Looking back at the Commune coverage of the riots.
First view, Barry Biddulph suggests that we need to find a way to engage with the contradictory and elemental nature of class conflict in events like the recent riots.
Riots. We should have seen them coming. After all, combustible material has been stacking up for some time. The majority of rioters who appeared in court were under 24, and from poor neighbourhoods. Strikingly: 41/% of suspects live in one of the top 10% of the most deprived places. (1) We already knew that in Hackney there are 22 claimants for every job. In Haringey, where Tottenham is located, there are 29 benefit claimants for every vacancy. (2) In the last three months there has been a huge rise in youth (16 to 24) unemployment. Youth unemployment currently stands at 949,000. (3) Add to these grim figures, the volatile mix of police harassment, affordable housing shortage, cuts in benefits, and a decline in educational opportunities. Stir in resentment at bankers and parliamentary politicians, robbing the tax payers, and what do we have? Alienation, disaffection, and no hope. As Naomi Klein put it in the Guardian” When you rob people of what little they have, in order to protect the interests of those who have more than anyone deserves, you should expect resistance”(4)
But many on the radical left did not expect this resistance. Furthermore, they did not like the look of it. The Socialist Party was particularly disgusted. In their opinion it was a tragedy for small shop keepers, and devastating for working class communities. As if capitalism in crisis wasn’t. The SP leadership was worried about lack of police numbers. The view of Peter Manson of the CPGB was that the riot targeted working-class people. In a moment of self-doubt, he mused that at one level it was a collective rebellion, but on balance it was without political content with anti social gangs having a moment of power. (5) But the rioters’ most comprehensive critic was the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. The riot would have no positive effect. Indeed, it would have reactionary consequences. It would strengthen law and order, stimulate racism as well as alienate organised labour. (6)
Yet, any kind of militant fight back will alienate the leaders of the trade unions and the Labour party. One of the reasons the bitterness against the government and police exploded in a riot was the failure of the labour movement to oppose capitalism, beyond token protest, or prevent cuts or seek a socialist solution to the economic crisis. On an ideological level the legal system has been weakened. The justification of the legal system as independent and based on individual cases has been publicly revealed as false. The courts were seen to follow government directives. As in the aftermath of other riots, investment will be pumped into the riot areas to quell the spirit of rebellion. Even royalty has been compelled to put on a show that they care, by visiting the deprived areas where riots took place. And as one rioter told the media, ‘you would not be talking to me now if the riot had not taken place’.
Even The Commune’s David Broder was dismissive of the riots. There was “Not even the embryo of the kind of movement we want.” (7) David was concerned about the violent damage to Britain’s communities. Although the riots have demonstrated how working class communities had been hollowed out. Nevertheless, David argued that a negative reaction to being downtrodden had produced individual looting. But again, once the flames died down it became clear there was collective looting on a mass scale : Food and other basic necessities, not just electrical goods. (8) In general, even with exceptions, it seemed to be a matter of working class survival in hard times or redistributing wealth. David thought that burning workers cars’ and homes were simply counter productive. But was burning police cars and chain stores to be condemned?
Daniel Harvey of the Commune asked a question : “is a moral judgement between different kinds of violence a betrayal of revolutionary principle? Alistair McIntyre gives an answer: “in matters of conflict between social classes the appeal to moral judgments against some existing state of affairs is always an appeal within the limits of that form of society” (9) There is no moral, class shared norm, for workers’ struggles. In Lenin’s words, “our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the proletarian class struggle” (10) sometimes violence is justified. But the means condition the end, so not all violence is acceptable. Sometimes violence against scabs has been seen to be legitimate in certain circumstances. The mugging of a worker is not. The abstract yardstick is the question how does it promote human liberation. But elemental class struggle is messy and full of short-term goals.
Violent riots have been an aspect of capitalism and class struggle against it throughout history. Eric Hobsbawn described the Luddites or machine breakers’ actions as collective bargaining by riot. (11) In contemporary history there are many examples. In Los Angeles’ Watts district in 1965 and in Detroit in 1967 there was mass looting on an industrial scale : Buildings were burnt to the ground. In the student riots in Paris in 1968, which sparked one of the greatest general strikes in history, many cars were torched for barricades. In Bristol in 1980 and Toxteth and Brixton in 1981, bricks and bottles were thrown at police, sometimes inadvertently injuring bystanders. There was also the famous Poll Tax riot which helped to bring down Thatcher and her tax. Now that was a positive result.
Militant trade unionism has seen violence on the picket line and rioting during strikes. In the great unrest in Britain 1910-14 there was violence, looting and burning. (12) In Llanelli in 1911, rank and file miners trying to make their strike effective, in the face of scabbing organised by the pit owners, police and government, stoned scabs from railway embankments and placed obstacles on the railway line to stop the transport of black legs. Troops were dispatched to Llanelli,and two young men were shot dead. In the riot that followed, 96 Railway wagons were torched, and three tons of bacon and other things disappeared, as goods wagons were looted. A building was blown up, and four people were left dead. (13) In Tonypandy in 1910, striking miners driven away from a pit by the police and army, attacked shops in the village. One man Samuel Rays was shot dead by troops. Trade union officials and government ministers denounced the strikers as mindless hooligans. (14)
The circumstances of the hardship during a strike might be seen as a direct link to the actions of the miners during the great unrest. But the Commune’s David Broder is sceptical that there is a direct link with material deprivation and the subjectivity of the rioters. (15) It is difficult to know what evidence would convince him. He should stop and think about David Cameron‘s claim that the riots were not related to poverty. All the evidence points to an elementary class consciousness among many rioters. Rioters made comments such as this from Manchester: they take money from us, Were taking it back. Or this comment from London: the government only look after the rich. Darcus Howe described the riots as an insurrection of the poor.
To slightly misquote Lenin, anyone expecting a pure working class riot will never live to see one. A spontaneous outburst of unrest will be unfocused, given the lack of mass social roots of the trade union left or the tiny communist left. But there was some focus. Attempts were made to put out fires in shops where there were flats above. Some muggings were prevented. In any revolt or unrest dubious elements looking for opportunities will always be present. This does not mean the riots can be described in tabloid terms as simply an outburst of criminality. The answer is not to call for more police, but workers’ defence committees. The Turkish and Kurdish community in London organised themselves into defence squads against some rioters and the police. The challenge for communists is to try to tap into the anger and bitterness in working class communities, and help give any future protests or revolt a communist character
1 The True Face of the Riot, The Guardian , August 19th
2 TUC Research paper.
3 Guardian, August 19th
4 Guardian, August 18th
5 Weekly Worker August 11th
6 Alliance for Workers’ Liberty August 9th
7 The Commune : Nothing to lose nothing to gain.
8 Workers Power, August 17th.
9 McIntyre, Alistair, 1971 A Short History of Ethics, Rutledge Kegan Paul
10 Collier Andrew, Milton Fisk, Marxism and Ethics, Radical Philosophy number 36 1984.
11 Dangerfield, George, 2008, The Strange Death Of Liberal England, serif, London
12 Holden, Bob, 1976, British Syndicalism 1900/1914 Pluto Press
13 Davies , John , 2007 A history of Wales, Penguin Books.
14 Holden Bob,1976 British Syndicalism 1900/14
15 David Broder, The Commune, Nothing to lose Nothing to gain.