Government and Institutions

The myth of “Libertarian Socialism”


SUGGESTED

Trade, Development, and Immigration
Socialists are fond of modifiers these days. “Democratic Socialism”, “21st Century Socialism”, “Millennial Socialism”, and, most absurd of all, “Libertarian Socialism” and “Libertarian Communism”.  

When asked to explain what those terms are supposed to mean, socialists argue as follows:

Socialism, like most ideologies, comes in different flavours. It comes in authoritarian varieties, such as Leninism. But it also comes in decidedly anti-authoritarian, anti-totalitarian varieties, associated with names like Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Emma Goldman or Alexander Berkman. Leninists believe that a socialist society ought to be run by huge hierarchical, top-down state bureaucracy. But libertarian socialists believe in dismantling hierarchies, in grassroots democracy, and in self-emancipation. Most contemporary socialists see themselves in the latter tradition. They therefore believe that it is unfair when their opponents hold the dire results of Leninism, or other examples of authoritarian socialism, against them. As they see it, this has nothing to do with them. It’s a completely different type of socialism. Socialists believe that their opponents are either being disingenuous, or simply not clever enough to understand the differences between different varieties of socialism.  

In this, as in so many other things, socialists are completely wrong. The distinction between a “libertarian socialism” on the one hand, and an “authoritarian socialism” on the other hand, is wholly illusory. Socialist projects always start with the intention of dismantling hierarchies, democratising the economy, and empowering working class people. Even Lenin started with such aspirations. Socialist projects always end up doing the opposite – but this is not because its protagonists believe in the “wrong kind” of socialism, an authoritarian as opposed to a libertarian socialism. It is because their theories are wrong, and a “libertarian socialism” cannot be achieved. The choice is not between an authoritarian and a libertarian socialism. The choice is between an authoritarian socialism, and no socialism at all. Faced with that choice, socialists always opt for the former.

A good illustration is Lenin’s seminal book The State and Revolution, in which he sets out his vision of a socialist society. The book was written in the months just before the October Revolution, so it cannot be dismissed as the writing of a younger, more naïve and more idealistic version of Lenin: this was the same Lenin who would go on to become the main architect of the Soviet Union. But neither was he in power just yet, so the book cannot be dismissed as regime propaganda either. It is the closest thing to a genuine Leninist manifesto. 

The State and Revolution does not at all read like a blueprint for a totalitarian society. The type of society outlined in this book has next to nothing in common with the Soviet Union that actually existed. It is not that Lenin simply glosses over, or omits, the unpalatable aspects of the future Soviet Union, such as the bureaucratisation of society, or the mass arrests and mass executions. No: he specifically explains why the future Soviet state would not, and could not, develop any such features.  

Echoing Marx and Engels, Lenin believes that the state is, always and everywhere, an instrument of class rule, an instrument of the ruling class. The flipside of this is that in a society without class antagonisms, there will be no need for a state. Socialism, of course, is all about the creation of a classless society. It would therefore ultimately lead to a stateless society – communism: 

[E]very state is a “special force” for the suppression of the oppressed class. Consequently, every state is not “free” and not a “people’s state […] 

So long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state. 

This is a long-term aspiration. Lenin is not an anarchist; he believes that a state will still be necessary for some considerable time after the revolution. But, crucially, he believes that even during this transitional period, the Soviet state will not have to do very much. There is no mention of, for example, Five-Year Plans. Lenin believes that the new society will require a few administrative functions, but in the main, it will more or less just run itself: 

The means of production belong to the whole of society. Every member of society, performing a certain part of the socially-necessary work, receives a certificate from society to the effect that he has done a certain amount of work. And with this certificate he receives from the public store of consumer goods a corresponding quantity of products. […] 

[T]he accounting and control necessary for this have been simplified by capitalism to the utmost and reduced to the extraordinarily simple operations – which any literate person can perform – of supervising and recording, knowledge of the four rules of arithmetic, and issuing appropriate receipts.  

A state bureaucracy as such will no longer be needed. State officialdom, in general, will be a thing of the past. The country will be run more like a large working men’s club: 

Instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority (privileged officialdom, the chiefs of the standing army), the majority itself can directly fulfil all these functions, and the more the functions of state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for the existence of this power. […] 

[C]ontrol by society and by the state over the measure of labor and the measure of consumption […] must be exercised not by a state of bureaucrats, but by a state of armed workers […]

[U]nder socialism functionaries will cease to be “bureaucrats”, to be “officials” […]  

Under socialism […] for the first time in the history of civilized society the mass of population will rise to taking an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in the everyday administration of the state. Under socialism all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing.

Self-management of society, without state bureaucrats, is not a vision for the distant future, but a short-term action plan: 

[I]t is quite possible, after the overthrow of the capitalists and the bureaucrats, to proceed immediately, overnight, to replace them in the control over production and distribution […] by the armed workers, by the whole of the armed population. […]

[T]he “state” which consists of the armed workers […] is “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word”.

Lenin also believes that this entity, which he describes as a “proletarian state or semi-state”, will not be particularly oppressive. His reasoning is simple. Under capitalism, a small minority (the capitalist class) oppresses the vast majority of the population (the workers and the peasants). This is hard work. It therefore requires an elaborate state security apparatus: a police force, a prison system, a standing army, etc. Under socialism, on the other hand, state power is wielded directly by the workers and the peasants, and thus by the vast majority of the population. They only need to oppress a small minority, namely, the deposed capitalists. This is very easy. It therefore does not require an elaborate security apparatus, or even much of an apparatus at all:  

[U]nder capitalism we have the state in the proper sense of the word, that is, a special machine for the suppression of one class by another […] Naturally, […] such an undertaking as the systematic suppression of the exploited majority by the exploiting minority calls for the utmost ferocity and savagery in the matter of suppressing, it calls for seas of blood […]

[D]uring the transition […] suppression is still necessary, but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the “state”, is still necessary, but […] the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority of the wage slaves of yesterday is comparatively so easy, simple and natural a task that it will entail far less bloodshed […] Naturally, the exploiters are unable to suppress the people without a highly complex machine for performing this task, but the people can suppress the exploiters even with a very simple “machine”, almost without a “machine”, without a special apparatus, by the simple organization of the armed people”

In other words, Lenin does not claim that the revolution will be a walk in the park: he says, repeatedly and very clearly, that repressive measures will be required. But he also believes that there will be far less repression than under the previous system.  

This, needless to say, is not quite what happened. In its worst year on record (1905, the year of the failed revolution), the Tsarist regime executed about 11,000 people. In a “normal” year, it executed fewer than 20 people. Under the Bolsheviks, the number of executions immediately jumped to about 28,000 per year (p. 82) – and this was before Stalin took over.  

Similarly, while labour camps already existed under Tsarism, fewer than 30,000 people worked in them in 1917. In the years after the Revolution, that number quickly soared to 70,000 (p. 5) – and again, this is all before Stalin. 

The Tsarist secret police was indeed dismantled after the revolution, but its socialist successor, the Cheka, was in a different league in terms of size, scope and brutality – also before Stalin.

Now, of course, you could claim that the entire book is just a big pack of lies. You could claim that Lenin always wanted to create the totalitarian hellhole that he did help create, and that he just sugarcoated his true intentions for PR reasons. Or you could claim that he may have held those convictions initially, but that they were only skin-deep, and that power quickly corrupted him. Or that adverse circumstances, such as the civil war, derailed his original plans.

But here’s a more plausible explanation: when Lenin wrote those words, he meant it. In his aspirations, Lenin was a “libertarian socialist”. But once he was in power, it soon turned out that you cannot just abolish market signals and market exchange, and expect society to somehow spontaneously organise itself without them. It soon turned out that “the working class” is just a Marxist abstraction, and that an abstraction does not suddenly spring to life, and act independently.

It is cheap, and easy, to claim that Lenin and so many others just had the wrong intentions, or that they just picked the “wrong kind” of socialism. The supposed distinction between “libertarian socialism” and “authoritarian socialism” is a post-hoc excuse to explain away socialism’s inevitable descent into authoritarianism.

