Why It Matters

Ellen Meiksins Wood

  • BuyHobbes and Republican Liberty by Quentin Skinner
    Cambridge, 245 pp, £12.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 71416 7

Is it possible, Quentin Skinner asks, that an entire tradition of political thought, including the most influential conception of freedom in anglophone political theory in the past half-century, ‘has been insensitive to the range of conditions that can limit our freedom of action’? A reasonable question, one might think, not only about Isaiah Berlin’s influential defence of ‘negative’ against ‘positive’ liberty but about the whole tradition of liberalism. Yet Skinner’s own understanding of liberty is not immune to the same awkward question.

The contest between republicanism and liberalism has had continuing currency in Anglo-American political theory; and no one has contributed more than Skinner, a hegemonic figure in the study of political thought, to promoting the republican tradition. He has challenged Berlin’s conception of ‘negative’ liberty not by endorsing the ‘positive’ but by counterposing the liberal version of negative liberty to what he has preferred to call the ‘neo-Roman’ idea. Hobbes has long been his principal villain. He is, for Skinner, the philosopher who systematically replaced the ‘neo-Roman’ – or republican – conception of free citizenship with the restricted notion of liberty as nothing more than the absence of external impediments to action. Hobbes effected this theoretical transformation, at a particularly turbulent historical moment, with deliberate polemical intent.

In his new book, Skinner traces in scrupulous detail the refinements and changes in Hobbes’s ideas about freedom as the English Civil War proceeded. His account of Hobbes is characteristically lucid, elegant and, on its own terms, persuasive. It is indeed very hard to make sense of Hobbes – or any other political thinker – without situating him within the urgent debates of his time and place. But as the argument proceeds, its limitations become increasingly apparent. Against the background of Skinner’s historical narrative, his concluding question about the insensitivity of others to the many conditions that can interfere with human liberty is jarring. The question can easily be turned against Skinner himself, not only because his ‘republican’ answer is itself so restricted but, more generally, because the political world and the spectrum of political debate as he presents them are so strikingly limited.

The essence of the ‘republican’ idea as Skinner outlines it here is that liberty is the absence of dependence, and that the mere presence of arbitrary power, whether or not it is exercised in ways that limit the freedom of action, is enough to transform the status of free men into that of slaves. Liberty, in other words, can be lost even in the absence of actual interference. The very existence of arbitrary power, however permissively or even benignly it may be exercised, reduces men to servitude; and free individuals can exist only in free states. The roots of the republican idea are traceable to ancient Rome and to the revival of republicanism in Renaissance Italy. Something like this conception of what it means to be a free man, Skinner argues, became especially prominent in England in the 1640s in opposition to the Crown’s assertion of its discretionary, and hence arbitrary, prerogative rights; and it would give rise to ‘republican’ classics in the writings of Milton, James Harrington and Algernon Sidney.

Hobbes’s three major works of political philosophy, The Elements of Law, De Cive and Leviathan, were designed, Skinner tells us, in direct opposition to parliamentary and radical writers. As the conflict between Parliament and Crown took its course, and his own circumstances changed, he refined and modified his arguments. Elements was not published until 1650, but was privately circulated in 1640, when Parliament was finally convened by Charles I for the first time in 11 years, and members of the Short Parliament were vociferously denouncing the king’s attacks on liberty. Later that year, Hobbes fled to Paris in fear that his absolutist views might put him in danger. He would remain in self-imposed exile for 11 years. His revision of Elements was printed in Paris in 1642, and in 1647 the new version was published in extended and revised form as De Cive. It was the final defeat and execution of the king in 1649 that provoked Hobbes to compose his classic Leviathan. This was, he wrote, ‘a work that now fights on behalf of all kings and all who, under whatever name, hold regal rights’ – an objective which, as Skinner demonstrates, could as easily serve Cromwell as hereditary kings. Having apparently resigned himself to Cromwell, Hobbes returned to England in 1651.

