Against Republicanism

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For his dystopia 1984, Orwell posited a dialect of English, Newspeak that was so conceptually impoverished that subversion became literally unthinkable. Newspeak led one to believe that war is peace, freedom is slavery etc. Writing in 1948 he was both prescient and subtle.

Prescient in that wars have now routinely become peacekeeping operations, and resumption of war can be greeted with the assertion that 'this must not stop the peace process'. Subtle in that we already speak and think a Newspeak - the language of capitalism. Invented, not by a ministry of truth, but by the generations of half forgotten philosophers, economists and constitutional theorists, it binds our thoughts before it binds our actions. It redefines some words so radically that they take on almost the obverse of their original import, and in the process, it renders the converse, these words original meanings unspeakable and inconceivable.

Most affected are 'power words', like Democracy or Republic. At the heart of the incomprehension with which Dave Craig has greeted my criticisms, is the fact that he uses Newspeak, and use these words in their older original meaning. Before universal suffrage, before newspapers, when political discourse was restricted to an aristocratic elite, such debate was free from euphemism and hypocrisy. All politically educated men knew that democracy was dangerous, probably the worst fate that could befall a state. It meant rule by the mob, the plebes, the villains, or if you knew your Aristotle 'rule by the poor'. It was the tyranny of the majority, rule by mass meetings that could ride roughshod over the law, where neither person nor property was safe.

A Republic stood, by contrast, for sound government. Rome, the original Republic, renown for martial prowess and sagacious laws remained its lasting epitome. The ideal constitution it secured for the wealthy the enjoyment of their estates, secure from the depredations of tyranny or the rapine of the mob. To the plebes it gave citizenship, the right to elect their tribunes, and above all the right to bear arms and fight for the glory of the Republic. Legislation and executive power, in contrast, were the preserve of a political elite - the Senate.

When the slave-holders and bourgeois of the American Colonies rebelled against the Crown, relying as they did on an army of free citizens, and being at the same time desirous of securing their properties they settled upon the republican form of government, that had so well served their ancient forebears. By this act they formed the die from which modern republics and republicanism have been cast. Its keystone was election, both of the legislature and the magistracy - presidents, governors, judges. Until the early 19th century, the idea of a 'democratic republic' was a self evident contradiction. A republic was the means by which the state could be secured against the danger of democracy. For democracy, it was understood, used not elections but the chaotic and almost anarchic institutions of the mass assembly or selection of officials and legislatures by lot.

Pre-bourgeois political theorists, from Aristotle to Machiavelli knew its function - to give the masses the illusion of power, whilst ensuring that it remained, in reality, in the hands of the upper classes. Any person has the right to stand for election, but if a poor tradesman stands in election against a sophisticated and urbane lawyer, nine times out of ten the lawyer wins. Freely elected legislatures are almost devoid of poor men, and totally devoid of poor women. But bourgeois theorists could not be so frank. They thus retained the republican form of government, whilst telling the people 'this is democracy'. There is no such thing as bourgeois democracy. What they call democracy is nothing of the sort - it is oligarchy, rule by the few, rule by the rich.

The real meaning of democracy was thus forgotten, and for over a century, those believing themselves to be democratic radicals like Craig, have struggled for its practical antithesis - the republic. The depth of the incomprehension to which this has given rise, is illustrated by Craig's thinking that I was advocating the election of juries. On the contrary, I was advocating sovereign juries, drawn, as in the past, by lot. From Aristotle to Mill, it was recognised that with sovereign juries, the people controlled the law. To Craig, it is a matter of detail as to whether one should demand elected juries or elected judges. But the election of juries is a totally reactionary demand. It would remove the only remaining relic of primitive democracy in the constitution. To whom would you rather entrust your liberty - a jury of your peers or a group of full-time, politically elected jurors. It does not take much think who would stand for and get elected to such posts - the same sort of retired conservative busybodies who become magistrates today.

Lets Hear it Again For..

Those who do not study history are supposedly doomed to repeat it. Those, whose knowledge of history is focused on the Russian Revolution, can, it seems, dream of nothing more than its repetition. But if Marx's aphorism is anything to go by, when history repeats itself, first comes tragedy then farce.

There was, tragedy enough in 1917 and its aftermath, triggered as it was by 3 years of a war whose privations can scarcely be imagined in our generation, a movement which precipitated a hundred million half starved peasants against a brutal landowning class and it police state. A revolutionary war and terror besides which that of the Jacobins pales, are to be put on a level with the pathetic scandal of the Windsors?

