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(en) US, black rose fed: SOCIALISM WILL BE FREE, OR IT WILL NOT BE AT ALL! - An Intro to Libertarian Socialism By Arthur Pye
Mon, 23 Jul 2018 07:08:46 +0300
Click for pdf pamphlet
---- Introduction ---- Socialism is officially a buzzword again. According to a recent
poll, 44% of U.S. millennials "prefer socialism to capitalism", and even mainstream
Democrats are starting to call themselves socialist. As one headline put it: "Socialism is
so hot right now." Used to describe everything from Bernie Sanders to Stalinist Russia,
there are few words which inspire such varied and contradictory meanings. Like most
buzzwords, socialism's true meaning has been obscured by its popularity. ---- But what
does socialism actually mean, and what does it look like in practice? ---- At its core,
socialism is the idea that resources and institutions in society should be managed
democratically by the community as a whole. Whereas under capitalism, economic and
political power is concentrated in the hands of the rich, socialists fight for a society
in which the means of producing and distributing goods and services are held in common
through the democratic self-management of workplaces and communities.
This article will make the case that libertarian socialism represents the most thorough
and consistent embodiment of core socialist principles. In essence, libertarian socialism
is a politics of freedom and collective self-determination, realized through a
revolutionary struggle against capitalism, state power and social oppression in all its forms.
Part 1: Freedom from Capitalism
Socialism vs Capitalism
In order to survive under capitalism, those without property are forced to rent themselves
to property owners and be exploited for profit. This relationship between "haves" and
"have-nots" forms the very basis of capitalist society - class exploitation. In such a
society, power flows directly from one's relationship to property, i.e. one's class
position. While a handful of people own and control society's institutions, the vast
majority of people (the working class) are rendered powerless as individuals. As the
revolutionary socialist and disability rights activist Helen Keller put it: "The few own
the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all."
Virtually nothing happens in a capitalist society unless it makes a rich person even
richer. By its very nature, capitalism not only feeds on class exploitation and wealth
inequality, but it also requires endless growth and expansion of the economy, resulting in
wars, colonialism, and ecological destruction. Corporations will stop at virtually nothing
in their pathological pursuit of profit.
Socialists advocate a "class struggle" in which those of us rendered powerless under
capitalism organize to shift the balance of power until society's institutions are brought
under democratic control and class-as-such has been abolished. In a socialist society
private profit would be eliminated. Instead, the purpose of political and economic
institutions would be to sustainably meet the needs and desires of the people through the
democratic self-management of workplaces and communities. As the socialist maxim goes:
"From each according to their ability, to each according to their need."
Eliminating the need for a propertied employing class and a propertyless employed (or
unemployed) class, workplaces would instead be cooperatively managed by the workers
themselves, replacing private business. Public policy would be planned through democratic
councils of self-administration, federated from the neighborhood outward, replacing the
centralized state. It's in this original spirit that we define socialism as a
revolutionary movement for a classless society.
Socialism vs Social Democracy
This vision stands in clear contrast not only to so-called "socialist" dictatorships in
Russia or China, but also to capitalist countries such as Sweden or Norway, often
described as "socialist." These societies (also called "social democracies") have the same
power dynamics as any other capitalist state. Whereas socialism calls for cooperative
ownership and direct democracy, "social democracies" maintain concentrated economic power
in the hands of the rich, with a powerful central government regulating social programs,
thus leaving the class structure of society unchanged. In this sense, self-described
socialists such as Bernie Sanders would be more appropriately described as "social
democrats" or "liberals" because their end goal is to carry out progressive reforms to
make life under the capitalist state more tolerable. Such reforms can improve people's
living and working conditions in important ways, but taxes and cheaper healthcare do not
constitute socialism. Socialism is the revolutionary appeal for a classless society.
Isn't Libertarian Socialism an Oxymoron?
In the United States, the word "libertarian" has taken on the opposite meaning from that
of the rest of the world. Strangely, it's become synonymous with advocacy of extreme
capitalist individualism, private property and the "rights" of corporations to be "free"
from public oversight. But freedom for the powerful is not freedom at all.
Since its origin, libertarianism has been synonymous with anarchism or
anti-authoritarianism: the belief that relationships based on domination, hierarchy and
exploitation should be dismantled in favor of freedom and self-determination. To
anarchists, an individual can only be free in a community of equals. As the 19th century
Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin put it: "Political Freedom without economic equality is
a pretense, a fraud, a lie." It should come as no surprise then, that libertarians have
always been socialists, since capitalism is based on class domination.
