No Gods, No Masters

The socialist society we aim for will have no classes, no hierarchy, no kings, queens, princes, duchesses, no bosses, no masters. This also means no servants, no serfs, no slaves. All will have an equal say. 

There will be no palaces for the privileged, and no gutter for the homeless, for all will be housed, kept warm, well-nourished and cared for. There will be no ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. The monarchy, along with the rest of the detritus of this present society, will have been swept into the rubbish bin of history. Socialists do not only oppose the monarchy; we oppose the whole of the capitalist state and the profit system it protects. 

The idea of an unelected king or queen is a preposterous anachronism. The notion that someone should hold such a position of power and privilege by reason of an accident of birth is self-evidently ridiculous. But the monarchy is not only an affront to democracy, and to common sense. It is a pillar of class rule; an obstacle to overthrowing capitalism; a reactionary bulwark against socialism. 

The constitutional monarchy is incompatible with socialism and with the struggle to get it. It is an obstacle in our way. The monarchy plays a dual role in Britain. It plays a central role in developing and perpetuating an ideology that serves the interests of the ruling capitalist class. It is an ideology of class rule, and class subordination. It also has real powers that are an important weapon in the arsenal of the ruling class.

The Queen is praised for her ‘decades of public service’. This is to be expected from the ruling establishment and the media. Sections of the Labour movement have reacted to the Queen’s death in the same way. But it was not service in the interests of the public. It was service in the interests of the ruling capitalist class and its state.   The Queen, and the monarchy as an institution, is portrayed as being above politics, above party allegiance, standing only for the ‘national interest’. But there is not one national interest. There is the interest of the ruling, owning, capitalist class; and there is the interest of the working, producing class. They are opposing interests. The monarchy is there to promote a false harmony between the classes, while the economic reality of capitalism creates irreconcilable class conflict. Riches for the rich. Never-ending struggle to make ends meet for the working class.

Behind the façade of neutrality the monarchy plays a key role in the British capitalist constitution. It is not just the pomp, pageantry, and ceremony. In times of stability the more important role is unseen, it is largely unused. But in times of crisis, when class conflict threatens to challenge the status quo, the role of the monarch can be brought into play in the interests of protecting the rule of the minority ruling class. 

The monarchy retains a role in summoning a new prime minister to form a government; she gives royal assent to Acts of Parliament. In normal times, these powers are exercised routinely and without much consequence. But these residual powers could be used to thwart any government that threatened, or appeared to threaten, the rule of the super-rich. 

Perhaps the best known example of the British Crown’s interference in the democratic process is the dismissal of the Whitlam government in Australia in 1975. Gough Whitlam, the leader of the Australian Labour Party, was elected Prime Minister in 1972, following 23 years of rule by the conservative Liberal-National coalition. When Whitlam attempted to get his reformist legislative agenda through parliament, it was blocked by the second-tier Senate (an equivalent to the British House of Lords), which was controlled by the opposition. Whitlam called a second election in 1974, which Labour won again albeit with a reduced majority. The deadlock continued. 

The constitutional crisis about how to resolve the deadlock was broken by the dismissal of Whitlam by the Governor-General John Kerr, who simultaneously invited Malcolm Fraser, leader of the opposition Liberal Party, to become Prime Minister and form a new government. The Governor-General was the Queen’s representative in Australia, paradoxically appointed by Whitlam. Similarly with the position in the United Kingdom, the Governor-General, as the Queen’s representative, has the power to appoint ministers and give assent to parliamentary legislation. It was by these residual powers that Kerr purported to act but by doing so, he and the Queen completely contradicted the idea that the Queen is always strictly neutral and plays no part in political matters.

As the work by Australian historian Professor Jenny Hocking has proved beyond doubt, Kerr acted with the full knowledge and agreement of the Queen, her Private Secretary Sir Martin Charteris, and Charles, the Prince of Wales. In 2020, Hocking won a ten-year campaign and a four-year legal battle to gain access to Kerr’s letters with the Queen, which had wrongly and deliberately been categorised as ‘personal’ papers. Over 200 letters, which had been kept secret for decades, completely overturned the official history of the dismissal, revealing that the British monarch knew of Kerr’s plans to remove a democratically elected Labour government and encouraged them, all of this behind the back of Whitlam. Kerr, with the support of the British monarch, had installed a conservative Prime Minister in place of Whitlam.

There is a real prospect that such a development can occur again. Against a background of global and domestic economic crisis, with growing inequality and rising discontent, a Labour government with even a mild reformist agenda would provoke the ruling class to consider its options. One option, perhaps only to be used as a last resort, would be to use the Crown as a constitutional mechanism to remove a Labour government, calling on the support of the devoted monarchists and other sections of the state – the armed forces, the secret service, the heads of the civil service – to back the Crown against the socialist threat. 

While the monarchy has maintained support within society, that support has been eroded, especially among young people, despite the individual popularity of the Queen. From the Princess Diana debacle to the Prince Andrew-Epstein horror, and the treatment of Meghan Markel, the Royal Family has had its reputation tarnished. 

The ruling class clearly recognises that they will have a much more difficult task in maintaining the same level of support for the monarchy under Charles, as there was for the Queen. The Queen’s inscrutability, and seeming separation from politics, is not matched by the self-interested political interventions of Charles, with his haughty manner. Support for the monarchy will require a lot of shoring up, hence the interminable press coverage and the cancellation of sporting events and concerts following the death of the Queen.

Away with deference

To achieve socialism, the majority class in the present society – the working class – will have to overthrow the rule of the existing masters, the owners of the land and its resources, the factories, science and technology whereby workers produce the world’s wealth.

It will require a determined struggle by those without wealth, those who have nothing but their ability to work, to wrest power from the present-day masters. It will require self-confidence and a determination to change things. The existing state of affairs does not have to be accepted. It can be challenged, torn down, ripped up. We can save the best and build on it, while we get rid of the rest.

One major impediment in building the class-conscious, self-confident movement we need is the weight of past and present ideas. The prevailing ideology in any society, said Karl Marx, is the ideology of the ruling class. Unlike its wealth, the ideology of the capitalist class seeps down into all sections of society. From the moment we are born the working class is taught that there are others who are better than us, who have the right to rule over us, the right to own and command and to benefit from our work; that this is how it has always been and this it is how it always will be. It is the natural order of things.

The working class is disciplined to think like this through school, at work, and in daily life. All institutions play their part – the churches, the television, and other media. This pervasive atmosphere infects us all. We must inoculate ourselves and our movement against it. Our class instincts and experiences force us to challenge it, to rebel and kick against it. But the newspapers, our bosses, teachers, our own parents, and even the leaders of our own workers’ parties and unions persuade us not to make too much fuss. The socialist movement must completely shed this way of thinking

The avalanche of compulsory mourning in the wake of the queen’s death is designed to shut down any criticism of the monarchy, to prevent any alternative point of view being heard. We see the clamping down of free speech, with arrest of republican protesters. All the institutions of the ruling class have gone into overdrive, manufacturing a collective state of mourning. 

Labour organisations and politicians, from the TUC and Keir Starmer down to local councillors, have joined in the national woe, all trying to show how respectful and respectable they are. Strikes called to try to halt the cost-of-living crisis have been cancelled, or at least postponed. TUC Congress, the annual meeting of the trade union movement, has been postponed amid deepening economic crisis and a rising tide of industrial militancy. As if the bosses will suspend their class war against us because the queen has died. No, for them exploitation continues, no matter what.

To change the world, we need defiance, not deference. Confidence. Boldness. A willingness to fight to the end. That won’t be forged by bowing down before royalty, praising the queen for her decades of ‘public service’ and maintaining the illusion that the monarchy is some harmless, neutral institution that floats above the class struggle. Changing society will require more than abolishing the monarchy. But the monarchy plays a key role in maintaining the rule of the capitalist class and is paid wonderfully well for doing so.

Deference means bowing your head, bending your knee, averting your gaze. Deference is the death of class struggle. 

Be defiant. Stand up. For yourself and for your class.

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3 thoughts on “No Gods, No Masters

  1. Well done Nick. Brilliant piece of writing. I’m wondering what the cost of this state funeral could do for the NHS or the people likely to be starving, cold and homeless this winter. UP THE FUTURE REPUBLIC.

