Brixton, Zurich, Amsterdam, Berlin: The spectre of social revolt

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

2011 Introduction

Thirty years ago this summer over 40 British towns and cities were hit by a wave of social revolts as young people –often black but also white, mainly working class – fought back against police racism and repression. In Toxteth, Liverpool, police deployed CS gas for the first time in mainland Britain after almost losing control of the city. 

The following article, first published in WR 38 in May 1981, analyses the international significance of these events as a response by young people – one of the hardest pressed sectors of the proletariat – to the effects of the crisis and mass unemployment hitting the most advanced capitalist countries. As such they were ‘harbingers of the future’. This makes them of far more than just historical importance to us today, when the ‘spectre of social revolt’ has indeed returned with a vengeance to haunt the capitalist system; in North Africa and the Middle East, in Greece and Spain, France, in Britain itself with the student struggles last year...   

Of course a full comparison of the revolts and those of today would reveal many differences, not least in the depth and extent of the capitalist crisis, which despite 15 years of deepening in 1981 had yet to enter its final phase of decomposition; the Berlin Wall had yet to fall and the threat of a direct confrontation between the American and Russian blocs was still a real one. 

The sheer scale of the more recent social revolts – which in the case of North Africa and the Middle East is the most widespread, simultaneous wave since 1917-19 or even 1848 – also puts the events of 1981 into perspective. But some of the similarities are striking: for example, the tendency shown in some of the earlier revolts towards self-organisation, with the appearance of general assemblies and revocable delegates in Amsterdam and Zurich, has today become a much more widespread feature.

The article was right to emphasise the importance of the workers at the heart of industry to provide a way forward. In Britain, the extremely militant struggle of the miners in 1984-5 followed the ‘riots’ of 1981. This was eventually defeated of course, and the capitalist state mounted a concerted counter-attack on the working class that, along with the negative effects of mass unemployment, atomisation, the flood of cheap drugs into working class neighbourhoods, etc., helps to explain why we did not see further waves of similar revolts. Internationally the working class struggle suffered a deep reflux following the collapse of the blocs and the deafening ideological campaigns that accompanied it. 

But the article was absolutely right to focus on the threat of mass unemployment as the key underlying factor in the struggles. The reality of unemployment has become a central issue in today’s struggles, and a key factor in the explosion of revolts in North Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps the most positive difference between 1981 and today is the even greater potential for social revolts to link with the struggles of workers at the heart of production, and to generalise in a movement against the effects of the now chronic crisis of a decrepit world system.

ICC 7/7/11


Far from being a purely local phenomenon, or something uniquely derived from racial problems, the Brixton riots were another episode in a series of social revolts which have erupted in the advanced western countries in the last few years: the ‘autonomous movement’ in Italy in 1977; mass confrontations between squatters and the police in Amsterdam and a dozen West German cities; the uprisings against police racism and repression in Miami, Bristol and Brixton; the ‘youth revolt’ in Zurich and other Swiss cities, which has been echoed in Oslo, Copenhagen, Vienna...

Despite all their particularities, all these revolts are a response to the effects of mass unemployment in the major western economies. Among the more concentrated sectors of the working class, really massive unemployment is a relatively ‘new’ experience. With certain important exceptions (e.g. the steelworkers in France and Britain, the miners in Britain), its initial effect has often been to intimidate workers, who fear that going on strike will only provoke further lay-offs. This is one of the reasons why working class struggle in western capitalism has yet to reach the heights of the gigantic class battles that are now going on in Poland.

But the fact that profound social tensions are building up in the west as well as the east is indicated by this series of revolts away from the point of production. In the absence of massive strike movements, the centre of social unrest has momentarily shifted towards those categories of the population who have been feeling the full blast of unemployment for many years, and who are most vulnerable to the bourgeoisie’s general assault on living standards: blacks, immigrants, youth, elements from intermediate strata (students, intellectuals etc), The problems facing these categories can be seen by looking at the immediate grievances behind the revolts:

  • they can’t get decent housing, and so are forced to live in crumbling inner city areas, and many have no choice but to squat. Thus, in Holland and Germany, where rents are astronomically high, the housing question has been the main preoccupation of these elements;
  • poorly paid or jobless young people are provided with the most miserable benefits and facilities, and are given no space to live their own lives. Hence the demand for an ‘autonomous youth centre’ in Zurich;
  • people who are pushed to the margins of society are constantly confronted with police harassment. This is especially true for blacks, who have to put up with all kinds of racist treatment from the police, but resistance against police repression has been a central theme in all these movements. On every occasion that these movements have taken the form of riots, the immediate issue was the brutal intervention of the police, whether to evict squatters in Amsterdam, disperse demos in Zurich, or ‘clean out’ black districts in Britain.

In short, these categories constitute a sector of the population which is becoming more and more aware that it has NO FUTURE in this society, to use one of the slogans of the German squatters. Since capitalism has nothing to offer them but poverty and repression, they are beginning to feel that they have nothing to lose from violently resisting the present order.

A re-run of the Sixties?

Certain bourgeois commentators, observing the efforts to build a ‘counter-culture’ that have been particularly prevalent in the Zurich movement, have tried to write off these revolts as no more than a re-run of the student and hippy movements of the sixties.

