Libertarian Socialism — A Contradiction, or a Plausible Principle?
|August 6, 2003||Posted by Staff under The Progress Report|
A Contradiction, or a Plausible Principle?
What is libertarian socialism? We were not sure, until Paul E. Gagnon stepped forward and wrote this explanatory essay for readers of The Progress Report.
by Paul E. Gagnon
To many free market libertarians, the title libertarian socialist is an oxymoron but the first libertarians of the nineteenth century viewed the combination of these two words as consistent and principled. It could be called socialism without the state or anarchism. American anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, Josiah Warren, and Bolton Hall called themselves socialists. Benjamin Tucker, editor and publisher of libertarian ideas, made a distinction between libertarian socialism and state socialism. Tucker saw the former as taking government out of the business of privileging the few over the many. He viewed state socialism as merely exchanging one master for another.
For Tucker and other libertarians, socialism was a body of explanations and demands to address labor problems through radical changes in capitalism. They were strong supporters of free exchange of material goods between individuals. Tucker clearly stated their purpose was to give to labor the same freedom as capital. The anarchists wanted to stop the government favoring any individual or group over the rest of society. It was believed that such favoritism caused the great economic and social problems of their day (go to the search engine Google and search for Anarchist Archives for more information).
Greatly influenced by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, they advocated free banking without charging interest, an end to the monopoly of government-issued currency, the abolition of patents and copyrights, producer cooperation (cooperatives), the abolition of regulation and state ownership of monopolies, and land ownership based solely on use and occupation without government deeding.
At first glance, libertarian socialism appeared to be confused and naïve. Further delving into the literature reveals a radical analysis and finally a re-definition of property rights. The anarchists realized that much of what was called property rights was awarded by government and not derived from natural rights theory. Throughout the nineteenth century, the libertarian socialists found themselves increasingly at odds with the state socialists, especially the Marxists.
The libertarian socialists soon found themselves split into two camps: the individualists who remained true to Proudhonian mutualism and the collectivists represented by the anarcho-communists (Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman). The latter developed ideas of collectivism and syndicalism without the state and based on the rights of labor. The Haymarket massacre, vicious attacks by Marxists, the Red Scare, and finally the Spanish Civil War reduced the anarcho-communists to very small numbers. On the other hand, mutualism found various niches in England, France, Spain, and North America.
Mutualism arose spontaneously as a workingman’s practice. The 1927 book What is Mutualism? defined mutualism as: A Social System Based on Equal Freedom, Reciprocity, and the Sovereignty of the Individual Over Himself, His Affairs, and His Products, Realized Through Individual Initiative, Free Contract, Cooperation, Competition, and Voluntary Association for Defense Against the Invasive and for the Protection of Life, Liberty and Property of the Non-invasive. Mutualism is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Mutualists support free markets, unlike the anarcho-communists, and prefer to leave all production to the smallest unit possible be it the individual craftsman, family, or small cooperative. Mutualism favors private ownership of small-scale property.
For mutualists, the cooperative is the primary vehicle for meeting human needs. It is defined as an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise. Mutualists believe government has a duty to promote responsible market behavior and require equal access to the means of participating in the market to the full. Government should act as a fair umpire and avoid being a market competitor. Perhaps, the largest and well-known mutualist network is Mondragon in Spain. For more information on Mondragon read the book We Build the Road as We Travel by Roy Morrison (New Society Press).
Mutualists believe that most of the inequalities that spring from capitalism come from the distortion of markets caused by governments granting preferential treatment. Mutualism recommends voluntary association such as guilds, trade unions, community associations, and cooperatives as the remedies for any deficiencies in markets. For more information on current forms of libertarian socialism or mutualism, go to the search engine Google and search for Red Lion Press or Mutualist.Net.
Mike O’Mara summed up the libertarian socialists in relation to other libertarians best. “So, the libertarian socialists such as Proudhon were not socialists in the usual sense of today, meaning state socialists, because they did believe in property rights. They were oriented toward cooperative and decentralized forms of ownership — yet they agreed with other progressive libertarians in advocating genuinely free markets, with an end to land monopoly and other government-created monopolies. With true economic freedom, people would be free to choose the kinds of economic organizations each person prefers, whether oriented toward more cooperative, decentralized forms, or larger organizations, or more individualist forms.”
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Find out about some other terms — see Senior Editor Fred Foldvary’s editorial on Geoism and Libertarianism
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