Holy trinity of reaction
The queen's jubilee is a timely event for the forces of reaction in an age of austerity, argues Ben Lewis. For its part, the workers' movement needs to rediscover the tradition of militant republican democracy
Republicanism: more than getting rid of the monarch
Every possible avenue is being exploited to promote the 60th anniversary of the supposedly glorious reign of our monarch, Elizabeth Windsor. The events for this summer bear all the hallmarks of slick marketing and promotion, and result from years of detailed advance planning. Given the sheer ubiquity of news items, features and banal commentary on the royal family, one could be forgiven for wanting to remove oneself from it all and retreat to a desert island.
Anniversaries are often contested sites of struggle - struggles decided on the battlefield of historical memory. Two such battles can be expected within the next few years, as we approach centenaries of two events that helped define the ‘short 20th century’ - World War I and the Russian Revolution. Publishers will have long commissioned books for 2014, for which the British state will be planning something beyond the usual round of poppy fetishism, and all media outlets will be seeking to outdo each other in historical falsification: documentaries, features, ‘new historical research’ and all the rest of it.
Those who recoiled in disgust at the xenophobic Europhobia in the media following David Cameron’s recent deployment of his European Union veto have not seen anything yet. After all, ‘Two world wars and one World Cup’ are what made Britain/England great.
Of course, British flag-waving and monarchy worship require a degree of historical blindness. After all, our very own Elizabeth Windsor is actually a direct descendant of the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha family - names that many British royalists would not even be able to correctly pronounce. That she is married to a Greek - who, unlike most of his beleaguered compatriots, certainly is ‘lazy’, at least in the institutional sense - is another irony for those who venerate the monarchy as part of their ‘British’ identity.
Indeed, the adoption of the name ‘Windsor’ actually came at the height of World War I, a time when words like Gotha and Saxe-Coburg jarred with the generalised jingoism demanded by the British war machine. While the working classes of Europe were urged to continue their mutual slaughter, the royals of the different warring states dutifully put the ‘national interest’ before family ties.
The 1917 example reveals something about an institution so painfully out of step with modern society: it must constantly reinvent itself, constantly pass off something as ‘new’ in order to preserve the ‘old’. Hence the song and dance about David Cameron’s proposals to allow first-born daughters to accede to the throne (we do, after all, live in an era of women’s liberation, right?). Hence the particular form of the jubilee festivities. Certainly military pomp and circumstance will have to play a part - this is Britain, after all. But so will events like the huge rock concert in front of Buckingham Palace - the queen has to be seen as in touch with her subjects. No other than Mancunian pin-up Gary Barlow of Take That and The X factor (whose popularity is certainly up there with that of the queen) will be choreographing the huge event. This might be a Con-Dem government, but such contrived homages to ‘Cool Britannia’ are lifted straight from the New Labour textbook.
Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev once observed that the bourgeois press is able to lie effectively by constantly, insatiably and irrepressibly repeating untruths or half-truths until they are unconsciously assimilated by the mass of the population and become, to all intents and purposes, true. These ‘truths’ then set the agenda for further untruths, producing a web of further befuddlement and obfuscation. We are lied into submission.
So it is that 60 years of royal corruption, political meddling, oppression and almost uninterrupted wars and military misadventures are quickly turned into their opposite: the queen, so the story goes, embodies the eternal British values of dedication, self-sacrifice, loyalty and unquestioning service. She and her hangers-on are dedicated to ensuring we all can enjoy a better life.
As the current Con-Dem government engages in unabashed class warfare against the majority of the population, there is quite clearly enormous political capital to be gained by appealing to the notion of national identity and common cause with the institution that symbolises it - the monarchy. After all, if we as a nation - black and white, young and old - can tighten our belts in the name of the national good and unite behind our dear monarch, then this spirit of the blitz might see us through the other side of the huge economic crisis. Hand in hand with the unfolding economic crisis and assault on living standards comes this drive to reinforce the revoltingly abnormal institution of the monarchy.
