In the United States, growing segments of the population are undergoing a period of profound politicization and polarization. Political elites are struggling to maintain control as increasing numbers of people seek out alternatives on the left and the right. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, political organizations on the left have grown significantly, most notably expressed in the explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Meanwhile, the Trump administration has joined other far-right governments emerging around the globe, emboldening fascist forces in the streets. These developments have sparked widespread debate on the nature of socialism and its distinct flavors within and outside the US.
Among the various branches within the broad socialist tradition, libertarian socialism is possibly the least understood. For many people in the US, libertarian socialism sounds like a contradiction in terms. The corrosive influence of the Cold War has distorted our understanding of socialism, while the explicit hijacking of the term “libertarian” by right-wing forces has stripped it of its roots within the socialist-communist camp. Outside the exceptional case of the US, libertarianism is widely understood to be synonymous with anarchism or anti-state socialism. In Latin America in particular, libertarian socialists have played a critical role in popular struggles across the region, from mass student movements to the recent wave of feminist struggles. To expand and enrich the current debate on socialism in the US, we spoke with several militants from political organizations in the tradition of libertarian socialism in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, exploring the history, theory and practice of libertarian socialism.
Due to the length of responses, we will be publishing this roundtable interview in installments. For part 1, we spoke with Juan and Pablo from Solidaridad in Chile. We also wanted to thank everyone who contributed to our Building Bridges of International Solidarity Fundraiser which made this interview series possible. See here for Part II on Argentina.
—Introduction, interview and translation by Enrique Guerrero-López
Enrique Guerrero-López (EGL): Can you introduce yourself, tell us the name of your organization, and give a short summary of its origins and your main work?
Juan & Pablo, Solidaridad (J/P): Solidarity, formerly called “Solidarity, Libertarian Communist Federation,” was born from a political process called “Libertarian Communist Congress,” which took place between the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2016. This process consisted of a regrouping of libertarian communist currents in Chile after a deep political crisis that we experienced between 2011 and 2013. It was an extremely rich period of experiences— a moment in which the working class carried out intense activity through different social movements, in student conflicts, socio-environmental conflicts, and, to a certain extent, trade unions.
Although in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anarchism was the main political current within the working class in Chile and across much of the world, this influence was already lost by the 1930s, remaining a marginal current throughout half of the twentieth century, except for some exceptional moments such as the general strike of 1956. Despite its decline, some of its tactical and strategic elements persisted in the militant unionism of the twentieth century.
Libertarian communism began to reemerge in Chile at the end of the 1990s, and in 1999 the Anarchist Communist Unification Congress (CUAC) was founded, which would be the first political organization of this resurgence. From that moment on, a long and rich experience of political work has been generated in different sectors and social movements: territorial, union, and with a strong growth in student struggles. The CUAC as an organization lasted a few years, but after its break it created new organizations that were subdivided and grouped in the following years. These breaks were the expression of different tendencies that were forming within this common branch. At the beginning of 2010, a first congress was held in which several of these organizations were called to evaluate everything that had been advanced ten years before. Participants included the Libertarian Students Front (FEL) and three organizations that would converge in the Libertarian Communist Federation (FCL). The absence of the Libertarian Communist Organization (OCL), direct heir of the CUAC, is notable. Part of the conclusions of that meeting was the success of the idea of “social insertion,” 1 which meant returning anarchism to the class struggle, participating from within the different conflicts in which the working class was participating. By 2011, the influence of this political current reached one of its highest points. In the period between 2011 and 2013, we gained public visibility— a real presence within different social movements— and we began to be considered a current to be taken into account within the political spectrum. We represented hundreds of militants present in different social conflicts; we had murals, magazines, social media, and more. Just to give an example, in 2013, we won the presidency of the country’s main student federation (the Student Federation of the University of Chile) and filled the headlines with notes about anarchism and feminism. But that was the zenith. We were forced to update our politics, to assume new challenges, and we found that there were many issues for which we were not prepared.
In the following period, we found ourselves with a strategy deficit. A product of the social mobilizations of that time and the delegitimization of the main political parties was that, the entire political spectrum was reconfiguring; that is to say, it was not something that only affected us within the libertarian communist tradition, but all the organizations, both on the right and on the left. In our case, it strongly impacted the resurgence of feminism, which questions inequalities and gender oppression in society as a whole as well as within the organizations on the left.
