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Colin Sparks

The English Republicans

(July 1981)

From Socialist Review, No. 34, July 1981, pp. 12–13.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Scottish, Welsh and, especially, Irish republicans are ten a penny. The English, on the other hand, are allegedly inflicted with some genetic mental defect that makes them cower before crowns and thrones and leap to attention and bare their heads at the sound of the opening bars of the National Anthem. There is, unfortunately, a lot of truth in this: royalism has a deep hold on English thinking and penetrates well into the labour movement. From Ramsay MacDonald to Harold Wilson, Labour Prime ministers have displayed a quite sickening devotion to whichever crowned clown happens to be sitting at the top of the mall. That is not all of the story, though. There is a long and stubborn republican tradition in England. Colin Sparks looks at it.

There have been at least two periods in which republicanism has commanded mass support. On both of these occasions, the leading republican thinkers were the ideological representatives of the bourgeoisie, but in both cases the bourgeoisie itself, once it saw the consequences of consistent republicanism, backed down and made its peace with royalty. It was left to the plebian, and later proletarian, inheritors to keep up the struggle.

The first mass flourishing of English republicanism was during the English Revolution of 1641–60. For a long time, the leaders of the Parliamentary forces comforted themselves with the notion that they were actually fighting for the King, and only against his advisers who had misled him. A consequence of this was that they did very badly, suffering defeats and missing opportunities for victories. But the dynamic of the war was already forcing new men to the fore, who had far fewer illusions in the King and were determined to beat him.

The best known of these was Oliver Cromwell. He told his troops:

‘I will not deceive you nor make you believe, as my commission has it, that you are going to fight for the king and parliament: if the king were before me I would shoot him as another; if your conscience will not allow you to do as much, go and serve elsewhere.’

Once the king had been beaten, there was the problem of what to do with him. The compromisers still wanted to do deals with him, but Cromwell and his independent party controlled the armed forces and suitably intimidated the opposition, telling the special court that: ‘We will cut off his head with the crown upon it.’

Charles Stuart was duly judged as a ‘tyrant, traitor, murderer and enemy to the country’. Cromwell himself wrote out the death warrant, and on 30th January 1648 the King was beheaded in Whitehall. The regicides had their theoreticians. The best known was the foreign minister and poet, John Milton. Less than two weeks after the execution he published a book justifying it called: The Tenure of Kings and magistrates; proving that it is lawful, and hath been held so through all ages, for any, who have the power, to call to account a tyrant, or wicked king, and after due conviction, to depose, and put him to death.

Milton broadened his ideas to a general statement of republican principles, which he published as The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, and the Excellence thereof compar’d with the inconvenience and dangers of readmitting kingship in this nation, just before the Restoration of 1660. In this, he argued:

‘People must needs be mad or strangely infatuated that build the chief hope of their common happiness of safety on a single person ... The happiness of a nation must needs be firmest and certainest in a full and free Councel of their own electing, where no single person, but reason only sways.’

By then, there were few to listen to Milton. Cromwell’s own generals negotiated and arranged the restoration of monarchy. Among their reasons was the dangerous implication of the arguments that Milton was using. If the revolution had been led by landlords, merchants, even great nobles, much of the hardest fighting had been done by working men from the towns and fields and, in the course of the war, they developed their own, radical ideas.

The Leveller, Overton, wrote:

‘It is naturally inbred in the major part of the nobility and gentry to oppress the persons of such sort that are not as rich and honourable as themselves, to judge the poor but fools and them wise ... It is they that oppress you, insomuch that your slavery is their liberty, your poverty is their prosperity.’

Another group of Levellers went even further:

‘We were before ruled by Kings, Lords and Commons, now by a General, a Court Martial and a House of Commons; we pray you, what is the difference? ... We have not the change of kingdom to a commonwealth; we are only under the old cheat, the transmutation of names but with the addition of new tyrannies to the old ... and the last state of this commonwealth is worse than the first.’

To the left of the Levellers stood the Diggers, who had a clear idea as to the origin of all this misery and a theory and a programme for righting it.

Diggers and Levellers alike were crushed by the generals, shot at Burford Church for refusing to serve in Ireland or driven from St George’s Hill by soldiers. But the idea was there still, rooted in the brain of the common people and rooted in the brain of the rich. It was this that the elegant arguments of Mr Milton led to. Better by far to forget the ideals of republicanism, compromise with a rotten king and a rotten court, lest in the struggle against them there was a loss of all power and privileges.

The next great outburst if popular republicanism was at the end of the eighteenth and the start of the nineteenth century. The monarchy was widely hated on all sides, and new sections of the rich were emerging, an industrial bourgeoisie who wanted their place in the system which the existing set-up denied them. The upsurge was crystallised and given form by the journalist Thomas Paine.

In 1776, Paine published a pamphlet Common Sense, which was an immediate best seller and made him a famous man. The pamphlet is a justification of the American Revolution, but in his argument Paine raised more general questions.

Paine asked what was the origin of kingship:

‘... It is more than probable, that could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtilty obtained him the title of chief among plunderers.’

And if kings in general owed their origins to a robber band, the King of England in particular held his title purely by that right:

‘England, since the conquest hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones, yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honourable one. A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. It certainly hath no divinity in it. That William the Conqueror was an usurper is a fact not to be contradicted. The plain truth is, that the antiquity of the English monarchy will not bear looking in to.’

The American Revolution echoed across the Atlantic. When the British general Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, he ordered his band to play a tune called The World Turned Upside Down. Before long that choice proved very apposite. In 1789 the people in Paris stormed the Bastille and the French Revolution had begun.

Having seen the birth of two free nations, Paine wished to see the birth of a third – that of Britain.

He wrote The Rights of Man, which became an instant best seller. In this book Paine repeated and developed his ideas about the origins of kingship, and was particularly savage about hereditary monarchy:

‘Hereditary succession is a burlesque upon monarchy. It puts it in the most ridiculous light, by presenting it as an office which any child or idiot may fill. It requires some talents to be a common mechanic; but, to be a king, requires only the animal figure of man – a sort of breathing automaton.’

For Paine, the spread of republican principles was the guarantee of a new and better world:

‘Never did so great an opportunity offer itself to England, and to all Europe, as is produced by the two revolutions of America and France ... When another national shall join France, despotism and bad government will scarcely dare to appear. To use a trite expression, the iron is becoming hot all over Europe. The insulted German and the enslaved Spaniard, the Russ and the Pole, are beginning to think. The present age will hereafter merit to be called the age of reason, and the present generation will appear to the future as the Adam of a new world.’

The movement which Paine had done so much to inspire met savage repression and was broken. But the ideas of republicanism continued to have widespread circulation. The poet Keats, for example wrote in 1815 a poem On 29 May: the Anniversary of the Restoration of Charles II:

Infatuate Britons, will you still proclaim
His memory, your direst, foulest shame?
Nor patriots revere?
Ah! while I hear each traitorous lying bell,
’Tis gallant Sidney’s , Russell’s, Vane’s sad knell,
That pains my wounded ear.

(Sidney, Russell and Vane were condemned to death by Charles II for having voted for his father’s execution.)

But, though many capitalists and intellectuals were distanced from the idea of monarchy, active republicanism was more and more a prerogative of the newly emerging working class movement. Paine himself had always been a defender of private property, believing that this was the way to establish freedom, equality and plenty.

But the arguments that he used against the idea of monarchy and hereditary government were ones which had dangerous consequences. Consider his crushing demolition of Burke’s argument for hereditary legislators:

‘The idea of hereditary legislation is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.’

That is a fine and irrefutable argument, but it is open for some wage slave to take it a lot further. What answer comes if we ask what basis there is for any sort of hereditary social power – for example the private ownership of the means of production? By Paine’s own logic, the answer is a socialist one.

It is thus that the republican tradition has, since then, been almost exclusively a proletarian one. There have been bourgeois republicans since, and probably many of the capitalists even today consider the monarchy a quaint and outdated institution. Even an editor of The Economist, Bagehot, considered it as ‘decorative’ rather than ‘efficient’. But it was the illegal and working class newspaper The Republican which denounced the Peterloo massacre in 1819, and it was in Julian Harney’s The Red Republican of 9 November 1850 that a lead article Manifesto of the German Communist Party, by a certain K. Marx and F. Engels, appeared.

The tradition continued with William Morris. The name of his paper Commonweal harks back to Milton, and it was there that the denunciation of the 1887 Jubilee appeared:

‘Socialists feel of course that the mere abolition of the monarchy would help them little if it only gave place to a middle-class republic ... Nevertheless, now the monstrous stupidity is on us – one’s indignation swells pretty much to the bursting point. We must not, after all forget what the hideous, revolting, and vulgar tomfoolery in question really means nowadays ...’

The modern revolutionary movement is proud to claim to stand in this republican tradition. Of course, the real power of the English crown is feeble today. Charles III will be no despot like Charles I. He will do exactly what his capitalist masters tell him to do. He will be, in substance, little more than an enormously expensive parasite upon the backs of the working people. But the monarchy is more than substantial importance; it also carries an enormous symbolic weight. It is one of the key pins of the ruling ideology. The struggle against the monarchy is an important part of the ideological struggle for socialism.

It is a struggle which only socialists can now wage. In previous epochs, like the ones we have glanced at, the monarchy represented the interests of classes, or parts of classes, which were at odds with important sections of property owners. Some of them were prepared to fight the king in their own interests, and others were happy to denounce him. That is not true today. The English throne is linked by chains of gold to the capitalist order. The only class which has an interest in the overthrow of the monarchy is the class which has an interest in the overthrow of capitalism: the working class.

The last words belong to that great republican Thomas Paine. When he wrote them, they were not yet exactly true and he certainly could not foresee what their future meaning would be. But today they are precisely right:

‘Monarchy would not have continued so many ages in the world, had it not been for the abuses it protects. It is the master-fraud, which shelters all others.’

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