Labor Republicanism: Symposium on Alex Gourevitch’s From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, 2014

Date01 August 2020
Published date01 August 2020
Subject MatterSymposium
/tmp/tmp-17F4ExvA8d0Fmk/input 890850PTXXXX10.1177/0090591719890850Political TheoryShort Title
Political Theory
2020, Vol. 48(4) 496 –527
Labor Republicanism:
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
Symposium on Alex
DOI: 10.1177/0090591719890850
Gourevitch’s From
Slavery to the Cooperative
Commonwealth: Labor
and Republican Liberty in
the Nineteenth Century,
Cambridge University
Press, 2014
Geneviève Rousselière, Jason Frank,
and John P. McCormick
On Republicanism as a Theory of Emancipation
Geneviève Rousselière
Duke University
In Capital (I.14.4), Karl Marx mocks the theoretical incoherence plaguing
the capitalist discourse that defends economic freedom in society at the same
time as it endorses surveillance and coercion of workers in the factory. A
century and a half later, the belief that capitalism is an economic system
based on freedom has not abated. Critics of capitalism often resort to other
norms—be they equality, justice, or dignity—rather than freedom, but in so
doing they open themselves to the accusation of trading off freedom with
something else. In From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth (FSCC),
Alex Gourevitch instead suggests: What if freedom, through the simple logic
of its universalization, were in fact the appropriate conceptual weapon to
criticize capitalism and the many oppressive practices it sustains?
This suggestion, appealing by its simplicity, may still meet the suspicion
of American readers, used to seeing their country as the home of unchal-
lenged capitalism. Even if the universalization of freedom could be the basis

Review Symposium 497
of a critical discourse, isn’t it the case that capitalism has won over not only
America but the world, which means that nothing can be changed? In
response, FSCC turns to American history to show readers that they should
not be so easily discouraged. After all, granted that what once existed could
exist again, they should be heartened to learn about the existence of a rela-
tively successful nineteenth-century American labor movement, dubbed
labor republicanism, whose strikes and cooperative initiatives challenged
the dominating practices of industrial capitalism. It turns out that their dis-
courses were based on a theory of freedom as nondomination, and that, at
the peak of their movement, they seriously frightened capitalists. Freedom
well-understood is the right weapon against wage-slavery, in theory and in
Gourevitch’s book masterfully combines a timely normative project with
a revisionist work in the history of political thought. It transforms the schol-
arly literature of the “neo-republican revival” in important ways that I will
discuss. It argues that republicanism, understood mainly as a political theory
taking freedom as nondomination as its principle, was a main source of
inspiration for a group of American workers and activists that aimed to
emancipate themselves from wage-labor. The book traces the historical and
conceptual transformations of the republican idiom in the circumstances of
an industrializing America struggling with its history of slavery. The aboli-
tion of chattel slavery and the emancipatory demands of previously excluded
groups (the propertyless, Blacks, women) placed the republican discourse,
which had previously been reserved for a select few, under pressure to be
universalized. The book analyzes the conceptual modifications of the mean-
ing and value of freedom, the transformation of the republican theory of
virtue, and unravels the forms that the process of emancipation took in coop-
erative ventures. The book is ambitious yet focused, sharp, and tightly
FSCC is methodologically interesting as it bridges the work done by US
historians and political theory as a discipline, showing how political theorists
and philosophers can learn and use the work from other disciplines for the
purpose of thinking normatively about politics. In this sense, this book depro-
vincializes political theory. Anyone interested in US labor history would have
heard about the spectacular rise and fall of the Knights of Labor, the heroes
of Gourevitch’s book. Yet the diversity and breadth of this movement, the
type of documents they produced—pamphlets, discourses, fliers—the dis-
sensions between its leaders and local cooperators make it very difficult to
capture their theoretical coherence. Gourevitch must be commended for
bringing theoretical sharpness and consistence to this movement but also for
showing them in a new light, since their embrace of republican freedom is not
the primary angle under which they are traditionally presented.

Political Theory 48(4)
While FSCC is inscribed in the neo-republican revival, it offers a series of
criticism toward some of the standard tenets of this school of thought. In his
analysis of the “paradox of freedom and slavery” (ch.1), Gourevitch insists
that republican thinkers tended not to challenge slavery, precisely because the
status of a free man was predicated on both its difference from, and the actual
existence of, slaves. In doing so, he criticizes some of the canonical republi-
can thinkers, such as Cicero. In turn, the chapter on “laissez-faire republican-
ism” (ch. 2) shows that the identification of wage-labor with free labor did
have republican origins and was supported with republican arguments, which
should give pause to anyone tempted to embrace the idea that republican and
liberal ideas of freedom are historically clearly demarcated. The book also
disputes the understanding of “virtue” in republicanism as well as the sup-
posed republican aversion for commerce and wealth.
Most importantly, in my view, the book criticizes the now widely accepted
thesis that republicanism disappears by giving birth to liberalism in the begin-
ning of the nineteenth century.1 This thesis has contributed to the exclusion of
large parts of the republican tradition, especially the ones offering more
socially oriented or critical theories from Black thinkers like David Walker to
continental philosophers such as Emile Durkheim. Criticizing this thesis thus
not only revises intellectual history, it also acknowledges that the history of
the republican tradition, depending on how it is construed, has an impact on
the direction in which we normatively want to take it.
My goal here is not to make objections in order to fault aspects of the
book. There is little I disagree with in this excellent and forcefully argued
study. I endorse Gourevitch’s idea that freedom cannot be confiscated for the
purposes of glorifying the “free” market, and that ultimately such a use of the
concept is incoherent. His critique of the neo-republican take on the history
of the tradition is equally convincing. The general project of twisting the arc
of neo-republicanism in a left-wing direction—emphasizing the importance
of collective emancipation, equality, and cooperation—seems to me impor-
tant and theoretically consistent with (at least part of) the republican tradi-
tion. Gourevitch points toward a neo-republican theory in which the full
enjoyment of an undominated status necessitates a free society and not only
a free polity. I commend him for making this point so clearly.
FSCC leaves the reader wanting to know more on some issues—certainly
a quality of the book in my view. Here are three main points on which I am
asking Gourevitch to tell us more about the direction of his research.
On the Universalization of Freedom
In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon argues that the “Marxist analysis
should be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue.”

Review Symposium 499
Indeed, “in the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure.
The cause is effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because
you are rich.”2 Displacing Fanon’s insight to the different context of domina-
tion in nineteenth-century industrializing America, I would like first to ask
Gourevitch whether labor republicanism ought not to be “slightly stretched”
when dealing with both racial and male domination. FSCC leaves us with the
impression that race and gender can be seamlessly integrated within an eman-
cipatory process based on the organization of labor. But is this really the
case? And if not, how should thinking about race and gender transform
republicanism as a theory of emancipation?
Gourevitch’s central operating domain in this book is labor, and the dom-
ination he is mostly interested in is the one that is associated with wage-
labor. Labor republicans, he argues, “developed the conceptual material
both for criticizing wage-slavery and for generating a demand for the coop-
erative commonwealth” (10). Their contribution to the republican tradition
is “the attempt to universalize the language of republican liberty and the
conceptual innovations that took place in the process” (14). I would like to
press Gourevitch on the nature of this universalization process of freedom—
that is, on the emancipatory strategy that it involves.
The Knights of Labor (KOL) were exceptionally inclusive for their time—
in their discourse, acts, and outcome of their organization. There were a size-
able number of Black workers in the Order, and many women’s cooperatives
were created, greatly contributing to what Levine calls “labor feminism.”3
“No American organization was to be that...

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