The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Why Does Britain Still Have Kings and Queens?

Sep 12, 2022

In the course of their developments as major capitalist powers a few hundred years ago, the U.S. and France had revolutions to get rid of their kings. Britain was the first industrialized country, the early capitalist state that conquered the world. So why does Britain still have a monarchy in the year 2022?

Britain did have a series of revolutions. In 1640, a civil war broke out between the monarchy of King Charles and Parliament, which had many different aspects. It was a fight among the ruling classes of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It was a fight over who would control the church, which ran many aspects of society including schools and courts. It was a fight over who got to impose taxes and decide what they would be used for; and a fight over who would control the army and how it would be organized.

But underneath all of these fights was a struggle over who would control society. Would it be the growing capitalist class that made its wealth by investing money? Or would it be the old aristocracy, noblemen who had been the knights in the middle ages but who had increasingly become parasites, living off of the rents they charged to those who farmed “their” land?

This civil war between the different classes of wealthy people also opened the door for ordinary people to express their anger at a system that had long been run against them. Organizations emerged called the Levellers and the Diggers that proposed that ordinary people have a say in running the country, even if they did not own property. Some even proposed taking the land away from the rich and farming it collectively.

The English civil wars would last for decades. Charles I got his head cut off, Ireland was laid waste, a military dictatorship ran the country for a time, and Charles II came back as king. Finally, the various wings of the British ruling class agreed on a compromise in 1688. Britain would keep the monarchy, but parliament would have the main say in running the country. Control over parliament would remain in the hands of the wealthiest capitalists and the old lords (British men without property did not get the vote until 1918!).

This compromise worked out really well for the parties involved—and really badly for ordinary people all over the world. Within England, the new, more powerful government helped the lords take over lands called the “commons” that peasant villagers had shared and relied on to survive. This was a crucial step in the process of kicking millions of people off the land their families had lived on for centuries, a key part of the development of capitalism in England.

Instead of using the land to feed these peasants, capitalist farmers rented the land from lords, and produced wool or whatever other crop would bring in the most money. The lords and the capitalist farmers got increasingly rich. But those kicked off the land would starve in great numbers, or flee to the colonies, before eventually becoming the core of the British working class. This desperate working class was then forced to accept the most atrocious conditions.

This British bourgeoisie took over the trade in enslaved people from Africa. But it did so in the name of the Crown. The Royal African Company, owned by the monarchy and founded in 1660, was the single organization that transported the most human beings out of that continent, to work in the plantations of the Americas. Merchants and plantation owners reaped enormous profits from this “Royal” company, as did the banks and insurance companies that grew up around the slave trade—all while one third of those forced onto the slave ships died on the voyage, before the survivors were forced to work under threat of torture. But the “royal” company gave this murderous “trade” a nice, legitimate-sounding cover!

Starting in the 1750s, the British East India Company moved to conquer the Bengal region of India. This company was owned by politically connected noblemen and capitalists in Britain. Part of the rents paid by peasants in Bengal had traditionally gone to build up food supplies in case of a crop failure, but the British East India Company increased rents and diverted them to profit its shareholders. The results were predictable: a massive famine began in 1769, estimated to have killed between seven and ten million people.

As the Company conquered more parts of India, more famines followed. When Indian people revolted in 1857, the British Crown took over the colony, pretending that Queen Victoria was running this vast subcontinent—when in reality, the English capitalist class continued to organize the entire Indian economy to profit itself.

The last major famine inflicted on India by the British colonial state struck Bengal once again in 1943, killing between 2 and 3 million people—just a few years before Queen Elizabeth II took the throne.

This is not to mention what the British capitalists did to the Irish, or to the native peoples of Australia and New Zealand, or through their policies of “divide and rule” throughout Africa and the Middle East—all under the cover of “the Crown.”

Britain has in fact been a capitalist country for centuries, with the capitalist class making the most important decisions about how the state would be run. And for all those centuries, the monarchy has given this most bourgeois state a convenient cover, with all its pomp, traditions, and cute little Corgi dogs.