Libertarian Socialism: Does It Make Sense and How Does It Work?

By | Updated September 1st, 2021

Are libertarianism and socialism diametrically opposed? The libertarian socialist would say no.

The political philosophy of libertarian socialism categorically rejects state interference in social affairs and instead proposes the abolition of authoritarian institutions that inhibit freedom and justice.

The rejection of state socialism and the current mixed economy define libertarian socialism. Instead, the libertarian socialism project calls for decentralized institutions that use direct democracy or voluntary associations to break up centralized institutions and institutions captured by rent-seeking capitalists. 

What is a Libertarian Socialist?

The libertarian socialist believes in a free society, where individuals do not have to worry about being coerced by corporations or oppressive states. The political philosophy is focused on freedom and the individual’s quest to break free from institutions that shackle human thought and creativity. 

Unlike their state socialist counterparts, libertarian socialists do not push central planning, state-owned enterprises, or outright nationalization. However, they do not reject the idea of collective ownership of property. The ability for free individuals to determine their own property-holding arrangements is crucial for socialist libertarians.

If people band together and collectivize the ownership of private property ona voluntary basis, this is perfectly in line with these precepts. There are numerous cases where private property is acquired through dubious means and is used by elites to cement their economic status and lord over the working classes.

A social libertarian stresses the importance of defending civil liberties, which made them staunch opponents of totalitarian socialist regimes throughout the 20th century. Since Vladimir Lenin successfully led the Bolshevik Revolution starting in 1917, Communism and its socialist cousins have been directly associated with totalitarianism.

What Is a Libertarian Socialist Approach to Governance?

Libertarians of all stripes never approved of one-party states. Communist regimes and totalitarian socialist adjacent political movements were marked by such arrangements. Ironically, these regimes banned many dissident socialist parties, which validated the initial libertarian socialist skepticism towards these kinds of regimes. 

Instead, libertarians with socialist inclinations favored voluntary associations, economic democracy, and local governance. One of the contradictions they spotted with regards to 20th century communist experiments was how wealth inequality still persisted thanks to the concentration of power in the state.

This was a sign of how centralized political structures can allow for massive wealth and power consolidation. Which is why political decentralization is key for ensuring equality of political and economic opportunities. In sum, states have a tendency of centralizing and creating benefits for parasitic individuals, thus requiring a new way forward.

Unlike conventional free-marketers, libertarian socialists are concerned about economic inequality. A society marked by wealth inequality is oppressive and socially unstable. By phasing out the state, individuals would be free to live up to their economic potential now that they’re no longer shackled by the state’s laws and regulations. 

Similarly, being free from excessive corporate power allows for people to chart their own economic paths free from sub-optimal employment arrangements. Additionally, individuals and communities would then be afforded the opportunity to set up economic institutions that provide real value to consumers while providing dignified work.

Although market interactions would be respected, many socialist libertarians called into question a number of economic assumptions and offered alternatives at the local level to address certain inequalities and worrisome social problems that corporate capitalism generally brought about. 

Origin of Libertarian Socialism

It’s often forgotten that the word ”libertarian” had a different meaning in the 19th century. Anarcho-communism, anarcho-syndicalism, and other forms of left-leaning anarchist movements of that century were often described as libertarians. These movements thoroughly opposed the state, as well as dominant business entities. 

This stands in contrast to modern libertarianism, which focused more on economic freedoms and private property. This 20th century philosophy of liberty drew more from classical liberalism and generally held market activity in a much higher regard. There was much stronger emphasis on individualism and respect for private property.

In the 19th century, advocates of private property and free markets would generally be categorized as liberals. Broadly speaking, libertarian describes a pro-liberty outlook on politics, while socialism describes an economic system where wealth is distributed on a more equal basis. 

Libertarian socialists try to fuse these concepts together to form a unique philosophy. Liberalism would be critiqued from a socialist perspective, while state socialism would be critiqued from a libertarian perspective. The goal was to create a new way of dealing with the problems of industrialization while protecting individual freedoms.

This unique philosophy tried to make political discussion more nuanced by recognizing the merits of both socialist and liberal thought. Political discourse tends to get stale at times, and often what’s needed is to recognize that certain competing political schools have valid points that can be combined to form news ways of thinking.

The rapid industrialization of the 19th century caught many people by surprise and required novel strategies to address its many unforeseen consequences. Socialist libertarians firmly believed they had the right answers to the many problems present during the industrial era. 

How Anarchism and Socialism Emerged in Europe

These newly created philosophies are perhaps better equipped to address the pressing issues of the day. The 19th century was a pivotal moment for the West as the realities of industrialization began to surface. Many people were uprooted from their traditional lines of work and were forced to adjust to the disruptive nature of industrialization.

In addition, a new corporate class emerged consisting of capitalists who quickly became politically relevant and started using the state to extract as many economic rents as possible. Many sought to use their newfound wealth to co-opt the state and solidify their market power by enacting stiff regulations that stifled competition. 

Such a new development did not sit well with leftists and even some liberals who were concerned about the social impact on industrialism. Against the backdrop of rapid industrialization, Marxist and left anarchist critiques against capitalism began to surface. These doctrines stood out for their radicalism and bold visions for the future. 

In Europe, the spectrum of leftist thought went from Marxism to anarcho-syndicalism in response to the rise of industrial capitalism. These radical movements took place in the context of highly stratified societies that were transitioning into capitalism which created massive social disruptions. 

As a result many European intellectuals such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, and Mikhail Bakunin began critiquing capitalism but from an anarchist perspective. They viewed a new capitalist elite controlling the means of production as a threat, but they were hesitant about a top-down state solution to address the issue.