In Elements, Hobbes lays out his argument in defence of absolute sovereignty, seeking to demonstrate that it derives from the voluntary and unconditional submission of individuals in pursuit of their own good; but he never clearly defines freedom or liberty. In De Cive, in order to counter ‘republican’ arguments that the very existence of absolute or arbitrary government reduces men to servitude, he offers a clear and simple definition of liberty as ‘nothing other than the absence of impediments to motion’. However absolute the sovereign power may be, our subjection to it cannot be equated with servitude. Finally, in Leviathan, Hobbes defines liberty not simply as the absence of impediments to motion but the absence of external impediments. This is, for Skinner, ‘a moment of great historical significance’. Hobbes can now, as he was unable to do in Elements and De Cive, distinguish between liberty and power: the absence of impediments to action, on the one hand, and, on the other, the capacity to act. Intrinsic limitations or constraints – such as the fear that leads to submission – may take away our power, but only external obstacles can take away our liberty. This represents a landmark in the modern theory of liberty because Hobbes is here ‘the first to answer the republican theorists by proffering an alternative definition in which the presence of freedom is construed entirely as absence of impediments rather than absence of dependence’. His legacy today is a tradition of political thought insensitive to the many obstacles that stand in the way of human liberty, above all the tendency of servitude to breed servility, which is itself an impediment to freedom of action.

Skinner’s insistence that Hobbes is responding to the political disputes of his time seems undeniable, and his case against critics who see no significant changes in the progress of Hobbes’s political ideas is convincing. There are some particularly nice touches in his discussion of visual imagery, including the famous emblematic frontispiece of Leviathan. The problem is that Skinner’s central thesis about Hobbes’s opposition to ‘republican liberty’ may not tell us nearly as much as he claims for it. It may even disguise as much as it reveals, about what Hobbes was arguing against and what his adversaries were arguing for.

The very designation ‘republican’ (or, for that matter, ‘neo-Roman’) gives us limited insight into the range of political debate in Hobbes’s time, let alone the obstacles to freedom then or now. More fundamentally, Skinner tells us surprisingly little about the wide spectrum of parliamentary opinion or about the divisions within it, which were, in theory and practice, no less profound than the antagonism between the king and Parliament. This is not simply a question of theoretical interpretation. It is about the way we see that historical moment; and a narrow field of historical vision can dull our sensitivities to the urgent political issues of that time or, indeed, any other.

When the Stuarts embarked on their absolutist project, England’s ruling classes were still committed to the long-standing partnership between Parliament and Crown, which, despite some moments of tension, had served them very well; but there was no inclination, nor indeed a social base, for a Continental-style absolutism. By far the majority of ruling opinion, inside Parliament no less than in the country, fell within the range of opposition to absolute and arbitrary government – at least, monarchical government unaccountable to Parliament. On the eve of the Civil War, until late in 1641, the parliamentary classes in general remained opposed to what the king was doing; and a substantial majority in Parliament supported the radically anti-absolutist legislative programme, including attacks on the Laudian church, introduced in the preceding months.

Yet by now there were other forces in play that would disrupt this unanimity. During the reign of James I, there had been significant changes not only in the extent and nature of the English electorate but also in the political role of the ‘multitude’. Inflation had made basic property qualifications less exclusive, thus widening the social base of the electorate; but expansion of the franchise was also a matter of policy. The gentry were becoming more aware of the political advantages to be gained from mobilising the people, both in pursuit of their internal rivalries and in disagreements with the Crown. In subsequent decades there would be retreats (not least by Cromwell) from this opportunistic commitment to a wider franchise, but between 1621 and 1628 the Commons voted repeatedly to extend it. Elections, too, were increasingly contested. By 1640, J.H. Plumb wrote, ‘the situation in the counties as well as the boroughs had changed out of all recognition from Elizabethan times, and we witness the birth of a political nation, small, partially controlled, but no longer coextensive with the will of the gentry.’

