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Anarchists and republicans: bedfellows?

Are republicans simply underdeveloped anarchists? An exploration of the relationship between two political theories and their conceptions of freedom and domination.

In 1797 two of the foremost radical social critics of their day Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin married in order to legitimate their unborn child. Both opposed the institution of marriage but they hoped to avoid the scandal and prejudice that had accompanied Wollstonecraft’s first illegitimate child. Their brief relationship was one of the happiest periods in their often tumultuous lives but was tragically cut short by Wollstonecraft’s death in childbirth.[i] Wollstonecraft’s powerful feminist critique of the patriarchal beliefs and institutions of her day drew on many republican themes, extending the traditional republican concern with political domination to the social domination of husbands over wives.[ii] Godwin’s philosophical rejection of external authority and his exposition of a decentralized voluntary society free from the state has led many to classify him as an early anarchist thinker.[iii] If their marriage could be considered the highpoint of relations between republicanism and anarchism, the two traditons have since followed very different ideological and political paths. In what follows I consider what, if any, potential overlap there is today between these two often neglected political theories.

Anarchism and republicanism share a similar discontinuous historical narrative. While republican themes are found in the political writings of Renaissance Italy, Commonwealth England, revolutionary France and America, they were increasingly supplanted by liberalism in the 19th century before its retrieval by intellectual historians and political theorists from the 1970s onwards.[iv] For anarchism, the combined forces of communism and fascism effectively wiped out its most successful examples during the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. By the end of the Second World War anarchism as a political force was effectively dead. Yet the 1960s student and cultural revolutions saw a spectacular re-emergence of anarchist ideas and principles, and its influence today can be felt in movements as diverse as the Zapatistas in Mexico and Occupy Wall Street. Colin Ward often compared this spontaneous re-emergence of anarchism to a “seed beneath the snow”, an ever-present possibility beneath capitalist and state oppression.

Republicanism, it is often thought, lost out to liberalism in the 19th century by being unable to respond to the rise of commercial capitalism. Anarchism faced a similar ideological conflict with authoritarian socialism. Both political theories came to be pushed aside by ideologies that were deemed (mostly by those with power) to better respond to the economic and political realities of their time. Indeed the critical portrayal of republicanism as a system only suited to the small cities of ancient Greece bears some resemblance to the Leninist-type argument that anarchism was a primitive form of socialism that had no place in a revolutionary movement or a modern industrial economy.

One reason for anarchism and republicanism’s continual revival despite such intense opposition is the enduring power of their respective visions of freedom. One of the main features of the republican academic revival has been the unearthing of a distinctive conception of freedom. Republicans like Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner argue that freedom is best thought of as the absence of arbitrary power. A person is unfree, on this view, when someone has a power to interfere in their life which is entirely at the discretion of the power-holder. By contrast, to be free is to be able to exercise choice without having to look over one’s shoulder, worrying about whether a power-holder will intervene whenever they feel like it. Pettit refers to this view of freedom as ‘non-domination’. He contrasts it with a ‘liberal’ view which sees freedom as the absence of interference. The mere absence of interference does not suffice for freedom, Pettit argues, because its absence might reflect the fact that you have worked hard to ingratiate yourself with a power-holder, on whose goodwill you nevertheless remains dependent. 'Non-domination’ allows republicans to cast the net of unfreedom wider than traditional liberals, to include the domination that occurs in the home and workplace.

Anarchists would have some sympathy with this view. Classical anarchists like Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin more or less explicitly developed this idea of freedom in their own work.[v] Although modern anarchists are more likely to use the term in a broader sense than contemporary republicans would, domination has also come to play an important role in recent anarchist theorizing. As Uri Gordon writes, the “word domination today occupies a central place in anarchist political language …The term ‘domination’ in its anarchist sense serves as a generic concept for the various systematic features of society whereby groups and persons are controlled, coerced, exploited, humiliated, discriminated against”.[vi] Domination is thus used in contemporary anarchist discourse as a catch-all term for how the state, capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy converge and reinforce each other to oppress marginalized groups.  

This wider view of domination points to two further sites of possible domination that have been overlooked by republicans. First, to the oppressive ways in which heteronormative gender roles lead to domination by subjecting people that do not conform to ridicule, abuse and violence. Second, to the rampant, cruel and widespread domination exercised by humans over non-human animals in industrial meat production. For anarchists animals, as well as humans, can be subjected to arbitrary power. 

However the fundamental split between republicanism and anarchism is over the institutional requirements for non-domination. For republicans, interference is rendered not arbitrary – and so does not reduce our freedom - when we are subject to the rule of law. If a state is suitably structured, republicans argue that the law does not restrict our freedom but in fact creates it. This is the core disagreement between anarchism and republicanism. For anarchism the state is one of the primary agents of domination. To them, the state cannot be the solution to domination since it is the state that enforces the mechanisms of violence and control through which the powerful are able to exercise their domination. Thus while both anarchism and republicanism share a principled commitment to opposing arbitrary power, for the republican there are forms of states that will not exercise arbitrary power, while for anarchists state power is inherently arbitrary.  

