What is Social Republicanism?

workers-republicBy Stephen D’Arcy

Politics is about the establishment and exercise of public power. Sometimes, this power is bound up with the state form, but sometimes it is not. John Holloway, for instance, has drawn harsh condemnation from the state-friendly sections of the Left for having proposed a politics that would consist, not of “taking the reins” of the state, but something crucially different: popular empowerment through self-organization from below, or as he would say, politics as the workers’ movement’s “potentia” (power-to), in contrast to the state’s “potens” (power-over).

Arguably, one of Holloway’s contributions to marxism has been to remind us that the state form is only one way of organizing public affairs. In a state, public power is organized in the form of (1) structures of professional coercion, like police, prisons, and standing armies, (2) structures of bureaucratic administration, e.g., ministries and departments in which professional ‘public servants’ are organized in a command-and-control hierarchy, so that lower level administrators implement directives issued by higher level administrators, and (3) structures of representation, e.g., parliaments and other sorts of elected legislatures, staffed by professional politicians, who legislate ostensibly ‘on behalf’ of the broad public.

Historically, many people on the Left, even many marxists, have imagined that the state form could play a liberating role. Their proposal has been to create a “workers’ state” or a “socialist state.” The professional army would be a “red” army, the ruling party would be a “communist” party with “professional revolutionist” politicians, and the bureaucracy would be “socialist” bureaucracy.

On the other hand, many leftists (including Marx himself) have suggested, on the contrary, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” (Marx, 1871). After all, they point out, the state form is designed, from top to bottom, to preclude popular empowerment, and to rigorously police grassroots participation in public affairs so as to domesticate and channel it in ways that insulate elites from public accountability and popular control from below. The state form’s pervasive reliance on “professionalism” (of the army and police, of bureaucrats, and of politicians) signals its strict rejection of active participation by ordinary working-class people in directing public affairs. By definition (and the relentless confirmation of historical precedent), in a state, the broad populace is to be administered and governed, rather than being the government. The role of “citizens” in the state form tends to consist of voting, on the one hand, and obeying the law, on the other. Marx, in particular, contrasted the state form with what he called “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” which was not to be a form of “domination” (Herrschaft), but a throwing off, by the people, of the yoke of domination: “the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people” (Capital, v. I, ch. 32).

But if there is to be a politics – an establishment and exercise of public power – that repudiates the state form, what form could it take?

One answer, favoured by Marx himself among others (Connolly, Luxemburg, etc.), is that a non-statist post-capitalist polity would take the form of a social republic.

Marx’s main example of a social republic is the Paris Commune of 1871, a revolutionary regime in the city of Paris, which defied the official state and established what Marx called “a working-class government,” until it was suppressed by armed force and tens of thousands of its participants were murdered by the French state. Although the Commune identified itself as a “social republic,” Engels said, no doubt rightly, that “the Commune…had ceased to be a state in the proper sense of the word.” It was not a state, but it certainly embodied a politics.

This example of a non-state politics, corresponding more or less to Holloway’s notion of replacing the potens of the state with the potentia of popular self-organization, draws our attention to a theme in the marxist tradition that hasn’t received the notice that it deserves: the theme of “socialist” or “social” republicanism. Many of the “classical” marxists, including Marx, James Connolly, Rosa Luxemburg and others, aligned themselves explicitly with republicanism. And Marxism may fairly be regarded as one part of the (much) wider republican political tradition, as noted by historians of republicanism, like Quentin Skinner and Alex Gourevitch.

Nevertheless, as Marx well understood (and explicitly discussed), there are many different understandings of the meaning of “republicanism.” The qualifier, “social,” is particularly important. But even the term social republic is susceptible to multiple interpretations. We saw, in the 20th century, the creation by revolutionary means of a broad range of republics, both avowedly non-socialist (e.g., the Islamic Republic of Iran and the “postcolonial” republics of India and 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties) and avowedly socialist (e.g., the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the People’s Republic of China, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, to name only a few). Which (if any) of these corresponds to Marx’s conception of a “social republic”?

