to the transformation
of the rest of social being, nor do we equate liberation with changing
our life-styles and our heads. Capitalism is a total system
that invades all areas of life: socialism must be the overcoming
of capitalist reality in its entirety, or it is nothing.
· Libertarian politics concerns itself with the liberation
of the individual because it is collective, and with the
collective liberation because it is individualistic.
· Being a socialist is not only an intellectual thing, a
matter of having the right ideas or the right intellectual approach.
It is also a matter of the way you lead your life.
· A politics that is revolutionary because, in the
words of Marx and Engels, "revolution is necessary not only
because the ruling class cannot be overthrown any other way,
but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a
revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and
become fitted to found society anew."
· Because revolution is a collective process of self-liberation,
because people and societies are transformed through struggle, not
by decree, therefore "the emancipation of the working classes
can only be achieved by the working classes themselves", not
by a Leninist vanguard, a socialist state, or any other agent acting
on their behalf.
· A conception of the left not as separate from society,
but as part of it. We of the left are people who are subjected to
social oppression like everyone else, who struggle for socialism
because our own liberation is possible only when all society is
liberated. We seek to bring others to our socialist project not
to do them a favour, but because we need their help to achieve our
own liberation. Cohn-Bendit's comment that "It is for yourself
that you make the revolution" is not an individualistic position,
but the key to a truly collective politics, based on the joy and
promise of life, instead of on the self-sacrifice that is often
the radical's version of the white man's burden.
· We of the left see ourselves as equal participants in
the struggle, not as the anointed leaders of it. We put forward
our socialist vision as part of our contribution, but we do not
think that our belief in socialism means that we have all the answers.
We deal with people honestly, as equals, not presuming the right
to dictate what they shall think or do, nor presuming that we have
nothing to learn from them. We have enough faith in our politics
that we do not seek to manipulate people to our conclusions.
· As socialists we form organizations with other people
who share our ideas. This is necessary and valid, but it represents
a situation that we should continually try to overcome, not one
that we should accept and even institutionalize in the Leninist
mode. Socialism implies not only the withering away of the state,
but also the withering away of the left and its organizations
as separate entities. Power in a socialist society must be exercised
in ways allowing the participation of everyone, not only those belonging
to a given organization. This must be prefigured in the political
forms and movements that emerge before the revolution. The
ultimate goal of the left and its organizations must not be to rule
society, but to abolish themselves.
· The most important component of socialist consciousness
is critical thought. We must learn to think about everything
critically, to take nothing for granted, nothing as given. Consequently,
we do not want people to accept socialist ideas in the way they
now accept, partially or completely, bourgeois ideas. We want to
destroy all uncritical acceptance and belief. We think that
a critical examination of society leads to socialist conclusions,
but what is important is not simply the conclusions but equally
and even more so the method of arriving at them.
· We base ourselves on the heritage of Marxism. This does
not mean that we accept all the ideas of Marx, let alone of those
who claim to be his followers. Marxism is a point of departure for
us, not our pre-determined destination. We accept Marx's dictum
that our criticism must fear nothing, including its own results.
Our debt to Marxism will be no less if we find that we have to go
· Nothing could be more foreign to us than the "traditional
Marxist" idea that all important questions have been answered.
On the contrary, we have yet to formulate many of the important
· We have to try to maintain a balance of theory and practice
which seeks to integrate them, and which recognizes that we must
engage in both at all times.
· The centre of gravity of our politics has to be when we
are, not in the vicarious identification with struggles elsewhere.
Solidarity work is important, but it cannot be the main focus of
a socialist movement.
· We don't know if we'll win: history is made by human beings,
and where human beings are concerned, nothing is inevitable. But
because people do make history, we know that it is possible
to build a new world, and we strive to realize that possibility.
· "There is only one reason for being a revolutionary
- because it is the best way to live."
Originally published in Volume 2, Number 1 (Summer
1997 issue) of The
Menace home page
Politics - Libertarian
Socialism - Libertarian
Socialist Collective - Libertarianism