A History of ‘Libertarianism’

Libertarianism. In modern political discourse this word is associated with an insatiable love of free-market capitalism and leaves many of us on the Left feeling decidedly uneasy when people in positions of power self-describe as libertarians. Indeed many of the current US presidential candidates in the Republican Party seek to align themselves with this political philosophy. However this word has a longer history than many on the Right believe, and when these people call themselves libertarians, we on the Left should celebrate this fact. For those of you who think this will be an exhaustive history of the writings of Murray Rothbard and Friedrich Hayek with some Ayn Rand thrown in for good measure, you should leave now.

The word ‘libertarian’ has an interesting history. The first known use of the word is in philosophy, specifically in relation to free will. In 1789 the English historian and political writer William Belsham coined the term in reference to an argument concerning free will i.e. having the liberty to make choices in any given situation. The term became a reference to a political position in 1796 as the word became to denote a supporter or defender of liberty, with this concept having been defined in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. On 12th February 1796, an English newspaper, the London Packet, brought the term to the public’s attention after it printed the headline: “Lately marched out of the Prison at Bristol, 450 of the French Libertarians”.
Other uses of the word remained centred on the idea of an advocate of liberty, however this could be meant in different ways. For example in Britain being described as a ‘libertarian’ could be pejorative, in effect calling that person sympathetic to Napoleon at a time when Britain and France were at war, or positively, in regards to Whiggish ideas around the rights of the individual. Either way the term had relatively broad appeal as those supports of liberty could come from a variety of political backgrounds.
After the fall of Napoleon the French political discourse used different language to refer to new divergent ideological position (Orleanist, Bonapartist, Republican etc.) and as a consequence usage of the word became less common. The next time ‘libertarian’ grew in popularity was in the days of the Second French Empire. In a letter from Joseph Déjaque to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, in which Proudhon’s sexist attitudes were castigated, Déjacque self-described as a libertarian. This is the crux of why I find people on the Right describing themselves as libertarians funny. Déjacque was an anarcho-communist, and he self-described as a libertarian.
Since this point libertarianism has been a left-wing ideology that makes people like Bernie Sanders look like Ronald Reagan. To this day people on the Left often refer to themselves as libertarians, yet there are politicians unironically lining up to appropriate the term. As if this wasn’t enough of a precedent for right-wingers, Déjacque was not the only one of us lefties to refer to themselves as libertarians. Some of the most famous leftists in history are more libertarian than many of those who claim to be: Charles Fourier, Mikhail Bukunin, Peter Kropotkin, Oscar Wilde, Leo Tolstoy, Rosa Luxembourg, Mahatma Gandhi, Antonio Negri and Noam Chomsky have all self-identified, or been identified by others, as libertarians.
noam chomsky
If you called this man a libertarian in front of Rand Paul, the Kentucky Senator might have some form of heart attack. (Creative Commons)
As we have established those people on the Right who identify as libertarians are wrong to do so but the question then becomes: what do we call them? Fortunately there is a solution, and they aren’t going to like it. They support the neo-liberal policies of Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman etc., and considering this economic philosophy is derived from the classical liberalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it is more appropriate to call these people liberals. I do believe that this is exactly the term that these people have been demonising for years but I am re-appropriating libertarianism for the left-wing philosophies that it was intended to describe.
Libertarians may believe that taxation is a form of theft but I would say that they’re not allowed to say this statement until they stop stealing our words and bathing them in free-market capitalist ideology. If Ted Cruz wants to get up on stage and say that he’s a libertarian then I want to be there so I can yell “he’s a communist” at the top of my lungs. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, after all I am one, but I find the hypocrisy of these politicians insufferable. Libertarianism has been hijacked to promote neo-liberalism and anarcho-capitalism. It is time to reclaim this concept in order to educate our fellow citizens about the dangers of authoritarianism and to stop our fallen comrades from spinning in their graves.
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