Chris Harman


The Summer of 1981:
a post-riot analysis

(Autumn 1981)

From International Socialism 2:14, Autumn 1981, pp. 1–43.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The most violent and extensive disturbances on Britain’s streets since the war. That was the press’s verdict on the week of July 3rd-11th. And for once the press was right. The barricade, the overturned police van, the milk floats driven at police lines, the burnt out cars and pubs and the looted hi-fi shops – all were something new on the streets of Britain. Above all, the novelty was symbolised in the cascades of petrol bombs. The weapon of Budapest ’56 and Watts ’65, of Paris ’68 and Derry ’69 was now the weapon of Brixton and Southall, of Toxteth and Moss Side.

The sequence of riots began before 3 July – 14 months earlier, to be precise, in the St Paul area of Bristol. Police raided a black cafe and attempted to make an arrest. A crowd gathered and soon the police were retreating from the area under a hail of broken bricks. For several hours they did not dare return: shops were looted at will and buildings were burnt down.

Bristol was the shape of things to come. Nevertheless, 12 months elapsed before the next great riot, in Brixton, on 10-12 April. The scale of the disturbances was even greater than in Bristol. Petrol bombs were used on a wide scale, a bus was hijacked and driven at the police, dozens of cars were burnt out and a number of pubs burnt down, scores of shops were looted. It required thousands of police to ‘restore order’.

In the wake of Brixton there were a number of minor disturbances, especially with crowds of youths attending fun fairs in the London area (Finsbury Park, Wanstead, Ealing, Peckham), fighting the police and in Sheffield a demonstration of skinheads against police violence ending with a rampage through the streets to chants of ‘Brixton, Brixton’. But it was only on 3-4 July that anything on the scale of Bristol or Brixton took place.

On that Friday a group of Nazi-inspired skinheads got off a coach in Southall to go to a gig at a pub called the Hambrough. On the way they stormed into an Asian shop and beat up a woman. Crowds of Asians soon began to gather to take over the street in the area of the pub. Police arrived to protect the skinheads, and later the Asians barricaded the road, and threw bricks and petrol bombs at the police. The battle raged for a couple of hours, with the police eventually evacuating the pub. But they were not able to prevent the Asian youth breaking through their lines and burning it to the ground. A week of rioting had begun which was to involve full-blooded riots in a number of major inner city areas, to less serious disturbances in dozens of places and to panic boarding up of shops in wide areas of many cities.

The biggest confrontation was in Toxteth, Liverpool. It began with a relatively small disturbance the same night as Southall (3 July): the police tried to arrest a black youth who, they claimed (wrongly) had stolen the motor bike he was riding; a crowd rescued him, but another black, whose family had been subject to a campaign of police harassment, was seized. The next evening rioting erupted on a huge scale. Barricades were built with overturned cars and a builders’ compressor; scores of petrol bombs were thrown at the police; rioters donned Ulster-style masks to avoid identification.

The police could not cope. The press reported, ‘the police produced a show of force sufficient to enrage the black population, but not enough to quell the riots’. The streets were barricaded again the next night. ‘By then as many whites as blacks had joined the rioting’. [1]

The rioters seized a fleet of milk floats and a concrete mixer to drive at the police lines, forcing the 800-strong force to retreat. Several buildings were burnt down, including the National Westminster Bank and the businessmen’s club, the Racquets. With the area clear of police, ‘there was an assumption that anyone who was not police would help themselves’ in the wholesale looting of shops. [2] Reports told of middle aged women, white and black, queuing with shopping trolleys to loot supermarkets. Of the rioters, ‘fewer than 40% were black’. [3] The deputy chief constable, Peter Wright, made it clear that ‘at the savage climax of the trouble, the rioters were mostly white.’ There were smaller, ‘imitation’ disturbances in white areas like Kirkby, Scotland Road, Walton, Woodchurch and Birkenhead.

The rioting began to die down the next night. By calling in the police from as far afield as Manchester, the authorities were able to regain control of the Toxteth area. That night the rioting tended to be in the white areas on the edge of Liverpool 8, away from the storm centre of the Saturday and Sunday night. [4]

No doubt the police chiefs heaved a sigh of relief on Tuesday evening. Their immediate troubles seemed to be over. But not for long. About 3 a.m. on Wednesday a brick was thrown through the window of a clothes shop in Moss Side, Manchester. Apparently some police had shouted insults at a group of youth, mainly black, who were leaving a club. [5] The youths responded by breaking windows and setting fire to shops, while holding the police at bay with petrol bombs. There were about seven arrests that night.

As in Toxteth this initial disturbance was quite minor. But again as in Toxteth, the arrest fuelled further unrest. Throughout that Wednesday groups began to gather on street corners, wondering what was going to happen. The groups coalesced into a 1500 strong crowd of black and white youths who attacked the police station that evening, shattering its windows and trying to break in. Failing to do so, they turned their attention to burning out and looting shops. [6] Hundreds of black and white youths were involved in building barricades and throwing petrol bombs. Yet in the lulls between fighting, there was a carnival atmosphere. There were only 47 arrests during the savage rioting of Wednesday.

Thursday night the police took their revenge. ‘Police swamped the Moss Side area. Vans swept about carrying teams of the Tactical Action Group (Manchester SPG) ... police swooped on any potential gathering of people, white or black – and made any necessary arrests’. [7] There were three times as many arrests on this night of very low level rioting as on the previous two nights combined. Virtually anyone who was foolish enough to be seen on the streets of the area could be picked up. The savagery of the police provoked bitter complaints from all sections of the local population. But it also succeeded in stopping the disturbances.

