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Marxism and Mayday

Andy Robinson

MARTIN SULLIVAN clearly sees himself as an expert on the anti-capitalist movement even though he obviously knows very little about it. His article ("Marxism and Rioting", What Next? No.19) reproduces word for word many of the prejudices of the bourgeois media: a minority of troublemakers; attempts to "use" the protests; a certainty that a "riot" was prevented by the police.

There is something he has not noticed: the bourgeois media are not trustworthy on such matters. Look how the media formulates its stories: it relies on police sources and projects its own biases into its "factual" coverage. To take one example: the police were in a win-win situation regarding possible trouble. If it happened, they were proven right; if it didn’t, they could claim they deterred it. This is not the only example of Orwellian language. SchNews (4 May 2001) gives several examples, including the claim that protestors were being organised by "hardcore anarchist ringleaders" – and the accompanying claim that they are hard to control because they don’t have any leaders.

Martin, like the media, ignores several important facts. Firstly, that thousands of protestors marched unpoliced up Regent Street before going to Oxford Circus, with no "looting" or broken windows. Secondly, that the WOMBLES – one of the best things to come out of this year’s demonstration – successfully liberated a thousand people from the police cage. They then toured a number of streets – again with no damage to property. As far as I can tell, the plan on Oxford Street was to give out toy money to shoppers; the statement "take the lot" referred to the general process of reclaiming the world from capitalism.

Furthermore, his claim that the demonstration "passed off relatively peacefully" is absurd. What he presumably means is that the demonstrators were very peaceful, despite the extreme provocation and violence they faced. The police, in contrast, were extremely violent from start to end. There was illegal head-bashing with truncheons, wanton lashing-out at crowds, people forced to the ground and beaten repeatedly, people assaulted with shields, as well as the police trampling on human rights and clearly putting people’s lives at risk by extrajudicially imprisoning them in a confined space for nine hours without food, water or toilets. This caused several injuries from falls and fainting and could easily have led to a Hillsborough-style crush. "One guy on stilts fell over and smashed his head on the floor – the police still wouldn’t let him out: they said he’d done it on purpose" (Action for Solidarity, 11 May 2001). "As we left, police demanded our names and addresses and photographed everyone. One protestor refused and was promptly abused, was punched between the legs and thrown onto the street (Workers Power, Election 2001). "As we approached the stock exchange ... the cops started pulling protestors off their bikes, slamming them against the wall and frisking them" (Workers Power). "Other WOMBLES took direct blows to their shins, arms and even heads" (Offline).

Hardly what one would expect to hear about a "relatively peaceful" event. The police were also arresting, or threatening to arrest, protestors for wearing sunglasses, carrying water pistols, sticking stickers, hanging up banners, wearing trousers with "obscene" words on, accidentally hitting a police camera with an iced bun, wearing bat masks and anti-pollution masks, carrying a spray can, sitting on a kerb, having tiny amounts of marijuana ... in short a litany of persecution worthy of a police state. Some of the police actions were also illegal, and Liberty is planning a mass lawsuit over the mass imprisonment at Oxford Circus.

In this contest, socialists should be very clear: any account of protestors’ "violence" or its absence which leaves out the discussion of police violence is providing a veil for barbaric repression. The media, politicians and police have most people trapped in doublethink about this: police violence is either "not violence" or is invisible, since police are naturalised and reified via their role as specialists in violence. This discourse is infinitely re-usable: even a fascist state can be portrayed as "peaceful" if the regime’s violence is ignored. This discourse needs to be overcome, and the struggle to overcome it is harmed if socialists repeat it.

Did police violence stop property damage? Hardly. "No wonder people eventually took it out on capitalist property like the traffic lights. Far from preventing criminal damage, the police tactics caused it!" (Workers Power). "Although I remained non-violent myself I could appreciate the frustration of the few who threw things at Nike Town. When your back’s to the wall, it’s easy to see this as the only option" (Offline). "Some damage was done ages after we were locked in there, but what the fuck do you expect when you enclose us all in such a small space for this fucking long? People just wanted to get out and go home, but could they? No" (Freedom, 19 May 2001). Happy Hippy comments that what damage did occur was "not surprising, considering the inhuman treatment suffered"; it is more remarkable how peaceful people were despite provocation (Justice). Police were also determined to cause clashes, tightening the ring around the protestors until some tried to break out. Only after the police had their "riot" pictures in the media did they start to let people leave.