  2. The Queen’s death strangely encouraged us to watch The Crown on Netflix, which we’d had on our ‘to watch’ list but which we kept putting off.
    We have now watched all 4 seasons.
    I have to say that it is excellent, compelling TV. It is brilliantly written and acted by all.
    I didn’t expect to be so hooked. Maybe it is just the thoroughly, unbelievably, dysfunctional Royal family that makes it so watchable.
    It is so well-written, clearly with the intention of extolling the virtue of Queen Elizabeth as the ultimate constitutional monarch – completely neutral and thoroughly detached from political sides. [Her frosty relationship with Thatcher is dealt with.]
    However, even this favourable portrayal of the Queen exposes the way in which the Nazi connections of Edward VIII were hidden, and the inhuman treatment of disabled members of the queen mother’s side of the family who were locked away from public view and described as dead.
    The Gough Whitman affair, in which the Queen and her private secretary and Prince Charles connived with the Australian Governor General to dismiss the Australian Labor Prime Minister is not dealt with.
    The plot to overthrow Harold Wilson by way of a coup is covered in an episode but portrays the Queen as refusing to endorse it. This is presumably to show how perfectly she played her detached, apolitical role as constitutional monarch. But the more important point is lost: that she and the Royal Family kept the affair quiet and protected those who plotted to carry out a coup d’etat against an elected Labour government.
    Perhaps the most striking thing to come across is how ruthless the RF is. Most of all is how despicable is Charles. He is portrayed as being an absolute ****. His, and the whole RF’s treatment of Diana, is shocking to watch. Appalling.
    Fascinating TV. It has made me go back to my books to re-read things that I didn’t, perhaps as a republican, pay enough attention to at the time.
    The series has been immensely popular. I believe that it will serve to undermine the role of the monarchy with the awful, appalling King Charles now on the throne.

  3. This is an important contribution to the formation of a socialist position on the monarchy. First, the article rightly avoids making the argument that the Royal Family are an expense we cannot afford. A Royal Family might live on the dole and yet socialists would still oppose an unelected head of state. As Nick writes, socialists reject the idea that some human beings are superior to others in virtue of their family, that one class of human beings should be ruled by another, and that political power should be distributed according to birth-right. The Monarch is institutionally predicated on class stratification, irrespective of how much money we give them. The monarchy is not an indulgence we cannot afford; it is a “pillar of class rule” that must be smashed.

    Second, the article exposes the latent political power of the monarch. However, there is not mass consciousness of this. The late Queen went to great lengths in assiduously cultivating her image of political neutrality. For example, during the 2010 coalition negotiations that followed the hung parliament of that year’s General Election, the Queen pointedly remained at Balmoral, rather than travelling down to Buckingham Palace, in order to maintain this façade of political neutrality. In general, her more public interventions were masked in apolitical moral tones and calls for ‘national unity’. Historically, however, the political power of the monarch has been more evident. In 1931, George V virtually ordered the leaders of the three main political parties of the time to form a government of national unity. Further, before 1965, should a conservative Prime Minister resign whilst in power, the monarch chose which conservative MP would succeed him. Indeed, in 1963 Queen Elizabeth II controversially chose Lord Home in place of the MP Butler to be leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister; Butler was widely considered to be the Party’s favourite. So, although the direct and obvious involvement of the monarch in the nation’s political debates and processes is at a historical low, one need only look back to the 20th century to find evidence that monarchy sees itself as more than a symbolic entity.

    During Corbyn’s time as leader, the media were forced to show their hand as establishment mouthpieces. In a similar way, the monarch would have to show his or her hand in a revolutionary context, both by leading the army and intervening politically. However, until this revolutionary context arises, it will be hard to build mass consciousness about the political power of the monarch, especially in the face of obsequiously positive blanket converge by the media. That is not to say, however, that arguments to abolish the monarchy must wait for a revolutionary context. Instead, the left should start to make broad constitutional reform a central strand of its programme. Economic issues are a well-worn ideological battleground between the left and the right. But on issues of the constitution, the left inexplicably acquiesces to the status quo or else falls into confusion and disarray. We must build an understanding of a socialist constitution in order to better intervene in constitutional debates when they do arise, intervening with an eye on what a socialist constitution would look like.

    It is interesting to note that the popular political agenda of the 2010s has, in fact, revolved around seemingly technical and obscure constitutional points. The 2014 Scottish referendum was centrally a question of constitutional reform and attained a turnout of 84.6%, the highest turnout for an election or referendum in the UK since 1910, with 44.7% of those who did vote opting for change. This vote for independence was achieved against a backdrop of establishment propaganda, with the British ruling class very evidently opposed to Scottish independence. In the EU referendum, there was again a high turnout of 72%. This time, however, a majority 17,400,000 people voted to leave the EU, once again voting against the obvious establishment position at the time, embodied by the centrist elements of both the conservative and labour parties and the official government position of the UK. There is clearly a huge potential appetite to engage in rethinking the rules that govern our democracy. But on both the issue of Scottish independence and EU membership the socialist left was divided. This is surely in part a result of the failure of the left to build a wider constitutional program before these referenda. We need to build this program in order to intervene in the constitutional debates that are repeatedly arising and lay the ground of a popular republican movement. The English working class have a proud republican heritage, which culminated in the decapitation of Charles I. We need to restoke this republican fire to bring about the end for Charles III and the next in line.

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