The execution of King Charles: ‘Let’s put all brutish tyrants down’

May 4, 2023

On 30 January 1649, King Charles I was beheaded, having been found guilty of being “a tyrant, traitor and murderer, and public enemy to the Commonwealth”.

The execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649: from a contemporary engraving. See “About the main picture”, below

The execution sent shivers through the royal palaces of Europe.

Charles, the Stuart monarch of what since 1603 had been the united kingdoms of England and Scotland, was tried by a specially-convened English court.

After the execution, the new regime in England abolished monarchy and the House of Lords. It declared England to be a Commonwealth, or parliamentary republic, and went on by military conquest to incorporate Scotland and Ireland in a new unitary state.

The revolutionary forces that had defeated Charles’s army in the civil wars of the 1640s had divided aims: radicals pushed for deeper-going social and political reform, while conservatives sought a new compromise with the monarchy, nobility and church hierarchy.

Oliver Cromwell, who had led the New Model Army that fought for parliament, was made head of state, and in 1653 was declared Protector, or virtual dictator.

Cromwell’s death in 1659 triggered a political crisis. After his eldest son Richard had ruled as Protector for a few months, the English parliament invited the executed king’s eldest son, who was crowned king of Scotland in 1649 and been in exile on the continent since then, to return to London as King Charles II.

The restoration of the monarchy after the republican decade did not put out the flame of anti-royalism. The divine right of kings to rule with unlimited authority was buried with Charles I. Charles II often sought compromise on matters of state and religion – and presided over a court in which one courtier, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, could get away with writing:[1]  

Monsters which knaves “sacred” proclaim,

And then like slaves fall down before ’em.

What can there be in kings divine?

The most are wolves, goats, sheep or swine.

Then farewell sacred majesty,

Let’s put all brutish tyrants down;

When men are born and still live free,

Here every head doth wear a crown.

I hate all monarchs and the thrones they sit on,

From the Hector of France to the cully [good mate] of Britain.

There is no need to take Rochester, an aristocratic playboy and libertine opponent of the Puritanism of Cromwell’s time, too seriously. But republicanism was characteristic of the times. It was understood as a serious option in England, a century before the French revolution. In 1650, John Milton, for many the greatest English poet after Shakespeare, had published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, a much-read and popular justification of regicide.

And absolute monarchy was finished for good. In 1685, Charles II’s brother, a devout Catholic, succeeded him as James II. He sought to rule more as Charles I had done – and the ruling elites in 1688 found a way to replace him with William of Orange, a Dutchman. He had hereditary legitimacy through his Stuart wife, but was a Protestant, amenable to a constitutional settlement based on compromise between king and parliament.

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Queer Tolstoy and anti-authoritarian struggle today

February 13, 2023

A guest post by JAVIER SETHNESS CASTRO, author of Queer Tolstoy: A Psychobiography, just published by Routledge Mental Health

By the end of his long life, in 1910, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy had become the greatest public critic of the Russian Tsarist empire. By destabilising the Romanov autocracy through his writings, which amounted to more than eighty volumes, Lev Nikolaevich became Tsar Nicholas II’s most significant rival.

Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy in 1897 (from Wikimedia Commons)

As a result, the Governing Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901, a status he retains to this day. Alexei Suvorin, the editor of New Times [the late 19th century Russian journal], afterwards observed that Russia effectively had two Tsars: namely, Nicholas II and Tolstoy.[1]

Indeed, the Imperial state had raided Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s family estate, in 1862; surveilled him for the last twenty-five years of his life; censored, banned, and burned his writings; and come close to executing him in 1891, after the translation of an explicitly anarchist essay of his came out in England. It was only thanks to the intervention of his cousin Alexandrine Tolstaya that Lev Nikolaevich survived this last episode.[2]

It is therefore highly disconcerting to see photographs on social media that show Tolstoy’s face plastered—alongside those of fellow artists Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol, who were Russian and Ukrainian, respectively—on a high fence surrounding the ruins of the Mariupol Drama Theatre in occupied southeastern Ukraine.

The Drama Theatre is the site of a horrific massacre perpetrated by Russian forces in March 2022. An estimated 300 Ukrainian civilians died there while seeking shelter from the ruthless invasion. In parallel, the new documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, provides grisly and heartbreaking evidence of the widespread war crimes, and crimes against humanity, committed by the Russian military as it stormed the city.

In this light, the decision by Vladimir Putin’s regime to cover up one of the worst of these atrocities using Tolstoy and Gogol’s faces amounts to little more than cynical trolling. Such “bourgeois coldness” is consistent with the far-right’s attempt to rationalise ultra-violent barbarism across the globe. Given Tolstoy’s artistic critiques of violence and militarism, the scene is simply absurd.

Yet, confronted with Russia’s genocidal attack, Ukrainians are now engaged in a debate about how, or even whether, to engage with Russian artists and intellectuals. Last year, a Ukrainian Education Ministry working group recommended excluding several Russian and Soviet writers, including Tolstoy, from school curricula – but Ukraine’s proposed bans on literature published in Russia and Belarus appear to provide exceptions for Pushkin and Tolstoy’s works. Last month, citizens of Kyiv voted to rename Tolstoy Square the Square of Ukrainian Heroes, and Tolstoy Street in Lviv was renamed after the Archbishop Liubomyr Huzar in mid-2022.

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Ukraine: the sources of danger of a wider war

March 21, 2022

More than three weeks into Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the dangers of a long-drawn-out conflict, or of a wider war, or both, hang in the air.

To gauge these dangers correctly and to build an effective ant-war movement, it is important to understand the war’s character.

Ukraine’s defensive war is both a war by the state and a “people’s war”, in my view; Russia’s war is an imperialist one, increasingly aimed at the population. I’ve commented on these things elsewhere (e.g. here, here, here). Here I focus on the western powers and their relations with Russia and Ukraine, and the deep crisis of capital that underlies these.

“Women in black”, an action inspired by Feminist Antiwar Resistance at the weekend. Participants in cities across Russia carried white flowers to remember victims of the conflict in Ukraine

Those western powers have levied massive, unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia. Their leaders have stated repeatedly that, while they will supply Ukraine with weapons, they fear an escalation of the conflict and will not introduce a no-fly zone – for which they have been repeatedly denounced by president Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Russian president Vladimir Putin has been equally insistent that NATO threatens Russia; his declared war aims include “demilitarisation” of Ukraine and the end of “NATO expansion”.

In the western anti-war movement, the issue of NATO expansion comes up in two ways.

On one hand, politically: post- or proto-Stalinist tendencies, and some others, taking their cue from the Kremlin, not only accept (without much explanation) that NATO expansion is a major threat, but also argue that NATO bears more responsibility than Russia for causing the war (yes, you read that correctly), and is at least as significant a political target as the Kremlin. I have written about these corrupt, damaging arguments elsewhere, and Ukrainian socialists have answered them (e.g. here, here and here).

On the other hand, there is genuine fear that the war could escalate beyond Ukraine, and that the western powers could become involved militarily, producing a disaster even greater than that now enveloping millions of Ukrainians.

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Roads to an Energy Commons: a pamphlet

February 17, 2022

Today I am publishing Roads to an Energy Commons, a pamphlet (free to download here). It brings together articles that appeared on about the role of fossil fuels in capitalist society, and the meaning of “energy” and related concepts. The discussion covered issues about the transition away from fossil fuels, and away from capitalism.

The first article, by Simon Pirani, discussed the way that energy has been turned into a commodity under capitalism, and asked whether and how it could be decommodified. The second article, by Larry Lohmann, argued that the very concept of “energy” had to be challenged more robustly. Further contributions followed, from Larry, Simon and David Schwartzman, who writes on solar energy. The last two articles have been published today, here and here.

While none of us think the last word has been said on these issues, we hope that the discussion will be taken up, and maybe taken in other directions, by others. With the pamphlet we hope to make our conversation accessible to a wider readership. If you wish to contribute, please email peoplenature[at] 17 February 2022.

Demonstrators for climate justice in Berlin

The class struggle inside energy

February 17, 2022

LARRY LOHMANN continues a discussion about energy and social justice, responding to earlier contributions on People & Nature by Simon Pirani and David Schwartzman, both published on 5 January. You can read the whole discussion, which started on People & Nature last year, in a free pamphlet, Roads to an Energy Commons, downloadable here 

Reply to Simon (Disentangling capitalism and physics, energy and electricity, 5 January)

I don’t want to overemphasize any differences Simon and I may turn out to have. From the perspective of capital, the two of us probably look like the same person. On the other hand, developing our mutual (mis)understandings as they play off each other is surely at least one tiny part of our own common project of helping organize for the future.

A Carnot landscape of energy conversion devices. A more complete map of this landscape would have to display the network of borders through which the entropy gradients needed by such devices are maintained, including colonial structures of waste expulsion as well as patriarchal, racial, and class structures of exploitation and appropriation – not to mention other entropy landscapes that this landscape overlays and overlaps

I don’t think that Simon and I differ on the place of the modern energy concept developed during 19th-century industrialism[i] in understanding history. Simon suspects that the concept would not “cover water wheels, windmills, dams and coal-fuelled metalworking in precapitalist societies.” But actually it would and it does. More than that: it’s commonly used even in popular depictions of prehistory (as in the declaration “since humans were humans, we’ve used energy”, from a graphic novel detailing possible low-carbon futures).