Few republicans would argue that states as they are currently constituted fulfil the necessary conditions of being non-arbitrary and non-dominatory. There is a tension however in republicanism, in both its older and modern incarnations, over how radically the state must be reformed in order to secure non-domination. The moderate wing of republicanism is best articulated by Madison in the Federalist papers. His aim was to design the new American republic in such a way as to insulate it from the dangers of popular demands on government. By removing the participatory element of classical democracy, “improper” and “wicked” proposals like a “rage for paper money, or an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property”[vii] would be kept far away from republican government. 

Modern moderate republicans are not as elitist as Madison in their conception of democracy, but I think that tendency to elitism has not been entirely erased from the republican revival. As John McCormick writes “republicanism, unless reconstructed almost beyond the point of recognition, can only reinforce what is worst about contemporary liberal democracy: the free hand that socioeconomic and political elites enjoy at the expense of the general populace.”[viii] For moderate republicans like Pettit, the state is non-dominating when it is a representative democracy with constitutional checks and balances on the courts, legislature and the executive and the ability for citizens to contest their decisions. If this is all that republicanism has to offer then it becomes barely distinguishable from existing liberal democracies. It is true that republicans also stress that for these institutions to be non-dominating they must be supplemented by a sense of civic virtue in their citizens. But there are reasons to be sceptical of this. First, because of the dangers of giving the state the power to encourage a sense of loyalty and community in its citizens and second, the unlikelihood that civic virtue can be fostered in a system where citizens are excluded from direct participation.

Republicanism does however have a more radical heritage.[ix] Republicans thinkers like Rousseau emphasized the centrality of economic equality to freedom and the necessity of participatory forms of democracy to ensure true self-government. This wing of republicanism takes seriously Rousseau’s argument that for a republic to be non-dominating, “no citizen should be rich enough to be able to buy another, and none so poor that he has to sell himself”.[x] Alex Gourevitch has argued that republicans have mistakenly over-emphasized political domination at the expense of economic domination. In his contribution to this series he focuses on the 18th century American labour republicans and their opposition to wage-labour and demands for cooperatives and workplace democracy. This comes close to many of the ideas advocated by the anarcho-syndicalist movement. The Spanish CNT trade union, for example, for a brief period in the Civil War, put many of these republican self-government principles into practice through their collectivisation of industry in Barcelona and Catalonia. It is at this radical end of the republican spectrum that its ideas come to resemble more and more the kind of decentralized society and economy based on mutual aid that anarchists have historically proposed. It is also at this end of the spectrum that the political actor in achieving republican change is not primarily a republican president or political party but trade unions and social movements. This matches the anarchist belief in a broad conception of agents of change including workers, peasants and oppressed groups.

Indeed there is something to be said for the idea that anarchists might be republicans who take republican principles far more seriously. If we really care about creating a non-dominating society, then for anarchists this means the removal of all leaders, bosses and elites, and not simply their constraint and limitation. For anarchists, power cannot be rendered non-arbitrary because power is at the root of domination. What is baffling for anarchists is how moderate republicans, having uncovered such a radical conception of freedom as non-domination, fail to advocate the kind of radical economic and political changes needed to create a society free from domination. They have, if you will, teleported to the bus stop. Having discovered a potentially powerful tool, they squander its potential.  

Ideological labels were not as fixed in Wollstonecraft’s and Godwin’s time. Anarchism was only formulated as a distinct ideology by Proudhon in the 1840s. Today, even between radical republicanism and anarchism there will probably remain some differences as to the role of the state and the extent to which change can be achieved through parliamentary politics that would make a modern Wollstonecraft-Godwin partnership difficult. But anarchism does have much in common with those strands of republicanism that see themselves as a fundamentally anti-elitist project that confronts sources of economic, political and social domination through concerted political action by grassroots organizations. Those elements of republicanism, however, that seek to downplay its participatory and anti-capitalist attributes, bear little, if any, resemblance to anarchism. 

This piece is part of the Democratic Wealth series, hosted by OurKingdom in partnership with Politics in Spires.


[i] An accomplished family, their daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, went on to write Frankenstein.

[ii] Coffee, A. M. (2012). Mary Wollstonecraft, freedom and the enduring power of social domination. European Journal of Political Theory, 1-20 

[iii] Marshall, P. (1992). Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. London: Harper Perennial-Harper Collins. pp.192-219

[iv] This historical narrative of republicanism however controversially excludes the republican themes that can be found in Marx and other socialists and the “labor republicans” of the 19th century.

[v] Kinna, R., & Prichard, A. (2012). Anarchism and non-domination. Unpublished manuscript.

[vi] Gordon, U. (2008). Anarchy Alive! London: Pluto Press. p.32.

[vii] Hamilton, A., Madison, J., & Jay, J. (2003). The Federalist with Letters of "Brutus". (T. Ball, Ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.46.

[viii] McCormick, J. (2003) Machiavelli against Republicanism: On the Cambridge School’s “Guicciardinian Moments”. Political Theory. 31(5). p.616.

[ix] See for example Bellamy, R. (2002). Being Liberal with Republicanism’s Radical Heritage. Res Publica. 8(3). 269-274.

[x] Rousseau, J.-J. (1994). The Social Contract. (C. Betts, Trans.) Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.87.

About the author

Bruno is a Masters student at University College London. He will start his DPhil in political theory at the University of Oxford in October. He tweets @BrunoLeipold

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