Warning: Long, runs to 36 pages.
Harry Powell is a British Maoist who has written an excellent piece about the riots in the UK that goes against the typical arguments of the Left about the riots. He argues that the riots were not motivated by class or racism, but were instead spearheaded by primarily criminal lumpen elements that had been preying on low income and working class people in their neighborhoods for a long time.
The riots had little political consciousness. Many of the lumpen elements among the rioters buy into the capitalist project and revere the rich. The riots were a chance for them to get rich too.
It is very nice to see such a heterodox view coming from a hardline Marxist.
A great deal has been written about the recent urban disturbances in Britain and a lot of it is nonsense. For example, Robert Borba of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA wrote:
What is taking place on Britain’s streets is a revolt against an oppressive state apparatus that is enforcing an unjust society, an apparatus that has lost much of its legitimacy in the eyes of millions. It is a revolt against state-backed racism. It is refusal by hundreds of thousands of youth to accept a world where they are destitute, with no jobs and no future.
The general idea being put forward here, and by some others, is that the disturbances were a widespread, conscious revolt against the capitalist system. I do not think that the evidence supports this assertion.
The incident that sparked off the rioting was the police shooting Mark Duggan in Tottenham, North London on 4th. August. After an unsatisfactory response from the police to their inquiries the family and friends of Duggan held a protest outside a police station. This attracted other people and developed into more general disorder involving fighting with the police, damage to buildings and looting from shops.
This sort of disorder spread to other areas of London and outside in cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham. Just as suddenly as these outbursts had begun, they came to an abrupt end on 10th. August when the weather turned wet. As someone commented, “I don’t recollect that the Russian Revolution came to a sudden halt when the weather turned bad.”
Chairman Mao said, ”No investigation, no right to speak.” The present writer does not claim to be some sort of expert on urban disturbances but for forty years in Nottingham I have lived in and near the localities where such outbursts have occurred, both past and present. I have carried out political work in these areas, particularly anti-racist, anti-poll tax, anti-war and anti-voting campaigning. Thus I have some first hand experiences I can draw upon in assessing the reports and analyses of other people.
For the most part the riots occurred in urban areas where there is much unemployment and underemployment, large numbers of ethnic minorities, poor housing and limited social facilities. It is the young people in these areas, particularly black ones, who have high rates of unemployment and very limited opportunities.
The class composition is largely working class (proletarian) with some middle strata elements such as small shopkeepers and business proprietors (petit bourgeois) and gentrified enclaves of more affluent business and professional people (manageriat).
One interpretation is that the disturbances were at least partly a reaction by black youth against the discriminatory racist treatment of them by the police. In particular the prevalence of “stop and search” operations by the Metropolitan Police in London is seen as generating resentment on the part of black youth. Mark Duggan was black and the police shooting him certainly sparked off the disturbances.
However, from the incomplete picture we have of the circumstances of the killing it does seem that Duggan was carrying a gun. In Britain, unlike America, very few people habitually carry handguns and most of those who do so are criminals. The fact of the matter is that knife and gun crime carried out by young people is a serious problem in many British cities, especially London.
The police have been criticized, not least by people living in the affected areas, for not doing enough to contain and reduce such crime. (In the Meadows area of Nottingham some years ago the residents were fearful of armed gangs of drugs dealers and demanded that the police institute regular patrols of armed officers.) This is a major reason for police stop and search operations.
True, black youth are disproportionately targeted, not always sensitively handled and many perfectly innocent young people caught up in such operations come to feel victimized and resentful towards the police.
Borba and others highlight the racist attitudes and behaviour of the police. Certainly the police are far from being free of racism as they are drawn from the wider society in which racist attitudes are still widespread. Thus some of the police are racists but not all of them. There were similar urban disturbances in Britain in 1981 and in subsequent years.
Then almost certainly the main factor was resentment by black and Asian people against racist treatment by the police. As a result much action has occurred within the police forces to try to combat their racism and in my view with some success.
Even so there are still many instances of police racism. It is also the case that the Metropolitan Police have seriously bungled operations leading to the deaths of innocent people as in the cases of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson. It is hardly surprising that many young people, especially in London, treat the police with suspicion.