Popular mobilisation was not confined to voting. By 1640, the people were taking to the streets with growing regularity. The first acts of the Long Parliament in the autumn of that year were greeted with joyful demonstrations by large crowds in London. In December, fifteen thousand people signed the Root and Branch Petition demanding the abolition of episcopacy, and hundreds of them carried the petition to the House of Commons. Archbishop Laud was impeached for treason a week later. The people took to the streets regularly thereafter, and by January 1641, there were almost daily popular riots in London. When the Earl of Strafford was executed in May, it was largely under pressure from the ‘mob’, for whom he had become the chief representative of the absolutist monarchy. At the end of that year, Parliament issued the Grand Remonstrance, listing its grievances – more than two hundred of them – against the king in provocative terms. What made the Remonstrance especially provocative was that it was clearly intended to appeal directly to the people outside Parliament, with the objective of mobilising popular sentiment against the Crown.

This was a new mode of politics; and, as the parliamentary debate makes clear, it was this calculated appeal to the people, as much as the substance of the Grand Remonstrance, that put the wind up some parliamentarians and suddenly transformed them into royalists. We can get a taste of the growing unease from Sir Edward Dering, who had been on the side of the people in the execution of Strafford. ‘Mr Speaker,’ he said, ‘when I first heard of a Remonstrance, I presently imagined that like faithful councillors, we should hold up a glass unto his majesty: I thought to represent unto the king the wicked counsels of pernicious councillors; the restless turbulency of practical papists . . . I did not dream that we should remonstrate downward, tell stories to the people and talk of the king as of a third person.’

The Grand Remonstrance proved to be a major turning point in the creation of a significant royalist faction. But it was not the first time, or the last, that anxious members of Parliament expressed their fears of popular mobilisation. Before Dering, Sir George Digby, still an active opponent of the king in 1640, had changed sides. Not the least of his worries was the role of the ‘multitude’ in carrying the Root and Branch Petition to Parliament. He warned the house against the mobilisation of

irregular and tumultuous assemblies of people, be it for never so good an end . . . There is no man of the least insight into nature or history, but knows the danger, when either true or pretended stimulation, of conscience, hath once given a multitude agitation . . . What can there be of greater presumption, than for . . . a multitude to teach a Parliament, what is, and what is not, the government according to God’s word?

The defection of nervous parliamentarians to the royalist camp meant that the parliamentary cause was now led by those more inclined to popular mobilisation. But in the course of the Civil War even the most radical elements would be divided by the threat of a political multitude. The climax came in 1647, with implications for the development of modern political thought more momentous than the theoretical transformations attributed by Skinner to Hobbes.

By then the New Model Army constructed by Cromwell and his supporters had become not only an effective military machine but also a militant political force. The army itself became a bone of contention within the parliamentary camp, and there were efforts in Parliament to disband it. In the ensuing crisis, a conflict erupted between the army grandees, led by Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton, and radical elements within the rank and file influenced by Leveller ideas. The radicals drafted a constitution, the first of its kind in history. Here, and in the ensuing debates at Putney, new conceptions of popular sovereignty were elaborated unlike anything proposed by parliamentarians before. For the most radical among them, ‘the poorest he that is in England’, in Thomas Rainsborough’s famous phrase, had the same rights as the greatest. This is not to say that the Levellers were united in their commitment to a democratic franchise. Certain categories of men would have been excluded from the start (and women excluded altogether); and in the end the radicals compromised on their demand for an extended franchise. But the divisions of principle between Cromwell’s grandees and the proponents of these radical reforms, which eventually led Cromwell to arrest Leveller leaders and to crush the army opposition, were no less substantial than those that divided Cromwell from the king.

The Levellers not only contemplated a more democratic franchise. They also effected a revolution in political thought when they insisted that consent to government, on which freedom depends, must be given not only once in a single transfer of power but continuously, and by a multitude of individuals endowed with inalienable rights, the people outside Parliament, not by some corporate entity that claims to represent them. This was something very different even from the ideas of, say, Henry Parker, whom Skinner describes as ‘the most formidable proponent of the parliamentarian cause’ at the outset of the Long Parliament. For Parker, royal authority derived from the people, but the people were superior to the Crown only in their collective identity as embodied in Parliament; and, once having established a parliament to represent them, the people could not reclaim their original power. This certainly gave the advantage to Parliament in its relations with the Crown; but it is not at all self-evident that the distance between a strong parliamentarian like Henry Parker and an absolutist like Hobbes was greater than the gulf that divided Parker from the Levellers.

