Republicanism can be explored as a tradition of practices and virtues, tied to the creation of revolutions. At this tradition’s core, and what attaches it through time and place, lies a recurring dominant principle – that of popular sovereignty.
Hannah Arendt, for one, doesn’t think there can be such a tradition of revolutions, because it is a treasure, a public good, which she claims is irrevocably lost between generations. In her The Gap between the Past and the Future, she begins her own quest for the lost treasure of revolutions with the mysteries of its definition:
The history of revolutions… could be told in parable form as the tale of an age-old treasure which, under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again, under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana. There exist, indeed, many good reasons to believe that the treasure was never a reality but a mirage, that we deal here not with anything substantial but with an apparition, and the best of these reasons is that the treasure thus far has remained nameless. Does something exist, not in outer space but in the world and the affairs of men on earth, which has not even a name? Unicorns and fairy queens seem to possess more reality than the lost treasure of the revolutions.
Drawing on the words of the poet René Char as he tracked his own discovery of it during his days fighting for it in the French resistance, Arendt defines this public treasure in the language of those 18th century American revolutionaries who were willing to die for it: “the public happiness”, or for the French revolutionaries: “public freedom”, for Rousseau “popular sovereignty”.
But Hannah Arendt (in her typically gloomy fashion) believes this precious treasure can hardly be named, much less collectively held, for she declares that no past tradition exists in which this public freedom is embedded, one that can preserve and transmit this revolutionary force from generation to generation.
Arendt believes that this nameless treasure is lost between generations because there is nothing tangible that can be passed on, and therefore nothing to inherit:
The testament, telling the heir what will rightfully be his, wills past possessions for a future. Without testament or, to resolve the metaphor, without tradition – which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is – there seems to be no willed continuity in time and hence, humanly speaking, neither past nor future… Thus the treasure was lost, not because of historical circumstances and the adversity of reality, but because no tradition had foreseen its appearance or its reality, because no testament had willed it for the future.
She is wrong, of course. A tradition of revolutions exists and can be identified very precisely, in any place, in any historical period, from where it constantly emerges in its popular form – for what is universal about this collective treasure is that it is owned by no particular region in the world, nor did any single intellectual tradition create it. The revolutionary tradition of popular sovereignty exists; it is simply that some liberals don’t wish to claim it, because at its heart it demonstrates that popular sovereignty (also the foundational principle of democracy) and revolutionary acts are completely intertwined, are one.
Where do we go to trace this tradition of revolutions? If we look at the people who make revolutions – at their practices, their ideas, their organizations, their years of preparation and collective work – we find that everything they write, everything they do, is imbued with passion, spirit, ideology, principles, but above all an awareness of the virtues, and an unwavering allegiance to practice them, in order to achieve their aims.
Any study of revolutions must therefore be attached in some serious way to the reality of the experience of revolutions and revolutionaries, the language they used, the ideals that drove them. What they were fighting for, who they were fighting against – and how. Above all, what were the values which moved them to choose such risks and live such harsh struggles? These are the questions that lead one to uncover the broad tradition of republicanism. Without such understandings of the principles held by the protagonists, individuals, associations, parties, movements, and groups, along with the nature of the injustices they would not reconcile themselves to, the articulated desire to change a wretched present ‘for the happiness of all’: without reading their words, following their actions, we end up studying everything but republicanism and its revolutionary tradition.
What ties these revolutionaries together in a tradition? Tactics, strategies, ideologies; what connects them above all is that revolutionary principle of popular sovereignty: that all people are equal, free and self governing, that sovereignty rests with the people not the king, and not the nation even, but within each person. This single principle is (as the French republican Godefroy Cavaignac rightly named it) la force revolutionnaire.
Popular sovereignty as the revolutionary principle is not based on the nation alone, but rather on a republican understanding of the social contract, where all citizens are equal and free. Accordingly, popular sovereignty and revolutions are most often about republicanism, and about republicans. In other words most revolutionaries, in their principal underlying aims (whether socialist, liberal, democrat, or communist), are republicans.
This republican tradition has quite a distinguished lineage in the modern era. In the late 18th and 19th century, it inspired revolutions across Europe and the Americas. In the 20th it can be traced through the rich history of the anti-colonial struggles for liberation from Africa to Asia, Vietnam and Algeria to Palestine. Its prevailing feature was the ambition to create republics through revolutions.
There are a few reasons why the historical and theoretical literature has been largely silent about this tradition. From a historiographical point of view, this tradition of revolutionary struggle is something of a ‘lost tribe’ – the men and women who make it up are almost all entirely unknown. This is primarily because most chose to remain anonymous. Of course in the first place, they were trying to remain hidden from empire’s armies and police spies, and they were engaged in a battle in a real sense, and much of their most tangible work was underground and invisible. However there is more to it than that: these revolutionaries were republicans, and by their principles committed to the idea that sovereignty was popular and collective, not located in a single individual. The role of leadership was conceived quite differently. Those few figures who are well known– the 18th century Dessalines, the 19th century Mazzinis, the 20th century Nelson Mandelas, are not the key republicans who dreamed, planned, and constructed these revolutions, step by step, year by year. The essential work in the creation of republics through revolutions was, and still is, anonymous and involves large bodies of organised cadres. Further, this anonymity is intentional. The work to create free republicans is a pattern of practice as much as it is a tradition of thought, and anonymity is the essence of virtuous republican practice.
Another reason for the neglect of this revolutionary republican tradition of popular sovereignty is that these republicans are excluded from the traditional historical narratives, almost all of which are centered around the nation-state. Their activities were transnational and unbounded by national frameworks, which is how most studies on the creation of modern democracies have been, and continue to be written. For example, if you look at the 19th century revolutionary project in Europe, or the anti-colonial movement in the second half of the 20th century, you will find the majority of texts and pamphlets of the dozens of organizations in any country, and their principles, charters, and oaths, all locate the fight for the establishment of free republics as an international project, and not a national one.
Marxist historiography has also maintained a hegemonic interpretation and representation of the republican left, misrepresenting republicans with some contempt, as ‘romantics’, or ‘utopians’, and most of the literature today parrots that view. Indeed, both Marx and Engels sought to destroy the reputations of their republican revolutionary contemporaries in this manner: they were their natural rivals on the left, and in their day republicans were far more popular with all tiers of society, especially with the working classes.
Another central reason is that the participants’ writings are scattered, much of them technical and strategic, or published in small popular or underground pamphlets and journals that have long disappeared. The precariousness of their lives, their desperate situations, and for many even the manner in which they died has meant that much of their work has been lost. Indeed, the best historical and conceptual work currently being carried out in South Africa, Palestine, and elsewhere on revolutionaries and revolutionary movements of the 1960s through 1980s is being retrieved via oral histories of old cadres.
Some have argued that the kind of moral vision upon which these revolutionaries rested had fragmented by the end of the eighteenth century. As MacIntyre states in After Virtue:
republicanism in the 19th century is the project of restoring a community of virtue, but it envisions the project in an idiom inherited from Roman rather than Greek sources and transmitted through the Italian Republics…(it) articulates one aspect of the republican tradition, but only one.
Yet contrary to his belief that this restoration of the epic republican tradition is no longer possible, a powerful and vibrant strand of revolutionary republicanism continued to flourish in Europe and the rest of the world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
The essential features in this tradition could be usefully highlighted. Central to its identity are a number of myths about man, society, war, liberty, equality, fraternity, patriotism, and nationalism. For example, the myths of liberty, equality and fraternity that emerged at the time of the French Revolution were relied upon by republicans throughout the Caribbean and Latin America in their revolutions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as in Europe during the Polish insurrections and Spring of Nations of 1848. More specifically, particular notions of slavery that were drawn upon when establishing conceptions of liberty amongst a broad variety of republican movements had a profound influence on the way the tradition coheres.
It is also a tradition in that its aims and objectives are defined within generations, as well as transmitted across them. In this sense, the tradition is embedded in patterns of thought and moral codes which directly inspired the participants to action. Ideologies do not merely develop as systems of abstract ideas, but are embedded in concrete social practices. Accordingly, this collective work to create revolutions, and the revolutions themselves, provide a furnace of ideas that shaped the republican tradition more than anything else: these mechanisms, these virtues, these practices, all define the collective endeavour to build republics.
These revolutionaries are something of a lost tribe because the philosophical and conceptual foundations they rest upon – as we saw with Hannah Arendt – are still presented as mysterious. The tendency has been to interpret a violence-based morality either as a dangerous type of radicalism (which could find its feet only in absolutist or totalitarian models of thought), or to conflate heroic and epic narratives and practices with mysticism, nationalism, fascism, and quasi-religious or proto-Marxist doctrines. All these interpretations deny the lived experience of revolutionary republicans who organised for long periods and at extreme costs to overthrow tyrannies, and more often than not succeeded. They did so in an articulate, extremely well organised, and purposive way, and for realisable ends – in their developed theories of overturning injustice, in their sophisticated collective organisations created for collective freedom. Above all, this revolutionary republican tradition of popular sovereignty was fashioned in response to concrete political predicaments, which are still with us today – the experience of oppression, subjugation, and political domination.