Hub of stability

Mark Fischer spoke to Clive Bloom, author of 'Restless revolutionaries', a book that aims to rediscover "Britain's 'lost' republican history"

This book has been a sort of journey for me. I have been writing about forgotten literature, forgotten writers, interesting cultural movements that have been lost. When I went to university, it seemed to me that the British literature being taught there was distorted: it didn’t tell the whole truth.

I became more and more interested in the politicisation of reading. From that grew the interest I developed in ideologies and movements outside parliament and mainstream politics. These were often fleeting and were rarely covered in standard texts. I wrote my first book - Violent London, which is about riots and political dissent in the capital - then moved from there into the whole area of republicanism.

The more I read for my first book about London, the more I was coming up against alternative histories to the official narrative. People like EP Thompson and that school have obviously pioneered here, but I wanted to write a broader history that encompassed both leftwing and rightwing republicanism. I wanted in particular to look at the international aspects of British republicanism, something that has been under-studied.

So Restless revolutionaries is an anthology, a gathering together of the history of battles and revolts and conspiracies that could be previously only found in disparate books and reports.

What emerges from this is an alternative way of looking at the way the British Isles has been moulded. I looked at the development of the nationalisms in terms of republicanism, which most share, and the explicit internationalist aspects of some of them. I looked at fascist versions of republicanism as well - William Joyce, for example.

All of these republican movements in Britain have failed. A great many of their leaders went to prison, vanished or were executed. Then you have the Irish Republican Army and in this book I have taken the history of Ireland’s struggle as part of the history of the British empire.

In a way it’s a history of disappointment.

You talk about the history of republicanism’s “crushing failures” in the book. One way that these struggles are crushed, of course, is that the victor writes the histories ...

Exactly. You have to unearth these histories, the documentation. You have to search for the graves where these people are buried - there are no monuments to guide you. More than that, you have to reconstruct the politics of the time to understand these rebellions in their context.

In the case of William Courtney and the 1838 rebellion in Dover, for example, there is a plaque on the church wall commemorating the dead. But why, when this guy turned up preaching as he did, were people prepared to believe it and to die for it? When we understand that, then history comes alive for us and speaks directly to how we live now, the struggles that surround us in today’s world.

Obviously, a discussion of historical republicanism is very relevant to us, given the royal nuptials. Clearly, the monarchy is an institution that ruling elites of various types have found very useful.

Yes. From 1688 and the notion of a constitutional monarchy it was found that keeping the king in place gives them authority. What particularly interest me are the legal and other fictions which keep a society in a certain mode and which act to disperse the revolutionary alternatives to it.

For example, the institution of monarchy itself that - by definition - underpins a notion of subjection. So, from queen Victoria onwards, the monarchy is a bulwark of the modern notion of family. Similarly, the royal wedding of Will and Kate is everyone’s, and princess Diana’s ‘fairytale’ marriage was absolutely ‘universal’ in the reactionary dreams and illusions it appealed to and bolstered.

Conveniently therefore, the fact that the royal family stands for things that can be detached from the state and government facilitates keeping the social fabric intact, especially in times of crisis. It reinforces the notion that history proceeds through dull, incremental change to what already exists, has existed ‘for 1,000 years’ and will stretch into the future.

The central idea of the book is that Britain actually exported revolutionary and republican thought; it didn’t have a chance to fully succeed at home. So the Chartists, the Fenians, the 1848 Italian revolutionaries, etc - we just exported them! We sent them to Australia.

So, in that way, we have a sort of displaced history of British revolutionary and republican ideas in the form of politics in Australia.

The battles were fought somewhere else as a proxy for fighting on the much tougher terrain of Britain. However, it all comes back home. For instance, the IRA - which was formed after the American civil war - was established by people who had been expelled or fled from Ireland after 1848. Many ended up in New York, then joined up with the union army and went on from there ...

But that’s hardly an exclusively British phenomenon. You can stumble across nut-job Ku Klux Klan sites that talk of ‘Comrade Lincoln’ because of the number of ‘Red ‘48ers’ - communists and revolutionaries who fled Germany in the aftermath of the failed uprisings ...

That’s true. But there’s a different trajectory with the IRA. Between 1866 and 67, they organised raids on British targets in Canada in order to carry on their revolution in a region that was the least well defended by the British. They fumbled their victories there, as they anticipated British reinforcements arriving, which they never did actually. Their ethos was: if you can’t beat the British in Britain, then beat there somewhere you can. (They were actually fighting a proxy war against the Scottish, if we are to be more precise!)

Via New York, the war then comes back again to the British mainland - you have the Clerkenwell and Manchester bombings in 1867, of course. The whole thing comes full circle back to the imperialist heartland, in a way you don’t see with other political émigrés.

Of course, the question of republicanism poses high politics - the way we are ruled, the constitution, etc. There is a tendency on the left to downplay or at least only to pay lip service to the importance of these questions. What was going on in the political heads of the ‘restless revolutionaries’ you write about?

I think there are two phases. The first is to do with personal economic disappointment. From that flows the dawning realisation that changing the political system will remove the conditions for that economic disappointment or ruination. A number of these revolutionaries had failed businesses.

So the outlook of these people is pretty individualistic. They value individual freedom and autonomy, personal liberty and property. Often they were followers of Tom Paine. However, to secure those rights you have to get rid of the people - the social strata - that suffocate those liberties, that deny them to others.

So from their individual disappointments they move on to collective organisation and revolt. At that point universalising a solution becomes a question of politics; it is very rarely thought of in terms of economics.

I think the high point of contemporary anti-monarchism was probably in the immediate aftermath of the death of Diana. Picking up on that theme of balance of politics versus economics in people’s attitude to radical constitutional change, I actually think the global economic crisis will have a conservative effect on most people’s attitude to the royal family. People are not going to want the instability in their economic circumstances to be matched by the same in these sorts of ‘stable hubs’ of British life political and social life. An economic squeeze makes people less radical, not more.

In that sense, the monarchy has been given another lease of life by the economic downturn. Especially if they continue to revamp and make themselves more inclusive, more tolerant and less ostentatiously wealth. The passing of Prince Philip wouldn’t hurt either!

But then republicanism is about far more than an attitude to the royal family. We are talking about a constitutional monarchical system in the UK. This entails unaccountable power, the lack of transparency at every level of the state apparatus, the absence of any direct, mass control of the affairs of society.

True, but there’s a lesson here about how the aristocracy transformed itself in the aftermath of the English revolution. Cameron - the aristocrat - is now just ‘Dave’. Like the TV channel. Like every bloke in a white van.

The aristocrats still run the country in that sense. They just reinvented themselves as an essential political caste that administers the new state. A clever trick. Ruling class ideology is very porous and the notion that the constitutional monarchy couldn’t be reinvented from top to bottom to capture and derail democratic movements from below is too glib. Especially as many people - precisely because of their economic agonies and travails in the coming bleak years - could well be looking to it as a hub of stability and continuity.

Clive Bloom Restless revolutionaries: A history of Britain’s fight for a republic The History Press, 2010, pp293, £12.99.