Whatever happened to the libertarian left?

I used to call myself a “libertarian socialist”. Now I find hardly anybody does. What did it mean and what is the meaning of its disappearance?

The main reason for saying “libertarian socialist” was summed up very well by the anarchist Bakunin: “We are convinced that liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” [1]

The other reason of course was that it was a way of avoiding the word “anarchism”, which most people didn’t understand and associated with terrorism and/or chaos. It was also a way of dealing with the fact that anarchism has historically been far more effective in a diluted form than taken neat (a point I’ll come back to) and “libertarian socialism” maps out a larger territory, including not only anarchism but also its various offshoots and many relatives.

A whole host of different labels and schools of thought can be grouped together under the (red and black, or black, or multi-coloured) banner of “libertarian socialism”. For example: anarchism, syndicalism, anarchosyndicalism, council communism, anarcho-communism, libertarian communism, situationism, mutualism, guild socialism, non-state socialism, co-operative socialism, alternative socialism, Luxemburgism, socialist humanism, Marxist humanism, existentialist Marxism, autonomism, (late) Pabloism [2], anarcha-feminism, eco-anarchism, indigenous anarchism, post-anarchism, and acid Corbynism. No doubt there are more (and of course some demanding that others don’t belong on the list).

Many of these labels and concepts have survived but the overall idea of a “libertarian left” or “libertarian socialism” has not. I guess there are a number of factors which have changed this part of the political landscape.

Probably the most important is that the word “libertarian” has been taken over by the Right, especially in the USA, where there is a Libertarian Party which regularly comes third or fourth in Presidential elections, in the same league as the Green Party there. Right-wing libertarianism isn’t bothered about equality or social justice, but it is concerned with minimizing or abolishing the power of the state. Some right-wing libertarians describe themselves as “anarcho-capitalists” and some are extremely racist. What is envisaged is a “free market” society of firms and “free individuals”. How to prevent monopoly or oppression by anything other than the state isn’t necessarily addressed.

A second and really more interesting factor is the influence of the environmental movement. Some anarchists and others on the libertarian left have historically had a concern with ecology and the defence of the natural world. This was part of the vision of, for example, Kropotkin and William Morris. The rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s led to many on the libertarian left becoming environmentalists and then greens. They maintained their opposition to big business and big state projects but ran into a fundamental problem: the essence of ecology is interdependence, whilst the essence of libertarianism is, arguably, independence. How the two are brought together is problematic.

Even more fundamental have been the effects of psychological and spiritual searching, again also very popular on the libertarian left in the 1960s and 1970s, especially when combined with what might be called a “sociological searching” to understand the making and meaning of gender, ethnic, class, age, and other identities. All this has made personal identity, and hence ideas like “freedom” and “conscience”, seem far more complex than they did at first sight, whether because of the “illusory nature of the ego” or the social construction of, for example, “femininity” and “masculinity”.

Perhaps what has finished the libertarian left off most decisively is the decline of the authoritarian left, and in particular the Communism of the USSR and eastern Europe, along with the more hard-line versions of Trotskyism (e.g. the Workers Revolutionary Party) and Communism (e.g. Morning Star) in Britain and the rest of western Europe. If something like a Stalinist dictatorship is no longer a remotely credible prospect, there is no need for those of us on the Left who hate that idea to make such a fuss about being “libertarians”.

So is it all over for libertarian socialism? I don’t think so, even though the label has become less useful, part of the recent general process of political life becoming more and more complicated. I see no sign of that process reversing, but I do see a number of other things –

1.  Freedom remains an important value, despite the fact that there is huge scope for arguing about what it means, and whether state action can often increase it (as I’d argue) or inevitably decreases it. A crucial factor here, which libertarian socialists have always drawn attention to, is the difficulty of maintaining real freedom for the majority in a society of extreme economic inequality.

2.  Part of an authoritarian mindset is to not want to change your mind about anything. Authoritarian understandings of the world are therefore very poor at registering change. As a result it has frequently been libertarian socialists who have been keen to analyse the ways in which capitalism has changed since Marx analysed it in the 19th Century. [3]

3.  Libertarian socialist ideas have had a lot of influence, not as anarchism taken neat but in a diluted form. The anarchist movement has failed to establish an anarchist society anywhere at all for very long but libertarian left ideas have nevertheless affected many areas of life, such as attitudes towards education, art, ecology, psychology, religion, sex, and gender. Arguably the popularity of Gramscian concepts within the Left owes a great deal to the belief that they can provide the basis of a compromise which gives libertarian ideas their due.

4.  There is still a great need for libertarian socialist influence in a number of fields. As we contemplate the failure of privatisation, it is necessary to think about new models of public ownership which avoid over-centralisation and make good use of the knowledge of the people who work in the industries and services themselves. As we consider the power of social media, celebrity, and consumerism, the ideas of the Situationists are still very relevant (I intend to return to that point in a separate article). As the devastating impacts of neoliberal market economics become ever clearer, a libertarian socialist critique of “liberty” in the absence of social justice becomes more and more politically necessary.

I am left, however, with a problem. The most urgent political tasks today seem different. The most pressing is to cope with the gathering ecological and climate crisis, which threatens to blow any concerns about freedom out of the water, not because of the oppressive power of the state but because of deteriorating material circumstances, and points to the need for stronger global governance as much as it does to the advantages of decentralisation. And in the UK in the immediate future, there is an urgent drive needed to stop the tribalism of parties and factions on the left and centre-left from undermining efforts to defeat the Tories. In this new context it is fair to ask with some scepticism: what can libertarian socialist ideas still offer?

Victor Anderson

16.2.21

[1]  Mikhail Bakunin: ‘Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism’ (1867). 

There is literally a T-shirt for it: https://www.punx.uk/product/bakunin-t-shirt/

[2] This is the tendency Keir Starmer belonged to in his youth.

[3]  For example:

‘Modern Capitalism and Revolution’ – Paul Cardan (1965).

‘Society of the Spectacle’ (1967) – Guy Debord (Black & Red 1970).

‘Listen, Marxist!’ (1969) – Murray Bookchin, collected in ‘Post-Scarcity Anarchism’ (Wildwood 1974).

‘Cognitive Capitalism’ (2008) – Yann Moulier Boutang (Polity 2011).