In the United States, growing segments of the population are undergoing a period of profound politicization and polarization. Political elites are struggling to maintain control as increasing numbers of people seek out alternatives on the left and the right. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, political organizations on the left have grown significantly, most notably expressed in the explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Meanwhile, the Trump administration has joined other far-right governments emerging around the globe, emboldening fascist forces in the streets. These developments have sparked widespread debate on the nature of socialism and its distinct flavors within and outside the US.
Among the various branches within the broad socialist tradition, libertarian socialism is possibly the least understood. For many people in the US, libertarian socialism sounds like a contradiction in terms. The corrosive influence of the Cold War has distorted our understanding of socialism, while the explicit hijacking of the term “libertarian” by right-wing forces has stripped it of its roots within the socialist-communist camp. Outside the exceptional case of the US, libertarianism is widely understood to be synonymous with anarchism or anti-state socialism. In Latin America in particular, libertarian socialists have played a critical role in popular struggles across the region, from mass student movements to the recent wave of feminist struggles. To expand and enrich the current debate on socialism in the US, we spoke with several militants from political organizations in the tradition of libertarian socialism in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, exploring the history, theory and practice of libertarian socialism.
Due to the length of responses, we have published this roundtable interview in installments (Part 1, Chile: Spanish and English; Part 2, Argentina: Spanish and English). For Part 3, we spoke with Fábio from the Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro (FARJ) / Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
We also wanted to thank everyone who contributed to our Building Bridges of International Solidarity Fundraiser which made this interview series possible.
—Introduction and interview by Enrique Guerrero-López.
Spanish translation by Ricardo, Portuguese translation by Cí Melo
Enrique Guerrero-López (EGL): Can you introduce yourself, tell us the name of your organization, and give a short summary of its origins and your main work?
Fábio: My name is Fábio and I’m a member of the Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro (FARJ), which is a member of the Brazilian Anarchist Coordination (CAB). I’m a professor of Mechanical Engineering, and I’m active in the professors’ union in my workplace as well as in the Campaign for the Freedom of Rafael Braga.
EGL: What are the roots of libertarian socialism in South America?
Fábio: The roots of libertarian socialism in South America are connected to a long tradition of struggles and revolts of the Black working class, indigenous people, and popular sectors in general against colonial domination. Although libertarian socialism (anarchism) is an experience typical of the second half of the 19th century, there is a continuity between the popular struggles, the strikes, the insurrections spread over Brazilian territory and the moment of consolidation of the first socialist experiences. For us, especially here in Brazil, the working class doesn’t arise with the arrival of white Italian and Portuguese immigrants. It’s been in action since the 19th century, with struggles of the quilombos, the strikes in the middle of the slave and imperial Brazilian structure, and the actions of the poor and Black workers against oppression and domination. In continental terms, we can point out as important markers the founding of the Federación Regional de la República Oriental del Uruguay (FRROU)  in 1875 and of the Centro de Propaganda Obrera (CPO) in 1876 in Argentina. The first countries in South America to shape and promote anarchism, in chronological order, were Uruguay and Argentina. In Brazil, dominant elites spread the myth that anarchism was an “exotic flower” and that it was restricted only to the Italian and Portuguese immigrants, when actually anarchism was equally rooted in the native working class. During the last years of the 19th century, there was a period of insertion and maturing of anarchism in Brazil that contributed to the formation of the Confederação Operária Brasileira (COB) in 1908 in Rio de Janeiro. It is also important to emphasize different experiences of anarchist political organization in the ‘20s and ‘40s. We are the fruit of this historical work which connects generations of anarchist militants over decades.
EGL: What differentiates libertarian socialism from other branches of socialism?
Fábio: Libertarian socialism, or anarchism, differentiates itself from other branches of socialism by its characterization of the State and by its strategic propositions, which aim to overcome the capitalist system. Anarchism is an ideology, a socialist and revolutionary doctrine, which is founded on certain principles that can be traced through its 150 years of history. Its roots are defined by a critique of domination and a defense of self-organization. Regarding domination, anarchism emphasizes a critique of class oppression along with other types of oppression— for example, imperialism, gender, and race or ethnicity. For anarchists, the State is responsible for domination and exploitation together with the capitalist system. The State isn’t just a reflection of the economic relations. It is a political organism of the ruling class and, because of that, it is our job to build another power through the direct action of the masses in urban and rural popular movements.
“We argue that popular power has to be built inside popular struggles, organized and led by the various sectors of the oppressed classes, around more immediate questions, aiming for more profound processes of rupture.”