After Moss Side came what the press referred to disparagingly as ‘copycat riots’. This was meant to downgrade what was happening. But several of these disturbances were on a sizeable scale. In Handsworth (Birmingham) ‘black and white youth, mostly Asian’ stoned the police, and when they had been driven from the area looted and attacked the police station and the British Legion club. [8] There were 329 arrests. In a ‘repeat’ riot in Southall, people expected a return of the Nazi skinheads after police had told shopkeepers in nearby Hounslow to board up the windows and 600 youths – ‘60% Asian, but some whites and West Indians’ – marched up the road, confronted a police cordon and then broke windows, threw petrol bombs, set fire to parked cars, built two barricades and looted Woolworths; ‘the riot was as militant as the first riot, but less angry’ [9]. In Chapeltown (Leeds) ‘the police weren’t strong enough to cope’ after ‘all types of youth, black and white’, responded to racist attacks and a police raid on a black club by ‘stoning, throwing petrol bombs, burning cars, setting fire to police vans’. [10] In Bolton, ‘300-400 Asians and anti-racists hijacked a milk float and attacked police with bricks, bottles, stones, driving the police 200 yards back ... The police got a hammering ...’ [11] In Luton, ‘Black and white youth began by attacking racists, and then moved on to attack the police and the Tory Party HQ’, throwing stones and petrol bombs, breaking windows and looting shops; there were 102 arrests. [12]

In Leicester, even though police from four counties had assembled close to the Highfields area during the Saturday that evening ‘300 to 500 people in their early twenties, West Indian and white mixed, with a few Asians, kept them out of the area using petrol bombs and burning barricades’; the fighting continued for two more evenings, with ‘people in the flats joining the rioting, leaving their doors open so that people could escape from the police’. [13] In Nottingham rioting developed on both the Friday, in response to a huge build up of police presence, and on the Saturday night after racists from outside the town had attacked blacks under the cover of the riots; the fighting began as a confrontation with the police using stones and petrol bombs, with shop windows only being broken ‘accidentally’ – but looting developed later; the rioters were ‘always of mixed races, ages, employed and unemployed’. [14] In Brixton, the arrest of a well-known figure in the black community led to a night of fighting, but the police were prepared for it and it was not on the same scale as the first riot in April.

The other ‘copycat’ riots were generally at a much lower level. For instance, they did not generally involve the use of petrol bombs (although there are reports from Hackney in East London of ‘failed petrol bombs’, [15] from Hull of petrol bombs ‘being made, but not used’ [16], from High Wycombe of a petrol bomb ‘landing on a police car but failing to go off, and even from the Cotswolds town of Cirencester of ‘young kids’ throwing two petrol bombs [17]). But they were much more than normal Friday night punch ups. So there were incidents of fights with the police and looting in Wood Green (London), Southampton, Halifax, Bedford, Gloucester, Hull (where a Friday night battle between skins and bikers turned into a united 150 strong battle against the police) [18], Walthamstow (where the banning of a funeral demonstration for victims of a racist murder led to hundreds of youth, ‘mainly Asian, but black and white as well’ [19] attacking racists, the police and property, but not looting), Sheffield, Coventry, Portsmouth, Bristol, Edinburgh and dozens of other places.

The next wave of ‘copycat’ riots swept the country on the weekend of 10-12 July. Yet by the 14th the riots everywhere were over. Now all that were to take place were a scattering of one-night disturbances – after police harassment in Brixton and Toxteth (where a police van killed a white youth), in Edinburgh, in Sheffield, in Reading.

The incidents which ignited the disturbances varied enormously from place to place. In Toxteth and the second Brixton riot, the key flashpoint came with police harassment. In some cases – Southall, Luton, Leeds, Bolton, Reading – the catalyst was racial attacks, although usually involving no more than a handful of racists (there is no evidence that the Nazis were able to mobilise any numbers of white youths once the rioting had started). In some cases the eruptions were ‘spontaneous’ – youth on the streets just started looting and that was it.

Finally, there were a whole series of disturbances provoked by rumours that something was going to happen, rumours often encouraged by the police themselves. This seems to have been what happened in Woolwich, South East London, on the Thursday (9 July) when police went round telling shopkeepers to board up their shop windows because of skinheads who were supposed to be about to attack an ANL meeting in the Sikh temple that evening: the result was a concentration of 250 blacks and 50 white youth on the streets, prepared to take on the skinheads, and when they did not materialise, breaking windows and looting. [20]

The pattern was repeated in one form or another the next day, Friday 10 July. In Handsworth the police told shops to board up and the schools to go home early; when the ‘community police’ went to reassure groups of black and white kids who were gathering that no skinheads were expected, the youth turned on them and started stoning them. [21] In Southall, the second riot followed rumours of a renewed skinhead invasion. [22] In dozens of other areas, the rumour was simply that something was going to happen, and people gathered in expectation.

The rumours that swept the cities on that weekend were slightly reminiscent of the ‘great fear’ in rural France at the beginning of the revolution in 1789: those with property believed that marauding mobs were about to descend on them, signalled their fear by taking precautions (boarding up shops, closing school, concentrating police on the streets), and in so doing created an atmosphere in which youth congregated on the streets, ready to join in any bother.

The police in many areas seem to have positively encouraged and welcomed this panic, to the point in some cases of provoking riots where they would not otherwise have occurred. In Dalston, East London, for example, a heavy concentration of police on street corners was bound to provoke trouble, and the police must have known it. Their reasoning seems to have been that trouble was possible anyway, and the best thing was to provoke it prematurely so as to nip it in the bud. The result was that the overwhelming majority of arrests took place that weekend, and took place generally in areas where the disturbances were less extensive. Looking at these figures, Socialist Worker showed that the greater the number of police injuries, the fewer were the arrests. [23]

Comparisons: the British experience

Riots may have been scarce in post-war Britain, but they are by no means something completely new. Crowds clashing on the streets with the forces of law, arming themselves in some way or other, smashing windows, looting shops, burning down buildings, besieging police stations – these are all very old features of urban life. They were among the forms of popular protest that pre-dated industrial capitalism proper. With the development of forms of struggle based on the strength workers can exercise at the point of production – with strikes and unions – the role of the riot tends to diminish. But it can re-emerge in two instances – when strike action alone no longer seems enough to win workers’ demands, or when sections of workers lose their faith in the ability of the organisations based upon industrial action to achieve their goals.

An example of the first was what happened in Britain in the years 1910-12. Union organisation outside a few areas of skilled work was weak or non-existent; real wages were declining and working conditions were deteriorating. A series of great strikes broke out, often unofficially, and usually in circumstances where it was clear that the employers would be able to hold out against merely peaceful forms of action. So, for instance, violent scenes marked the South Wales coal strike of 1910. At Tonypandy in November: ‘strikers, beaten back from the colliery by the police, expressed their bitterness and frustration by looting shops in the main square of the village. Further clashes with the police took place such that by the early hours of the following morning, one striker was dead and many strikers and policemen injured ...’ [24]

A few months later, it was the turn of the railway and the transport strikers in Liverpool to take to the streets: ‘The Liverpool strike reached its climax in the week or so following 13 August’. [25] The police and the military violently dispersed a demonstration of workers, leading to ‘injuries among the demonstrators and many arrests’. [26] ‘Street fighting was particularly intense as the working class communities of the North End of Liverpool fought to prevent an encroachment of civil and military into their territory in pursuit of demonstrators’. The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury reported that ‘residents in many instances took sides with the rioters against the police, throwing bottles, bricks and stones from houses and from roofs. The whole area was for a time in a state of siege. We hear of bedding being set alight to make the road impassable to mounted police.’ [27] What The Times called ‘guerrilla warfare’ continued for days, with crowds erecting ‘barbed wire entanglements’ and barricades. It reached a climax on 15 August when two strikers were shot dead by troops during an attack on a prison van carrying rioters to Walton jail. [28]

However, the most interesting comparisons from our point of view are with two different periods of riot, in both of which workers were faced with high levels of unemployment without industrial based organisation being able to offer them any way forward. These were during the long-drawn out economic slump of the 1880s – known to economists of the time as ‘the great depression’ – and during the great slump of the early 1930s. In the first case, the unions were by and large confined to a small skilled minority of the class and were, in any case, too weak to deal with the effects of the slump. In the second, the defeat of 1926 had left the majority of the workers without any faith in the efficacy of militant union action (union membership fell 50% in the years after the General Strike and almost all unions swung sharply to the right).

Let us look at each experience in turn.

‘The economic depression which began in 1875 reached its lowest depth in 1886. The number of unemployed had greatly increased; discontent spread in an ever-deepening circle ... In addition, the disruption of the Liberal Party consequent upon Mr Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill (promising limited self-rule to the whole of Ireland) deepened the general unrest. It was therefore a very easy matter to arrange large demonstrations in London. In the provinces also, in Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester and elsewhere unemployed processions were organised ...’ [29]

Socialist organisations had only been in existence in Britain for a couple of years, and the two groups – the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League – were both fairly small. Yet the socialists were able to organise unemployment agitation with apparent ease. At first they faced competition from a Tory outfit campaigning for protectionism (the Fair Trade League – at that time no avowed socialist dreamt of demanding import controls!) But when on 8 February the League called a demonstration of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square, the SDF was able to put up rival speakers and pull most of the crowd around it. Led by a red flag the socialists began a march towards Hyde Park followed by unemployed dock and building workers. As the unemployed went past the rich men’s clubs in Pall Mall and were taunted by their clients, their anger broke loose.

‘The march turned into a riot, all forms of property were assailed, all signs of wealth and privilege were attacked. In St James’ Street all the club windows down one side of the street were broken and in Piccadilly looting began ... In Hyde Park ... the crowd ... overturned carriages and divested their wealthy occupants of their money and jewelry. They then moved on to South Audley Street, looting every shop along their route ... The progress of the crowd had been virtually unhampered since a misheard order had dispatched the police to guard Buckingham Palace and the Mall ...’ [30]

There is some contention to how serious the riot really was. Both Friedrich Engels and Eleanor Marx thought it was rather a minor event. [31] But it caused immediate panic in the propertied classes. The next day police went round warning shopkeepers to expect another attack. On 10th February, London was hit by the same ‘great fear’ it was to witness again in July 1981. ‘The rumour spread that 10,000 men were on the march from Deptford to London, destroying as they came the property of small traders ...’ All over South London ‘the shops closed and people stood at their doors straining their eyes through the fog for the sound of the 10,000 men ...’ By mid-afternoon, ‘the terror was so general that board schools were literally besieged by anxious parents eager to take their children home under their protection’. In Whitehall a mob was said to be marching down the Commercial Road; at Bethnal Green the mob was said to be in Green Street; in Camden Town there was a rumour that the mob would go from Kentish Town to the West. In the City and the West End all approaches were guarded. Banks and private firms closed down. Shops were shuttered and fortified ...’

