The Bristol revolt: not colour or community but class

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Even the capitalist media and politicians had to admit it: the street battle in Bristol wasn't a race riot. It was an elemental revolt by a whole sector of the population against bad housing, high unemployment, spiralling prices, the all-pervading boredom of life in today's cities. Above all, it was against the brutality and arrogance of the police, whose high-handed raid on a local café provoked the revolt.

The fact that most of the 'rioters' were young blacks simply expresses the fact that capitalism always hands out slightly different levels of misery to its slaves. Blacks tend to get shoved down to the bottom of the shit-heap. But the disintegration of this vile society is pushing more and more of us down to the same place. That's why the young blacks were joined by young whites – punks, skinheads, etc, etc, most of them unemployed proletarians with about as rosy a future as the blacks.

That's why white-skinned building workers in St Pals cheered at the sight of the police cars going up in flames: perhaps they remembered the police violence against building workers' pickets a few years back.

That's why white-skinned old age pensioners, fed up with seeing shops full of things they can't afford, were seen calmly filling their trolleys with looted food at the local ransacked supermarket.

Capital in crisis exploits and oppresses all of us with increasing 'equality', with an admirable lack of racial discrimination.

The sight of such spontaneous violence, of the police being booted out of a neighbourhood, of banks going up in flames, or of the streets temporarily falling into the hands of those who live in them, sends shivers down the spines of our rulers.

'Race riots', clashes between black and white, may cause damage, may disturb the tranquillity of everyday profit-production, but they do have the advantage of keeping the oppressed divided against each other. But when the oppressed begin to get together and openly defy the forces of law and order – that's something much harder for capitalism to use to its own advantage. And when you bear in mind that the St Pauls revolt was happening in the same week as angry steelworkers were occupying ISTC headquarters and marching on BSC offices in South Wales, you can see why the ruling class is feeling so jittery.

Right now the various factions of the bourgeoisie are racking their brains trying to find a way of preventing other areas going up like St Pauls, of keeping these tempestuous forces under control. There are three main currents of bourgeois thought on this.

First, there's the 'law and order' brigade: those who think that answer is simply more police repression. Other more astute members of the ruling class know that if you do this too nakedly, too openly, you'll just provoke further rebellions. That's where the other two schools of thought come in: the recuperators, those who claim to 'sympathise' with the plight of young black proletarians or the working class in general, but whose real function, whether they know it or not, is to make sure that this society continues to function.

On the one hand you have the liberal recuperators. The earnest spokesmen for the state's Commission for Racial Equality, the well-meaning local bureaucrats of the Community Relations Councils, the 'responsible' leaders of the 'black community'.

These people condemn violence and looting of course, but they also condemn bad housing, lack of job prospects, police 'abuses' and all the other social evils which give rise to the violence. They call on the government to pump more money into the local communities in order to create job opportunities and get more youth clubs set up. They try to establish closer relations between the police and the 'community organisations'. And they try to get the most dynamic, rebellious elements of the black youth to become high-minded community leaders through the 'grass roots' community set-ups.

In other words: they want to preserve this society by touching up some of its more odious features with a few cosmetic 'reforms'. They want to channel social revolt into organisations and activities that are tied to the capitalist state.

But the reality of a society that's falling to pieces soon shatters these nice liberal dreams. There's no government money to plough into the worst of the decaying inner city areas. Unemployment keeps going up. Unable to do anything but preach sickly sermons about good community relations, the liberals find themselves being despised by the very people they want to help. And when their precious community organisations are no longer able to keep the 'community' under control, they have no choice but to call the police. Like all liberals, faced with spontaneous violence from below, they always run to the forces of repression, to the law and order brigade, to the real guardians of this system.

So, when the schemes of the liberals fall apart, capitalism's last line of defence moves in: the 'extreme left' (SWP, IMG, etc). The leftist organisations write ecstatic hymns to the Bristol revolt. They present themselves as part of the struggle. But in which direction do they try to steer the struggle? Into a series of traps.

- The trap of black nationalism. By presenting such movements as revolts against 'white society', the leftists hide the fact that the enemy is capital, whatever colour skin the capitalists happen to have. A fact that the leftists 'forget' when they cheer the coming to power of black-skinned capitalist leaders like Mugabe, who's just been telling strikers to get back to work in Zimbabwe.

- The trap of inter-classism. Revolts that take place at the level of the 'community' suffer from the fact that the community is generally divided into different classes and social strata. By simply flattering such revolts and omitting to point out their weaknesses, the leftists obscure the fact that the only perspective for unemployed proletarians is to organise and fight on a class basis, and to link their resistance with the working class struggle at the point of production.

- The trap of anti-fascism. For the leftists, the number one enemy is the National Front and similar racist gangs. That's why they have been trying to use the Bristol events to win support for their anti-fascist campaigns. But the enemy number one for black workers and the unemployed isn't the NF: it's the state and its official agents of repression. As one young black worker in London told the Daily Mirror: “We haven't got time to go fighting the skinheads or the National Front. First we've got to protect ourselves from the police”.

Already the St Pauls community has begun to reject the leftist liars. Three weeks after the eruption in Bristol, the Anti-Nazi League rerouted a 'commemorate Blair Peach' march through the St Pauls district. They tried to involve the defence committee which has sprung up in the area to organise the defence of those arrested, especially after the hundreds of dawn raids that have been taking place since the police re-asserted their presence in the area.

The defence committee, having experienced the leftists' cynical recruiting campaigns, was opposed to the march going through St Pauls. But the march went ahead. During the course of the march, a group of black youths spontaneously put themselves at the front of it. In order to regain control of the march, the ANL lectured the youths through a microphone with their particular brand of capitalist liberalism and anti-fascism.

Once again the leftists demonstrated that presenting the NF as the danger diverts attention from the main enemy and is an attempt to drum up support for the more 'reasonable' and 'democratic' factions of the bourgeoisie. Thus the leftists, for their radical talk, end up canvassing support for the liberals, and the liberals have a direct line to the police.

Against all these forces of recuperation, revolutionaries affirm their total solidarity with the 'rioters' against bourgeois law and order, and with the defence committee's fight against repression in the aftermath of the revolt.

To the defence committee we: continue to resist the efforts of liberals and leftists to take you over, but don't see that as a reason for rejecting politics, for refusing to analyse the Bristol events in political terms. Revolutionary working class politics has nothing to do with the distortions of the liberals and leftists!

To all black workers and unemployed, young and old, we say: your identity isn't 'black' or 'British' or 'African' but working class. To all white workers and unemployed, young and old, your identity isn't 'white' or 'British' but working class. The common struggles of black and white in areas like St Pauls, in industries like Ford and British Leyland, show that our fight is as workers, proletarians, against capitalism and all its defenders.

We are a world class, with nothing to lose against a system with no improvements to offer.

Link the revolt in the neighbourhoods to the revolution of the entire working class!

WR30, May 1980

see also Bristol 1980/2011: repression and revolt