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Comments on an "Anti-Capitalist" Riot

Friedrich Engels

These excerpts are from letters written by Engels in the immediate aftermath of the February 1886 "West End Riots". The letter to Laura Lafargue is taken from Engels-Lafargue, Correspondence, Vol.1, 1959. The letters to Bebel are from Marx-Engels, Correspondence, 1846-1895, 1934, although the last two paragraphs from the 15 February letter have been translated from the German original in August Bebels Briefwechsel mit Friedrich Engels, 1965.

To Laura Lafargue, 9 February 1886

Our clever folks of the S[ocial] D[emocratic] Federation scorn to rest on their laurels. Yesterday they must needs interfere in a meeting of the unemployed – who count now by hundreds of thousands – in order to preach La Révolution, revolution in general, and ask the mass to hold up their hands, those who were ready to follow M. Champion wherever he would lead them to – well, to what he does not know himself. Hyndman, who can only overcome his personal cowardice by deafening himself with his own shouts, went on in the same strain.

Of course you know what a meeting at 3pm in Trafalgar Square consists of: masses of the poor devils of the East End who vegetate in the borderland between working class and Lumpenproletariat, and a sufficient admixture of roughs and 'Arrys to leaven the whole into a mass ready for any "lark" up to a wild riot à propos de rien [about nothing].Well, just at the time when this element was getting the upper hand (Kautsky who was there says das eigentliche Meeting war vorbei, die Keilerei ging los und so ging ich weg [the meeting proper was over, the brawling broke out and so I made off]), the wiseacres above named took these roughs in procession through Pall Mall and Piccadilly to Hyde Park for another and a truly revolutionary meeting. But on the road the roughs took matters into their own hands, smashed club windows and shop fronts, plundered first wine stores and bakers' shops, and then some jewellers' shops also, so that in Hyde Park our revolutionary swells had to preach "le calme et la modération"! While they were soft-sawdering, the wrecking and plundering went on outside in Audley St and even as far as Oxford St where at last the police intervened.

The absence of the police shows that the row was wanted, but that Hyndman and Co donnaient dans le piège [fell into the trap] is impardonable and brands them finally as not only helpless fools but also as scamps. They wanted to wash off the disgrace of their electoral manoeuvre, and now they have done an irreparable damage to the movement here.

To make a revolution – and that à propos de rien, when and where they liked – they thought nothing else was required but the paltry tricks sufficient to "boss" an agitation for any vile fad, packed meetings, lying in the press, and then, with five and twenty men secured to back them up, appealing to the masses to "rise" somehow, as best they might, against nobody in particular and everything in general, and trust to luck for the result.

Well, I don't know whether they will get over it so easily this time. I should not wonder if they were arrested before the week is out. English law is very definite in this respect: you may spout as long as you like, so long as nothing follows; but as soon as any "overt acts" of rioting ensue, you are held responsible for them, and many a poor devil of a Chartist, Harney and Jones and others, got two years for less. Besides, n'est pas Louise Michel qui veut [not everyone who wishes can be a Louise Michel].


To August Bebel, 15 February 1886

The Social Democratic Federation which, despite all self-advertising reports, is an extremely weak organisation – containing good elements but led by literary and political adventurers – was brought to the verge of dissolution at the November elections by a stroke of genius on the part of these same leaders. Hyndman (pronounced Heindman) the head of the society, had taken money from the Tories (Conservatives) at the time, and with it put up two Social Democratic candidates in two districts of London. As they had not even got any members in these two constituencies the way they would discredit themselves was to be foreseen (one got 27, the other 32 votes out of 4000-5000 respectively!)....

In the meantime unemployment was increasing more and more. The collapse of England's monopoly on the world market has caused the crisis to continue unbroken since 1878 and to get worse rather than better. The distress, especially in the East End of the city, is appalling. The exceptionally hard winter, since January, added to the boundless indifference of the possessing classes, produced a considerable movement among the unemployed masses.

As usual, political wire-pullers tried to exploit this movement for their own ends. The Conservatives, who had just been superseded in the government, put the responsibility for unemployment on to foreign competition (rightly) and foreign tariffs (for the most part wrongly) and preached "fair trade", i.e. retaliatory tariffs. A workers' organisation also exists which believes mainly in retaliatory tariffs. This organisation summoned the meeting in Trafalgar Square on 8 February. In the meantime the SDF had not been idle either, had already held some small demonstrations and now wanted to utilise this meeting.

Two meetings accordingly took place: the "fair traders" were round the Nelson Column while the SDF people spoke at the north end of the square, from the street opposite the National Gallery, which is about 25 feet above the square. Kautsky, who was there and went away before the row began, told me that the mass of the real workers had been around "fair traders", whilst Hyndman and Co had a mixed audience of people looking for a lark, some of them already merry. If Kautsky, who has hardly been here a year, noticed this, the gentlemen of the Federation must have seen it still more clearly. Nevertheless, when everybody already seemed to be scattering they proceeded to carry out a favourite old idea of Hyndman's, namely a procession of the "unemployed" through Pall Mall, the street of the big political, aristocratic and high-capitalist clubs, the centres of English political intrigue.

The unemployed who followed them in order to hold a fresh meeting in Hyde Park were mostly the types who do not want to work anyhow, hawkers, loafers, police spies, pickpockets. When the aristocrats at the club windows sneered at them they broke the said windows, ditto the shop windows; they looted the wine dealers' shops and immediately set up a consumers' association for the contents in the street, so that in Hyde Park Hyndman and Co had hastily to pocket their bloodthirsty phrases and go in for pacification.

But the thing had now got going. During the procession, during this second little meeting and afterwards, the masses of the Lumpenproletariat, whom Hyndman had taken for the unemployed, streamed through some fashionable streets near by, looted jewellers' and other shops, used the loaves and legs of mutton which they had looted solely to break windows with, and dispersed without meeting any resistance. Only a remnant of them were broken up in Oxford Street by four, say four, policemen....

In addition a prosecution has been brought against Hyndman and Co which is so weak that the intention is that it should come to nothing.... The gentlemen certainly told a lot of tall stories about the social revolution, which, in front of that audience and in the absence of any organised support among the masses, was completely stupid; but I can hardly believe that the government is so foolish as to want to make martyrs of them.

These socialist gentlemen want to conjure up a movement by force and over night, something that here as elsewhere necessarily takes years of work; though it is also the case that, once it is under way and imposed on the masses through historic events, it may develop far more quickly here than on the Continent. But people like these cannot wait, and this leads to childish actions such as we are usually accustomed to seeing only from the anarchists.


To August Bebel, 18 March 1886

As to Hyndman, the way he came out in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park on 8 February has done infinitely more harm than good. Shouting about revolution, which in France passes off harmlessly as stale stuff, is utter nonsense here among the totally unprepared masses and has the effect of scaring away the proletariat, only exciting the demoralised elements. It absolutely cannot be understood here as anything but a summons to looting, which accordingly followed and has brought discredit which will last a long time here, among the workers too.

As to the point that is has drawn public attention to socialism, you people over in Germany do not know how utterly blunted the public are with regard to such methods after a hundred years of freedom of the press and of assembly and the advertising bound up with them. The first alarm of the bourgeois was certainly very funny and brought in about £40,000 in contributions for the unemployed – in all about £70,000 – but that has already been disposed of and nobody will pay more and the distress remains the same.

What has been achieved – among the bourgeois public – is the identification of socialism with looting, and even though that does not make the matter much worse, still it is certainly no gain to us.