Is Republicanism the Left's 'Big Idea'?

By White, Stuart | Renewal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Is Republicanism the Left's 'Big Idea'?


White, Stuart, Renewal


E. P. Thompson's classic The Making of the English Working Class is arguably a work of implicit political theory as well as history (Thompson, 1963). Written at a time when Thompson had made a decisive rupture with the Communist Party, Part 1 of the book can be read as an effort to reconnect with an alternative political tradition. This alternative revolves around a radical form of republicanism, excited by the aspirations of the French Revolution and tutored by Tom Paine. Its defining commitments are political and social equality, public-spirited participation in democratic politics, and an emerging theory of social rights to limit economic inequality. In the 1960s and 1970s, with Marxism in ideological ascendancy, Thompson's critical recovery of radical republicanism may have struck some on the left as anachronistic. But Thompson was ahead of his time. Gareth Stedman Jones's recent book, An End to Poverty?, celebrates enthusiastically the ideas of late eighteenth-century republicans such as Paine and Condorcet (Stedman Jones, 2004). And this is just one expression of an ongoing revival of interest in something, or some things, called 'republicanism'. Bernard Crick and David Marquand are long-standing proponents of 'republicanism', joined recently by Jonathan Freedland, Will Hutton and David Blunkett (Crick, 1962, 2000; Hutton, 1995; Marquand, 1997; Freedland, 1998; Blunkett, 2001). Within academic political theory we have seen a vigorous 'republican turn', variously developed in work by Stephen Elkin, David Miller, Chantal Mouffe, Karma Nabulsi, Philip Pettit, Michael Sandel, Quentin Skinner, Cass Sunstein and Maurizio Viroli, to name just some (Sunstein, 1988; Skinner, 1991, 1998; Mouffe, 1993; Sandel, 1995; Viroli, 1995; Pettit, 1997; Nabulsi, 1999; Miller, 2000; Elkin, 2006). The Spanish Socialist Party was so impressed with the work of one of these theorists, Pettit, that it has invited him to make an interim assessment of the Socialist government's success in advancing republican goals.

It is hard not to see this republican turn as, in part, a symptom of the drawn out ideological crisis of the left. Is republicanism the 'big idea' for which the left has been searching? To answer this question we need to consider: What is republicanism? In what ways does it seem relevant to contemporary social democrats? What are its limitations?

Defining republicanism

It is difficult to define republicanism. The popular equation of republicanism with opposition to monarchy is inadequate as not all republicans historically have opposed monarchy, and those who have do not necessarily see this as all there is to republicanism. Past thinkers labelled as republican include Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Harrington, Rousseau, Paine, Jefferson, Madison, Wollstonecraft, Mazzini, Tocqueville, Green and Arendt (Honohan, 2002). But these thinkers are obviously not saying the same thing. Similarly, contemporary political theorists do not use the term in the same way. Rather than attempt a tight definition, then, it is more appropriate to try to identify the main ideas associated with republicanism. Different thinkers might understand these ideas, and link them together, in different ways. But the more central these ideas are to a political thinker's work, the more defensible it is to regard the work as republican. This is the approach adopted by Richard Dagger in a recent article on 'republican political economy' and I am much indebted to his analysis here (Dagger, 2006).

A first idea is that of the common good. In its original sense, a republic is a political system which serves the good of all citizens, as opposed to the good of a ruling individual or clique. In this sense, a republic might be a monarchy, aristocracy or democracy (rule of the one, few or many) and still be a republic because its rulers serve the 'res publica' (Wootton, 2006).

Most thinkers in the republican tradition are, however, by no means indifferent to the form of the political system. …

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