“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.
  • Natalia Petrova

    Excellent piece! I’d only add a mention of the Center for a Stateless Society and Alliance of the Libertarian Left. We’re generally market socialists in the Benjamin Tucker individualist anarchist sense.

    • Gina O’Neill-Santiago

      Thank you, Natalia! I am well acquainted with those sites. Libertarian
      socialism is a huge and variegated collection of political and social
      philosophies, but I only wanted to highlight the salient features–
      according to my understanding of it, anyway.

      • Natasha Petrova

        I am including it one of my regular Weekly Libertarian Leftist And Chess Reviews…

        Still me; I didn’t realize this account wasn’t set to Natasha.

  • Nicely done, Gina, a couple of questions/comments.

    1. I am not sure it’s correct to contrast the definition for socialism that you give here with the Marx’s understanding of it. As I understand it, (a) libertarian socialism sounds a lot like the end goal of what Marx had in mind and (b) Marx used socialism and communism interchangeably through his work*

    2. I liked that you contrasted libertarian socialism with mainstream libertarianism, but I wonder: What, do you think, is the main difference(s) between libertarian socialism and socialism itself?

    * Necessary caveat: I have only read English translations of Marx’s work.

    • Jeff Peterson II

      Marx was just misunderstood.

    • Gina O’Neill-Santiago

      Hi Gina! I will try to answer your questions as adequately as I can:

      1) One definition (or description) of communism that comes to mind is ” stateless and classless society,” which, in Marxist theory, *is* the end-goal of a proletariat revolution. Socialism is the economic prerequisite for communism. As for the part about libertarian socialism being redolent of the end-goal which Marx had in mind, it seems to me that Marx viewed the state as instrumental in facilitating the transition from capitalism to communism. If that is the case, then the means of production would be centralized by the state (ran for and by the workers, presumably). In contrast, libertarian socialists (on my interpretation) want to dismantle the state from the outset.

      2) That is a great question, which probably would not have arisen if I made the clarification in the post that I am describing socialism as understood by most libertarian socialists. With that said, I do not think that other descriptions of socialism (including socialism as state management and planning of the means of production) are necessarily wrong.

    • Alexandre Lemke

      The first big socialist organization was called the International Workingmen’s Association.

      There, two big groups were created, one led by Marx, the other led by Bakunin. The first believed the state was important for the Socialist Revolution e the second thought that the state, even if controlled by socialists, can only lead to violence against workers.

      After the dismantle of the First Internationale, the Marxists organized themselves into political parties (the Social-Democrat ones, Communist parties were a Lenin’s creation).

      The Bakunists, now Anarchists or Libertarian Socialists (they had never accepted using a person name to designate themselves), organized themselves in a plethora of different kind of organizations, but mainly unions. It was the rise of anarcho-sindicalism.

      So, we can say that today Libertarian Socialists understand both state-owned and boss-owned companies as not-controlled by the workers. Meanwhile, Marxists believe that, under the “right government”, state-owned companies are democratic controlled.

    • Brandonking

      Bakunin founded Libertarian Socialism. He called it Stateless Socialism. He was a contemporary of Marx, and believed Marx was on the right path, but that his ideology, Bakunin referred to Communism as Authoritarian Socialism, was inherently twisted because Marx himself was inherently authoritarian to the core.

    • shayne cumbie

      To answer 2 succinctly, libertarian socialists reject the state solution to achieve social control of the means of production. That method always lends to the suppression of workers’ rights and towards tyranny. History hath shown it to be true. Social control on the means of production should be achieved through voluntary association in workers councils and cooperatives where the workplace is controlled denocratically.

  • ewouiouifdeub

    What a brave keyboard warrior

  • Jeff Peterson II

    No economic calculation. So, still, libertarian-socialism fail.

    • aname

      hmm..we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet so- capitalism fail. :/

      but how bout this- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9FDIne7M9o ?

      • Nathanael Ginn

        Well, not true. Capitalist answer is to colonize another planet and use technology. Socialism still does not have a history of financial responsibility… Also, giving a government more power is not Libertarian at all….

        • robi sen

          Capitalism does not require “infinite growth.” Indeed in a closed system a market seems to be the best way of regulating scarcity. Isnt that one of the tenants of the theory of capitalism? That being said innovation has shown that new resources, new markets, and new methods of managing scarcity can redefine the system. This is something we have witness over the last 100 years when people have continually stated there is only enough energy for another decade or enough food. That being said it is still a valid point that we only have the one planet and we should conserve but Capitalist’s and Capitalism have not inherint issue with that.

          • Jack Strawb

            If I may, counterposing your argument with what some dumb people say is not effective. Cheers.

