Wednesday 8 June 2011

Property crowned and uncrowned

The classes team up to take down the monarchy.
According to the Guardian, sixty-seven per cent of Britons believe the monarchy is 'still relevant'. That figure, of course, is rather worthless since it tells us nothing about approval. We'll all agree that Nelson Mandela is 'relevant'; so, I'm sorry to say, is David Cameron. The point stands, however: the monarchy does not inspire abject hatred. But neither are most Britons of the flag-waving loyalist variety. Before the royal wedding, only 37% professed interest in the event; according to YouGov, 35% would do their 'best to avoid' the whole affair. Indifference seems to be the prevailing attitude towards the House of Windsor.

Among sections of the Left there's a long-standing puzzlement about the British monarchy. It is assumed that a democratic republic is the 'typical' form of bourgeois government and that, accordingly, Britain represents an anomaly. A more Marxist response, surely, would be to argue that 'typical' forms of government hardly exist and that historical materialism is a critical method rather than a template for understanding every historical event. Indeed, the notion that republics are natural forms of government under capitalism can be quite easily refuted. Before the First World War, of the Great Powers only France and the United States were republics; Germany, Austria, Italy, Russia and Britain were all monarchies of varying types. Indeed new monarchies were constantly being created at the height of nineteenth-century capitalism. In the century following the Congress of Vienna, new monarchies were installed in France (which didn't last), the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece; both Germany and Italy were unified under conquering monarchies. Where these crowned heads fell at the end of the Great War, this was caused by proletarian revolutions that threatened the entire propertied order.

The French Revolution was a revolution against royal absolutism - yes, but what does this mean? Was it a revolution against untrammelled executive power, against the constant subordination of the periphery to the centre, of the part to the whole - a revolution for 'checks and balances' as Montesquieu advocated them? (This advocacy led Carl Schmitt to dismiss Montesquieu as, essentially, a medievalist.) On the contrary: the Revolution not only displayed all these characteristics of the ancien régime, it shattered all the obstacles to absolute rule the king had been unable to remove. It is in this sense that the Revolution was fulfilled by Napoleon. Lord Elton was right to claim that the twin principles of the revolutionaries of 1789 were order and equality: the removal of all the inefficiencies, corruption and arbitrariness caused by privilege - and the removal of decision-making from a single, weak individual, controlled by advisers, mistresses and outdated noblemen: in short, the replacement of the unchecked rule of a monarch by the unchecked rule of a class.

The reasons for the creation and fall of the Second French Republic (1848-52) are laid out by Karl Marx in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The July Revolution of 1830 had led the bourgeoisie to embrace not republicanism but the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe. The July Monarchy, however, struggled against proletarian uprisings and increasing hostility from those sectors of the bourgeoisie that felt left out by a state that mostly represented high finance. The February Revolution of 1848 left no option but a republic as the system that divided Frenchmen least (Adolphe Thiers). It was simply impossible to hand the crown over to yet another dynasty, although Louis Napoleon was waiting in the wings. The uprising of the masses in June 1848 was defeated by the bourgeoisie in alliance with the lumpenproletariat and the petite bourgeoisie. Thereafter the country was run by a parliament mostly composed of monarchists that could not muster the strength to resist Louis Napoleon's bid for power.

As the French bourgeoisie discovered in 1830 and 1848, it is very difficult to have a revolution against monarchy and privilege without opening Pandora's box: revolution, where it happened, constantly threatened to create a maelstrom in which the bourgeoisie, having participated in the overthrow of the old order, would itself be destroyed by the propertyless classes. This happened, of course, in Russia in 1917, and was a distinct possibility in Germany, Hungary and Italy after the First World War, France in 1871, Spain after 1931, and others. The result was that, where it perceived a threat from below, the bourgeoisie would prefer to work with rather than against the old order. Sometimes, of course, the bourgeoisie simply repeatedly failed at wresting power from the ancien régime: thus most infamously in Germany.

The accommodation that the bourgeoisie reached with monarchs as well as aristocratic and ecclesiastical elites removed the need for a republican form of government. Today, in Britain at least none of the main bourgeois parties advocates republicanism, although republican views are presumably more commonly held by Labour and Liberal supporters than they are by Tories and the associated Church-and-King mob of the gutter press.

The conclusion must be that the abolition of the monarchy is now quite impossible without a wide-ranging reconfiguration of British society as a whole: in other words, revolution. (The argument that a socialist society would of necessity be republican need not be made here.) The sort of liberal republicanism that impotently mocks the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in the pages of the Guardian rightly elicits little more than pity from the Right. They may not have chosen it, but republicans and revolutionaries can only achieve their aims together.

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