It’s the politics, stupid

The left needs to break with economism and take the monarchy and high politics seriously. We should be fighting for a federal republic and extreme democracy, argues James Harvey

It was a BBC reporter during the corporation’s interminable coverage of the ceremonies surrounding the death of Elizabeth Windsor who put her finger on it. Asked by the anchor back in the studio about the extent of republican feeling in Scotland, linked to support for Scottish independence, she replied: “This is not a day for politics.”

The reporter, Lorna Gordon, pithily summed up in a phrase the whole basis of the media coverage that we have been subjected to in the last week or so. The death of one head of state and the accession of the next - surely the most political of acts - has been presented instead as uncontested tradition and a celebration of continuity and national unity. Nobody on the left should be, or indeed has been, surprised by the nature of the media’s coverage and the way that the ruling class has pulled out all the stops to put on a magnificent show of Ruritanian pageantry, invented tradition and ridiculous flummery. We all knew what to expect: the carefully stage-manged performance has been a long time in the planning and preparation; the deaths of the queen’s mother in 2002 and her consort in 2021 were mere dress rehearsals for what is surely not just a big state occasion but a heaven sent opportunity to bring some unity back to the United Kingdom.

So far, the whole thing has gone to plan: everyone understands the part they must play and has played it to perfection. Labour’s Mark Drakeford in Wales, Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s first minister in Stormont and above all Nichola Sturgeon, all expressed their deep sorrow, sent condolences to the bereaved royal family and held out the hand of friendship to Charles III.

Given ongoing agitation in Scotland for another independence referendum there can be little doubt that Elizabeth Windsor and her closest advisors planned her death to take place in Balmoral castle: that would allow her funeral cortege to travel all the way down from Aberdeenshire to lay in state in Edinburgh before the flight to London and Buckingham Palace (and so it passed). Royalist Scotland could thereby cut into and divide SNP petty nationalism.

Of course, the Labour Party has carried out its role as Her Majesty’s loyal opposition and committed supporter of the established constitutional and political order. Sir Keir has taken his place in the front rank of the official mourners and pledged his true allegiance to the new sovereign, while Labour MPs have followed the leader’s instructions and tweeted about their great sadness over the passing of our beloved queen. Even the allegedly leftwing Socialist Campaign Group MPs have fallen into line and sent out the nauseating statements centrally prepared by the party leadership. Again, no surprise there, given the generally craven role these fake lefts play in the Labour Party and the purely platonic republicanism they show in their supine loyalty to the constitutional status quo in their day-to-day politics. Their falling into line behind the agreed narrative has been widely and justifiably mocked and criticised by the more consistent left on social media and elsewhere.

However, if the response of this tame left was only to be expected, the unexpected actions of some others has caused confusion and some consternation. Within minutes of the official announcement of Elizabeth Windsor’s death, the RMT and CWU, along with other unions, called off the strikes planned to take place during the official mourning period, while the TUC also postponed its congress.1 Moreover, in an official statement, RMT president Mick Lynch joined “the whole nation in paying its respects to Queen Elizabeth II” and offered the union’s “deepest condolences to her family, friends and the country”.2 This bowing of the knee by a noted leftwing union leader seemed all the more shocking, given that he has shown himself to be an effective media performer during the rail strikes, who refused to be browbeaten by reporters and continues to run rings around media hacks during interviews.

Many activists were shocked: surely the militant leader who named executed Irish socialist James Connolly as one of his heroes could not be lining up with the apologists and the toadies to pay his respects to a monarch who represented a system he implacably opposed? In calling off the strikes Lynch and the other leaders seemed to suggest that the class struggle was suspended for the death of a royal and that there were more important issues “for the whole nation” than workers’ pay and the cost-of-living crisis. However, while he was wrong to join this latter-day Burgfrieden3 and silence the voice of the working class movement at an important political moment, the issues here go far beyond tactical considerations or the sin of repeating conventional formulae during a period of royalist reaction and moral terrorism. No, this self-imposed silence points to something much more fundamentally wrong at the heart of the politics of even the most left-wing sections of our movement.


