The Fundamental and Oft Overlooked Difference Between Authoritarian State Socialism & Communism and Libertarian Socialism & communism

Debates about socialism, communism, and capitalism are often marked by rhetoric, regurgitation of propaganda, and plain misunderstanding of what these terms mean, especially in America. Unfortunately, whenever these topics are discussed they often evoke visceral, emotionally charged argument with little discussion of the facts. Most people can’t even agree on what these terms mean, and this is a serious problem indicative of the effectiveness of the state propaganda from both crony capitalist empires like America’s and of self-described “communist” empires like the old Soviet Union. No fruitful discussion can occur when people can’t even agree on historical facts and definitions and essentially live in different realities. This short, simple article will provide clear and concise definitions to in an attempt to resolve this. Although this article has a clear bias, it is a bias rooted in historical facts. Any disagreement on the definitions of these terms can easily be confirmed by referring to the dictionary.

A purely capitalist system is one in which the means of production are run for profit and owned by individuals with no connection to the government. The latter part of this definition may sound appealing for those weary of government tyranny and oppression but when capitalism is put into practice, however, the state almost always becomes involved because state officials want a piece of the business as money is power. People enter government generally for money and power and so crony capitalism, state capitalism, or corporate protectionism is the only kind of capitalism that ever comes to fruition. In such a system private corporations that are not supposed to have assistance from the government or ties to it have both in the form of government subsidies, tax breaks, billion dollar bailouts, strike breaking by police, judges bought out to rule in their favor, state wars waged to extract resources for these corporations, regulatory rubber stamping of environmentally destructive projects, nepotist hiring of former corporate executes as government officials and vice versa, laws that favor corporations bought by bribes, and money flowing constantly from one side to the other to protect the corporations, state officials, and their profits. In other words, it is a general disaster. Some make arguments for “pure” capitalism but this cannot exist in a world with imperialist governments or perhaps in any reality. Even in a society without government should corporate monopolies continue to exist, they would just replace every oppressive government institution. State and local jails would be replaced by private prisons. State armies would be replaced by private military contractors and mercenaries. Private police would replace state and local police and so on, and they would have no obligation to answer to the public. If they continued to make money, that’s all that would matter to investors and shareholders.

On the other hand, there are two vastly different kinds of socialism: state socialism and libertarian socialism. In a state socialist system the means of production are owned purely by the state (theoretically) for the benefit of society. The problem with this is that when state socialism is put into practice, it is often co-opted by greedy actors within governments. There are positive examples of countries that have elements of state socialism (though these countries generally identify as “welfare states” or “social democracies” as opposed to state socialist systems) like tax-payer funded health-care, education, and social programs that work quite well in the Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland and in some countries in Europe, such as France and Germany. Although they are still very capitalist, there is much more government intervention in the labor market and social programs. But there are also examples like China, which claim to be “socialist” but truly have almost no worker protections and instead employ child labor and even slave labor in some parts. This is the problem with entrusting the government to implement socialism. It truly only works when there is mass participation from the people, it is organized from the bottom up, and common people implement and push for it. Taxation is still theft if it applies to poorer groups and is enforced by threat of force and incarceration, even if the money may be going to productive social programs.

In a libertarian socialist system, the means of production are owned by the people collectively for their benefit, so this means businesses are all worker-owned cooperatives or workplace democracies wherein there are no managers, no profit extracted from the labor of others by higher-ups, no money-based hierarchy, and the business functions to improve the welfare of the people and (ideally) the environment. This is the only kind of socialism that works reliably in mass. But unfortunately, this kind of socialism isn’t what is thought of when people mention socialism in the US. They think of state socialism or countries that claim to be socialist in order to gain popular support when in reality they rule as dictatorships like the Soviet Union did. They tax (steal from) citizens under the guise of “improving social and economic welfare” but in reality they pocket most of it and seize the best of the worker’s products for themselves while brutally repressing dissidents and anyone who dares speak against them. The same is true of state communism, which in practice is often analogous to state socialism. In communist systems, the means of production are taken over by “professional revolutionaries” that are supposed to represent the people’s interests with the goal of ultimately dissolving the state. The problem with this is the same problem with state socialism. The “professional revolutionaries” or “intellectual elites” who are successful in taking over the government generally fail to represent people and the stateless society never comes into being. Instead, fascism and dictatorship generally come in their stead as greed always infects positions of such power.  Some libertarian, anti-authoritarian communists make a distinction between Communism with a capital ‘C’ and communism with a lowercase ‘c’. The difference being that Communism is state control over the means of production and communism is simply elimination of private property and common ownership of the means of production without government. The latter type of communism is genuinely libertarian and essentially the same as libertarian socialism but it has been far less widely adopted.