If we try to clarify the concept of republicanism, or social republicanism, by turning to the lively debates about republicanism in recent years within political philosophy, we find that the concept of a social or socialist republic seldom if ever comes up. Instead, all of the attention goes to the notion of civic (not social) republicanism.

In order to make a start on remedying this defect of the recent debates on republicanism in political philosophy, I want to outline a coherent, and in my view attractive conception of social republicanism, as a normative ideal of anti-capitalist politics, implicit in the republican tradition represented by Karl Marx, James Connolly, Rosa Luxemburg and others. (This, by the way, is the normative conception implicit in my book, Languages of the Unheard.)

Social republicanism can be expressed in the form of eight core principles.

  1. (A Regime of Public Autonomy) That no regime of governance is legitimate except to the extent that those subject to that regime effectively govern themselves through reason-guided public discussion, as (for example) in popular assemblies, workers’ councils, traditional Indigenous self-governance practices, and other forms of public autonomy that are appropriate to the context and culture of those involved.
  2. (A Social, Not just a Political Republic) That not only narrowly political (state) institutions can threaten or usurp public autonomy, but so can any unresponsive systems of power, including markets, bureaucracies, formal or informal relations of colonial domination or exploitation, inequalities of income or decision-making power (as in the workplace), and structures of racial or gender subordination.
  3. (Autonomous Counter-publics) That the establishment or safeguarding of public autonomy may require the organization of autonomous counter-publics, to insist on and defend the legitimate interests and rights of (to borrow Nancy Fraser’s jargon) “subaltern collectivities,” both within specific organizations (e.g., women’s caucuses in unions, etc.) and in society as a whole (so that autonomous social movement organizations are embraced by social republicanism as constituent features of any social republic, considered as a regime of public autonomy).
  4. (Civic Comradeship) That the participants in a regime of collective self-governance ought to cultivate relations of civic comradeship with one another, acting only in ways that are consistent with giving due weight to the dignity of each and the welfare of all, in keeping with the principle of solidarity (“an injury to one is an injury to all”).
  5. (The Socialist Civic Virtues) That the demands of public autonomy on the one hand, and civic comradeship on the other, require the cultivation and exercise of what Luxemburg called “the socialist civic virtues,” including willingness to confront injustice with militancy and to support fellow workers and civic comrades with solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid.
  6. (Jurisdictional Contestation) That wherever public autonomy is absent from the domain of law and public policy, republicans are committed in principle to a practice of jurisdictional contestation, counterposing the insurgent democracy of oppositional political forms (popular assemblies, traditional Indigenous political processes, insurgent legal systems, etc.) to the heteronomy (domination) of the official political process, with which social republicanism normally engages only with a view to hastening its subversion and overthrow.
  7. (Prefigurative Socialization) That, in the same way and for the same reasons, wherever public autonomy is absent from the domain of production and distribution, social republicans are committed in principle to a practice of prefigurative socialization, counterposing the economic democracy of community-based, egalitarian cooperative economics and the “solidarity economy” to the colonial domination, class exploitation, and ecocidal destructiveness of the capitalist system that social republicans undertake to destroy.
  8. (Defence of the Social Republic Against Usurpers) That, as a corollary of its commitment to civic comradeship among equals in a self-governance regime, social republicanism is committed — in the absence of such a regime, or in the event that the social republic is attacked by its enemies — to support all democratic and egalitarian struggles to establish and maintain the self-rule of what Marx called “the mass of the people” (die Volksmasse) in contrast to the ever present danger of the (re)assertion of rule by what he called the “few usurpers” (wenige Usurpatoren).

This normative ideal – social republicanism – contrasts starkly with the quasi-liberalism and conciliatory attitude toward capitalism typical of “civic” republicanism. And yet, due to its concern to reject domination, to uphold civic solidarity, and to demand the exercise of civic virtue, this conception is located squarely within the broad republican tradition.

The fact that social republicanism is not a statist, but an anti-statist view, is no doubt its most controversial feature. For some, the idea of a politics that dispenses with the reassuring bossiness of the state and its officials is unsettling. This is the dizziness of democracy, the vertigo of public autonomy: that our liberty has to be our own act, that our emancipation can only ever be a self-emancipation. Scary or not, it is upon this idea that social republicanism stands or falls.

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