Republicanism and the form of working class rule

Oliver Cromwell: no messing about

As the constitutional monarchy state proclaims its commitment to privilege and the status quo, Michael Copestake looks back to a rather different tradition

(for a classic Marxist take on the monarchy and republicanism, see the bottom of this article for links to Karl Kautsky’s ‘Republic and social democracy’)

There were many who doubted whether or not the monarchy of the United Kingdom could survive the cultural transformations which it has had to undertake in order to appear, in the language of marketing, ‘relevant’. How can the official ideology of ‘meritocracy’ within a modern consumer society co-exist with the monarchical system of heredity, elitism, crowns and thrones – not to mention the distorted personalities themselves, whose moral hypocrisies and personal failings have been so openly exposed in the age of the ‘royal soap opera’?

For the time being at least it continues to do so – a task made simpler by the fact that there has been no powerful, organised force for republicanism for well over 150 years. Apart from a very small part of the revolutionary left, we are left with the likes of Republic – a liberal, single-issue grouping that, because of its lack of any working class political programme for an alternative state form, can only add to the situation whereby republicans appear or are portrayed as cheerless, middle class Guardianista types, out of touch with the earthy, emotional affinity for the monarchy held by the ‘patriotic commoner’.

Ironically, of course, it is all the things considered so distasteful, so backward, so offensive by republicans and democrats that form the selling points, the appeal of the institution, as sold to us by the bourgeois state, parties and media in a single, loud, loyal voice. Given that the official period of celebrations for the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth Windsor is upon us, we are about to experience a surfeit of fawning admiration for an institution and its personalities from an establishment determined to reinforce yet again the brilliancy of the qualities which the monarchy allegedly embodies in the interests of us all.

It goes without saying that most of it is superficial: the stability assured by a permanent figurehead, a head of state who stands ‘above’ the grubby world of day-to-day politics, the tourists who flock in, observing it all in awe and wonder, the continuity it symbolises with our glorious history – it is unfortunate that the only piece of plastic tat with a union flag printed on that one can not obtain is the diamond jubilee sick bucket. And if anyone should point out that the monarchy represents the opposite of democracy, there is another angle that can be pushed: ‘Oh come on! It’s just a harmless bit of fun.’

The real importance of the institution for Marxists lies not just in its symbolic power as an emblem of national unity, class harmony and so on, but in its central role within the quasi-democratic constitutional monarchy state itself, through which we are ruled. Most obviously the monarchy is a potential rallying point for extra-parliamentary reaction in a time of social crisis, which retains the power to choose the prime minister and dismiss governments. Only the bourgeois republican treats the question of the monarchy as separate from the nature of the state and bourgeois rule as a whole, whereas for us it is viewed in the context of our proposals to replace one form of class rule with another.

Unfortunately, most of the left thinks about the monarchy in the same way as bourgeois republicans – seeing it as a separate or peripheral question when it comes to workplace exploitation and the rule of capital; or at best accepting that the monarchy is a reactionary institution, but believing that, once the masses have been prodded through the various stages of the economic struggle, such questions will solve themselves. Meanwhile, there is no mileage in agitating about the constitution, when the real class struggle takes place in the factory or office. But for us identifying, analysing and attacking the role of the monarchy during such a high-profile period of official jubilation is a way to open up a discussion on the system of government as a whole and on the working class alternative. Or, at least it should be.

Dead dogs

In his writings published as Where is Britain going? Leon Trotsky spends much of the sixth chapter, ‘Two traditions’, attacking the spineless Labourite “dogs” who fudge so terribly on the questions of state power and the monarchy, all preferring to talk of an abstract socialism rather than emulate the intransigent stance taken by the dead “lion” of the bourgeois revolution in England, Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell viewed the task of replacing feudal state forms with the rule of the new bourgeois class with uncompromising clear-sightedness. Who are the lions today, we may wonder?

