A Marxist approach to riots, the police and the capitalist state
The year 2011 has seen shockwaves of popular revolt ripple around the globe. From Cairo to New York, London to Athens, Tel Aviv to Santiago, people have come out onto the streets in their thousands demanding social change.
These movements have forced regime change in some places, hijacked the political debate in many, and challenged the status quo to varying degrees in all. As one momentarily looses steam, another ignites, creating the sense of truly global unrest.
No doubt the agent of this conflict is the utter failure of capitalism to provide a decent standard of living for the vast majority of people. While the particular grievances may vary internationally, they are all rooted in the same cause: a system that runs in the interests of a tiny minority, at the expense of all else.
The 2008 global financial crisis demonstrated just how far society’s elite will go to protect their wealth and privilege, including pillaging public accounts to pay private debts. Now, workers and the poor the world over are paying the price, in the form of deep and far reaching austerity and continuing economic instability.
There is nothing socialists strive for more than for workers and youth to coalesce into a mass force to be reckoned with when they are under attack. This year alone provides numerous examples of the different forms this can take, and the potential of each to effect social change.
But not all forms of mass disobedience can point a way forward. One of the more divisive examples of social unrest seen this year was the UK riots.
The UK riots
The Socialist Party (and our sister organisation, the Socialist Party, England & Wales), has written at length about the cause of the riots. Decades of neo-liberalism combined with a slash and burn austerity budget have left millions of youth in Britain without hope for a future. Education cuts and high unemployment have meant that less than 9% of those charged in relation to the riots (in the special 24-hour courts) were in full-time work or study. Countless statistics show just how few options many young people in Britain now have.
Numerous anecdotes about the actions of rioters point to their motives: stories of young looters specifically targeting business that rejected their job applications, people raiding supermarkets for basics like nappies and food items. One young man explained he stole a new pair of shoes in the hope of looking more respectable when he interviewed for jobs.
Others were more consciously political in their actions, burning down police stations and vandalising huge department stores; attacking the symbols of the system that offers them nothing.
Sympathy with one’s motives does not necessitate condoning one’s actions. The riots represented deep resentment and disenchantment bursting to the fore. But the methods of rioting offer no solutions to the problems people face. In fact, they typify a failure of the oppressed sections of society to articulate and implement their own solutions, and usually result in a set back in capacity to struggle. It is also working class communities who ultimately lose out when their suburbs go up in flames.
The aftermath of the riots have resulted in further attacks on British workers. The justification of countering anti-social behavior has been used to incarcerate hundreds of youth for petty crimes, evict public housing tenants, sanction the use of heavier police weaponry, attack the right to protest, and condone the use of physical force in schools.
It is for these reasons, polar opposite to the denouncements from the ruling elite, that genuine Marxists do not support rioting as a productive method of struggle.
Response from the Left
Unfortunately not all on the socialist Left are clear on such questions. Some groups, namely the British Socialist Workers’ Party and their ex-affiliate here in Australia, Socialist Alternative, consider it their role to uncritically cheer on such examples of frenzied rebellion, regardless of the consequences.
So strongly do they hold these views that both groups have attacked the Socialist Party here and abroad for our call – during and after the riots – for actions that can actually challenge capitalism, not simply react to it.
These attacks, made against other socialists outside the Socialist Party too, have taken the form of both dishonest misrepresentation, as well as the highlighting of fundamental political differences.
The misconstruing of an analogy from International Marxist Tendency leader, Alan Woods, is an example of the former. In an article titled “The riots in Britain: a warning to the bourgeoisie”, Woods correctly highlights that riots are a symptom of a sick system. He explained that just as a doctor doesn’t lash out at the symptoms of a disease, but rather tries to find a cure, we too need to be outlining a cure for the sickness of capitalism.
Yet Socialist Alternative leader Mick Armstrong, in an article entitled “The English riots: which side are you on?” claims such a simple statement is an “appalling” moral attack on the right to riot!
More duplicitous than this is the accusation from Armstrong, in the same article, that the Socialist Party, England & Wales “called for more police on the streets”.
The Socialist Party article in question is titled “Tottenham riots: fatal police shooting sparks eruption of protest and anger” and reads:
“The vast majority of people do not condone the riots and condemn the burning of homes, post offices and council services. There is widespread anger that the police did not act effectively to defend people’s homes and local small businesses and shops.
Given how widely predicted rioting was, there was also anger that police were not prepared to protect local areas. Many blamed government cuts to police services.”
Far from calling “for more police on the streets” as Armstrong claims, the statement explains how working class people responded to the actions of the police. For the Socialist Party, acknowledging working class attitudes and expectations of the police is part and parcel of the task of warning the working class of the role the police actually play.