‘But just as those with property were prepared to defend it, so those without prepared to join the revolutionary hoard. A crowd began to assemble at the Elephant and Castle in expectation of joining the mob from Deptford. By 4.30 p.m. the crowd had grown to 5,000 and was beginning to make assaults on local shops ... Again, a crowd of around 2,000 assembled in Deptford High Street to await the arrival of the mob ...’ [32]

The scare came to nothing. But the response of the unemployed to it, showed how easily they could be drawn into riots. There were riots in Leicester from 11-16 February and in London. Unemployed demonstrations in Trafalgar Square – often leading to clashes with the police – continued to be a regular event. In the late summer of the next year, the fears of the middle classes were again aroused. The unemployed took to sleeping out in Trafalgar Square and St James’ Park, and the SDF again began organising the unemployed in the Square under the slogan ‘not charity but work’. The police began clearing the Square using force, so that minor clashes between the police and the unemployed became a daily event. Finally, all meetings in it were banned.

A large protest movement developed, involving not only the small socialist organisations, but the working class radical clubs of London that were aligned with the Liberal Party and the Irish nationalist organisations protesting at the imprisonment of an MP. They came together to defy the ban on demonstrations in the Square on 13 November 1887 – a day that has become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

Contingents of the unemployed, the socialists, the radicals, and the Irish formed in different parts of London to march to the centre; four thousand police were assembled in the Charing Cross Road, Strand and Parliament Square areas to bar their path, while 650 troops with fixed bayonets defended Trafalgar Square itself.

Fighting broke out as the different columns came up against the police lines. Thus ‘columns from Peckham, Battersea and Deptford, some 8,000 in all, met and crossed Westminster Bridge, the foremost linking arms, they rushed Parliament Square, using pokers, lengths of gas pipe, iron bars and oyster knives to defend themselves against the horse and foot police who laid about them with staves and truncheons ...’ [33]

A week later, when a much smaller group of the unemployed once again defied the ban on assembling in Trafalgar Square, a spectator, Alfred Linnel, was run down by a police horse and killed. His funeral was the occasion for a huge 120,000 strong procession.

But this was the final throw of the street agitation of these years. ‘Trade improved, the opportunities for work were plentiful, and the unemployed agitation lost its hold on the masses’. [34] A new stage of capitalist expansion – what Marxists were later to call ‘imperialism’ – provided a way out of the Great Depression and for more than two decades the conditions of 1886-7 were forgotten.

Chronic depression returned however in the interwar years, and with it continuous high levels of unemployment. The jobless total never fell below 10% between 1920 and 1939. And in the winter of 1931-2, just after the National Government had cut the dole by ten per cent and imposed a harsh means test that deprived many families even of this, one person in five was unemployed. In the so-called ‘depressed areas’ the figure was much higher – in Eastern South Wales it was 44.5%, in Bishop Auckland 50.4%, in Jarrow 56.8%.

Unemployed demonstrations gave rise to clashes with the police in one part of the country after another. Thus in October 1931, 50,000 Glasgow unemployed defied a police ban on their demonstration and tore up iron railings to use as weapons in their self defence: ‘The battle extended throughout the centre of the city. For hours it raged, shop windows were broken and extensive damage was done’. [35] There was fighting between unemployed and the police in the same week in London and Manchester, and the week after in Port Glasgow, Blackburn, Cardiff, and again in London, where ‘fighting spread from Westminster into Lambeth and Southwark districts and continued to past midnight with many casualties on either side.’ [36] In November, to stop the repeated clashes between the unemployed and the police outside London labour exchanges, Lord Trenchard, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police banned unemployed meetings in the vicinity of the exchanges. But further clashes took place in December in London, Wallsend, Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow and Kircaldy. However the largest riots were not until September 1932. They broke on Merseyside where 34% of adult men were unemployed.

‘In the last two weeks of September 1932, Birkenhead and Liverpool were in a state of near insurrection. Demonstrations, battles with the police and looting of shops went on in Birkenhead for four days from 15 September’. A five thousand strong demonstration ‘fought police with stones and spikes from iron railings were thrown at the police’s legs’; the police station was besieged; trip wires were stretched across the street and the covers removed so that the police would fall down manholes. Eventually the police pushed the crowd back into a tenement building. According to one participant: ‘The police came in and went berserk. They battered down doors. People got dragged out of their beds, women and children, and got beaten up. The inhabitants responded by throwing furniture down the stairs at the cops, who finally got their revenge when truncheon blows made one demonstrator fall from a window sill to his death.’ [37]

A week later there were similar riots in Liverpool. [38]

Against such a background the entry of a National Unemployed Workers Movement hunger march into London on 27 October was almost bound to produce violent confrontations: ‘The workers kept the police back at the meetings (in Hyde Park); several times mounted police charged forward, only to be repulsed by thousands of workers who tore up railings and used them as weapons and barricades for the protection of their meetings. Many mounted policemen were dragged from their horses ...’ [39]

There are obvious analogies between what happened in the worst years of the last two great periods of crisis, in 1886-7 and 1931-2, and what has been happening this time round as unemployment has surged to the highest level for more than 40 years. On both previous occasions, as the economic crisis drove people to desperation and peaceful ‘trade union methods’ seemed useless those who had been previously ‘law abiding’ hit out at the symbols of their oppression. This time round the trade union movement is immensely stronger than it was on those two occasions, but it has failed utterly to deal with the impact of the recession and the level of industrial struggle has fallen to its lowest since 1942. The biggest strikes have ended in defeats or near defeats, and 99% of closures have gone through with no resistance. The inability of workplace organisation to cope has led sections of the class to revert, as in 1886-7 and 1931-2, to forms of street confrontation that are more normally to be found before trade unionism developed, in the early period of industrial capitalism.

