What is Libertarianism?

also see 150 years of Libertarian | The Libertarian spectrum

What Libertarianism is and isn’t.

“…due to the creation of the Libertarian Party in the USA, many people now consider the idea of “libertarian socialism” to be a contradiction in terms. Indeed, many “Libertarians” think anarchists are just attempting to associate the “anti-libertarian” ideas of “socialism” (as Libertarians conceive it) with Libertarian ideology in order to make those “socialist” ideas more “acceptable” — in other words, trying to steal the “libertarian” label from its rightful possessors.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Anarchists have been using the term “libertarian” to describe themselves and their ideas since the 1850’s. According to anarchist historian Max Nettlau, the revolutionary anarchist Joseph Dejacque published Le Libertaire, Journal du Mouvement Social in New York between 1858 and 1861 while the use of the term “libertarian communism” dates from November, 1880 when a French anarchist congress adopted it. [Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism, p. 75 and p. 145] The use of the term “Libertarian” by anarchists became more popular from the 1890s onward after it was used in France in an attempt to get round anti-anarchist laws and to avoid the negative associations of the word “anarchy” in the popular mind (Sebastien Faure and Louise Michel published the paper Le Libertaire — The Libertarian — in France in 1895, for example). Since then, particularly outside America, it has always been associated with anarchist ideas and movements. Taking a more recent example, in the USA, anarchists organised “The Libertarian League” in July 1954, which had staunch anarcho-syndicalist principles and lasted until 1965. The US-based “Libertarian” Party, on the other hand has only existed since the early 1970’s, well over 100 years after anarchists first used the term to describe their political ideas (and 90 years after the expression “libertarian communism” was first adopted). It is that party, not the anarchists, who have “stolen” the word…  “libertarian” capitalism (as desired by the Libertarian Party) is a contradiction in terms.

Many anarchists, seeing the negative nature of the definition of “anarchism,” have used other terms to emphasise the inherently positive and constructive aspect of their ideas. The most common terms used are “free-socialism,” “free-communism,” “libertarian socialism,” [left-libertarianism], and “libertarian communism.” For anarchists, libertarian socialism, libertarian communism, and anarchism are virtually interchangeable. As Vanzetti put it:

“After all we are socialists as the social-democrats, the socialists, the communists, and the I.W.W. are all Socialists. The difference — the fundamental one — between us and all the other is that they are authoritarian while we are libertarian; they believe in a State or Government of their own; we believe in no State or Government.” [Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti, p. 274]

But is this correct? Considering definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary, we find:

LIBERTARIAN: one who believes in freedom of action and thought; one who believes in free will.
SOCIALISM: a social system in which the producers possess both political power and the means of producing and distributing goods.

Just taking those two first definitions and fusing them yields:

LIBERTARIAN SOCIALISM: a social system which believes in freedom of action and thought and free will, in which the producers possess both political power and the means of producing and distributing goods.

In other words, a system where people own themselves, and they are not owned by others, or forced to sell themselves to others.

(Although we must add that our usual comments on the lack of political sophistication of dictionaries still holds. We only use these definitions to show that “libertarian” does not imply “free market” capitalism nor “socialism” state ownership. Other dictionaries, obviously, will have different definitions — particularly for socialism. Those wanting to debate dictionary definitions are free to pursue this unending and politically useless hobby but we will not).

…only a libertarian-socialist system of ownership can maximize individual freedom. Needless to say, state ownership — what is commonly called “socialism” — is, for anarchists, not socialism at all. In fact, …state “socialism” is just a form of capitalism, with no socialist content whatsoever. As Rudolf Rocker noted, for anarchists, socialism is “not a simple question of a full belly, but a question of culture that would have to enlist the sense of personality and the free initiative of the individual; without freedom it would lead only to a dismal state capitalism which would sacrifice all individual thought and feeling to a fictitious collective interest.” [quoted by Colin Ward, “Introduction”, Rudolf Rocker, The London Years, p. 1]

Given the anarchist pedigree of the word “libertarian,” few anarchists are happy to see it stolen by an ideology which shares little with our ideas. In the United States, as Murray Bookchin noted, the “term ‘libertarian’ itself, to be sure, raises a problem, notably, the specious identification of an anti-authoritarian ideology with a straggling movement for ‘pure capitalism’ and [so-called] ‘free trade.’ This movement never created the word: it appropriated it from the anarchist movement of the [nineteenth] century. And it should be recovered by those anti-authoritarians . . . who try to speak for dominated people as a whole, not for personal egotists who identify freedom with entrepreneurship and profit.” Thus anarchists in America should “restore in practice a tradition that has been denatured by” the free-market right. [The Modern Crisis, pp. 154-5] And as we do that, we will continue to call our ideas libertarian socialism.” source: infoshop FAQ

“Indeed, the right (and, of course, many on the left) consider that, by definition, “socialism” is state ownership and control of the means of production, along with centrally planned determination of the national economy (and so social life). This definition has become common because many Social Democrats, Leninists, and other statists call themselves socialists. However, the fact that certain people call themselves socialists does not imply that the system they advocate is really socialism (Hitler, for example, called himself a “National Socialist” while, in practice, ensuring and enhancing the power and profits of capitalists).

So what does socialism mean? And is it compatible with “libertarian” ideals?

“Real” libertarian ideas must be based on workers self-management, i.e. workers must control and manage the work they do, determining where and how they do it and what happens to the fruit of their labour, which in turn means the elimination of wage labour.

