What puts the “Left” in “Libertarian Left”?
The following article was written by Charles Johnson and published on his Rad Geek People’s DailyMarch 25, 2013.

One of the quickest and simplest ways to gloss what “Left-Libertarian,” or the “Libertarian Left” part of ALL, means, is just to say that we are for left-wing social ends through libertarian means.

This inevitably involves a certain amount of oversimplification — does “through libertarian means” just mean “by getting rid of government controls and letting social outcomes emerge spontaneously,” or does it mean something more like “engaging in conscious activism and social organizing to encourage particular outcomes within the context of freed market and civil society?” When we say “left-wing social ends,” is that supposed to mean that the libertarian means are valued only as far as they seem likely get the left-wing goods, or are the non-invasive, anti-authoritarian means supposed to be side-constraints on ends that might possibly count as worthwhile, or do the “libertarian means” really enter directly into the conception of “left-wing social ends” that we’re supposed to be for? Do we ultimately have exactly the same sort of “social ends” that progressives or Marxists or other state-leftists do?

I’m a philosopher by training, and I’ve hardly ever met a conceptual distinction or analytical complication of a question that I didn’t like, so of course I think these are all good questions, and important ones to wrestle with. [1]

But at the end of the day, I think there are some pretty clear pre-analytical ideas about what “left” might mean, and what “libertarian” might mean, that make the formula a useful guide. If you’re wondering what puts the “Left” in “Libertarian Left,” when we’re not for an activist state and when we oppose the effectiveness or the worth of any governmental responses to social or economic inequality, the answer is not just going to be some opportunistic redefinition of “Left” to meet our pre-existing political commitments or some obsolete French seating-chart. The answer is just going to be to point to some fairly straightforward understandings of what it is to value social justice, or what it is to be a Leftist — like this really admirable summary from Cornel West: [2]

. . . Being a leftist is a calling, not a career; it’s a vocation not a profession. It means you are concerned about structural violence, you are concerned about exploitation at the work place, you are concerned about institutionalized contempt against gay brothers and lesbian sisters, hatred against peoples of color, and the subordination of women. It means that you are willing to fight against, and to try to understand the sources of social misery at the structural and institutional levels, as well as at the existential and personal levels. That’s what it means to be a leftist; that’s why we choose to be certain kinds of human beings. . . .

— Cornell West (February 2011),
A Message from Cornel West, for left forum

Again, there’s a certain amount here that’s oversimplified and a certain amount that’s left out. [3] But it seems to me a good start. And an obvious point of contact and call to action for the Libertarian Left — for radical libertarians and radical leftists to take up, think through, express, and act on our concern about developing anti-authoritarian, counter-political, grassroots, consensual, activist alternatives against structural violence — against exploitation in the workplace — against multiple, interlocking and intersecting systems of interpersonal domination and social inequality — and to try understand the sources of social misery on multiple levels, and the intimate interplay between structural and institutional factors, diffuse cultural development, and interpersonal dynamics and existential experience. The “Left” is in “Libertarian Left” because when we work for liberation we Fight the Power. The “Libertarian” is in “Libertarian Left” because we know that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

<< Back to the Market Anarchism FAQ page


  1. In case you’re cu­ri­ous, my an­swers are: it means both of them, and the lat­ter is quite as im­por­tant as the for­mer; it’s sup­posed to mean that they are both side-con­straints on worth­while ends and also — be­cause so­cial an­ti-au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism is it­self a left-wing com­mit­ment — it­self one of the ends to be achieved; and no, at the end of the day we have a broad over­lap on some goals and some dis­tinct dif­fer­ence on oth­ers, but the dif­fer­ences that we have, we have be­cause lib­er­tar­i­an left­ists are the more con­sis­tent and rad­i­cal left­ists, who don’t just drop our an­ti-au­thor­i­tar­i­an and an­ti-es­tab­lish­ment analy­sis when it comes to pro­fess­ed­ly “Pro­gres­sive” or “Pop­u­lar” or Rev­o­lu­tion­ary au­thor­i­ties, es­tab­lish­ments, par­ties, politi­cians, elites, or other mo­nop­o­liza­tions of so­cial cap­i­tal.
  2. Re­peat­ed here thanks to Marja Erwin, and re­peat­ed here be­cause its sta­tus as a com­mon­place usage is I think vouched for by the ap­prox­i­mate­ly 5,271,902 times the quo­ta­tion was re-post­ed across Tum­blr.
  3. In con­text, West was try­ing to give an in­spir­ing riff on some key themes, not to make a com­pre­hen­sive state­ment of the de­f­i­n­i­tion of “Left­ist.” (Ac­tu­al­ly, in con­text, he was try­ing to raise money and at­ten­dance for the 2011 Left Forum. But the the­mat­ic riff was, if a means to that end, not a means only…)
Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory