“Socialism” for Left Liberty

I know I'm coming a bit late to the game, but I wanted to offer some brief responses to Shawn Wilbur's request (in anticipation of the first issue of Left Liberty) for analyses of "socialism," "solidarity," and "individualism." I'll start with "socialism.”

The socialist definitional free-for-all that has captured the ongoing attention of a number of people on the libertarian left (and others) has put back on the agenda the question whether there is a way of understanding socialism that renders it compatible with a genuinely market-oriented anarchism. If socialism must mean either conventional state-socialism or state socialism with ownership of the means of production vested in local micro-states or some vaguely defined model of collective ownership rooted in a gift economy, then it has to be clear that socialism and market anarchism aren't compatible.

But it ought to be troubling, then, that one of the founding spirits of market anarchism, Benjamin Tucker, clearly considered his variety of market anarchism to be an alternative to state-socialism—as a form of socialism. Words (nod to Nicholas Lash) are known by the company they keep, and I think it's worth reminidng readers of the diverse company kept by "socialism." I think it makes sense, therefore, to offer a definition of "socialism" that will make clear why Tucker, at least, clearly ought to be included.

With that in mind, then, I suggest that we understand socialism negatively as any economic system marked by the abolition (i) of wage labor as the primary mode of economic activity and (ii) of the dominance of society by (a) the minority of people who regularly employ significant numbers of wage laborers and (b) the tiny minority of people who own large quantities of wealth and capital goods. We might understand socialism in positive terms as any economic system marked by (i) wide dispersal of control over the means of production; (ii) worker management as the primary mode of economic activity; together with (iii) the social preeminence of ordinary people, as those who both operate and manage the means of production.

State socialism has attempted to realize socialism through the power of the state. Not surprisingly, given everything we know about states, state socialism has proven in most respects to be a disaster. Coupled with the economic inefficiencies associated with central planning, the secret police, the barbed wire fences, and the suppression of dissent are all elements of state socialism’s disastrous record.

If you want to define socialism as state socialism, be my guest. Many people do so. But the history of the term makes clear that many people have not meant state control or society-wide ownership of the means of production when they have talked about socialism.


Bo Zimmerman said…
I've had a blast reading your blog. Couple random thoughts:

1. Your definition of "Left libertarianism" is comprehensive and novel. I seem to fit the definition, but have arbitrarily referred to myself as a "Bleeding Heart Libertarian". Perhaps, if your meaning catches on, I'll adopt!

Which brings me to my second comment, RE: What is Socialism.

2. The meaning of words is Conventional and Contextual, not Historical or (god forbid) Absolute. In short, in asking the question "What is Socialism", the answer is "Socialism means whatever meaning the people I'm speaking to will take it to mean in the context in which I present it". As someone who, to a general audience, asserted an incompatibility between Libertarianism and Socialism, I expected that the latter term referred to "State Socialism", "State ownership of the means of production", etc.. precisely because I expect that is the meaning in the heads of the audience I was writing to.

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