But it does not necessarily follow that all the black and Asian people participating in the riots were protesting about racist police. Back in 1981 in Hyson Green Nottingham I witnessed a group of mainly black people laying siege to the local police station. At the same time around the corner other people, many of them black, were busy looting the local shops.
The former group were probably motivated by resentment of police racism while the latter group were clearly simply out for personal material gain. Back in August in Nottingham several police stations were attacked.
An acquaintance lives near one of the targets. She saw a gang of black youth come up her street, on their way to attack the police station, and as they proceeded they trashed every car parked in the street. These belonged to the residents, predominantly council tenants, mostly on lower incomes. (My acquaintance’ s car was so badly damaged that it was written off by the insurance company.) It is not plausible to try to explain this incident as a protest against police racism.
It is easy to see why the family and friends of Mark Duggan were upset by the police’s insensitive handling of that case and why some other people interpreted this as a case of police racism. But this is hardly an adequate explanation of the widespread disturbances that occurred in many parts of Britain.
Lack of Opportunities?
Of course, by no means all of those active in the recent disturbances were black and Asian. Many ”white” people were actively involved and arrested, especially young ones. Some people, such as Robert Borba, claim that it is the lack of opportunities for young people, of all ethnic groups, in these deprived areas which explains the riots: ”It is refusal by hundreds of thousands of youth to accept a world where they are destitute, with no jobs and no future.”
It is objectively true that in these areas there are limited educational and employment opportunities for young people. Many of them are demoralized and bored and some of them drift into gangs and criminal activities. Many do hold a vague resentment against the system which degrades them. However this hardly constitutes a definite class political consciousness in the Marxist sense.
Having tried to politically engage with such young people, my impression is that most of them have no real conception of who are their rulers and why they are in a disadvantaged position in this society. Indeed many of them at least partly embrace the media’s definition of them as inadequate and undeserving in various ways. Many admire rich people such as footballers.
The Coalition Government elected in May 2010 has been introducing a draconian programme of cuts in public spending so as to pay off the massive government deficit brought about by the need to bail out the banks three years ago. These include cuts in welfare benefits, support for disadvantaged people, spending on education and training etc.
These will particularly impact on the deprived area where the riots occurred. Some people suggest that this is a cause of the August disturbances but this is not very plausible because the cuts have not yet really begun to have a serious impact.
It is hardly surprising that some of these people should seize upon an opportunity to relieve the monotony and boredom of their lives by going on the rampage. Also we live in a capitalist society where there is constant pressure to acquire material possessions beyond the means of unemployed youth. Here was an opportunity to grab some goodies such as flat screen televisions, laptops, ipods, etc. for free.
Even so, it is unlikely that those doing the looting saw themselves as taking their revenge upon the bourgeoisie, as ”expropriating the expropriators” . Given the temporary breakdown of civil order an unexpected opportunity arose. It was just sheer opportunism.
As people arrested appeared before the courts it became clear that they were not all poor and oppressed. Many of the rioters were in education and employment, some in well-paid jobs. They are not in serious poverty nor are they lacking opportunities. So why did they get caught up in the disturbances?
There is nothing new about sudden, spontaneous outbreaks of civil disorder in modern Western societies, especially involving young people. Back in the nineteen fifties and sixties there were many cases of ”youth disturbances” in countries such as Britain and Germany.
A well-known example was the Mods and Rockers disturbances in Britain in 1964. (See the film ‘Quadrophenia‘ ) Rival groups of teenagers congregated in seaside resorts on holiday weekends engaging in rowdy behaviour and a certain amount of violence and vandalism, probably somewhat amplified by the attention it received from the media. This was a period of full employment and rising living standards, especially for young people.
These rioters could afford motorbikes, scooters and expensive trendy clothes. Some commentators tried to interpret their behaviour as a youth protest against the system but it was not plausible. The disturbances stopped just as suddenly as they had begun. Another example is the soccer hooliganism present in Britain during the nineteen seventies and eighties. Again, attempts to explain it in terms of class conflict are not very convincing.
The fact of the matter is that spontaneous civil disorder, on a small or large scale, has been a recurrent feature of modern capitalism. Quite often the initial ”spark” which gets it going remains unclear. In certain circumstances people who are normally law-abiding can get caught up in the excitement and do things which they would not normally do.
A case known to me in Nottingham was a young man, an apprentice electrician, who during the 1981 riots found himself in the thick of it, picked up a stone, threw it at a shop window, got arrested, convicted and fined in court. He had never been in trouble with the law before and has not been so since that time. In the recent disturbances it seems that many of those rioting were engaging in this sort of impulsive, spontaneous behaviour.
A lot of the riotous behaviour was not to obtain desirable consumer goods but simply to destroy property. The proprietor of a shop in Manchester selling expensive Bang und Olufsen hi-fi equipment was somewhat put out because the rioters did not steal his goods but simply destroyed them. It might be claimed that the culprits were somewhat inarticulately expressing their resentment at the rich who could afford such luxuries.
However a lot of the damage in the riots was inflicted on small local businesses and cars parked in the streets. The victims were not multinational corporations but local residents. Some of these business will not reopen and this will further economically depress these already deprived areas. In Dalston, East London where many Turkish and Kurdish comrades live, people mobilized to defend the local shops against the rioters. I hope that the Turkish and Kurdish Maoists who live there participated in this defensive action.
The truth is that in the right circumstances most of us are capable of getting caught up in riotous, anti-social behaviour. The ruling class are no exception. Consider the hooligan behaviour of people such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson during their student days in the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University. This sort of spontaneous release of normal constraints on personal behaviour is not a revolt against the system.
It is undoubtedly true that capitalism spits out people at the bottom of society. Its economic contradictions operate such that a section of the proletariat are relatively lowly paid, regularly unemployed and underemployed, have poor standard housing and live in areas with limited social facilities.
These people are the lower sections of the working class and it was only during the thirty year economic boom following World War ll that their numbers proportionately diminished. Both before and after this period they have constituted a significant minority of the population in Britain who are now disproportionately drawn from non-white ethnic minority groups.
Given the lack of legitimate opportunities for personal improvement, it is hardly surprising that some of these people become involved in crime, both against property and persons This is the lumpenproletariat, criminal and anti-social elements which prey off other people living in the same area. These are the burglars, muggers, pimps, drug dealers and street gangs who often make their neighbours’ lives a misery.
Yes, I know that these are people whose behaviour largely results from their class position at the bottom of capitalist society just as surely as the behaviour of swindling financiers is determined by their position at the top of capitalist society. None the less, the great majority of people living in these areas for very good reasons regard the lumpen elements as an enemy.
The victims of these crimes are mostly people living in the same areas and not middle strata and bourgeois elements who live elsewhere. There is rivalry among the criminal gangs involved in these activities and they usually arm themselves with knives and guns. The macho gang culture so generated in these areas spreads among local young people who are not necessarily directly involved in criminal activity.
It is difficult for children growing up in such areas not to be influenced, They engage in much anti-social activity to the distress of other local residents. Injuries and deaths caused by the use of weapons by rival gangs are quite common. Some years ago at the school at the top of my street two criminals involved in a car chase pulled into the school forecourt and proceeded to shoot guns at each other. A bullet lodged in the windscreen of a coach waiting to transport some of the pupils.
For twelve years I lived in the St. Ann’s area of Nottingham, an inner city area largely consisting of council housing with high levels of unemployment and many black and Asian residents.
My house was burgled on three occasions and I had to install window bars, toughened glass panes, a burglar alarm and security lights. Anything left outside in the garden, however trivial, would be stolen. My experience was typical throughout the area. Cars parked in the streets were broken into in broad daylight and people passing who dared to remonstrate with the thieves were threatened, often with knives.
An acquaintance of mine was confronted by muggers who then beat him up because he had no money. The victim spent many weeks in hospital recovering from his injuries. The criminals committing these acts lived locally. Prostitutes were soliciting on the street outside my house. Many of these women were being run by pimps and many of them needed the money to feed their hard drugs addiction.
The pimps and drug dealers lived in the area and when they fell out with each other would use knives and guns to settle scores. Also youth gangs made peoples’ lives unpleasant by harassment on the streets and damaging property.
It is hardly surprising that the great majority of residents in St. Ann’s and in another similar area of Nottingham, the Meadows were demanding action by the City Council and police to deal with these scum, the criminal and anti-social elements. One response by the Council has been to introduce all sorts of security measures to these areas. These include installing burglar alarms in dwellings, building walls and steel fences to make entry by burglars more difficult.