Role of the police
The role of the police under capitalism is to serve as a body of armed men and women protecting, by force, the interests of wealth and property rights. This is why when it comes to industrial disputes the police would not dare intervene on behalf of a workforce demanding their rights, yet routinely come to the aid of bosses and their ‘right’ to exploit labour for profit however they see fit.
However this role, as fundamental as it is to the continuation of capitalism, must be obscured wherever possible to make it palatable to ordinary people. Therefore, in popular mythology the role of the police is claimed to be one of ‘protecting the community’ from itself. Here the police become heroes of the people, rather than servants of the exploiting and expropriating elite.
The main contradiction for capitalism is that the ranks of the police are drawn from the working class itself. This tenuous scenario, where individual police officers act against their own class interests, is largely camouflaged in times of general social and economic stability.
At certain points in the midst of social conflict these contradictions emerge clearer and the truth rears its ugly head. It is at these times that socialists can help clarify the true role of the police in the minds of ordinary people. When people expect the police to come to their aid, yet see them protecting only the interests of the rich and powerful, it is vital to highlight the importance and implications of such lessons.
However, in the absence of a militantly organised and ideologically strong labour movement, people often see no viable alternative to the existence of the police. They begin to recognise their true role, yet do not wish to live in a state of lawlessness. In this context it becomes necessary to put forward a series of demands for workers to strive towards that can begin to address these contradictions.
The first, which is often developed as a spontaneous response in communities under attack, is the calling for neighborhood defence committees made up of ordinary workers mandated to protect the community.
A further demand, aimed at undermining the authority of the police and therefore destabilising the ruling elite, is to call for the police to be brought under the direct control of the community itself. Such a demand, if taken on by movements and workers’ organisations in times of serious social upheaval, can have an important effect.
Historically such an approach has achieved results such as forcing the police to (at least momentarily) retreat, or encouraging defections amongst the lower ranks of the police force. This tactic, aimed at undermining the forces of the ruling elite by playing upon the contradictions of capitalist democracy, can be indispensible in times of struggle.
Childish slogans such as ‘Fuck the Pigs’ only serve to depoliticise the question and play into the hands of the ruling class.
A recent, brief analysis of the role of the police can also be found here.
What can rioting achieve?
In the case of a riot, a spontaneous explosion of anger overwhelms the ability of the police to enforce the capitalist version of ‘law and order’. This situation is always impermanent. It will inevitably be resolved either by a new force implementing its own form of law and order, or the armies of the ruling elite coming back with greater force to regain control.
This herein explains why the vast majority of the working class in Britain did not support the recent riots. Whether or not people sympathised with the grievances of those involved, the rioters offered no clear alternative, no new system, to that which they were rebelling against.
The British working class is clearly unhappy with the current state of things. However, they do not want to see their lives and communities burnt to the ground in vain.
The British ruling elite recognise this mass discontent, and jumped on the opportunity of the riots to warn against acts of rebellion. They have framed the youth as the cause of a ‘broken Britain’. These lazy, disrespectful, violent youth are the problem with and enemy of British society, so they say. The advice from above: ‘put up with your sorry lot or suffer a fate much worse’.
The riots did not represent a clear scenario of the working class rising up against the capitalist ruling class. A particularly disadvantaged section of the working class and youth revolted, to the dismay of the ruling class and the majority of the working class.
This has given the ruling elite in Britain, who are the cause of the problems British youth and working people face, the opportunity to paint a picture of cross-class unity against the rioters.
The ruling class maintains its ideological hold on society by sowing divisions amongst workers. They have worked overtime to blame the rioting youths for the problems British workers face. Rather than putting the blame squarely where it belongs, on the real looters and hooligans in the boardrooms, banks and parliament, the blame has shifted onto those most victimised by capitalism.
To pose the question, “which side are you on?” in relation to pro or anti-riot, as Armstrong has, is to accept these false divisions the ruling elite incessantly create.
This is why, when it comes to riots, it is the role of socialists to unequivocally place the blame where it belongs, yet also warn against methods that offer no solutions and serve to alienate the majority of the working class from struggle.
It is not the Socialist Party that is unclear about this. It is, in fact, Socialist Alternative that has struggled to deal with the question of riots.
Socialist Alternative leader Mick Armstrong writes in the aforementioned article:
“But it is also the role of socialists to fan the flames of every spark of resistance and to defend all the oppressed and exploited when they take to the streets against the police.”
This may be the type of sentiment that sits well with middle-class students, but it has nothing to do with the methods of Marxism. Aside from the obvious practical implications of supporting any “spark of resistance” – including terrorism? – regardless of the consequences for the working class, Armstrong fails his own test.
Socialist Alternative zigzags
One of the more notorious ‘riots’ in recent Australian history was during the protest against the G20 conference in Melbourne in 2006. The events have been overblown beyond all recognition by the capitalist press. In reality a small, militant group of young protesters thought it would be a good idea to challenge the war-mongers in the G20 conference by use of (very moderate) force. They ended up throwing a few projectiles and slightly damaging a few police cars.
