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Marxism and Rioting

Martin Sullivan

THE MAY Day Monopoly "anti-capitalist" protest in London this year called for the cancellation of Third World debt, an end to pollution of the environment, a stop to the privatisation of the Tube and a number of other objectives which socialists would endorse. In addition, demonstrators engaged in a variety of innocuous pursuits such as feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square (why?) and distributing free veggie burgers outside McDonald’s.

However, the centrepiece of the day’s events was a mass protest in Oxford Street, which had evidently been chosen as representing the excesses of consumer culture. This latter stunt was organised under the slogan "Sale of the Century" and advertised by stickers which read "revolutionise your consumer rights, take the lot" – in other words, on the basis of an explicit, publicly announced proposal to fight capitalism by looting shops.

As it turned out, it proved impossible to carry out this plan for a publicity-generating riot in the West End, due to a massive police presence. Demonstrators were allowed into Oxford Circus early in the afternoon and then penned in until late evening. Apart from clashes between the police and a section of the crowd who tried to break through the cordon, and some sporadic smashing of shop windows as protestors made their way home, the whole thing passed off relatively peacefully. But who can doubt that, if the police had been present in smaller numbers, a minority of the demonstrators would have used the protest as a vehicle for carrying out their stated intention of wrecking and pillaging the relevant symbols of bourgeois consumerism and multinational capital?

You might have thought that the far left, or at least that part of it that claims adherence to Marxism, would have been quick to dissociate themselves from this sort of thing. Not a bit of it. They concentrated on denouncing London mayor Ken Livingstone for his stand against the May Day Monopoly events, but had not a word to say in criticism of the organisers of this futile and counterproductive farce. After all, numbers of young people are attracted by such actions, and the far left sees the "anti-capitalist movement" as a potential source of new members. If a spirit of militant opposition to global capitalism expresses itself in rioting, the far left reasons, better not to offend potential recruits by taking a principled position against such methods.

The far left’s largely uncritical turn towards the anti-capitalist movement, and its adaptation to anarchist-inspired ideas of "direct action", is of course a product of the present weakness of the organised labour movement – as, indeed, is the fact that a layer of youth is drawn to this type of protest. There is nothing new here. The lack of effective collective organisation among working people often encourages some of those on the lumpen fringes of the class to engage in acts of anti-capitalist nihilism. And self-styled Marxists on the lookout for a short cut to the socialist revolution are sometimes prepared to go along with them.

One famous example was the "West End Riots" of 1886. The background was this. On Monday 8 February that year the Fair Trade League held a meeting in Trafalgar Square to advocate its policy of higher customs tariffs as a cure for unemployment, and a counter-demonstration of the unemployed was called by the Social Democratic Federation (an avowedly Marxist organisation which was, however, repudiated by Engels, who regarded it as a sect).

The SDF leaders – H.M. Hyndman, John Burns, H.H. Champion and others – treated their audience to a series of inflammatory anti-capitalist speeches. Burns, for example, was reported as telling the crowd that the House of Commons "was composed of capitalists who had fattened on the labour of the working man ... to hang these ... would be a waste of good rope ... there must be a revolution to alter the state of things. The next time they met it would be to go and sack the bakers’ shops in the west of London. They had better die fighting than die starving".

Having wound the crowd up with pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric, the SDF then led them on a march through Pall Mall towards another meeting in Hyde Park, with Burns at the head of the demonstration brandishing an improvised red flag. Provoked by jeering from the rich in their clubs, the demonstrators first responded by throwing stones and breaking the club windows, and then set about looting shops in Piccadilly and South Audley Street. It wasn’t until the rioting had reached Oxford Street that the police belatedly intervened. Subsequently the SDF leaders were prosecuted on a charge of seditious conspiracy, but they were acquitted.

The SDF leaders, like some on the left today, deluded themselves that there was something progressive about the smashing and plundering of shops by an indisciplined mob. Hyndman, indeed, went so far as to hail the riot as "the beginning of the great English Revolution of the Nineteenth Century"!

But Engels was having none of it (see "Comments on an Anti-Capitalist Riot" in this issue). He accused the SDF leaders of "appealing to the masses to ‘rise’ somehow, as best they might, against nobody in particular and everything in general", and argued that by encouraging hooliganism on the part of lumpen elements they had "done an irreparable damage to the movement". He condemned Hyndman and Co for trying to "conjure up a movement by force and over night", without carrying out the necessary long-term organisational work among the mass of working people, and for engaging in "childish actions such as we are usually accustomed to seeing only from the anarchists". Although the panic which the riots induced among the bourgeoisie led to a surge in donations to a relief fund for the unemployed, Engels argued that the main effect of the SDF’s efforts had been "the identification of socialism with looting".

Some at least of the socialists learned their lesson from this debacle. During the 1889 London dock strike, Burns and the other strike leaders did everything they could to ensure that the dockers’ daily marches through the West End were conducted in a peaceful and orderly manner. And Engels, in contrast to his condemnation of useless rioting, greeted this resurgence of collective, disciplined working class action as "a revival I am proud to have lived to see". He argued that the lumpenproletariat would now be pushed into the background by the organised working class: "This is of enormous value for the movement. Scenes like those which occurred during Hyndman’s procession through Pall Mall and Piccadilly will then become impossible and the rowdy who will want to provoke a riot will simply be knocked dead."