In October 2011 the Duisburg branch of the anarcho-syndicalist Freie ArbeiterInnen Union (FAU) invited a member of the International Bolshevik Tendency to speak to their group about the riots that erupted across Britain two months earlier. Our comrade prefaced his remarks by showing a short video clip from BBC News featuring black activist and writer Darcus Howe. The following is an edited version of the presentation translated from Bolschewik No.29.
The video you have just seen is typical of the way the British media covered the August riots. The journalist showed no interest in examining the underlying causes of the riots, but concentrated instead on dismissing them as having “no excuse,” and accusing Howe himself of being a rioter. Howe, meanwhile, expressed an opinion that is fairly widespread in the British left—the idea that the riots marked the beginning of a profoundly revolutionary movement, comparable to the dramatic upheavals in Egypt or Tunisia earlier in the year. But this is just wishful thinking.
The reasons for the riots are not particularly mysterious. They first broke out in Tottenham in northeast London, in response to the 4 August  shooting death of a young black man, Mark Duggan, after police stopped the cab he was riding in. After the killing, the police refused to talk to Duggan’s family or offer them any explanation of what happened, choosing instead to go straight to the media with what turned out to be a pack of lies. Initially, their story was that Duggan had fired first at one of the policemen, and his colleagues had simply shot back. This story fell apart when it was revealed that the bullet that hit the cop had been fired by a police-issued weapon. It is hard to be sure exactly what happened, but it appears that Duggan was lying on the ground when he was shot—or rather executed. Two days after Duggan’s murder, rioting broke out when police attacked a 16-year-old girl with a baton during a vigil being held by his friends and family.
There has been a lot of anger slowly accumulating in Britain over the years. In the video, Darcus Howe mentioned one important factor—the “Stop and Search” program that permits the police to detain anyone on the grounds of suspicion of intent to carry out criminal activity, a power that is of course used by racist cops mainly against blacks and Asians. The 21 October 2010 Daily Mirror reported a London School of Economics study which revealed that blacks are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than whites. A stop and search incident touched off riots in Hackney in east London two days after the initial eruption in Tottenham.
Duggan’s murder generated such outrage partly because of the large number of people British police have killed with complete impunity in recent years—many of whom were blacks and immigrants. According to the Guardian (8 August 2011), at least 333 people have died in police custody in Britain since 1998 without a single charge being laid!
On 15 March 2011, the reggae artist Smiley Culture died mysteriously during a police raid on his flat in Warlingham, Surrey. The police, who claimed he was dealing cocaine, spent two hours in his house. According to the official version, in the midst of their raid, they permitted the suspect to go to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, and he instead took the opportunity to stab himself to death with a 20-inch knife. Anyone remotely familiar with police practice during raids on suspected drug dealers would naturally have difficulty believing this story. The Independent Police Complaints Commission, a supposedly neutral authority headed by a former police officer, admitted recently that there were indeed irregularities in the circumstances surrounding Smiley Culture’s demise, but concluded nonetheless that there was no need for further investigation.
In recent years there have been numerous cases where police have been caught brazenly lying about the circumstances in which they killed people. One of the most infamous was in July 2005, two weeks after the bombings on London transport, when police executed Brazilian immigrant Jean Charles de Menezes in the Stockwell tube station. His crime? He was a foreigner wearing a rucksack. Initially the police claimed that he had acted suspiciously by jumping the barriers and attempting to flee, but this turned out to be a complete invention.
In 2009, Ian Tomlinson was clubbed to death during protests at the G-20 summit in London. At first the cops claimed that Tomlinson had been injured by a hail of missiles thrown by leftist protesters, but a video made by an American tourist with his camera phone showed that this was just another lie, and that, in fact, Tomlinson had been bludgeoned by the police.
As the phone-tapping scandal around the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World (NOTW) broke, it came to light that police press officers had long been on the paper’s payroll. Earlier, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron had hired former NOTW editor Andy Coulson as his press officer after revelations surfaced of the role of the NOTW in hacking cellphones belonging to families of the victims of the 7 July 2005 bombings. This not only illustrates the intimate connections between the cops, the media and the professional politicians at the top of British capitalism, but also their casual disregard for “the rule of law,” i.e., bourgeois legality.
Of course there has been no shortage of other scandals in Britain. In 2009, we learned how members of parliament from all the major parties had been misappropriating public funds for various private purposes—some to enlarge their real estate portfolios, others to have the moats on their country homes cleared. Given the venality and cynicism that characterize Britain’s political establishment, it was a bit much to have to listen to the “right honourable members” across the narrow parliamentary spectrum (including the Labour ”lefts”) echoing Cameron’s denunciation of the riots as “acts of criminality pure and simple.”
