Monday, 1 March 2010

Rioting and radicalism

Over in anarchist land they are getting excited about the forthcoming anniversary of the 'poll tax riot'. There's  talk of linking this with anniversaries this year of the Peasants' Revolt and the Gordon Riots in a celebration of radical protest. 

The imminent possibility of either a Tory government, or another New Labour one, with renewed commitment to shit on what is left of the welfare state and the infrastructure of our communities means that we might be looking at another summer of riots. So it will need to be said again:  riots are not revolutions. They might occur as part of a radicalizing process, they may be brief episodes of people taking back power, but above all  they are a letting of of frustration and anger - and often nothing more.

Just for the record, contrary to what is being said and will no doubt be triumphantly proclaimed, the 'poll tax riot' did not bring down Thatcher and end an unjust tax. That was the result of a massive campaign of civil disobedience in working class communities, assisted by lots of unglamorous and unspectacular work by activists in the anti-poll tax movement organising non-payment unions. This convinced a section of the ruling class that Thatcher had gone too far and led to a palace coup within their own ranks. Putting in the windows of Starbucks and MacDonalds did not achieve this - although I can fully accept that it may be more exciting than leafleting estates and attending court hearings.

And also for the record: I was there at Trafalgar Square and saw the riot unfold - I saw a brutal and completely disproportionate level of violence from the police. I saw ordinary people, who had come to protest the tax but weren't political activists, terrified at this. And I  saw some dickheads, who may or may not have been anarchists, reveling in it. I also witnessed two leading comrades from my own organisation shooting themselves in the foot on national Televison offering to co-operate with the police in identifying rioters. A huge mistake in playing into the hands, not just of the anarchists, but of the authorities who wanted to shift responsibility for the violence to the protesters. That I believe, twenty years on, is an accurate  and dispassionate view of the events. 

With the benefit of several centuries of hindsight we should also be able to do the same for the Peasants' Revolt and the Gordon Riots. The Peasants' Revolt is seen as the beginning of the English radical tradition. In many respects it is - John Bull and the Lollards were the fore-runners of the seventeenth century revolutionaries who first expressed their radicalism in the form of religious freedom. The social basis for the movement  was the peasantry and urban artisan class whose economic position had been strengthen by a labour shortage resulting from the Black Death and who now faced a counter-attack in living conditions. But ultimately  there was no triumph for the masses, they ended up  as pawns in a power struggle between the king and a rival junta of nobles.

Far less deserving of celebration are The Gordon Riots - several days of  attacks on  Catholic properties and communities in London - including areas of  Irish immigrants - orchestrated by Lord George Gordon and his Protestant Association. The social basis was the impoverished  London working class, a layer of radicals sympathetic to the American revolution, and others critical of the government's failure to defeat  the same revolution. A confused mixture of populism and reaction, fueled by sectarianism and cheap gin, if anything the rioters could be seen as the forerunners of the foot-soldiers of the EDL - reflecting political dispossession rather than actually articulating anything radical.

If we want to celebrate early moments of mass protest then I would suggest that we would do better to look at the Putney Debates of  1649 or  the Chartist rallies of the 1840s'. Doubtless even at that time there were probably a few people standing at the back complaining about all the bloody pamphleteers (read 'paper-sellers' nowadays) wasting time intellectualizing when they could have been 'reclaiming the streets' by trashing the tavern or coffe-shop just down the road...

No comments: