Libertarian socialism is a Western philosophy with diverse interpretations, though some general commonalities can be found in its many incarnations. It advocates a worker-oriented system of production and organization in the workplace that in some aspects radically departs from neoclassical economics in favor of democratic cooperatives or common ownership of the means of production (socialism). They propose that this economic system be executed in a manner that attempts to maximize the liberty of individuals and minimize concentration of power or authority (libertarianism).
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 relation as a form of domination that is antagonistic to individual freedom.
The first anarchist journal to use the term "libertarian" was Le Libertaire, Journal du Mouvement Social and it was published in New York City between 1858 and 1861 by French anarcho-communist Joseph Déjacque. The next recorded use of the term was in Europe, when "libertarian communism" was used at a French regional anarchist Congress at Le Havre (16–22 November 1880). January 1881 saw a French manifesto issued on "Libertarian or Anarchist Communism". Finally, 1895 saw leading anarchists Sébastien Faure and Louise Michel publish La Libertaire in France". The word stems from the French word libertaire, which was used to evade the French ban on anarchist publications. In this tradition, the term "libertarianism" in "libertarian socialism" is generally used as a synonym for anarchism, which some say is the original meaning of the term; hence "libertarian socialism" is equivalent to "socialist anarchism" to these scholars. In the context of the European socialist movement, "libertarian" has conventionally been used to describe those who opposed state socialism, such as Mikhail Bakunin.
Noam Chomsky is one of the most well-known contemporary libertarian socialist thinkers
In a chapter recounting the history of libertarian socialism, economist Robin Hahnel relates that thus far the period where libertarian socialism has had its greatest impact was at the end of the 19th century through the first four decades of the 20th century:
Early in the twentieth century, libertarian socialism was as powerful a force as social democracy and communism. The Libertarian International—founded at the Congress of Saint Imier a few days after the split between Marxist and libertarians at the congress of the Socialist International held in The Hague in 1872—competed successfully against social democrats and communists alike for the loyalty of anticapitalist activists, revolutionaries, workers, unions and political parties for over fifty years. Libertarian socialists played a major role in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Libertarian socialists played a dominant role in the Mexican Revolution of 1911. Twenty years after World War I was over, libertarian socialists were still strong enough to spearhead the social revolution that swept across Republican Spain in 1936 and 1937.
On the other hand, a libertarian trend also developed within Marxism which gained visibility around the late 1910s mainly in reaction against Bolshevism and Leninism rising to power and establishing the Soviet Union.
It is forgotten that the early defenders of commercial society like (Adam) Smith were as much concerned with criticising the associational blocks to mobile labour represented by guilds as they were to the activities of the state. The history of socialist thought includes a long associational and anti-statist tradition prior to the political victory of the Bolshevism in the east and varieties of Fabianism in the west.
Libertarian socialists are anti-capitalist and can thus be distinguished from right-wing libertarians. Whereas capitalist (and right-libertarian) principles concentrate economic power in the hands of those who own the most capital, libertarian socialism aims to distribute power more widely amongst members of society. A key difference between libertarian socialism and capitalist libertarianism is that advocates of the former generally believe that one's degree of freedom is affected by one's economic and social status whereas advocates of the latter focus on freedom of choice within a capitalist framework. This is sometimes characterized as a desire to maximize "free creativity" in a society in preference to "free enterprise".
Within anarchism, there emerged a critique of wage slavery which refers to a situation perceived as quasi-voluntary slavery, where a person's livelihood depends on wages, especially when the dependence is total and immediate. It is a negatively connoted term used to draw an analogy between slavery and wage labor by focusing on similarities between owning and renting a person. The term "wage slavery" has been used to criticize economic exploitation and social stratification, with the former seen primarily as unequal bargaining power between labor and capital (particularly when workers are paid comparatively low wages, e.g. in sweatshops) and the latter as a lack of workers' self-management, fulfilling job choices and leisure in an economy. Libertarian socialists believe that by valuing freedom society works towards a system in which individuals have the power to decide economic issues along with political issues. Libertarian socialists seek to replace unjustified authority with direct democracy, voluntary federation and popular autonomy in all aspects of life, including physical communities and economic enterprises. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, thinkers such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Karl Marx elaborated the comparison between wage labor and slavery in the context of a critique of societal property not intended for active personal use.Luddites emphasized the dehumanization brought about by machines while later Emma Goldman famously denounced wage slavery by saying: "The only difference is that you are hired slaves instead of block slaves".