There’s nothing wrong with this use of latter-day concepts in examining the past. That’s how the art of history-writing goes forward. Nobody in their right mind would want to talk about another time using only the concepts current among the people who lived in that time. Including, I would argue, those people themselves – if only they had the chance to enter into dialogue with us. My suspicion is that the more curious, open-minded denizens of the 18th century would be challenged, fascinated and perhaps delighted to hear of our (to them) bizarre view that a “horse pulling a treadmill and a coal fire heating a lime kiln [a]re in some sense doing the same thing.” They would want to discuss this more, to find out what the hell we – seemingly reasonable people – were talking about.

The question is the class politics of such translational encounters, hypothetical or actual.

When we in industrialized societies face the 18th-century person, it is not just as people for whom the First Law of Thermodynamics became common sense because we learned it in the science classroom. It is also as inhabitants of a world in which, as a result of two centuries of class struggle, that law is bodied forth in countless ways in which it was not in those earlier times.

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Disentangling capitalism and physics, ‘energy’ and electricity

January 5, 2022

Larry Lohmann’s comments, “And if energy itself is unjust?”, about my article on energy commodification, are really welcome. There is much we agree on: that we have to question whether there is, was or could be such a thing as “energy” that was not commodified and is therefore somehow OK; that the relationship of thermodynamic energy and labour is somehow at the bottom of all this; and that there is much wrong with the way issues such as “energy democracy” and “energy justice” are framed on the “left”.

(Actually I don’t like the term “left”, either, (a) because it obscures the fact that, whatever it might be, it certainly isn’t the motive force of history in the way many of its adherents think, and (b) because it implies that I am part of some entity that doesn’t include most working people, but does include people who think Putin is doing fine in Ukraine and Bashar al-Assad is an “anti imperialist” hero. But I digress.)

One way to take our discussion forward is to focus on four parts of it, where we don’t see things in the same way, or haven’t understood each other. Here goes.

1. How do we define “energy”?

When I read Larry’s comments, I looked back at the introduction to my book Burning Up, where I first used the definition of energy he is questioning. In the introduction, I proposed to use the word “energy” in a way that does not include human labour, as “work done by physical or chemical resources, mobilised by people for that purpose”.

Part of the reason I went for this approach was to try to deal with an issue that Larry raises, that thermodynamic energy and capitalist labour (I’d say, labour under capitalism) are not the same, can not substitute for each other, and are not additive or mergeable as capital would have us think. I would have had to write the book very differently if I wanted not to use the word “energy” at all, or not to use other words, such as “democracy” and “socialism”, that can be inscribed with different, indeed opposite, meanings by people who use them.

Protestors from the Canada Real shanty town in Madrid, saying “light is not a luxury, it’s a right”

It could be said that my definition missed out the way that the concept of “energy” has been imbued with meanings by the social process during which it was first used, i.e. the work of physicists, and the philosophers, economists and others whose work influenced them, at the heart of 19th century British empire-building. And that process has not stood still: the way that the term has been used in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century has added further layers, in particular in terms of “energy” as an extractivist process embedded in imperialist and neo-imperialist relationships. And Larry has said a great deal about the role of “energy” in the battles between capital and labour.

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Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science?

January 5, 2022

A contribution to discussion on energy commodification and decommodification, by David Schwartzman

Larry Lohmann’s “And if Energy Itself is Unjust?” is a very interesting article, and it is nice to see thermodynamics revisited in the context of the capitalist physical and political economy. But this article deserves critique.

Illuminating how the science of thermodynamics was born and how energy manifests itself in the context of capitalist economy, as Lohmann does, should not make this science in itself a necessary ideological servant of this economy.

Lohmann’s invocation of the laws of thermodynamics, especially its second law of entropy is pure hybridism, the appropriation of a science into ideological metaphors, following the example of Bruno Latour’s hybridism, so clearly unpacked by Andreas Malm’s 2019 paper “Against Hybridism” (Historical Materialism 27.2 : 156–187). As Malm says:

particularly in our rapidly warming world – we need to sift out the social components from the natural, if we wish to understand the crises and retain the possibility of intervening in them.  

Since there is no scientific explanation of its thermodynamic reference, I take Lohmann’s “flattening of entropy gradients” as a metaphor for the generation of waste and destruction of ecosystems as a result of extraction and creation of technological infrastructure such as solar panels.

