A King For The People?

The dream of radical redistribution under hereditary rule has never been more important than in an age of rampant capitalism and dysfunctional populism.

Volkan Jauernig

John Last is a freelance journalist based in Padua, Italy.

On May 6, in the heart of English Christendom, King Charles III will be anointed with oil gathered from Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives and consecrated at the tomb of Christ. On his head will be placed a 17th-century solid gold crown adorned with topazes and tourmalines — the very same one that Charles II wore at the restoration of the English monarchy in 1661.

Though the British monarchy is not yet as unpopular as many feared it would become upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II — 53% of Brits still believe the monarchy is good for the country — in much of the rest of the Commonwealth, the crown is facing a more dire decline. In my country, Canada, less than one in five people think a constitutional monarchy should remain our form of government.

Yet I cannot help but feel some strange affinity to these elaborate traditions and the ancient institution for which they stand. Over pints and at water coolers, I have found myself defending the hereditary rule of an unelected head of state. I am, to the befuddlement of many of my peers, a monarchist.

But I am also a progressive, wholeheartedly in favor of aggressive efforts to redistribute wealth in pursuit of a more equal and just society. I just don’t think we need to start — or even end — with the monarchy.

That makes me a member of a strange, obscure sect so paradoxical that our modern oracle, ChatGPT, cannot decide if it is a “coherent ideology” or a “term used by a small number of individuals to describe their idiosyncratic politics.”

I am a monarcho-socialist — one who dreams of radical redistribution under hereditary rule. And I am not alone.

For as long as there has been socialism, there have been those who have tried to wed its ideals to a system of hereditary monarchy. In fact, even before the concept of socialism existed, premodern thinkers saw in benevolent monarchy the potential to radically address inequality in their societies.

Some time around the fourth century B.C.E., in a treatise known as “The Arthashastra,” the Indian polymath Chanakya developed a theory of monarchy that redefined the monarch as a servant of his people. “In the happiness of his subjects lies [the] King’s happiness,” he wrote, “in their welfare his welfare.”

Chanakya used this standpoint to argue that kings had a duty to seize control over central aspects of the economy, and direct them to ensure maximum welfare for their subjects. He endorsed progressive taxation and other redistributive methods to maintain equality among the people. If a king should fail to perform these tasks, he argued, subjects had the moral right to ignore their ruler — it was the people, not the king, who hold power.

Needless to say, Chanakya’s model hasn’t manifested many times in the history of kings and queens. Any history book will tell you that monarchs are far more often tyrants than servants to their people. History is rife with rulers like Charles the Mad, Murad IV or William II, who showed remarkable staying power despite incompetence, hypocrisy or deep unpopularity. Still, the notion that monarchy could be used to level social classes rather than uphold them nonetheless persisted.

Monarcho-socialism — to the extent it can be said to exist — is really a creature of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the French Revolution inspired utopians of all stripes to wed the ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité with a functioning (and inevitably hierarchical) political system.

One such attempt was France’s July Monarchy, in power from 1830 to 1848, during which the term “socialism” was born. The restoration of France’s monarchy under Louis-Philippe was achieved with the support of the people of Paris and seen by many to hold the potential for a great social leveling.

“I am a monarcho-socialist — one who dreams of radical redistribution under hereditary rule. And I am not alone.”

The July Monarchy ended up entrenching the power of the liberal bourgeoisie and failing to establish major political progress for the working classes, but it did produce a blossoming of utopian socialist movements, each advancing new ways of transcending class distinctions. It was in this environment that one of the first groups of “communists,” the Icarians, emerged, contributing the classic phrase, “To each following his needs, from each following his strengths.” The Icarians went on to found half around a dozen egalitarian communities in America, each under the rulership of a benevolent dictator-king. Though all failed within a generation, they did in a way make the United States the birthplace of communism.

As the century wound on, attempts to wed socialism with monarchy became more realist. In the 1860s, Ferdinand Lassalle, a defender of monarchy so popular he was called by contemporaries “the messiah of the 19th century,” led one of the first successful mass workers’ movements. A disciple of Karl Marx, Lassalle saw the French Revolution as an incomplete project that empowered the bourgeoisie to the detriment of the working class. But unlike Marx, whose socialism was defined by vicious critiques of religion and tradition, Lassalle embraced the emotional and universalizing arguments of July Monarchy thinkers, declaring the proletariat “synonymous with the whole human race.”

