In 1215, King John I of England signed a document known as the Great Charter – Magna Carta. As a legal document, it has attained a near-legendary status as a symbol of the supposed power of the rule of law. Ben Glineicki looks at the significance of this 800-year-old document and examines the history of the law and class society.
On 15th June 1215, King John I of England signed a document known as the Great Charter (Magna Carta in Latin). This document was the product of a civil war that had been raging between John and his nobles. The document contained a number of concessions by John, through which he agreed to limit his power as king in return for the loyalty of his subjects.
Magna Carta is seen as one of the first documents to form the basis of the British constitution – in fact three of its provisions are still in force in Britain today. It is said to have inspired other movements of people against oppressive dictators and imperial powers, such as the American War of Independence and the Zapatista movement in Mexico.
As a legal document, it has attained a near-legendary status as a symbol of the supposed power of the rule of law. The former law lord in Britain, Tom Bingham, refers to Magna Carta as the first major landmark in the development of modern liberal rights known today as the rule of law. There is no shortage of idealism and mythology surrounding the Charter, enthusiastically conjured up by hypocritical lawyers and cynical politicians.
For example, Robert Worcester, the chairman of the Magna Carta 800th committee, has described the document as “the foundation of liberty” and the story of its drafting is commonly told by bourgeois historians as that of the struggle between the “good” barons who fought for the rights and liberties of Englishmen, and the “bad” King John who struggled to hold on to dictatorial powers over England.
By cutting through this superficial analysis of Magna Carta we can shed some light on the origin of individual rights and the nature of law.
Myths and realities of the charter
In an article from 1842 titled Communal Reform Marx says “the law can only be the ideal, self-conscious image of reality, the theoretical expression, made independent, of the practical vital forces.” Far from being the product of baronial minds ablaze with liberal philosophy, Magna Carta is the product of the “practical vital forces” – or living forces as we would say today – which existed in England in 1215.
These practical living forces stem from the conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy in 1066. William’s system of government was a concentrated version of the feudal system that had existed in England under previous rulers. It brought with it the new phenomenon of the baronage which formalised and unified the English feudal system which had, up until then, been riven by localism and war.
But feudalism, like any socio-economic system, contained the seeds of its own destruction. It was a system based on a peasantry who did not own their land but who had to work on the land of their lord. The lords taxed their peasants and passed that money onto the king, whilst also providing the monarch with soldiers etc. It was a system that subordinated everyone to the will of the king, but made the king entirely reliant on the nobles, a situation exaggerated by the highly centralised feudal system which existed in England following William’s conquest. This contradiction is built into feudalism, and Magna Carta as an early expression of it in legal form.
William Morris, the 19th Century socialist, wrote that “the history of the early period of England is pretty much that of the struggle of the King with the Baronage and the Church”. While these three institutions had broadly similar interests, the disputes between them amounted to bickering over who would get the largest share of the loot extracted at the expense of the toiling masses. This is the material context in which Magna Carta came into existence.
Contrary to being a shining beacon of liberal morality, the charter was primarily concerned with questions of money, specifically the question of restricting the king’s ability to take it from his subjects by way of taxation or other means. In this respect the charter reflected the relatively strong position of the lay and ecclesiastical nobility in relation to the king in 1215.
The balance of forces between the king, the barons and the church
In 1204 John lost his empire in northern France to Philip II, against whom he spent the next decade waging a war, which finally ended in defeat for John’s forces at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. To finance this campaign John raised an average of up to £71,000 per year between 1207 and 1212, as compared to £24,000 per year between 1199 and 1202. War is often the midwife of revolution, and it was in the immediate aftermath of this expensive defeat that John faced the rebellion that forced him to make the concessions in Magna Carta. In many cases it was the nobles who lost land in France – and yet who were still expected to pay taxes to the king – who led the rebellion against John.
