Republicanism and Marxism

'Iseult Honohan Civic republicanism', Routledge, 2002, pp328, £15.99 (pbk)

“None came into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted or spurred to ride him” - colonel Richard Rumbold, leveller and republican, speech from the scaffold at his execution for treason, 1685

Civic republicanism is a textbook introduction to the subject of the title, aimed at university undergraduate students of political theory. As such it is pretty successful. The first part provides a swift canter through the history of ‘civic republican’ theories of government, starting with Aristotle and Cicero and progressing through the civic republicans of the 17th and 18th centuries, before identifying the modern ‘roots’ of the revival of civic republican ideas in the writings of Hannah Arendt and Charles Taylor. The second part discusses a range of issues addressed by contemporary academic ‘republican’ theorists: common goods and public virtue; the nature of freedom; participation and ‘deliberative democracy’; and ‘recognition and inclusion’.

The major criticisms to be made of it as an introduction is that, as is common with work in academic political theory, the history of ideas offered is violently detached from the political history of which these ideas were part; and that it naively and silently rules out of consideration the material conditions which are required by particular forms of political ordering - in both aspects far more so than, for example, Philip Pettit’s Republicanism (1997), on which, in places, Honahan’s account relies.

Having said this, the obvious question is - why on earth should Honahan’s book be reviewed in the Weekly Worker? There are two answers to this.

The first is that Marxists should generally pay some critical attention to what is going on in the academic ideological production industry, since it is common for ideas produced there to surface in simplified forms in actual politics. Thus, to give two examples, volkisch academic work in the late 19th and early 20th century prepared ideologies which fed into the peculiar form of reaction which was Nazism; and the ideas of Eurocommunism were prepared in the academic ‘left’ before they were adopted by the opportunist leaderships of some communist parties (and later by that of the official ‘Unified Secretariat’ Fourth International) as an ideological stick with which to beat ‘old-fashioned’ left opponents who clung to class politics.

The second and perhaps more important reason is that modern ‘civic republican’ theory is an attempt to retrieve - as against liberal, libertarian and communitarian political theory - some of the ideas of the revolutionary republicans and democrats of the 17th and 18th centuries. But these ideas are also part of the inheritance of the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels - and a part which became lost in late 19th and 20th century socialism, as social-democrats, Stalinists and Trotskyists alike oscillated, like the bourgeois parties, between a liberal constitutionalism and a statist utilitarianism or communitarianism.

Utilitarianism, liberalism and libertarianism

‘Political theory’ is an academic field which studies in particular the abstract philosophical concepts involved in ideas of political order, constitutions, etc. In the 1950s and 1960s it was a relatively marginal source of ideological production. The philosophical side was dominated by variants of utilitarianism, which argues that the decisions or political arrangements should be evaluated in terms of their consequences to achieve the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’. The practical applications of this theory were largely left to ‘positive economics’ and ‘positive political science’, which claimed to be able to predict human behaviour and scientifically assess consequences.

The real political context of this body of ideas was the long period of economic stability and the ‘containment’ phase of US policy towards the Soviet bloc, which was accompanied by a semi-social-democratic ‘technocratic consensus’ of the political parties. In this situation there was little demand for abstract political-theoretical ideas.

This changed as a result of the offensive of the working class in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the associated rise of critiques of the technocratic consensus. Most influential in the student movement, and hence in the initial responses of the academy, were forms of open anarchism, semi-anarchistic variants of ‘humanistic Marxism’, and the early forms of ‘identity politics’ (women’s and gay liberation movements) derived from spontaneist variants of Maoism. The emphasis of these political ideas on freedom and the value of personal experience formed the basis for the bourgeois political-ideological counteroffensive - a revival of the ideas of pre-20th century individualist political theory.