The root of the problem with states is that no one is qualified or can be trusted with the power governments wield, which is why state socialist and Communist systems are always doomed to fail. It is why every form of representative government is doomed to fail. The means of production must be seized and run directly by the people without any intermediaries whether they be politicians, managers, “intellectuals,” or anyone else. Of course, there can still be leaders who help educate the public, guide, and inspire individuals but no rulers. There can be legitimate leaders if they have the merit to lead and no power to choose the fate of others but none who attain a leadership position solely by force. Arguably, the Soviet Union and modern states that have or do call themselves communist or socialist are emblematic of the fundamental problem of the state itself. Representatives almost always become corrupt, (if they aren’t already and those who aren’t are generally assassinated) because the very idea that we need a small group of people elected or otherwise to control how we live is erroneous, antithetical to human freedom, and it fosters the worst of humanity. Additionally, modern states are so large it is impossible to have ‘objective’ representatives who can represent millions in an enormous state on stolen Native land. As Mikhail Bakunin said in Statism and Anarchy, “No state, however democratic — not even the reddest republic — can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above, because every state, even the pseudo-People’s State concocted by Mr. Marx, is in essence only a machine ruling the masses from above, through a privileged minority of conceited intellectuals, who imagine that they know what the people need and want better than do the people themselves…But the people will not feel better if the stick they are being beaten with is called the ‘People’s Stick'” Voline similarly remarked in La Révolution Inconnue, 1917-1921, Any attempt to carry out the social Revolution with the aid of a state, a government and political action, even should that attempt be very sincere, very vigorous, attended by favorable circumstances and buttressed by the masses, will necessarily result in state capitalism, the worst sort of capitalism, which has absolutely nothing to do with humanity’s march towards a socialist society.”

These immense differences between these philosophies have to be made clear when discussing state socialism, libertarian socialism, state capitalism, and capitalism. The debate is so often reduced to false dichotomies, straw-man arguments, isolated historical examples, and boot-licking of dictators. It seems likely that large economies will always be mixed. They will have elements of different systems as even the US has socialist elements like tax-payer funded libraries, fire departments, and public schools. Common people can’t be forced into any one economic system. We have to decide for ourselves. However, despotic billionaire CEOs, monopolists, plutocrats, dictators, warlords, war criminals, and other such types who are pulling all the strings and ensuring the world remains dominated by crony capitalism in some places disguised as “state socialism” can and must be forced to stop their destruction of the planet. We must take back their stolen and ill-gotten gains and free our comrades in economic and literal bondage. The world could have a mix of gift economies, cryptocurrencies, barter, and resource based economies in tandem with (ideally money-less) libertarian socialist elements. More people may begin to understand survival via cooperation is much easier, more rewarding, and happier than survival via constant, ruthless, life-and-death competition based on inherited privilege, superstition, hate, ubiquitous, omnipresent violent institutions, and feudal hierarchy. Borders must be broken down. Communities, businesses, and broader economies must be voluntarily formed instead of calling a billion people with vastly different beliefs a unified “country” with militarized borders, police, prisons, and a single power-hungry human being at the helm. That is always doomed to fail. What terms we use to describe the kinds of lives we want to live are less important than their definitions, especially when these terms are loaded with historical baggage, revisionism, and egregious propaganda. If we can’t agree on what they mean, we may consider abandoning them and say specifically (in simple terms) what kind of a world we want to live in because the world as it is now, fractured, broken, subject to constant exploitation, extraction, and destruction to satisfy the insatiable greed of our economic “masters” is not sustainable or beneficial to anyone but the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet. Arguably, it’s not even good for them as true happiness doesn’t come from riding the backs of the less fortunate but from lifting each other up. Further, we all need a habitable planet with clean air, water, soil, and biodiversity. Being ridiculously wealthy does not make anyone exempt from these requirements. The richest people don’t seem to care as some figure they will be dead by the time the damage they’re doing to the planet makes it unhabitable while others believe humans are at the center of the universe and nothing we can do could drive us to extinction. If we don’t share the same vanity and self-absorption, then there is still time to change course for the better.

(Left picture: Prisoners work at Belbaltlag, a Gulag camp. Right picture: Women’s militia in the Spanish Revolution of 1936. )

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