Libertarian unnecessarian - Blake Nemo

Libertarian unnecessarian - Blake Nemo

The libertarian/authoritarian dichotomy is less than useful for communist politics, writes Blake Nemo.

Getting interested in Leftist politics at a young age, I formed an interest in Marxism. Just as strongly as I wanted to proclaim the need for a strong worker’s movement, I felt a need to distance myself from the unsavory historical figures attached to mainstream Marxism. As well, I wanted to highlight the need for the defense of individual rights. With the Communist tradition misleadingly characterized by repressive regimes such as the Eastern Bloc or even Democratic Kampuchea (late – 1970s Cambodia), I declared myself a Libertarian Marxist. However, by reading from Marxists outside the tradition of Lenin’s “successors” I realized the faulty reasoning behind my specification as a libertarian along with my Marxist views (also, I learned it kinda isn’t a real thing). This distinction, the use of the terms libertarian and authoritarian, is ultimately improper, and I would argue is not useful in the context of revolutionary politics.

Those of the left that also describe themselves as libertarian socialists create the dichotomy that one either supports the destruction of the Capitalist mode of production and its social relations through a type of worker self-emancipation. With the other being the authoritarian position, characterized as a conspiratorial takeover of state authority by a party dictating the fashion in which class is dissolved in a society, but ultimately acting as a new class – a dictatorship over the proletariat rather than a dictatorship of the proletariat. I find this way of dividing the currents of Communism problematic. Though there is certainly a distinction in the viewpoints that advocate for Communism through revolution, I would put forward that the more accurate divide is between those who seek genuine eradication of class in society and those who would like to imitate the past regimes that were often cadre, nationalist takeovers of the state or merely manage capitalist relations in a different way, essentially the left-wing of capital.

This difference is much clearer in my view, as it is apparent that most who identify as Marxist-Leninist and its variants conceptualize revolution as a takeover of the state and the installation of a party regime that upholds the nation-state and substitutes a bureaucracy of professional revolutionaries for the rule of the actual proletariat. As Communists who understand that the proletariat is where the revolutionary potential is held, such ideas practically seem like a divorce from any notion of Socialism. This divergence of viewpoints is much greater and more important than the divide between those who would use centralized power and those who wouldn’t.

Another supposed distinction to Libertarian Socialist thought that is ultimately not exclusive, is the preservation of individual freedom. The existing forms of “socialist republics” have impeded on the civil liberties, often in reactionary ways, simply because they were in actuality capitalist nation-states. In a genuine revolutionary situation, even with a party, there would be no interest in the suppression of certain lifestyles unless they are tightly intertwined with Bourgeois society, in which they would ultimately be undermined by the dissolution of class. The classic view of states based on “Marxist beliefs” controlling the many facets of people’s lives was not inherently due to the presence of authority, but often the consolidation of power by an opportunistic party. In fact, in the early rule of the Bolsheviks traditional values were largely expelled from the rule of law, legalizing homosexuality and abortion. Not to say there were no authoritarian elements to pre-Stalin USSR, but the tighter grip on personal freedom came along with the active seeking of more Russian influence and the abandonment of international unity by class.

Marx himself critiqued authoritarian socialists of his time like Blanqui. He made himself clear in stating this: “We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse. There certainly are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire to exchange freedom for equality. We are convinced that in no social order will freedom be assured as in a society based upon communal ownership.” — Marx, Engels, et al., Communist Journal, 1847. Marx himself was a champion of individual freedom and had this as his ultimate goal his entire life.

This divide has existed since the Soviet Union became an obvious force of counter-revolution. Before the question was revolution or reform, but no one ever thought a reformist could play a revolutionary so well. For nearly the rest of the century Marxist-Leninist(Stalinist) parties quelled uprisings and worker’s strikes. These parties would convince workers to go back to work in exchange for good favor for their parties in the government and small reversible benefits for the workers, to use the PCF in May 68 uprising in France as an example. Today, the tradition continues with mediocre parties like CPUSA and Syriza, supporting Democrats and making alliances with anti-immigration organizations, respectively. Both act to appease capitalism, regardless of one being in power and the other not. They’ve simply turned in their portraits of Stalin for Obama bumper stickers.

The next major point that I believe makes the libertarian/authoritarian dichotomy a problematic one is the fact that revolution is inherently repressive and undemocratic against the ruling class and their supporters. To change the mode of production is a monumental task, one that, if successful, will directly change the nature of human experience as we know it. As proponents of revolution, we will not take into consideration the consent of those who keep the current social order and have a vested interest in Capitalism. To quote Engels, “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is” (On Authority, 1872).

