The Political Tradition of Republicanism Should Be a Touchstone for Democratic Socialists

The radical idea at the heart of republicanism is a challenge to private bosses and public tyrants everywhere: that we can live free from the whims of arbitrary power. Democratic socialists should embrace the radical currents of this ancient philosophy.

A fresco by Cesare Maccari (1840–1919) depicts Cicero denouncing Catiline in the Senate in first century BCE. (DeAgostini / Getty Images)

If virtue and “the good” were the paramount political values of antiquity, freedom and equality are undoubtedly those of modernity. Many of the ideological disputes between the great modernist doctrines of liberalism and socialism have concerned how best to understand and realize the two, with some insisting there can be no compromise between clashing conceptions and others thinking there can be. Often these disputes grow so heated and so packed with other high-profile participants (namely, conservatives) that we forget there are other rich political traditions.

Republicanism is one such overlooked school of thought. Anyone who spends time unpacking the Western political canon will find it at various points, whether in the work of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Niccolò Machiavelli or the endless debates about the French Revolution and its volcanic impact. But its specific contributions to political thought, particularly radical politics, have not enjoyed the same attention as liberalism or Marxism.

Radical Republicanism seeks to fill this gap by proving a sweeping primer on the ancient philosophy. Edited by three political theorists (Bruno Leipold, Karma Nabulsi, and Stuart White), it will be an excellent touchstone for years to come. If I have any criticism, it’s that finishing the collection was a bit like wrapping up George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road: yes, we got a lot, but lord did I still want more. And I mean that in the most positive sense.

The Connection Between Freedom and Equality

What is freedom? How does it relate to equality? Deceptively simple questions that have spawned mountains of words and treatises. Though theorists have thought about the relationship in a variety of ways — and many have held that fully securing one is dependent on realizing the other — we can broadly demarcate three different approaches. (A fourth is what we might call a cognitive approach, arguing that power disparities enable elites to maintain a grip on people’s consciousness, but I’ll skip that one for brevity’s sake.)

The first approach is the negative conception of freedom, to use Isaiah Berlin’s famous terminology. Initially theorized by classical liberals like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and many of the American Founding Fathers, it is arguably the most well known in the United States, encapsulated in the popular anti-statist slogan “Don’t tread on me.” The negative conception holds that all citizens are equally entitled to protection of their bodily autonomy and their property (though who counts as a citizen remains a controversial question). Freedom, simply put, is when the state doesn’t interfere in your business beyond these narrow functions.

While the negative conception has certain immediate appeal — who wants jackbooted government agents knocking down their door? — it has always faced criticism from those who find it an inadequate or simplistic account of freedom and equality. Moreover, proponents of the negative conception have always struggled to explain where noninterference ends and interference begins: if the state, for instance, has to provide a functioning court system to ensure the right to due process, is that a purely negative freedom?

The second approach to freedom and equality is the “substantive” or “positive rights” approach, which emerged with the rise of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century. Rather than just focusing on what people are free from, substantive approaches insist that we consider what people are free to do. Almost no one would choose to be a Robinson Crusoe alone on an island, because even though no one is threatening your negative liberty, your options in life are largely confined to writing and sitting alone on a beach. The substantive approach also stresses how unequal distribution of resources and power severely limits freedom. When Bernie Sanders campaigned on Medicare for All as a means to make the United States both freer and more equal, he was adopting this positive-rights approach.

The third approach is the one closest to republicans’ hearts. It stresses that freedom is not just individual but social and irrevocably political. To be free is to have a meaningful say in determining the structures and laws that govern us. It is to live without being subject to the whims of arbitrary power, whether public (a despotic state) or private (an autocratic workplace or household).

Like the substantive approach, contemporary republicans engage directly with questions of equality and power, since they shape how much social freedom people actually have. Take the United States: if research by scholars like Martin Gilens is correct, the average citizen possesses almost no meaningful social freedom at the national level, while the very rich enjoy a great deal.

Social Freedom and Republicanism

The concept of social freedom has deep historical roots. Ancient Greek societies saw freedom as inextricably linked to citizenship and political participation: citizenship gave people a strong voice in the governance of the city, which both prevented the appearance of a tyrannical ruling class and instilled in citizens the civic virtue needed to ward off domination by imperial powers. To possess civic virtue was to be politically minded, public-spirited, and to regard one’s individual freedom as bound up with the freedom of other citizens.

This Grecian view of social freedom as the linchpin of liberty was a key feature of ancient Roman republicanism, too. The Latin res publica, or public space, is the root of the modern term “republic.”