It’s true that the Zurich rebels have revived the old situationist slogan “we don’t want a society in which the risk of dying of hunger is exchanged for the risk of dying of boredom”, which is a little passé in a world that really is threatened by starvation. But Switzerland is a relative newcomer to the crisis, and just as the youth rebellions against the ‘consumer society’ of the sixties actually signalled the onset of a crisis of the entire mode of production, so the protests against consumerism in ‘prosperous’ Zurich express the fact that no corner of the planet can escape the consequences of this crisis.

Besides, even in Zurich the movement is largely made up of young workers and apprentices who have little hope of enjoying the wealth of Swiss capitalism. In nearly all cases, the most militant protagonists of these revolts are made up of a sector of the working class: a sector that is weak, dispersed, inexperienced, but part of the proletariat nonetheless. This is clearly the case with the black youth who led the revolts in Bristol and Brixton: most of them are either unemployed children of workers, or workers themselves. And even if some of the European movements have a strong core of elements from intermediate and petty bourgeois strata, the fact remains that the majority of these elements are being made unemployed, and unemployment is itself a factor which tends to proletarianise the petty bourgeoisie and other strata, at least in countries where the working class has a preponderant weight.

The weaknesses of these revolts - and their strengths

These revolts cannot be written off as petty bourgeois convulsions which are no more than a diversion for the working class: they are essentially based on a sector of the class itself. But this isn’t to deny that these movements are strongly influenced by the attitudes and ideologies of the petty bourgeoisie, of the intermediate strata being driven towards the proletariat by the generalisation of unemployment. In Germany, for example, the ideology of terrorism still has a certain weight, and many elements in these movements still cling to the illusion of building islands of autonomy, of free relationships, within the existing system. Above all, since many of the young people involved in these movements have little experience of associated labour, they have great difficulty in seeing their struggle in class terms, and tend to identify themselves simply as members of a particular category: blacks, youth, squatters, etc. These weaknesses are not merely ideological; they have a material basis in the social position of these elements. Separated from the centres of production, they lack the means to decisively paralyse the mechanisms of the capitalist system. Lacking the focus of the workplace, it is extremely difficult for revolts away from the point of production to generate organisational structures which can unify the struggle against the state.

There can be no question of communists hiding the weaknesses of these movements, and still less of falling into the trap of theorising these weaknesses, as has been done by Toni Negri and other theoreticians of ‘autonomy’ in Italy. According to this current, the diverse categories involved in these revolts are the new revolutionary subject, replacing the ‘guaranteed’, employed workers who have been seduced into defending the system. Thus, the divisions between employed and unemployed, between the more concentrated and the more marginal sectors of the proletariat, are seen as something positive. So are the divisions within the marginal sectors themselves, because according to the autonomists, each category  ­– workers, women, gays, youth, etc. -  should be encouraged to organise itself ‘autonomously’.

Communists and workers have to fight these ideas, because they are a pernicious barrier against the unification of the class. It is important to point out the limitations of movements divorced from the point of production, to insist that there has to be a link-up with the workers in Industry. Otherwise these revolts will indeed have NO FUTURE: isolated from the most powerful battalions of the proletariat, they will remain vulnerable to police repression and could easily degenerate into nihilism and despair. As the Polish example has confirmed, the workers at the heart of industry are still the key to the whole situation. It is not the simple generalisation of revolts away from the point of production that will lead towards the revolution; rather it is the mass strikes of the industrial proletariat that can provide an organized and politically coherent framework for the struggle in the neighbourhoods and the streets.

Nevertheless, we can discern a number of positive aspects in these revolts:

  • their practical rejection of legalism and pacifism;
  • their hostility to the left parties, who, like the unions, tend to have a weak implantation among the elements involved in these movements. In fact, a number of these revolts have taken place in municipalities controlled by left parties, and the point has not been lost that it was the social democrats in Holland and Germany who used riot police and armoured cars against the squatters, just as the Communist Party sent in the tanks to crush the ‘disorders’ in Bologna in 1977;
  • their refusal to delegate power to others, and their attempts at self-organisation: general assemblies with revocable delegates in Amsterdam, Zurich etc. The often quoted slogans NO LEADERS and NO POWER TO NO-ONE may reflect anarchist and apolitical prejudices, but they also show a healthy distrust of leftist manipulators and hierarchical approaches to organisation.

Above all, these movements are important as harbingers of the future. When Thatcher said that the issue behind Brixton wasn’t unemployment because there had been mass unemployment in the thirties, but no such riots, she was of course wrong on a number of counts. One of the main issues behind Brixton was unemployment, and there were unemployed riots in the thirties. But the general picture in the thirties was of a class that had been defeated and was allowing itself to be further pulverised by the crisis and marched off to war. Today, although capitalism objectively needs another war, it is going to have a hard time convincing black youth in Brixton, already bitterly hostile to the state, that their interests lie in fighting for Queen and Country. It will be equally hard to make good soldiers out of the German youths who recently scandalised the bourgeoisie by demonstrating against public ceremonies at which recruits to the army are sworn in. The violent insubordination shown by these hard-pressed sectors of the proletariat provide capitalism with a grim warning about what will happen as the most powerful concentrations of the class also come to the conclusion that capitalism has no future to offer them.

C D Ward 5/81