We are reposting this article, written by Mike MacNair, which was first published by Weekly Worker. He argues that despite its ostensible archaism, the coronation of Charles III reflects the thoroughly modern practice of one-man management.
STUFF ‘SINGLE PERSON’ LEADERSHIP
In March 1649, after the execution of Charles I, parliament passed “An Act for the abolishing the Kingly Office in England and Ireland, and the Dominions thereunto belonging”:
… whereas it is and hath been found by experience, that the Office of a King in this Nation and Ireland, and to have the power thereof in any single person, is unnecessary, burthensom and dangerous to the liberty, safety and publique interest of the people, and that for the most part, use hath been made of the Regal power and prerogative, to oppress, and impoverish and enslave the Subject; and that usually and naturally any one person in such power, makes it his interest to incroach upon the just freedom and liberty of the people, and to promote the setting up of their own will and power above the Laws, that so they might enslave these Kingdoms to their own Lust;
Be it therefore Enacted and Ordained by this present Parliament, and by Authority of the same, That the Office of a King in this Nation, shall not henceforth reside in, or be exercised by any one single person; and that no one person whatsoever, shall or may have, or hold the Office, Stile, Dignity, Power or Authority of King of the said Kingdoms and Dominions, or any of them, or of the Prince of Wales, Any Law, Statute, Usage or Custom to the contrary thereof in any wise notwithstanding.1
On April 20 1653 – just over 470 years ago – Oliver Cromwell dissolved the ‘rump parliament’ which had passed this act. After some discussions and negotiations, the ‘Instrument of Government’ – or written constitution adopted by the army officers’ council on December 15 1653 – provided:
- That the supreme legislative authority of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the dominions thereunto belonging, shall be and reside in one person, and the people assembled in Parliament; the style of which person shall be the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Cromwell himself was appointed as the “Lord Protector” – the “single person” of this scheme – and retained the title until his death on September 3 1658, though various constitutional schemes were improvised in between. Cromwell had the power to nominate his successor, but may not have done so – secretary of state John Thurloe ‘manufacturing’ a nomination of Oliver’s son, Richard, after his death.2 Richard, who had no military and limited political experience, lasted only nine months, before being deposed by the army – followed by a confused period, which ended with the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660.
The English republic returning to a ‘single person’ in Cromwell was by no means unique. The US 1777 Articles of Confederation did not provide for an executive presidency, but made the Congress the governing authority;3 the 1789 constitution, in contrast, gives the presidency most of the powers of an 18th century English king (a lot more than those of Charles III today). In the French Revolution, the Committee of Public Safety answerable to the convention was replaced by the indirectly elected directory, and that in turn by the 1799 coup of Napoleon Bonaparte – initially as ‘First Consul’, later as emperor. The revolution of 1848 produced as its eventual outcome the ‘Second Empire’ of Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon III). The Third Republic was characterised by Engels as “the empire of 1799 without the emperor”. De Gaulle’s 1958 coup against the Fourth Republic created an executive presidency. The Weimar republic in Germany (1919-33) similarly involved a presidency with strong reserve powers.
Modern constitutions are commonly monarchies, including recreated ones (eg, Spain – re-established 1978); or else they have executive presidencies; or, even where the monarchy or presidency is ceremonial, involve the ‘single person’ in the form of the prime minister, with the media promoting cults of the personalities of party leaders as a normal element of ‘constitutional’ politics.
The notion of ‘government of a single person’ is ideology, not reality. Cromwell was engaged under the Protectorate in a balancing act between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ factions on the Protector’s Council, and was unable to get much actually implemented in domestic policy due to lack of a broad political support beyond the army. James VII and II found in 1688 that he could not implement his policies, or defend the country against a Dutch invasion (with English and Scots dissident support), without the practical support of people ‘out of doors’ who were prepared to take positive action to implement his decisions.4 This phenomenon underlies Marx’s early point that “democracy is the resolved mystery of all constitutions”: monarchs can only be monarchs with support from those below them.5
Even in terms of the control of information and decision-making at the centre, real one-man decision-making is unworkable. Witness the dependency of early Roman emperors on various sorts of advisors and deputies (and the extraordinary burden on emperors, discussed by Fergus Millar); witness the chaos of the first years of Bolshevik government, which was over-dependent on personal interventions by Lenin, as discussed by Laura Douds.6 Witness the incoherence of Boris Johnson’s administration, discussed in the media extracts from, and reviews of, Anthony Seldon’s and Raymond Newell’s Johnson at 10: the inside story. The king or leader who cannot commit to effective delegation for fear of losing control cannot take effective decisions.