Yet there are also clear differences with the two previous periods. Those were struggles which, despite a powerful spontaneous element, were focussed around political demands (for relief measures in the 1880s, against the means test in 1931-2) and inside them political organisations (the SDF, the CP) played a key agitational role. In 1981 there have been no simple political goals, and political agitation within the riots has been more or more or less non-existent.

At the same time, the major riots have been confined to one kind of working class area only – the so-called inner city areas – and an important factor in igniting the riots has been the response of young black people to police harassment and/or racial attacks.

These factors suggest a different analogy to 1886-7 or 1931-2 – the ghetto uprisings of the US in the mid-sixties.

Comparisons: the US experience

Between 1964 and 1968 literally hundreds of riots shook the US cities. They originated from a variety of triggering factors and they varied enormously in intensity, from small scale fights between groups of youths and the police to the armed defence of areas which could only be ended by the deployment of the national guard or (in the case of the Detroit riot of 1967) the federal armed forces complete with tanks. Yet they did all have one thing in common: they were all revolts of the black population of the inner city areas, involving what the official government sponsored report of the 1967 riots described as the ‘symbols of white American society authority and property in the Negro neighbourhoods’. [40] And, although only a minority of the ghetto population were actively involved in the fighting, they enjoyed passive support from very large numbers of people; in Watts (1965) 22,000 people or 15% of the population were ‘actively’ involved in the riots and another 51,000 or 35-40% were ‘active spectators’ [41]; in Detroit (1967) 11% of people admitted to active participation and 20-25% classified themselves as ‘bystanders’ [42]; in the Newark riots of the same year, 45% of blacks aged 15-35 living in the riot areas described themselves as ‘rioters’. [43]

Typically, the riots began with incidents of police harassment – the shooting of a 15 year old boy in Harlem 1964, a rumour that police had beaten up a black cab driver in Newark 1967; a police raid on a drinking club in Detroit 1967. But the fighting with the police was soon accompanied by the breaking of windows, mass looting and the firebombing of buildings.

The pattern had already shown itself many years before in the riots which shook Harlem in 1935 and 1943: ‘Blind fury swept the community ... The available symbols of the oppressor were the shining plate glass windows of the stores ... At the beginning there was no looting. Later from the more poverty struck areas of Harlem poured those who entered the stores and began looting ...’ [44]

In the 1960s riots, the looting was rarely random. In Watts: ‘Wherever a store keeper identified himself as a “poor working Negro trying to make a business” or a “blood brother”, the mob passed the store by. It even spared a few white businesses that allowed credit ... and made a point of looting and destroying stores that were notorious for their high prices and hostile manner ...’ [45]

And above all, ‘For the rioters, the riots were fun ... There was a carnival in the middle of the carnage. Rioters laughed, danced, clapped their hands, many got drunk. Children stayed out all night ... contrary to the usual pattern of riots, where was hardly any sexual delinquency ...’ [46]

The feeling that the riots had been worthwhile persisted after the riots – even though the casualty rate was always at least four rioters dead or injured to each cop who suffered.

In all the riots (except for Detroit where Newsweek reported ‘white terrorists’ among the snipers and three whites were shot by police as suspected rioters [47]) the rioters were 100% black. Yet these were not race riots; as the Kerner report noted, they did not involve blacks acting ‘against white persons’. In this respect, the riots were quite different from what had happened in Springfield and Atlanta in 1906-08, in St Louis in 1917, in Chicago in 1919, in Tulsa Oklahoma in 1935, in Detroit and Los Angeles in 1943. In each of these cases mobs of whites gave vent to their frustrations by roaming the streets beating up and shooting any blacks they came across and burning out black houses.

The ghetto uprising did not involve one ethnic group turning its aggression against random members of another ethnic group. On the contrary, the black participants in the risings turned against the symbols of authority and property – and in doing so began to create the conditions where some whites at least could sympathise with their goals. So a survey after Watts showed that 33% of Los Angeles whites ‘showed sympathy with the riots’ [48] even if none were involved in the rioting. And in the biggest of the uprisings, Detroit, there were reports of a very few white rioters and of ‘some ... integrated gangs of looters ...’ [49]

The more-or-less all black character of the US riots followed from what had happened to the black population over the decades. Until World War One the overwhelming majority of them were still where they had been put by slavery, in the South-Eastern states, working as sharecroppers, denied any normal citizenship rights (excluded from the vote, discriminated against in the courts, subject to attacks by white racist lynch mobs if they stepped out of place). Even in the 1930s, half the black population still lived in the ‘black belt’ of the South. But as European immigration to the US was reduced by legal controls, black people from the South travelled North to fill the gap this created in the labour market and to take the place of successive generations of migrants in the inner areas of the cities.

By the 1960s, just as the governments of Kennedy and Johnson were responding to the civil rights movement in the South by updating the form of capitalist rule there to provide for formal equality for blacks, three quarters of the blacks were now in the North, living in inner city areas which were by now 90% black, employed in the worst paid jobs (with average wages only 54% of the white average) [50] and with a steadily rising level of unemployment so that by 1962 it was, at 11%, twice the white level (as compared to only 112% of the white level in 1940) [51] and one teenage boy in four was jobless. Something more than talk of ‘equality’ and ‘integration’ was needed. The slogan ‘black power’ and the action of the rioters were responses to this need.