However, it was John’s predecessor Richard I who laid the ground for such a rebellion. To finance his crusades Richard sold off large tracts of land and rights to land to various nobles and barons. In addition to this he levied taxes averaging £25,000 per year (an average of £2,000 more than that of his predecessor, Henry II) as well as raising £90,000 to pay a ransom demanded by the Emperor Henry VI for Richard’s release following his capture on the way back from the Holy Land. By the time John came to the throne in 1199 he inherited lands from which revenue was £2,000 a year less than it had been in 1189.
The result was that John, unlike his barons, was unable to raise as much money from the land directly, and instead had to extract even more in taxes from his citizens to maintain royal finances. This difficulty was compounded by the massive inflation that took hold at the beginning of his reign, with prices trebling in a matter of years. For example, the price of wheat in 1207 was fluctuating at over double its 1200 price. While the barons were able to sell agricultural surpluses to meet the growing demand and thus keep up with inflation more easily, John had less income directly from the land and found it necessary to increase taxes rapidly just to keep treading water.
John’s economic and political weakness is strikingly illustrated by the fact that, upon losing Normandy to Philip II, he confiscated the land of all those barons in Normandy who also held land in England, giving the crown estates a much needed boost. However, instead of running these lands for himself, which would have been by far the most profitable policy, John gave them to various nobles as gifts in exchange for support and loyalty; but this came at a cost, not only financial, but also of strengthening factional and local divisions.
John’s reign also coincided with a period of ascendency for the church under Pope Innocent III. The power of the church was on display during the election of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, thanks to the Pope’s machinations, rather than John’s choice of John de Grey. This led to an open conflict between John and Innocent which culminated in John’s excommunication in November 1209, and the subsequent exile of almost all the English bishops and the confiscation by the king of £100,000 of church revenues. Although relations between the crown and the church were later patched up, this conflict contributed significantly to the rebellion that gave rise to the charter, not least because many of the richest and most powerful nobles in England at the time were ecclesiastical figures.
Marx and Engels, said that “the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations” (The German Ideology, MECW V, p.59). This means that the legal and constitutional ideas expressed in Magna Carta can be understood, in the final analysis, by understanding the prevailing economic relationship between the various sections of English society at that time.
The first clause of the charter guarantees the freedom, rights and liberties of the church, particularly the freedom of election within the church, which is a clear reference to the disputed Langton election.
Clause 14 prevents the crown raising taxes unless by the “common counsel of our kingdom” – in other words John agreed to only raise taxes with the consent of the most powerful nobles in the country. This significant concession was the product of the strength of the baronage in 1215.
This is confirmed at the end of the charter with the provision in clause 61 that a council of twenty-five nobles, chosen by the barons themselves, should be created with the task of enforcing the charter.
John Arden is a Marxist playwright who wrote a play titled Left-Handed Liberty for the 750th anniversary of Magna Carta. Although fictional, his play contains some excellent analysis of Magna Carta. Regarding the council of twenty-five, he paints King John’s impotent fury at this particular clause:
“MARSHAL: …As to the composition of the twenty-five themselves, I am afraid –
“JOHN: I too am afraid, sir. They will select the most traitorous and self-aggrandizing cormorants out of all their rebellious crew!…Twenty-five over-kings to control the King of England. Do they desire me to cut my crown into two dozen and more pieces and distribute it among them?”
Although a fictional account, Arden’s portrayal is a faithful depiction of everything that clause 61 of the charter represents – a weak king forced to submit to his rebellious barons.
Many other clauses curb the worst excesses of the king, from withholding inheritance from minors and women to the seizure of the lands of debtors. In the past it had been by such methods that John was able to build up his financial reserves, at the expense of his nobles. His weakness following his military defeats on the continent left him unable to assert his authority at home as he once did. In the years following 1215 Magna Carta was re-issued, re-drafted and re-signed on several occasions, demonstrating the reliance of the various ruling class factions on each other, despite their mutual antagonism.
