Review- Gourevitch, “From Slavery to Collective Commonwealth”

Alex Gourevitch, “From Slavery to Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century” (2015) – Who doesn’t love them some classical republicanism? Well, “a lot of people” is the answer to that, but I’m not among them. I find it historically fascinating and politically compelling, a way to conceptualize freedom apart from liberalism. Of course, the latter comes with some major caveats, which is why I identify as a socialist with republican leanings rather than, say, the other way around. Most glaring is the way the republicanism of Cicero and Machiavelli depends on an economic analysis that doesn’t match industrial, let alone post-industrial, realities.

Connected to that, classical republicanism is dogged by its own elitism. Despite being pretty good for the time, most republics were slave states (including the early United States) and all of them held some people capable/worthy of republican liberty and others not. This, despite using the language of slavery and freedom to argue for their own liberties, crying “slavery” whenever anyone raises taxes or whatever. It’s galling! Those who have sought to resurrect republicanism as either a historical object or as a living political theory struggle with how to transcend the theory’s original contradictions.

Alex Gourevitch argues that an under-studied limb of the republican tree holds some (but not all) answers- the labor republicans of late nineteenth century America, most notably the Knights of Labor. The Knights and their fellow travelers imagined what a republicanism that maintained the ideology’s traditional abhorrence of domination could look like in the industrial era. At the height of the concept of liberty-as-contract, where many abolitionist Republicans (both big and small r) believed that self-ownership and free contracting already won republican liberty, the labor republicans attacked the wage system as inherently a system of domination and control.

Above and beyond collective bargaining, they envisioned a cooperative commonwealth, where management answered to labor and labor guaranteed citizenship. The Knights sought, through educational efforts (this is where the eight hour day comes in- to give workers time to learn) and other base-building techniques, to construct collective power. Rather than rely on the government to build the commonwealth, labor republicans wanted the government to stay out of the way so they could build it. They further modified the republican ideology in terms of their understanding of economic freedom- where austere classical republicans feared luxury, labor republicans saw private goods (if not the sort of obscene wealth seen in the gilded age) as complementary to public virtue.

As is often the case for the nineteenth century, the Knights and other labor republicans got tripped up on race. They were progressive in terms of organizing with black people, risking lives to organize sugar cane field workers in Louisiana in the 1880s, but disdained Chinese workers as lacking republican virtue or whatever other bullshit people say to justify prejudices like that. One wonders what could have been had they had less racism and more critically developed class consciousness- something your Marxian intellectual veggies are good for. All told, this is a fascinating reconstruction of an overlooked and intermittently inspiring area of history, and a great contribution to the rich field of republican studies. *****

Review- Gourevitch, “From Slavery to Collective Commonwealth”

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