Certainly, the programmatic and centralized suppression of bourgeois class interest could be called authoritarian, but realistically the entire movement would organically choose when to be lenient and when to act more aggressively. Even within examples of so-called Libertarian Socialism, workers militias acted as a major force of authority in their areas of operation. Instances of suppression against the church existed by Spanish Anarchist brigades and they were largely justified in doing so. The church, during the Spanish Civil War helped propagate for the Nationalists and help garner support for right-wing causes, consequently the revolutionary situation called for their suppression. In cases such as this worker self-defense was intense and vigorous and often meant taking the offensive against reactionaries. Yet in these scenarios these forces acted as the institutional authority and the real question is whether they acted as effective and legitimate forces of the proletariat. As advocates for revolution we should defend them for their merit as legitimate advancements in the way towards Communism, if they are so.

All in all, I believe Libertarian Socialism in the realm of revolutionary politics represents a need to separate one’s views from a tradition that had turned it’s back on proletarian revolution close to a century ago. However noble it is to separate ourselves from these regimes, the terminology of Libertarian implies that Communism on its own does not entail an end to the social order that controls our lives. Communists who want the empowerment of the proletariat to overthrow this existing social order should not have to make a distinction, it is the opportunist and LARPer left who should give up the label of Communist and Socialist.  Nothing will maximize the possible liberties in life more than Full Automated Luxury Yacht Communism.

Originally posted: June 28, 2015 at Communist League of Tampa

Posted By

Juan Conatz
Jul 27 2015 03:40


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Connor Owens
Aug 12 2015 13:12

What a silly article. First of all it acts as if "communism" we're synonymous with "Marxism" or, even when not an -ism, "derived from the writings of Marx", second, it ignores libertarian left tendencies which were not communist but still imbued with the real potential for collective self-liberation; such as the collectivist anarchists of Spain.

On a personal level, I actually think (non-Marxist) libertarian communists have more in common with libertarian leftists who aren't communists - such as supporters of participatory economics or inclusive democracy - than Marxist communists who aren't expressly libertarian.

If anything the (left) libertarian/authoritarian distinction is more useful than the communist/non-communist one. For the most part "communism" as a term is more or less dead as something to motivate social struggle. It is far too associated in popular consciousness with totalitarianism. It should probably be reserved for purely historical and theoretical discussions when examining its non-statist forms. The term commons however can be used to discuss many of the same concerns but without the historical baggage.

Feb 25 2016 22:55

This is an interesting take, not in the sense that it is a "new" take, but in the sense that the argument itself is an interesting one. I would definitely count it as better then most Marxist arguments against Anarchism and Libertarian Socialism. However, I do think there are flaws and I remain wholly unconvinced to drop my Anarchism and Libertarian Communism for some type of Marxist socialism or "pure communism itself".

For one thing I don't see what the difference is between a communism or socialism that holds true to it's principles by favoring worker oriented struggles rather then a communism or socialism that doesn't and engages in party substitutionism or vanguardism and libertarian vs authoritarian socialism. The point of the libertarian and authoritarian dichotomy comes from a belief that communism and socialism are built around the struggles of the oppressed and specifically the proletariat and not party control or leadership from on high. If you look at Anarchist criticisms of the Soviet Union the main theme is that the Soviet Union was not created by worker oriented struggle, instead it was created by the Bolsheviks from above worker's and peasants.

"Liberty" here is not a concept formed in the abstract. The word "Libertarian" came into play as a result of french Anarchist-Communists who held the Anarchist-Communist position that liberty comes exactly from the struggle for communism by workers and the oppressed. I am sure the author is aware that "liberty" here has nothing to do with the abstract manner in which many American "Libertarians" talk about the term. So if it is the case that for Libertarian-Marxists and Anarchists, those of us who use the libertarian/authoritarian dichotomy, that "liberty" to us means liberty as Marx posited (materiel control over the conditions of our lives, that which can only be brought about by communism and socialism) then there does not seem to be much of a difference between our dichotomy and the one you propose.

On the issue of "repression" as a revolutionary strategy, this is a question that I have went back and forth on, myself. While "repression" is something with negative connotations I do see the argument that a revolutionary situation would imply in some sense the repression of anti-revolutionary, reactionary forces by revolutionary forces. However, I don't think this has much to do with the libertarian and authoritarian dichotomy, Anarchists have been saying for forever and a day that their issue is not with authority, they have also never seemed to back down from supporting the repression of reactionary and oppressive social forces. For instance Kropotkin writes about the proletariat of the cities driving the bourgioes of said cities out by force in a situation where said bourgioes would be on the run from the militant and revolutionary workers. It's because of this that I feel it a bit of a straw-man to make the issue out to be about repression vs lack there of. The issue is actually the types of organizations that we implore in carrying out such revolutionary repression, which I think is much more productive to talk about then weather we should use repressive tactics or not.