It is important for Marxists to understand Magna Carta in this way – as a struggle between different factions of the ruling class – because this is one of the earliest examples of formal law as we understand it today. Even from before 1215 right up to the modern day, the content of law can, in the final analysis, be reduced to the balance of forces between different classes in society and the various factions within those classes. Arden makes this point in his play when the Papal legate Pandulph describes the charter as an “apparent spectacle of depravity, treachery and violent self-seeking upon both sides of this miserable dispute”. There is nothing romantic or mystical about the law – it is simply the veil behind which the ruling class seeks to hide the naked class struggle.
The merchants and the masses
England in the 13th century was undergoing significant changes in the rural economy. In a country where 90% of the population were peasants, changes in this countryside could not but have a serious impact on society as a whole and on a document such as Magna Carta, which was its reflection. On the one hand, the lords were keen to keep as much land as possible which could be used to produce grain and other crops for sale in a market stimulated by growing demand. But on the other hand, a growing population was increasing pressure to subdivide land and provide more of it for use by the peasantry. Such contradictory pressures led to a blurring of the old traditional distinction between free and unfree peasants (those who owed rent and those who owed services to the lord), all of whom increasingly suffered an intolerable economic situation.
An indication of the poverty of the peasants is given by the figures from 1279, which suggest that 40% of peasant families had possession of less than ten arable acres, which was the minimum needed for a family to subsist. By 1300 this had increased to 60% of families. The result was an increase in waged labour as a way for peasants to keep their heads above water.
From a purely economic point of view, wage labour would have been one way in which peasants could have survived without the lords having to give away too much of their profitable land. However, in reality the social system created on the back of a feudal economy meant that peasants were tied to the land and owed loyalty to their lord. Wage labour, requiring freedom of movement to wherever work was available, came into direct contradiction with this social system. In the final analysis, this was the contradiction that would lead to the Wat Tyler rebellion in 1381, and eventually to the bourgeois revolutions which established capitalist commodity production as the dominant form of production. The seeds of this transformation were present as far back as 13th century England.
This state of affairs, and the contradictory position in which it placed the lords, is reflected in Magna Carta.
The tendency towards wage labour is linked to the growing power of the merchant class in England, which based itself on the production and exchange of commodities. Chapters 20 and 41 of the charter protected certain rights of the merchants; Chapter 33 required the removal of fishwiers from the rivers to allow for better navigation of the rivers for trade purposes; and the mayor of London, a city based on trade and manufacture, was named as one of the twenty-five barons by whom the charter was to be enforced. These provisions were recognition of the beginning of a change in England’s economic system. Wage labour and the bourgeois class are detectable, albeit in infant form, in the charter.
However, the charter also clearly recognises that developments such as these would have been harmful to the social system that defended the interests of the feudal ruling class. John Arden makes this point in the voice of King John himself:
“JOHN: Yet such is is the gratitude of the commercial classes, that almost immediately they threw open their gates to the Baronial Forces. And yet it was, was it not, an idiotic treachery? The interests of trade and the interests of nobility have always been disparate.”
To mitigate this threat to the interests of the nobility the charter sought to impose a rigid distinction between free and unfree peasants despite the fact that, in practice, such a distinction was rapidly disappearing due to the pressures of economic development. By imposing this distinction, the lords hoped to clearly define their rights as feudal masters over the unfree peasantry, and in that way check the slow tendency towards proletarianisation.
For example, chapter 20 is carefully worded so that protection is provided for free men, but unfree men only in so far as “they fall into [the king’s] mercy” – in other words these peasants remain at the mercy of their lord apart from in exceptional circumstances. Similarly, in chapter 39, the charter provides that “no free man” should suffer unjust imprisonment. The mass of unfree peasants are automatically excluded from this protection.
Thanks to clauses like these, Magna Carta is a useful document because it provides a snapshot of the outlines of tensions that would, centuries later, lead to a fundamental and revolutionary transformation of the economic and social system, not just in England but throughout the world.