Residents wanted more police patrols, especially on foot, for their protection. In the Meadows residents felt so intimidated by armed gangs that they requested the police to start regular patrols by officers openly carrying firearms, something which had never been done before in Britain.
It is an unpalatable fact for most leftists that the main problem with the police that most people in deprived areas in Britain have is that the police are not doing enough to protect residents. The police are not generally regarded as oppressors. Many surveys carried out in such areas in Britain during the last forty years bear this out.
Some anarchists see professional criminals as engaging in some sort of rebellion against capitalism. This is nonsense. These criminals are informed by a crude, caricatured version of the dominant bourgeois ideology. They aspire to a lifestyle based around expensive cars, jewelry and clothes. In order to achieve their aspirations they are prepared to oppress and exploit the people in their own localities in the most vicious and crude manner making the worst capitalist employer seem like a saint in comparison. They are the scum of the earth.
The police try to clamp down on criminal and anti-social behaviour, not least at the insistence of local residents who are the main victims of such conduct. However well local people organize themselves in community groups they are not equipped to take on vicious, armed criminals.
Only armed police can do this and clashes between the police and criminal/anti-social elements can take on a racial character given that the police are predominantly white and those they are dealing with are disproportionately, although by no means exclusively, from black and Asian groups. This is not to deny that some police officers hold racist attitudes and thus have negative views of black and Asian people.
Even so, the police, who are drawn from the wider society are not uniformly racist and the proportion of them with such an outlook is less than in the past. Now there are a significant number of black and Asian police officers.
On the street where I live we had a problem with a hooligan youth gang harassing residents. We had to form a residents’ association to try to deal with the problem and we went to the police and insisted that they take action. The gang was multiethnic in composition and some of their parents accused the residents and police of being racists.
Some of the police officers involved were of Asian background and they were not impressed by these allegations, the charge of police racism being a common defence put forward by delinquents. I was somewhat amused one day when I saw the gang leader, from an Asian family, who had broken his bail conditions being taken away by two Asian police officers.
Yes, the police are an important part of the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state. Their main function is to control the working class so as to maintain capitalism. This was very clear during the Miners’ Strike during 1984-5 when they used all sorts of illegal methods to contain the miners.
But it is also true that a secondary function of the police is to uphold general public order so that civil society can effectively function. Unless the criminal and antisocial elements who prey off the working class and middle strata are combated and contained then everyday life would become very difficult. Ordinary people have neither the organization or skills to deal with criminals and street gangs.
Now it is becoming clear that many of the people arrested in the riots had previous criminal convictions. So at least some of the rioters were delinquents who seized the opportunity to engage in thieving, not just from commercial premises but from anybody who happened to be around as well. In no way were these people protesting against the rule of capital. As for attacks on police stations in Nottingham, the word on the street is that these were carried out by criminals, especially drug dealers, who seized the opportunity to get back at the police who pursue them.
Approaching the Working Class
In Britain the objective conditions upon which a growth of revolutionary consciousness could be based are becoming more favourable. The financial crisis three years ago and the subsequent unemployment, falling living standards and cuts in public services are impacting on millions of people, especially the lower sections of the working class.
For some years inequalities of income and wealth have been widening to greater differences than they were a century ago. The legitimacy of the state has been undermined by the scandal two years ago of Members of Parliament enriching themselves by blatantly fiddling their expenses claims.
There is widespread disaffection with the war in Afghanistan. A new financial crisis brought about by problems with the Eurozone could occur. And yet the subjective conditions for taking advantage of this situation in Britain do not exist. There is no Marxist-Leninist- Maoist political organization in Britain.
The lower sections of the working class – the sort of people who live in the areas where the riots occurred – are, given their objective conditions of life, potentially open to influence by revolutionary ideas. However most leftists avoid these people like the plague. As for the few people of Maoist sympathies in Britain, they are not organized so cannot really do anything.
I was active in the anti-poll tax struggle in the St. Ann’s area of Nottingham in 1989 to 1991. (The poll tax was a change in local taxation brought in by a Conservative Government which massively shifted the burden of paying for local services from better off people onto those with low incomes.)
In over fifty years of radical political activity in Britain the anti-poll tax campaign is the only occasion on which I have seen large numbers of working class people – many millions – become actively involved in a political campaign. Throughout Britain anti-poll tax groups were formed and these campaigned for people to refuse to pay the tax.