“Its interest is in truth the interest of the whole of humanity, its freedom is the freedom of humanity itself,” he wrote — a faint, unconscious echo of Chanakya’s formula for kings.

Lassalle saw potential in a system where a popular workers’ movement could use the power of a progressive monarchy to overrule the growing dominance of the bourgeois middle classes. That position won him few allies among the aristocracy, but thousands of workers, whose loyalty to the Prussian crown could not be easily questioned, joined him. In the end, he succeeded in forcing the reactionary Prime Minister Otto Von Bismarck to adopt a platform of “monarchical socialism” and introduce workers’ rights and social policies that remain a bedrock of the German welfare state.

Lassalle was not alone in seeing the potential of monarchs as a bulwark against the tyranny of the upper classes. In Scandinavia, a sacred and ancient affinity between the king and his peasants united them against a greedy and jealous aristocracy. The Scandinavian ceremonial monarchies and progressive welfare states of today, some of the most robust in the world, can trace their origins to those romantic ideals, which legitimized working-class efforts to challenge the upper classes and pushed forward universal suffrage.

In Britain, too, early socialists saw potential in the power of an active monarch. The 19th-century Chartist movement, which fought against regressive policies that punished the poor, implored the newly crowned Queen Victoria directly to intervene on their behalf. “The People, having petitioned their representatives in vain … will then turn to your Majesty,” wrote James Bronterre O’Brien, a Chartist journalist, “and you will be prevailed upon to decide between the claims of a haughty, unfeeling and domineering aristocracy, and the demands of your oppressed, pauperized subjects.”

“For as long as there has been socialism, there have been those who have tried to wed its ideals to a system of hereditary monarchy.”

Unfortunately, the Chartists were already too late. By Victoria’s time, the monarch had already been stripped of most of its power to directly intervene in politics. Still, despite her reputation for modeling middle-class values, Victoria never abandoned the working poor. Disempowered politically, she and her descendants focused on philanthropy and made visits to working-class communities, inspiring a deep respect for the monarchy among the British proletariat that has in many ways survived through Elizabeth II’s reign.

Yet as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the idea that a monarchy could be an ally to the people gradually fell out of favor. In France, the populist dictatorship of Napoleon III succeeded with socialist policies — public housing, the right to strike, education for women — over the protests of a bourgeois parliament. But it also created a militaristic personality cult that, not long after, Nazi thinkers would study for inspiration.

Even before Hitler, the growing communist left viewed moderate monarchist movements as tantamount to fascism. “Indeed, [they were] even more dangerous,” the historian Jost Dülffer writes, “since [they] vied with the Communist Party for the favor of the working class.”

Today, the idea of monarcho-socialism is largely viewed as a political absurdity — or, at best, an unappealing thought experiment. “It’s a question that attracts vast hordes of cranks and weirdos, and it’s probably healthy for one’s political career to not be publicly involved,” said John Ritzema, a theologian and a monarchist at Pusey House, an Anglican research organization in Oxford.

Even those who profess the identity feel the need to clarify it is a genuine political position. On its Discord channel, the Reddit group r/MonarchoSocialism introduces itself with the line “First things first, this server is not some joke.” A few dozen active members mostly trade memes, roleplay WWI alt-history and debate the merits of Napoleon over Stalin. Many say they are unwelcome in more left-leaning spaces.

“Monarchism alone is generally seen as right-wing at best, and a meme at worst,” one user wrote on Discord. “So it’s not at all surprising … that the seemingly oxymoronic monarcho-socialism isn’t given much mind.”

But is monarcho-socialism necessarily such a contradiction? How much of the confusion or dismissal emerges as a result of decades of American cultural messaging that the monarchy is somehow inherently antithetical to freedom?

In many cases, these arguments parrot an attitude to monarchy formed by socialist thinkers when absolutist kings still ruled in Europe. “The Monarchy is a feudal hangover and the secret anti-democratic authoritarian weapon of capitalism,” according to the Marxist Student Federation. “Socialists should fight for its abolition. We should fight for a socialist republic.”

Yet for many political theorists writing in the dying days of absolutism, a constitutional monarchy was infinitely preferable to a republic if the goal was the flourishing of human freedom. The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel — too early to be a socialist, but an inspiration for many that followed — believed that constitutional monarchies were superior to republics precisely because they could not become enslaved to elected politicians and their chaotic, fluctuating and often corrupt individual wills.

