It’s odd, isn’t it, for me to address myself to you like this? Who writes to a political party, even if it does lead the opposition in Tanzania? I have spent much of the last nine years reading and writing about you: your struggles, your tactics, your successes and your setbacks.
I have never thought that this made it my place to write to you. I still don’t, as a rule. It’s one thing to tell others about you, but what could I tell you about yourselves? Haven’t you, and all your co-patriots, had enough of people like me (i.e., privileged, white, male, British) presuming to lecture you?
I am making exception, here, and addressing you directly, because there is something I want to share with you: something about yourselves, something, specifically, about your ideas.
Your constitution is very clear: yours is a centre-right ideology. You stand for private enterprise, free markets, a small state and an open society. I have heard your leaders espouse these principles at venues from branch party meetings to Western capitals.
Many treat that as the end of the story, but it’s not, of course. Your constitution makes plain that you also have what you call ‘a people’s power philosophy.’ It is defined there in just a few sentences, but I see it articulated in the speeches of your leaders, in the Twitter advocacy of the democracy activists allied with you, and in your calls for a #NewConstitution. You don’t need me to tell you what they say or what you believe, but I would like to show you another way of seeing what your own ideas resemble. Like a friend holding up a mirror, I would like to offer you another perspective on yourselves.
Here goes. I think that your people power philosophy amounts to a homegrown republicanism. It’s not what you think. I certainly don’t mean the political thought of the contemporary United States’ Republican Party. Instead, I mean a vision of politics which connects many thinkers and ages. I mean a current of political thought which took shape in ancient Greece and Rome, but which has been revived and reformed in many times and places since, and invented anew in yet others. I mean an intellectual framework in which a growing body of political philosophers see a way to make sense of the political challenges and possibilities of the present.
Republicanisms are not alike. They have been championed by conservatives and radicals, on the left and on the right. They have been integrated into the advocacy of causes as diverse as anti-monarchy, democracy, decolonisation, socialism, anti-slavery, anti-oligarchy and anti-capitalism. Nevertheless, there are themes that reoccur across them and connect them.
Republicans are animated by the threat of domination. To be dominated, as they understand it, is to be subjected to the will of another arbitrarily, as a slave is subjected to the will of a master. One line of republican thought connects domination to freedom. It was developed by Cicero and others in the late years of ancient Rome’s republic. It was revived by renaissance radicals and rewrought by many others. To be free, in their eyes, is to be free from domination. One could be unfree, in this understanding, even if no-one was interfering with you right now, so long as someone had the arbitrary power to do so at any time. One would not truly enjoy the freedom of speech, in this view, even if no-one were censoring your speech right now, so long as the government had the institutional powers to do so whenever it chose.
Neo-republicans who follow this line of thought, like contemporary theorist Philippe Pettit, advocate that constitutions be written and adopted which secure such freedom by preventing the emergence of tyrants. They take inspiration from commonwealth thinkers, most of all James Madison. They take the constitution of the United States in many ways as their template. Constitutions should be designed, they argue, to limit and divide state power between multiple independent branches of government, so that would-be tyrants would always be held in check.
Another, overlapping line of republican thought connects domination to corruption. Corruption, in their eyes, is not only wrongdoing by individual officials. It is rule in the interest of some part over the interest of the whole. This sort of systemic corruption, in their minds, is enabled by domination by that part or group. These ideas originate in Socrates and were an inspiration for commonwealth thinkers in the age of revolutions. One of them was 16th century Italian thinker Niccolò Machiavelli. He is most famous today for the creed of ruthless power politics advocated in The Prince, for which he has become eponymous. However, in his other writings which he put these ideas on a popular, meaning plebeian, footing. He singled-out the few (il grande) as the body which rules in its own interests and the many (il popoli) as the object of their domination. He advocated the instillation of plebeian institutions in republics which would empower the common people to check the domination of their oligarchic rulers.
These ideas have reappeared in many different guises since then. Most recently, they have been re-read and revived by a body of political theorists. They see a way of thinking in these ideas which we need. They employ it to critique the many forms of systemic corruption which they (and I) see across so much of the world. Equally, they employ it to articulate visions of possible futures in which oligarchy is checked and people are emancipated through popular empowerment.
These republican ideas have been extracted from thinkers in Europe and North America. They have been revived by scholars principally in European and North American universities. Yet the ideas themselves know no boundaries. The critique of oligarchic corruption, the ideal of freedom as non-domination, and the vision of popular empowerment which they offer can acquire significance in many contexts. The varied constitutional blueprints they offer are resources for advocates of (and reformers of) liberal democracy anywhere. They are not only articulated by contemporary scholars from the global south such as Camila Vergara and Lawrence Hamilton. Toussaint Louverture, or ‘Black Spartacus,’ the leader of Haiti’s 18th century anti-slave and anti-colonial revolution turned European republics’ own ideas against them as he critiqued the slavery at their heart. Likewise, African and Caribbean nationalists channelled republican ideas in moments of decolonization to imagine a new world order free of international domination. The ideal of self-reliance articulated by Julius Nyerere is a prime example, even if the system of government which he subsequently established defied in practice the domination-breaking ideals which republicans cherish.
This family of republican resemblances is loose, sprawling and contradictory, and no ideology could incorporate all of the ideas it contains at once. Nevertheless, your people power philosophy bears many parallels to the republicanisms described above. You see history of Tanzania as a history of domination by the Germans, the British, and the regime that succeeded them. You saw the Benjamin Mkapa and the Jakaya Kikwete administrations as ridden by the rise of an oligarchic nexus of politicians and big business which captured the party-state and ruled in its own (moneyed) interests. You saw the John Pombe Magufuli years as the domination by a tyrant and his lieutenants and the evolution of a new corrupted state in orbit around the will and predilections of one man. You see the antidotes to Tanzania’s ills in constitutional change, change which limits the power of the president, checks the arbitrary power of the state and stems the perennial creep of systemic corruption. You say that such reforms would constitute a second liberation. You see the path for such emancipation as the empowerment of the masses through your party and the overpowering of the regime. Your people’s power philosophy is simultaneously an original republicanism.
I offer you this view of yourself not to subordinate your thought to theirs. Your philosophy is original and distinct. It neither could nor should be reduced to a derivative of others. I offer it to you as a resource. Treat republican thought as a well of ideas from which you pick and choose. Find in the parallels analogies by which you can make your people power philosophy intelligible to others. Use it however you please.
I, for my part, will be sharing with others what they might learn from your ideas. I will be telling them how your philosophy informs your critique of grand corruption, your fight against tyranny, your advocacy of a new constitution and your struggle for people’s power.”
Dan Paget (@pandaget) is Lecturer in Politics Department of Politics University of Sussex.
To read the original version of this letter, in Swahili, visit The Chanzo Initiative.