Faced with this lack of strategy in the face of new challenges, the different organizations of libertarian communism in Chile began to choose different paths. An important part, which is now represented by the organizations Socialism and Freedom (SOL) and the Libertarian Left (IL), developed a strategy called “democratic rupture,” which put at its center social insertion and struggle over the institutionality of the State. These organizations are today within the Broad Front (FA), a conglomerate of social democratic, liberal, and also leftist organizations that aim to be a new progressive pole in Chile and that have had great electoral success. We believe that it expresses a political phenomenon similar to that of the DSA in the US.
On the other hand, we were left with an important number of militants, coming from different libertarian organizations and also from other tendencies (critical and libertarian Marxists; anti-capitalist feminists) that were distancing themselves from those bets, but without being able to present an alternative project. Faced with this need, we started the Libertarian Communist Congress, which lasted two years and gave birth to Solidarity as an organization. However, it was not until 2017 that this process could materialize into unitary political action with deployment in different political and social conflicts.
Currently, our participation is taking place in different multi-sectoral social movements: in the feminist movement through the March 8 coordinator, in the Health for All movement (MSPT), in the No + AFP movement that fights for a new pension system, and, with lower participation, among teachers and students. In all these movements, our militancy occupies, without false humility, a prominent place, influencing the political perspectives assumed by these movements. Our current militancy is not very numerous, but we have opted for a qualitative growth that has subsequently been expressed in quantitative growth. As a result of a positive evaluation of that deployment, we have decided to take new steps and to begin to articulate an anti-capitalist political reference point with other organizations with which we have found ourselves, in practice, in those movements. This coalition will maintain the independence of each organization, but will add efforts to be an alternative to a much broader spectrum of the working class, trying to orient from an anti-capitalist critique the political and social opposition to the government.
EGL: What are the roots of libertarian socialism in South America?
J/P: We could say that capitalism expanded throughout the whole world with its own contradictions. From the beginning of colonization, going through the republican periods, there were always great social conflicts that have included resistance and emancipation from the oppressed sectors. But it was not until the late nineteenth century that immigrants arrived on our continent who had participated in processes of class struggle in Europe (and had experienced their respective defeats). These immigrants brought with them more clearly anarchist perspectives along with other socialist currents that also arrived. They did not only bring ideas, but also real, historical experiences of those processes, which could perfectly connect with the working class’ own experience of struggle on the American continent. For that reason, in the case of Chile, initially the main anarchist nuclei were constituted in the cities near the ports.
Like much of the world, anarchism was established in the early twentieth century as the main political current among the working class of Chile. However, it coexisted with other currents in workers’ and student circles. The libertarian current was particularly important in the establishment of resistance societies, proto-unions that would return to the organization of the working class a class struggle perspective, compared to other types of groups at the time such as mutualists. Some of the great landmarks of workers’ struggle of that time, such as the mining strike that culminated in the massacre of Santa María de Iquique (where around 3600 Chilean, Bolivian, and Peruvian workers died, among other nationalities), were led by anarchists.
EGL: What differentiates libertarian socialism from other branches of socialism?
J/P: We understand that the different currents of socialism represent different lessons learned by the working class through their experience of struggle throughout history. Anarchism represents a libertarian tendency within the great political-ideological complex of socialism, which is distinguished from other socialist currents mainly by three elements: the strategic emphasis placed on the political protagonism of the masses in revolutionary processes, through the direct action of their organizations in the expropriation of the economic and political power of the bourgeoisie through a process of self-management and liberation of the creative forces of humanity; a historically situated critique of the nation-state as the political form of capitalism, and therefore the need to create organs of popular power in the process of class struggle; and its dual organizational strategy, in which the political organizations of the working class fulfill a facilitating and organizing role together with the organized masses. It is also worth noting their early interest in a complex vision of the working class and the peasantry, recognizing the racial and gender differences and inequalities within them, leading anarchism to the forefront of the unionization of women and Afro-descendants in the Americas, where we have had strong popular roots.