However, because of the ceaseless ebb and flow of social and economic development, the picture of English society painted by Magna Carta can act as little more than a static signpost on a very winding path from feudalism to capitalism. In fact, in the years following 1215 there were serious attempts to repeal or ignore Magna Carta due to changes in the balance of forces between the relevant factions and classes. Historical development does not proceed in a straight line. But for historical materialists this does not negate the value of an understanding of society at a particular moment in history, such as is provided by Magna Carta.
The embryo of individual rights
There is another angle by which the significance of Magna Carta can be assessed, since as well as reflecting the prevailing material conditions in their content, the form of the legal rights in Magna Carta was also a product of the contradictions that were present in this early feudal period in England.
Prior to the charter, the conflicting interests of the various factions of the ruling class were comparatively fluid. Government was conducted by balancing these factions against each other through patronage, marriage, personal politics etc. For example, Henry II (r. 1154 – 1189) faced a rebellion in 1173-74 caused in part by his refusal to recognise certain earldoms as hereditary and his unwillingness to create new ones, which upset a certain faction of the English nobility. These nobles understood that patronage was the currency of government and that under Henry they were being impoverished, thus the rebellion broke out.
By contrast Henry’s son and successor, Richard I, was initially well received as king because he, unlike Henry, led a crusade and, according to the chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall, generally treated the church generously, which earned him the approval and support of the ecclesiastical nobility.
With government conducted in this way there were no formal channels through which to express contradictory interests. This meant that English society was somewhat like a pressure cooker whose only valve was the ability of the monarch to adjust his government according to the prevailing balance of class and factional forces in the country at the time. If tensions between different factions of the ruling class, or between different classes, reached breaking point and couldn’t be diffused by the monarch (whether due to incompetence, indifference or the general weight of the historical processes taking place), they expressed themselves through crises, such as assassinations or rebellions. Such a crisis would force a re-balancing of things in accordance with the material conditions and politics would continue in the same fluid way until the next crisis.
Magna Carta signified the beginning of a change to this method of government, which would eventually lead to the state as we know it today, governed by constitutional law, which seeks to use the formal channels of bourgeois democracy to diffuse tensions between classes and factions within them. In this respect, one of the key points about the charter is that the contradictory interests of different ruling class factions are crystallised and put on something like a permanent footing for the first time.
The explicit recognition that English government was based on a balancing act between permanent tensions within the ruling class represents the embryo of individual rights as we understand them today.
The significance of this aspect of Magna Carta should not be underestimated. It marks the recognition of a fundamentally different approach to preserving the interests of the ruling class in society. In its infancy feudalism was guided by the idea of loyalty to the common cause of serving the monarch, who was God’s servant on earth. This was how the position of the ruling class was maintained in a united front against the mass of serfs and peasants.
Magna Carta on the other hand is a product of a different idea, one that arose with the barons whose interests were no longer best served purely by the idea of loyalty to the monarch. To defend their interests, the barons began to assert their rights, as distinct from those of the monarchy, some of which Magna Carta recognised as trumping certain monarchical rights.
This marked a change in the legalistic forms with which the ruling class protected its position. Instead of a dictatorship of the king, Magna Carta allowed for a small number of democratic safeguards in the interests of the barons. Magna Carta is an early and undeveloped example of the use of individual rights of members of the ruling class as a tool with which to protect the class as a whole by preventing it from tearing itself apart.
In this concept we can see the bare outlines of the philosophical basis for bourgeois law and society as we know it today, which holds aloft individualism and competition as the guardian angels of progress. Although this idea could never be fully born within a feudal system, because it directly contradicts the system’s social structure, its conception is a crucial historical event.
In his book, The State and Revolution, Lenin says “another reason why the omnipotence of “wealth” is more certain in a democratic republic is that it does not depend on defects in the political machinery or on the faulty political shell of capitalism. A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell…it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.”
