27 June 2003


The Gauche email inbox is being overwhelmed by protests from free-market libertarians who object to their brand being filched by supposed imposters. “Libertarian”, they say (I surmise), can only legitimately be appropriated as a tag by apostles of John Locke, Robert Nozick and other advocates of property-rights-and-law-and-order minimal-statism.

Well, tough: it’s staying on the subtitle of this weblog, with no apologies. Historically, “libertarian” has been used for more than 100 years by various sections of the left – mostly by anarchists but also by plenty of others of an anti-statist, anti-militarist, anti-capitalist, self-managementist bent – and there’s no reason we shouldn’t continue to use it.

In the UK, I’d class as libertarian leftists, as well as the anarchists, the William Morris socialists of the late-19th century; most of the syndicalists and guild socialists of the 1910s; much of the Independent Labour Party in the 1920s and 1930s; the most anti-Stalinist elements of the Tribune left of the 1940s and 1950s (Orwell and friends); the radical end of the New Left and the first wave of CND in the late 1950s and early 1960s; rather a lot of the extra-parliamentary left of the 1960s and 1970s, including the International Socialism group before it went Leninist, Solidarity (which drew on the ideas of Cornelius Castoriadis’s Socialisme ou Barbarie group in France), to a lesser extent Big Flame (which had close links with Lotta Continua and other far-left groups in Italy), and various short-lived magazines, notably Inside Story and The Leveller ; much of the “social movement” left since the 1960s (in the squatting movement, in the second wave of CND, in the environmental movement and a lot else besides); and a substantial minority of mainstream reformist social democrats in the same period and later who were increasingly drawn to decentralist, co-operative market socialism as the corporatism-plus-nationalisation model of social democracy lost all credibility. (Click here for the late Jim Higgins's history of the early International Socialists; here for a selection of Solidarity pamphlets; and here for Castoriadis and S ou B.)

By the mid-1980s, it was quite unexceptional to find Labour leftists who described themselves as “libertarian socialists”: although they probably wouldn’t want to be reminded of it today, both Peter Hain and David Blunkett (I kid you not) argued at length for what they called “libertarian socialism” in the pages of Tribune and elsewhere, and they were backed by the main faction of the Labour “soft left”, the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, which later collapsed into cheer-leading for the party leadership (its veterans now publish Renewal). Much of the 1980s non-Labour left – particularly those in and around Beyond the Fragments, the Socialist Society, the E P Thompson parts of the peace movement and Charter 88 – was on the same wavelength. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, New Statesman and Society (as it then was) explicitly identified itself as “libertarian” as it searched, on occasion quixotically, for a popular front of Labour leftists, direct-actionist anti-roads protesters and bohemian intellectuals.

Now, I’m quite prepared to accept that at least some of the people involved with it all were or are mountebanks. For some, “libertarianism” was or is little more than wishy-washy PC lifestyle liberalism; for others, merely a vague enthusiasm for decentralisation; for still others just a convenient label to distinguish themselves opportunistically from the Leninist sects and social democracy’s discredited technocrats. The moment libertarianism went mainstream on the British left was fleeting, illusory and long ago.

But I’m still an enthusiast for egalitarian self-managed market socialism; and I still want the state to leave us all alone as much as possible. My big difference with libertarians of the right is that my ideal minimal state concentrates not on maintenance of property rights and defence of the realm but on redistribution of incomes and wealth to provide basic needs to everyone as of right (citizen’s income and free healthcare, education and housing) so we can all get on with whatever we want. And OK, I know that’s utopian. But so what?

More to come on this.

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