So what is lurking behind this repression? The police want to undermine democracy, and to terrorise people out of demonstrating. Look at the evidence. "A police officer in Oxford Circus summed up the tactics ... speaking to two Asians squashed against his riot shield he said, ’See, there’s no point coming to any more demonstrations, no point. They’re no fun, are they, hey? No point, you’re not enjoying this are you? This’ll just happen all over again, so there’s no point ever going’" (Offline Special Report). "A friend said to a policeman: ’you can’t be claiming to defend democracy after today’. The policeman’s reply was short, honest and to the point. ’We never claimed to be’, he said" (Freedom, 19 May 2001). "Their aim was simple", says one protestor: "to use intimidation and brute force so that they could frighten us into not exercising our right to protest" (Freedom).

Cookie, a South African on the demonstration, remarks: "Back home in South Africa, we had something very similar once. It was called the State of Emergency.... In Johannesburg, they used these laws to help people commit suicide out of police station buildings, miraculously losing their fingernails on the way down – how long will it take for that to happen here?" (SchNews). Another protestor called it "the day they tried to stop all protest, but that irrepressible spirit couldn’t be stopped" (Offline), while one report says London in the evening was "like a militarised zone" (Offline).

The same logic is behind the totalitarian-sounding rhetoric of the likes of Jack Straw, who called protestors "evil", Tony Blair, who all but stated that any cause he disagreed with was "spurious", and Ken Livingstone, who specifically incited the police to illegally harass demonstrators prior to the demonstration.

In this context, serious questions need to be asked about the politics of anyone who is excessively concerned with tactics (e.g. whether it is a good idea to smash McDonald’s) at a time when police repression is becoming increasingly extreme and basic democratic rights are under threat. I would speculate that Martin and his ilk have basically conservative character-structures, and are still vulnerable to propaganda appeals on the basis of bourgeois "consensus" issues (like how terrible it supposedly is when a few windows get broken). They need to think rather more seriously about what socialism – in Marx’s terms, the self-emancipation of the working class – involves, and whether it is compatible with such gut reactions.

In contrast to Martin, most of the left is very aware of the capitalist/police/media strategy for breaking the anti-capitalist movement. It is based on General Frank Kitson’s counterinsurgency strategies: soften public opinion to legitimate state violence; persuade progressive individuals to condemn the movement, in order to isolate activists from wider support; then use extreme violence to smash what remains of the movement. They are therefore quite aware of the political significance of joining in a condemnation which would leave them hanging on the coat-tails of the bourgeoisie and its allies, and refrain from doing so. They are also quite aware that the movement is not reducible to specific acts carried out by some of the participants.

This said, the left’s support for this movement is not "uncritical" and involves active participation in debates about tactics on anti-capitalist websites, at public meetings and in their own publications. (Workers Power, for instance, has produced several critiques of Black Block tactics.) In these debates, they generally oppose property damage (but not self-defence against the police); however, they keep this opposition within the broader context of support for anti-capitalism. A few broken windows is, after all, hardly the central issue here.

As one protestor at the Quebec demonstration remarked: "After the extreme police violence I’d witnessed the past few days, a few broken windows didn’t merit a second thought" (SchNews, 27 April 2001). And as a Filipino activist puts it: "They are worried about a few broken windows being smashed. They should come and see the violence being done to our communities in the name of liberalisation of trade" (People’s Global Action Bulletin 5, February 2000). Compared to the issues at stake, the question of damage to capitalist property is absolutely trivial and insignificant. (Those who do support such acts, incidentally, are neither the "nihilists" of Martin’s account nor the media’s "hardcore thugs"; they are working class people angry at capitalism who want to symbolically negate its holy icons – like the workers who ripped down Tsarist statues in Russia in 1917.)

