Property is Theft: So is the Right’s Use of ‘Libertarian’

There is an extensive article about Murray Rothbard and anarchism — from the AFAQ blog: Rothbard: “We must therefore conclude that we are not anarchists”. He writes that, An Anarchist FAQ spends some time explaining, probably in far too much detail given their small size and corresponding importance, why “anarcho”-capitalism is not a form of anarchism. Ironically, its founder Murray Rothbard once agreed!” Maybe unsurprisingly, this not-so-minor detail has not received any attention among right-wing liberarians.

The author made an interesting comment where he offered a juicy quote from Rothbard: “One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy. ‘Libertarians’ had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over.” (The Betrayal of the American Right, p. 83). It’s rare to come across such honesty about an act of dishonesty, an act of ideological deception and rhetorical sleight of hand.

Chomsky has explained the origins of libertarianism in the European workers movement that included anarchists, Marxists, communists, etc. He went so far as to argue that, “a consistent libertarian must oppose private ownership of the means of production and wage slavery, which is a component of this system, as incompatible with the principle that labor must be freely undertaken and under the control of the producer.” Libertarianism, by original definition and identity, meant left-wing. There is no way around that simple historical fact. Even Rothbard felt compelled to admit to it, even as he took pride in the right-wing’s co-opting the label — not the first nor last time this would happen (The Many Stolen Labels of the Reactionary Mind).

Consider Wikipedia, which is not known for promoting radical thought, where the article on this ideology, Libertarianism, states rather bluntly that, “Libertarianism originated as a form of left-wing politics such as anti-authoritarian and anti-state socialists like anarchists,[6] especially social anarchists,[7] but more generally libertarian communists/Marxists and libertarian socialists.[8][9] Interestingly, one of the citations is the same Rothbard source. One of the other references confirms Rothbard’s admission. It is Roderick T. Long’s essay “Anarchism” (Gerald F. Gaus & Fred D’Agostino, eds.; The Routledge Companion to Social and Political Philosophy; p. 223):

“In the meantime, anarchist theories of a more communist or collectivist character had been developing as well. One important pioneer is French anarcho-communists Joseph Déjacque (1821–1864), who argued, against Proudhorn and the individualists, that what workers have a right to is not the product of their labor but, rather, the satisfaction of their needs. Déjacque appears to have been the first thinker to adopt the term “libertarian” for this position; hence “libertarianism” initially denoted a communist rather than a free-market ideology.”

Speaking of Rothbard’s piece, someone going simply as Anarcho wrote, “Nice to know that we are part of “the enemy” and the acknowledgment that our use of the term had been “long” – nearly 100 years when the laissez-faire right decided to appropriate it from its users. It is somewhat ironic, then, that amongst the first acts of the propertarians with their “absolute” property-rights was to steal their name! Ah, it may be objected, anarchists think “property is theft” so why should we complain? Well, because we believe in possession and use-rights and we were still using the term then! And we still are (the AFAQ blog marked the 150th anniversary of our use of the term back in 2008). While difficult given the funding the propertarians get from the wealthy, I do hope that anarchists and other radicals combat this appropriation of “libertarian” by people whose ideology is the exact opposite of what it traditionally means” (Mutual Aid, Parecon and the right stealing “libertarian”).

None of this is a secret, as this info is easy to find if one is looking for it. Yet few Americans, left or right, are aware of this ideological history. American libertarians, in particular, are disinformed or willfully ignorant about the origins of their professed ideology. It would appear this was an intentional strategy to undermine leftist ideologies by co-opting them and creating bastardized versions that betray their original inspiration and principles. Obfuscation is a well established tactic of the reactionary mind. The point isn’t merely to steal a powerful label from the left like counting coup in battle but ultimately to make such words meaningless so that public debate is made impossible. If libertarianism can mean authoritarianism as is inevitable with propetarianism, then the ideal of liberty can be made impotent as a threat to capitalist systems of power.

4 thoughts on “Property is Theft: So is the Right’s Use of ‘Libertarian’

  1. This is interesting. I’ve always suspected there was something incongruous about some I’ve known with decidedly right wing views who call themselves libertarian when they are anything but! Thanks for posting this.

    • I don’t usually identify as a libertarian. I do have some left-libertarian tendencies, but I feel no need to defend libertarianism as an ideology. I really don’t care if a right-winger wants to call themselves a libertarian. I’m just rather annoyed when right-wingers act shocked that left-libertarians are libertarians too, even maybe more principled than those on the right as it has been argued.

      I’ve seen right-libertarians accuse left-wingers of trying to steal the libertarian label. Likewise, I’ve seen those on the right accuse those on the left of stealing the liberal label as if the so-called ‘classical’ liberals of today represent the real roots of liberalism. That is plain clueless or else disingenuous.

      The problem I see with the American right is that they don’t clearly have their own tradition. America has never had an established traditional form of conservatism. There are just many varieties of liberalism, including the distorted varieties advocated by reactionary conservatives. It is hard to even know what a worthy form of conservatism would mean these days.

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