Defining left libertarianism

I occasionally contribute to the editing of Wikipedia pages, including those relating to left libertarian political traditions. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of cranky libertarians involved in Wikipedia, so pages you  edit there get swiftly re-edited. For example, the page on left libertarianism insists that said ideology is some odd US free market scene:

It later became associated with free-market libertarians when Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess reached out to the New Left in the 1960s.[3] This left-wing market anarchism, which includes mutualism and Samuel Konkin III‘s agorism, appeals to left-wing concerns such as feminism, gender and sexuality,class, immigration, and environmentalism.[1] Most recently, left-libertarianism refers to mostly non-anarchist political positions associated with Hillel Steiner, Philippe Van Parijs, and Peter Vallentyne that combine self-ownership with an egalitarian approach to natural resources.[4]

I think most people I know who call themselves left libertarians, certainly in Europe, would find that description hard to recognise. Here’s an old version of a section on libertarian socialism, that got deleted recently, which seems to me roughly right:

Libertarian socialism is a political philosophy that promote a non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic society without private property in the means of production. 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.[note 1]

The term libertarian socialism is used by some socialists to differentiate their philosophy from state socialism.[7]

For some writers, libertarian socialism is seen as synonymous or overlapping with the terms social anarchism[8][9][10], left anarchism.[8][9][11] and even left libertarianism.[2][12]

Political philosophies commonly described as libertarian socialist include most varieties of anarchism (especially anarchist communism, anarchist collectivism, anarcho-syndicalism,[13] and mutualism[14]) as well as autonomism, Communalism, participism, libertarian Marxist philosophies such as council communism and Luxemburgism,[15] and some versions of utopian socialism[16] and individualist anarchism.[17][18][19] There have also been libertarian socialist currents in the mainstream labour and socialist movements.

[Footnotes below]

There has also been a section on green left libertarianism, again recently re-deleted. A recent version looked like this:

The Green movement has been influenced by left libertarian traditions, including by anarchism, mutualism, Georgism and [[individualist anarchism. Peter Kropotkin provided a scientific explanation of how “mutual aid” is the real basis for social organization in his Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. New England Transcendentalism (especially Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott) and German Romanticism, the Pre-Raphaelites, and other “back to nature” movements combined with anti-war, anti-industrialism, civil liberties, and decentralization movements are all part of this tradition. In the modern period, Murray Bookchin and the Institute for Social Ecology elaborated these ideas more systematically. Bookchin was one of the main influences behind the formation of the German Green Party – the first green party to win seats in state and national parliaments.[citation needed]Modern Green Parties attempt to apply these ideas to a more pragmatic system of democratic governance as opposed to contemporary individualist or left anarchism.

Thus the Green movement, or left-facing sections of it, is often described by political scientists as left libertarian.[84] Often referred to here are European political parties, such as Ecolo and Agalev in Belgium, the German Green Party, or the Green Progressive Accord/GreenLeft in the Netherlands. Political scientists see these parties as coming out of the New Left and emphasising spontaneous self-organisation, participatory democracy, decentralisation and voluntarism, and therefore contrasting to the “traditional left”‘s top-down, bureaucratic or statist approach, hence the term “left libertarian”. Other similar non-socialist radical left political parties, such as the Italian Radicals, are often described in similar terms.[85] These parties situate themselves on the left of the political spectrum, and therefore tend to ally electorally with left parties (e.g. in the Rose in the Fist coalition in Italy), while being pro-market and strongly supporting a civil libertarian agenda, and hence are called left libertarian.

[Footnotes below]

What do you think of when you think of left libertarianism? What would you include in an article?

I think of a tradition described in David Goodway‘s book Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow, which includes the likes of William Morris, John Cowper Powys, Alex Comfort, Herbert Read, Colin Ward and Maurice Brinton.

From William Morris to Oscar Wilde to George Orwell, left-libertarian thought has long been an important but neglected part of British cultural and political history. In Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow, David Goodway seeks to recover and revitalize that indigenous anarchist tradition. This book succeeds as simultaneously a cultural history of left-libertarian thought in Britain and a demonstration of the applicability of that history to current politics. Goodway argues that a recovered anarchist tradition could—and should—be a touchstone for contemporary political radicals. Moving seamlessly from Aldous Huxley and Colin Ward to the war in Iraq, this challenging volume will energize leftist movements throughout the world.

Crucially, some of these people are anarchists – but not all are. Left libertarianism clearly stretches on the one side towards the anarchism of Colin Ward but also towards the democratic socialism of Orwell or the Marxism of Morris and EP Thompson, who all feature in Goodway’s book. As Bernard Crick puts it regarding Orwell: “He was an English Socialist of the classic kind, in the same mould as Michael Foot and Aneurin Bevan – left-wing, but also libertarian, egalitarian and hostile to the Communist Party.” Similarly, Thompson started off a Communist, but became sharply anti-Stalinist.

As this excellent review of Goodway’s book by Martin Heggarty describes, the title of the book comes from a novel by Ignazio Silone, which strongly influenced Colin Ward’s turn to anarchism. Silone, however, was not an anarchist, but an anti-Stalinist socialist.

We could take Goodway’s history into the 1960s and 1970s, with groups such as Big Flame and Solidarity, as described in this reading list, as well as people like Ken Coates. Moving past the 1970s, it becomes a little less clear.

That history is, of course, anglocentric, but I am sure a Francophone version of it could be written (including Victor Serge, Daniel Guerin, Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort) or an American version (including Mother Jones, Paul Goodman, Nancy and Dwight MacDonald, Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky). Those lists are quite white and male, and would need to be re-written to make them less so.

What do you think?


7. Zarembka, Paul (2007). Transitions in Latin America and in Poland and Syria. Emerald Group Publishing p. 25.

8. Ostergaard, Geoffrey (1991). “Anarchism”. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Blackwell Publishing. p. 21.

9. Chomsky, Noam and Otero, Carlos Peregrín (2004). Language and Politics. K Press. p. 739.

10. Guérin, Daniel (1970). “Anarchism: A Matter of Words.” Towards a Libertarian Socialism. Monthly Review Press. “Some contemporary anarchists have tried to clear up the misunderstanding by adopting a more explicit term: they align themselves with libertarian socialism or communism.”

11. Ross, Dr. Jeffery Ian (2000). Controlling State Crime. Transaction Publishers. p. 400. ISBN 0-7658-0695-9

12. Hicks, Steven V. and Shannon, Daniel E. (2003). The American journal of economics and sociology. Blackwell Pub. p. 612.

13. Sims, Franwa (2006). The Anacostia Diaries As It Is. Lulu Press. p. 160.

14. A Mutualist FAQ: A.4. Are Mutualists Socialists?. Retrieved on 2011-12-28.

15. Murray Bookchin, Ghost of Anarcho-Syndicalism; Robert Graham, The General Idea of Proudhon’s Revolution

16. Bromley, Kent (1906). “Preface.” The Conquest of Bread. Bromley considered early French utopian socialist Charles Fourier to be the founder of the libertarian branch of socialist thought, as opposed to the authoritarian socialist ideas of Babeuf and Buonarroti.” New York and London:G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

17. “An Anarchist FAQ. “[Benjamin] Tucker referred to himself many times as a socialist and considered his philosophy to be ‘Anarchistic socialism.'”

18. Armand, Émile. “Anarchist Individualism as a Life and Activity“. “inwardly [the individualist anarchist] remains refractory – fatally refractory – morally, intellectually, economically (The capitalist economy and the directed economy, the speculators and the fabricators of single are equally repugnant to him.)”

19. Sabatini, Peter. “Libertarianism: Bogus Anarchy“. “[In the United States of the] early to mid-19th century, there appeared an array of communal and ‘utopian’ counterculture groups (including the so-called free love movement). William Godwin‘s anarchism exerted an ideological influence on some of this, but more so the socialism of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. After success of his British venture, Owen himself established a cooperative community within the United States at New Harmony, Indiana during 1825. One member of this commune wasJosiah Warren (1798–1874), considered to be the first individualist anarchist.”

84. E.g. Herbert Kitschelt The Life Expectancy of Left-Libertarian Parties. Does Structural Transformation or Economic Decline Explain Party Innovation? A Response to Wilhelm P. BurklinEuropean Sociological Review, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Sep., 1988), pp. 155-160; Kent Redding, Jocelyn S. Viterna Political Demands, Political Opportunities: Explaining the Differential Success of Left-Libertarian Parties Social Forces, Vol. 78, No. 2 (Dec., 1999), pp. 491-510; Kees van Kersbergen and Christoffer Green-Pedersen, The Politics of the `Third Way’: The Transformation of Social Democracy in Denmark and the Netherlands Party Politics, Vol. 8, No. 5, 507-524 (2002); Neumayer, Eric (2003) Are left-wing party strength and corporatism good for the environment? Evidence from panel analysis of air pollution in OECD countries. Ecological economics, 45 (2). pp. 203-220. ISSN 0921-8009.

85. E.g. Neumayer, Eric (2003) Are left-wing party strength and corporatism good for the environment? Evidence from panel analysis of air pollution in OECD countries. Ecological economics, 45 (2). pp. 203-220. ISSN 0921-8009).

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. It sounds like instead of stuff getting deleted, stuff needs to be kept and added to. The section that you find unfamiliar from a European perspective is reasonably descriptive of American left-libertarianism (although it does seem to give Rothbard a little more credit than he’s due).

    In the US, a “left-libertarian” is a left market anarchist, a la the Center for a Stateless Society (

  2. This was a wonderful tour of many of the people and groups who’ve influenced my thinking, reading and practice (as a member of Big Flame – thanks of the mention!). I’d add CLR James and his group, with its spin-off in the UK of Race Today, and there really should be an insertion of the feminist and sexual liberation movements’ thinkers/writers/activists. ‘Beyond the Fragments’ must be relevant there, as would the magazine Gay Marxism. What about the fine tradition of Jewish trade union and political activity in the UK? (Joseph Beckman’s ‘Immigrants and the Class Struggle’ comes to mind.) One big puzzle is whether ‘left libertarians’ (in which group I would still count myself) are revolutionaries in anything like the Leninist/Trotskyist/Maoist sense of the word. In my old age, I probably wouldn’t call myself a revolutionary any more, if only to distinguish myself radically from that centralist, authoritarian and often violent methodology. In the meantime, you’ve given me lots more to add to my reading list. Thanks.

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