Craig imagines that this will involve a constituent assembly and a provisional government. Such institutions have, it is true, been thrown up in some countries at the dawn of bourgeois rule, but, given the past history of English revolutions we know that they are an irrelevance here. In a country that has never had a sovereign parliament or free elections, they may be necessary steps in the establishment of a stable civil society, but how would such an assembly differ from the existing parliament?

It would be elected on the same franchise, peopled by the same set of politicians, have no powers that parliament does not already have. It would, in short, have no cause to exist. When necessary parliament can, and has, dispensed with dynasties. A constituent assembly would if anything, be a reactionary step, seeking to 'bind its successors' with a written constitution that would enshrine the rights of liberty and property. These aspirations for a constituent assembly ill suit a pretended Leninist, given the master's forthright way of dealing with the Russian one.


The conservatism and historical narrowness of vision of the RDG are astounding. Just as for the economists, economics is the economics of bourgeois society, for Craig, history is the history of the bourgeois epoch. Craig accuses me of drawing my advocacy of direct popular rule from Nowhereland, i.e., from Erehwon or Utopia.

Exactly the same objection can be leveled at the very idea of Communism: it is utopian, where has it been tried before?

Marxism has a double answer. First, communism, the abolition of classes, private property and the state, is posited as the dialectical negation of civil, burgerlich, society: the resolution of its inner contradictions. Second it is, in historical terms the negation of the negation: the upswing of the cycle from primitive communism through class society to the communism of the future. Similarly direct rule by the masses is posited firstly as the antithesis of the political forms of burgerlich society: 'just as the representative system, the constitutional state or the representative republic of the type that exists in North America constitutes the pure, precise political instrument of the bourgeoisie, so direct legislation through the people constitutes the best political instrument of the toiling masses, and in particular of the organized proletariat' (Karl Burkli, Vorwarts, 12 Oct 1892) Secondly, it represents the negation of the negation, where primitive democracy is the thesis, oligarchic class state the antithesis, and New Democracy the synthesis. Just as we study primitive communism to get a glimpse at the society of the future, primitive, ancient democracy shows us the political form of the rule of the masses. Just as republicanism and the civil code of law were the conscious bourgeois re-creation of Rome, the European workers movement must recall the political forms thrown up by the demos, working masses poor, of the ancient East Mediterranean in their struggle against the rising class of big landowners and slave magnates.

The mass citizen assembly is echoed in the mass strike meetings of the modern proletariat. The dicasteria, the sovereign mass jury of Greece, is echoed in the mass people's courts that tried landlords and reactionaries in the Great Chinese Revolution, and today strike terror into the hearts of the reactionaries in the liberated zones of Peru.

The communist political revolution can no more base itself upon the outdated bourgeois ideology of republicanism than the economic revolution base itself upon the notion a just wage.


Craig is right, I do envisage revolution as a staged process, but the stages will not be the old Russian ones. That sort of dual power situation only arises when a dictatorship or absolute monarchy is defeated in war. Only that provides the soviets of workers and soldiers deputies needed to contest state power with the republic. In the absence of military cataclysms like 1870, 1905, or 1917, in a normal peacetime civil society, such an alternative focus of state power does not arise. Since political power grows out of the barrels of guns, the only remaining path is people's war.

But to create a revolution one must first create revolutionary public opinion. It is just not credible that people should take up arms to replace one form of elected government by another. One has to pose a goal of a quite different moral order - the final overthrow of class rule, of oligarchy, the rule of the many by the few. Only this, democracy in its original sense, provides the moral legitimization for the rejection and overthrow of elected government.

In revolution one must unite all who can be united against the principal enemy - the bourgeois representative state. Thus 'the first step in the workers revolution, making the proletariat the ruling class, is the conquest, in battle, of democracy', since it is only in fighting for unrestricted democracy that the proletariat can win the support of other sections of the people. Democracy is not overt proletarian dictatorship, non-proletarians retain citizenship, but it is in the words of the Manifesto, 'die Erhebung des Proletariats zur Herrschenden Klasse', it raises the proletariat to the status of ruling class. Why?

For the reason that Aristotle characterised democracy the rule of the poor- 'the poor are everywhere many, but the rich are few'.

The development of the class struggle will then lead the democracy to make 'despotic inroads' upon bourgeois property rights. Should the democracy be threatened with subversion and wrecking by the old upper classes, the struggle will then lead it to take on a more openly dictatorial form with expropriations and denials of citizenship rights to class enemies.

I am not a republican, but a Democrat, an advocate with Engels of 'die Erkampfung der Democratie'. 'Without state power, all is illusion. Storm the heavens with gunfire'.

Paul Cockshott

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