This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech.
Republicanism has been on the rise as a term in political theory debates since the late 1990s, where it has joined egalitarian liberalism (that is a version of liberalism in which the state decides on income and wealth distribution, markedly more flat than the distribution achieved by the market, at least in intention), communitarianism, and libertarianism in the main recognised streams of political theory along with radical democracy, deliberative democracy, and Marxism.
The egalitarian liberal position emphasize rights, justice, and rational political procedures, claiming that, constituently employed, they lead to a morally-based economic pattern of distribution distinct from the relatively spontaneous activities of the market and civil society. Libertarianism (covering anything that might be regarded as classical liberal or libertarian) tends to have the same basis and argue that correct understanding leads to a more market based individualistic view of how economic goods should be distributed.
Communitarianism is most economically egalitarian but includes social conservatives as well as social liberals. It argues that views about justice have proper foundation in the rules according to which humans live in, form, and maintain communities, rather than individual rights. It tends to be anti-libertarian but a communitarianism based on voluntary communities below the level of the state, or independent of the state, can converge with forms of libertarianism emphasising the freedom to create voluntary communities of those with shared visions of the good life, socialist, capitalist or anything else.
Marxism is, I presume, well known enough to need no introduction and radical democracy is the attempt to make Marxism, or something like it, compatible with liberalism in democracy and rights, and maybe even compatible with libertarianism in some social and moral issues. Deliberative democracy is the view that political institutions and laws should rest on a constant process of public discussion and negotiation, presumed to engage most of the population.
Simply explained, republicanism is the view that political institutions and laws rest on the tendency for human communities to have a political aspect, and liberty to have some aspect of rights of political participation, where there is some life that is devoted to discussion of the best institutions, laws, and policies for maintaining liberty. If all this sounds rather libertarian, it has to be said that republican political theory in its current manifestation, which goes back to the late 90s, has used the same arguments as egalitarianism, but taking the understanding of liberty in a different direction.
In the egalitarian liberal understanding, liberty is just as much to do with state designed economic equality, or limitations on inequality, as individual rights to life, property, and freely chosen version of the individual good life. From the egalitarian liberal perspective, which theorises the views of new liberals, constructive liberals, social liberals, and progressives since the late nineteenth century, ‘liberty’ must include the idea of some equality in the distribution of economic goods as part of the fairness or equality of respect, which is part of those aspects of liberty concerned with individual rights under law.
The idea of republicanism as now discussed in academic circles, at least those largely concerned with a ‘normative theory’ approach to political theory emphasising conceptual analysis was developed by the Irish philosopher Philip Pettit (long based between the US and Australia). Pettit rests his arguments on a mixture of a historical republican tradition going back to antiquity, and arguments about the meaning of liberty and what kinds of liberty there are. The arguments in Pettit, like many other discussions of liberty, refer back to a famous paper by the philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958), which rest on a view of the history of political ideas, so again we come back to a historical argument.
Republicanism in recent political thought has another inspiration, (at least for those concerned with the more cultural, literary, historical, and interpretative aspects of political theory) from an a mid twentieth century writer on politics and philosophy, Hannah Arendt. Arendt is hard to situate politically, and has been taken up both by radical democrats and conservatives. She was rather evasive on the subject of socialism versus capitalism, however the basis in her thought for this was that political issues should be distinguished from social welfare issues, which certainly seems to exclude the possibility of socialist or even egalitarian liberal ideas entering into her basic political assumptions.
Arendt looked back to ancient Athens, in contrast with Pettit who takes Rome as his starting point, and to a culture of competition to prove excellence, which was aristocratic in origin. Athens at the the time it was home to Aristotle, as well as many other notable cultural and philosophical figures, was a democracy based on citizens meeting in the centre of the city to make laws and make the major decisions about state actions.
For Arendt, the political culture of the democracy took up the aristocratic tradition of competitiveness to produce a political life that itself cultivated excellence through contests, and a concern with the public good, at the same time as it was producing great culture, as part of the same pattern. She points to the largely political decision making of the assembly, which was not engaged in attempts to change shares of economic goods.
We can confirm Arendt’s sense that ancient Athenian democracy was not concerned with collective confiscation of private economic goods, by looking at the most famous political speech of ancient Greece. That is the funeral oration delivered by Pericles in the midst of the Peloponnesian War between democratic Athens and oligarchic-militaristic Sparta. Pericles states that in Athens there is no shame in poverty, only in not struggling with poverty (clearly referring to an individual struggle), and that poverty is no barrier to a place in political life. Pericles also refers to the greater tolerance of the different characteristics of other citizens in Athens compared with Sparta, and that bravery of the Athenian soldiers he mourns, so though the Athenian society does not put the military life as much at the centre as Sparta, it can show just as much courage in war.