First on the scene was John Rawls’ A theory of justice (1972). The core of Rawls’ argument was a revival in hypothetical form of the 17th and 18th century idea of a ‘social contract’. To simplify grossly (as will be done throughout what follows), Rawls argued that most people would accept as just a social/ political order in which, though there was inequality, if we (as individuals extracted from any existing society) were hypothetically placed behind a “veil of ignorance” so that we knew certain ‘facts’ about human nature, but did not know what our individual social position would be, we would agree to the political order as the best insurance of our individual positions in life.

Exploring what would result from these hypothetical discussions, Rawls came up with two principles: the “priority of liberty”, derived from the ‘fact’ that humans want to do diverse things with their lives, and will therefore want to minimise interference by other people and the state; and the “maximin principle” that any social inequalities must be so organised that they make the worst off better off than if the social inequalities were absent. There is much more to Rawls’ theory than this, but this is enough to see that Rawls offered a justification of the (still preponderant) social democratic/ technocratic consensus (through the maximin principle), which was, however, ‘spun’ towards an American individualist variant (by the idea of the priority of liberty).

The social democratic consensus was much more sharply criticised by Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, state and utopia (1974). Nozick again starts from liberty - meaning freedom of the individual to choose what to do, independent of interference from others - as a basic value and from a ‘state of nature’ in which all are free individuals. For Nozick, however, non-interference is justice, and we can derive from it natural rights to property ownership - both of our own bodies and of things we take from unowned nature. Within this framework of justice, the state can emerge through competing ‘protection societies’, but any compulsory taxation for any purposes other than defence and the protection of property rights is unjust and, indeed, amounts to enslavement of the taxpayers. Nozick’s account can be seen as a revival of the theory of John Locke’s Two treatises of government (1690), but one which removed the limitations on the individual’s right to property which Locke had recognised.

Full-blooded libertarianism of the kind most systematically argued by Nozick had some attraction for the American ‘children of 68’, since it implied not only low tax, but also rejection of the legal control of drugs and of various forms of consensual sexual behaviour. In addition, from 1976 (under Carter) US administrations moved onto the ideological offensive against Stalinism, social democracy and third-world national Bonapartism under the banner of ‘human rights’; and theories of natural liberty and human rights also meshed well with economic neoliberalism and the (supposed) return from Keynesian technocracy to neo-classical hard money and laisser-faire. US government bribes to European politicians were redirected from the old-line right social democrats (who had received them through the 50s to early 70s) to one or another sort of tendency of the neoliberal right of the traditional rightwing parties.

As a result, dilute versions of natural rights libertarianism like Nozick’s were very widespread during the early and middle 1980s; a celebrated occasion was Maggie Thatcher’s notorious statement that “there is no such thing as society”.


To every action there is a reaction, and neoliberalism/natural rights libertarianism is no exception. In this case the reaction was the broad trend called communitarianism. The communitarian critique of liberalism and libertarianism starts at the most fundamental level, with the liberal/libertarian idea of naturally free individuals who choose their diverse life-paths. Interestingly, it does not start with the rather obvious fact that the liberal account of individual freedom is transparently false biology and anthropology - we are born dependent on our parents, in old age become dependent on the younger generation, and throughout our lives are involved in a complex social division of material labour, reflected in the fact that humans in stateless societies live in ‘tribal’ groups which are in turn integrated in larger groups of users of a common language.

This would be too materialistic. Rather, communitarian critiques start from the idea that, as language users, the ways humans think and the life-choices open to us are not individual and free, but given by the national cultural order - the ‘community’ - into which we are born. As a result, the supposed neutrality of the liberal and libertarian approach between individual life-choices is in fact merely neutrality between those individual life-choices which are within the western liberal tradition. It allows no space for western conservative-hierarchical, Confucian, hindu or muslim life-choices. Conversely, liberalism denies its own community basis and as such undermines itself.

This communitarian critique is an appropriation of two pre-existing critiques of liberalism. The first is earlier conservative nationalist critiques (including some extremely dodgy authors involved with Nazism in the 1930s and 40s, like the philosopher Heidegger and the jurist Schmitt). The second is the sub-Maoist, ‘multi-culturalist’ relativism and over-valuation of ‘authentic personal experience’ of the new left of the later 1970s and the identity politics of the early 1980s.

