E. Belfort Bax

Looting, Scientific and Unscientific

(March 1886)

Looting, Scientific and Unscientific, Commonweal, March 1886, pp.20 & 21.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

NOTHING Strikes the Bourgeois Mind with a keener sense of horror than the “lamentable” (as he calls it) destruction of property. Misery and starvation in times like the present, are part of the natural order of things, very unfortunate, very deplorable perhaps, but inevitable, and even useful as affording the well-to-do classes an opportunity of posing as the charitable benefactors of the distressed. Besides, is not the traditional founder of that religion which is often described as one of the bulwarks: of our “social order,” reported to have given utterance to the dictum, “the poor ye have always with you”? But the fracture of plate-glass windows, the destruction or alienation of respectable tradesmen’s stock, and in a wholesale manner too; no this verily is not in the bond which knits society together; this is entirely out of the nature of Bourgeois law and order and hence to be bewailed as a calamity.

We are told ad nauseam by the capitalist press that all destruction of “property” is “wanton” and cannot possibly benefit the distressed. It is necessary in the interests of truth to protest against this fallacy, wholesome as the doctrine may be for Bourgeois security. “Looting’’ whether right or wrong in itself, is not necessarily a senseless or wanton proceeding. It may conceivably be a significant protest against the Social organisation which has its roots in the capitalist mode of production, or it might even under certain circumstances relieve distress. Every one, of course, will admit that the mere undoing of the labour of men’s hands by men seems a deplorable thing, and it would really be so in a rational state of society. But our society of today is not rational. It is made up of contradictions. Not the least of these is the fact that the main cause of trade depressions is over-production that is that want is produced by a glut if commodities. The working classes create during the period when trade is brisk more goods than are required for the market; they thereby forge their own chains, since a reaction ensues, with the result that millions are thrown out of work are deprived of the necessaries of life. And this notwithstanding that there are goods enough and to spare stored up, goods which their own labour has produced, only these must lie and rot since they cannot be disposed of at a profit. In proportion, then, as the warehouses and shops are emptied of their contents, it is obvious labour will be again in demand. Thus “looting” being one mode of relieving the overstocked market, might under certain circumstances, sensibly diminish the number of unemployed.

Again, where even it is not carried out on a sufficiently huge scale to affect the market, it might still have a meaning, as a demonstration or a protest against the monstrous system by which a surplus of goods can be a cause of want. But indiscriminate attacks deprive the action of much of this meaning. In the small capitalist, the extreme development of capitalistic production is not embodied. He is in a sense himself a victim. In him flesh and blood still cleave to capital. It is a the giant firm (or better still the joint stock company) that capitalism appears in its nakedest; most abstract, and consequently most brutal form. In the “big establishment” with its four or five hundred “hands” ruled over by a salaried manager, we have the type of modern commercial capitalism. An attack on such would have a meaning no, looting of small shops could ever possess. It is hardly necessary to remind readers of the Commonweal that in saying this we are merely pointing, out the conditions under which “looting” however undesirable, would at least not be open to the charge of being wanton or “insensate”. The time we believe is approaching when it will be the idealist’s, the enthusiast’s turn to have the clever man of business in derision that cunning, thrifty, practical man who is no dreamer – when he and his business habits, with their results, will be engulphed by the vast proletarian wave that will shatter the system his “business” is bound up with, and finally cast him naked ashore in a world which knows him not but values him as only the meanest of the sons of men.

“We who once were fools and dreamers,
Then shall we be brave and wise.”

But the time is not yet. Bloodshed and massacre are too high a price to pay even for such a protest as the sacking of one of our great retail houses.

As to the riots of February 8th, though judged by the above standard there is much in them we cannot approve, we are bound to regard them on the whole as productive of good. The price paid happened by a chance combination of circumstances, not to be too high. As against this must be set the promiscuity of the attack and above all the assaults and robbery of private individuals. This 1attcr we may reasonably attribute to the percentage of mere ruffians and thieves which such a concourse is bound to contain. An individual as such is representative of nothing bur his concrete personality. The fact that he happens to belong to the privileged classes is not his fault. The property he carries about him is merely there for his personal use. A shop, on the contrary, is representative of the system, is a portion of the capitalist market. Although we repudiate to the utmost any sympathy with assaults on private persons, we nevertheless distinctly dissent from the shoddy chivalry adopted by some of our friends in the park. Surely it is time for Socialists to have done with this nonsense. A man assaulted by a dozen able bodied fellows is, generally speaking, in quite as bad a case as a woman under similar circumstances. The action is not one whit more cowardly in the one case than in the other. Indeed the incident of the lady and her brougham in the park, since no personal injury was done, may be more condoned than some other incidents of the same kind, as showing a certain sense of humour not altogether ungenial.

We can of course quite sympathise with the feelings of the quiet respectable West-End tradesman, accustomed to read in his paper of the gallant actions of men whom his Government have employed for the purpose of storming and looting some Arab or Burmese village – we can quite sympathise with him, we say, when he finds his shop front. stormed and looted by men whom his Government haven’t employed for that or any other purpose, It is much more pleasant to see portrayed in the illustrated journals the “gallant action” of well disciplined British troops engaged in the massacre and looting of barbarians and their villages than to have a practical exemplification of the process at home during business hours at the bands of a vulgar London mob. Besides the “gallant action” is performed in the name of the capitalist’s right to trade, that most vital interest to the patriot; the exceedingly ungallant action of the mob nearer home is merely done in the name of that mob’s right to live – which is a very different thing, and one that has no connection with “British interests.”

Of the immediate good done by the riots not the least is the exposure of the abject cowardice of the English middle-classes en bloc. Such panic stricken scare, such a reign of terror as London displayed on the Wednesday was truly at sight for the gods. The, want of solidarity between the tradesman employer and his over worked shop assistant was also illustrated. The “hand” wisely abstained from risking his skin merely in defense of the wares by means of which he is exploited. Yet further, and looking only to the immediate gain of the unemployed, no honest man can deny that the events of February 8th have called attention to their condition in a manner no number of peaceful meetings could have done. Their immediate result was to extort from the President of the Local Government Board an extension of outdoor relief The capitalistic press hypocritically pretended concern lest the Bourgeois out of spite should close his purse to the appeal for aid. What are the facts? Are they not written in the figures of the Mansion House Fund before and after the eventful day? Verily the rattle of plate Mass windows speaks more eloquently to the capitalist heart than any sentimental appeal. No desire to relieve the destitute can approach in strength the desire to preserve one’s shop fronts. A sop must be thrown to Cerberus at all hazards, even though we damn him the while. To those who have none but harsh words for the February rioters we commend the statement of the Times’ leader writer, who declares that the absence of serious bloodshed and loss of life was solely due to the “forbearance, of the crowd,” there being no police on the spot. But what avails that with the Bourgeois world against “destruction of property?”

“They are coming up,” said the Regent street shopkeeper to the painter Vereschagen. The sooner the “respectable” middle class man recognises this inevitable truth in the full meaning which Vereschagen hinted at, say we, and prepares to make up his account with it, the better will it be for him and his.



Last updated on 26.3.2004