As we can see, republicanism is the most historically situated form of political theory, aiming for continue a way of thinking about political community that goes back to Aristotle in fourth century BCE Athens. It was the tradition that runs through Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero in antiquity which informed the understanding of liberty in the classical liberals, in Locke, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Constant, de Stael, J.S. Mill, and so on.
Their understanding also included the idea that there were differences between ancient and modern societies, particularly the greater emphasis on commerce in modern societies, which modified the understanding of liberty so that the liberty pursed by the moderns would be and should be different from the liberty pursued by the ancients, as summarised by Benjamin Constant in his speech ‘The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns’ (1816).
However, Constant did not argue for a complete opposition between the two. He noted the commercial life of ancient Athens and its greater cultural openness than many ancient states. So that though Athens still shared in the tendency of ancient states to impose conformity to officially defined religion and manners, it was less extreme than many. The republic of Carthage, defeated by Rome in the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries BCE, has also been mentioned by some as an ancient republic in which sea trade was at the centre of life, and since ships were the best means of trade in antiquity, that meant it was one of the commercial republics of antiquity. Montesquieu in particular noted that Carthage shared republican political forms with Rome, in which a citizen assembly governed the city in co-operation with an oligarchic-aristocratic council (the Senate in the case of Rome), but had a different attitude to trade and commercial life.
So though the classical liberals emphasised the differences between ancient and modern liberty, they did not simply reject ancient liberty, and did not reject the republican tradition. They found the centrality of war to ancient life, the relatively static political economy and commercial life, and the attempts of the state to enforce virtue to be different from what they hoped for from modern liberty. The classical liberals also saw liberty growing in ancient republics and thought there was some link between the conditions of liberty and a public culture of shared concerns between citizens.
The laws and institutions necessary to liberty require some support from a feeling of citizenship and joint political enterprise. The need to replicate the solidarity of ancient societies based on preparedness for war is one of the reasons that Smith gives for advocating some public role in promoting education, though with a preference for most education to be provided by private institutions rather than the state.
It is useful to look at the views of the apparent greatest classical liberal defender of monarchy, Montesquieu, to see the importance of the ancient republican tradition for modern liberalism. Montesquieu suggests that a monarchy of the kind that existed in France in the eighteenth century is good for commerce and liberty where it rests on institutions that have some independence of the monarchy such as law courts and a land owning aristocracy.
However, the legal tradition he though guaranteed such liberty in France, is something he traced back to the German invaders of ancient Gaul during the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west. They brought the customary laws of tribes in the German forests which were essentially republics as kings existed to lead in war and relied on popular support. Montesquieu is a bit more ambiguous than this in his description of the ancient Germans, as he is generally an ambiguous thinker with regard to his views on monarchies and republics, and which are the best for liberty.
He recognised both a law governed ‘moderate’ forms of government opposed to despotism. He recognises the commercial capacities of the Athenian and Carthaginian republics. For his own time, he recognises England as a disguised republic (in the eighteenth century, Great Britain was essentially an oligarchic-aristocratic republic with a very constrained monarchy) which has a leading role in the era with regard to liberty and commerce. Montesquieu’s main criticisms of England relate to missing some aspects of a culture or honour and aristocratic courtesy, rather than any criticism of substance.
There is a gap between ancient Athens and classical liberalism, and covering that gap will explain more about the development from antique republics to modern liberty. The trio of major antique republican thinkers mentioned above, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, sets up the tradition. They establish the idea of the best state – polity/politea in Greek, republic/res publica in Latin – as one of hearing political power between groups in the context of shared citizenship and decision making.
For Aristotle, that is the sharing of power between oligarchs (the rich, in practice those wealthy through commerce), aristocrats (the virtuous, in practice the educated land owning classes) and the poor majority. Polybius was a later Greek thinker who admired the Roman republic and Cicero was a Roman aristocrat-philosopher from the last years before the republic gave way to the one-man emperor rule system.
Both use arguments from Aristotle but tend to refer to Sparta rather than Athens as the ideal republic, which indicates the difficulties for antique thought in accepting a commercial and free thinking republic as model. Polybius and Cicero both admire the Roman system because they see it as based on law and on sharing power between the people (citizens’ assembly), the aristocracy (senate), and a monarchical function shared between two year-long co-rulers (consuls).
Their arguments also rest on the idea of the state as military camp. It is interesting to note that Pettit the egalitarian liberal prefers this Roman model to Athens and that Arendt prefers the Athenian model. This suggests that Arendt has something to say to classical liberals and libertarians, though she is rarely taken up within that group, and that egalitarian liberalism is rather caught up in strong state ideas, the state strong enough to force redistribution of economic goods rather than impose extreme military spirit on its citizens, but a strong intervening state.