What enabled communitarianism to go beyond marginality was a reaction of the Anglo-Saxon middle classes to what, in the mid and later 1980s, appeared to a section of them to be the negative consequences of neoliberal and libertarian policy: the combination of rising crime, homelessness and intoxication, the decay of public spaces and infrastructure, and the ‘undermining of tradition’ by the increased market and public presence of assertive women, of blacks and other national minorities, and of gays and lesbians and other sexual minorities. Within this was a significant unarticulated nostalgia for the lived experience of the middle and upper working classes in the years of the long boom and the technocratic consensus.

As a result, many leading bourgeois politicians have appropriated elements of the communitarian critique of liberalism, and some, like Tony Blair, call themselves communitarians. But their actual policy in office has been characterised by the continuation of the neoliberal assault on the ‘welfare state’, public spaces, local government and infrastructure, under the fraudulent banner of their ‘reform’; combined with a growing tendency to call on nationalism, to socially conservative authoritarianism (directed in particular against the youth), and to attacks on the legal aspects of political liberty.

Even where the ‘communitarians’ were not themselves conservative authoritarians, their underlying critique of liberalism contained no answer to this policy, but rather reinforced its legitimacy.

Civic republicanism

In this context, ‘civic republican’ political theory represents an attempt by some academics to save the defence of political liberty (against nationalism and conservative authoritarianism) from the failure of the core liberal and libertarian explanations of why political liberty is important; and to do so by returning to the ideas of political liberty which were around before liberalism and utilitarianism became dominant in political theory in the 19th century. Taking this approach was made possible by the work of historians who had sought to recover the political ideas of early modern radicals.

Relatively early instances were Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological origins of the American Revolution (1967) and JGA Pocock’s The Machiavellian moment: Florentine political thought and the Atlantic republican tradition (1975); a brief summary is Quentin Skinner’s Liberty before liberalism (1998). The various historical accounts have not been immune from liberal challenges reinstating liberal fundamentals in early modern thought, as, for example, in Michael Zuckert’s Natural rights and the new republicanism (1998), but they made the ideas of early modern republicans - and those of the ancients they relied on - more readily accessible to modern theorists.

What emerged from modern civic republicans’ reconsideration of these ideas was a fundamentally different concept of liberty from the liberals’. The liberals understand liberty as the absence of actual interference in individual actions, grounded ultimately on the natural freedom of the isolated individual. But for republicans - most clearly and explicitly in Pettit’s account - humans are naturally “political animals” who live together in organised societies. Freedom is therefore not the absence of interference in individuals’ actions, but the absence of domination, of arbitrary power over some individuals by others.

This account of liberty is not amenable to the communitarians’ objections to the shaky foundations of the liberals’ concept of natural liberty; and it also entails that to live in a free republic, a condition in which liberty is maximised for the society as a whole, is a good thing in itself. The result is also a fundamentally different approach to the state from liberals’. Liberals seek controls over a ‘minimal state’ because every extension of state action is a restriction of individual freedom in the liberals’ and libertarians’ understanding.

For civic republicans, however, common action of the citizens may be required to maximise liberty - in the sense of, for example, domination of the poor by private wealth, a persistent concern of classical and early modern republicanism. Republican controls over the state flow from a belief that individuals or groups who form or control the state (bureaucrats, judges, etc) may turn the state into an instrument of domination over other citizens: that is, states risk corruption.

At this point, civic republicans come up against a standard objection drawn from the historians. Civic republicanism is fundamentally an egalitarian form of politics. But in classical and early modern republicanism, this egalitarianism was limited to ruling elites: the free men of the ancient city were supported by the labour of disfranchised women and of slaves; the early modern republicans supported a restricted franchise, seeing the ownership of significant property as essential to actual freedom (not all of them, it must be said; the Whig-republican revolutionaries of 1679-83 can be seen from Richard Ashcraft’s Revolutionary politics & Locke's Two treatises of government (1986) to have defended the broad franchise).

