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What can republicanism offer the left?

the republican magazine

When you tell people that you work on republicanism, you are often met by a concerned look. You then have to rush to explain that by ‘republicanism’ you, of course, do not mean the party of Trump and Palin. Nor – you then have to add – do you only mean that you take a particular dislike to Elizabeth Windsor. This public understanding of republicanism looks set to only get worse, with the French centre-right UMP party, last year, successfully renaming itself Les Républicains.

The prospects for recovering republicanism for leftist politics might therefore not seem particularly promising. The label ‘republican’ might simply be too poisoned by its associations with right-wing parties or too easily reduced to narrow anti-monarchism, to be of much use to radicals and progressives. Yet, despite these concerns, I do think that republicanism has something to offer to the left.¹ I believe that its values of popular sovereignty, civic virtue and freedom, and the political proposals we can draw from them, make a recovery of republicanism attractive.

By republicanism, I mean a broad political tradition or ideology that is centred on the republic, understood as a political regime of self-governing citizens. For republicans, politics and government is rightly the concern of the people, and not a single or small set of rulers.² Out of that central contention arises a diverse set of political practices, institutional proposals, and values. Amongst these are the emphasis on popular participation in politics, the importance of civic virtue in citizens, the promotion of the common good over private interests, and a particular conception of freedom as the absence of arbitrary power. Republicanism is however a broad church. It stretches from the more aristocratic strands, which maintain that liberal republics with representative government, the rule of law and the separation of powers, are a sufficient guard against domination; to the more democratic ones, which want genuine popular control over political institutions. This dual legacy must be kept in mind when trying to recover republicanism for contemporary purposes. Republicanism can be, but is not necessarily, a progressive radical ideology.

With this outline of the tradition established, what kind of contribution can it make? First, the republican conception of freedom has the potential, as Alex Gourevitch has argued (from 5:00 minutes onwards), to recapture the value of freedom from the right. In popular discourse, freedom and liberty have become nearly completely associated with capitalist freedom: the freedom to dispense with one’s property without government intervention. Socialists and progressives have instead mostly been consigned to making their arguments in terms of equality, fairness and community. Gourevitch points out, that this is a rather strange development, given that the right is historically associated with the values of order, authority and tradition. Their modern stranglehold on the understanding of freedom means that they have managed to lay claim to one of society’s most cherished values. Republican freedom however has the possibility to disrupt that monopoly on meaning.

Readers of this blog are probably already somewhat familiar with the republican conception of freedom that Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit have unearthed from the tradition. While I disagree with aspects of their argument (primarily with how Pettit thinks it will be realised), I do think it captures something immensely important. Freedom understood as non-domination or the absence of arbitrary power,  captures the experience and injustice of having a master, whether they are a king, a slave-owner, a capitalist, or patriarch. Republican freedom presents a vision of society whereby to be free means that your status is not dependent on anyone else’s goodwill; you can meet another’s gaze without fear of punishment; you do not have to look your shoulder to appease a master; you can stand on your own to feet. I find that vision attractive and powerful, and I suspect that it could have broad public appeal.

It also has the ability to criticise a wider set of social relations than narrower conceptions of freedom. A prime example of this is the domination associated with wage-labour. Capitalist accounts of freedom see wage-labour as free labour, because the worker has voluntarily agreed to work for the capitalist. But from the perspective of republican freedom, the worker is unfree because their employer has become their master. The master can use their position to subject the worker to all manner of degrading and humiliating treatment (a useful summary of these abuses is available here). That kind of workplace domination is a consequence of the wider structural domination that results from vastly unequal ownership of the means of production. Republican freedom can, I believe, capture these injustices and, importantly, present them in the language of freedom. Given the value we place on freedom this is a potentially powerful political and rhetorical strategy.

The second contribution revolves is the importance republicanism places on politics, popular sovereignty and public participation. There are many strains of socialism (from technocratic social-democracy, to Fabianism and Stalinism) that have not placed great emphasis on the idea that ordinary citizens should have extensive participation in political decision-making. There is a tradition in socialism of seeing politics as less important, irrelevant even, when compared to economics. This perhaps most clearly shown in the frequent socialist trope that once we reach socialism, politics will disappear.

