Here comes a republic? – Nepal and Britain compared

Steve Freeman

 

Last week, events in Nepal were sharply juxtaposed with royal celebrations in Britain. Whilst Liz Windsor was walking through crowds of smiling well-wishers, the god-king Gyanendra was holed up in his palace, defended by heavily armed troops and riot police. In one place a monarchy secure in its permanence. In the other the storm clouds of permanent revolution.

In the early 1990s Nepal was a constitutional monarchy. The Nepali Congress Party was elected in the first multi-party elections. In 1994 the Communist Party of Nepal formed a minority government, only to be ousted a year later. The Maoist Communist Party of Nepal took to the hills and began an armed guerrilla struggle to abolish the monarchy and establish a ‘people’s republic’. A bitter civil war has cost 13,000 lives.

By 2001 the Maoist armed struggle was beginning to build up pressure on the regime. A state of emergency was declared. More power was concentrated into the hands of the armed forces. In February 2005 the king assumed full command, dismissing the prime minister. On April 6 2006 the opposition parties organised a general strike against the king’s autocratic government.

The government response to the general strike was a clampdown by the police. An 18-hour shoot-to-kill curfew was put in place. By April 20, 13 protesters had been killed. Yet despite this repression mass opposition continued to grow and to harden. Crowds gathered on the outskirts of Kathmandu. They marched around the city ring road gathering people as they went. Soon the demonstrators were 200,000 strong, shouting republican slogans, defying the riot police and calling “Gyanendra, thief, leave the country”.

 

Indian threats

 

The emerging revolution did not simply threaten the old regime. India fears that rapid progress to a republic could allow the powerful Maoist rebels to fill the vacuum. Between the monarchy and the republican Maoists are seven opposition parties in coalition. They have been demanding a new constitution, but not necessarily a republic. This coincides with the interest of the Indian bourgeoisie.

India is fearful that the consequences of a Maoist victory would strengthen its own Maoist rebels. India sent its special envoy, Karan Singh, to plead with, and threaten, the king to make concessions. The India republic told the king the only way he can save his throne is through constitutional monarchy. It was vital, he was told, that he relaxed the hard line and tried to incorporate sections of the opposition.

But this option was rapidly disappearing with every clash with the armed forces and every death. Events were overtaking the king and the opposition: “Even opposition parties have been surprised by the depths of republican sentiments revealed during the protests” (The Economist April 22).

Saving the monarchy remains central to the strategy of the Indian bourgeoisie. A constitutional monarchy is a far better option than a people’s republic: “India once supported constitutional monarchy and democracy in Nepal. Now it speaks only of democracy” (ibid). Note that the representatives of the Indian bourgeoisie do not speak of a republic. They know that the masses now reject constitutional monarchy. So the word ‘democracy’ allows them to distance themselves from the monarchy, whilst at the same time keeping that option open.

The king was thus squeezed from above by India, on behalf of British and American imperialism, and below, by the masses on the streets and in the workplaces. The king reluctantly underwent a sudden change of direction. He announced: “We return executive power of the country to the people. We are committed to multi-party democracy and to constitutional monarchy.” This is a victory, but one that is neither certain nor permanent.

 

Two tactics

 

To understand the tactics of counterrevolutionary monarchy, we can go back to the classic reference point for Marx in 1848. Then the Prussian autocracy was almost overwhelmed by a popular democratic movement. The monarchy saved itself by retreat and concession, biding its time and waiting for an opportunity to strike back. Meanwhile German democracy convened a constituent assembly, where endless empty declarations and constitutions were debated and agreed. It was nothing but hot air from liberal windbags.

The lesson that Marx and later Lenin drew from this was the importance of the provisional republican government. Every popular democratic revolution will throw up a constituent assembly. This is the only way the masses can begin to decide what kind of democratic constitution they want. But in order to convene a constituent assembly which is safe from counterrevolution it is necessary to take power. This means a provisional government.

The demand for a provisional government is a demand to move the revolution forward by taking the power to convene a constituent assembly. It is not a question of keeping the monarchy until the constituent assembly can decide whether to become a republic. On the contrary it means removing the monarchy and declaring a provisional republic. The question before a democratic constituent assembly is not whether to remove the monarchy. It is whether to invite it back again - and the answer to that is obvious. This is the argument developed by Lenin in Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution.