In negative terms, libertarian socialism has had difficulties in articulating a realistic political critique of the class struggle, sometimes bogged down in dogmatic forms of analysis and in a sectarianism that has kept it in positions of tactical and strategic weakness at key moments in the revolutionary processes of the twentieth century. Their disputes with Marxism have become oversized and extrapolated beyond their specific conjunctures, which has led segments of anarchism to comfortable, identitarian, 2 and marginal positions.
EGL: What role does political organization play within social movements and how does that fit into your vision of libertarian socialist politics?
J/P: The political organization, as we conceive of it, must be a catalyst and a facilitator of the struggles of the working class. Social movements are one form of acquiring those struggles, although not the only one. We believe that the role of orientation is constant, as we are part of the working class, and we function as a possible synthesis of its experiences as an emancipating project. In this sense, our project for society is that of a stateless socialism, of the self-organization of the class, and of the socialization of productive and reproductive tasks, not only because it seems to us a more beautiful ideal, but because it is consistent with our own history of the struggle of the working class, with self-management and popular power as strategic components to achieve.
The organization of the working class can take many directions, as many as its own internal tendencies, which include potential conservative or fascist orientations. Our role is to assume that there is a dispute over that orientation and to present a project more consistent with the aspirations of the class. We believe, moreover, that this is a responsibility. To be abstracted from the task of influencing is to give way to reformism or, even worse, to fascism. It is a responsibility of our times to constitute viable alternatives for a new society that overcomes capitalist relations. And that is achieved by fighting, organized, with clear objectives and strategies. That is why we propose that it is a necessity that libertarian socialism as a project be incarnated in political organizations that are willing to ‘get their hands dirty’ being part of those processes.
We also think that the political organization should encourage the most important organizations in the class to develop programs for the transformation of society, advocating its internal diversity. That is why a revolutionary anti-capitalist project that is not at once feminist, that poses the overcoming of the privileges of gender or race, is impossible. We believe that overcoming capitalism requires the broadest unity of the class and that this can only be obtained by considering all its internal differences.
EGL: In the U.S., there is widespread debate over electoral politics on the left. How do libertarian socialists in South America relate to electoral politics?
J/P: As there are different political currents within the working class, electoral strategies will remain an option, even if we do not want it. As Solidarity, we start from that recognition: there will always be an electoral left, which internally may have many differences (on elections in a ‘tactical’ sense, to use it as a tribune, or, in a ‘strategic’ sense, to win positions and point to changes within the State’s institutional framework). That is not and has not been our decision, but neither do we intend to make a moral or “principled” criticism of those options. We do not encourage it because it does not correspond to our objectives or our strategy, which requires the role of working-class organizations and not their delegation to political representatives, and because it requires fighting against the State and not taking refuge in it.
The libertarian socialist organizations have struggled to relate efficiently to politics and electoral times. In general, we have observed that most of the libertarian socialist organizations have ignored or abstracted from the electoral conjunctures, criticizing the electoral form, but not the content of those projects. This has caused them to be in a position of marginality in the face of the main political debates of those moments.
We believe that today the emphasis should be placed both on the development of an anti-capitalist program with a feminist perspective and on the development of the political capacity of the working-class organizations that allows them to challenge the way in which the production and the reproduction of social life are organized. Both elements, programmatic and strategic, are fundamental for social movements and political organizations to direct their action in a defensive period against the conservative reaction of the international bourgeoisie, beyond electoral times, but without abstaining from the political debate that opens at those moments.
EGL: Recently, there has been a wave of feminist struggles in South America, particularly in Argentina and Chile, including the taking of schools and mass demonstrations on reproductive rights. How have the libertarian socialists participated in these struggles and how does feminism spread its theory and its practice at a general level?
J/P: Libertarian socialist organizations have been an integral part of the feminist movements in Latin America and in Chile in particular. In fact, feminist militancy has come to exert, in certain moments— like the present one— a role as spokesperson and an articulation of the main social currents in the feminist movement.