The basis of the ideology is in part military. Decision-making on the field of battle requires that some decisions be made very quickly; it is commonly as bad for no decision to be made at all as for a wrong decision to be made. This means that authority has to be given to an individual to decide. The same is true of other forms of emergency management operations, and of some other sharply time-controlled decisions. Fairly clearly, however, this will not justify a general principle of one-man or single-person management.
Rather, the ‘single person’ ideologically represents the right of private property: a right which is, like military command, given to such a single person, (even if they may be corporations, that is, fictitious individuals), but which does not have the practical justification of sharp, temporal urgency of decision-making.
For the artisan or artist – or the hobbyist – small private property may be justified on the ground of freedom to choose in creation; but this will hardly justify the large property of the landlord or capitalist. Indeed, this latter under capitalism is founded on the expropriation of the petty producers, and is the “negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor”, as Marx remarked in Capital.7 By making the principle of ‘single person’ or ‘one-man management’ into a general principle, monarchist and presidentialist constitutionalism, as well as prime ministerialist media-politics, offer a concealed justification for the rights of the landlord and the boss.
‘Moderate’ and later royalist MP Edmund Waller made the point in debating bishops – another form of ‘single person’ – in 1641:
I look upon Episcopacy, as a Counter-scar[p], or outwork, which if it be taken by this assault of the people, and withall this Mysterie once revealed, that we must deny them nothing when they aske it thus in troopes, we may in the next place, have as hard a taske to defend our propriety [property], as we have lately had to recover it from the prerogative.8
Political democracy thus implies economic ‘levelling’. It was the rejection of ‘levelling’ which led men like Waller to join the royalist side; it was also the rejection of ‘levelling’ which supported the return of the idea of the ‘single person’ in the Instrument of Government (and which in turn led to the Restoration of 1660) – and the various other instances of constitutional commitments to the ‘single person’.
The British monarchy very strikingly combines the figures of military command, and of the legitimacy of unlimited and absolute property. We endlessly see the royal menfolk in military uniform at public events. Nor is it merely their extensive honorary posts; great play is made in the media of their (limited) actual military service.9Meanwhile, the British monarchy, perhaps to a greater extent than other European monarchies, is an actual celebration of extraordinary rentier wealth. The left commonly imagines that this is a weakness of the monarchy (imagining that complaining about royal wealth will undermine the institution). The reverse is the case: the open display of royal wealth lends to rentier wealth in general the cachet of the constitutional celebration of the institution of the ‘single person’.
It is easy to imagine that the monarchy, because of its self-conscious, archaising imagery, is in fact a ‘survival’ of the pre-modern; or that the creation of the French Second Empire in 1852 was a symptom of capitalist decline – and hence the persistence of monarchies, presidencies and wider forms of the ‘single person’ institution are also symptoms of capitalist decline. The argument would be the standard ‘permanent revolution’ story of ‘uncompleted tasks of the bourgeois revolution’: that is, the failure to deliver ‘bourgeois democracy’ displayed by the continuation of monarchism. Regular Weekly Worker writer Dan Lazare offers a variant form, in which the constitution of the USA is another ancien regime, with the centralised (absolute) state legislator of French Jacobin republicanism figured as the modern.10
I wrote about this issue at considerable length in 2021,11 and will not repeat here the elaborate arguments I made then. (My critics then did not respond to my historical or theoretical argumentation, but merely reasserted their existing views.) I will repeat only the point made in the fifth article in that series (September 30 2021): the fundamental test of ‘modernity’ is the test of war and, in that test, the Anglo-American constitutional models in the 20th century defeated or outperformed their ‘modernist’ Bonapartist rivals in not only the French regime, but also those of the German Kaiserreich and the Nazis, as well as the post-1921 Soviet model.