          • Jack Strawb is quite idiodic

            Nor is not responding to an articulated notion– regardless of your political ideology. Attacking someone employing the fallacious ad-hominem does nothing but detract from your point. You do not address why his argument is not effective, therefore your argument is systematically void. In any reputable debate style, you inherently would fail as you bring no evidential constructs to the conversation. Cheers.

        • Jack Strawb

          You mean the socialism of Western Europe and Scandinavia in the postwar era “does not have a history of financial responsibility”? They will be distraught.

        • shayne cumbie

          Libertarian socialism is not about giving the state more power. In fact, we see the government as a coercive institution which has a monopoly on the use of force as well. We know it cannot be trusted and power cannot be concentrated as it is a direct threat to liberty. However, the hierarchical structure of owners and workers that arises out of capitalism inevitably leads toward and provides incentive for the creation of the state to manipulate the market in its advantage and use its monopoly on force to limit the individual liberty of workers. (i.e. capitalism begats crony capitalism) Concentrated power in the hands of private interests is just as much of a threat to individual liberty as the state, maybe even more so as it is unaccountable. Libertarian Socialist want power to be in the hands of the individual. We want to see cooperatives where there is a democratic work place and the workers are owners of the means of production. Out of self interest they work harder and more efficiently due to their connection to their property (i.e. the fruits of their labor). Wage remuneration in the capitalist system is inherently anti libertarian as it removes the individual from their property and the worker boss relationship is coercive because the worker has little to no leverage in the market place.

          What we want is not state centralized planning of the economy. We want democratic/social ownership of the means of production in a free market economy. Not that different than an An-Cap. Just want to rid the concentration of power in private hands as well.

          • Bill Rabara

            Such a bizarre philosophy. Do you believe in individual property rights? If so, then the philosophy seems fatally flawed with contradiction. If I decide to produce hot dogs and my friend agrees to help me do so in exchange for some of my property, then how can my friend have ownership rights of my hot dog operation? The only ethically justified answer must rely on a voluntary arrangement which is laisssez faire.

          • shayne cumbie

            It is not such a bizarre philosophy if you have actually spent the time to understand it. The part that makes it hard to understand is the perversions of the words libertarian and socialism. They have come to mean very different things in the laymans mind and therefore there is a cognitive bias against accepting the original philosophies of those two words. Libertarianism as understood in post mid 20th century America is pro capitalism, but before Murray Rothbard namely and a few others, this was not the case. In fact, libertarianism was understood to be an anarchist oriented socialism and in the 19th century they participated heavily in the labor movement against the robber barons. So take libertarian and add the understanding that for one to true liberty this must include the liberty to choose how, when, where, and what they produce as well as have ownership over themselves and the fruits of their labor (i.e. their property by the Lockean Labor Theory of Property). In capitalism, though there are successes by some, in any statistical measure, workers en masse as deprived of this liberty and are coerced into a system which makes them submit to a boss. I recommend you read Wealth of Nations Ch. 8. There is an excerpt early in that chapter which explains pretty clearly why workers have little leverage and why they are forced to be a subject of some boss or starve.

            Yes, I believe in individual property rights and I also do not believe in outlawing capitalism via outlawing people to work for a wage rather than be a member who shares in the responsibility and reward of ownership and management of an enterprise. But I do advocate for this organization of labor because it is a much more stable system which does not naturally result in the gross wealth inequality capitalism does which in turn causes less free markets, a bolstering of the state, increased margins of poverty, amongst other things.

            There is a thing called shared ownership. It is the basis upon which the cooperatives are formed. But you could very well hire your friend as an external consultant to do the work you require and pay him by the job. He may not want to join your business and you may not want him to either. The part I frown upon is you hiring him for a wage with the intention of paying him less the worth of the fruits of his labor so you can extract direct profit through his production.

            For example, you hire me to build chairs for you. The tools, materials and other indirect costs add up to an expense of $5 per chair. You pay me a wage of $10 per chair (this could be $10 per hour assuming I make 1 chair per hour). Now you go to the marketplace and sell those chairs for $30 per chair making $15 per chair in profits for the time and energy you invested into hiring me, buying the materials and tools, and selling the chairs. The extra money which you extracted from the chair business in the difference between the value of my production (the fruits of my labor) and the wage remuneration you paid me. There is some justification for you being able to extract some of this value for yourself as a result of you risking your capital in the endeavour, this process repeated over time creates a disparity in people where one class has much more power and leverage over the other. This typically results in the people in my shoes receiving less and less proportions of the fruits of our labor in wage remuneration while the industrial capitalists extract greater and greater amounts enhancing this vicious cycle forward. By moving to a system where inoted of me being paid a wage, I and everyone else employed in the enterprise are shared owners (not all equal ownership) in the enterprise making us have a vested interest in the business and as owners susceptible to the risk and the reward, I think a much better dynamic in the economy will be struck.

