This is republished from the Anarchism & Libertarian Socialism group at Daily Kos.
I hate to write a diary about freeing the caged mountain lion in us all that begins by saying “I am not” some things, but this one needs to start that way. Before you exit, stage left, please note:
I am not an “anarchist” or, to use the more socially acceptable term, “libertarian socialist,” although I do value much about libertarian socialism. In addition, I am not a “Marxist,” at least in the eyes of most Marxists, although I do value much about Marxism. I mention these things at the outset because Americans are taught to dread both, and because, having learned about what happened to Orwell when he got to Spain, I do not want you to think that you are being asked by me to take sides in a historical rivalry between what Wikipedia calls “similar political philosophies which emerged in the nineteenth century.”
I dread neither philosophy and study both as I see fit. I am saddened by dreadful history, but I dread more these days that many “white” workers in the U.S. who may not have very much else in the way of personal property do proudly sport at least one item with “don’t tread on me” on it and, as a companion piece, at least one deadly weapon, do dread President Obama as a “Marxist” because of his skin tone and his trying to kill off Granma, and might assume anarchism is in evidence in a commercial television show that celebrates deadly weapons and other things that sell.
I especially cherish the deeply democratic international Marxist modernizers Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci, who, like many wonderful anarchist writers, have much to say about the culture in which workers are unwittingly caged. I am a democrat who, for pragmatic purposes, also is a Democrat, because I care about all of the workers and needy of the world. While the Democratic Party can sometimes be made to be slightly uncomfortable with being the instrument of the powerful, the Republican Party cares only about profit and, as a distraction where divisive religion won’t do the trick, making sure those deadly weapons are clung to with cold affection.
As a democrat, I think of myself as “multi-tendency,” a term typically associated with certain tolerant political organizations, not individuals, but which describes how I feel socialism needs to be and by extension those who call themselves socialists–flexible, forgiving, in solidarity with each other, open-minded, and not boxed into definitions, arguments, and undeniable serious grievances of the past. I have a personal bias in this “liberal” and tolerant left direction. I am descended from poor pro-revolutionary Cuban American cigar workers who were reading both Marx and anarchist writers and in mutual aid societies long before there was radio, but that is another story I have told many times and will not detail again in this piece.
I realize that tolerance is still a difficult proposition for some on the left. Since my 20s, when I first secretly read The Communist Manifesto, I was always bewildered and intuitively repelled by the use of so much time, energy, and paper in a political tract to criticize other socialists. And when I learned about the oppression and murder of anarchists and other leftist non-conformists by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, the latter which Eric Arthur Blair personally documented for all history, I was nauseous, outraged, and mournful about the loss of life as well as the loss to socialism and humanity. I am not trying to suppress knowledge of the bad from the past, but I am trying to move forward as a united left with those who profess to be anti-totalitarian and deeply democratic.
And it is not that I do not feel strongly enough about socialism to have strong opinions. Rather, I feel so strongly about it that I feel that I must view expressions of it critically. First and foremost, I feel that socialism to be deserving of the name must place a great emphasis on “democracy.” To me, rule by the people to be successful requires honesty, openness, and humility, a willingness to embrace and discuss matters of importance holistically, or, as I begin my personal credo, to “accept life’s complexity.” I purposely chose the hopefully opposite of a grandiose dogmatic descriptive, “garden variety,” to describe the kind of democratic socialist I am and to use in the name of my hobby “save the world” website.
Before I began deliberately palling around with democratic anti-capitalists of all stripes, including, but by no means limited to, Marxists, two years ago next month I met someone at Daily Kos who goes by ZhenRen who is definitely an anarchist. He or she learned about my appreciation for the democratic socialist George Orwell and encouraged me to read Homage to Catalonia, which I did. Here is the truly obscure little piece where I first met ZhenRen and through her or him, met that book. So, I dedicate this piece to my anarchist friend ZhenRen, who, through something so seemingly small and commonplace as a Daily Kos comment to a little read diary changed my life. (I am not the only person at Daily Kos whose life has been changed by that book.) To me, this will always be an example of what libertarian socialism is all about–helping other human beings as if they were one’s brothers and sisters to grow and be nourished with whatever tools one has at one’s disposal.
Please go below the Snagglepuss scat to get my list of why I value libertarian socialism.
4 Reasons Why I Value Libertarian Socialism
[Note: These are not in any rank order, but 1-3 are directly related to each other and 4 is an issue of outreach value to counter billionaire-funded right-wing propaganda. Don’t worry, I will only go into detail on the first.]
1. As expressed by George Orwell, one of my heroes, in Homage to Catalonia, libertarian socialism is lived, not merely hoped for, socialism.
Orwell was part of the ILP contingent of 25. He was all about solidarity in a time when, he was soon to learn firsthand, Stalin was the antithesis of solidarity. Soon after the 25 left, the UK cut off all further persons from going to fight against fascism in Spain. The Independent Labour Party was a fifty year old British socialist party that had adhered for a time to the Labor Party but by then had broken back off.