Socialism is always “libertarian” in its aspirations. And it is always authoritarian in its actual practice. Had Lenin died during or just after the October Revolution, he would today be remembered as a great “Libertarian Socialist”, and socialists would be convinced that the Soviet Union would have turned out completely differently with him at the helm. Conversely, had the Spartacist Uprising in Germany succeeded, the whole of Germany would soon have turned into a very large GDR, and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht would today be remembered as “authoritarian socialists” who “perverted” Marx’s ideals. “No, you just don’t understand”, socialists would argue today. “I’m a Libertarian Socialist – not a Luxemburgist!”

 

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).


25 thoughts on “The myth of “Libertarian Socialism””

  1. Posted 06/03/2020 at 21:53 | Permalink

    No, the term “Libertarian Socialism” can be understood in somewhat different ways (see the term on Wikipedia), but even that ignores a better definition. The term can, and should, mean a system that uses, and accepts capitalism, but regulates it for avoidance of fraud, fairness, etc., while providing MORE individual freedom and less taxation for individuals, and MORE regulation and taxation, BUT SCALED for size, wealth and influence, for ORGANIZATIONS (both for profit, and so-called “non profit”).
    [email protected]

  2. Posted 27/06/2020 at 05:05 | Permalink

    There are two types self-described “libertarian socialists”. First want achieve socialism and prefers libertarian methods (Lenin), second want achieve liberty of workers and prefer socialist methods (anarchists). This is significant difference. Socialism is impossible to estabilish by revolution, this is the sad true, so leninism leads to authoritarian state socialism. But anarchists only use sabotage to make workers free to control facilities democratically by themselves and they oppose statism as much as corporatism. Anarchists support free market rather than centralism and there is no such economical thing by which socialism only as “workers collectively own their local private workplaces in free market system” (which is in contrast with communist “whole society collectively own all workplaces” and capitalistic “I own your workplace and exploit you”) cannot be estabilished. There are only human preferences which oppose this social liberalism, but values are evolving to make it possible.

  3. Posted 08/07/2020 at 21:38 | Permalink

    “Socialism is always ‘libertarian’ in its aspirations. And it is always authoritarian in its actual practice. ”

    This sentence ignores Revolutionary Catalonia and the Korean People’s Association in Manchuria. While these societies did have problems, they did not descend into authoritarianism.

  4. Posted 14/08/2020 at 01:36 | Permalink

    Aren’t you ignoring the fact that Marx believed that a society wasn’t prepared for socialism until it was in late-stage capitalism? This is why Lenin was hoping the revolution would take place in Germany and not Russia. Once he realized that wasn’t going to happen, he settled for Russia and had to draw up new plans for how he was going to make it work with a largely uneducated and unskilled proletariat.

  5. Posted 17/08/2020 at 14:37 | Permalink

    You are taking a whole ideology and evaulating in only one expirement that happened in a community that change had done rapid and a society that in struggle of new abolished slave system. Russian atmosphere in those era’s are desperate, conflicted, uneducated and been divided to many groups. Educated groups where sent through to Siberian region and expirementing the people of the unknown state and the first socialist ideals grew up on Siberian region. While burguoise and aristocrats having a great life the Moscowian proletariat is turning in to little burgoise (like in mutualism) with considering this events. Lenin’s ideals that are more based on a proletarian semi-state (as you say but its a vanguard system that again you didnt consider) that will lead into a revoulution for all community is impossible and seeing a corrupt device ans changing into a device for your own only increase the corruption as we can see in Stalin’s era. Lenin has a vanguard party system that so many individuals reject it as you are saying “all socialism intentions is libertarin” Lenin system lead to a complex hierachial while other such as Bordiga is considering more a communal way with a electoralist party(Left communism) For the end Emma Goldman was a anarhist and its whole differemt topicnto consider while.again you can see in Octover revoulution there were anarchist communes that destroyed by “Bolsheviks”.

  6. Posted 15/09/2020 at 07:07 | Permalink

    If lighter forms of socialism don’t exist or work, then explain why Norway, Finland, England, Australia, Sweden, Canada, and Germany are some of the best run countries on earth?

    this article is nonsense.
    The only reason why socialism hasn’t worked, is because there is always a greedy oligarchy of dirtbags who will destroy them. The more successful socialism becomes, the worse it is for narcissistic libertarians who like hierarchies because they were born at the top of them.

  7. Posted 15/09/2020 at 11:06 | Permalink

    “This sentence ignores Revolutionary Catalonia and the Korean People’s Association in Manchuria. While these societies did have problems, they did not descend into authoritarianism.”

    I cannot speak about Korea but I know a little about Spain. Your statement is untrue – of both the Communist/Socialist parties and the Anarchists (albeit less so). The Communist and Socialist parties saw the Anarchists as a major threat and actively worked against them in an authoritarian manner. They restricted their access to arms to fight Castro and actively worked against them in any way they could – even though supposedly, the Communists’ aim was to lead to a stateless society eventually. If you read some anarchist accounts they blame their failure as much on the socialists as the fascists.

    The anarchists were better, letting people who wanted to remain outside the communes continue to live. However it was in reality a Hobson’s choice, because they dominated in the areas in which they operated: taking over not only production but the dispersion of goods/markets etc. Anyone who disobeyed was ejected from the commune into this purgatory where living was hard. Their rules were enforced rigidly… in some areas they even policed people saving money or coupons. And let’s not forget that they took property and land without compensation to the rightful owners in order to start up in the first place – hardly a libertarian approach.

    And all this in just a few years. I predict it would have become just as repressive as every other socialist experiment over time.

  8. Posted 16/09/2020 at 07:50 | Permalink

    The central idea of the article is mischevious in its intentions but not completely without merit .It is worthwhile to try and examine why socialism has tended to gravitate towards authoritarianism a lot of times. But as we see in most of the developed world it is largely socialist measures which contribute to the index of “quality of life” for its citizens. Even in the developing world the best ways to bring the backward sections of the society in the mainstream seem to be socialist measures,atleast the fastest and more humane way anyway. The much vaunted “free market” society dont exist anywhere. They are the actual myth.So if socialist ideas do so much good,what happens when we try to dismantle the state? is it always necessary for it to be by force?and how much of the state should remain,if at all? Those are things to investigate and try and answer. Not this mindless rant against socialism.

  9. Posted 17/11/2020 at 23:46 | Permalink

    It’s hilarious that the right wing’s only comeback to anything that is not capitalism is “NO ITS BEEN TRIED ONCE AND CAPITALISM MADE IS FAIL SO LETS JUST KEEP CAPITALISM! ANY NEW FORM OF SOCIALISM THAT ACTUALLY FOLLOWS THEORY IS JUST UTOPIANISM. LETS KEEP THE SYSTEM THAT LITERALLY REQUIRES OPPRESSION BECAUSE I CAN FATHOM SOMETHING BETTER IN MY NARROW MIND! Durrrrr Libertarian Socialism is the same as gulagssss!

  10. Posted 07/01/2021 at 05:08 | Permalink

    I like how you try to show libertarian socialism can’t work by detailing and arguing against actual libertarian philosophy, but instead, by attacking Leninism without even addressing what thae actual distinction even is. This article is hilarious.

  11. Posted 12/05/2021 at 14:14 | Permalink

    i love seeing all these socialists getting triggered in the comments, a lot of them don’t even understudand socialism itself. Good Article! Socialism is inherently authoritarian because it is based on coercion which is force.

  12. Posted 16/07/2021 at 10:31 | Permalink

    i would rather be coerced by a democratically controlled government or workplace (union) than a CEO.

  13. Posted 01/08/2021 at 03:22 | Permalink

    Well the IDEAL of socialism is not by coercion, or force as you put it, but by consent. Consent by the proletariat is the very essence of socialism. The problem exists really in what one does with dissenters. I am a bit of a scholar (if I may say) of utopian literature and I have never seen a satisfactory resolution to what is to be done with dissenters anywhere. Brave New World proposes banishment and News From Nowhere suggests ignoring the constant moaning but most other works pretty much recommend slavery or execution. This is in fiction so I shudder at the thought of what reality brings. I hope it’s something like Star Trek, one day.

  14. Posted 20/08/2021 at 17:11 | Permalink

    Socialism is very libertarian… so long as you don’t count all the killing and force required to take people’s property so you can give it to someone else.

  15. Posted 03/10/2021 at 20:20 | Permalink

    In this same period of time, the United Kingdom, under the mythological hallucinations of Malthusian capitalists, butchered 8 million innocent Irish people and at minimum another 20 million Indians and the United States had just decided to reverse course after butchering several million indigenous Americans. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t invest much in the hysterics about some inherent brutality of socialism.

  16. Posted 01/07/2022 at 16:59 | Permalink

    This article is hilarious. The author maintains a smug tone throughout while giving an argument that he admitted was flawed from the beginning. He described the clear distinction between the structures of Leninism and libertarian socialism then only used Lenin to argue against libertarian socialism (as well as an embarrassing Rosa Luxemburg-dictator fairytale). Not to mention that libertarian socialism is the original libertarianism, not a “modifier” as he claims. It’s a shame that people can make it through a PhD program without picking up the slightest critical thinking or researching skills.

  17. Posted 19/03/2023 at 18:37 | Permalink

    There is no capitalism with a human face. Capitalist states are hypocritical and authoritarian. I believe socialist states of the past have a lot of positive and negative aspects we can learn from them to improve. I think a lot of their aspects were done out of a sort of necessity. The US, a capitalist country, certainly claims its authoritarian methods are done out of necessity and some very well may be, but I think many are not. And to the person who claimed half of Europe is socialist, that is nonsense, only during the Cold War time was half of Europe socialist, now they’re neoliberal or social democracy, with some countries bordering on a sort of fascism. Capitalism results in the centralisation of capital, wealth, and power, and needs state apparatuses to protect these. Capitalism is authoritarian too, if socialisms of past and present are authoritarian and if it itself is.

  18. Posted 19/03/2023 at 18:39 | Permalink

    Capitalism is the idea that has kept failing, an idea that has failed for the vast majority of people, the vast majority of times it has been tried. We can do better than capitalism, or so I’d like to believe. We can do better than poverty and war, oppression.

  19. Posted 07/04/2023 at 02:38 | Permalink

    Capital is the problem with Capitalism. The wealthy get all the Loans while the poor are driven out of business, out of their homes and into the poverty created by ” big food” and big real estate, etc. Corporations always get the capital because they are Not people. Socialism means putting ordinary people first. It means Bank elimination or strict control, Rent control, and price caps on food. There is no need to kill off the elite. Simply Do not let them Aquire Everything. Give everyone an equal opportunity to thrive and most people will do so. End Banking as we know it. End ownership of multiple properties that are used as ” investments”. Housing must be owned by individuals, not Land Lords, especially Not “corporate investment landlords”. Diversify ownership of Everything. When Noone gets to Hog property and businesses to themselves beyond what they can personally use – that is the beginning of true Socialism. Socialism is natural. Capitalism is an artificial construct created by greedy Banksters with their promotion of Greed. Real money does not inflate. Only Bank -based money is the cause of inflation. Banks are the #1 problem in this world. Let’s get rid of these criminals who loan money they don’t actually have (in deposits)!!! The creation of Fantasy money for the benefit of a few is the reason for 95% of Poverty.

  20. Posted 09/06/2023 at 14:58 | Permalink

    Look at these angry, bitter socialists discreting this very true article. No doubt they are all followers of that socialist moron Brendan O’Neil, who uses conservative social opinions to disguise his true Marxist agenda. Socialists may claim to champion liberty, but in reality they think very differently, especially when dealing with their opponents.
    Socialism does not work, and it can only be implemented with the harsh erosion of political and economic liberties. Otherwise, it cannot be implemented. Every single socialist belongs in a political rubbish dump. Capitalism is indeed greedy and imperfect, but it’s still much better than hellish socialism, or simply communism.

  21. Posted 24/07/2023 at 00:48 | Permalink

    Not gonna lie, you’re dumb as shit. There are actual examples of libertarian socialism, past and present. But, conveniently, you ignored these. Makhno in Ukraine, the CNT-FAI in Spain, the KPAM in Korea, the EZLN in Mexico, Rojava in Syria, and more. None of these experiments were/are perfect, but they exist/ed. To claim that it’s a myth is ignorant dumb-fuckery that ignores the truth of the term. They shouldn’t let you write articles, it hurts their cause.

  22. Posted 25/08/2023 at 21:21 | Permalink

    So many angry socialists, I’m elated.

  23. Posted 07/09/2023 at 02:15 | Permalink

    The article successfully critics the concept of a vanguard party but conflates it with libertarian socialism/anarchism. Anarchists/libertarian socialists are opposed to any form of state Mikhail Bakunin a famous anarchist/Libertarian socialist opposed Karl Marx who believed that in order to move to a Stateless, classless, moneyless society (Communism) it would require what was called the dictator of the proletariat a government which would nationalize the entire economy in the transition between communism and capitalism. Mikhail Bakunin believed that the Dictatorship of the Proletariat unchecked by the workers or any other opposition would become the new and far worse oppressor to the people stating “When people are being beaten by a stick, They are not much happier if it is called the peoples stick”and “All the more dangerous because it appears as a sham expression of the peoples will” Marx later kicked out Mikhail Bakunin from the International Working Mans Association likely for his opposition. Lenin later expanded upon Marx’s idea of the dictator of the proletariat creating Marxist-Leninism which believes that a revolutionary vanguard state is required to transition to communism something you describe in this article and also something that Libertarian socialists/Anarchists oppose. Libertarian socialism/Anarchism is opposed to Vanguardism and the state as a whole. That includes state welfare, taxes and public services which they do not view as and has falsely been conflated with socialism due to Soviet and American propaganda calling the Soviet Union socialist. The soviet union called themselves socialists to have a wider moral appeal among people in the country and outside who approve of socialism. They also called themselves democratic but both of these are not true and are for propaganda purposes. North Korea does not call itself a dictatorship and statist hellhole no, they call themselves the “Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea” a claim which is obviously false the same can be said for the Soviet Union. The only reason people believe the Soviet Union was Socialist was because American propaganda which conflated Socialism with the miserable tyranny in the soviet union and used this to attack socialism. In contemporary politics Socialism almost always mean roughly speaking the government owning the economy and since the new definition has been in use for so long it reinforces itself the word socialism has been corrupted and is virtually meaningless with only a vague association of government to it’s name. George Orwell was a socialist he stated himself “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” 1984 Talks about not just tyranny but the manipulation and destruction of language. Orwell in fact fought in Anarchist/Libertarian Socialist Catalonia stating that although he didn’t fully understand it he recognized it was something worth fighting for. The revolution was eventually crushed by the soviet union backed communists who fought with the anarchists in a period called the “May Days” Many of the anarchists were persecuted and Orwell saw Statist tyranny first hand eventually escaping and writing about it in Homage to Catalonia. The contemporary definition of socialism FAILS to explain Anarchism which is a form of socialism and is synonymous with Libertarian Socialism but after all War is Peace Ignorance is strength and Socialism is slavery.

  24. Posted 01/01/2024 at 13:51 | Permalink

    Tom Abate: those are Protestants. With ethics.
    Doesn’t work without the ethics. If you have confession you have corruption

  25. Posted 10/02/2024 at 13:02 | Permalink

    This author doesn’t understand any history of the socialist movement lmao. State and Revolution was written by Lenin as a concession to the libsocs of Russia, because the Boksheviks had to get them on their side to take over. Lenin was an authoritarian since the beginning, read What is to be Done? And libsocs were opposed to the idea of a transitional state from the beginning, unlike Lenin, calling it “state capitalism” (see Kropotkin).

Comments are closed.


SIGN UP FOR IEA EMAILS