What Lenin is explaining here is that the legal or constitutional basis of the power of the ruling class under capitalism is most secure if it is based on a collection of individuals, institutions or political parties that all have individual rights which are in competition with each other. That way, if the ruling class encounters problems, an individual can be blamed rather than the system as a whole. Clearly this has certain limits, because there are times under capitalism when the ruling class has to resort to undemocratic means to keep itself in power, such as the fascist regimes of the 20th Century, and the technocratic governments that were installed in Italy and Greece following the capitalist slump in 2009. However these are the exceptions, while the rule remains, as Lenin explained, that a democratic republic is the best political shell for capitalism – a shell that is increasingly being shown to be an empty husk, when (as shown by the case of SYRIZA, Greece, and the Troika) capitalism’s need for austerity trumps the sovereignty of the people.
Developed within a feudal social system, the individual rights in Magna Carta did not play nearly as significant a role as modern bourgeois rights do. But that document marked one of the first times that conflicting individual rights were determined to be a more effective means by which to maintain the position of the ruling class than absolute rule. It is no wonder therefore that the bourgeoisie today laude Magna Carta as one of the most important milestones in the development of ‘right’ and ‘liberty’.
We should be clear that Magna Carta was not the cause of this change in attitude or philosophy amongst the English ruling class in 1215. In reality, such individualistic ideas probably found an expression in fact long before that time due to development of international markets for trade and the corresponding competition for profitable land ownership. Nor did it mark much more than the first semi-conscious stirrings of the philosophical ideas that would later be fully developed by the Enlightenment, not to mention all the other factors which shaped the development of law in its own particular way. But Magna Carta is important because it is the most significant early example of this attitude being turned from a concrete fact into an abstract law and given the force of recognition by the state.
The logic of law
As explained above, Magna Carta is, in its form and content, an expression of the material conditions that prevailed in England in 1215. Such conditions are inevitably saturated with contradictions and tensions. By crystallising these conditions into the form of a legal document, it is necessary to give them an abstract character so as to smooth over the contradictions. The product of this process is legal rights. The rights thus derived, although linked to material conditions, are separate and abstract from those conditions and can develop within certain limits according to their own internal logic.
Engels describes this feature of law in a letter to Conrad Schmidt in October 1890. He writes:
“In a modern state, law must not only correspond to the general economic condition and be its expression, but must also be an internally coherent expression which does not, owing to internal conflicts, contradict itself. And in order to achieve this, the faithful reflection of economic conditions suffers increasingly…the course of “the development of law” simply consists in first attempting to eliminate contradictions which arise from the direct translation of economic relations into legal principles, and to establish a harmonious system of law, and then in the repeated breaches made in this system by the influence and compulsion of further economic development, which involves it in further contradictions.”
This feature of law is clearly observable in Magna Carta.
The dual primary purposes of the charter: to control the king and to be a tool by which the ruling class could discipline the peasantry, are contradictory because the former requires a method by which to get around traditional notions of loyalty and obedience, while the latter requires the enforcement of these ideas. The result of the smoothing over of this contradiction in the document was that so-called ‘free’ peasants were entitled, on paper, to exactly the same rights and liberties as their lords. By crystallising their interests as the “rights” of “free men”, the lords were also forced to recognise that such an abstraction gave protection to the so-called ‘free’ peasants who rented land from the lords.
Thus chapter 20 protected these peasants from excessive fines imposed by the king or by their lord; chapter 39 protected them from unjust dispossession, whether by the monarch or by the local baron; and chapters 17-19 allowed them access to the king’s courts to resolve their disputes rather than being forced to rely on the local courts run by the lord.
All of this marked a change from the previous position in which the peasants were subject exclusively to the law as laid down by their lord. The result of this change was a weakening of the power of the lord over his own tenants, despite the fact that the charter was largely shaped by the lords themselves.