When he got to Spain he “did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties” on the left. “Aren’t we all socialists?” (Ch. 5.)
His contingent was attached to the Trotskyites, many of whom he befriended, and he came to have a deep respect for the anarchists, but he also had communist friends and recognized that many brave and sincere communists lost their lives. He did not hold against the rank-and-file communists the terrible abuses of solidarity mandated by Stalin.
He never detracted from his sincere devotion to socialism. He got a taste of socialism particularly while being around the anarchists, and to him equality, i.e., a classless society, was a critical component. (Ch. 8.) It is fair to say that he thought the anarchists of Catalonia were largely getting it right, but he remained a non-dogmatic socialist.
When he got back home he made it clear intense democratic socialist participation in government reform was going to be necessary. Indeed, he proposed serious socialist reforms in the UK, including in the middle of WWII. It was a tragedy to the human race that he did not live a long life to disabuse those on the right wing who cite him of their delusions about his views. (At the beginning of this piece about the opportunity presented by Pope Francis for the left to begin again is a poem I wrote inspired by Eric Arthur Blair and his clear-headed devotion to humanity.)
It was something he “experienced.” Looking back it had a “magical quality.” I think it is fair to say that whatever combination of inspirations allowed his anarchist comrades to embody socialism so well under such trying circumstances deserves the credit:
[S]paniards, who, with their innate decency and their ever-present Anarchist tinge, would make even the opening stages of Socialism tolerable if they had the chance.
And here I would say all leftists can learn important things today: (1) to nourish not abandon our “innate decency”; (2) to learn from and be in solidarity with anarchists because we all need, at the very least, to use Orwell’s words, an “ever-present Anarchist tinge”; and (3) to remember that human beings need to be able to live out what we are trying to establish.
The idea that “the opening stages of Socialism” should be flipped upside down and be their opposite was something Orwell rejected. Not only was it demoralizing and against solidarity in the short run but in the long run, as shown in the Soviet Union which Stalin imposed, and which is embodied in Animal Farm and 1984, it becomes the permanent corrupt norm of so-called “real” socialism because of the concerns expressed by the anarchists. (Many persons not claiming to be anarchists have made similar points, including Orwell himself, but also Rosa Luxemburg before him and Reinhold Niebuhr contemporaneously.)
The above bold-faced words are at the end of what for me is the key paragraph in the book. He emphasized the equality component, contrasting that with “planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive intact.” But more generally he evidenced a core desire for a humane life for all:
The workers’ militias, based on the trade unions and each composed of people of approximately the same political opinions, had the effect of canalizing into one place all the most revolutionary sentiment in the country. I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life–snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.–had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master. Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the whole surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before. Partly, perhaps, this was due to the good luck of being among Spaniards, who, with their innate decency and their ever-present Anarchist tinge, would make even the opening stages of Socialism tolerable if they had the chance.
2. There are today and always have been places on the earth where libertarian socialism (whether or not labeled or recognized as such) allows ordinary people to survive and potentially thrive under incredibly harsh conditions, which, in case you haven’t noticed, are all too common. Foremost in my mind at this time is the movement of the fighting anarcho-socialist women and men of Rojava, an area of northern Syria where persons of Kurdish ethnicity have abandoned the quest for statehood and established a tolerant and loving society while also strongly opposing ISIS.
3. Not limited to turbulent circumstances, libertarian socialists long have been leaders in the establishment of empowering worker cooperatives and other forms of grassroots intentional community sharing and living (also credited by non-anarchists to be worthy of study), which, as described in detail by Michael Lebowitz, obviously was missing under the Soviet Union.
Coincidentally, step 3 of Bernie Sanders’ Agenda for America is:
3. Creating Worker Co-ops
We need to develop new economic models to increase job creation and productivity. Instead of giving huge tax breaks to corporations which ship our jobs to China and other low-wage countries, we need to provide assistance to workers who want to purchase their own businesses by establishing worker-owned cooperatives. Study after study shows that when workers have an ownership stake in the businesses they work for, productivity goes up, absenteeism goes down and employees are much more satisfied with their jobs.
This implicitly is an homage to the wisdom of libertarian socialist forms of economic organization.
4. Anarchism, with over 150 years of history using the word “libertarian” in a deep, meaningful, and humane manner, is a living rebuttal to the absurd right-wing proprietarian selfishness movement that began in the U.S. over a century later, which adopted “libertarian” to confuse “the enemy,” the regular non-Galtish we, the meek who should inherit the earth for the common good of all, present and future citizens of our one beautiful world, which no one has a right to “own.” The youth of the U.S., raised in a cold and uncaring neoliberal society of dishonesty, cognitive dissonance, ruthless competition, consumerism, and greed, who might be tempted to look out for number one and join Atlas in shrugging, need to be freed to love again. Libertarian socialism for many could be the best antidote to right-wing faux libertarianism.
I am sure that there are many other good reasons to value libertarian socialism, but these are the 4 that are particularly motivating to me at this time. Please comment and let me know others!