Though the possible confusion is understandable, libertarian socialism is more of a
redundancy than a contradiction in terms. Freedom and socialism are indispensable to one
another. Without one, the other loses its meaning. So libertarian socialism simply means
"free socialism." As the anarchist thinker Rudolf Rocker put it: "Socialism will be free,
or it will not be at all."
Part 2: Freedom from State Power
Libertarian Socialism vs State Socialism
Historically there have been two general tendencies in movements for socialism, which we
can roughly describe as those "from above" and those "from below." Both sides are
dedicated to the abolition of capitalism but they differ crucially in their vision of a
future society and how to get there. The key difference between these tendencies is their
approach to state power. While state socialists view the state as the means to socialism,
libertarians see it as a barrier.
Socialism from Below:
Libertarian socialists have long argued that states (or governments) are not neutral
institutions, but instruments of class rule, set up to protect a ruling minority through a
monopoly on violence. Without police, jails, militarized borders and centralized political
control, a state is no longer a state. Such a concentration of power is antithetical to
democratic self-management, and therefore to socialism.
To achieve "free socialism," those of us rendered powerless under capitalism must empower
ourselves by organizing where we live, work and go to school, creating popular
organizations (ie, rank and file unions for workers and tenants, popular assemblies, mass
community organizations) and building the collective power not only to push back against
the problems imposed on us, but to bring the institutions around us under democratic
control. Eventually, workers can seize their workplaces from bosses, tenants can seize
housing from landlords, and indigenous communities can assert sovereignty over colonized
territory. If movements are sufficiently organized and united with one another, isolated
actions can grow into a full scale social revolution, laying the basis for a new society
in which governments and corporations have been replaced by coordinated bodies of self-rule.
Such structures should be based on the principle of direct democracy, in which people
directly participate in the decisions which affect their lives. Rather than simply
electing our own rulers (a.k.a. "representative democracy"), direct democracy empowers
people to collectively govern themselves.
The world is complex and the details always depend on the circumstances, but our guiding
principles are uncompromising: concentrated power in all its forms must be overcome in
favor of freedom, equality and direct-democracy.
Socialism from Above:
State socialists take a different view. Rather than seeing the revolution as a wave of
transformation from below, it must instead be implemented from above. From this
perspective socialism is understood as a science, requiring professional administration. A
core of professional revolutionaries (the "vanguard") must therefore seize control of the
capitalist state on behalf of "the masses" (through either electoral or military means)
and administer socialism through the existing mechanisms of power. Rather than bringing
the economy under community and worker self-management, land and industry are instead
nationalized and placed under direct state control.
Revolution vs Regime-Change:
There's no shortcut to socialism. Replacing a capitalist ruling class with a
self-proclaimed "socialist" ruling class is not a social revolution, but a coup; a
regime-change. State socialism, therefore, is a contradiction in terms, more accurately
described as "state capitalism" since the general population is still forced to rent
themselves to a boss (in this case the all-powerful "socialist" state).
If the core of socialism is collective self-management, then socialism at gunpoint can't
be socialism at all. Even Karl Marx himself famously said: "the emancipation of the
working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves." A society in which
power flows from the bottom upward can only be built from the bottom upward. Therefore,
any attempt to impose socialism from above will logically fail at its professed aim.
Throughout history, whenever a small group of people take state power in the name of
socialism, instead of creating a classless society, the state becomes increasingly
centralized, often resulting in a society more oppressive than that which it overthrew.
The Russian Example:
The "vanguardist" ideology of state socialism was first developed by Vladimir Lenin during
the Russian Revolution, and then implemented once he and the Bolshevik party seized state
control in 1917. While a genuine socialist revolution did indeed sweep the country, it was
quickly co-opted and overturned by the new "socialist" state. The newly-formed democratic
workers councils (soviets) and agricultural communes - the very foundations of a socialist
revolution - were dismantled by the Bolsheviks and placed under direct state control.
While the Russian workers demanded "All power to the councils!," Lenin insisted that:
"revolution demands ... that the masses unquestionably obey the single will of the
leaders." Countless socialists were jailed or killed in the name of socialism long before
Stalin ever came to power.
Vanguardism in its various forms (Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, etc) was taken as an
ideological model throughout the 20th century by many who succeeded in taking state power.
