Chris Harman


From riot to revolution

(May 1981)

From Socialist Review, 1981 : 5, 16 May–14 June 1981, p. 11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

But how do we move from riot to revolution? Bristol left very little in the way of continuing organisation in St Paul’s. What guarantee is there that things will be very different after Brixton? Chris Harman looks at some of the problems to be faced in drawing the political and organisational lessons.

Britain has two images in 1981. One is the politics of irrelevance. In its most absurd form it involves the surge of support in the opinion polls for the Social Democrats, the soap suds party launched with an expensive media operation but having no policies but a regurgitation of the slogans of the Macmillan era of 25 years ago. But it is also to be found on the left. Over the last week we’ve seen sane socialists forgetting everything the experience of the Wilson and Callaghan governments should have taught them, believing that the second coming can be brought about by a reborn municipal socialism and lower bus fares. Those who used to storm through the streets chanting Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh now tell us that the only important issue to be argued out in unions whose members face soaring redundancies and six per cent wage limits is which former senior cabinet minister is to be deputy leader of the Labour party.

Apathy to anger

The other image is of the brick and the petrol bomb, the police boot and the baton charge, the bodies clubbed down into the gutter and the screams of defiance, the explosion of St Paul’s in Bristol a year ago and Brixton in London a month ago, echoed in Finsbury Park and Wanstead and Ealing and who knows where next.

Police profile

Both images convey something very real about Britain today. The politics of irrelevance follow from the way in which the majority of workers still don’t know how to respond to the crisis and the government. As factory after factory has closed, as the isolated outposts of resistance have remained isolated, as even the memory of the odd victories (the docks, the mines, the firemen) is drowned in the redundancies rational responses are replaced by blind hope.

Yet Brixton shows a deeper reality. Those without hope are capable suddenly, virtually out of nowhere, of shifting from apathy to anger. And that anger can break through all the restraints that education within capitalist society is supposed to build into people’s consciousness. The local streets suddenly take on the aspect of a revolutionary battleground, with barricades and burning cars and instant solidarity against the state.

However, if the riot shows, momentarily, the face of real revolution, the riot is not the same as the revolution. The power of the rioters lies in their ability to drive the police from the streets and to burn down symbols of oppression. But the streets they briefly control are streets of poverty. They burn down parts of the old society but do not have the means to build a new one. For those means lie elsewhere, in the productive core of society, the factories and mines and docks.

That is where a riot differs from a strike. It can be much more revolutionary in its slogans. But it leaves behind much less in the way of continuing, organised opposition to the status quo.

A strike takes place at the very centre of capitalist society, where value is created and surplus valuers extracted. It shows workers that they have the power, if only they act collectively, to begin to control these processes in their own interests. A riot shows people they can fight together, it, teaches some of them that they need to challenge society in its entirety – but it does not provide them with the organisational means, the power, to achieve these goals.

This problem is exacerbated by another one. A community is not a class, even;if most of its members might belong to the working class. Also to be found in it are the shop keepers, the lumpen proletarians, the petty gangsters, the upwardly mobile – and those who hope to make a comfortable living as the professional mediators between the community and the wider capitalist society. The moment the riot is over these go their separate ways, each proclaiming its particular aims as the aim of the community as a whole.

That is why a succession of ghetto uprisings could sweep the US between 1964 and 1968 – and, at the end, leave the black communities hardly any better organised than before, with former radical black nationalists treading the path of black capitalism and black capitalist politics.

The road from riot to revolution requires a detour that leads through the factories.

The detour is not impossible to make. An important section of the rioters may have been unemployed. But the majority were almost certainly workers. After all, despite the very high levels of black unemployment the great majority of black people in Britain – and even the majority of black youth – have jobs. The biggest single concentration of black people in London is not to be found in Brixton, but in the Ford factory at Dagenham. And the white youth who joined in likewise have fathers and sisters and friends on assembly lines and behind office typewriters.

At the moment conditions may not be quite right for the wholesale transformation of apathy into anger in the factories. But all past experience indicates that the moment there is the slightest upturn in the economy, this can be magnified into a much greater rise in the level of class struggle. We could find ourselves faced with dozens of industrial Brixtons.

Shift the ground

To make the transition from riot to revolution, you not. only have to shift the ground of battle. You also have to make a political shift. The politics of the community is no good in the factory – whether you are talking of the hardline black nationalism that can so easily get a resonance among those who face daily racial harassment, or the half-baked municipal socialism that goes begging to the government for more funds.

What is needed is thorough going revolutionary socialist politics, a stress that the factories as well as the streets have to be seized, that does not tell black people to abandon their grievances while white workers have a change of heart, but which does insist that to be effective, vanguard street fighters have to learn to talk to and lead and organise older workers as well as the youth, white workers as well as black.

The urgent task is to build organisation based on such politics, before further explosions take place. Brixton revealed – as Micky noted in the interview above – that everyone with politics is an outsider as far as the most radical youth in Brixton are concerned, whether that politics is socialist or separatist. No-one has won their confidence and been able to articulate their anger into a wider view of how to transform society. Yet unless that is done, their anger can all too easily sink back into apathy.

The key here is making contact with those individuals who are beginning to see the need for some wider perspective. That is why we in the SWP put such a stress on the regular sale of our weekly paper, Socialist Worker in a period like the present. If we can sell it to those looking for an alternative in the communities and in the factories, we make the connection between the two. We can channel the anger of Bristol and Brixton in the direction where it is most likely to be effective. We can unite those, black and white, who want to struggle. We can destroy the politics of irrelevance with the politics of revolt.

Last updated on 21 September 2019