'Libertarians' - What's in a Word?

The word "libertarian" used to be the preserve of the anarchist movement and labour movements influenced by it. Thus the "libertarian movement" in Spain meant, and still means today, the anarchist movement proper (FAI), the youth wing (FIJL - "Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth"), the anarcho-syndicalist union confederation (CNT), the Mujeres Libres ("Free Women") movement, cultural centres, publishing houses, free schools etc.

The weekly paper of the French Anarchist Federation is called 'Le-Monde Libertaire' ("Libertarian World"). Similarly the longstanding anarchist radio station in Paris is called... Radio Libertaire. The Italian Syndicalist Union (USI) terms itself a "libertarian union". Looking up the word "libertario" in an Italian-English dictionary it simply gives: "anarchic(al), anarchist".

The word seems to have had less currency in the English language, but there was, for example, an anarchist group called Hull Libertarian Collective in the late seventies.

A worrying trend in recent years has been the use of the word (in Britain and the USA) to describe elements on the far Right supposedly opposed to the State. Thus a recent article in 'The Washington Post' on the opponents of "big government" in the Republican party was entitled 'Beware the lure of the libertarians' and referred to "libertarian Republicans"!

Of course these "libertarians" are against the State only in so far as it sometimes gets in the way of their being able to exploit the poor more thoroughly. They want to roll back the Welfare State, but their opposition to the State doesn't extend to dismantling the Army, Police, or to challenging the concept of government itself.

These people would more correctly be called free-marketeers and laissez-faire capitalists. Thatcher and Reagan resurrected this old tradition and now the world's full of their offspring, from Yeltsin and Berlusconi to the "Labour" and "socialist" parties who follow the same agenda these days to varying degrees.

A recent article in 'The Guardian' on the growing far Right militia movement in the US ('Adolf's US army') used the term "libertarianism" to describe the groundswell against big government shown in the Republican landslide in recent mid-term elections. Middle America has apparently had enough of high taxes, attempts at gun control etc., and at one extreme militias are being established in the backwoods to train for the coming show-down with Federal government. (What can you say, the Waco spirit obviously lives on unfortunately).

Back on this side of the Atlantic every now and then some idiot will come up with the tag "anarcho-capitalist" - a contradiction in terms if ever there was one.

Thatcher talked a lot about "freedom", but those of us on the receiving end of monetarism know that it meant the freedom to be exploited, ripped off and conned. Major changed tack slightly with his "classless society" line, but it's the same word games.

"Libertarian" is a word that historically belongs to the Left - to the revolutionary and anti-Statist Left. We will not allow it to be devalued by reference to the Right (or for that matter to the reformist Left, as also happens sometimes). Thatcherites, survivalists, vigilantes and all other rightwing loony tunes are not and have never been libertarians. Everywhere these ideas hold sway liberty is on the rack. - D

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________ (This article originally appeared in "ANARCHY! Northeast Libertarian Broadsheet" Issue 3, Jan. '95. 'ANARCHY!' is produced by anarchists from Tyneside, Teesside and County Durham (England). Issue 3 was put together on Teesside. Write to: P.O. Box 1TA, Newcastle, NE99 1TA, England.)