As the Kerner report admitted, the riots were: ‘Generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the mind of many of the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances ... ‘ These grievances found sharpest expression in the attitude to the police: the all black ghettos were policed by all white police forces which treated the blacks in ways remarkably similar to those of the Southern white segregationists. Indeed The police were not merely a “spark” factor. To some Negroes, police have come to symbolise white power, white racism and white repression.’ [52]

The rioters came from a complete cross section of the younger population in the ghettos. They were not, by and large, the marginal’ types – those who dropped permanently out of the job market and were attracted to hustling and petty thieving. In the case of Watts ‘the great majority’ of rioters were ‘currently employed’ [53] – despite the fact that 25% of high school graduates in Watts could not get jobs. In Detroit, ‘the typical rioter was a teenager or young adult, somewhat better educated than his non-rioting Negro neighbour and usually underemployed or employed in a menial job ...’ [54]

How does the experience of Britain in 1981 compare with the American uprisings? The similarities are obvious: the role of police harassment and racial attacks in igniting many of the riots; the concentration of the disturbances in inner city areas with a relatively high black population; the high level of support in some at least of the localities for the rioters, even if active participants were a quite small minority. But there is one important – very important -difference, which if not taken account of completely distorts one’s appreciation of the British events, in virtually all the British riots there has been significant white involvement alongside blacks, and the involvement has not just been of white leftists, but of white working class youth.

Thus, for instance, the first Brixton riot broke when ‘the police attempted to arrest a black guy ... Black and white people went over to help ... Before the van took off, it had three windows smashed ...’ [55] ‘The riot was mostly youth. It was a fair cross section of younger people, black and white ...’ [56]

Again in Bristol last year, the crowd which drove back the police in the first confrontation was ‘almost a third white’ and ‘if there was limited participation of whites in the fighting, white people were heavily involved in the looting ...’ [57] In the case of the first Southall riot this year, very few whites were involved in the fighting. But the Guardian could write of the onlookers that ‘One remarkable thing about the riot was the complete absence of racial tension among the white and Asian residents who mingled together ...’ [58] And in the second riot, a week later, ‘60% of the rioters were Asian, the rest were West Indian and white.’ [59]

In the case of Toxteth, the first rioting was mostly black. But some white youths seem to have been involved from the beginning and by the end of the main night of rioting, the rioters were at least 50-50 black and white. [60]

In Moss Side, of the 106 arrests for public order offences, according to the police1978 were white, 11 non-white and 12 black’. [61] In Wood Green in London, there were ‘large numbers of Cypriot kids and West Indians and a slightly smaller number of whites.’ [62] In Handsworth, the riots were ‘Black and white, but mostly Asian youths’. [63] In Woolwich there were ‘250 blacks and 50 whites’. [64] In Leeds, ‘there was no evidence among the rioters of racial differences. All types of youth were involved.’ [65] In Bolton, there were ‘Asians and anti-racists’, including ‘some skins and punks’. [66] In Halifax there was ‘a right good mix of skinheads and Asian youth.’ [67]

The considerable involvement of whites in the riots mean they cannot crudely be fitted into schema from the American uprisings, any more than into the schema of Britain in 1886-7 or 1931-2.

To understand them you have to combine elements from both sets of experiences, to see that as in the 1880s and early 1930s the development of the crisis and the sharp rise in unemployment has created conditions in which sections of the working class break with old forms of respect for authority and property, but that this change is particularly concentrated among certain sections of the class who are much more affected by the crisis than the average – those who are young, those who are in the inner-cities, those who are black.

The crisis and unemployment. The immediate background to the riots lies, as in 1886-7 and 1931-2, in a huge increase in unemployment. In the 12 months to July 1981, the official figures show a rise of 955,000. The real rise will be greater, since these figures ignore a growing number of men who are retiring early as they find they cannot get jobs, a growing number of married women who do not bother to register since they are not eligible for benefit (either because they have been unemployed more than 12 months or because they have been out of employment in the last couple of years bringing up children), and a large number of school leavers who were deprived of benefit over the summer months under a new government regulation.

The rise in unemployment has, however, tended to hit different sections of the working class in a different way than on the two previous occasions. In 1886-7, the most dramatic impact was in London, where manufacturing industry had been in decline for more than half a century even though every year tens of thousands of migrants from the British and Irish countryside were entering the city (half the population was made up of such immigrants). Most of the working class was unskilled and depended upon employment in casual trades like the docks and small scale sweat shops much affected by seasonal trades. The crisis savaged employment in these areas, forcing a large section of the working population into extreme poverty, especially when cold winters hit riverside and building employment. The age group most affected tended to be those past their mid-twenties, since there was still a high demand for youth in dead-end jobs such as messengers and cartboys. [68]

In the early 1930s, the hardest hit places were the ‘depressed areas’, the traditional centres of large scale manufacturing (shipbuilding, iron and steel, heavy engineering, textiles) and mining – Scotland, South Wales, the North East, parts of the North West. These had known high levels of unemployment since the end of the post World War I boom in 1921, were driven into complete misery by the crisis of 1929-33, and did not enjoy real recovery until 1940 (while in the South East and the Midlands, recovery began with the growth of new light engineering and automobile employment from 1933 onwards).