All three of the ancient republican thinkers had difficulty with the idea of a commercially orientated republic and has some idea of virtue in restraining wealth, though Cicero in particular was staggeringly rich suggesting that ancient republican thought had some difficulty in accommodating commercial spirit, more so than some ancient republics in practice.
There is one major step left in ancient republican thinking which is the account the senator-historian Tacitus, of the early Roman Emperor period, gives of liberty in the simple tribal republics of ancient Germans and Britons. He sees them as based on independence of spirit and a willingness to die for that independence, in a way largely lacking amongst the Romans of that time.
The admiration for such ‘barbarian’ liberty also gives some insight into the difficulty of combining commercial spirit with republicanism in ancient thinking. Wealth is seen as something tied to benefits from the state, state patronage, so reduces independence of the state whether the local state or a foreign invading state.
Republicanism takes the next great step forward when some way of thinking of wealth as existing at least partly independently of state patronage appears. This is what happens in northern Italy from about the thirteenth century. To some degree this Italian republicanism has older roots in the maritime republic of Venice, but the trading wealth is still very tied up with aristocratic status and a rigid aristocratic hold on politics.
It is Florence, which serves as a thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth century Athens, where Italian culture, commercial wealth, and republican thinking all thrive. The cultural greatness goes back to the poet Dante and the republicanism to his tutor Bruno Latini. The really great moment in Florentine republicanism comes in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, though, with Francesco Guicciardini, but mostly with Niccoló Machiavelli.
Commentary on Machiavelli is heavily burdened by the image of Evil Machiavel or at least of Machiavelli the cynical advocate of power politics in The Prince. This is just a completely false image of a man whose ideal was the revival of the Roman republic, not the rule of absolute and absolutely immoral princes.
The supposed wickedness and cynicism of The Prince related to comments on how kings seize and maintain power, in which as far as Machiavelli advocates rather than analyses, he advocates minor acts of political violence. The age of Machiavelli is the age of the Catholic Inquisition torturing heretics and passing them to the state to be burned at the stake, the mass persecution and expulsion of Iberian Jews and Muslims, wars of religion and conquest, which involved systematic and mass destruction of property, torture, rape, and murder.
Those who chose to condemn the ‘wickedness’ of Machiavelli at the time were often those engaged in such activities. Machiavelli’s advice to princes does no more than advocate at the most extreme, very limited amounts of violence to institute and maintain rule, certainly very limited by the standards of the time.
The most important advice Machiavelli gives with regard to maintaining the state, is to respect the lives and honour of subjects, refrain from harassing women, avoid bankrupting the state with lavish expenditures, uphold the rule of of law outside the most extreme situations, and concentrate on military leadership, which is to turn monarchy into a hereditary command of the armies, a republican idea, if the monarch withdraws from other areas of state business and certainly from law making. That is certainly how John Locke, at the beginning of classical liberalism, saw the role of kings.
It is true that unlike antique thinkers, Machiavelli does not see human nature as essentially ‘good’, at least when guided by reason and law. What those thinkers meant by good was a life of self-restraint difficult to make compatible with commercial society. Machiavelli understood the benefits of commercial society compared with feudalisms, and though there was an element of antique nostalgia in his thinking, he understood like the political economists of the eighteenth century that public goods come from self-interest, softened but not eliminated, by some sense of our connections and obligations to others.
Machiavelli’s longest book on political thought is The Discourses, a commentary on the Roman historian Livy’s account of the earlier periods of Roman history, covering the early kings and the republic. Here Machiavelli makes clear beyond any doubt that his model state was a republic and though it was Rome rather than Athens, he takes the original step of seeing Rome as great not because of Order, but because of the conflicts between plebeians and patricians (the poor or at least non-noble masses and the aristocracy), which resulted in a democratisation process where the plebeians learned to think about the common good and where everyone shared in a constructive competitiveness which developed individual character through civic conflict under law (well a large part of the time anyway). His view of the republic requires both a sphere of common political identity and action and a competitive non-conformist spirit.
Machaivelli’s republican hopes for Florence, and even the whole of Italy, were dashed by the Medici princes and a period of conservative-religious princely absolutism under foreign tutelage in Italy, but his ideas lived on and not just in the one-sided stereotypes. He had an English follower in the seventeenth century, James Harrington, author of Oceana. Harrington hoped for a republic in England, though a more aristocratic one that Machiavelli tended to advocate, and was too radical for his time, suffering imprisonment during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of a republican revolution who became a new king in all but name. There was a British republic, or commonwealth, after the Civil War between crown and parliament, lasting from 1649 to 1652, which was then not exactly absolved but became a less pure republic when Cromwell became Lord Protector.