Many libertarian socialists believe that large-scale voluntary associations should manage industrial production while workers retain rights to the individual products of their labor. They see a distinction between concepts of "private property" and "personal possession". "Private property" grants an individual exclusive control over a thing whether it is in use or not; and regardless of its productive capacity, "possession" grants no rights to things that are not in use. Furthermore, "the separation of work and life is questioned and alternatives suggested that are underpinned by notions of dignity, self-realization and freedom from domination and exploitation. Here, a freedom that is not restrictively negative (as in neo-liberal conceptions) but is, as well, positive – connected, that is, to views about human flourishing – is important, a profoundly embedded understanding of freedom, which ties freedom to its social, communal conditions and, importantly, refuses to separate questions of freedom from those of equality".
Libertarian socialists generally regard concentrations of power as sources of oppression that must be continually challenged and justified. Most libertarian socialists believe that when power is exercised as exemplified by the economic, social, or physical dominance of one individual over another, the burden of proof is always on the authoritarian to justify their action as legitimate when taken against its effect of narrowing the scope of human freedom. Libertarian socialists typically oppose rigid and stratified structures of authority, be they political, economic, or social.
Contemporary examples of libertarian socialist organizational and decision-making models in practice include a number of anti-capitalist and global justice movements including ZapatistaCouncils of Good Government and the global Indymedia network (which covers 45 countries on six continents). There are also many examples of indigenous societies around the world whose political and economic systems can be accurately described as anarchist or libertarian socialist, each of which is unique and uniquely suited to the culture that birthed it. For libertarians, that diversity of practice within a framework of common principles is proof of the vitality of those principles and of their flexibility and strength.
Contrary to popular opinion, libertarian socialism has not traditionally been a utopian movement, tending to avoid dense theoretical analysis or prediction of what a future society would or should look like. The tradition instead has been that such decisions cannot be made now and must be made through struggle and experimentation, so that the best solution can be arrived at democratically and organically; and to base the direction for struggle on established historical example. They point out that the success of the scientific method comes from its adherence to open rational exploration, not its conclusions, in sharp contrast to dogma and predetermined predictions. Noted anarchist Rudolf Rocker once stated: "I am an anarchist not because I believe anarchism is the final goal, but because there is no such thing as a final goal".
Because libertarian socialism encourages exploration and embraces a diversity of ideas rather than forming a compact movement, there have arisen inevitable controversies over individuals who describe themselves as libertarian socialists yet disagree with some of the core principles of libertarian socialism. For example, Peter Hain interprets libertarian socialism as minarchist rather than anarchist, favoring radical decentralization of power without going as far as the complete abolition of the state and libertarian socialist Noam Chomsky supports dismantling all forms of unjustified social or economic power while also emphasizing that state intervention should be supported as a temporary protection while oppressive structures remain in existence.
Proponents are known for opposing the existence of states or government and refusing to participate in coercive state institutions. Indeed, in the past many refused to swear oaths in court or to participate in trials, even when they faced imprisonment or deportation. For Chamsy el-Ojeili, "it is frequently to forms of working-class or popular self-organization that Left communists look in answer to the questions of the struggle for socialism, revolution and post-capitalist social organization. Nevertheless, Left communists have often continued to organize themselves into party-like structures that undertake agitation, propaganda, education and other forms of political intervention. This is a vexed issue across Left communism and has resulted in a number of significant variations – from the absolute rejection of separate parties in favour of mere study or affinity groups, to the critique of the naivety of pure spontaneism and an insistence on the necessary, though often modest, role of disciplined, self- critical and popularly connected communist organizations".
