Libertarian socialism is a group of political philosophies that promote a non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic society without private property in the means of production. Libertarian socialists believe in converting present-day private productive property into common or public goods. Libertarian socialism is opposed to coercive forms of social organization. It promotes free association in place of government and opposes the social relations of capitalism, such as wage labor. The term libertarian socialism is used by some socialists to differentiate their philosophy from state socialism, and by some as a synonym for left anarchism.
Accordingly, libertarian socialists believe that “the exercise of power in any institutionalized form – whether economic, political, religious, or sexual – brutalizes both the wielder of power and the one over whom it is exercised”. Libertarian socialists generally place their hopes in decentralized means of direct democracy such as libertarian municipalism, citizens’ assemblies, or workers’ councils. Libertarian socialists are strongly critical of coercive institutions, which often leads them to reject the legitimacy of the state in favor of anarchism. Adherents propose achieving this through decentralization of political and economic power, usually involving the socialization of most large-scale private property and enterprise (while retaining respect for personal property). Libertarian socialism tends to deny the legitimacy of most forms of economically significant private property, viewing capitalist property relations as forms of domination that are antagonistic to individual freedom.
Political philosophies commonly described as libertarian socialist include most varieties of anarchism (especially anarcho-communism, anarchist collectivism, anarcho-syndicalism, social anarchism and mutualism) as well as autonomism, communalism, participism, libertarian Marxist philosophies such as council communism and Luxemburgism, and some versions of utopian socialism and individualist anarchism. For Murray Bookchin “In the modern world, anarchism first appeared as a movement of the peasantry and yeomanry against declining feudal institutions. In Germany its foremost spokesman during the Peasant Wars was Thomas Muenzer; in England, Gerrard Winstanley, a leading participant in the Digger movement. The concepts held by Muenzer and Winstanley were superbly attuned to the needs of their time – a historical period when the majority of the population lived in the countryside and when the most militant revolutionary forces came from an agrarian world. It would be painfully academic to argue whether Muenzer and Winstanley could have achieved their ideals. What is of real importance is that they spoke to their time; their anarchist concepts followed naturally from the rural society that furnished the bands of the peasant armies in Germany and the New Model in England.” The term “anarchist” first entered the English language in 1642, during the English Civil War, as a term of abuse, used by Royalists against their Roundhead opponents. By the time of the French Revolution some, such as the Enragés, began to use the term positively, in opposition to Jacobin centralisation of power, seeing “revolutionary government” as oxymoronic. By the turn of the 19th century, the English word “anarchism” had lost its initial negative connotation.
For Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, mutualism involved creating “industrial democracy”, a system where workplaces would be “handed over to democratically organised workers’ associations . . . We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade, the pioneering core of that vast federation of companies and societies woven into the common cloth of the democratic social Republic.” He urged “workers to form themselves into democratic societies, with equal conditions for all members, on pain of a relapse into feudalism.” This would result in “Capitalistic and proprietary exploitation, stopped everywhere, the wage system abolished, equal and just exchange guaranteed.” Workers would no longer sell their labour to a capitalist but rather work for themselves in co-operatives. Anarcho-communism calls for a confederal form in relationships of mutual aid and free association between communes as an alternative to the centralism of the nation-state. Peter Kropotkin thus suggested that “Representative government has accomplished its historical mission; it has given a mortal blow to court-rule; and by its debates it has awakened public interest in public questions. But to see in it the government of the future socialist society is to commit a gross error. Each economic phase of life implies its own political phase; and it is impossible to touch the very basis of the present economic life-private property – without a corresponding change in the very basis of the political organization. Life already shows in which direction the change will be made. Not in increasing the powers of the State, but in resorting to free organization and free federation in all those branches which are now considered as attributes of the State.” When the First Spanish Republic was established in 1873 after the abdication of King Amadeo, the first president, Estanislao Figueras, named Francesc Pi i Margall Minister of the Interior. His acquaintance with Proudhon enabled Pi to warm relations between the Republicans and the socialists in Spain. Pi i Margall became the principal translator of Proudhon’s works into Spanish and later briefly became president of Spain in 1873 while being the leader of the Democratic Republican Federal Party. According to George Woodcock “These translations were to have a profound and lasting effect on the development of Spanish anarchism after 1870, but before that time Proudhonian ideas, as interpreted by Pi, already provided much of the inspiration for the federalist movement which sprang up in the early 1860’s.” According to the Encyclopædia Britannica “During the Spanish revolution of 1873, Pi y Margall attempted to establish a decentralized, cantonalist political system on Proudhonian lines.”