However, it is difficult to talk about feminism because, as you know, there are many currents, which sometimes pose contradictory strategies. For Solidarity, there have been highly relevant lessons in recent years, which have been nourished by the mobilization experiences of what was NiUnaMenos (“Not one [woman] less”) and its process of political purification, in which the militant feminists of different organizations were questioned, and of the debates that arose in later formations. This allowed us to refine our own theoretical and political views, which have been transforming our organization into its fundamental strategic guidelines, from the very way in which we understand reality. Specifically, we have opted for the view of a unitary theory, which raises the basic premise that reality is a single thing and that there are not several systems of oppression (by gender, race, or class), but rather it is about different facets of the same social reality and that, therefore, must be confronted and overcome unitarily. Solidarity is committed to the unity of the working class and recognizes in feminism a potential articulator of the class that is tremendous. This potential is given by proposing a political project that recognizes internal differences within the class and that aims to overcome the logic of competition and privilege that occurs in it.
The participation of Chilean libertarian socialists in feminist struggles began to get stronger during the mobilizations of 2011, and that same development ended up leading to a questioning of the reality of the organizations themselves. From that moment until now, in every feminist movement, there has been libertarian presence and participation.
Today, no leftist organization would dare to set aside or ignore feminist struggles. But it often happens that their way of approaching it is to leave those tasks to individuals within organizations, delegating them that role as “proper to women” and establishing specific organic spaces as feminist fronts or tables. The commitment, still incomplete, of Solidarity is to take the challenges posed by feminism to its ultimate consequences, which means transforming our readings of reality, our strategy and tactics, and the programmatic development that we see in different struggles, whether they are called feminist or not. In all of this, it is the compañeras (women-identified comrades) who have taken the lead, and we believe that it is fine that they should, but we also believe that the struggle should involve all of us.
EGL: In Latin America, many libertarian socialists have proposed a theory and practice of building “popular power.” What is popular power and what forms has it adopted in practice?
J/P: In Latin America, popular power has been a strategic slogan that has crossed the visions of broad sectors of the anti-capitalist left. There are at least two ideas of popular power. One is popular power understood as the process of radical democratization of state institutions in the hands of a socialist government, as was proposed by Popular Unity (Unidad Popular) in Chile between 1970-1973 or the Bolivarian Revolution under the leadership of Hugo Chávez. It is a process of linking the bases of the people to a transformative political process through a transfer of power “from above.”
But in those same and other processes, and throughout the experiences of struggle of the peoples of Latin America, it is possible to find a conception of popular power “from below,” in those moments in which the political and economic crisis pose to the working class a more radical task: to develop processes of political and economic self-organization in which self-management and self-representation appear as short-term objectives. This is how forms of popular power are developed “from below,” such as the Industrial Cordons in Chile in 1972-1973, which, from the left, aimed to deepen the socialist transformations of the Allende government and to prepare a major offensive against the bourgeoisie. This self-managed current of popular power emerges in the revolutionary processes from the Paris Commune (1871) onwards, passing the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the Spanish Revolution of 1936-1939, including the forms of Zapatista self-organization promoted by the EZLN and the wave of popular assemblies in Argentina in 2001.
For libertarian socialists, popular power is a central strategic hypothesis, insofar as it guides us with respect to ways of organizing ourselves, the source of a truly socialist democracy and the way in which a communist program is constructed and conquered. In Latin America, popular power has been a contemporary way of understanding the ancient anarchist project of self-management, integrating the historical lessons of the peasant and worker struggles of our peoples. It is important to note that the idea of popular power can lead to problematic positions that ignore the need for a political confrontation with the power of the State, ending in the creation of social bubbles that abandon the construction of a social and political power capable of carrying out a revolution. The challenge, then, is to frame the construction of forms of popular power in a revolutionary strategy aimed at victory over the enemy.
Special thanks to Mackenzie Rae who provided copy editing for this article.
For additional reading we recommend the following piece by a Black Rose/Rosa Negra member “Socialism Will Be Free, Or It Will Not Be At All! – An Introduction to Libertarian Socialism” and our strategy and analysis piece “Popular Power In a Time of Reaction: Strategy for Social Struggle.”
- 1“Social insertion” is the process of influencing the practice of social movements in a more militant direction through active engagement at a rank-and-file level.
- 2In recent US political discourse, the word “identitarian” has been used both to connote liberal identity politics and, euphemistically, white nationalism. Here, the former definition is in use.