What is a republic? More fundamentally than now commonly used definition, a state where the highest office is elected, it means a state which belongs to its citizens. A republic is the Rousseauian response to the problem of how authority could be justified, how it could be a fulfillment rather than limitation of freedom to give up natural liberties in a modern civic society for the benefit of all. The story goes: if the authority is directed towards the general interest, towards the objective common will of the people, then limitations on individual freedom are actually fulfillments of genuine freedom, and it becomes possible without contradiction for Saint-Juste to say the Revolutionary terror forces you to be free.
Of course, for Marxists this notion is superficially nonsensical because it passes over class struggle. By supposing the existence of a common interest amongst citizens of the republic you create the illusion of class peace, of a game which benefits all rather than a game stacked in favour of the elite and against the people. But this misses the point because republicanism as easily as Marxism can denounce the bourgeoisie as traitors to the general will. The fact that it doesn’t does not mean it is hypocritical, or rather, it expresses merely the base level of hypocricy required for any revolutionary system to be institutionalized, and a hypocricy no less extreme than the hypocricy of socialist systems such as those in Russia and China which retain an elite and which do not progress towards the empowerment of the working class. And it’s not clear that these are the bad kind of socialist system – the one that takes the elimination of the elite seriously, the Khmer Rouge, well isn’t this one even worse?
The mistake made all around is inability to mediate in the hypocricy between a revolutionary ideal and the need for stability in real existent institutions, which means taking into account real existent power structures and the difficulty and chaos which comes from changing or destroying them. When you posit a revolutionary ideal, it’s real value is in what institutional changes it brings about. These incremental improvements are not the dreams of revolutionaries, nor should they be, because no one dies on the barricade for incremental progress. But at the same time, incremental progress is all revolutions can ever bring about, ever mounting steps towards new forms of co-existence, not as a clean break to a higher level of humanity but as awkward, bumbling steps towards freedom.
The thought of republicanism, therefore, remains a worthwhile ideal in the world today, not because it poses the answers to all our questions, but because it sets a revolutionary ideal against the continued persistence of ethnocracies and plutocracies around the world. It posits a revolutionary shared sentiment of common will and common project against states or other institutions which do not belong to those who live inside or use them, but belong to authorities who have no way of justifying their authority. At its most basic, the thought of republicanism is just anarchism – the dangerous idea that power ought to be forced to justify itself.
And republican sentiment is not a merely negative ideal – it has a positive side of affirming common projects, sharing, co-existence, reciprocal freedom between those who affirm its ideals. And its ideals are open to anyone – there is no “exclusionary” republic (which means to the extent that French identity remains ethnic and exclusive, it fails to be Republican). This is no excuse to rest on laurels – for republicanism to be successful it must be continually re-invented such that its ideals actually do pose as something which benefit all those who are asked to identify, such that the shared sentiment it offers is not an empty nationalism but a substantive project, a concrete taking up of individual wills into collective actions which engender the freedom of souls as well as a life of the nation. If it descends into chauvinism and exclusionary in/out distinctions based not on the affirmation fo the program but on identity politics, it ought no longer be called republican at all but simply “nationalism”.
At this point in history it can not simply be assumed that republicanism is an option for all nation-states. Because to be genuine it must be the collective affirmation of a will in common, it is a fundamentally grass-roots notion while at the same time being open to the idea of a vanguard, of an intellectual leadership that could grasp hold of that nascent general will and act on it, and by acting bring the people to a national-consciousness. The term “national-consciousness”, however, is in some contexts already a dead-letter, and new emergences of republicanism, at least in the post-modern west, will sometimes need to be motivated by new concepts of shared community because “nation” is too poisoned, too covered in the dirty of a thousand racist wars, although the fundamental concept needn’t change – it must still mean a gathering of persons who identify as one according to an identity which follows from common projects and affirmed ideals.
This does not mean that the notion of “nation” is entirely beyond the pail. I think of Jack Layton’s funeral as an example of a Canadian Republicanism which would be on the road to being adequate to the challenges “Canada” faces today – dishonesty with the past, an unfair and overly unequal society, the decline of progressive values. It is not fundamentally democratic to go along with the reactionary tendencies in one’s society, to allow people to believe what they want and vote for the destruction of the future and call this “democratic”. No – because democracy means fundamentally “the state belongs to its people”, it is not permissible for the people of a state to vote for a program that disenfranchises huge tracts of citizens. The democratic, republican response to such a situation is to affirm a set of values and projects which are in the common interest of the citizens, and which the citizens can recognize as the concretization of their nascent general will. Not everyone will agree, of course, but because this notion of freedom is positive, some force can be justified to be used in its maintenance and fruition. Perhaps the days of “revolutionary terror” are over, but there is nothing wrong with the use of force and law against the elites as they fight to maintain their privilege, and the forces of sentimental reaction who insist on maintaining their mythic notions of a past devoid of colonial violence. For a concrete example – there is nothing wrong with using force to take property from the Church to repay the debts owed to native communities for the genocide it perpetrated against them.
Above all, the idea of republicanism is only worthwhile if it can be concretely articulated as something whose actualization literally is the concretization of the people’s freedom. But this is a worthwhile endeavour because unlike those who advocate for a direct transition to “internationalism”, republicanism is a project which is not merely fantasy – surely it can go well or poorly, and usually poorly, but because it is based on real historical processes of shared sentiment and projects it is not “merely a theory”, it isn’t only a pipe dream about how we “should” all live together. It’s a real stage on the way to more and more adequate forms of co-existence, ever more real forms of freedom. It’s destiny is, of course, to be destroyed and overcome by something much greater than itself.
This “passing through” republicanism is the idea for which I wrote this essay. What I mean by it is the need for ideals to be concretized and institutionalized must pass by the way of actually possible transformations of humans and societies. Initially and for the most part we are not republican, which is to say we are not even republican. We live life as a series of shared projects and co-existences, but usually on the level of family, friends, perhaps community. To live a republican life means to extend this sphere of co-operation and co-existence, more grandiosely we could say shared destiny, to the level of a republic. Of course this is an inadequate conclusion, because republics can be at odds with each other, go to war with each other, and pollute each other’s air. But nothing about the transition to more universal forms of shared existence means you have to stop there – the same tendencies towards co-operation and shared destiny that motivate republicanism can certainly motivate international co-operation and perhaps the full overcoming of republics, and the institutionalization of other forms of international co-existence which responds to local, regional, and global needs. But because those institutions have to be built by people who believe it is possible to live together with others, to care about in Micheal Ignatieff’s words The Needs of Strangers, if we aren’t already republican, what chance do we have at being international?
The need to pass through republicanism to humanism, to global co-existence is not a universal need. Perhaps there is another way. But what my ramblings are attempting to establish here is the assertion that it is tom foolery to assert that we must pass directly from the local to the global, that solidarity can’t merely be imagined but lived and earned. That the road to peace and freedom is not paved with books but with real political projects, projects which can properly receive the name “historical” insofar as they make headway towards the nearly unpositable but absolutely necessary goal of concrete global solidarity.