In contrast, republicanism celebrates the public life. For some republicans this is because public participation has intrinsic value – that it promotes people’s essence as political beings. For others the justification is instrumental – in that popular participation is the only way to ensure that a republic remains free. By combining that language of popular sovereignty with the left’s familiar call for social justice, republicanism can provide away to articulate a powerful democratic alternative. Karma Nabulsi has for example written on how republicanism might contribute to a revitalised Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.

Concretely, republicanism offers several institutional ideas to realise greater popular participation. Historically, radical republicans have criticised the kind of representative governments that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as a betrayal of popular sovereignty. They believed that elections were too easily dominated by elites, who used their wealth and education to disproportionately control public offices, and that there were insufficient mechanisms for ensuring that representatives, once elected, would carry out the will of the people who elected them. Alternatives have ranged from elections by lot (where officials are chosen randomly), to annual elections, and to delegates being tightly constrained by the mandates given to them by their constituents.

Perhaps one of the most exciting recent proposal comes from John McCormick’s work on the people’s tribune.³ Drawn from his democratic reading of Machiavelli, McCormick argues that we should revive this institution of the Roman Republic. The tribune was a public official who had veto power over the actions of the Senate. Crucially, however the tribune could only come from the plebeian class. This meant that Rome’s poor had a direct and guaranteed role in the governing of the republic. It thereby acted as a check on power of Rome’s patrician class. In a modern setting, and applied to the US constitution, McCormick suggests that the tribunate would consists of 51 randomly selected citizens who could only be drawn from households below a certain net income. They would serve for one year, and in that year could veto one piece of congressional legislation, one executive action, and one Supreme Court decision. They would also be able to propose a nationally binding referendum and impeach a public official for political corruption. In this way, America’s poor, who are normally systematically excluded from power would have a direct say in government. It would thereby act as a counterweight to the absurd power exercised by the countries’ richest citizens. The precise implementation of the tribunate does not, of course, have to follow these lines exactly, and nobody is pretending that if it were instituted by-itself, it would be enough to realise popular sovereignty (that would in any case require massive redistribution of property ownership and wider transformation of the state). But it is, I believe, an inspiring example of how republicanism can contribute something that the left can utilise.

In closing, I do not want to give the impression that republicanism can unproblematically be appropriated for left-wing politics. It is an old tradition, and parts of that tradition (large parts even), are aristocratic and undemocratic, sexist, racist and imperialist. Men were frequently taken to be the only ones capable of political participation, and the emphasis on independence can easily verge on celebrating a particularly masculine ideal. Furthermore, even today, republicanism is frequently described as an exclusively Western tradition. The Greek city states are for example presented as the first exercise in self-government, surrounded by slavish oriental despots. The lineage is then traced along a familiar line from renaissance Italy, to Civil War England, to revolutionary America. That not only constructs an implausible ‘Western’ canon, but also ignores the republican elements of anti-colonial struggles from the Haitian revolution, to the nineteenth century Latin American liberation movements, and the national liberation struggles of the twentieth.

Rehabilitating republicanism thus means paying careful attention to the unsavoury elements of republicanism’s history, as well as expanding what is taken to be republicanism’s history.  But if we do that, I believe that we can recover something of lasting value to the left.


¹ See also Stuart White’s articles: ‘The future left: red, green and republican?’ (Red Pepper) and ‘Is Republicanism the Left’s Big Idea?‘ (Renewal).

² See Richard Dagger’s useful introduction ‘Republicanism’, in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy, ed. George Klosko (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

³ John McCormick. Machiavellian Democracy. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Note that McCormick sometimes presents his argument as ‘democratic’ rather than ‘republican’, but has also been happy to include it in the ‘popular republican’ tradition.

Bruno Leipold

Bruno Leipold is a political theorist and historian of political thought doing his PhD at the University of Oxford. His research interests are in anarchism, Marxism and republicanism.



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  1. Thanks for the post, Bruno. Can I ask here whether you think that there is something uniquely valuable about utilising the republican tradition to articulate (certain) left-wing politics? I ask for the following reason. The concerns you mention in your post – such as popular sovereignty, civic virtue, freedom, and the application of such concepts to critique of various existing practices – seem concerns that could be mobilised from within other ‘isms’ too – such as the conceptualisation of freedom in liberal egalitarianism or the objection to hierarchies in social egalitarianism – or without appealing to ‘isms’ at all, which is an approach adopted by various theorists and, I think, the one used when such arguments are made in everyday politics. That leads me to wonder whether there is any additional or specific merit that you think can be harnessed by appealing to republicanism in particular?

