Republican Liberty

Ellen Meiksins Wood reviews Quentin Skinner’s Hobbes and Republican Liberty in the LRB:

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.