The Communist Manifesto is one of the most translated texts in the world. In the English translation we are familiar with today, the opening line is famously rendered ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism’. But that was not how it appeared in the first English translation. There it read ‘A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are haunted by a ghost, the ghost of Communism.’

The ‘frightful hobgoblin’ translation appeared in 1850 in the London newspaper The Red Republican. Its name represented the coming together of two progressive currents: the till then dominant revolutionary tradition of republicanism with the newly emergent socialist and communist movements. Since the French Revolution of 1789, republicanism had stood for popular sovereignty, democracy and freedom. Republicans believed that citizens could only be free when they overthrew the domination of Kings and aristocrats, formulated their own laws and shaped politics themselves.

They thereby distinguished themselves not only from contemporary liberals, who in the 19th century decisively rejected democracy, but also from the early currents of socialism and communism. These were nearly without exception anti-political and anti-democratic, to an extent that is hard to comprehend from a modern perspective. They either had no interest in political engagement or even explicitly opposed universal suffrage and a democratic republic. The Red Republican was part of a growing movement that tried to throw off these anti-political elements and to fuse socialism and republicanism together.

It was no accident that Marx and Engels decided on The Red Republican to spread their ideas amongst the English working class. They were at the forefront of this social-republican fusion, and they defended this position in the Communist Manifesto: the ‘establishment of democracy’ was the precondition of all social emancipation they argued. This was a revolutionary position in a continent that was dominated by absolutist and pseudo-constitutionalist regimes. Marx and Engels simultaneously criticized other socialist currents that dismissed ‘representative government…bourgeois press freedom, bourgeois right, bourgeois freedom and equality’ and had ‘violently oppose[d] all political action on the part of the working class’. With their lifelong political engagement, Marx and Engels played a decisive role in shifting socialism in a democratic direction. The creation of this republican socialism is one of their most important (and overlooked) contributions.

The republican inheritance of Marx and Engels is also evident in the political institutions they considered necessary for the social transformation of society. These political institutions are notoriously (but misleadingly) associated with the formulation ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. But Marx used this phrase much less frequently than its subsequent use by dogmatic followers would suggest. Marx spoke similarly often of a ‘red republic’, the ‘republic of labour’ or the ‘social ‘republic’.

Marx’s idea of the social republic was shaped by the Paris Commune, the 1871 uprising in which workers briefly conquered the city and introduced a radical democratic experiment. In his eyes, the Communards had ‘supplied the Republic with the basis of really democratic institutions.’

The idea of the social republic contains many of the democratic institutions that are today rightly taken to be essential, such as universal suffrage and civic rights. But it also includes structures that were completely standard in the republican tradition but are now condemned as populist, if they are even discussed at all. That includes mechanisms to bind representatives closer to their electors. For instance, Marx believed that they should not earn much more than workers’ wage, as higher salaries tended to alienate representatives from the lives of ordinary people.

Moreover, he believed elections should take place much more frequently, for instance every year, so that representatives are continuously forced to engage with the will of their voters. The end of more tightly binding representatives to their electoral pledges would be served by a further, even more radical instrument. Citizens would have the possibility of immediately recalling their representative, when they had contravened their mandate. Citizens would also have the power to giving binding instructions to their representative. This so-called ‘imperative mandate’ is explicitly banned in many ‘democratic’ constitutions, including the German and French.

These powerful democratic accountability measures would in Marx’s social republic not only apply to political representation but would also extend to public administration. Public officials, who in a bourgeois republic are handed enormous power but not subject to democratic election, would in the social republic be elected and recallable. In this way, the bureaucracy, the police, the military and the courts would be democratized. At the core of the social republic is the idea that one needs really democratic structures in order to effectively change society in favour of the working masses.

Our modern democratic structures are of course a massive step forward over their despotic predecessors (which Marx always emphasized). But they were founded in order to slow or even block further social and democratic transformation. Representatives who are elected but given a free mandate possess on the one hand democratic legitimacy, but on the other, the necessary independence to resist popular demands for social improvement. A bureaucratic and military apparatus insulated from democratic procedures serves as a further protective wall against the political ambitions of an elected left-wing government. In a bourgeois republic, democracy cannot encroach upon property relations. Social emancipation needs a social republic.


* Bruno Leipold, political theorist at The New Institute in Hamburg. His book Citizen Marx will appear with Princeton University Press in autumn 2024 (see here) – This article was first published in the German version of Jacobin. It has been translated from German.

[ENA Centre for Political Theory | Co-ordinator: Yiannis Kouris]