Generally speaking, the monarchy does not enjoy the level of popular support that it did, for example, back in the 1980s. The royal wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 had more purchase. Intervening divorces and sex scandals may have revealed that the royals are a bit more ‘like you and me’ than they would care to admit. Yet this, combined with the plethora of conspiracy theories about the untimely demise of the ‘People’s Princess’, may have played their part in the reduced support for the institution. But this is not some inexorable process - ultimately, the outcome will be determined by the battle of ideas. The ruling class has certainly laid down the gauntlet once again.
Last April’s wedding between Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge was obviously a propaganda coup for monarchists and other reactionaries. Who could argue that the monarchy was out of date, when these two people are so young, so hip and so wonderfully in tune with modern Britain? Since then the royalist propaganda barrage seems to have continued unabated. Look how popular Kate and Wills are in Canada! Look at the good our Kate is doing for British fashion by wearing that overcoat! Note how naturally she fits into the oh-so-demanding roles of shaking hands and drinking non-alcoholic cocktails - in boozy, feckless Liverpool of all places! And that without the support of her husband! Witness her selfless charity work for alcoholics and other down-and-outs!
And this is the point. Behind every handshake that the Duchess of Cambridge exchanges with somebody driven to destitution, or some poor young boy dying of cancer, lies a pernicious, reactionary political agenda that is rotten to the core. We may be faced with the prospect of real mass poverty and social exclusion, but the Tories are quite clearly hell-bent on dishing out the usual mix of carrot and stick to maintain the fragile social cohesion that their austerity undermines. On the one hand, state repression, the threat of unemployment and the removal of state subsidies. On the other, the royal circus.
And they certainly start such an agenda with the young. As our televisions and radios loyally report, children up and down the country are being asked to take part in school art projects and sports events, to sing the national anthem and all the rest of it.
There are further, ominous signs of what is to come. In the run-up to an official visit to the pope in the Vatican, Tory chair Baroness Warsi warned of the supposed “militant secularisation” of British society. This is quite clearly mendacious manoeuvring to increase the role and influence of religion. Note the imagery in her statement: “You cannot and should not extract these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you should or could erase the spires from our landscapes.”
The cretinism of regal revelry and the bolstering of religion (both ideologically and in terms of the welfare and support offered by religious charities to those cut off from society), combined with the scrutinously policed orgy of nationalism and corporatism known as the London Olympic Games, will form a holy trinity of reaction this summer.
Any democrat or vaguely progressively-minded person will surely be sickened by the fact that in-depth discussions of Kate’s latest fashion choices appear alongside some of the shocking footage from Syria, Egypt and Bahrain. Many an object must have been hurled at the television or the radio, particularly when David Cameron or foreign secretary William Hague then appear to make duplicitous noises about “legitimate democratic aspirations” in the Arab world.
All the while these types, along with the compromised and bribed media, are more than content to wax lyrical about the virtues of British democracy: the fact that we Brits have - in our own proudly eccentric fashion, of course - almost uniquely succeeded in marrying the demands of modern democratic society with the existence of our timeless, god-given monarchy. While the last 60 years have seen big changes in the world, we can sleep safe at night in the knowledge that the institution headed by our queen has stood the test of time.
Yet the notion that Britain is a genuine democracy, where the people really do rule, is a sick joke. The idea that such a travesty should be exported is even sicker. British citizens - sorry, subjects - are able to put a cross next to the name of a candidate every five years or so. All the while, the judiciary, the armed forces, the secret state, the police, the media, etc remain beyond our control.
Of course, in this country we - for the time being - enjoy far more democratic space and freedom to organise than in Syria, North Korea or Saudi Arabia. Yet this has not resulted from the benevolence of the monarchy, still less from the rise of the bourgeoisie and its class imperatives. Every right, no matter how much it may be taken for granted, has been won through blood, sweat and tears over centuries, in the process of mass struggle.
