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 traditions 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.


Categories: Anarchism/Anti-State

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