None of this, presumably, would come as news to Skinner. The question is why it matters so little to him. There is one overriding and systematic reason, which has to do with his characteristic approach to the study of political thought. Skinner and the so-called Cambridge School, of which he and J.G.A. Pocock are essentially the founding fathers, have been credited with a major breakthrough in historical scholarship for their contextualisation of political theory. And here precisely is the problem. Historical contexts, for them, are languages, utterances, words. It appears that only some words are worth listening to; but, more fundamentally, the social and material conditions in which words are deployed are deliberately excluded. In Skinner’s magisterial two-volume history of political ideas from 1300 to 1600, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, which deals with a period marked by major social and economic developments that loomed very large in political theory and practice, we learn little, if anything, about – for instance – relations between aristocracy and peasantry, about agriculture, land distribution and tenure, about urbanisation, trade, commerce and the burgher class, or about social protest and conflict.

This deliberate detachment of political theory from its social context may not be a purposeful political choice, but it has the effect of ruling out, sometimes even rendering invisible, a very wide range of social conflict and, indeed, political debate. It also means that, despite the Cambridge School’s insistence on the specificity of every historical moment, ‘traditions of discourse’, as linguistic constructs, occlude all kinds of historical specificity, the differences of meaning that words may have in different social contexts.

The very idea of ‘republicanism’ is a classic case in point. It is, at best, a slippery concept. Despite, or in some ways because of, the well-established common law tradition of ‘free-men’ in England, ‘republicanism’ is especially ill-suited to capturing the English political experience. In its original form the Roman idea of a civic community presupposed a ruling aristocracy that governed itself collectively and in amateur style, with a minimal state. The English context was very different. England had long had an effective central administration, in a state governed by a partnership of monarchy and unitary parliament. This political form, which was unlike any other in Europe or anywhere else, was the product of distinctive social developments, in particular a landed class whose power and wealth depended far less than those of Continental aristocracies on autonomous juridical, political and military powers, or on venal office in the state. A division of labour had developed in which the landed aristocracy derived its great wealth from its control of property, while the central state, ‘the Crown in Parliament’, maintained public order.

The partnership of monarchy and Parliament was recognised even by so-called republicans, who might argue against absolutism and for a ‘mixed constitution’ without necessarily advocating abolition of the monarchy. Nor did an emphasis on the civic community, a community of citizens, clearly distinguish the republican idea from other forms of anti-absolutism. In the English context, the civic community was likely to be identified with Parliament no less by republicans than by more moderate defenders of Parliament against the Crown.

In English conditions, what does stand out in sharper relief is the division between those for whom the ruling class in Parliament was the rightful embodiment of the civic community or popular power and those for whom the people outside Parliament were truly sovereign. The idea of ‘republican liberty’ is not very helpful in identifying this division, not least because the Roman republic was an oligarchy and the original Roman idea of liberty was never democratic. Even the distinction between oligarchic republicans and more democratic radicals may disappear from view. The Levellers, Skinner tells us, turned against Parliament on the grounds that it was itself becoming an arbitrary power and violating the very principles of liberty it was pledged to defend. But it is hard to see, in his account, what differences of principle distinguished them from other, less radical defenders of the people’s liberty against the Crown.

More particularly, the ‘people outside Parliament’ is a category without meaning in any context other than the English. It has no bearing on the Roman civic community where the republican idea was born, or on the Italian city-state where it was revived. Even in England’s closest Continental neighbour, absolutist France, the relevant players in the contest between absolutist kings and those who opposed them were necessarily different. When the great resistance tracts of the French monarchomaques asserted the rights of the ‘people’, it was not the rights of a ‘multitude’ of private individuals, or even those of a single representative assembly, but the powers of provincial nobles, municipal officials and various corporate bodies asserting their autonomous authority against a centralising monarchy.