Magna Carta is an example, and probably the first example, of how the logic of the legal form can cause certain laws to develop beyond the limits of what the ruling class, whose interests the law fundamentally reflects, would wish to be the case. There are many examples of this phenomenon in modern law, from criminal law to human rights. For example, Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of association, has been used in recent years to push for the idea that there is a human right for workers to take strike action – an example of the logic of law being used to turn human rights against the ruling class that originally created them.
Arden seeks to prove this same point in Left-Handed Liberty in the following scene in which the abstract nature of the rights in the charter is used against one of the nobles who drafted it:
“DE VESCI: I could put you in prison for what you have done to my honour – have you flogged by my knaves. It would not in any way be regarded as outrageous.
LADY DE VESCI: By the terms of the Charter which the King has just granted you, I think it might be regarded as extremely outrageous
DE VESCI: The Charter, what Charter? It has nothing to do with you!
LADY DE VESCI: (reading from the charter) ‘No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or deprived of his freehold…except by the lawful judgement of his peers’. I am a free woman, indeed a noblewoman – if you can establish a court of noble ladies of equivalent rank, I daresay they will be prepared to hear your case against me, and to pronounce a verdict in accordance with the evidence.
DE VESCI: …what in the name of the Black Blood of Mahound do you mean by putting that sort of interpretation upon a document which – which does not mean what you think it means…
LADY DE VESCI: The interpretation I put upon that clause may well have been unusual, though a lady in danger must grasp at any weapon:
…All that is left for me
Is an ambidextrous word
Scrawled upon dry parchment.
Why should I care if you think it impertinent?
DE VESCI: Ambidextrous, ambidextrous, you say that of a word? A word means what is says and what it is meant to say – are you trying to tell me it can mean anything you want it to mean? Why, if this were found to be true…”
Although this extract demonstrates an important point, this property of law can only be taken so far. The law can change according to its own internal logic only within the bounds of the material interests which gave rise to particular legal forms in the first place. As Arden again points out:
“FITZWALTER: A word is a word, you can turn it inside out like an old coat as many times as you want to; but victory in war…is alone irreversible.”
This means that bourgeois law, for example, could not fully emerge in the context of 13th century England, which was a feudal society. Just as Marx pointed out that individuals make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing, so law can and does develop according to its own principles, but only within the confines of the form of class society that gave rise to it.
This is also why today, despite all kinds of legal protection, many people are finding the law little defence against capitalism in crisis. As mentioned above, the right to strike is, according to some lawyers, a fundamental human right by bourgeois standards. And yet capitalism in crisis cannot afford to allow workers to go on strike, thus we see the draconian anti-trade union laws being brought in by the current Tory government. Similarly, women, disabled people, minority ethnic people and migrants are equal with everyone else in the eyes of the law, and yet austerity is currently hitting these people far harder than the rest. From the point of view of the ruling class, the law is nothing more than words on a piece of paper, which can be a useful hypocrisy with which to lecture the exploited classes sometimes, but at other times it will be swept aside if the defence of their interests requires it.
In the same way with Magna Carta, although the abstract logic of law makes it inevitable that peasants were given certain rights, technically enforceable against their lord, in reality this did not tend to be the case. In fact, the Charter was written in Latin and translated into French in 1215 for the benefit of the ruling class. It was not until 1300 that the Charter was proclaimed in English, the only language spoken by the peasantry, and the first written versions of the Charter in English didn’t appear until the 16th century. Unsurprisingly, those who were “legally” entitled to certain rights thanks to the logic of the law, were unable to enforce them against the ruling class. Words are just lines on paper unless they can be backed up in practice. The lords had the power to enforce their rights, but the peasants did not.
Hence the necessity of revolution. It is revolutionary change, through which the exploited class seizes control of the state, makes itself the ruling class, and changes the law to reflect the new social relations, that allow laws to be fundamentally changed. As explained above, Magna Carta was a legal change that represented a changing situation in English society, but these changes were not confirmed and guaranteed for the future until the English bourgeois revolution of Oliver Cromwell hundreds of years after Magna Carta was first signed.