As regards the movement’s supposed "futility": if the movement is "futile", why the media hysteria? Why did the police encourage shops to shut, thereby losing £20 million – far more than the minor damage last year? How did this "futile" movement manage to dissuade the World Bank from going ahead with its recent planned meeting in Barcelona? How did it manage to blockade the Seattle WTO Conference, nearly close down the WEF in Melbourne, and force the IMF to shut its event a day early in Prague? How did it get to within a few hundred yards of closing down the Nice EU summit? How have its Third World supporters managed to overthrow the Ecuadorian president, reverse water privatisation in Bolivia, take over large swathes of Chiapas, and dismantle Shell HQ in Nigeria? How come the corporate takeover of the world is now discussed openly in the mainstream media? Why are organisations like the World Bank rushing to whitewash themselves? How has anti-capitalism managed to unite Marxists, anarchists, Greens and others in a movement unheard of a few years ago? And why do protestors in Britain now see the Mayday demonstrations as vital to the defence of free speech? "Futility" is a product of Martin’s imagination – owing perhaps to overly dogmatic standards of what constitutes worthwhile action.

Martin’s problem seems to be his inability to consider the anti-capitalist movement except through the distorting lens of hundred-year-old ideas and examples. Anti-capitalism is a new movement, involving forms of dissident action (e.g. carnivalesque, and groups like the WOMBLES and Ya Basta) rarely, if ever, seen in the modern world. Marxism should be a living, developing world view – not a religious doctrine invoked from the outside to oppose each new development. With his reference to "principled" stands and "discipline", Martin sounds less Marxist than Kantian; he has some kind of abstract ethical ideal which he imposes on the movements from the outside, and which is itself ahistorical and absolutist.

In this context, it is hardly meaningful to try and draw a "line" on the anti-capitalist movement from classical Marxist texts, as Martin’s references to Engels suggest he is trying to do. However, I will nevertheless follow Martin onto his exegetical territory. Marx, for his part, has no general model of strategy. As Bertell Ollman puts it, Marx "can be found on the side of legal parties, illegal parties, loosely and tightly organised parties, elections, general strikes, and armed struggle, depending on the particular place and its conditions" – his approach was to focus on raising workers’ consciousness while aiming "to avoid all kinds of dogmatism (i.e. formulae derived from principles rather than from conditions)" (Social and Sexual Revolution, p.208).

If Marx did have a preferred strategy, it was something similar to the anti-capitalist movement. If one takes statements such as "The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself" and "The free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all", as well as his critique of alienation, fetishism and the state (cf. Chris Wright, "Lenin’s State and Revolution", New Interventions, Spring 2001), one finds in Marx a clear predisposition towards direct action, both as a transformative approach and as the basis for a socialist world. In this context, Marx’s approach is entirely compatible with the anti-capitalist movement, and certainly provides no basis for criticising any particular act which has occurred within it on principle.

Marx did use the rather shady concept of "lumpenproletariat" which Martin has picked up on; however, this was never clearly defined. Recent studies in criminology have found that there is no separate "criminal class"; rather, workers and others "drift" into and out of social deviance depending on circumstances (e.g. David Matza, Delinquency and Drift), and the existence of distinct "delinquent" or "criminal" groups is a product of social labelling which hardens minor differences into distinct collective identities (e.g. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish; Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics). This throws serious doubt on the whole concept of the "lumpenproletariat", since "criminals" conceived in this way can hardly be called a class in any recognisably Marxist sense. If it has any relevance, it is as a description of a particular stratum thrown up in the early phase of urbanisation, of people whose culture is peasant-based and who have been absorbed into the cities without becoming workers. This stratum does not exist in advanced capitalist societies, and anyway, there are occasions when it has a revolutionary rather than a reactionary role (cf. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth).

Engels, meanwhile, did not understand Marx’s approach to the state (i.e. his critique of the reification of society into a "thing"), and, resultantly, became prone to making a fetish out of "discipline" (cf. his essay "On Authority", and also his use of the word "childish" as an insult, as quoted by Martin). As the quotes Martin provides clearly show, this led him down a rather dangerous path, towards the view that smashing shops is intolerable but it is quite alright to kill one’s political opponents. Taken alongside his claim that socialism would replace political contestation with "the administration of things", this raises a sinister shadow over Engels’ conception of socialism. To blame Engels for the Stalinist Terror would be an overreaction; but, nevertheless, there are some very insidious seeds planted by Engels, which we would do well to avoid nurturing. Engels also either misunderstands or rejects Marx’s approach to labour (as "alienated"); otherwise he could hardly use the claim that people "do not want to work anyhow" as an insult. (This should not detract from Engels’ excellent analyses on other matters.)

