“What in the…?” might be a question that pops up as you skim the title of the post. But bear with me: there’s a lot to learn about libertarian socialism (a.k.a. social anarchism)—and some of it might surprise you.

Like left libertarianism (as Aunt Merryweather pointed out) and the kind of libertarianism to which many of us who write for TOL subscribe to, libertarian socialism is far from being a monolith (as an academic philosopher, I can tell you no body of philosophy ever is). And unlike left libertarianism, I imagine that libertarian socialism is more controversial—and far more misunderstood.

I can easily write a series of posts on this political philosophy and its variants. But I won’t. Think of this piece as an illuminating blueprint of the salient concepts and positions that characterize libertarian socialism. To that end, I juxtapose the concepts of socialism, liberty, and coercion—as defined by libertarian socialists—with the corresponding definitions typically stipulated by those of us who identify as libertarians in general.

Now, let’s break down the political philosophy into its constituent parts. First, the part that likely triggered your face-palm-reflex: the “socialism” in libertarian socialism.

What socialism is not, according to libertarian socialists

Libertarian socialists (and other adherents, I suppose) rightly point out that misconceptions about what they espouse stem from one particular misunderstanding of socialism itself.

Many, if not most, people characterize socialism as the concentration of management and/or ownership of industries, land, natural resources etc. in the hands of state bureaucrats. It seems that even the astute among us harbor this misconception. This, I can understand; the late Hugo Chavez himself promulgated a kind of top-down socialism and the Soviet nomenklatura paid lip service to it.

But if you want to know what you’re talking about, it is best not get your social and political philosophy education from Conservapedia or Glenn Beck. Instead, hear it right from the mouths of actual, self-described socialists.

According to this handy FAQ, socialism[1] is the scheme in which “workers possess the means of producing and distributing goods.” That is, all economic activity will be collectively and democratically owned, controlled, planned, and directed. As to who is this collective, local communities will direct, manage, and own land and resources. And companies and industries would be under direct workers control. So, instead of Mary Barra and stock-holders calling the shots, the producers–the UAW–will run the show at General Motors factories.

Another feature of socialism–retaining the preceding definition–that is too important to leave out is the status of private property rights.[2]

You may infer from what I outlined in the last paragraph that private property rights do not matter much or at all. But it can be summed up in this pithy utterance oft-attributed to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: “Property is theft!” If anything, that is where libertarian socialism cleaves from most mainstream libertarians. And to grasp the opposition to private property rights, we need to get a hang of the “libertarian” in libertarian socialism.

The “libertarian” in libertarian socialism

Libertarian socialism generally upholds individual liberty as one of the core values. Like most libertarians, libertarian socialists view gun control, proscriptions against prostitution and drugs, and even speech codes as violations of individual choice. As yet another handy FAQ claims, liberty, freedom, and anti-authoritarianism are the foundations.

But, in addition to that very familiar repertoire of values, libertarian socialism widens the scope of individual liberty to include items that are familiar staples of left-wing political philosophy, like “the right for workers to fraternize and organize democratically, the absence of illegitimate authority and the resistance against force.”

Still looks like plain ole libertarianism, doesn’t it? I have yet to meet a libertarian who does not think any of those practices are extensions of voluntary associations. But where the libertarian socialist would part ways with other libertarians is around the employer-employee relationship. What many libertarians view as a neutral or even a mutually beneficial, benign voluntary association, libertarian socialists view as inherently hierarchical and, therefore, inherently coercive and anathema to individual freedom.

This opposition to all forms of hierarchy (stemming from the state and private associations), along with opposition to all forms of coercion, expands down the meaning of ‘libertarian” to include anti-statism and anti-hierarchy (if you read any of the linked sources, you’ll notice that libertarians did not even have first dibs on the term).

The claim that you cannot effectively eradicate sexism, racism, and other nasty –isms unless you dismantle all hierarchical relations is also part and parcel of libertarian socialism.

In conclusion, libertarian socialism is not an oxymoron.

Libertarian socialists (like libertarian free-marketeers) want to maximize human liberty above all else. The difference—a pretty stark one—is that they claim that egalitarian relations (unencumbered by power dynamics) are conducive to this liberty.

We can and should critically and charitably engage with libertarian socialists on their own terms (I certainly have my critiques). We should come to the discussion or debate with an understanding of what they think their ideas bring to the table.

Editor’s note: an original version of this piece was published using the term “right-libertarians” to refer to the libertarian mainstream. That reference has been removed and clarified.


[1] While I am only talking about libertarian socialism, I think it is important to differentiate it from the socialism understood in Marxist theory: an intermediate phase between capitalism and communism.

[2] Most socialist theorists posit a distinction between private property and personal property.


Addendum: 

  • I agree with some our readers that a proper, historical gloss of the meaning of socialism is missing. Libertarian socialists generally retain the definition adopted by their 19th-century, philosophical forebearers (e.g. Bakunin, Proudhon, Kropotkin­­— to name just a few) who differed in the specificity of their ideas and proposals, but seem to converge on some idea of a decentralized, bottom-up, and distributively just form of economic organization. The description of socialism that I describe in the post echoes that tradition.
  • I use the Infoshop FAQ because I think it is a representative sample of libertarian socialist thinking ( LibSoc sites, such as this one, reiterate the same tenets).
  • Infoshop, as a whole, is best described as broadly left-anarchist leaning  (i.e. the writers are largely self-described anarchists).
  • It was not my intention to treat the late Robert Heilbroner’s EconLib entry on socialism as equivalent with much less sophisticated and less informed treatments that that we are likely to find on certain, right-wing outlets (e.g. Conservapedia). The point that I failed to get across is that libertarian socialists might be inclined to agree with Heilbroner’s critical analysis (and other critiques of that caliber), but might reject the idea that we can describe the Soviet experiment, for example, as genuinely socialist.
  • In case this wasn’t clear either: I am not advocating libertarian socialism. Nor do I bring up the issue of its viability; that is not the point of the piece.