To date, the best-known examples of an anarchist communist society (i.e., established around the ideas as they exist today and achieving worldwide attention and knowledge in the historical canon), are the anarchist territories during the Spanish Revolution and the Free Territory during the Russian Revolution. Through the efforts and influence of the Spanish Anarchists during the Spanish Revolution within the Spanish Civil War, starting in 1936 anarchist communism existed in most of Aragon, parts of the Levante and Andalusia, as well as in the stronghold of Anarchist Catalonia before being crushed by the combined forces of the regime that won the war, Hitler, Mussolini, Spanish Communist Party repression (backed by the USSR) as well as economic and armaments blockades from the capitalist countries and the Second Spanish Republic itself. During the Russian Revolution, anarchists such as Nestor Makhno worked to create and defend – through the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine – anarchist communism in the Free Territory of Ukraine from 1919 before being conquered by the Bolsheviks in 1921. Several libertarian socialists, notably Noam Chomsky among others, believe that anarchism shares much in common with certain variants of Marxism (see libertarian marxism) such as the council communism of Marxist Anton Pannekoek. In Chomsky’s Notes on Anarchism, he suggests the possibility “that some form of council communism is the natural form of revolutionary socialism in an industrial society. It reflects the belief that democracy is severely limited when the industrial system is controlled by any form of autocratic elite, whether of owners, managers, and technocrats, a ‘vanguard’ party, or a State bureaucracy.”
Free market ideas popular in the 19th century, such as those of Adam Smith returned to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich von Hayek emphasized that free markets themselves are decentralized systems where outcomes are produced without explicit agreement or coordination by individuals who use prices as their guide. As Eleanor Doyle writes: “Economic decision-making in free markets is decentralized across all the individuals dispersed in each market and is synchronized or coordinated by the price system.” The individual right to property is part of this decentralized system. Analyzing the problems of central government control, Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom:
There would be no difficulty about efficient control or planning were conditions so simple that a single person or board could effectively survey all the relevant facts. It is only as the factors which have to be taken into account become so numerous that it is impossible to gain a synoptic view of them that decentralization becomes imperative.
According to Bruce M. Owen, this does not mean that all firms themselves have to be equally decentralized. He writes: “markets allocate resources through arms-length transactions among decentralized actors. Much of the time, markets work very efficiently, but there is a variety of conditions under which firms do better. Hence, goods and services are produced and sold by firms with various degrees of horizontal and vertical integration.” Additionally, he writes that the “economic incentive to expand horizontally or vertically is usually, but not always, compatible with the social interest in maximizing long-run consumer welfare.” When it does not, he writes regulation may be necessary.
It often is claimed that free markets and private property generate centralized monopolies and other ills; the counter is that government is the source of monopoly. Historian Gabriel Kolko in his book The Triumph of Conservatism argued that in the first decade of the 20th century businesses were highly decentralized and competitive, with new businesses constantly entering existing industries. There was no trend towards concentration and monopolization. While there were a wave of mergers of companies trying to corner markets, they found there was too much competition to do so. This also was true in banking and finance, which saw decentralization as leading to instability as state and local banks competed with the big New York City firms. The largest firms turned to the power of the state and working with leaders like United States Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft and Woodrow Wilson passed as “progressive reforms” centralizing laws like The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 that gave control of the monetary system to the wealthiest bankers; the formation of monopoly “public utilities” that made competition with those monopolies illegal; federal inspection of meat packers biased against small companies; extending Interstate Commerce Commission to regulating telephone companies and keeping rates high to benefit AT&T; and using the Sherman Antitrust Act against companies which might combine to threaten larger or monopoly companies. When government licensing, franchises, and other legal restrictions create monopoly and protect companies from open competition, deregulation is the solution.
Author and activist Jane Jacobs‘s influential 1961 book The Death and Life of American Cities criticized large-scale redevelopment projects which were part of government-planned decentralization of population and businesses to suburbs. She believed it destroyed cities’ economies and impoverished remaining residents. Her 1980 book The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty supported secession of Quebec from Canada. Her 1984 book Cities and the Wealth of Nations proposed a solution to the various ills plaguing cities whose economies were being ruined by centralized national governments: decentralization through the “multiplication of sovereignties”, i.e., acceptance of the right of cities to secede from the larger nation states that were squelching their ability to produce wealth.