Figureheads, Sovereigns, and Leadership

by Anthony Jones

The tradition of the monarchy weighs like a nightmare on Britain. The crisis has emboldened the left to appropriate the language of the glorious French Revolution, and jokes about “guillotines” have spread across the internet left in what would seem to be a sign of the radicalisation of the youth. But when republicanism is put forth as a sincere political position, we are confronted with the prejudices not only of traditionalists, conservatives, fascists, in a word, the explicit forces of reaction, but also from the liberals. What theoretically informed points can Marxists derive from and interject into the question of the Queen?

Why do we need the Royal Family?

When the more skittish liberals in Britain are confronted with the question of abolishing the House of Windsor, they immediately begin rattlings off a series of the perceived advantages of the outdated monarchy to our supposedly modern society. Of course, there is the touristic income, as if ordinary working people across Britain are being saved from poverty by the tourists who go to see Buckingham Palace. Young people who are watching as their NHS is being dismantled are struggling to find employment with or without the increasingly unaffordable tertiary education the Tory cuts are so keen on ripping from their hands. But even if this income were keeping our lives livable (which it is not and which they are not), the French are able to draw impressive crowds of tourists to Paris without a royal family, as if any of the tourists who come from far and wide to London ever meet the Royal Family in the first place, who are as far removed from the tourists as they are from us “commoners”.

Instead, the Royal Family’s unreasonably high standards of living are subsidised by the state which lets the poor die from our poverty, in between occasional ostentatious displays such as the disgusting Royal Wedding which was imposed not only on the subjects of the House of Windsor but on the entire world thanks to British Imperialism’s significant cultural as well as literal capital.

A more honest answer, often given only after this first argument has been rebutted, is that the Royal Family is a symbol of British unity. As revolutionary Marxists, of course, we have no interest in holding together the imperialist British state, and we should note that this at any rate merely symbolises the union of the English and Scottish crowns. Wales, for example, was conquered by brute force, and our more or less colonial status is legitimised through this union in which even our “own” ruling classes were never given any say. Without going through every single piece of territory the British state dominates openly through military means and territorial claims and which are subordinate to British capital thanks to past military conquest, we would be remiss if we passed over the North of Ireland, which is still counted as a “home” nation of the United Kingdom in spite of the famously violent recent history of state suppression of the national will of the Irish people which has been necessary to hold onto this territory. This is the unity which a relic of English and Scottish feudal past is meant to symbolise.

When arguments such as these are exhausted, it becomes clear that there is no positive case for the Royal Family. There is only the negative motives of apathy towards change, and fear of the unenforced but still enforceable legal power the monarchy and the British state have to suppress republicanism as treasonous.

What is a figurehead?

The above case against monarchism has been made countless times from countless angles by countless republicans, Marxist and otherwise. But an important question that must be asked is why the concept of a “figurehead” is supposed to erase the reality of the Royal Family. By affirming the existence of “figurehead” leadership, we assume the existence of leadership which is no mere “figurehead”. This is in some sense a mistake. While there is certainly the potential for different degrees of decision-making power which can be vested in a particular organ of political decision-making, in the final instance Marxists oppose “the Great Man Theory” of history and insist that in some sense, all leaders are in some sense stand-ins for social dynamics. The ruling class represent themselves through a particular political leadership, and the amount of power these “leaders” are vested with, and which leaders come into favour with the ruling class, likewise reflect certain interests.

Since the reestablishment of the English monarchy under Charles II, the developing capitalist class and the former feudal leadership came to a peace. Have these groups fused into one class? If they have not, the contradictions between them are not extremely sharp. If the House of Lords and the monarchy are representatives of a feudal aristocracy, it is one that is not strong enough to challenge the ascendency of the big English bourgeoisie, not only over England, but over the other nations in Britain, and the various oppressed nations outside of Britain under the domination of English capital. The legal mechanisms which would allow for the Queen to override parliament are viewed as unimportant because they are not exercised, but given the development of the capitalist mode of production, they likely would be exercised not because of a conflict between the monarchy and English capital, but between different sections of the English bourgeoisie, or between the different national bourgeoisies in Britain.

