There was a great post today on Koinonia Revolution called “Socialism and Communism: The Last 100 Years“, dealing with the demonization of socialism and communism. Since this is a conversation I have had many times, I thought I’d thrown in my two cents on the common misunderstandings and subsequent misuses of terms such as socialism, communism, and anarchism.
When asked about my political views, if I have the time, I might describe myself as a libertarian socialist who is particularly sympathetic to anarcho-communism. Otherwise, I will probably just say I’m an anarchist. But even this term can be problematic. Indeed, as soon as I start throwing out terms such as “socialist”, “communist”, “anarchist”, and “libertarian”, I am likely to be misunderstood–and even more so when I suggest that there is some meaningful political philosophy that is actually characterized by a commitment to the basic ideas of all of these terms.
In general, “libertarianism” is taken to refer to the free market, minimum government ideas of thinkers such as Ron Paul; socialism is a catch-all term for any left-winger who advocates “big government”; “communism” is the horrible evil of the USSR; and “anarchism” would mean the abolition of all government, order, organization, etc. Therefore, it is assumed, it is surely impossible that any of these terms could agree in any meaningful way with the other.
On the contrary, as I point out in the “Terminology” section above, socialism is an economic theory that, quite simply, refers to the collective ownership of the means of production. There is no specific role of the state that is necessary to socialism–the state could be gigantic or non-existent. Communism, furthermore, is a socialist economic theory, which generally refers to a specific way of structuring a socialist society around the idea of “from each according to her abilities; to each according to her needs.” Again, no specific state role is necessary for this definition. Anarchism also goes back to 19th century socialism: It simply refers to a type of socialism that is characterized by a non-hierarchical society (i.e., no state). And finally, libertarianism was originally used as a synonym for anarchism. So, in other words, libertarianism is anarchism; anarchism is socialism; communism is socialism; and socialism does not refer necessitate an authoritarian state.
For this reason, it is, historically speaking, more of a redundancy to speak of “libertarian socialism”. It was not until the mid-20th century that the term libertarian began to be used to refer to laissez-faire economics, even though up until that point libertarians (i.e., anarchists) had always been characterized by an opposition to capitalism. And similarly, it wasn’t until certain authoritarian regimes (i.e., the USSR, North Korea, etc.) arose as nominally “communist” that communism came to be demonized in American media. But, as I have suggested, an authoritarian state is not the condition of possibility for socialism. In fact, Noam Chomsky has argued (I think rightly), that the original definition of socialism is incompatible with an authoritarian state, which would mean that such states as have historically called themselves “communist” were in fact simply authoritarian and nothing more.