If a world in which women and ‘servants’ - ie, the working class - are not dominated is unimaginable, then ‘freedom’ must be given some more restricted and less egalitarian meaning: that offered by liberals, or the even more restrictive version (freedom of property and contract alone) offered by conservatives. As Pettit helpfully explains (Republicanism 41-50), class and gender subordination were the rocks on which early modern republicanism shipwrecked at around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries (there is also a brilliant evocation of conservative arguments of this time against egalitarianism in Don Herzog’s Poisoning the minds of the lower orders [1998]). More exactly it is the point at which the republican trend in politics was forced to divide between those who were prepared to go all the way to the emancipation of workers and of women - those who became the radical-democratic and communist tendencies out of which Marxism came - and those who were not, who became liberals.

The modern academic civic republicans are also forced to struggle with this contradiction. They remain unwilling to strike at the capitalist economic order, or to imagine a future without the institutionalised subordination of the working class - one in which, ultimately, I might be a senior manager this week, a line-worker next week, a child-carer the week after that, and so on - or, in Marx and Engels’ expression, may “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner ...” (The German Ideology part I, ‘Private property and communism’). This unwillingness means that they end by constructing a mixture of elaborate social democratic utopian projects (eg, Pettit) and micro-discussions of partial reforms to today’s political order (eg, Honohan).

Republicanism and Marxism

The Marx-Engels ‘firm’ or ‘Marx party’ emerged as the left wing of the democratic movement (on this see A Nimtz Marx and Engels: their contribution to the democratic breakthrough [2000]); and this itself emerged out of the left wing of early modern civic republicanism. As a result, when we read the writings of Marx and Engels in the light of earlier civic republican ideas, it is apparent that they share certain fundamental assumptions with the republicans. It is obvious enough that they do not share the fatuous methodological individualism of the liberals: Marx’s scornful comments on the “Robinsonades” of the bourgeois economists in Capital Vol 1 would be enough to establish that, if we did not have explicit comments elsewhere. But yet they do not have a simply instrumental attitude to the issues of liberty and democracy or insist on the primacy of the community or the state.

Their work - especially their critiques of the various forms of authoritarian utopian and petty bourgeois socialism (here Hal Draper’s Karl Marx's theory of revolution, ‘Critique of other socialisms’ [1989] is particularly helpful) - makes clear that they considered political liberty and democracy to be fundamental to socialism. Their concept of political liberty disclosed in these writings is, like the republicans’, an idea of liberty as freedom from domination. Marx’s original critique of the state in The critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right asserts against Hegel a more extreme variant of the republican view that the state is a danger because it becomes corrupted, the instrument of the private interests of the officials: for Marx this is not merely a danger in the state, but inherent in the nature of the state bureaucracy. Nor is this merely the ‘young Marx’: the same theme appears both in the Critique of the Gotha programme and in Marx’s journalistic comments on US politics.

Of course, Marx’s and Engels’ theory begins where the left republicans’ stopped. They grasped that political and social orders depend on material underpinnings, and that it is the advance of human productive capacities which makes possible a political order ruled by all the members of the society rather than a minority. And they grasped that it is only the proletariat as a class which can bring about an end to the regimes of hierarchy which have dominated societies for so long, because it has no class interest in systems of domination and has a positive class interest in political democracy and liberty. By these understandings - and the theory which underpins them - the republican assumptions contained in the political work of Marx and Engels are placed in a scientific framework; but this is not the same as their being superseded.