The vast and genuinely anti-social criminality of the well-connected elites and their servants continues unabated. A recent example is the Con-Dem government’s bogus claim that in order to stave off economic collapse, it is necessary to pump billions of pounds into the banks—a policy known as “quantitative easing.” Of course it is all to be paid for by ordinary working people already on the hook for the 2008 bailouts (partial nationalizations) of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Northern Rock. The costs associated with covering the bankers’ bad bets are to be recouped through austerity measures targeting the working class and the poor. To add insult to injury, the bankers, including those who ran RBS and Northern Rock into the ground, have been rewarded with substantial bonuses, while various transnational corporations, such as the Boots pharmacy chain and the mobile phone company Vodafone, have been given huge tax exemptions.
The massive cuts in public-sector spending undertaken by the Tory-Liberal Democrat alliance were essentially approved in advance when Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Gordon Brown, promised that if Labour managed to get re-elected, “we will cut deeper than Margaret Thatcher.” The coalition is just getting started and eventually aims to cut between 25 and 40 percent of public-sector spending. The effects are already severe.
Many of the Tottenham youth subjected to regular stop and search harassment have been forced out onto the streets because funding for youth clubs was canceled. The Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which provided low-income teenagers with help paying for books and bus fares, has also been scrapped, making it impossible for many youth to continue their education. Schools are targeted for semi-privatization through the “free schools” and academies programs, childcare funding has been cut and the government is mooting plans for introducing “public-private partnerships” in the National Health Service.
The official number of unemployed has risen to more than 2.5 million, and one in three British children now lives in poverty. In London there are eight university graduates for every job opening, while tuition has shot up to as much as £9,000 per year. When thousands of students demonstrated in December 2010, riot police kettled them for hours in the freezing cold. Of course the more oppressed sections of the population—those victimized by racial or ethnic discrimination—are particularly hard hit and, as the primary users of many social services, working women are also under attack with cutbacks in childcare, advice centers, etc.
The bureaucrats of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) responded to the cuts by calling for a national demonstration months in advance and then sat back and did nothing. When it finally took place in March , more than 250,000 trade unionists and others took to the streets. Local anti-cuts groups have sprung up all over the country—with the active participation of most of the left, including the IBT.
The manifold symptoms of social decay in contemporary Britain provided the background to the riots, particularly the virulent and unrelenting police racism and corruption and the growing gap between a tiny layer of the super-rich and a significant stratum of the working-class population that has been completely devastated. In Britain, unlike in many other European countries, social housing estates sometimes sit close to affluent neighborhoods and the massive houses of the well-to-do. This proximity not only exacerbated the resentment of capitalism’s victims, but also intensified the anxiety and outrage at the rioting on the part of many of those who have, thus far, not been feeling a great deal of pain.
The rioters were poor, relatively young and ethnically diverse. The initial outbreak in Tottenham on Saturday, 6 August  had spread to several other areas of the city (Brixton, Walthamstow and Islington) by the following evening. At the height of the disorders on Monday night, south London’s Lewisham, Peckham, Clapham, Woolwich, Bromley and Croydon erupted, as well as Camden in north London, and Hackney, East Ham and Stratford in the east. There were also outbreaks in other cities, including Birmingham, Salford and Manchester.
In many places crowds of youths pelted police with whatever missiles they could lay their hands on. In Peckham, a small liquor store was set on fire, which forced the inhabitants of the apartments above to jump out of the windows to save themselves. Various things were looted from shops, including running shoes, diapers, alcohol, clothes and TVs. In Croydon, a whole block of buildings was burned down. In Ealing, in west London, a man was attacked and killed while trying to extinguish a fire in a bin. The media made much of a video showing an injured person being helped to his feet by a group of youths who then proceeded to steal the contents of his backpack.
Media reports focused on the mayhem while largely ignoring the poverty and systematic police racism that lay at its roots. Police complaints about “politically correct” restrictions on their activities were beyond cynical given their long record of wanton murder. There was some discussion of employing rubber bullets, which have been routinely used in Northern Ireland, but had previously been considered too brutal for the British mainland.
People who volunteered to help clean up in Clapham the day after the riots wore t-shirts with slogans like “Looters are scum.” The fascist English Defence League (EDL), seizing the chance to pose as vigilantes trying to prevent looting, gathered in the predominantly white suburb of Eltham in southeast London (where Stephen Lawrence was stabbed by racists 18 years ago), but were prevented by police from marching to nearby Lewisham (an area with a large black population).
The reflex racism of the British establishment was clearly exhibited by historian David Starkey’s depiction of the riots as an expression of black culture—pointing in particular to the Patois spoken by Caribbean immigrants and the lyrics in rebellious hip-hop music. Starkey counterposed this to the “eloquence” of Tottenham’s black MP, David Lammy, who has supposedly embraced the cultural values of the white upper crust. These racist stereotypes (which overlooked the fact that both Patois and Cockney feature in the speech of London youth of all ethnicities) were widely regarded as absurd.
The attitude of the ruling class was obvious in the draconian treatment meted out to supposed looters by the capitalist courts: a man received six months in jail for taking a few bottles of water from a shop in Brixton; a mother was jailed, although later released, for accepting a few clothes for her child; and many relatives of those convicted were threatened with eviction from social housing. The intent was clearly to intimidate the victims of the existing social order.
While the role of racist police repression in setting off the events was pointed out by many on the left, Ken Livingston, the Labour Party candidate for mayor of London, took a different approach and complained that government cuts depleted the repressive capacity of the cops. This repulsive toadying to the bosses’ thugs found an echo in an 8 August 2011 statement posted to the website of the supposedly “revolutionary” Socialist Party (the sister group to Germany’s Sozialistische Alternative Voran):
“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.
“Paul Deller from the Metropolitan Police Federation said: ‘Morale among the police officers dealing with this incident, and within the police service as a whole, is at its lowest level ever due to the constant attacks on them by the Home Secretary and the government in the form of the reviews into police pay and conditions.’”
Unlike the tame reformists of the Socialist Party [who consider cops to be “workers in uniform”], Marxists have always recognized that the police, prisons and armed forces represent the core of the repressive apparatus that maintains the entire system of social injustice that is capitalism.
The Socialist Workers Party (whose German co-thinkers publish the paper Marx21 inside the Left Party) took the symmetrically erroneous position, claiming that the riots themselves were “a deeply political act” through which working-class people were taking back what belonged to them. A similar argument is made by many anarchists who also tend to regard indiscriminate looting as an inherently revolutionary act. Marxists shed no tears for the missing property of the various corporate chains, which are presumably well-insured anyway, but the job of revolutionaries is not to promote looting as a solution to the inequities and exploitation of the capitalist system. Our task is to seek to organize and politically educate working people and the oppressed to understand that it is necessary to set about creating an organization—a mass revolutionary party—with the capacity to overturn the whole system. The working class needs to seize the entire means of production through socialist revolution—not to smash a few windows and grab whatever is on display.
We call for the immediate release of all those charged with looting—the real criminals are those who profit from a social system that condemns millions to abject poverty. Yet we are also opposed to indiscriminate violence against ordinary people—there was nothing revolutionary about running over those three men in Birmingham who were trying to defend local shops. The fact that many people expressed their justified anger by taking a plasma TV or a nice pair of running shoes is an expression of the alienation and depoliticization of large sections of the British working class.
This is hardly surprising, as the organized left and workers’ movement have been in retreat for decades. During the 1980s, the government of Margaret Thatcher passed the most reactionary anti-trade union legislation in Europe and destroyed significant sectors of British industry, laying the basis for the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985. The trade-union bureaucrats, who have passively submitted to one attack on workers’ rights after another, are currently active in opposing any and all proposals for serious strike action against the cuts. A year-and-a-half ago TUC head Brandon Barber announced that there would be no support for “destructive” strikes like those of the 1930s. These days, with anger growing in the ranks, Barber has begun striking a slightly more militant posture. But we can expect nothing but betrayals from him and the rest of the caste he represents. Their idea of “political action” is to continue to channel massive amounts of money to the Labour Party traitors, who, during the 13-year reign of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, retained the viciously anti-worker legislation pushed through by Thatcher. And there has been no change on that score—when Ed Miliband took over as Labour’s new leader last year, he made a point of denouncing “irresponsible strikes.”
A few decades ago Ralph Miliband, Ed’s father, aptly described British social democracy as an agency of the ruling class which, from its inception, was completely useless as an instrument for the socialist transformation of society. Yet much of Britain’s supposedly “revolutionary” left continues to pimp for Labour at election time, while simultaneously bemoaning the fact that it does little or nothing to advance the interests of working people. In power, Labour eagerly participated in the failed imperialist adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, while imposing its own austerity program at home. Today local Labour councilors routinely implement every cut decreed by the ConDem government. The only exception to this that I am aware of was Kingsley Abrams, a Lambeth Labour councilor, who was suspended from the party for daring to merely abstain on a vote to impose cuts in his London borough.
The seething anger that fueled the riots has not gone away, but to turn it into an effective force, it is necessary to give it an organized and consciously revolutionary expression. Now, I know that many in this room will disagree with me on this, but in my view, the only way this can be accomplished is through the creation of a disciplined combat organization—a revolutionary workers’ party—rooted in the trade unions and the oppressed communities. Such a party would seek to participate in the creation of multi-ethnic workers’ defense guards to protect local communities against the growing threat posed by the fascist EDL, as well as against routine police harassment. It would also struggle to utilize the enormous potential power of the trade unions to resist state violence and to beat back the rapacious assault on living standards that the capitalists and their lackeys in Labour are so determined to implement. A revolutionary party capable of organizing effective resistance to capitalist attacks can only be built on the foundation of a program that links the day-to-day struggles of ordinary working people to the strategic necessity to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a democratically-planned economy in which production is geared to meeting human need, rather than generating private profit. This is a very big job, but in my opinion, it is the only way forward.