Cromwell, says Trotsky, was an intensely political revolutionary, the Lenin of his day even, who pushed forward the interests of the rising bourgeois class “without holding anything back”. And he stresses the importance of relearning the history of the bourgeois revolution for British workers in the present, given that “The British bourgeoisie has erased the very memory of the 17th century revolution by dissolving its past in ‘gradualness’.”

He goes on: “Cromwell’s task consisted of inflicting as shattering a blow as possible upon the absolutist monarchy, the court nobility and the semi-Catholic church …” In short, the smashing of the existing state order and its replacement with another: the same task that the working class now faces.

The bourgeois revolution in England was not a completely straightforward process that saw the rising bourgeoisie assert its own political class interest against the monarchy and the elements of feudal power which stood behind it. The burgeoning of capitalist manufacture and capitalist social relations in town and country gave rise to a growing class of capitalists large and small – from finance and banking to farming and industrial capital. It was parliament that provided this class with its voice – a class which, in claiming greater and greater ‘liberty’ (power) for itself as opposed to the aristocracy, drew the political representatives of the two social classes into open antagonism.

Under Charles I parliament was a mostly powerless body, but its consent, as representatives of the moneyed classes, was nevertheless considered desirable by the monarch in order to raise funds for the crown through the levying of taxes – for which purpose it could be summoned and dismissed at the monarch’s will. Having been denied adequate representation within the existing set-up, this class was faced with the historical task of smashing and remaking state power to serve itself.

This was to be an extended process that turned around the English Civil War and culminated in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, when the protestant, William III of Orange, was invited to take the throne by parliament from King James II, a Catholic who was attempting to wind back the clock on the concessions forced upon the monarch by parliament. A Bill of Rights was drawn up by parliament to entrench the subordinate role of the monarchy for good – this time under parliament, the rule of the bourgeoisie.

The English Civil War itself is generally held to have lasted from 1642-51, the period when the fighting actually took place, and was followed by the execution of King Charles I and the creation of a republic, the Commonwealth of England (1649-53), and then the more or less personal dictatorship of Cromwell himself as Lord Protector from 1653 until his death in 1659. During which time, as Trotsky points out, he in fact embodied in a single person the dictatorship of a new social class, which required the intense concentration of power in order to advance its interests.

After the revolution followed the period of restoration, which saw Charles II elevated to the throne by a parliament reconvened, ironically, by the army, which had previously driven the revolutionary process but had then been purged, by Cromwell, of its radical elements such as the proto-communist Levellers. But the point is that the restoration monarchy did not represent full-blown counterrevolution, but an accommodation that entailed significant concessions to parliamentary power. That placed the relation between crown and parliament where the moderate factions in parliament had wanted it – they would have got it earlier, were it not for the republican radicalism that had taken root in the New Model Army. It was a case of two steps forwards and then only one step back.

But why this desire for ‘moderation’ and retaining the monarchy?

Even Cromwell did not begin as a republican. A farmer who had come into an inheritance, Cromwell is pretty archetypal for the social position of the progressive bourgeois of the time, as were his pre-revolutionary views on the monarchy, wishing for a constitutional monarchy subordinated to the will of a parliament of propertied men.

What led him down the road of republicanism was the stubbornness of the king and the creation by parliament of an army for its own defence. As well as being an army, it was a political force, becoming the pre-eminent political force, above even parliament in time. This army had to be both militarily capable of besting the royalist forces in the field and set politically against the divine right of the monarch; they had to believe in the revolution, the politics of republicanism and democracy. It was not just a military, but a political vanguard.

As in the later French Revolution, the forces brought into being on the basis of a set of democratic ideas led events to run far beyond what the moderate parliament had ever envisioned. It was not long before soldiers’ democracy and political debate took root in the army itself, as it was transformed into the vanguard of the bourgeois revolution and threatened to take its ideas too far: to go beyond the form of rule which corresponds with the rule of capital – that is, a state form accountable to property owners, in this case a parliament composed of the members of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie – and to declare that democracy should not just be for the propertied, but for all. In other words, a form of rule corresponding to the interests of the proletariat – as yet still only half formed as a social class.