          • Bill Rabara

            Your thinking is muddled and dare I say flawed. The simple example I gave is an example of an entirely voluntary relationship. I offer x to y to perform z. X is the fair market value for z or else y would reject my offer. Your example of a cooperative is perfectly acceptable if the relationship is voluntary. Mandating cooperatives is against the core principles of libertarianism.

          • shayne cumbie

            No my thinking is not muddled. If you look in my reply I clearly stated that I do not think it should be mandated by law. I believe in voluntary associations. It appears it is your reading comprehension that is what is lacking.

  • Guest

    Philosophically, I
    still don’t see how even the classical definition of Socialism is not a form of
    collectivism, something Libertarianism strongly opposes according to the
    principles of Individualism and self-determination…

  • Philosophically, I still don’t see how even the classical definition of Socialism is not a form of collectivism, something Libertarianism strongly opposes according to the principles of Individualism and self-determination.

    • Amerikanskan

      Libertarianism isn’t opposed to collectivism necessarily, though. It’s certainly opposed to forced collectivism, but if a group of people want to voluntarily get together, as individuals, to form a collectivist society or commune, is that not their right? As long as they’re not forcing anybody to join their society or commune, then they’re still well within the bounds of libertarianism.

      • I understand that you are referring to Voluntaryism, but the term Collectivism is historically and even by definition a forced-centralized ideology. It is a movement that politically opposes individualism.

        • Hendrick

          When the Makers and Builders choose to work by themselves rather than join the collective, the Libertarian Socialists will show their true Colors…..as Coercive Socialists of the mundane variety. When they confiscate the property of Solitary Makers while chanting “Property Is Theft!”, will it matter that it is a mob doing the looting instead of Stalin? The word “libertarian” doesn’t mean “informal”, as if slapping the label in front of t another word automatically imparts virtue, because it’s done by a group who don’t consider themselves a “state” or “government”. If that is the case, then we already have people who commit “Libertarian Murder”….”Libertarian Rape”……and “Libertarian Genocide”.

          • Jack Strawb

            Futurist mindreading! AWEsome!!

          • shayne cumbie

            The collective is not one large conglomerate. It is smaller cooperatives where persons can opt out. And if they opt out to create their own private enterprise, then it is their liberty to do so. However, I do believe that democratically operated workplaces will be able to out compete owner ran workplaces because the workers will work harder and be more involved out of self interest due to the fact that they are connected to the fruits of their labor. You’re having knee jerk reactions due to ignorance of what libertarian socialist actually believe. The “libertarian” in libertarian socialism matters greatly and we would be against mob rule as well.

        • shayne cumbie

          Voluntary or free association is one of the key characteristics of the non aggression principle which is a key tenet of libertarianism. This adherence to capitalism and being against collectivism when undertaken freely got added to libertarianism long after the political ideology began. When workers form a cooperative and run their workplace democratically, this is socialism and there is nothing about that which violates the original libertarian philosophy. Workers can opt out if they wish and the market place is still free. People have been drawn in to believe that socialism can only he about the state forcing people to operate in an economic system which is centrally planned by government technocrats. That is not the case.

    • Jack Strawb

      You’re too focused, I’m guessing, on the peculiar and largely ahistorical (per)version of libertarianism as popularized in the U.S. by the Koch brothers and their ilk. “Free” markets? It’s like the punchline to a bad joke.

  • Kennon Gilson

    Gina, the Green movement was founded specifically as a harbor for libertarian socialism by the Libertarian International at http://www.libertarianinternational.org

  • Philip Kanellopoulos

    I’m not sure libertarian socialists are against private property. (That’s more a feature of communism). Libertarian socialists (and socialists in general) are against the private ownership of PRODUCTIVE property. So, I have a right to own my own house, my car, my boat, my toothbrush, etc., etc., but I don’t have the right to own, either wholly or in part, things that are by their nature shared, such as, say, a factory or an apartment building, anything through which profit can be extracted from society.

    Also, I would note that because libertarian capitalists regard property rights in private institutions as more fundamental than freedom therein, they are more properly regarded as “propertarians” rather than libertarians. That is, libertarian capitalist is an oxymoron. To them, coercion is unacceptable… unless it is used to enforce privilege and arbitrarily declared rights to social property.

  • Alexander Ruddies

    I’m a libertarian socialist and I think this article is very fair handed. It’s refreshing to know that at least someone who’s libertarian (mainstream as you stated) is taking a objective stance on this subject.

    Perhaps in the future, we can reach across and find common ground with our mainstream libertarian kin and work together for a future that can bridge the gap.

    I give much respect towards the author. Thank you.