Unfortunately, due to the model's success at producing self-described "socialist" regimes
(Russia, China, Cuba), the vanguardist ideology has largely become synonymous with
revolutionary socialism itself.
Libertarian Socialist Revolutions:
Fortunately not all socialist revolutions have been co-opted by authoritarians. From the
Spanish anarchist revolution, to the Zapatista uprising and the Rojava revolution in
Northern Syria, there are numerous examples of movements reorganizing society along
socialist principles without a state. These movements, like any, are not universal models
to be replicated, but examples which can teach us important lessons and inspire us with
the hope of revolutionary possibility.
Part 3: Freedom from Social Oppression
Solidarity and Collective Liberation:
For libertarian socialists, all struggles against oppression are necessarily linked in a
broader struggle for collective liberation. A society rooted in self-determination
requires the full emancipation of all people - not only from class exploitation and state
authority, but from any and all forms of social oppression, period.
As socialists, we believe concentrated economic power and class exploitation are
fundamental to the oppression people face today under capitalism. But as libertarians, we
also reject the idea that simply "socializing the means of production" would automatically
create a free society. Instead, we believe that in any society, capitalist or otherwise,
people of all walks of life have to defend their rights against any and all forms of
discrimination and oppression.
Fighting against social oppression such as racism, sexism and transphobia should not be
treated as an afterthought or side note to the "real work" of class struggle. Instead, it
should be understood as central and indispensable to any libertarian socialist project.
With a holistic understanding of oppression, we can see that if class struggle means the
struggle of working class people for their freedom, then there can be no class struggle
without queer struggle, feminist struggle, anti-racism and anti-colonialism. A libertarian
socialist society necessarily requires an end to all social oppression because true
freedom for anyone requires a dignified life for all. Or as the old Wobbly slogan puts it:
"An injury to one is an injury to all."
Power vs Privilege:
For libertarian socialists, collective liberation also requires that we address the root
causes of oppression. Manifestations of personal privilege and cultural discrimination
should be understood as symptoms of underlying structures in society which determine who
has power and who doesn't. The powerful (mostly rich white men) have used their control of
society's institutions to shape the dominant culture in their own image and their own
interests. Only through shared struggle and revolutionary transformation can we
fundamentally reshape these institutions so that they serve everyone's interests.
Part 4: In Practice: Building Power vs Taking Power
How do we fight for socialism without getting caught in the traps of liberalism or
authoritarianism? The short answer: by building popular power. Popular power is the
opposite of concentrated power. It means building self-managed social movements
independent of the institutional left that can win meaningful reforms while laying the
groundwork for pushing beyond them.
The question we must ask ourselves is not who should sit in the seat of power, but rather
how do we shift the balance of power so that the seat loses its meaning. Rather than
putting our faith in those who profess to represent us as benevolent rulers (in this
society or the next), we should see ourselves as responsible for our own liberation. This
is the difference between representative politics and direct action.
Representative politics requires that most of us take a back seat. By focusing on electing
politicians or rallying behind charismatic leaders, we surrender our agency in exchange
for promises. In practice, what our "representatives" are seeking is access to state
power. This is dangerous because, as mentioned, states are not neutral institutions but
instruments of minority rule. States can (and should) be reformed in ways that improve
people's lives but the history of electoral politics shows that they will defang,
demobilize and create relationships of dependency with social movements rather than
strengthen them. If we want transformational change, we have to fight for reforms by
building power from below, not by reinforcing it above us.
There's no substitute for popular power. Not parties, nor charismatic leaders. Direct
action means fighting for ourselves: uniting with others and fighting oppression with our
own power rather than through some third party. A strike is the perfect example: workers
use their own collective power to simply stop working until their demands are met. Not
only is this a more direct and effective means of change, but it's also transformational,
emboldening workers towards a future where they could run their own workplace. The same is
true of struggles over land, housing, education, etc. Transformational change happens when
everyday people discover and exercise their own collective power.
If we take an honest look at the structures and relationships around us today and ask
ourselves: "could this be more free, equal and democratic?," our answer will almost always
be: "yes." If you take these principles seriously, and follow them to their logical
conclusion, you just may wake up and discover you're a libertarian socialist. But fear
not! Socialism is not some utopian pipedream. Freedom is possible. And admitting it is the
first step of the revolution.
Arthur Pye is a member of Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation in Seattle.
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