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And if energy itself is unjust?

December 17, 2021

A response by Larry Lohmann to the article How Energy was Commodified, and How it Could be Decommodified

The way that industrial capitalism and 19th-century thermodynamic energy – the energy we talk about today – have constituted each other, and what this means for political movements, is something that colleagues and I been struggling to understand, off and on, for many years. So Simon Pirani’s paper How Energy was Commodified, and How it could be Decommodified, was extremely stimulating for me.

I share Simon’s view that understanding energy as commodity and as commons is crucial for the struggles ahead. But his paper also reawakened a certain uneasiness about the way issues of “energy democracy” and “energy justice” are typically framed by the left, especially in the global North.

In August 1842, during a strike in Lancashire, in the UK, against wage cuts by cotton mill owners, workers pulled the boiler plugs from the steam engines. Their action became known as the “plug plot riots”. Photo from Underground Histories

Usually I abbreviate this unease by saying that the issue cannot be only that the distribution of energy is unjust or undemocratic (which it is). Or that structures of extraction, production, distribution, access, governance, planning and use of energy are unjust and undemocratic (which they are). There has to be a lot more. And that without taking account of this “more”, the best-intentioned efforts to address these distributional/administrative/governance/cultural types of issue are eventually going to come to grief (or already have).

Simon’s work helps pin down what some of this “more” is – namely that energy, when treated as a commodity, is always going to have these issues, and that the further step of searching out and linking together existing and potential moves toward energy-as-commons ought to be more integrated into popular strategy.

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Roads to an energy commons

November 18, 2021

Commodification matters, because it is one of the ways that capitalism shapes the technological and social systems that consume energy. A movement towards post-capitalism would, by destroying the social relations of which commodification is part, put an end to it, and pave the way to an energy commons.  

Such a movement would be by far the most effective way of tackling dangerous global warming, because it would enable society to use energy for need, and not for profit.

These arguments are made in a paper published today by People & Nature.  

To early 21st century city people, gas for a stove, electricity for a factory, or fuel for a vehicle, is presented as “energy”. People often refer to “energy” as something that is, or even must be, bought and sold. Actually, that buying and selling is very recent in historical terms, and even now is not ubiquitous.

London demonstration for climate action, 6 November

Marx’s concept of “commodity fetishism” is useful here. Marx believed that social relations between people, and the fruits of their collective labour, were presented to them in “the fantastic form of a relation between things”. This was truly weird, he thought; it reminded him of the “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”. The contradiction between the commodity’s use value and its exchange value in markets was obscured.

This mystification persists today in energy research: the idea of “energy demand” elides the need for energy services (the need for a use value) with the economist’s concept of demand for a commodity.

For thousands of years, humans accessed types of energy – human or animal labour power, or mechanical energy from windmills or water wheels – directly from nature. Fuels became commodities only in the 18th and 19th centuries. As capitalism rose to dominance, it turned labour power into a commodity, and much else besides, including energy sources such as wood and coal.   

The energy carriers associated with the second industrial revolution – electricity and oil – were treated as commodities from the start.

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Looking back to the Russian revolution from the 21st century

November 5, 2021

By Simon Pirani. This article first appeared in Jangaran (Awakening), the multilingual humanist journal   

We are now separated from the Russian revolution by more than a century. The Soviet Union, which that revolution brought into existence, collapsed thirty years ago. But the revolution remains an inspiring example of mass popular action that brought about fundamental social and political change.

It is important to retain in our collective memory just how wide and deep that popular movement was.

The revolution began in St Petersburg (then named Petrograd) in the freezing winter of early 1917, two-and-a-half years into the first world war, in which hundreds of thousands of Russians had already died. Women, ground down by long days at factory jobs and ever-longer bread queues, started the revolt.

Women workers demonstrating in 1917. The banner says: “If woman is a slave, there will be no freedom. Long live the equality of women”

Women workers mounted pickets to make their better-paid male counterparts join their protest. Crowds flooded into the centre of St Petersburg to demonstrate. A key turning point was when the police force, unable to hold back the human tide, called in the army. The conscript soldiers – mostly young men from the countryside who didn’t want to fight for the Russian tsar (emperor) – joined the revolt. The three-hundred-year-old empire collapsed overnight.

After this first revolution in February, and the installation of a provisional government of liberal politicians who had opposed tsarism, the movement accelerated, coalescing around the demand for “bread, peace and land”. “Bread” meant solving the food supply crisis; “peace” meant stopping the war now, not later; and “land” meant justice as a hundred million peasants saw it – that land should belong to those who worked it, not to landlords, church or state.

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