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English republican socialism


In last May’s general election I stood against Simon Hughes in Bermondsey and Old Southwark as an Independent. The main message was that working people must oppose the “Great Bankster Robbery” being planned by the banks and the major parties. Whoever won the election, Labour, Tory or the Liberal Democrats, the embedded ‘coalition’ with the Banksters would remain in place.

At the centre of our campaign were two demands - radical parliamentary reform and public ownership of the banks. In Britain the City and the Crown are not separate. A long history of common interests has fused them together. Both the two major parties have pledged loyalty not just to the Crown but especially to the banks. Parliament is far too weak to prise them apart and if we want to bring the banks under control rather than just feel angry there has to be political reform.

In our idiosyncratic “democracy”, electoral law doesn’t allow independent candidates to describe their politics on the ballot paper. Had we been able to do so we would have used the term “republican socialist”. Radical parliamentary reform is not the normal politics of the English left. The Labour left is focused on getting MPs elected not fighting for political [constitutional] change. The Trotskyist left is equally uninterested in parliamentary reform since it wants to abolish parliament not change it. So is there an ideology that supports radical parliamentary reform?             

Working class republicanism 

Republican socialism is working class republicanism and is distinguished from middle class or ‘pure republicanism’ in that it pursues democratic political aims as the means to social and economic transformation. This could be called the ‘republican road to socialism’, a kind of popular socialism ‘from below’ which historically came from the people themselves with its roots in workers’ struggles for democracy and social justice. It is the political complement to militant trade unionism. 

Popular socialism has a national dimension. We can distinguish between Irish republican socialism and republican socialism in England, Scotland and Wales. In Ireland James Connolly is the most famous republican socialist. He set up the Irish Socialist Republican Party, took part in the 1916 Easter uprising in Dublin and signed the declaration of the Irish Republic. In the 1970s Connolly’s ideas helped launch the Irish Republican Socialist Party.

In England, however, republican socialism is almost entirely absent. Since the end of the Russian revolution in 1921 thetwo major trends in the working class movement – popular socialism and scientific communism - were represented respectively by the Labour Party and the Communist Party. The twin ideologies of Labourism and Stalinism dominated the British working class movement in the twentieth century.

English Chartism

If we want to locate the origins of our republican socialist traditions we could go back to the early nineteenth century. Chartism was the first mass working class political movement in England. The six demands of the People’s Charter were hardly revolutionary. They demanded votes for every man over twenty-one years of age, secret ballots, no property qualifications for members of Parliament, payment of MPs, equal constituencies, and annual parliaments.

Despite its moderate nature, the Peoples’ Charter gathered around itself a militant movement to fight for democratic rights. In 1848 whilst republican revolutions were bubbling up across Europe the Chartists organized a massive demonstration on Kennington Common, intending to cross the Thames to parliament. Queen Victoria, fearing the imminent arrival of a republic, fled to the Isle of Wight. Meanwhile the army was brought up to occupy the London bridges. The Chartists, when faced with the Duke of Wellington’s artillery, backed down from confrontation.       

Chartism never scaled the heights of French republicanism. In 1848 the setback for Chartism became part of a wider tide of counter-revolution soon sweeping Europe. Working class demands for democracy were removed from the political agenda until the 1860s. Although Chartism continued into the 1850s it never regained its previous momentum. When democratic demands re-emerged in the late 1860s the movement went in two different directions. One line led up from Chartism to republicanism and the other down to the single issue of male suffrage.     

England’s revolution 

The Charter was neither formally republican nor socialist. However, England had become a republic two hundred years earlier. The true origins of republican socialism are to be found in the most significant event in modern English history, the civil war, and in the Levellers its own revolutionary republican party with their base in London and within the New Model army. The declaration of the Republic in 1649 opened the way for the socialistic Digger movement to begin its land occupations.