The elimination of wage labour is the common theme of socialism (in theory at least, anarchist argue that state socialism does not eliminate wage labour, rather it universalises it). Or, to use Proudhon’s words, the “abolition of the proletariat.” [Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, p. 179] It implies a classless and anti-authoritarian (i.e. libertarian) society in which people manage their own affairs, either as individuals or as part of a group (depending on the situation). In other words, it implies self-management in all aspects of life — including work. It has always struck anarchists as somewhat strange and paradoxical (to say the least) that a system of “natural” liberty (Adam Smith’s term, misappropriated by supporters of capitalism) involves the vast majority having to sell that liberty in order to survive.

“Socialism” is “a social system in which the producers possess both political power and the means of producing and distributing goods.” This definition fits neatly with the implications of “libertarianism.” In fact, it shows that socialism is necessarily libertarian, not statist. For if the state owns the workplace, then the producers do not, and so they will not be at liberty to manage their own work but will instead be subject to the state as the boss. Moreover, replacing the capitalist owning class by state officials in no way eliminates wage labour; in fact it makes it worse in many cases. Therefore “socialists” who argue for nationalisation of the means of production are not socialists (which means that the Soviet Union and the other ‘socialist” countries are not socialist nor are parties which advocate “nationalisation socialism”).

Indeed, attempts to associate socialism with the state misunderstands the nature of socialism. It is an essential principle of socialism that (social) inequalities between individuals must be abolished to ensure liberty for all (natural inequalities cannot be abolished, nor do anarchists desire to do so). Socialism, as Proudhon put it, “is egalitarian above all else.” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 57] This applies to inequalities of power as well, especially to political power. And any hierarchical system (particularly the state) is marked by inequalities of power — those at the top (elected or not) have more power than those at the bottom. Hence the following comments provoked by the expulsion of anarchists from the social democratic Second International: “It could be argued. . . that we [anarchists] are the most logical and most complete socialists, since we demand for every person not just his entire measure of wealth of society, but also his portion of social power, which is to say, the real ability to make his influence felt, along with that of everybody else, in the administration of public affairs.” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 2, p.20] In other words, “all power to all people.”

The election of someone to administer public affairs for you is not having a portion of social power. It is, to use of words of Emile Pouget (a leading French anarcho-syndicalist) “an act of abdication,” the delegating of power into the hands of a few. [Op. Cit., p. 67] This means that “[a]ll political power inevitably creates a privileged situation for the men who exercise it. Thus it violates, from the beginning, the equalitarian principle.” [Voline, The Unknown Revolution, p. 249]

To be a “true” libertarian requires you to support workers’ control otherwise you support authoritarian social relationships. To support workers’ control, by necessity, means that you must ensure that the producers own (and so control) the means of producing and distributing the goods they create (i.e. they must own/control what they use to produce goods). Without ownership, they cannot truly control their own activity or the product of their labour. The situation where workers possess the means of producing and distributing goods is socialism. Thus to be a true libertarian requires you to be a socialist.

Similarly, a true socialist must also support individual liberty of thought and action, otherwise the producers “possess” the means of production and distribution in name only. If the state owns the means of life, then the producers do not and so are in no position to manage their own activity. As the experience of Russia under Lenin shows, state ownership soon produces state control and the creation of a bureaucratic class which exploits and oppresses the workers even more so than their old bosses. Since it is an essential principle of socialism that inequalities between people must be abolished in order to ensure liberty, it makes no sense for a genuine socialist to support any institution based on inequalities of power (e.g. the state). To oppose inequality and not extend that opposition to inequalities in power, especially political power, suggests a lack of clear thinking. Thus to be a true socialist requires you to be a libertarian, to be for individual liberty and opposed to inequalities of power which restrict that liberty.

Therefore, rather than being an oxymoron, “libertarian socialism” indicates that true socialism must be libertarian and that a libertarian who is not a socialist is a phoney. As true socialists oppose wage labour, they must also oppose the state for the same reasons. Similarly, libertarians must oppose wage labour for the same reasons they must oppose the state.

So, libertarian socialism rejects the idea of state ownership and control of the economy, along with the state as such. Through workers’ self-management it proposes to bring an end to authority, exploitation, and hierarchy in production. This in itself will increase, not reduce, liberty. Those who argue otherwise rarely claim that political democracy results in less freedom than political dictatorship.”  source: the green collective, and infoshop

“Socialism, practically, is war upon usury in all its forms, the great Anti-Theft Movement of the nineteenth century; and Socialists are the only people to whom the preachers of morality have no right or occasion to cite the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal!” That commandment is Socialism’s flag.” B. Tucker

“It is commonly assumed that individualist anarchism and libertarianism are two points along the same road, that we are fellow travelers and, frankly, I feel tremendous goodwill toward many of the people within the LP. But this goodwill does not affect the fact that they and I are on fundamentally different and antagonistic paths. And anarchists who are working within the Party in order to smash the State are fooling themselves. They are donating their time, money, and sanction to the political process with the stated goal of creating yet another politician. Only this time it is a “good” politician–their politician. And where have we heard this before?

As libertarianism becomes increasingly political, it will become increasingly hostile to individualist anarchism, because anarchism poses as great a threat to the political ambitions of the LP as it does to the conventional defenders of government. I have no intention of amending the slogan “Smash the State” to read “Smash the State Except for the LP.” And if the LP is ever successful they will quickly turn on the anarchists, turn on their supposed fellow travelers. The anarchists will then learn from political libertarians the same lesson that the Russian anarchists learned from the Bolsheviks — we are fellow travelers no more.” Wendy McElroy


Leave a Reply