That democratic-republican ideas threaten the capitalists with the rule of the working class is the reason why the history of the English Revolution is played down and revised, as is the history of the French Revolution in a similar way.

In his 1850 review of Pourquoi la révolution d’Angleterre a-t-elle réussi? (‘Why did the English revolution succeed?’), François Guizot’s history of the English Civil War, Karl Marx criticised the French historian for failing to understand that the revolution was far from a mere rebalancing of the relationship between the monarch and parliament, but the result of a class struggle that the feudal forces had lost and which the bourgeois class had won: “Thus, to him, the whole revolution consists only of this: that in the beginning both sides, crown and parliament, overstep their bounds and go too far, until they finally find their proper equilibrium under William III and neutralise each other.” Marx added: “Guizot finds it superfluous to mention that the subjection of the crown to parliament meant subjection to the rule of a class.”[1] Even old fashioned bourgeois-democratic radicalism is too dangerous to be celebrated, and in practice no bourgeois party has advanced any thoroughgoing democratic measures in Europe since 1848 for exactly this reason.

If the subjection of ‘democracy for the monarch’ to ‘democracy for property’ means revolution and the fresh domination of one class over another, then it is confusing why the left fails in large part to understand that the subjection of ‘democracy for property’ to the proletarian democratic-republic cannot but mean the same in our era and should be at the top of our list of priorities. The bourgeoisie understands this, so why not the Marxists?

It is for these reasons that the Levellers had to be suppressed, and that Marx and Engels were so supportive of Chartism in their own period and why Marx, Engels and Kautsky were so effusive with praise for the Paris Commune – a form of the democratic republic, the “specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat”, in Engels’s words.[2] Even the substantial political foundation of Trotsky’s own 1934 A programme of action for France, though containing some of the tropes later to be given greater emphasis in his Transitional programme, are a series of democratic-republican demands for the smashing and recreating of the French state as a tool of working class power.[3]

Chartism and democracy

Just as the New Model Army was the vanguard of the ‘democratic’ bourgeoisie because it, and Cromwell especially, understood the political tasks it faced, the Chartist movement – an independent working class political movement – developed, in Marx’s words, into “the most conscious class struggle which the world has ever seen – the whole of this class struggle of the Chartists, the organised party of the proletariat, against the organised state power of the bourgeoisie …” Famously the six demands of the People’s Charter were: universal (male) suffrage; secret ballots; no property qualification for members of parliament; pay for members of parliament; constituencies of equal size; and annual elections.

So much for Occupy, saving the NHS and 50 different anti-cuts fronts (not that these things cannot be or are not important). The Chartists put forward a wholly political programme for a radical democracy. It was insufficient for social revolution – though Marx in 1848 was very enthused that this would happen – but nevertheless displaying class awareness of the obvious truth that real democracy is death for the capitalist state. The existence of a mass working class party and an understanding of this fact are the two most wounding absences from the left in its present form, and are absences which its theorisations of economism, broad fronts and bureaucratic centralism only reinforce and perpetuate.

For Trotsky in his Where is Britain going? the democracy of Chartism is the second of the ‘Two traditions’ with which all British workers and Marxists should reacquaint themselves (the first being the republicanism of the English Civil War, of course). He writes: “A familiarity with both these periods is vital to every conscious British worker. The clarification of the historical significance of the 17th century revolution and the revolutionary content of Chartism is one of the most important obligations for British Marxists.”[4]

And for us democratic-republican principles are not just good for the state, which is in dire need of a Paris-Commune style makeover. The very same principles, because they are the form of proletarian democracy – as against the constitution, the ‘democracy for property’ and so on – are good for the workers’ movement too, for the regimes of power that exist within our own organisations, be they big or small. Either there is working class democracy or there is the control of the working class by someone else, whatever their subjective intentions. The most obvious examples relevant to the left here are the trade unions and the left groups themselves – both in clear need of the principles of election and recallability, the worker’s wage and honest Marxist politics rather than backroom deals and bureaucratic toadying on reformist platforms.