Today’s pattern shows features of both the 1880s situation and that of the 1930s. Certain traditional centres of heavy industry have been hit. Hence the devastation of Merseyside, Clydeside and parts of the North East. But the industries which grew up in London and the West Midlands in the 1930s have also been deeply affected. And these trends have come on top of a long term tendency to industrialisation’ in the old areas of working class habitation immediately around the centres of the major cities (the inner city areas). Between 1971 and 1976 manufacturing employment fell 20% in the inner area of Manchester/Salford, 21% in the Liverpool inner area, 23% in the Birmingham inner area, 30% in inner London. [69]

In July 1980 (when national unemployment was a million less than it is now), the average level of unemployment for males [70] in London as a whole was 3.9%; but in inner London it was already 7.5% and in inner North East London 8.6%. [71] And that was when the effects of the decline in manufacturing jobs was still partly compensated for by a rise in service jobs. Now, with the service sector also declining, the picture will be worse.

What is bad in London is catastrophic in Merseyside. In June 1980 the Liverpool City Planning Office was already calculating that the real level of unemployment in the inner city area was 22%. [72] Since then the Department of Employment figure for the city as a whole has risen by 50%, and a survey by Liverpool University suggests that the real level of unemployment in the Toxteth area has risen to around 45%. [73]

Youth and unemployment. Not all age groups have been hit equally by unemployment. Those already having jobs have been at least partly able to protect themselves against the impact of the crisis. Where union organisations have been strong, they have been able to negotiate redundancies in many cases, so that much of the shrinkage of the workforce has been through ‘natural wastage’ and no recruitment. The brunt of the crisis has therefore hit particularly hard those without jobs – particularly young people entering the labour market for the first time. The result has been an average level of unemployment of those aged 16-24 twice the average figure – even before taking into account the way 250,000 youngsters who are really unemployed are removed from the register by YOPS and similar schemes. At the same time, unemployment can mean much greater than average hardship for the young. Someone who has worked 10 or 15 years in a factory or office at present gets a considerable lump sum on redundancy, is paid wage-related dole for the first six months of his or her unemployment and is also quite likely to be in receipt of a considerable sum in tax rebates. The result is that in the first six months of unemployment you can be virtually as well off as when you were working; among adults it is the 40% of the officially registered who have been unemployed for six months or more who really suffer. [74] But school leavers and many young workers do not get redundancy pay and are not eligible for wage-related benefits. And so their unemployment begins with them down on the poverty line.

Even for those with jobs, the hardship created by mass unemployment does not disappear. Usually those starting work for the first time switch jobs two or three times before settling down to one that is just about tolerable to them. With present levels of unemployment that option disappears. You stick to a job if you can get it, no matter how unbearable it is. The present crisis is making life into a soulless prison for the young employed and unemployed alike – which is why it is so much nonsense for Tory ministers to claim that the riots have nothing to do with unemployment because employed youth have been among those arrested.

Black people and unemployment. When the bulk of black immigrants came to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, unemployment was not a problem for most of them. They came precisely because there were jobs here for them – even if the jobs tended on average to be slightly worse paid than the white workers’ jobs and in industries with conditions (such as shift work) that many white workers would not tolerate while there were jobs elsewhere. [75] And so, although in February 1963 ‘minority groups’ were four times as likely to be unemployed as the average population, by 1970 ‘unemployment was at roughly the same level among minority groups as the general population’. [76]

But the rise in unemployment in the 1970s has hit black workers disproportionately hard. ‘As total unemployment rises, so the minorities tend to make up a greater proportion of the total.’ [77] Between November 1974 and February 1980, total unemployment doubled, whereas the number of black people on the register quadrupled. [78]

Since then the number of unemployed from ‘minority groups’ has all but doubled again – while average unemployment has grown somewhat less, by about 50%. Black unemployment is rising at twice the speed of white unemployment. [79] A number of reasons have been suggested for this: [80]

  1. Racism meant that even before the recent rise in unemployment ‘a black person had to make twice as many applications as a white person before finding a job’. [81] Even in areas of high black unemployment, one firm in five employs no black workers. [82]
  2. Discrimination particularly affects white collar employment which so far has been hit much less by the slump than manual employment: only 8% of West Indian males have white collar jobs, as opposed to 40% of white males.
  3. The last-in, first-out procedure often adopted in cases of redundancy can hit recent immigrants most.
  4. Some of the fastest growing levels of unemployment are in; areas where black people are concentrated – particularly the inner city areas of the West Midlands.

Finally, the higher level of youth unemployment hits the black population disproportionately because there is a much greater proportion of young people in the black population than there is on average.

The effect of racism on top of this is to make life particularly bleak for black youth in the inner city areas. There are few enough jobs to go round for youth anyway, and those that are available are now more likely to go to whites. So in Lewisham in 1978, ‘unemployment among black school leavers was three times as high as among white school leavers, despite the fact that they tried just as hard to get jobs.’ [83] A House of Commons subcommittee was told earlier this year that in Toxteth, ‘60% of the black population were unemployed’. [84] No wonder a survey of a small sample of black youth in Handsworth in November 1977 showed that although most had jobs, they saw unemployment as the main problem facing them (just ahead of racial discrimination by whites). [85]

In looking at black unemployment, it is quite important not to make a simple logical mistake. The fact that black youth are more likely to be unemployed than white youth does not mean that they are the majority of the unemployed or even the youth unemployed – that would hardly be possible given that black people only make up 3.4% of the total population, while the official level of unemployment is now 11.8%.