This did not happen spontaneously. It was necessary to campaign door-to-door to persuade people to withhold their poll tax payments. In St. Ann’s we held public meetings which attracted quite large audiences of working class people. This was most unusual.
In March 1990 a large national demonstration against the poll tax was held in London. This was attacked by the police but the demonstrators fought back. They held the police at bay and damaged expensive cars, upmarket shops and offices of large companies. The media dubbed this occurrence the “Poll Tax Riot” but the outcome of it and the mass non-payment was the Conservative Government backing down and scrapping the tax.
Also it was an important factor in bringing about the downfall of the apparently impregnable Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. Unlike the recent riots, this was a real political rebellion informed by the conscious aim of stopping this iniquitous tax.
Although the Labour Party said it was against the poll tax, it urged people “not to break the law” and to pay it. Indeed, in Nottingham the Labour-controlled City Council boasted about the zeal with which it set about prosecuting those refusing to pay. Meanwhile with the poll tax abandoned the Trotskyites and revisionists urged people to vote Labour in local elections.
In Nottingham some of the other activists stood in the local elections as protest candidates against the Labourites’ persecution of poll tax defaulters. By then the campaign had largely dissipated but we did attract a respectable number of votes.
The poll tax was a serious blunder by the Conservative Government because they enacted an obviously unjust measure clearly aimed at the working class and which directly impacted on all of them. Thus it was relatively easy to mobilize people to not pay the tax. Even so this only happened because of deliberate efforts by activists to raise people’s political consciousness. From a Maoist perspective it was not possible to secure any lasting political influence because we had no revolutionary organization.
Another type of campaigning in deprived areas of Nottingham I have been engaged in is urging people not to vote in national and local elections. This receives a largely positive response because the majority of people in these areas do not usually vote and so do not need much encouragement to abstain. It is noticeable that since the first term of New Labour government, which ended in 2001, many working class people have finally abandoned their support for Labour. Working class voters are now no more likely to support Labour than other parties.
However people’s alienation from the capitalist political system, bourgeois democracy, does not mean that they think it is possible to get rid of capitalism and replace it with something better. While they have no confidence in the existing order, they feel powerless to do anything about it.
Half a century ago in Britain there were millions of people, both working class and middle strata, who thought of themselves as “socialists”. This did not mean that they had a sophisticated grasp of Marxism but it did mean that they held a basic conception of the class division under capitalism, the iniquity of it and the need to change the system to one more equitable, to some sort of socialism.
This political consciousness has considerably diminished, and now only a small minority of people call themselves socialists. Very few working class people identify as socialists and there are probably more middle strata people who do so. The level of class political consciousness of the working class in Britain has greatly diminished during the last fifty years.
When campaigning for abstention in elections, some people do ask what is the alternative to the present system. If one says that it is socialism, then usually this does not meet with a positive reception. Most people see it as something that was tried and failed in Russia.
Also as a result of intense anti-communist propaganda in the media, especially during the last twenty years, many people – probably a large majority – see socialism and communism as highly undesirable, oppressive systems. It is very difficult to combat this negative perception in the context of street campaigning. Better propaganda materials are needed to educate people about socialism and communism.
However the most effective way in which people would become interested in revolutionary ideas is by revolutionaries taking the lead in generating popular struggles against the oppression and exploitation of capitalism. This can only be done really effectively if revolutionary communists are organized and in Britain they are not.
1. The disturbances in Britain during August 2010 were not a revolt against capitalism and neither were they primarily a protest against police racism. For leftists to try to make out that they were is a case of what Lenin called the ‘worship of spontaneity’.
2. Lumpenproletarian criminal elements were prominent in the disturbances much to the disgust of other residents in the affected areas. These criminals are thoroughly reactionary and enemies of the working class.
3. The low level of political class consciousness among the working class in Britain could be raised by sustained agitation, propaganda and practical political campaigning among such people. In the right circumstances they are capable of taking conscious political action against the system as was demonstrated by the anti-poll tax struggle of twenty years ago.
4. The experience of Britain during the last few decades demonstrates the essential correctness of Lenin’s thesis that a political class consciousness cannot spontaneously arise among the working class. It has to be developed by a revolutionary political party persistently and consistently agitating, propagandizing, organizing and leading working class people in struggles against capitalist oppression and exploitation.