The position of the Socialist Party at the time was to emphasise the immeasurable crimes of those behind closed doors in the G20 meeting, but also plainly state that such protest tactics do nothing to build a movement capable of social change. In fact, more often than not they have the opposite effect.
Alternatively, Mick Armstrong wrote a scathing attack on the small minority of protesters engaged in these methods.
Far from defending those who “take to the streets against the police”, he denounced them as “crazies” using “ultra-violence”, whose alleged nationalities needed to be made public in order to identify and “isolate them”.
Sounding more like a Tory politician than a socialist, Armstrong has since made an about face in regards to rioting. Hostility and resentment have been replaced with an equally moralistic uncritical celebration. In typical fashion, the initial statements made by Armstrong about the G20 ‘riot’ cannot be found on Socialist Alternative’s website.
There are some clear differences between the UK riots and the G20 ‘riot’. One represented mass anger, the other a minority guerilla-esque outburst. One a spontaneous reaction to social alienation, the other a conscious political tactic.
But what they both represent is an expression of desperation and anger. What they both show is a lack of confidence in ordinary people working together to effect change. What they both point to is the failure of the labour movement and the traditional workers’ parties to outline and demonstrate a way forward. In this sense, they both need to be addressed politically, not simply assigned moral approval or condemnation.
How should Marxists respond to riots?
It is the role of Marxists to fight for and point towards a socialist strategy of mass working class action, not tail end the actions of the most demoralised and cynical sections of society, whether they be a small group of protesters or large sections of disenfranchised youth.
Armstrong has also taken to re-writing history to justify his non-Marxist position, claiming that it was the March 1990 riot that defeated Margret Thatcher’s poll tax. In reality, what defeated the tax and spelled the end of the Thatcher Tory regime was the campaign of mass non-payment that involved 18 million people. It was the enormous success of the Militant (predecessor of the Socialist Party) in organising working class opposition on a mass scale that sent shivers down the spines of the ruling elite. It was this that was decisive, not the riot.
The purpose of Marxism is to give a guide to understanding and acting upon the social and economic conditions as they present themselves. It is the tools of Marxism with which popular dissatisfaction can be turned into glorious victories. A Marxist who simply tail-ends the movements of others in order to applaud or denounce them is not a Marxist at all.
If Mick Armstrong believes what he has argued to be correct, he must then speak out against the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky during the 1917 Russian Revolution. In the particularly crucial period of the July Days, the Marxist leaders were forced to argue for restraint from the most militant section of the Russian working class, the Petrograd workers, in their attempt at premature insurrection. It is this leadership and foresight, and thorough understanding of the class forces at play, that saw the Bolsheviks lead the Russian working class to victory at the opportune moment just a few months later.
Had Socialist Alternative been in Russia in July 1917, it seems they would have “fanned the flames” and encouraged the Petrograd Soviet to isolate itself from the rest of the Russian working class and peasantry, thus destabilising the revolution.
Siding with the working class
In one sense, the question “which side are you on?” can be answered simply: always the side of the working class. However, it takes more than a cursory glance to determine what this precisely means, especially in times when class consciousness is low and collective class action is a rare occurrence.
It would be utter nonsense to claim the British working class was on the side of the rioters. It would be petty-bourgeois delirium to suggest those workers who did not support the rioting were betraying their class interests.
On a side note: How condescending to congratulate the rioters for including women and people of ethnic diversity! It is as though Armstrong thinks less of the ability of women and ethnic minorities to engage seriously in the politics of aims, methods and tactics. What nonsense!
Unfortunately, Socialist Alternative has ascribed the rioting youth a political objective they did not have. The rioters were rebelling against society in general. The goal of the working class, whether conscious or not, is not to destroy human society but to command it in the interests of the majority of people. These are fundamentally different aspirations that require fundamentally different paths to success.
Mick Armstrong is correct in at least one of his remarks: “Riots will not go away.” We are entering an era in which social explosions are becoming the norm. These questions will certainly be posed again.
The lesson for the ruling class is that you can’t systematically exclude people from society then expect them to act as though they have a stake in it.
The lesson for socialists is that we need to convince workers and youth that they do have a stake in society; collectively we run the schools, the hospitals, the youth centres, the factories, the department stores. The problem is that we don’t own or control them. What we need is not to burn them down, but to take them over under collective ownership and democratic control in a socialist society run for the benefit of all.
Arguably the most absurd comment in Mick Armstrong’s article is that which states those who did not cheer on the riots will be sidelined in future working class struggle. The reality is that a mass working class political force will only be built on the basis of pointing a way out of the abyss of capitalism. It is those who mindlessly advocate its destruction who will find no echo amongst working people.
By Mel Gregson