The antipathy towards capitalism has lived on in modern libertarian socialist movements. These current strands engage with socialist ideas and try to harmonize them in the context of social democracy, Nevertheless, they still remain radical about how the state should be phased out.

The American Anarchist Tradition

In the United States, anarchism took a slightly different route. Due to America’s well-established tradition of individual freedom and individualism, anarchists in America tended to be immediately hostile towards the state socialism. Unlike Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, American anarchists were not big fans of state intervention.

Individualist anarchist luminaries such as Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner were renowned for their anti-authoritarianism during the 19th century. In addition to their opposition to state socialism, they opposed certain aspects of capitalism, namely the practice of usury and the extraction of rents through land ownership.

Tucker was a major opponent of monopolies, especially state privileges such as intellectual property and patents. He saw these practices as ways to prop up major corporations and shield them from competition. Additionally, Tucker opposed tariffs on the grounds that they artificially raised the price of goods for everyday workers.

Although Tucker was no fan of labor unions that came under the thumb of state micromanagement, he still believed that workers had a right to organize against unjust working conditions. Despite his questioning of several capitalist practices, Tucker remained fairly libertarian on the freedom of association.

American Anarchism in the 20th Century

There was more of an emphasis on self-management and personal responsibility among American anarchists, which reflects the underlying cultural dynamics of American political culture. This continued into the 20th century, which saw a fusion of sorts between anti-war leftists and many libertarians who questioned the warfare state.

Noam Chomsky stands as the most prominent libertarian socialist in contemporary times. From opposing the U.S.’s interventions’ abroad to taking on corporate abuse, Chomsky has cemented himself as libertarian socialism’s premier voice in America.

Although he is to the left of most libertarians on economics, Chomsky is still respected across many libertarian and anarchist circles for his staunch anti-war stances and respect for civil liberties. This goes to show how there is potential overlap and opportunities for strategic partnership among these groups.

Due to how massive and abusive the state has become in recent decades, a transpartisan coalition of activists has emerged to counter this. Socialist libertarians like Chomsky serve as guiding lights and have inspired countless people to challenge the status quo.

Is Libertarian Socialism An Oxymoron?

Some individuals point out the libertarian socialism oxymoron as a way to discredit this political philosophy. White these attacks may appear to be intellectually dishonest, there exists a nugget of truth. Libertarianism as an ideology has a strong affinity towards private property rights.

Advocates of libertarian socialism don’t necessarily view all forms of private property as sacrosanct. They see some forms of private property as illegitimate, given the means of its acquisition. Major corporations are simply not trusted by socialist libertarians

Socialists, left-learning anarchists, and any individual who believes in the economic redistribution of economic resources must confront one major logistical question, what happens when people don’t want to collectivize their private property? How will any effort to engage in mass redistribution of private property be carried out? 

When trying to subject large portions of the population to collectivization and plans that break down hierarchies, a large centralized body will likely be needed to carry out such an ambitious plan. And that usually involves some degree of mass coercion to implement.

Similarly, libertarianism socialism’s aim to bring about equality may experience several roadblocks. Equality of socio-economic conditions is a tough nut to crack because inequality is a natural part of humanity that can’t be changed by legislation or bureaucratic fiat. 

Ultimately, there are structural features of human existence that cannot be changed via intervention — private or public. Many market skeptic orgs and institutions committed to bringing about equality have trouble coming to terms with this.

Why Socialism is Still Used Alongside Libertarianism

One thing to note is that the term socialist had a different connotation in the 19th century, especially in the United States. Most socialists, from utopian socialists to individualist anarchists with socialist sympathies, were generally in favor of decentralized structures and the respect for individual freedoms.

At certain parts of the 19th century, the concept of “voluntary socialism” was pushed by a number of American anarchists. They believed that free competition in a stateless society would create the conditions for “equitable commerce.”In contrast, they saw the prevailing capitalist order as one mired by statism and monopoly control of the means of production. 

For the individualist anarchists, voluntary socialism represented a genuine free market system. Anarchists like Rosa Luxemburg carried on this mantle in Europe by championing a left-wing anarchism that eschewed an energetic role for the state. This later became the gold standard of anarchist thought 

This was a sharp contrast to the totalitarian socialism of the 20th century, which was championed by revolutionary leaders like Vladimir Lenin. Leninists believed in a rigid one-party structure, where a top-down bureaucracy would manage political and economic affairs. 

Libertarian socialists had a distinct vision for society and brought forth ideas that blended concepts from radical philosophies to build a new system. The ideas may appear contradictory, but they use premises that were generally accepted by socialists in an era before statist Marxism crystallized in the 20th century.

It’s important to understand these historical nuances for the sake of better understanding libertarian socialist currents. Not every political doctrine can be defined by simple slogans.

Final Thoughts

The supposed libertarian oxymoron may catch many off guard. After all, how can philosophical concepts — libertarianism and socialism — that are generally so diametrically opposed, able to constitute a coherent political philosophy?

Once we read up on history and understand socialism’s pre-Marxist origin, we can truly understand what is libertarian socialism and why it matters. The past century has been an epoch of non-stop state growth, along with the consolidation of corporate power that has never been seen before. 

For that reason, new forms of political analysis are needed to solve the unique problems of modernity. The ideas of socialist libertarians largely fit the bill thanks to the heterodox nature of this ideology.  

It’s not enough to just talk about state policy, nor is it sufficient to focus on the consolidation of corporate power. A much more holistic understanding of political economy is required to grasp our era of managerialism where the state and corporations have grown concurrently. 

Libertarian socialism perhaps offers a way out of the present-day paradigm. The fact that it combines distinct political traditions shows that it is dynamic and can potentially transcend the present-day polarization.

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