Writing more than a century later in the shadow of fascism, George Orwell understood this well. Unlike Marx, who often adopted a contemptuous attitude toward popular manifestations of patriotism and tradition because of their dark potential for manipulation, Orwell recognized that a constitutional monarch could exercise popular sentiments while preventing them from being abused to empower a single individual. “In England the real power belongs to unprepossessing men in bowler hats: the creature who rides in a gilded coach behind soldiers in steel breastplates is really a waxwork,” he once wrote. “It is at any rate possible that while this division of function exists a Hitler or a Stalin cannot come to power.”

This is all the more important in an age where the tyranny of fascism has been replaced by the unlimited power of international capital. “One of the great things about having a hereditary system is that you can’t buy it,” Ritzema said. “And actually, in a world where we have lots of Bezoses and Thiels, I think having some things that can’t be bought under any circumstances is probably a precondition to having a functioning democracy.”

But constitutional monarchy does not just provide a defense for socialists against right-wing tyranny — it can also provide unparalleled legitimation for radical social reform. Because a monarch by convention offers legitimacy to any law passed by a majority in the legislature, a single progressive government can introduce massive expansions to the welfare state, without contending with the veto power of a bourgeois presidency.

“This is all the more important in an age where the tyranny of fascism has been replaced by the unlimited power of international capital.”

Exactly this occurred under Clement Atlee, the British Labor Party’s second prime minister and a defender of monarchy himself, who in six years nationalized a fifth of the British economy, established the National Health Service and massively increased investment in public housing, all without provoking a constitutional crisis.

This is the revolutionary upending of power that Marxists’ references to feudalism fundamentally ignore. Even the monarchy itself “exists at the permission of the House of Commons,” according to Richard Johnson, a senior lecturer in politics at Queen Mary University of London and the author of a forthcoming book, “Keep The Red Flag Waving,” on the history of the Labor Party. “The socialist constitutional victory has already been won.”

Throughout the British Commonwealth, this principle has already been taken to absurdist extremes. In Grenada, a revolutionary socialist government survived for four years with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state, upended only by an invasion led by a Republican-led U.S. administration. By contrast, when an unconstitutional military dictatorship in Fiji tried to reestablish Elizabeth as their traditional queen, she refused the title.

The relative power of legislatures in the British system — along with strong historical support for the monarchy among the working classes — is one reason Labor has never adopted a republican position, even under anti-monarchist leaders like Jeremy Corbyn.

“It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there’s that line about the British system being an elected dictatorship,” said Ritzema. “The great successes of left-wing governments have come from that constitutional system. Toy with it at your peril.”

That may be one reason why, even since the time of the Chartists, opposition to monarchy on the left has typically favored an amorphous anti-monarchism over outright republicanism, a distaste akin to moral revulsion at the tabloid seediness and visible wealth monarchy inevitably puts on display.

This kind of critique is much harder to defend against, partly because it cuts through the universalizing pageantry and symbols of the state to the particular, imperfect human at its center. In so doing, it undercuts the scaffolding of belief on which monarchy rests — in Ritzema’s words, its “morally realist worldview,” which retains the possibility of a mystic hierarchy that connects God, the people and the state.

In the age of identity politics, when the distinctions between a person and their symbolic role are harder than ever to maintain, these critiques have only escalated. “If you’re an identitarian progressive, there are lots of arguments against the monarchy, some old, some new,” said Ritzema. “The old ones deal with heredity and equality, new ones with race and gender and sexuality.”

One possible response to these critiques is to emphasize the value of the monarchy — if not necessarily the monarch — as a universalizing institution, one that, in the words of the historian Tristram Hunt, can “embody all the complications and contradictions of the nation.” Uniquely in our modern world, monarchy builds a sense of national (or even transnational) identity not on a common race or origin or even shared cultural values, but simply on legal subjecthood to a common Crown.

“No real political system will ever be perfect. But monarchy at least allows us to pretend to that perfection.

“If you have a country that has signed up to a multicultural democracy for the coming few hundred years, you need cultural and state institutions that are in some sense capable of transcending those necessary divisions,” said Ritzema. “I don’t think the monarchy can provide that alone. But I do think you need institutions that are nonpartisan, quite historically grounded and able to give a national feature to this post-ethnic national community.”