Therefore republican socialism in pre-industrial form emerges in the ideas of the Levellers and Diggers. Although they were separate movements, their fate was bound together as the defeat of the Levellers by the Cromwellian counter-revolution in 1649 also sealed the fate of the Digger movement. The echo from England’s revolutionary ‘big bang’ reappears in the American and French revolutions and the work of Tom Paine, the Spenceans and the early working class movements in the 1790s. It was carried on by the left wing Chartists, such as George Julian Harney, who in 1850 published the “Red Republican”.

English republicanism  

In the 1850s and 60s Marx and Engels did much to establish republican socialist ideas in England on a more scientific basis.AsHal Draper says in “Karl Marx’s theory of revolution” Marx was the first to recognise the socialist idea came through the battle for the consistent extension of democratic control from below. It was the fusion of the struggle for consistent political democracy with the struggle for socialist transformation. 

In the late 1860’s there was a lively tradition of working class republicanism. There were many Republican Clubs especially in London. There was a popular cult of Oliver Cromwell. Kenneth Morgan says Cromwell was often projected, however bizarrely, as a kind of working class hero who cut down aristocratic privilege along with the Stuart monarchy.

Two views emerged on republicanism. The first saw it as the completion of the bourgeois revolution by its removal of the aristocracy and reform of landownership. The second linked republicanism to the working class since its aim was for a republic which was both democratic and social, one that would take social measures to emancipate the working class. This idea was connected with the Land and Labour League set up in October 1869.

Marx believed the Land and Labour League was inspired by the First International. It showed, he proclaimed, that “the workers party dissociates itself completely from the bourgeoisie”. There were different strands in the League including Chartists, Owenites and currency reformers.

On the unemployed demonstration, Good Friday 1870, League members wore broad scarlet sashes like the San Culottes had worn during the first French revolution. In September 1870 a new journal the Republican was setup which became the unofficial voice of the Land and Labour League. The growing sympathy in the working class for republicanism was soon greatly boosted by events in Paris where in September 1870 a republic was set up leading to the establishment of the Paris Commune.

In the spring of 1871 the League reached the peak of its influence and the Republican moved from a monthly to a weekly publication.  However the crushing of the Paris commune and a revival of support for the previously unpopular Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria saw popular republicanism go into steep decline by 1874. In the 1880’s this trend reappeared in the Democratic Federation and was carried into the newly founded Social Democratic Federation where it was rapidly extinguished.

Tory Democracy

In the late 1860s other democratic road from Chartism led to male suffrage and Tory Democracy. In the face of renewed pressure for political change the ruling class, led by Disraeli, decided the best strategy was to incorporate the working class into Tory politics. In 1868 and 1884 male suffrage was introduced by the Tories ‘from above’.

Britain became a ‘Tory Democracy’ crowned by its Tory Monarchy and Tory House of Lords and wedded to the union. ‘Tory Democracy’ remained a two party system in which liberals and conservatives fought for power. The unintended consequences of this were the possibility of a new party supported by working class votes and trade union organization. In 1899 the Labour Representation Committee created the Labour Party.

In 1918 Labour adopted the aim of socialism and in the process became the dominant form of British popular socialism and crucially loyal to the Windsor monarchy. Labour accepted its place within the Tory Democracy and the first act by Ramsey McDonald in forming the Labour government in 1924 was to visit Buckingham Palace. He knelt before George V and swore allegiance to the King, Tory democracy’s symbolic head. The same path was followed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.


England has manifested two trends in popular socialism - English republican socialism and British Labourism. Republican socialism links popular sovereignty with the aim of radical social change. It has its roots in the Levellers and Diggers via Tom Paine and the Spenceans in the 1790s through Chartism to the republican movement in the 1870s and the Land and Labour League etc.

Tory Democracy has kept the banks in power and maintained British capitalism for over one hundred years. The Labour Party assumed role of holding the trade union movement in check. The ideology of British Labourism is essentially one of economism or non-republican socialism. Labour has never been a republican socialist party and New Labour ditched any pretence of socialism. Now in a time of severe crisis weneed to rediscover republican socialism and redefine it for today’s conditions. We should draw on the magnificent example of the Egyptian masses who have taken their first steps towards democratic regime change. We should now take ours.

Steve Freeman
16 February 2011

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