A provisional government is necessary to deal with the armed forces. Two incidents indicate that the time has arrived for such a government. As the mass demonstrations were encircling the city, it was reported that the protesters were growing in confidence and breaching the defences of the police and army. Several lines of police fell back and soldiers guarding the airport were giving the demonstrators signs of support. It was also reported that newspapers had printed the name of a police officer who had shot an unarmed demonstrator in the head.

A provisional government of opposition parties can make legal proclamations in the name of the people. It can make clear that actions by the armed forces are illegal and will be punished. It can call on army units to desist their illegal operations against the people. At a certain moment in the revolution such declarations begin to carry real political weight. This is especially the case if some army units decide to change sides and the people gain access to weapons.

What can we learn from this? Nepal confirms the lessons from previous republican revolutions. Becoming a democratic republic is an expression of the masses organising and mobilising. A republic is the people in motion. A real people’s republic cannot be handed down. It appears when 200,000 people assert their citizenship on the streets. It is the taking of power by the people themselves and imposing themselves on the counterrevolution.

It leads inevitably to a new constitution, a new set of political laws decided by the people. A real democratic republican movement therefore gives birth to a constituent assembly. Between the mass movement and the constituent assembly is the provisional government and the arming of the people. This was the lesson from 1848 and 1905, confirmed today.

 

Nepal and Britain

 

Britain is a long way from Nepal. No mass republican demonstrations here. On the contrary 20,000 royalists, quite a few tourists and local schoolchildren were on the streets showing their love for the queen. In Kathmandu republicans demonstrate. In the UK royalists celebrate. The queen has her 80th birthday and over 50 years on the throne, without a whiff of revolution and no sign of any republican party.

The Economist had some interesting comments about the monarchy in an article entitled ‘Revolution postponed - why the monarchy is stronger today than 10 years ago’ (ibid). This goes to the heart of the dispute among socialists. A constitutional monarchy is in essence the “revolution postponed”. This is just as true in Nepal as it is in Britain. This is one reason why communists in Nepal must be steadfast in their determination to achieve a republic.

Over the last 100 or more years Anglo-British monarchs have attracted a fair amount of criticism. They have been “lampooned as lazy, ineffectual, greedy, vain and stupid”, according to The Economist. But after 50 years on the throne there is no such hostility, despite the heavily subsidised jobs for life which are “extravagant and largely pointless”. The monarchy is looking as strong as ever, having now recovered from the Diana-inspired slump in the 1990s. Her death helped the royal cause by removing a permanent embarrassment. The monarchy now seems stronger than ever.

Britain is a tolerant society made up of two classes: one that worships the monarchy and another that can live with it and not complain. We got a snapshot of the dominant politics on the royal birthday. I listened to a royalist author singing the praises of the queen on the radio. A spokesperson from the Fabians put a reformist alternative: the queen won’t be here forever, he reasoned; surely we need to think more about the royal succession now and how the process can be reformed? In The Guardian a liberal republican agreed that the queen should reign as long as she can keep going, but then we should think about changing to a republic. Most socialists follow the liberal line of delaying tactics. Wait until socialism arrives. No wonder the crown is impregnable.

The Economist provides us with an instructive, if superficial, analysis of royal survival. The first reason is that the monarchy thrives on indifference. Evidence of interest in the royal family is all around - over a million turned out for the recent jubilee, while “dreary books on the royals easily outsell ones about elected politicians” and the adventures of the young princes figure in all the newspapers. Yet this interest, argues The Economist, is superficial - only 10% of young people think the monarchy is important in their lives. Because the monarchy is a “monopoly provider of something trivial it is hardly worth opposing”. How many times have we heard socialists say this?

Normally the words “monopoly provider” sends The Economist into a spin. You would expect it to demand privatisation, more market forces and competitive tendering. This is how consumers of ‘monarchy services’ can ensure value for money. Despite the massive expense on the taxpayers this is not the case here. The monarchy appears like some heavenly body, which floats above the materialistic concerns of money-making, markets and cost-cutting.