In the same way, today we are fighting against anti-trade union laws, attacks on human rights and invasions of our privacy. There are certain battles that have been won in the legal arena, and there are more that can be won in the future. But if we are to fundamentally and permanently change the law and the way it works we need a revolution to overthrow the capitalists and replace the bourgeois state with a workers’ state, so that society can be run in the interests of the working class.
Was Magna Carta a good thing?
Marxists avoid using terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to analyse historical or current events because they add little to our understanding of the situation. In general terms, the key question for Marxists is whether the particular idea or event in question served to advance the cause of humanity’s struggle for mastery over its own existence, whether by developing the forces of production or by developing class consciousness and understanding; and of course the two things are inseparably linked. When it comes to this question, context is everything, as it’s impossible for an idea or event to be “good” or “bad” in and of itself.
In codifying the balance of forces between the various classes and factions in England in 1215, the charter was simply stating facts. The charter reflects the progressive development of wage labour – as compared to feudalism – and the rise of the town-dwelling merchant class, as well as the reactionary attempts of the lords to maintain their power over the peasants.
In taking a small step towards formalising the philosophical basis for individual legal rights, Magna Carta was the first step towards the development of the ideas which would accompany and justify the revolutionary overthrow of feudalism by capitalism. In this sense it is possible to see Magna Carta as a progressive document.
But the other side of the same coin is that, thanks to the abstract nature of law, the charter cloaks the naked struggle between different factions of the ruling class in the language of liberty and justice. As Pandulph, the Papal legate in Left-Handed Liberty says: “hypocrisy, as exemplified [by the barons], nevertheless pays tribute to idealism insofar as it finds it necessary to cloak its evil purposes under the disguise of a worthy cause.”
This gives the charter, and all law created in its image, a seemingly eternal character and the illusion of standing above society. This is the philosophical weapon with which the ruling class deceives the masses as to the true nature of the state – which is, in the words of Marx and Engels “the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests” (The German Ideology, MECW V, p.90). This is the reactionary way in which Magna Carta can and has been used, and which flows inevitably from its status as law. King John, as portrayed by Arden, cuts through this fiction:
“ARCHBISHOP: Good government under secure law is in the interests of all classes, my lord.
JOHN: In the interests of all classes with power in their hands, yes…”
Marxists must be as sharp as Arden’s King John in exposing “good government under secure law” for what it really is. Today we are faced with a bourgeois legal system that is supposed to protect the rights of all individuals. But one of the most fundamental rights in this system is the right to private property, which automatically elevates the rights of wealthy individuals far above those who have nothing. This is simply a reflection of the fact that it is the wealthy who have all the economic and political power in society.
It is commonly asserted that property is nine-tenths the law, and today we are seeing people who are squatting in disused flats and houses, struggling to survive austerity, being evicted by rich property developers. Under capitalism, where all are supposed to be equal before the law, the right of private property trumps the right of someone to have a roof over their head.
Similarly, we are all supposed to have an equal right to a fair trial; but while youngsters who stole a bottle of water during the riots of 2011 received long prison sentences, most politicians who stole hundreds and thousands of pounds of public money through expenses receive no punishment at all – indeed, in a few cases these people have even been elevated to the House of Lords! In the final analysis the law is a weapon in the hands of the ruling class against those it seeks to exploit. As the ancient philosopher Anarcharsis said “written laws are like spiders’ webs and will, like them, only entangle and hold the poor and weak, while the rich and powerful will easily break through them.”
For Marxists a study of Magna Carta can reveal a great deal, not only about the state of English society in the early 13th century, but also about the true nature of law and legal rights. If we are to understand law under capitalism, one of the most mystified parts of the modern state, Magna Carta is a very good place to start.