Why is anarchism also called libertarian socialism?
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,” 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.
(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).
However, 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. Later, in Section B, we will discuss why the idea of a “libertarian” capitalism (as desired by the Libertarian Party) is a contradiction in terms.
As we will also explain in Section I, only a libertarian-socialist system of ownership can maximise individual freedom. Needless to say, state ownership — what is commonly called “socialism” — is, for anarchists, not socialism at all. In fact, as we will elaborate in Section H, state “socialism” is just a form of capitalism, with no socialist content whatever. 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 ‘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.