Reflections on the riots of August 2011 (part 1)

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Today those involved in the riots that arose in several cities across England between 6th and 9th of August continue to appear before the courts, with many given exemplary sentences that far exceed those usually handed down for the particular offence. They are being punished for their participation in a riot as much if not more than for any crime they committed.

In the immediate aftermath of the riots a discussion developed within the revolutionary movement about the class nature and dynamic of the riots. Left communist organisations and anarchist groups, such as Solfed, saw the riots as arising from the nature and contradictions of capitalist society but criticised the attacks on other workers, whether directly or as the result of setting fire to shops above which workers are living. Others saw the riots as an attack on the commodity and on capitalist relations of production. Some have drawn a distinction between these riots and those of the 1980s, arguing that the latter were more clearly against the forces oppressing and attacking the working class, in particular the police. The following article attempts to contribute to this discussion by looking at the relationship between the riots and the class struggle by placing them in the framework of the nature and evolution of the class struggle. The first part, published here, considers the question in the context of the history of the workers’ movement and the general nature of the class struggle. The second part will look more specifically at the summer riots in the UK.

The relationship between riots and the class struggle

Those who side with the working class cannot accept the language and framework given by the bourgeoisie. The confrontation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie inevitably involves the working class appropriating goods and property from the bourgeoisie and confronting its forces of control, at times with violence, whether this be the food riots of the 18th century, the struggles to organise and win wage increases in the 19th or to overthrow capitalism of the early 20th. For the bourgeoisie anything that threatens its rule and that imposes on the sanctity of property is rioting, looting, criminal and immoral and calls forth a desire for revenge that leads to repression, incarceration and at times massacres. Thus when the ruling class talks of “riots” we should not be too quick to follow them.

Nor should we be too ready to dismiss any action as that of the lumpenproletariat. While the Communist Manifesto analysis of “the dangerous class” which “may…be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution” but whose conditions of life “prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue” correctly describes a process that has existed throughout capitalism, and which may be increasing under present circumstances, it is also clear that this is not an immutable category.

Those who side with the working class must judge any event by the extent to which it advances or retards the struggle of the working class to end its exploitation. This is above all a historical perspective; immediate gains may not always translate into long term acquisitions. Thus evaluating any particular event means understanding its impact on the working class’ weapons of struggle: its organisation and its consciousness.

Marx and Engels outline the dynamic and unity of these two aspects in the Manifesto of the Communist Party. On the one they hand they describe the development the unions (the form that the mass organisations of the working class took at that time) and the struggles they engaged in and comment: “Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of battle lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers”. On the other, they describe how “The bourgeoisie itself…supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education” before going on to argue that the communists are “practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others…theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march…” Organisation and consciousness; consciousness and organisation; these are the mutually reinforcing qualities of the working class, the fruit of its historical and international being and struggle. They are not identical and arise and manifest themselves in different, but related, rhythms. Elements can and do come to the proletariat from other classes and contribute to its development, but the origin, dynamic and strength of that development arises from within the working class.

In considering the general question of how the working class struggles and the specific question of the place that riots have in that struggle, there are two aspects to the critique the workers’ movement makes: theoretical analysis and practice.

Theoretical analysis

In the Condition of the Working Class in England published in German in 1845 Engels set out the position in which capitalism places every worker (regardless of gender despite the language of the following quotes): “…the working man is made to feel at every moment that the bourgeoisie treats him as a chattel, as its property, and for this reason, if for no other, he must come forward as its enemy…in our present society he can save his manhood only in hatred and rebellion against the bourgeoisie”. He then sketched an outline of the development of the revolt of the working class: “the earliest, crudest, and least fruitful form of this rebellion was that of crime. The working-man lived in poverty and want, and saw that others were better off than he. It was not clear to his mind why he, who did more for society than the rich idler, should be the one to suffer under these conditions. Want conquered his inherited respect for the sacredness of property, and he stole…The workers soon realised that crime did not help matters. The criminal could protest against the existing order of society only singly, as one individual; the whole might of society was brought to bear upon each criminal, and crushed him with its immense superiority.” The working class moved on to oppose the machines that excluded some and dominated others and then to develop unions, first in secret and then openly, to defend their interests by keeping wages up as much as possible and preventing the bourgeoisie from dividing the class with differing rates of pay for the same work

In this analysis Engels made clear that the working class had both to challenge bourgeois legality and be ready to use force when necessary. He gives an example of a strike by brickmakers in Manchester in 1843 when the size of the bricks produced was increased without any increase in wages. When the owners posted armed guards “the brick-yard…was stormed at ten o’clock one night by a crowd of brickmakers, who advanced in military order, the first ranks armed with guns” and the workers succeeded in their purpose of destroying the newly produced bricks. More generally, he comments that “the working-men do not respect the law, but simply submit to its power when they cannot change it” and gives the example of the attacks on the police that he states take every week in Manchester.