They succeeded because the Anglo-American models – complete with their apparently ‘pre-modern’ features – more perfectly expressed the interests of actual capitalist modernity. In contrast, the ideological apparent modernity of Bonapartism in all these French, German and Russian forms actually rested on the artificial preservation both of peasant agriculture and of bastard-feudal clientelism in the state bureaucracy.
It is worth flagging, however, a particular aspect of the monarchy – its celebration of rentier wealth – as more than just a ‘survival’. It might be imagined to be surprising that (except Singapore12) no capitalist state has moved towards the ‘Ricardian’ or ‘Georgist’ idea of funding the state through land nationalisation, charging rent to the users, while leaving manufacturing, merchant and financial capital ‘free’.13 The point is that the sanctity of property is moreimportant to the regime of capitalist rule than it was to feudal rule.
The underlying reason for this is the difference between the proletariat as a class, on the one hand, and feudal (or other pre-capitalist) peasants and artisans, on the other; or, conversely, between the capitalist class and feudal, etc, classes and castes. Peasants and artisans possess their own means of production. Feudal and similar landlords claim shares of the social surplus product on the basis of their supposed inherited skills at government and war (reflected in the literary figure of the ‘lost heir’, whose nobility comes out in the wash). Priests, monks (Christian or Buddhist), ‘Ulama’, and so on, claim shares of the social surplus product on the basis of their individual or corporate sanctity.
In contrast, proletarians are forced to work for wages by their exclusion from possession of the means of production. And capitalists claim their share of social surplus product merely by virtue of their ownership of the means of production. Pro-capitalist ideologues may from time to time talk about entrepreneurship as a skill or about the rewards of risk-taking. But this story fails to account for the fact that “the first million is the hardest”, the role of inheritance, and other sources of capital.14 The claim to a right to flows of social surplus product merely by virtue of ownership of assets is not a claim that capitalists can ever discard in favour of entrepreneurship as a skill or profit attributable to risk.
In consequence, neither the Georgist policy nor JM Keynes’s “euthanasia of the rentier” is acceptable to capital. Just as Waller saw the bishops as an outwork to gentry property rights, so the pure rentiers – like the British royal family and so on – are a necessary outwork to capitalist property rights. The constitutional figure of the ‘single person’ commits the constitutional order to this interest.
Government by a ‘single person’ is an ideology, not a reality. And the constitutional figure of the ‘single person’ – whether king, president or prime minister – is the banner under which capital brings the lower orders under control after their mobilisation in a revolution (in England, in the USA, in France). In routine politics, the ‘single person’ – the prime minister or party leader – as well as the media cult of the personalities of individual leaders, is an instrument of capitalist control through corruption and the forced choice between rival gangs of bribe-takers: we are asked to pay attention to the choice between ‘Rishi’ and ‘Keir’ (or whatever the current offer is) and told that anything else is a wasted vote.
In war and foreign affairs it is the same story: the media ask us to back the US and its British yap dog against ‘Putin’ (the Russian police regime), just as earlier it was ‘Assad’ in Syria, ‘Gaddafi’ in Libya and ‘Saddam’ in Iraq, who were to justify the massive destruction inflicted by the US and its vassals. Go back to the 1790s, and the British press’s target was ‘Tipu’ (Tipu Sultan of Mysore) …15
In this context what is remarkable is the extent to which the left has internalised the idea of the ‘single person’. Leave aside the very common practice of tailing the capitalists’ media on the characterisation of regimes our state opposes in the shape of their individual leaders. The cult of the personality of Jeremy Corbyn was a recent example on a large scale. But all those leftists who promote directly-elected officials of parties and campaigns are part of the same problem.