The whole history of the Labour Party since its foundation has been one of unswerving fealty to the bourgeois political and constitutional order. Labour leaders have loyally served as prime ministers and her majesty’s opposition, providing a reliable second eleven and alternative party of government for the British state and the capitalist class.

Not only has Labour never made any serious inroads into the power and wealth of the capitalist class, but, beyond some cosmetic tinkering, it has also left the structures of the state well alone. In practice, Labour governments have strengthened its powers and consolidated its most reactionary and anti-democratic features. For the left, Labour’s unconditional loyalty to the constitutional order is taken as read. So Sir Keir’s response to the death of the monarch and the accession of Charles III are quite usual for a Labour leader, and so hardly deserving of comment.

However, for those who claim to stand on the left, it is another matter. What usually passes for militant politics in the current period is really a form of economism that wilfully dismisses anything other than strikes, demonstrations and narrow protest politics as a diversion. So the high constitutional politics of the bourgeois state and the ruling class, and the impact they have on the working class, are all but ignored by these comrades as a waste of time or irrelevant to the ‘real struggle’ on the shop floor.

Look at the pages of Socialist Worker, The Socialist or Socialist Appeal, for example. Reports of strikes and economic struggles are their staple fare: while undoubtedly important in informing activists of the struggles that are going on, this emphasis on the lowest, trade unionist, manifestation of the class struggle does nothing to raise the political level of the readers of these journals. Where is the independent working class approach to high politics? How can we expect to build a revolutionary socialist consciousness in the most active layers of the working class if we do not develop the habits and modes of thinking of a future ruling class?

These economistic politics of trade union struggle, however militant in form, are, in essence, the limited ‘politics’ of bargaining about the price of selling the labour-power of the working class to the capitalist class. They are conflicts about the place and the rewards of workers within capitalist society, not struggles that point towards overturning it and ushering in the rule of our class. Far from being inherently revolutionary, this approach is actually the politics of the bourgeoisie. The task facing Marxists is to develop revolutionary socialist consciousness, both through political demands and organisational structures which make the working class aware of their own power and their potential to become the ruling class.

Strikes and other economic struggles contribute to that process, but a real challenge to the capitalist order requires that the political and ideological sway of bourgeois society over the working class is decisively challenged and finally broken. For that we need a programme and a revolutionary party committed to the self-emancipation of the working class internationally. Revolution is the most intense phase of this process, but it must begin long before the revolutionary movement is underway: the revolutionary socialist consciousness of the working class is the cause, not the consequence, of the revolutionary moment.

That brings us back to the monarchy and the silence of the working class movement on this key question of high politics. The impotence of the left in the face of what seems like an unstoppable royalist reaction is a direct product of its own economistic approach to politics. In ‘normal’ times the left has either dismissed the monarchy as a ‘feudal relic’ or underplayed its vital political and social role as part of the thoroughly modern state structure through which the British ruling class actually maintains control. Such criticisms that are made by the left in these normal periods are either of personalities or of the symbolic elitism of the institution. So, when an important opportunity occurs for the monarchy and thus for the capitalist state, the working class movement, and the left in particular, has not prepared the ground to intervene with its own programme and demands.

Demystifying the magic of the monarchy and undermining the legitimacy of the capitalist state are not the work of a future revolutionary period. The challenges to the political and ideological hegemony of bourgeois society and its institutions cannot be put off: they are immediate tasks and we need to take them seriously if we are about revolutionary change. The call for a federal republic and extreme democracy is an essential plank of the minimum programme that alone can bring the working class to power and begin to build socialism.

  1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-62827929.↩︎

  2. www.rmt.org.uk/news/rmt-reaction-to-the-death-of-queen-elizabeth-ii.↩︎

  3. The term Burgfrieden was applied to the civil truce and suspension of politics in Germany during World War I. In lining up behind its ruling class the SPD abandoned the class struggle and went over to the side of imperialism.↩︎