However, neither Marx nor Engels saw violence and law-breaking as revolutionary in themselves and were ready to criticise actions that went against the development of the class struggle, even when they appeared spectacular and confrontational. Thus in 1886 Engels strongly attacked the activity of the Social Democratic Federation in organising a demonstration of the unemployed which, while going through Pall Mall and other rich parts of London on the way to Hyde Park, descended into attacks on shops and looting of wine shops. Engels argued that few workers took part, that most of those involved “were out for a lark and in some cases were already half seas over” and that the unemployed who participated “were mostly of the kind who do not wish to work – barrow-boys, idlers, police spies and rogues”. The absence of the police was “so conspicuous that it was not only we who believed it to have been intentional”. Whatever one might think of some of Engels’ language his essential criticism that “These socialist gents [ie the leaders of the SDF] are determined to conjure up overnight a movement which, here as elsewhere, necessarily calls for years of work” is valid. Revolution is not the product of spectacle, manipulation, (deleted: ‘violence’) or looting.

The practice of the working class

For all the theoretical critique developed by leading figures within the workers’ movement, the most eloquent critique was that which flowed from the actual practice of the working class. In the history of the class struggle, the question facing the working class was not simply whether any particular moment was violent and “riotous” or not but the extent to which it took place on a working class terrain and was controlled by the working class. Amongst the many instances of unrest, riot and insurrection that took place in the last decades of the 18th and the first of 19th it is possible to distinguish between those where “the mob” was manipulated by the bourgeoisie and those where the emerging working class struggled to defend itself and to survive. 

Amongst the former, were various incidents intended to stir up religious antipathy, whether it be against Catholics or dissenters and also ‘popular’ political movements, such as that led by Wilkes in the later 18th century. An example of the first are the Gordon Riots of 1780 which began with marches to the House of Commons in protest at concessions given to Catholics and led on to attacks on Catholic churches and the property of rich Catholics and was only stopped when the mob turned its attention to the Bank of England. This loss of control highlights one of the dangers facing the bourgeoisie in its efforts to use the mob: it may slip out of its control. This is illustrated in the movement led by Wilkes, which was essentially a struggle between different factions of the ruling class, when the movement created to back his campaign began to merge with industrial action, and revolutionary slogans were raised.

Amongst the latter, can be seen the food riots that took place in many parts of Britain, which were often characterised by the seizing of food from merchants and its forced sale at a lower price. These movements could be very organised, lasting several days without violence, with the merchants being given the money that the people deemed to be a “fair price”. The latter also included the Luddite movement that took place at various times in the Midlands and north of England and which sought to protect the wages and working conditions of the working class in the face of rapid industrialisation and the reorganisation of patterns of life and work. The movement was characterised as much by its organisation and popular support as by the machine breaking popularly associated with it. The bourgeoisie responded with a mix of force and concessions. At its height in 1812 more than 12,000 troops were deployed between Leicester and York and the total value of the property destroyed has been estimated at £100,000 at contemporary prices. 

In The Condition of the Working Class in England Engels traced the development of unions and above all of Chartism that flowed from these first efforts of the working class. For Engels Chartism was “the compact form of the opposition to the bourgeoisie”; “In the Unions and turnouts opposition always remained isolated, it was single working-men or sections who fought a single bourgeois. If the fight became general, this was scarcely by the intention of the working-men…but in Chartism it is the whole working class which arises against the bourgeoisie…” Chartism may have been the first political organisation of the working class and it may have struggled for goals such as universal suffrage that were later given as reforms to contain the struggle, but in its time its struggle was revolutionary and in that struggle it was ready to use violence when necessary. The general strike and armed insurrection were discussed and found expression in the Newport rising of 1839 and the general strike of 1842.

Throughout its history working class struggles have been faced with the necessity to use violence at times. The liberals and pacifists who denounce violence never see that ‘ordinary’, ‘peaceful’ life under capitalism is a continual act of violence against the exploited. This is not to praise violence in itself but to recognise that it is an unavoidable part of the class struggle. In his history of the class struggle in the US Louis Adamic shows how the particularly brutal exploitation and repression meted out by the bosses in the US sometimes prompted an equally forceful response.

We can return to Britain to look at the particular example of the Tonypandy riot of November 1910. This was part of the wider Cambrian Combine dispute and arose after the miners were locked out by the mine owners who alleged that they were deliberately working slowly. Other mines came out in support and 12,000 miners took part, closing nearly all the mines in the area. The bourgeoisie responded by sending in police and troops with violent confrontations resulting between the police and the workers. The riots broke out when workers attempted to stop strike-breakers from entering one of the mines to keep the pumps working, leading to hand to hand fighting between the workers and the police. By midnight, after repeated baton charges by the police, the workers were forced back into the centre of Tonypandy where they faced further attacks by the police. During the early hours of the morning shops were smashed and some were looted. The police were not present during the period of looting and it was used by the bourgeoisie as a pretext to call for military intervention. Many workers were injured and one killed as a result of the clashes. The wider dispute prompted reflection amongst miners in the South Wales Miners’ Federation and contributed to the development of a current that challenged the leadership of the Federation and advanced syndicalist ideas in the pamphlet The miners’ next step, published in Tonypandy in 1912.