Despite all this, in the letters Martin points us to, Engels is also obviously being very careful. He did not publicly attack or condemn either the demonstration or the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) leaders, putting his comments instead in private correspondence. He therefore avoided risking being associated with media hysteria or lending legitimacy to state violence and crackdowns. Furthermore, throughout he avoids the rhetoric of moral condemnation, instead criticising the SDF on a tactical basis. The language he uses suggests, not outrage at anyone’s actions, but rather the harmless and silly uselessness of such actions ("lark", "row", "merry", "roughs and ’Arries") – contrasting sharply with Martin’s choice of words ("mob", "hooliganism", "wrecking and pillaging") and suggesting a wholly different kind of critique. His main concern is that "the row was wanted" by the state and that the SDF "fell into a trap", something he suspected because of the absence of police. (Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! alleged similar entrapment at Mayday 2000, due to the suspiciously un-boarded and unguarded McDonald’s; however, there was hardly an absence of police either then or this year.)

Engels is not criticising the "rioting" as such, but rather the SDF’s inadequate approach to building a revolutionary movement. Furthermore, his entire critique is contextual: he more or less says that the same kind of speeches would be fine in a different context, such as France or a better-prepared Britain. Also, in contrast to Martin’s idea that Engels saw such incidents as doing irreparable damage, he specifically states that it "does not make the matter much worse". His problem with the SDF follows the same kind of analysis as does Marx’s discussions of organisation: he is criticising the SDF not because its actions are wrong in principle, but because the SDF’s approach is insufficiently attuned with its historical and social context.

Anti-capitalism is a different movement, in a different context. Events like Mayday are not instigated by the (mis)leadership of figures such as Hyndman; rather, they are leaderless and suspicious of would-be leaders. Furthermore, Engels’ remarks have little in common with the ranting that the likes of Ken Livingstone, Bill Morris, George Monbiot and Lee Jasper have been spouting. The difference is that between an authentic (but humanly fallible) socialist and a string of careerist would-be managers of capitalism.

The bourgeois media tries to associate dissent with "violence", and this renders it all the more important that socialists counter their propaganda. Martin is directly hindering this with his denouncements, which play into the hands of the media’s stereotyping and misrepresentation. His referral to classic texts and ahistorical "principles" hinders the development of Marxism into a worldview able to relate to progressive developments in the contemporary world. And his entire approach is based on evading central issues, such as: Why given the harm and suffering caused by capitalism, and given the police’s attacks on democracy, are the media still able to whip up hostility towards those people prepared to take a stand against capitalism? How is the media able to portray last year’s Yugoslav revolution, which involved street fighting with the police, burning barricades and several trashed buildings, as "peaceful", when the simultaneous Prague demonstrations were supposedly "violent"? Why are Zimbabwean protestors who carry knives praised by the BBC, yet protestors who write on statues are termed "violent"? And how is media doublespeak able to infiltrate the minds of the masses? The answers may raise a few difficult questions, not only about the contemporary world but also about Martin’s politics.

PS: The pigeon-feeding event was a protest against Ken Livingstone’s withdrawal of the license of Trafalgar Square’s only licensed pigeon-feed seller. The participants – from animal rights groups such as Animal Action – were campaigning to reverse this decision, which is part of an attempt to eradicate pigeons through starvation. Campaigners say the birds are being killed to make way for more elaborate retail space. Despite being entirely peaceful, this protest was also subjected to a "Section 60" and protestors were extrajudicially imprisoned. This protest highlights an important issue and is yet another instance of Livingstone’s appalling record as Mayor.

PPS: Many of those jailed by the bourgeois state for their part in anti-capitalist protests would appreciate letters of solidarity. A list of these and other political prisoners can be found as the SchNews website: www.schnews.org.uk.