The left and republicanism

So what does the left have to say about the monarchist state today? As far as the larger contingents go, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the answer is, in line with their politics, very little. This week’s Socialist Worker has Judith Orr taking a rake to the all-too-modern pomp and circumstance of the royal ‘firm’,[5] but, despite the odd fun article like this, the SWP has no programme at all, let alone one that lays down the form of the state appropriate to working class rule, the thing we are meant to be in this business to achieve.

In the ABC of communism, that classic Bolshevik text by Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, we are told: “Every party pursues definite aims, whether it be a party of landowners or capitalists, on the one hand, or a party of workers or peasants, on the other. Every party must have definite aims, for otherwise it is not a party.” And “All the aims which a party representing the interests of its class vigorously pursues constitute the party programme. The programme is for every party a matter of supreme importance. From the programme we can always learn what interests the party represents.”[6] But not in the case of the programmeless SWP.

Like the SWP, The Socialist comes out with an article suitable for the occasion. But the introduction to Becci Heagney’s piece explains that the diamond jubilee is “more than just a diversion” because “the existence of the monarchy poses a potential threat to the fight against austerity and more”.[7] To be fair, the article itself is rather better, but the introduction shows where SPEW’s economistic priorities lie.

Returning to Where is Britain going? – this time the fifth chapter, ‘On the question of revolutionary force’ – Trotsky gives an excellent contrary indicator for the importance of the question of the monarchy:

“The British bourgeoisie itself has well understood the danger of even the most fictitious monarchy. Thus in 1837 the British government abolished the title of the Great Mogul in India and deported its incumbent from the holy city of Delhi, in spite of the fact that his name had already begun to lose its prestige. The English bourgeoisie knew that under favourable circumstances the Great Mogul might concentrate in himself the forces of the independent upper classes directed against English rule.”[8]

As Marxists it is similarly incumbent on us to be resolutely against the monarchy in our own country (however “fictitious” it is considered) – an institution we do not separate from the state as a whole. Indeed Trotsky rounds on those who “proclaim a socialist platform”, but who are soft on the question of the monarch. He was referring then to the likes of Ramsay MacDonald and other Labour leaders, but today he would be talking about much of the far left. Our task, he emphasises, is “the complete overturn of society and purging it of all elements of oppression. Such a task, both politically and psychologically, excludes any conciliation with the monarchy.”[9]

Of course, today’s left does not exhibit “conciliation” to the monarchy in the same way as did MacDonald. Nevertheless, its downgrading of political questions – questions of how we are ruled – in favour of trade union-type struggle is a form of “conciliation” too.


1. K Marx and F Engels, ‘England’s 17th century revolution: a review of François Guizot’s 1850 pamphlet, Pourquoi la révolution d’Angleterre a-t-elle réussi?’ (

2. F Engels, ‘A critique of the draft social democratic programme of 1891’ (

3. Particularly obvious in sections 14, 15, 16 and 17: A programme of action for France (

4. L Trotsky Where is Britain going? chapter 6: ‘Two traditions’ (

5. ‘The royal tradition invented’ Socialist Worker June 2.

6. N Bukharin and Y Preobrazhensky The ABC of communism introduction: ‘Our programme’ (

7. ‘Monarchy – not just a “harmless relic”’ The Socialist May 30.

8. L Trotsky Where is Britain going? chapter 5: ‘The question of revolutionary force’ (

9. Ibid.

Further reading- newly translated excerpts from Karl Kautsky’s ‘Republic and social democracy’ on the CS site

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