Anarchism also supports self-organization in general and conceives of revolutionary subjects as sectors of the oppressed classes, constituted in struggle through actions of the dominated classes— peasants, poor people, and workers in general— rather than seeking out a revolutionary subject in advance. Throughout history, anarchists have diverged over strategy. Our especifista current, part of a long-standing tradition inside anarchism which advocates a mass-oriented strategy and the need for political organization, believes that it is through class struggle and struggles against all forms of domination that we can create a social force capable of building the basis of anti-state and anti-capitalist popular power.
EGL: What role does political organization play within social movements and how does that fit into your vision of libertarian socialist politics?
Fábio: Especifismo has contributed a lot of energy to this topic, with the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation (FAU) being a fundamental reference point. Modestly, we have also dedicated ourselves to this issue, together with our sister organizations from the CAB. Throughout the history of anarchism, important contributions— mainly from Bakunin, Malatesta, the Platform, FAU, and the experiences of anarchist political organizations in Brazil from the beginning of the 20th century— have fueled our perspectives.
Summarizing our position, we can say that an especifista organization defends some clear points: the political organization as active minority, emphasis on the necessity of organizing, theoretical and tactical unity, the production of theory, the importance of social work and social insertion, the understanding of anarchism as a tool for the class struggle in search of a libertarian socialist project, the differentiation between political (anarchist organization) and social (social movements) levels of organization, and the defense of a militancy carried out with strategy. Obviously, our organization wasn’t born working with all these concepts, but we have been improving our work in this sense over the years and have made some advancements.
We understand the social and political levels as complementary. We don’t intend to establish a hierarchical relationship between these levels (as would the typical Leninist vanguard) nor let the specific anarchist organization (SAO) simply react to things as they happen. However, we understand that the anarchist organization, by means of its active minority, must build shoulder-to-shoulder a political and social program that deals with the needs of the people. The organization also works with objective criteria for integrating militants and gathers anarchists not by an “abstract” or “philosophical” identity, but by ideological coherence and agreement with the organization’s program, principles, and strategies.
We understand that the political organization must influence and be influenced by the social movements, but also work within them to promote direct democracy, autonomy, combativeness, and self-organization. Inside the political organization, we expect a high level of commitment and discipline— a self-discipline that is collectively built, but that doesn’t provoke harmful practices of only doing what we want or of not carrying out what was previously planned by the collective (unfortunately common in libertarian socialist groups).
This model of organization argues that the role of the specific anarchist organization is to coordinate and converge the forces that have emerged from militant activities, building a solid and consistent tool of struggle which aims for a final objective: social revolution and libertarian socialism. We believe that struggle without, or with little, organization— where people do what they want, poorly articulated or isolated— is inefficient. The model of organizing that we support aims to multiply the results and the effectiveness of militant forces. We also develop “conjunctural analysis,” or an analysis of the political, social, and economic conditions of the current moment, to inform our strategy. For that to be done with coherence, it is developed strategically inside the political organization: this is where we deal with local, national, and international contexts, where the movements and popular forces are analyzed: their influences and potentialities. Strategy must answer the question, “How do we get from where we are to where we want to be?” It’s the macro-level analysis— diagnostic and short, medium, and long term objectives— that we call strategy. Then, it is detailed in a micro-analysis— the tactics— which will determine the actions that will be put into practice by militants, or group of militants, in order to reach our goals. The organization also works with a federalist perspective and has fully direct democracy, where things are organized from the bottom up with sections, fronts, and secretaries, and where the whole organization decides, participates, and develops the broader strategic lines.
EGL: In the U.S., there is widespread debate over electoral politics on the left. How do libertarian socialists in South America relate to electoral politics?
Fábio: On this topic, it’s important to affirm that for us as anarchists, drawing on the words of Errico Malatesta, our means must be consistent with our ends.  Tactics must always be subordinated to strategy. If we have the strategy of building popular power and a self-organized society, it is inconceivable to be subordinated to any type of electoral politics or to defend voting inside bourgeois democracy. We look at elections as a farce built to massacre and to dominate. We vote inside our class entities: inside the unions, in student centers, in neighborhood assemblies, where the embryo of popular power is practiced day by day. We don’t believe in electoral politics, even the ones that claim to be socialist. We maintain fraternal relations with other branches of socialism inside social struggles, but we disagree with maintaining any type of action inside the bourgeois parliament or, worse, to link the popular struggle to the elections. It’s important to make explicit that recent history shows that every time socialists have attempted to revitalize this issue, they ended up embracing the worst of bourgeois politics. In Brazil, we have a huge historic example: a political party, the Workers Party, which was born in the midst of popular struggle in the ‘70s and early ‘80s with unions, social movements, and peasant support. This party decided to take the electoral path, and rapidly, all the buildup of more than thirty years of social force in class entities was emptied in the name of bourgeois politics. Thirteen years of governance and more than thirty years of buildup, and today, we’re watching the popular conquests be destroyed one by one.