The specifically English problem of the people outside Parliament is lost in Skinner’s account of Hobbes and ‘republican liberty’. Yet it was Hobbes himself who translated into theoretical terms the opposition, from both royalist and parliamentarian camps, to the multitude’s invasion of the political domain. In Elements, it was simply a matter of buttressing the claims of the Crown against Parliament by arguing that the sovereign power had been created by a transfer of power from the people, as a collection of individuals, to the sovereign. In De Cive, he emphasises that, once the sovereign power has been established, the people or multitude has no further political role. More particularly, the people outside Parliament have no political identity: ‘When we say the People, or Multitude, wills, commands, or doth any thing, it is understood that the City’ – i.e. the state – ‘which Commands, Wills and Acts by the will of one, or the concurring wills of more, which cannot be done, but in an Assembly.’ In this formulation, Parliament is no less politically legitimate than the monarchy. The target here is the people outside Parliament; and Hobbes’s concerns are clearly very immediate, with an eye to the multitude in the streets: ‘For although in some great Sedition, it’s commonly said, That the People of that City have taken up Armes; yet it is true of those onely who are in Armes, or who consent to them. For the City, which is one Person, cannot take up Armes against itself.’

It can be useful to define liberty as independence; but then much, if not everything, depends on what we mean by dependence – and, for that matter, what constitutes power, domination and coercion. In Hobbes’s day, one man’s liberty was another man’s servitude. Freedom for an oligarchical republican like Ireton would count as dependence for Rainsborough. And even the most radical Levellers did not exhaust the possibilities: some of their contemporaries, such as Gerrard Winstanley, went further, claiming that whatever the form of government, there could be no independence where there was private property. Skinner’s conception of ‘republican liberty’ fails to capture the spectrum of debate on freedom – in Hobbes’s day or any other – because it skirts the wide scope of dependence.

While he has on occasion acknowledged the existence of social domination in such institutions as the family or the labour market, Skinner has been careful to explain that it does not belong to the category of purely political coercion embraced by the neo-Roman tradition. And that is where he lets the matter rest. He does, it’s true, invoke the civic community and its role in protecting its citizens from ‘avoidable’ (Skinner’s own rather flexible word in Liberty before Liberalism) dependence on the goodwill of others. But we learn very little about what kinds of dependence count, or indeed what counts as arbitrary power. We learn even less about social domination from Skinner’s idea of republican liberty, or from his historical work, than we do from Isaiah Berlin’s conception of negative liberty.

Suppose, for instance, that you were to say that true independence requires a free market. I might respond that the capitalist market, which presupposes an unequal disposition of power between classes, is itself a powerful instrument of coercion and that it must be checked no less than any other form of unaccountable and arbitrary power. I might even say that this disposition of power has profound effects on the enjoyment of purely civil and political liberties. How would the concept of republican liberty, any more than negative liberty, help us to adjudicate the differences between us?

Skinner might object that he does not, on the whole, write about contemporary politics. But what if we take seriously his fundamental principle that words are deeds and that theorising about politics is itself a form of political activity? What should we make of his own political words? It is tempting to follow Skinner’s lead, his rule that to understand a thinker’s meaning we must uncover his intentions; and we might conclude that his own deliberate detachment from social realities is intended to blunt the critical edge of political thought, intended to make it essentially innocuous, intended to weaken its challenge to power, let alone to the existing social order. But without claiming privileged access to his motives, it may suffice to say that his historical work and his mode of contextualisation have the consequence, if not the intent, of narrowing the scope of political debate, no less today than in the English Civil War.

Here, the contrast with Berlin is striking. There is certainly nothing radical about Berlin; and we may think that his conception of freedom is far too restrictive in its understanding of what kinds of power must be checked to guarantee even negative liberty. When, for instance, he endorses (up to a point) the modern welfare state less on the grounds that it enhances liberty than on the grounds that it is a necessary compromise and sacrifice of liberty, we may regret his failure to acknowledge that the social conditions which require some correction by the welfare state are themselves impediments to freedom. But, for better or worse, there is in his argument a palpable preoccupation with social realities, domination and conflict, which is lacking in Skinner, whose republican liberty suffers from its own insensitivities, not only to the wide range of limits on freedom but to the spectrum of political ideas.