Anarcha-feminism developed as a synthesis of radical feminism and anarchism that views patriarchy (male domination over women) as a fundamental manifestation of compulsory government. It was inspired by the late 19th-century writings of early feminist anarchists such as Lucy Parsons, Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre and Virginia Bolten. Anarcha-feminists, like other radical feminists, criticise and advocate the abolition of traditional conceptions of family, education and gender roles. Council communist Sylvia Pankhurst was also a feminist activist as well as a libertarian Marxist. Anarchists also took a pioneering interest in issues related to LGBTI persons. An important current within anarchism is free love. Free love advocates sometimes traced their roots back to the early anarchist Josiah Warren and to experimental communities, viewed sexual freedom as a clear, direct expression of an individual's self-ownership. Free love particularly stressed women's rights since most sexual laws discriminated against women: for example, marriage laws and anti-birth control measures.
Libertarian socialists have traditionally been skeptical of and opposed to organized religion. Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic and reason; and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or other dogmas. The cognitive application of freethought is known as "freethinking" and practitioners of freethought are known as "freethinkers". In the United States, "freethought was a basically anti-Christian, anti-clerical movement, whose purpose was to make the individual politically and spiritually free to decide for himself on religious matters. A number of contributors to Liberty (anarchist publication) were prominent figures in both freethought and anarchism. The individualist anarchist George MacDonald was a co-editor of Freethought and, for a time, The Truth Seeker. E.C. Walker was co-editor of the...free-thought / free love journal Lucifer, the Light-Bearer".Free Society (1895–1897 as The Firebrand; 1897–1904 as Free Society) was a major anarchist newspaper in the United States at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The publication staunchly advocated free love and women's rights and critiqued "Comstockery"—censorship of sexual information. In 1901, Catalan anarchist and freethinker Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia established "modern" or progressive schools in Barcelona in defiance of an educational system controlled by the Catholic Church. The schools' stated goal was to "educate the working class in a rational, secular and non-coercive setting". Fiercely anti-clerical, Ferrer believed in "freedom in education", education free from the authority of church and state (see anarchism and education). Later in the 20th century, Austrian Freudo-MarxistWilhelm Reich became a consistent propagandist for sexual freedom going as far as opening free sex-counselling clinics in Vienna for working class patients as well as coining the phrase "sexual revolution" in one of his books from the 1940s. During the early 1970s, the anarchist and pacifist Alex Comfort achieved international celebrity for writing the sex manuals The Joy of Sex and More Joy of Sex.
Some libertarian socialists see violent revolution as necessary in the abolition of capitalist society while others advocate non-violent methods. Along with many others, Errico Malatesta argued that the use of violence was necessary. As he put it in Umanità Nova (no. 125, September 6, 1921):
It is our aspiration and our aim that everyone should become socially conscious and effective; but to achieve this end, it is necessary to provide all with the means of life and for development, and it is therefore necessary to destroy with violence, since one cannot do otherwise, the violence that denies these means to the workers.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon argued in favor of a non-violent revolution through a process of dual power in which libertarian socialist institutions would be established and form associations enabling the formation of an expanding network within the existing state capitalist framework with the intention of eventually rendering both the state and the capitalist economy obsolete. The progression towards violence in anarchism stemmed in part from the massacres of some of the communes inspired by the ideas of Proudhon and others. Many anarcho-communists began to see a need for revolutionary violence to counteract the violence inherent in both capitalism and government.
Anarcho-pacifism is a tendency within the anarchist movement which rejects the use of violence in the struggle for social change. The main early influences were the thought of Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy. It developed "mostly in Holland [sic], Britain, and the United States, before and during the Second World War". Opposition to the use of violence has not prohibited anarcho-pacifists from accepting the principle of resistance or even revolutionary action, provided it does not result in violence; it was in fact their approval of such forms of opposition to power that lead many anarcho-pacifists to endorse the anarcho-syndicalist concept of the general strike as the great revolutionary weapon. Anarcho-pacifists have also come to endorse to non-violent strategy of dual power.
Other anarchists have believed that violence (especially self-defense) is justified as a way to provoke social upheaval which could lead to a social revolution.