Marxism after Marx and Engels

By the 1880s, when the parties which formed the Second International developed, the ideas of republicanism had been for some time marginalised by liberalism. As a result, the republican assumptions which informed Marx’s and Engels’ work, down to Engels’ critique of the Erfurt programme (1891), were largely incomprehensible to the younger socialists, and “the democratic republic” was assumed by those that paid any attention to them to mean something like a rule-of-law, liberal constitutionalist state. To make matters worse, the leading party of the Second International, the German SPD, was created by a fusion of the Marxists with the statist Lassalleans on an unclear political basis (the Gotha programme), and statist tendencies retained substantial influence in its ideas even after the supposed triumph of Marxism (the Erfurt programme). These tendencies acquired a material base, as SPD functionaries became integrated into the local governments, labour and welfare boards of the German state.

As a result, ‘Marxism’ after Marx and Engels has on the whole approached the questions of political liberty and democracy in either liberal or communitarian ways. Liberalism is manifest in the overt ideology of the social democracy, whose attachment to rule-of-law constitutionalism turns out to mean commitment to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. But the main alternative has been to read Marx’s and Engels’ critiques of the liberals as validating a communitarianism which produces such abortions as ‘Marxist nationalism’, ‘national roads’ and the state bureaucracy seen, as in the Stalinist Vyzhinski’s Law of the Soviet state (1948), as the expression of the interests of the majority, or of the “people as a whole”. But the social democrats are also communitarian authoritarians (Blair-Blunkett provides a recent example) and the Stalinists are also formal liberal constitutionalists (Vyzhinski’s work provides one among many examples).

This contradiction has been ‘resolved’ by leftists in a number of ways. One common error among the Trotskyists is to read the ‘democratic republic’ as liberal constitutionalism, to corral the struggle for the democratic republic into the ‘bourgeois’ or ‘permanent’ revolution - Sean Matgamna’s polemics against the CPGB show this error in full flower. Another aspect of the same line, also found in Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional programme and duly followed by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, but accepted far more widely - is still to read the ‘democratic republic’ as liberal constitutionalism, so that the task of the workers’ movement in those states which have liberal constitutions is the ‘defence of democratic rights’.

Where this leads is indicated in Lucy Clement’s article, ‘Government overhaul of criminal justice’ (Solidarity November 29 2002). The article argues for independent working class resistance to this particular Blair-Blunkett authoritarian project, but the content of its political critique of the government plans completely tails the liberal line of the Bar Council and the ‘human rights’ lobby. Thus Clement correctly defends trial by jury - but also defends the modern rule against hearsay, which is an instrument for control of the jury by the professional barristers and judge. A republican, or a Marxist who takes our republican heritage seriously, would stand not only for the defence but for the extension of trial by jury, and for “jurors judges both of law and fact” - the demand of the democratic republicans in the revolutionary movements of the 17th century. (If I seem to be directing my fire here mainly against the AWL, I should indicate that the only distinctively AWL position in Clement’s article - its call for independent working class resistance to the proposals - is the best thing in it; the tailism is merely a good example of the normal approach of the far left to these questions.)

Another approach to the problem, common among left-Stalinists and Maoists, but also found among some Trotskyists, is to take a completely instrumental attitude to liberty and democracy on the basis that liberal constitutionalism is a benefit to the working class under capitalism, but an obstacle when it seizes power. The same effect is produced by ‘resolving’ the problem into a ‘higher unity’ - that of the movement - in the dialectical sense of the process of transition, from capitalism to socialism. This is a Hegelian rather than a Marxist use of the dialectic, which remains forever in the realm of ideas and produces reconciliation with what is.

In both cases there is a concrete refusal to address the question, what forms of political ordering are in the interests of the working class? Which precisely is addressed, despite their anti-utopian refusal of exact blueprints, by Marx and Engels’ underlying republican assumptions.

This is not exactly an argument for taking the academic civic republicans seriously. But it is an argument for taking seriously the republican heritage of our own movement: for using an improved understanding of the republican tradition - into which the academics (and particularly the historians) provide an imperfect route - as part of the necessary process of renewing Marxism in the aftermath of Stalinism.