by Martin Levy

Britain, it is said, has the oldest ruling capitalist class in the world, and one which is therefore particularly adept at finding ways of maintaining its position.

Of course, the composition of that class has changed over time, since the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, which “brought into power, along with William of Orange, the landlord and capitalist appropriators of surplus-value.”i Throughout the 18th century, the dominant element of this alliance was the Whig financial clique, operating through the government and the Bank of England, with policies aimed at avoiding wars, and at removing taxes from merchants and manufacturers, while taxing goods consumed by the masses. It was considered dangerous to antagonise the landed squirearchy, and in any case most of the leading Whigs were landowners themselves.ii

As manufacture developed in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and capital was accumulated, that landowner-capitalist alliance became increasingly strained, and finally the 1832 Reform Act brought industrial capitalism out on top. This was followed by the period of ‘free trade’ – when Britain was the ‘workshop of the world’ – and also by colonial expansion, which developed into imperialism as production and capital were increasingly concentrated, and bank capital merged with industrial capital to create a dominant financial oligarchy.

It is that oligarchy, or at least its economic descendants, which holds the reins of power today. They are the super-rich whose shareholdings control “the handful of giant companies which together monopolise the main sectors of finance, industry, commerce and the mass media”.iii Linked together by multiple business directorships, social and family ties, private school and Oxbridge education, and connections with the top echelons of the civil service, judiciary, police and armed forces, they have learned from ruling class history, and they pool their experiences today so that they govern by a sophisticated combination of coercion and consent. No longer is the “executive of the modern state … but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”iv – it is now the instrument solely of its monopoly finance capitalist sector. But fractures have been growing within the ruling class and its state, as shown by the EU referendum campaign and its outcome.

What Engels said of a democratic republic applies equally to a parliamentary democracy: “wealth exercises its power indirectly, but all the more surely.”v For this, the ruling class needs a political party to govern on its behalf; and generally that party – currently the Tories – has to make concessions to its core voters in order to secure their support. Hence the Conservatives have been forced to recognise the EU referendum result, and in fact have found a new unity in Parliament in order to exploit, in a populist way, the divisions in Labour’s ranks on this issue. But the government has had no clear idea of where it is going with the withdrawal negotiations, which is why it took Theresa May till the end of March to trigger the Article 50 process.

So, despite all the bluster from May and her ministers, the ruling class is in something of a crisis, which the government is hoping to resolve at the expense of the working class. The situation is therefore potentially a crisis for the labour movement also. It will not be resolved by clinging to rose-tinted views about the nature of the EU – which simply help the ruling class out of its crisis – but by mobilising to defend remaining hard-won rights and public services, and to win back those which have been lost.

Britain’s ruling class is nowhere near as weak and inexperienced as Russia’s capitalists and landlords were in 1917. The situation is very different too. But our rulers are as detached from the real issues facing working people as their counterparts were in Russia. Under pressure, they too will make mistakes and over-reach themselves. And their scope for repression is much more limited.

In October 1917 (old style), the working class of Russia took the future into its own hands. However, that revolution didn’t happen in a vacuum: it required painstaking theoretical, educational and agitational work by the Bolsheviks over a long period, together with the development of mass struggle on a wide scale, including the February revolution which overthrew the Tsar. To inspire, and to help draw lessons from these events, Communist Review will be publishing a number of articles this year celebrating the centenary. We start in this issue with the first of three articles by the late Andrew Rothstein, originally published in Marxism Today for the 50th anniversary in 1967, plus a contemporary book review by Lars Ulrik Thomsen.

In CR80, last year’s summer edition, we featured a number of articles on the Spanish Civil War, and promoted Dare Devil Rides to Jarama, Neil Gore’s play (still touring) about Clem Beckett and Christopher Caudwell, communists and International Brigade members who died together at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937. In this issue we continue the theme of cultural responses to that war with John Manson’s article, Writers and the Spanish Civil War, and with two more translated poems in Soul Food – which also includes important news about the web site Culture Matters.

Finally, this issue of CR sees the last in the current series looking at physics, cosmology, mathematics and philosophy, probing the connections between space, time and dialectics, with relevance to the foundations of dialectical materialism.

Notes and References in magazine