    • Bruno Leipold

      Thanks Andrew. I’m torn. On the one hand, I think you’re right that its the arguments and ideas that matter, not the semantics of whether we think they are ‘republican’ or ‘liberal/social egalitarian’ arguments and ideas. On the other hand, I think that these political terms have power in public debate, and that makes it worth claiming certain ideas – especially, as I agued, with freedom. That’s certainly what Les Republicaines were doing by trying to exclusively claim the French tradition for themselves. I’m not saying that we have to always call it ‘republicanism’ in public discourse – often it would be inappropriate – but I think there is value in sometimes trying to reintroduce into political debate.

      Now inside of the political theory discipline, I think that the values you mention of popular sovereignty, civic virtue and freedom as non-domination are not actually discussed as much as they could be. That is certainly the case with civic virtue, which many liberals remain hostile to (for some unjustified and also some justified reasons). Popular sovereignty is also I think neglected (I don’t remember it being much if any discussion of it in my undergraduate or masters teaching). Freedom as non-domination, has of course made a big come back. But I think this is where Skinner’s point that by studying history we can open up different ways of thinking applies. I think its unlikely that we would have had this idea without the historical investigation into the specifically republican tradition. I think by saying you are interested in republicanism, you bring a host of concerns that are otherwise often left off the table.

  2. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Bruno, thanks for that post! I have great sympathies for republicanism (although I sometimes think that it’s just a way of realizing liberal-egalitarian values while paying more attention to the social and institutional structures that this requires). But I sometimes wonder about the scale at which republican ideas and practices should best be applied. In a nutshell, I wonder whether it is something we should aim at at the level of (large) nation states, or rather at more local and regional levels or smaller organizational units (for example in companies, in the form of workplace democracy or workplace republicanism). So many forms of domination take place at a local level or in company hierarchies, so to fight them we need local participation and the empowerment of individuals. And it also seems easier to motivate people to participate in forms of self-governance that are smaller – it feels more like it’s “their” issue, they are more directly concerned, they know the other individuals involved etc. On the other hand, if things don’t work well at a national level, republican initiatives at a smaller level may be doomed to failure from the start. So I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about the scale at which republicanism makes most sense and has the greatest chances of success.

    • Bruno Leipold

      Thanks Lisa. I wish I had a more original answer than saying that we have to do both. Trying to only establish republicanism in one country (e.g. through workplace democracy) is going to be seriously threatened by all the familiar international obstacles (capital flight, potential sanctions, intervention). Similarly, republicanism in one factory without supporting national action, does not stand much chance of long term success.

      On your minor point, I do agree that republicanism is distinguished from liberal-egalitarianism by its greater focus on institutional structures, but I disagree that it only realises liberal-egalitarian values. I don’t think that popular political participation is discussed much, if at all, in liberal-egalitarianism, similarly with civic virtue, the common good, etc. Even non-domination, was hardly on the map before Skinner and Pettit’s work. Also, I’m not sure why the values they do agree on are called liberal-egalitarian rather than republican ones (although thats gets close to semantics!).

  3. Glad you are seeing the light and stopping this draconian beu..iohr….av..After all, people are volunteering their time to make this site successful…. Let them feel appreciated…

  4. Greg

    Yes, let’s absolutely pay close attention to Republicanism history so that we can be sure to accurately recall the intentions and values of of the ideology that fought to prevent women from voting and used lynch mobs to prevent black folks from voting and fought to stop hundreds of thousands of war ravaged refugees from entering the US, and the FACT that Republicanism stood up against the left’s misogyny by finally passing woman’s suffrage after decades of left opposition to women’s voting rights, and , despite the left’s refusal to outlaw lynching, the Republicans stood up for black Americans and passed multiple civil rights bills and the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments on party line votes with the left voting against all of it
    , and after the left cut off funding to hold off the Kumher Ruge and Saigon was over run by the left’s communist allies who then murdered 1 million people the Republicans stood up and opened our borders to thousands of women and children refugees who would have been murdered over the objections of the left. Yes, let’s do pay careful attention. To history.

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