Some brief, preliminary comments on the new platform released by the Democratic Socialists of America-Libertarian Socialist Caucus. A good sign, but should there be more?
On the 23rd of September, the Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC) of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) released their official platform, a collaborative document apparently worked on over weeks of discussion and member input. The LSC is a self-stated broad tent of ‘libertarian socialists’, a vague term that apparently includes all manner of people, from anarcho-communists to syndicalists to mutualists to Bookchinists to Apoists to God knows what else, all collected under the banner of libertarian socialism, all invested in the DSA political organisation.
From a glance, the document itself seems to reflect more of Bookchin’s ideas than anyone else’s; his advocacy for ‘radical democracy’ is all there, as is his interest in local elections. There is no anarchist language anywhere. No calls to abolish government, or to abolish private property. The closest thing to the latter is a demand that candidates for national DSA offices disclose ‘major private property ownership’.
I feel very (maybe irrationally) optimistic about socialism’s prospects in the USA, but I don’t feel very confident in this document. It seems to downplay everything that makes libertarianism – i.e., anarchism – great, and introduces a variety of watered-down things that seem more to do with plain localism than actual existing socialism.
Libertarian socialism or anarchism?
The ‘libertarian socialism’ label actually has an interesting origin story. The phrase had floated around the anarchist scene of the 19th and early 20th centuries, in use by anarchists who wanted to avoid the language of anarchy for one reason or another. The pioneering sin-adjetivos Fernando Tarrida del Mármol preferred it, as apparently did the educationalist martyr Francisco Ferrer and Bakunin’s comrade James Guillaume. To the best of my knowledge the most direct advocacy for the term came from Gaston Leval, the French syndicalist, making the case clear in his 1956 article ‘Libertarian Socialist! Why?’. Leval and a cluster of French anarchists around him formed a group to promote the usage of the term and the associated ideology which, all things considered, did not differ drastically from other forms of organised class-struggle anarchism.
Somewhere along the line, the term began to be used to describe not only a kind of worker-oriented anarchism, but other forms of anti-Leninist socialism that maintained an opposition to domineering, centralising states. Council communists, guild socialists, DeLeonists, autonomists, and any number of other -ists got put under this title. It’s in this spirit that the LSC issues its platform, and it’s in this spirit the platform weakens.
Liberty and equality will never be fully realised as social forces unless government is abolished, and with it all other forms of authoritarian relationships: private property, wage slavery, chattel slavery, patriarchy, imperialism, racism, and so on. The localising and decentralising tendencies of the LSC are positive and point in the direction, but there is still a large gulf of oppression between outright abolition of authority and the mere delegation of it to local bodies.
In realistic terms, electoralism is not likely to win socialism for anyone; socialism is not something that can be imposed by fiat, by legislated decree or by above. It can only come from the ground up, either through grassroots constructive building in the form of co-operatives and credit unions, or through outright revolution. Or both. Preferably both! ‘From below’ does not mean from one smaller sub-section of government to a greater one, it means from below, where the victims of authority take control themselves, and abolish the institutions that oppress them.
Even ignoring the moral quandary of claiming to be against centralising authority whilst aspiring to wield it yourself, ‘libertarian’ electoralism will serve only to siphon the positive energies of activists away from constructive, essential tasks that not only lay the groundwork for socialism, but remain consistent with libertarian beliefs too. Propagating anarchist information, engaging in direct action, organising a workplace – all these things don’t take care of themselves, and by focusing on the fairly time-consuming activity of trying to win elections, you put the other stuff on the backburner.
The DSA, as it stands now, cannot succeed in the fight to achieve socialism or libertarianism. The organisation is structured as a centralised hierarchy, with an intense internal bureaucracy. The LSC advocates for the ‘democratisation’ of national policy-setting party institutions, but this is not enough; the organisation itself needs to be reoriented away from a kind of activist hub and pressure group model towards something that will galvanise and assist workers and other oppressed people in fighting for what’s theirs. If that can be achieved, then the demand for the addition of ‘a low-income category to national political committee diversity requirements’ would be superfluous.
The required transformation of the organisation is obviously not something that can be done by snapping your fingers; it will take hard work and it may never fully come to fruition. I am loath to lecture activists I don’t know in a country I’ve never been to about what they should or shouldn’t be doing. It’s for this reason I’ve tried to write in a spirit of solidarity and not scorn. If members of the LSC are reading this and feel I am being too caustic, I apologise. However, I hope at the very least that my comments cause you to think more and seek out more about anarchism and libertarian socialism. For decades, libertarian socialism had more to do with starting uprisings, fighting as part of a revolutionary union and street-corner speaking than it did with mayoral elections and school district boards. If we want the future of our dreams, then we have to turn to the methods of revolt, rather than the methods of assimilation.