There is a frustrating lack of anything approaching a critical response to this overwhelming royalist onslaught. Attempting to avoid accusations of bias, our wonderful ‘independent’ state broadcaster, the BBC (which has effectively agreed to avoid using the word ‘Palestine’), tends to put forward arguments along the lines of ‘Of course, the queen has made mistakes’, such as in her response to the death of Diana and so on. You will not find much time and space allotted to anyone making even the most fluffy of liberal cases for the abolition of the monarchy. Those who rock the boat are portrayed as party-poopers out of step with the real world and subject to patronising dismissal and marginalisation. This explains why so many politicians will be keen to join in worship at the altar of the monarchy. Their media reputation hinges upon it.
Communists can certainly agree with the liberal campaigning group, Republic, that June 3 provides “a unique opportunity not just to voice our opposition to an unaccountable and anti-democratic institution, but to promote the positive republican alternative”. We on the far left should surely now be looking to organise our own independent voice against the monarchy as a matter of some urgency.
But what precisely is this “positive republican alternative?” Republic boasts that its “diverse membership represents the full social and political spectrum … bound together by a few simple principles and a single ambition: a republican constitution, the right to a democratic head of state and an end to the monarchy.”
But our class deserves better than a situation like that in France or the USA. Marxist republicanism does not merely concern itself with the abolition of this or that post. We do not wish to simply see her majesty replaced by a “democratic head of state” like Nicolas Sarkozy or Barack Obama. Our republicanism is not one that merely seeks to substitute an elected monarchical president for the present incumbent of Buckingham Palace, but strives to achieve the victory of the democratic principle in all areas of life in order to create the conditions for working class rule. Unlike that of liberals, our democracy does not stop halfway.
For Marx, Engels, Lenin, Kautsky, Luxemburg and many more, the democratic republic was the form they envisaged for working class rule. This rule rests on the fulfilment of key political demands, the pillars of the minimum programme: the armed people, annual elections, all public officials to be paid no more than the wage of a skilled worker, the election of judges, self-government in the localities, the abolition of the secret-state apparatus and so on. Only with the achievement of such measures and thus the winning of a thoroughgoing, genuine democracy can the transition to a higher form of society take place.
Unfortunately, some of these cornerstones of Marxist political strategy have been lost in the defeats inflicted upon our class in the 20th century. So as to avoid falling into the trap of bourgeois republicanism typified by Republic, the working class movement must look back to its achievements of the past and begin once more to articulate a viable, practical vision for society as a whole. We unashamedly stand in the democratic republican tradition of 1848, 1871 and 1917.
The ruling classes are clearly on the offensive, and it will take more than well-meaning pledges about the dangers of heredity to hold back the tidal wave of reaction. The working class programme must constantly raise the question of the republic as the form of working class rule. We must fight for the federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales - crucially, as a key aspect of the strategic fight for a United Socialist States of Europe.
Communists can only echo Karl Kautsky in his seminal work on Marxist republicanism: “We are republicans for the very reason that the democratic republic is the only political form which corresponds to socialism. The monarchy can only exist on the basis of class differences and antagonisms. The abolition of classes also requires the abolition of the monarchy.”
We look forward to that fine day when our working class movement can thoroughly humanise the goldfish bowl existence of those like Elizabeth, Charles, Kate and William - through the winning of human freedom and the emancipation of the whole of humanity. We have no reason to seek bloody retribution nor, as cleverly proposed by Susan Townsend in her novel The queen and I, do we wish to see old Liz slumming it up in a council house on the pittance offered by the state in benefits or by religious charities.
The working class project of self-liberation aims to emancipate all of humanity, creating the conditions in which even members of the royal family can become genuinely human. Conditions where everyone can think, love and create freely and equally with their brothers and sisters across the planet - satisfying these needs without seeing them submerged in greed, avarice and other manifestations of the profit system.
Now that is something worth throwing a party for - whether Gary Barlow is on board or not.
1. A recent example of this is the scandal of Prince Charles being offered a veto over 12 different pieces of government legislation since 2005 because they could have impacted upon his property portfolio: eg, the Duchy of Cornwall, worth a cool £700 million. See The Guardian October 31 2011.