'Libertarian Socialism'

The People
September 1996


While browsing the Internet, I came across some material on the subject of "libertarian socialism." What caught my attention was the reference to the SLP. For your information, I have enclosed a printout of the material.

Scott Hess

Beaverton, Ore.


Reply --

The matter enclosed by our correspondent described so-called libertarian socialism as "essentially synonymous with the word 'anarchism.'" It went on to mistakenly clump "the Socialist Labor Party of Daniel De Leon" together with several other groups it identified with the term.

The phrase, "libertarian socialism," is a variation on another, "anarchist communism," which dates from the 1890s. Back then, someone (most likely De Leon) had this to say about it in THE PEOPLE:

"It is impossible to give an accurate definition of 'Anarchist Communists' because of the absence of any tangible body of such people, the consequent absence of any official declarations upon the subject, and the anarchy of expression in which these people revel. Speaking generally, communism, in point of form, implies small, independent, self-supporting societies; the idea proceeds from ignoring the fact that the economic evolution makes popular cooperating impossible except it is carried on upon a national basis, and that even the boundaries of many a modern nation, are not broad enough to embrace an independent cooperative community that shall be abreast of modern requirements."

When or how the anarchists of this school abandoned the old label and adopted the newer one we cannot say, though we do know that the former was still in use in the early 1930s (and we see it gets a cursory mention at the end of the material our correspondent sent). Since the 1890s, of course, it has found a "tangible body of people" who have adopted it, and to the extent they may be said to have made "official declarations upon the subject," it may be identified as a variant on another phrase, namely "anarcho-syndicalism." That phrase, in its turn, is a variant on the "small, independent, self-supporting societies" mentioned by THE PEOPLE more than 100 years ago, but grafted onto the industrial conditions that have grown and spread since then. (A grafting, incidentally, which makes the idea all the more absurd.)

The evolution of the phrase is undoubtedly explained by the opprobrium associated with anarchism (assassinations, sabotage, "propaganda of the deed," etc.) and the similar ignominy that befell the word communism in the wake of Stalinism. However, it is still anarchism, but anarchism seeking to disguise itself from the world by pulling the sheet of socialism over itself. (We almost said "over its head," but as we know, anarchism in all its guises deplores headship of any kind.) In truth, there is no socialism in anarchism and no anarchism in socialism.

This loose use of words that have technical and clearly defined meanings when taken by themselves, but that become (often deliberately) obscured by what The People called "the anarchy of expression," can only spread more confusion where absolute theoretical bedlam already reigns.

The SLP repudiates anarchism just as Marx and Engels did when they had to combat Proudhon and, later, Bakunin. Similarly, the SLP and Socialist Industrial Unionism are a repudiation of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism.