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?


Centrist Marxism

English: Heading of an ILP letter

The material on centrist Marxism was removed from the Wikipedia article on Centrism, so I have created a new article on the former. It is very much a work in progress, so anyone reading this who is a Wikipedia editor, please work on it. It started like this:

Centrism has a specific meaning within the Marxist movement, referring to a position between a revolutionary and reformist position. For instance, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was seen as centrist because they oscillated between advocating reaching a socialist economy through reforms and advocating revolution. The members of the so-called Two-and-a-half and Three-and-a-half Internationals, who could not choose between the reformism of the social democrat Second International and the revolutionary politics of the Communist Third International, are exemplary of centrism in this sense; instances are the Spanish Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), ILP and Poale Zion.

Revolutionary Marxists often describe centrism in this sense as opportunistic, since it argues for a revolution at some point in the future but urges reformist practices in the mean time; Libertarian socialists and anarchists view any reformism as political opportunism because they view reformism as incapable of effecting structural changes to social organization.[1]

The term “Centrism” also denotes positions held by some of the Bolsheviks during the 1920s. In this context, “Centrism” refers to a position between the Right Opposition (which supported the New Economic Policy and friendly relations with capitalist countries) and the Left Opposition (which supported an immediate transition to a socialist economy and world revolution). By the end of the 1920s, the two opposing factions had been defeated by Joseph Stalin who eventually gained enough support from members of the factions through the application of various ideas formed by the factions’ various leaders. (i.e. Leon TrotskyNikolai Bukharin, etc.)


Uses and abuses: George Orwell and Norman Thomas

Following Terry Glavin (linked here) and the Fat Man (linked here), Rosie Bell has a really good response to Julian Barnes’ recent NYRB George Orwell essay. Among other things, like the Fat Man she addresses his appeal to libertarians and conservatives of various sorts.

An example of the appropriation of Orwell by the right comes from this post at an American anti-Obama blog. The post is entitled “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” This, of course, is the opening passage from Orwell’s amazing novel 1984. Compelling graphics show a Soviet American flag and Obama as Big Brother. Of course, it is a serious abuse of the concept of totalitarianism to think of Obama’s mild reforms as totalitarianism: there is no similarity between what Orwell observed the Soviet dictatorship doing and what Obama is doing.

Along with another quote from Orwell is this “quote” from Norman Thomas:

thomas“The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But, under the name of liberalism, they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.”

Norman Thomas, Socialist leader, 1944

This Thomas quote is, I am fairly sure, a fabrication. If you google it, the hits all come from right-wing sites: over 54,000 hits. Malicious editors, usually anonymous, attempt to write it into Thomas’ wikipedia article, from which it is quoted by lazy bloggers as if everything in wikipedia is a fact (e.g. Standing on Truth, Moose Tracks, DaveGJ, and (slightly more intelligently) Kempite - to list those who have added to the myth this week alone).

A query at the talk page for Thomas’ wikipedia article has a response from Jim Miller, a university librarian, suggesting that the origin is a distortion of a comment made by Upton Sinclair to Norman Thomas:

We can build evidence for the possibility, or questionability, of this by looking at other people’s efforts to find it – for example, search: liberalism socialism “norman thomas” gets 84 hits, including Lou Cannon. Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power. PublicAffairs, 2003. ISBN: 1586480308. (F866.4.R43 C36 2003 in most academic libraries; in 979.4… or BIO section of most public libraries). On page 125, Cannon says [of Reagan] …”a favorite line was this supposed prediction of Norman Thomas…”, and “This is a suspect quotation, and Reagan gave no reference for it”. Cannon also says in a note “If Thomas said this, I have been unable to find evidence of it….”

Naturally, a thorough researcher would try to find many other such books, from people of various political bents, to build a case that such a quote is either probable, possible, or unlikely. One would think such a striking quote would make it into biographies of Thomas; try the tables of contents and indexes for “Liberalism”, etc. Even statements from social and political historians (who claim to have looked for such a quote) can help build a case for or against it.

But it IS a good example of how even a false quote can take on a life of its own, because it shows how hard it is to prove a person did NOT say something – even if a “grand champion” history reference expert DOES end up finding this particular quote somewhere in unpublished Norman Thomas correspondence.”*

The right uses this fabricated “quote” to substantiate a double lie: that American liberalism is somehow socialism in disguise, and that socialism is by definition a form of totalitarianism or tyranny. The fact that Norman Thomas was a democratic socialist, who fought hard against all forms of totalitarianism or tyranny, not least the Soviet dictatorship, is utterly lost on them. The fact that American liberalism has, at most, called for mild forms of state regulation and never for any kind of socialisation of the economy is also, of course, lost on them.

*Footnote: Thanks to Bilber and Kathy for link to hoax-sniffers Snopes who are still “undecided” on the authenticity of this quote.


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