Time and again the essential question is not how violent a struggle is – whether one uses that as a measure of its proletarian or non-proletarian nature - but the context in which it took place and its dynamic. Thus alongside the history of struggles that advanced the interests of the working class there is another strand of actions that did the opposite and took the working class off its terrain. To give a few examples:

-           In the summer of 1919, ‘race riots’ broke out in Liverpool and Cardiff following the discharge of black and white sailors. Trade unions that later became the National Union of Seamen complained about black sailors being given jobs when whites were unemployed, and in May 1919 five thousand unemployed white ex-servicemen complained to the Mayor of Liverpool about black workers competing with whites for jobs. In June black ex-serviceman and their families and homes were attacked. In Liverpool crowds of two to ten thousand people attacked black people on the streets and in Cardiff Arab and black areas were targeted and three people were killed with many more injured.

-           In May 1974 the Ulster Workers Council organised a general strike of Protestant workers in opposition to supposed concessions to catholic workers. The strike was controlled by loyalist political and paramilitary organisations and while there is some evidence that workers were reluctant to participate, it successfully divided the working class. 

The assault on the heavens

The critique made by the working class is at its most eloquent when it challenges the power of the bourgeoisie and begins to assert the human society it carries within it against the inhuman regime of the bourgeoisie as it did in the Paris Commune of 1871, in the revolution of 1905 in Russia and in the revolutionary wave initiated in Russia.

The basic question of these movements was not so much the direct appropriation of property but the question of power, expressed in the struggle against the bourgeoisie and for the reorganisation of society.

This lies at the heart of the analysis of the Paris Commune made by Marx in The civil war in France, issued by the International Working Men’s Association in 1871. He emphasises the Commune’s opposition to the organisation of the state, expressed in its first measure that suppressed the standing army and replaced it with the National Guard. Under the conditions of siege in which it existed the Commune could but indicate the direction of the social reconstruction it aspired to “The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence. Its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people. Such were the abolition of the nightwork of journeymen bakers; the prohibition, under penalty, of the employers’ practice to reduce wages by levying upon their workpeople fines under manifold pretexts… Another measure of this class was the surrender, to associations of workmen… of all closed workshops and factories…” The elected members of the Commune - the majority of whom were working men - and its administrators were all paid average worker’s wages. The church was disestablished and education made available to all: “the priests were sent back to the recesses of private life… the whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of Church and State. Thus not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it.” (p.71). Attempts by the French government to starve the Commune failed and a regular supply of food was maintained.

The revolution of 1905 saw the appearance of strike committees across large parts of Russia to control the struggle in individual factories and their development, by coming together and becoming permanent elected bodies, into soviets. In short, a movement from the immediate economic struggle to the more general struggle and its fusion with the political struggle for power. Questions of immediate survival were addressed within this wider context: thus workers fired during strikes at the Putilov works “established relief measures, among which were four soup kitchens” The centre of the revolution, the St Petersburg Soviet became involved in the organisation of daily life, including preventing censorship of the press by the state and giving instructions to the railways and post office. In Moscow, the soviet issued directives “regulating the water supply, keeping essential stores open [and] postponing rent payments for workers…”

In 1917, this situation was repeated and then went further as the working class took power from the bourgeoisie: “in many cases the collapse of the central government and local bureaucracies turned these instruments of revolution into governmental bodies that intervened in and arrogated to themselves administrative functions.” When the disruption of revolution led to food shortages in urban areas “local soviets independently adopted stringent measures of alleviation. In Nizhni Novgorod, for example, exportation of bread was curtailed; in Krasnoyarsk, the soviet introduced ration cards; in other places ‘bourgeois’ homes were searched and goods confiscated.” In The history of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky wrote “In the Urals, where Bolshevism had prevailed since 1905, the soviets frequently administered civil and criminal law; created their own militia in numerous factories, paying them out of factory funds; organised workers’ controls of raw materials and fuel for the factories; supervised marketing; and determined wage scales. In some areas in the Urals the soviets expropriated land for communal cultivation.”

Even in struggles less dramatic than those already mentioned the methods of the working class come to the fore. Thus, during the first days of the mass strike in Poland in 1980 representatives from the striking factories came together to form the Inter-Factory Committee (MKS in Polish), which “controlled the entire region and resolved transportation and food distribution problems.” 

Thus, we can draw a number conclusions about struggles that take place on a class terrain, whether it be a single strike or a revolutionary movement. Firstly, violence is not an end in itself nor a simple expression of frustration, but a means by which the working class takes and defends power in order to change the world. Secondly, when commodities are appropriated this is done above all as a means of maintaining the collective struggle and it is the use value of the commodity that dominates rather than its exchange value. Thirdly, they are marked by and strengthen collective action and solidarity. The perspective of the such struggle is always towards the future, towards the transformation of society. 

North 11/11


A second part of this article on the riots that took place in August will follow.


Historic events: 

Recent and ongoing: 


UK riots