Even so the republican poet, John Milton, served Cromwell as a head of translation of papers from foreign governments. Milton is more famous as a poet than as a political thinker, nevertheless he wrote important essays on liberty, drawing on antique liberty in Greece and Rome, as well his republican interpretation of the ancient Jewish state (important to Milton as a deep religious believer whose most famous poems are on Biblical stories). Milton helped change English literary language, almost overshadowing the ways that he furthered republican political ideas and did so on the basis of an Athenian model of law and free speech. His defence of freedom of printing, Areopagotica is named in honour of the central court of Athenian democracy (though with older roots) and draws on the idea of a republic based on freedom of speech and thought. Both Milton and Harrington were major influence on the Whig aristocratic-parliamentary liberalism of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth and so feed directly into classical liberalism in practice and the defence of liberty of speech and thought to be found in Mill’s On Liberty.
The development of classical liberalism and the libertarian thought of the present come out of the republicanism of antiquity and the early modern period. There is a strand of thought within libertarianism which is anti-politics or only minimally willing to engage with politics as a part of communal human life. However, the parts of the world where liberty is most flourishing, if far short of what we would wish for, are where there are ‘republics’ in the original sense, that is political power is shared between all citizens, regardless of the issue of whether a royal family provides a symbolic head of state.
On the whole, historically commerce has been linked with the existence of republics, even within monarchist medieval and early modern England. The City of London was a partly autonomous city republic focusing resistance to royal power as it protected its commercial gains from state destruction. Republican politics can go wrong, but the answer is republican reform, republics with less of the aspects of absolutist monarchy and traditionalist power structure, not an idealisation of states which exist to preserve and reinforce forms of authority obnoxious to open markets, individuality, equality before the law, and the growth of tolerance for forms of living not so well-recognised by tradition.
V: Concluding Remarks
There is a tendency within liberty oriented thought which sees the intrusions of the state in the modern world as something to do with republicanism and the democratic political spirit. The development of what has been called the administrative state, administered society, the iron cage of bureaucracy, disciplinarity (generalised power throughout society), biopower (sovereignty over life and health), and so on, has taken place in all state forms. It is deeply embedded in the emergence of modern industrial world, where traditional authority structures and customary laws are eroded by city life, national and international markets and technological innovation.
This process has one aspect, the emergence of a modern state in which we see national debt financing an investor class, and the expanded central state enforcing uniform legal codes. There is a political economy of this which ties interest groups to the state, and tries to find ways in which everyone could be defined as belonging to a group that benefits from state action. At any time we see states in the double process of maintaining such a political economy and using state power to protect the associated institutions.
There are periods in which such developments of the state take place at a heightened pace, usually due to war of some kind and maybe a collapse of attempts at peaceful balance between groups in a society. Groups which seem marginal or even as the source of violent resistance are assimilated or subject to maximum state force.
A lot of this has come out of the pre-modern monarchical state reinforcing its traditional power. Resisting the administrative-bureaucratic state means engaging in politics, in citizen movements, in peaceful civil disobedience where necessary to defend basic rights. That is not looking back to pre-modern forms of law, authority and statehood, in which pluralism exists in rigid state enforced hierarchies, and tradition limits individual self-creation. In the modern world republicanism has sometimes acquired a ‘Jacobin’ form of intense and violent state creation, but as Tocqueville pointed out in The French Revolution and the Old Regime, it carries on the work of the old monarchy in doing so.
The republican political tradition has to some degree acquired a tainted reputation due to association with the most violent aspects of the French Revolution, and Machiavelli’s frankness about what can happen when regimes change. However, the violence attributed to the republican moment was always at work before in the strengthening of central political institutions and the unified ordering of the society concerned. There have been such moments throughout history, but the shift to the modern administrative state has made them much more thoroughgoing in their influence on social relations.
Republicanism is a way of coping with this that tries to bring in the restraints of law and accountability to the public in various forms. It has not been an escape from the modern administrative state, or the violence accompanying much of the historical emergence of that state, but no other way of doing politics has escaped either, and the republican way even in its worse moments has at least emphasised the principles of law above persons, the non-passive rights of citizens, and the importance of instruments of political accountability. The monarchist and depoliticised forms of thinking about liberty have also sometimes collapsed into state terror, without the message that a better way exists. The conservative empire and the traditionalist state have used, maintained, and intensified violence in reaction to real and perceived threats without being able to offer the prospect of better political forms and structures than the hierarchies of tradition. The differences are not absolute, as Tocqueville indicates, and at times republican city governments have existed within traditional hereditary states, and monarchist reformers have attempted to bring in ideas with republican origins. A republic can collapse into a permanent system of personalised authority, but it is the republican tradition which tells us what is wrong with that.
In any case, republicanism as it exists now in political thought is concerned with restraints on power not intensification of state power. Its engagement with historical situation and concrete politics, its appeal (at least in the form associated with Hannah Arendt) to individuality and contestation in politics is the best way of making a complete application of the principle of liberty to the political and historical world.