But while both Athenian democrats and Roman Republicans exalted freedom from domination and the political power of ordinary citizens, they saw little contradiction in jealously guarding their freedoms and denying them to those deemed unworthy in their midst (most notably, slaves), all while engaging in violent projects of mass expansion. In Athens, the Greek polity didn’t simply rely on slave labor to support the politicking of free citizens. The very definition of liberty was bound up with enslavement: to be free was to not be a slave.

The Civil War in France by Karl Marx, 1922 German edition. (Wikimedia Commons)

Yet later thinkers have uncovered emancipatory kernels in the republican tradition. In The Civil War in France, Karl Marx draws on republican theory to explain how concentrations of capitalist power in politics limit the freedom and flourishing of all. Political theorist William Clare Roberts argues in his recent book Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital that the great German thinker’s magnum opus is shot through with republicanism.

For republican-inflected socialists like Marx, social freedom is central to securing other forms of freedom and equality. Our ability to have a say in governance offers us protection against infringements of our bodily autonomy, allows us to demand the provision of public goods, and fosters ideological reflection about the social order and what we would like it to become.

Radical Republicanism is an excellent entry point into these emancipatory aspects of the ancient philosophy.

Radical Republicanism

Any essay collection will contain contributions that are more to one’s taste than others. But what makes Radical Republicanism stand out is that even the essays that weren’t up my alley were thought-provoking and weighty, and it is to the credit of Leipold, Nabusi, and White that the book feels like a unified statement even where the intellectual strands move in different directions.

For my money, the two most important contributions are by Alan Coffee (a political theorist who has written extensively on Mary Wollstonecraft) and Alex Gourevitch (author of the 2014 book From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth, which excavates the radical republicanism of the nineteenth-century US labor movement).

Coffee’s essay, “A Revolution in Thought: Frederick Douglass on the Slave’s Perspective on Republican Freedom,” reminds us that it has often been the oppressed who best understood the shape of social freedom. Douglass insisted that the American republic needed a thoroughgoing abolition of master over slave — first by ending formal slavery and then through a “radical revolution in all the modes of thought that have flourished under the blighting slave system.” This revolution in thought would be achieved as former slaves exercised the political virtues aligned with social freedom and gradually eroded the racist prejudices that set one against another. One of the haunting possibilities Coffee’s essay raises is how the death of Reconstruction killed this prospect in its crib.

Gourevitch’s work deserves to be an important intellectual resource for democratic socialists going forward. His essay in this volume — “Solidarity and Civic Virtue: Labour Republicanism and the Politics of Emancipation in Nineteenth-Century America” — describes how labor radicals worked to achieve nothing less than a wholesale rethinking of civic virtue in the United States. This entailed building pride in working-class communities and stressing workers’ contributions to society, often in connection with their political project of democratizing the state, the economy, and social relations.

The Knights of Labor, Gourevich writes, sought to forge a “politics of solidarity” and civic virtue that has been undervalued by subsequent generations. Perhaps the most important lesson for leftists today is that socialist politics requires more than a large-scale alternative to the status quo. It will require us to rethink how we relate to one another and create institutions focused on solidarity over competition.

A Rich Collection

Some topics unfortunately receive short shrift in Radical Republicanism. There is next to nothing on women’s emancipation, a real shame since many of the most important theorists of social freedom in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries emerged from, or at least were inspired by, the feminist tradition (Wendy Brown, Seyla Benhabib, and Nancy Fraser, to name a few that come to mind). On the other end of the spectrum, there are no less than three (good) essays covering French republicanism and radicalism. More essays like the excellent chapter on Ottoman radicalism by Banu Turnaoğlu would have lent Radical Republicanism a more internationalist bent.

But these are small criticisms amid the collection’s many riches. Two areas in particular are useful for today’s socialist movement. First, republicanism directs our attention to the tight link between social freedom and civic virtues, the latter of which is often minimized on the Left. Incorporating republican ideals into the leftist lexicon can allow us to corner the language of virtue and civic participation — which is usually monopolized by the Right and liberals, but would be better embodied by socialist demands for the democratization of political and economic life. The Knights of Labor are a good historical example in this regard, with their expansive demands for cooperative ownership and struggles against workplace servitude.

Second, republicanism’s moral emphasis on nondomination spotlights the blind spots of liberalism. Historically, classical liberals have limited themselves to polemicizing against state power while ignoring the unfreedom that permeates private capitalist workplaces and the concentrations of class power that allow economic elites to capture the organs of government. Republicanism illuminates these spheres of domination and gives us a potent language to lacerate them. On that basis, we can construct a political coalition to fight the plutocratic power dynamics that mar so many of our lives.