As pointed out by FAU in a text from the ‘70s, “To talk about elections is to make allusion to a part of a power structure which is much wider,” and “The rules of the game of the bourgeoisie are strong and involved; they sew with steel thread.” Elections are part of this mechanism, and we, especifista anarchists, reject any type of subordination to this mechanism.
However, this doesn’t prevent us from analyzing the different scenarios, including the electoral, and trying to predict the specificities of our class enemies. The movements, strategies, blocks of power, all this must be analyzed with seriousness. People talk a lot about how the State is a form of domination— and we agree— but less about how it’s exercised. The system of domination operates in short and long terms. It is indispensable that anarchist political organizations be able to analyze these changes and to predict political scenarios so that they can act efficiently.
EGL: In South America, many libertarian socialists have put forward a theory and practice of building “popular power.” What is popular power and what forms has it taken in practice?
Fábio: The Brazilian Anarchist Coordination has some theoretical materials on this topic. Especifismo has been engaging with the concept of popular power for more than a half-century. Our concept of popular power constitutes, simultaneously, an objective and a strategy, both of which give the basis for a political practice anchored in our historical and geographical context in a manner that strengthens our intervention in the set of forces in actuation. Hence, it’s not merely a theoretical or philosophical discussion that aims only to know or to think abstractly about popular power. We conceive of power as an established social relation arisen from the confrontation between several social forces, when one or more forces impose themselves over the other.
Every society has a dynamic and permanent relation between social forces. Because of that, any society has a relation of forces. Individuals, groups, and social classes have the capacity for realization, which may or may not become social forces. Therefore, social force is constituted when the possibility becomes reality. When we organize, we multiply our social force and we always put our hopes in popular movements. We conceive of popular power as a generalized model of power— rooted in self-organization and established by oppressed classes in relation to the ruling classes— which provides the basis for a new society. So popular power aims at the suppression of capitalism, the State, and relations of domination in general, substituting for these with a new power structure, established through the workplace, through the neighborhood. It can only be consolidated through a revolutionary process.
Therefore, we argue that popular power has to be built inside popular struggles, organized and led by the various sectors of the oppressed classes, around more immediate questions, but also aiming for more profound processes of rupture. Building popular power and creating a strong people implies, besides carrying out short-term struggles, advancing for medium- and long-term struggles, and, therefore, we have been supporting popular organization in a formation of the oppressed classes which can permanently strengthen the social force of the dominated classes, putting them in direct opposition to the forces mobilized by the ruling classes. This process of popular organizing must be built as “a result of a convergence process of different social organizations and different popular movements, which are the fruit of class war” (Social Anarchism and Organization, FARJ). It’s about organizing the oppressed around a common project of social transformation. In this sense, the embryo of popular power is being built in combative strikes with direct action, in urban occupations, in rural settlements, in student assemblies and occupations, and in every experience from the oppressed that can create stable bottom-up organizing and challenge the domination of patriarchal-racist-capitalism. Building popular power means to build social relations that put the economic, political, judiciary, military, ideological, and cultural institutions of the ruling class at risk. It’s about daring to beat the system of domination and accomplishing, through solidarity in popular struggle, the accumulation of social forces necessary to disrupt the social relations imposed by the ruling classes and, by means of social conflict, to advance, accumulate, and break up the actual systemic structure. Popular power also needs to accumulate and develop militants and to create stable structures for popular organization. These structures can only be made with the creation and maintenance of popular movements. Popular power is not about a big insurrectionist night, even though insurrection is a step toward this kind of power.
Our anarchism, a motor capable of impelling popular struggles at national and continental levels, is intimately connected to this project of popular power that we continue to support: a strategy and objective that we consider to be consistent with our time and place.
Special thanks to Samantha Neuhaus who provided copy editing for this article.
For more on libertarian socialism, we recommend the excellent piece “Socialism Will Be Free, Or It Will Not Be At All! – An Introduction to Libertarian Socialism.”
1. The first labor group with the intention of organizing workers nationally and based its founding principles on the resolutions of the First International.
2. The reference is to Malatesta’s essay “A Little Theory”: “The end justifies the means: we have spoken much ill of that maxim. In reality, it is the universal guide of conduct. One could say better: each end contains its means. It is necessary to seek morality in the end; the means is fatally determined.”