No. As discussed in section A.1.3, the word “libertarian” has been used by anarchist socialists for far longer than the pro-free market right have been using it. This in itself does not, of course, prove that the term is free of contradiction. However, as we will show below, the claim that the term is self-contractory rests on the assumption that socialism requires the state in order to exist and that socialism is incompatible with liberty. This assumption, as is often true of objections to socialism, is based on a misconception of what socialism is, a misconception that many authoritarian socialists and the state capitalism of Soviet Russia have helped to foster. In reality it is the term “state socialism” which is an oxymoron.
The right (and many on the left) consider that, by definition, “socialism” is state ownership and control of the means of production, along with centrally planned determination of the national economy (and so social life). This definition has become common because many Social Democrats, Leninists, and other statists call themselves socialists. However, the fact that certain people call themselves socialists does not imply that the system they advocate is really socialism. We need to analyse and understand the systems in question, by applying critical, scientific thought, in order to determine whether their claims to the socialist label are justified. As we’ll see, to accept the above definition one has to ignore the overall history of the socialist movement and consider only certain trends within it as representing the movement as a whole.
Even a quick glance at the history of the socialist movement indicates that the identification of socialism with state ownership and control is not common. For example, Anarchists, many Guild Socialists, council communists, and other libertarian Marxists, as well as followers of Robert Owen, all rejected state ownership. Indeed, anarchists recognised that the means of production did not change their form as capital when the state took over their ownership, and hence that state ownership of capital was a tendency within, not opposed to, capitalism (see section H.2.2 for more on this).
So what does socialism mean? And is it compatible with libertarian ideals? Webster’s New International Dictionary defines a libertarian as “One who holds to the doctrine of free will; also, one who upholds the principles of liberty, esp. individual liberty of thought and action.” As we discussed earlier, capitalism denies liberty of thought and action within the workplace (unless one is the boss, of course). Therefore, real libertarian ideas mean that workers control the work they do, determining where and how they do it and what happens to the fruit of their labour, which in turn means the elimination of wage labour. It implies a classless and anti-authoritarian (i.e. libertarian) society in which people manage their own affairs, either as individuals or as part of a group (depending on the situation). In other words, it implies self-management in all aspects of life.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary “socialism” is “a social system in which the producers possess both political power and the means of producing and distributing goods.” This definition fits neatly with the implications of the word “libertarian” indicated above. In fact, it shows that socialism is necessarily libertarian, not statist. For if the state possesses the workplace, then the producers do not, and so they will not be at liberty to manage their own work but will instead be subject to the state as the boss. Moreover, replacing the capitalist owning class by state officials in no way eliminates wage labour; in fact it makes it worse in many cases. Therefore “socialists” who argue for nationalisation of the means of production are not socialists (which means that the soviet union and the other “socialist” countries and parties are not socialist).
Since it’s an essential principle of socialism that inequalities of power between people must be abolished in order to ensure liberty, it makes no sense for a genuine socialist to support any institution based on inequalities of power. And as we discussed in section B, the state and the authoritarian workplace are just such institutions. However, the meaning of “equality” has been so corrupted by capitalist ideologues, with their “ethics of mathematics,” that “equality” has come to mean “identical.” Given the uniqueness of individuals, any attempt to create a society of people who are “equal” in the sense of identical would, of course, not only be doomed to failure but would also create a slave society in the process.
So, libertarian socialism rejects the idea of state ownership and control of the economy, along with the state as such. Through workers’ self-management it proposes to bring an end to authority, exploitation, and hierachy in production. This in itself will increase, not reduce, liberty. Those who argue otherwise rarely claim that political democracy results in less freedom than political dictatorship (although a few “libertarian” capitalist supporters of the “natural law” dogma effectively do so — see section F.7).
The communal ownership advocated by collectivist and communist anarchists is not the same as state ownership. This is because it is based on horizontal relationships between the actual workers and the “owners” of social capital (i.e. the federated communities as a whole), not vertical ones as in nationalisation. In addition, all the members of a participatory anarchist community fall into one of three categories: (1) producers (i.e. members of a collective or self-employed artisans), (2) those unable to work (i.e. the old, sick and so on, who were producers), or (3) the young (i.e. those who will be producers). Therefore, workers’ self-management within a framework of communal ownership is entirely compatible with libertarian and socialist ideas concering the possession of the means of producing and distributing goods by the producers themselves. Hence, far from there being any contradiction between libertarianism and sociaism, libertarian ideals imply socialist ones, and vice versa. As Bakunin argued in 1867, “We are convinced that freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice, and that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality” [Bakunin on Anarchism]. History has proven him correct.