And, indeed, there is already such a problem in 1920-21 (and later) ‘Leninism’. The problem is that the theory of the party adopted at the second and third congresses of Comintern were generalised on the basis of the Bolsheviks’ minority-rule emergency measures in 1918-21 (treaty of Brest-Litovsk; Red Terror; one-man management; and so on). The generalisation argued that the proletariat as a class is necessarily represented by the party, which is the ‘advanced’ minority, against the ‘backward’ majority. But then it follows from the logic of the argument for this role that the party itself is necessarily represented by the ‘advanced’ minority which is the central committee, against the ’backward’ membership. And the CC, in turn, is necessarily represented by the ‘advanced’ minority, which is the politburo. And, at the end of the day, the politburo is necessarily represented by the ‘advanced’ minority, which was, from 1929, ‘comrade Stalin’; in modern ‘Leninist’ far-left groups a wide variety of lider maximo types have wound up playing the role. British examples include Gerry Healy, Tony Cliff, Ted Grant, Peter Taaffe …
In short, the 1920-21 Comintern theory of the party, because it is minoritarian, logically tends to resolve itself back into the capitalist principle of the ‘single person’. The left makes itself ‘monarchist’.
The idea had already been invented by Ferdinand Lassalle in the structure of the 1860s Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiter-Verein (ADAV), and continued by Lassalle’s successor, Jean Baptista von Schweitzer: the need for strict unity of will required one-man rule by the ADAV’s president. Unity of the ADAV with its ‘Eisenacher’ rivals became possible at Gotha in 1875, when this organisational conception was abandoned; and the result of the unification was the explosive growth of the German social democrats.
The effect of left monarchism is not, usually, to make the left group into an instrument of corruption like the two-party system (though there have been such cases). It is, rather, to disable the left itself from both unifying its own forces and from creating a party which permits the ranks in the localities and sectors to self-organise and grasp the party as their instrument. The resulting grouplets (even quite large ones) cannot effectively serve as instruments of the proletariat as a class.
We should, then, take the opportunity of the coronation of Charles III to reflect a little on – and reject – the general principle of government by a ‘single person’.
- CH Firth and RS Rait (eds) Acts and ordinances of the interregnum, 1642-1660 London 1911 pp18-20.↩︎
- J Fitzgibbons, ‘Not in any doubtfull dispute? Reassessing the nomination of Richard Cromwell’ Historical Research Vol 83, pp281-300 (2010).↩︎
- B Coward The Cromwellian protectorate Manchester 2002, chapters 4 and 8; T Harris Revolution: the great crisis of the British monarchy London 2006.↩︎
- F Millar The emperor in the Roman world Bristol 1992; L Douds Inside Lenin’s government London 2018.↩︎
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: ‘Waller, Edmund, poet and politician’.↩︎
- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_service_by_British_royalty; www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11958461/The-late-Queen-wanted-Harry-William-fight-Afghanistan-new-documentary-claims.html (April 11).↩︎
- Recently in ‘Their militia and ours’ Weekly Worker April 27: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1440/their-militia-and-ours.↩︎
- ‘Constitutions ancient and modern’ Weekly Worker September 2 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1361/constitutions-ancient-and-modern. See also ‘Artificial antiquity’, September 9 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1362/artificial-antiquity); ‘Class, state and constitution’, September 16 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1363/class-state-and-constitution); ‘Enlightened constitutions’, September 23 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1364/enlightened-constitutions); ‘Decline and decay’, September 30 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1365/decline-and-decay). Plus the reply to critics in ‘Modern ancient constitutions’, October 28 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1369/modern-ancient-constitutions); and my transcribed talk on the issue: ‘In modern times’, November 18 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1372/in-modern-times).↩︎
- Singapore: A Haila, Urban land rent: Singapore as a property state, Chichester 2016.↩︎
- ‘Ricardian’ from David Ricardo, 1772-1823; ‘Georgist’ from Henry George, 1839-97.↩︎
- Inheritance: G Clark, The son also rises Princeton 2015. Compare also ‘original accumulation’ in K Marx Capital Vol 1, chapters 26-31.↩︎
- W Dalrymple, ‘An essay in imperial villain-making’ The GuardianMay 24 2005; www.thequint.com/voices/how-did-tipu-sultans-worst-enemies-the-british-see-him-an-exhibition-explores-dag-museum.↩︎