This may work for the monarchy in Britain, but in its former colonies, where new imperialist crimes are continually coming to light, it is increasingly hard to argue that an English monarch serves as a unifying symbol. Even aside from its colonial implications, an absentee monarch has little functional use. Many British prime ministers, in times of need, called upon the extensive institutional memory of a queen who’d been ruling for 70 years. But in the colonies, her role was effectively replaced by a rotating cast of ribbon-cutting governors-general, appointed by the government of the day.

And yet, reducing the reach of the British Crown is not always a slam-dunk for the decolonization movement. In Canada and New Zealand, treaties with the Crown form the basis of Indigenous rights. Indigenous leaders have often voiced misgivings about abolishing the British monarchy, which they argue would undermine their status as an original people by erasing their historical connections to the Crown, which recognized their primacy and forms the basis of their rights, forcing them into a relationship with a much newer and more entrenched settler republic.

In the early years of his reign, Charles can already expect to face referendums in AustraliaAntiguaJamaica and Scotland, where citizens may decide to ditch the Crown once and for all. Can Charles manage the tact and charisma necessary to preserve the monarchy for his heirs?

There is something in his idiosyncratic nature that offers some glimmer of fading hope for the future of a progressive monarchy, one that might ally with the interests of the working class to challenge the growing strength of capital.

Charles has long been known for harboring unusually progressive views. Before it was fashionable among elites to feign concern for the planet, he was an outspoken environmentalist. He has also spoken regularly and forcefully against the destructive influence of unbridled capitalism. In now-infamous memos sent to government ministers, Charles championed a variety of progressive causes, from affordable housing and better hospital care to stricter regulation of genetically modified crops. Just last June, Charles reportedly criticized the British government’s plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, calling the practice “appalling.”

“Uniquely in our modern world, monarchy builds a sense of national (or even transnational) identity beyond race or origin or even shared cultural values.”

Though Charles also adopts many traditionally conservative positions on urban planning and conservation, for example, these positions are equally reflective of the diverse and progressive intellectual milieu in which he came of age. “It was a world in which Britain had lost an empire and was struggling to find a role,” said Ritzema. “He came of age at the height of decolonization and the cultural revolution. I think his odd combination of political, religious and environmental views are best understood as the eclecticism of a rather artistic and rather isolated soul having to come up with its own worldview, because the previous generation’s worldview was no longer viable.”

In part, this process led Charles to the perennialist school, an obscure philosophical tradition that views modern materialism as a dangerous diversion from humanity’s pursuit of a higher, holistic truth. It is a philosophy almost uniquely suited for a king, making no apologies for sacred hierarchies in nature or society. But in the age of late-stage capitalism and apocalyptic climate change, it also has much in common with progressives’ rejection of modern consumerism and their growing desire to return to sustainable, small-scale practices that preserve a pre-capitalistic approach to labor, capital and community.

It is an indicator of his politics that before his accession, Charles was often targeted for derision by the political right, who called his environmentalism “nauseating,” his activism “monstrous” and his attitudes “woke.” In response to criticism of his environmentalism last year, he was indignant: “Because I suggested that there were better ways of doing things in the nicest possible way, and a more balanced and integrated way, I was accused of interfering and meddling,” he told the BBC. “The trouble is in all these areas, I have been challenging the accepted wisdom, the current orthodoxy and conventional way of thinking.”

On Saturday, we will be reminded once again that there is a king, and then there’s the rest of us. Charles has already ruled out major public challenges as monarch — in his own words, he’s “not that stupid.” But as a ruling king, he will have many opportunities to exert more subtle influence — as a diplomat, an advisor and a figurehead for the nation.

“When you really deeply care about something as a monarch, it quickly becomes clear,” said Francis Young, an English historian and a frequent commenter on the monarchy. “Those tiny cues of body language, of enthusiasm, of conviction really do make a difference.”

“I see him as a romantic figure,” Young continued. “There’s a utopian strand to Charles. And I do think there has always been a strand within British socialism that is romantic and very utopian.”

If utopias teach us anything, it is that no real political system will ever be perfect. But monarchy, at least — and especially coronations — allows us to pretend to that perfection. For a moment, we believe that holy oils and ancient rites can really ennoble us, and that majestic aspirations can overcome ignoble deeds.

After the candles are snuffed and the robes put away, the king may retreat to his palaces. How we construct society is, for better or for worse, up to the rest of us.