But the Prime Minister is no less a figurehead. As head of government, we have seen Theresa May exercise extreme authority, such as the deals with the DUP which are in contradiction with the Good Friday Agreement. But this violation of the British state’s ostensible agreements are in the interest of the British state itself at this phase of the crisis. One can easily imagine Theresa May forced to resign in disgrace, as her predecessor was, if the ruling classes feel it is not in their interest to rally around her.

Even Jeremy Corbyn, whose leadership in many ways reflects the reemergence of working class politics among the oppressor English nation, must be understood in this light. While Jeremy Corbyn rightly condemns the current exploitative order in England and Britain and indeed around the world, aligning himself with oppressed peoples and our class, the proletariat, with its need for economic justice, the limitations of his leadership can be seen in the “small business” overtures his party have accepted. Corbyn may rail against privatisation, but he has already opened the doors theoretically to a more charitable equivalent of this state of affairs.

The line is very thin indeed, between the labour aristocratic union leadership and the more Brexit-ready components of the English bourgeoisie, particularly the petty bourgeoisie, who are mostly progressive in those instances where they fully grasp that their economic precariousness is not a symptom of a weak economy or bad trade deals, but the monopolistic tendency of capitalism itself. Petty bourgeois intellectuals, like unionised workers in an imperialist country, are particularly dangerous elements if they do not grasp the totality of the capitalist system. They can easily vacillate and dampen the revolutionary direction by believing a deal can be struck with the state which has been built by and continues to protect the domination of the big bourgeoisie.

The youth for Corbyn can be won over to the revolutionary cause, but only by seeing that not only will a Corbyn government alone not save them, but without a continued push in the revolutionary direction, could even be the first step in incorporating them into the fight against the more marginalised: refugees, non-unionised workers, the oppressed nations, women whose labour is nominally not on the market but is no less crucial for social production and reproduction. An obsession with a formal English labour movement is not only a potential disaster for Marxist revolutionaries and a unity of struggle of workers and oppressed peoples the world over: it could be a disaster for these same relatively privileged elements, as they struggle to defend some elements of the so-called “social state” (the NHS, schooling), unable to fight for more because they are unable to strengthen the forces of class struggle through principled unity.

These ultimate interests of the proletariat are what must be represented in the “figurehead” we call leadership. Not formal membership in the proletarian class, which can also be a feature of extreme reactionary populism. Nor mere anger at “capitalism”, if it fails to grasp the actual mechanisms of how capitalism functions in the era of imperialism.

Revolutionary leadership

So what of our leadership? As Marxists, driven by a desire to expose the truth and fight for the liberation of all people, we do not seek to conceal the reality of what our leadership is. As revolutionaries, we have no desire to position ourselves as mere representatives of different sections of the ruling classes. Where our leadership will emerge, it must represent the interests of the poor and oppressed peoples themselves. Our “figureheads” will not be positioned to exercise nominal authority in order to broker power deals between different sections of the exploiting classes. They will come not from union bosses with war stories of their old days in the CPGB, but from strugglers who sincerely prove themselves in their ability to weave together the diverse trends of struggle, at home and around the world.

Our leadership, our movement, must be held accountable to the revolutionary proletariat in all its particular struggles. Our leadership’s essence has already been gleaned from the student protests of 2010, from striking fast food workers, from women and LGBT struggling against gendered oppression, from the Welsh and Scottish who have seen that Westminster is aligned against their political and cultural future in the interest of English capital, from brave internationalists who go and fight, shoulder to shoulder with Turkish and Kurdish revolutionaries for Rojava. To become the “figurehead” leaders of a movement that will weave all of these together is the formal structure we hope to build. But in essence, each individual who seeks to fill such a role must grasp themselves as “mere figureheads” representing a revolutionary system being born out of these struggles, built by these heroic ordinary people.


It is apparent to us that the House of Windsor has no legitimacy. But it is equally apparent to us that Britain such as it exists, a cultural, economic, political nightmare imposed on us by the stolen riches of the British Empire and all the forces it commands, has no legitimacy. We must not lose sight of what “figureheads” represent. And we must represent something fundamentally, radically different: a new Britain, free of exploitation and oppression. A new Britain, built anew from the rubble of empire. A new Britain, where the people are in control of their own lives, and build their own leaders from themselves, every day, through a social revolution from the bottom up