A second reason for the survival of the monarchy is that the queen has studiously avoided public controversy. She expresses no political views. We are supposed to read into this the existence of a non-political crown. This, of course, is nonsense. Wealth, class and high politics are the essence of monarchy. This is the secret that every monarch must maintain to survive. No class politics are expressed because they are not necessary. The queen is a skilled and experienced politician, briefed by her security services. The weekly audience with her first minister provides every opportunity for regal ‘advice’ and ‘guidance’.

The third reason identified by The Economist is that the monarchy has “benefited from a decline in party allegiance and a dilution of ideology in British politics”. This has weakened the left. “Vigorous anti-monarchism was associated with the hard left, and has atrophied with it.” There is only one republican organisation (Republic) with around a thousand members. But there is still no republican party anywhere is sight.

These observations by The Economist make considerable sense. But they do not deal with the underlying issue of class. Which class supports the royal monopoly? The answer is so obvious, it seems insulting to mention it. The monarchy, like the union flag, is the symbol of the ruling class, the capitalist class which owns the country. The monarchy is secure because it serves definite class interests. If that were not the case, the monarchy would soon be sent on its way.

It is an article of faith or a point of policy that all bourgeois political parties pay homage to the monarchy. Even those bourgeois politicians privately sympathetic to republicanism do their public duty. In expressing their loyalty to the crown they express their allegiance not simply to the queen but to the capitalist ruling class. People who would never sing ‘God save our gracious capitalist class’ are happy enough to sing the same thing in relation to her majesty.

The constitutional monarchy is the mystification of plunder, whereas the American republic is the worship of naked greed. No wonder so many Americans turn to christian fundamentalism to give them absolution from sin. Our constitution is built on the cult of secrecy and theirs on the freedom of certain information. In Britain, one of the largest landowners and richest shareholders is called the monarch. In America those who embody capital are simple billionaires - a job which anybody can do.

 

Republicanism

 

The new Socialist Alliance has recently begun debating the issue of republicanism. The traditional British left is what The Economist calls “anti-monarchist” rather than republican. The policy of the Socialist Green Unity Coalition and the Alliance for Green Socialism call for the abolition of the monarchy, but do not use the term ‘democratic republic’.

This takes us back to the ambiguous term, ‘constitutional monarchy’. Moderate republicans see this as a reference to the queen as a constitutional monarch. They want to get rid of the queen. These ‘anti-monarchists’ have therefore a narrow and limited target. What flows from this? It is the view that removing the monarchy is relatively inconsequential. Will it really change anything? Will it have any impact on real life? It seems like the tidying up of a few outdated feudal relics.

By contrast militant republicans see ‘constitutional monarchy’ as a reference to the entire British constitution - ‘the constitution of the crown’. This includes our political laws and institutions - not only the monarchy, but the union of nations, church, Lords, Commons, first past the post, civil service and our civil liberties. Militant republicans want to abolish the constitution, which of course includes hereditary monarchy.

We emphasise what we are for - a democratic, secular republic. It is not simply about abolishing the old constitution, but creating a new system of democratic self-government - popular sovereignty, government by the people for the people. This is not a single issue: it is a big issue. Who runs the country and how they do it is the mother and father of all issues. How are we governed and what rights do we have?

Placing emphasis on a new republican constitution, rather than crude anti-monarchism, does not soften the attitude to hereditary monarchy. On the contrary it moves it up the political agenda. Abolishing the monarchy is simply the first step in creating a new system of government. We should begin that task as soon as possible.

Militant republicanism is distinguished from anti-monarchism in its recognition of the central demand for a new constitution. A new constitution must be decided by the sovereign people and their elected representatives. This is the role of a constituent assembly. The events in Nepal are a timely reminder that we can learn from the experience of the working class, even in so-called ‘backward’ countries.

Nepal teaches us that genuine republicanism is about the people taking power into their own hands, calling a constituent assembly and deciding afresh their political laws and institutions. Republicanism rises with revolution. Revolution rises with republicanism. From Britain we learn that republicanism declines with apathy. The monarchy thrives on indifference and the decline of the left. If we are to rebuild a new socialist movement, a good starting would be to ask ourselves why there is no working class republican party in England. Why is there no party which sets the aim of a democratic republican constitution on the road to socialism? What can be done to rectify that?

 

 

 

 

May 2006

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