Even in Handsworth, Birmingham, where 31% of the population is black, 60% of the unemployed in November 1977 were white. Nor is it the case that these figures mean that most black youth are unemployed. At least until the most recent upward surge off unemployment, the overwhelming majority of blacks between 16 and 25 have been in employment. [86]

On the basis of the figures, if there were an exact repeat of the events of 1886-7 or 1931-2, you would expect them to take place in the inner city areas and for a quarter or more of the rioters to be black. But the riots of 1981 were not a simple repeat of these two previous occasions. The direct motivation was not agitation over unemployment, but usually a response to police harassment or racial attacks.

Racialism, inner city areas, unemployment and the police

For many people – including many people on the left – racialist attitudes are something unchanging, inbuilt, part of the character, which can only be prevented from having effect by moral persuasion.

But the view human beings have of other human beings – the stereotypes they fit them into – are not in reality unchanging. Received notions have continually to make sense of changing experiences. When they fail to do so, people find themselves holding contradictory notions – those they have held in the past and those arising out of their new experiences. New forms of activity challenge old ideas. If racist notions persist in the majority of the British working class today (as they do) it is no good explaining this in terms of natural nastiness, some ‘instinctive fear’ or the conditioning by the ideology that was fed to people during the days of the British Empire. Instead, it is necessary to see how racism in the past has interacted with economic development to confine black people to certain sorts of jobs and certain sorts of living conditions, so creating a specific pattern of their interaction with white people. Racism then determines not merely the stereotypes white workers have of blacks, but also, to some extent, the objective experience of life alongside them.

Concretely, when Afro-Caribbeans and Asians came to Britain they found that the only jobs they could get were ones (for instance, foundry work, night shifts in textiles, welding) which most white workers were unwilling to take, the only housing available was in dilapidated, inner city areas which many whites were already preferring to move away from, their children were forced by language problems and teacher racism into the lower streams. The already worse areas of the cities tended to become ‘the black areas’, the worst jobs became ‘jobs for blacks’, the lower streams in the schools tended to become ‘the black classes’. As the racist stereotypes moulded into the white population in the past delimited what black people could do and where they could live, the stereotypes were reproduced and reinforced. Those who suffered the worst conditions became blamed for those conditions. Successive governments have played their role in this by responding to every wave of racist agitation with tighter immigration controls directed against black people.

The economic crisis has tended to reinforce racist attitudes still more. Once one section of the working class tends to believe that another section is responsible for the bad condition in which it lives, then it tends also to blame it for the general run down of the inner city areas consequent upon the crisis and to see the jobs blacks have as jobs which could go to whites.

Among the majority of white workers, however, this stereotyping is always to some extent counteracted by something else. Capitalism always has to unite the working class as well as divide it. Even while its politicians and ideologues try to set white against black, in the factories and the offices it has to integrate them into common production processes; to make them work together to some extent, so that it can effectively exploit them both. And in so doing it forces them to try to create 100% strong organisation to reduce the scale of such exploitation. Under such circumstances, even the most racist of workers can dimly perceive that his or her racial stereotypes are a hindrance to stopping an increase in the tempo of work or to struggling for a pay rise. Hence the widespread experience that white workers who will make the most vicious racist comments while at home or in the pub with their friends, at least put on an act of being friendly with black people at work. Among employed workers, therefore, the stereotypes are continually being undermined, blunted by some experiences even while they may also be being reinforced by other experiences.

But there are two groups within the working class who do not experience these counter-tendencies. The first are the unemployed in white neighbourhoods, who unless they are organised into activity against the system, find themselves stuck at home or on the street corners, with no direct experience of black people to break down the racial stereotypes. That is why the unemployed have always been and will always be much more open to influence by fascist groups than employed workers.

The other group is the police. The nature of their work necessarily pushes them to a much greater than average acceptance of racist stereotypes. The main task of the police is to protect property against those who would infringe upon it and to suppress those by-products of alienation (personal violence, drug taking, excessive drunkenness) that impede the process of ‘peaceful’ exploitation and accumulation.

An economic crisis creates more infringements upon private property and more of the symptoms of alienation – and it produces them in a concentrated form among those groups who live in the most oppressive conditions, have the worst jobs and the highest levels of unemployment. There are growing levels of certain sorts of ‘crime’ – especially among those most affected by the crisis – the employed who live in the inner cities. A minority of these are pushed into certain sorts of petty thieving. [87] (One sign of the way in which they are forced down by the crisis is that they often do not even think of the opportunities available for serious crime.)

Hence the growth in the number of robberies against the person in the 1970s. A thousand per cent increase in the level of youth unemployment between 1973 and 1976 was accompanied by an 800% increase in the number of robberies from the person – just as in the only year that youth unemployment fell, 1973, there was a fall in the number of these robberies.

Given the way in which black youth suffer much more than the average from unemployment and are much more likely to live in the inner cities, it is not surprising that they are likely to be involved more than the average in petty crime [88] – although the great majority of such crimes are still the work of white people.

Under such circumstances, those who would blame the victims of the crisis for its consequences can easily get to work. Just as they blame those who live in the worst housing for the conditions they have to suffer, they blame the petty crime that results from unemployment on the unemployed, and on the black unemployed in particular. This was the significance of the invention by the press and the police of the term ‘mugging’ in the mid-70s, with its connotation that anyone who walked through a London street was in grave danger from ‘dark forces’ [89] (even though the average Londoner still has to live in the city 2000 years before having an even chance of being mugged and even then the odds are 3 to 1 against a weapon being used) [90] or of the great press publicity given to a sociologist who claimed that in Handsworth ‘200 youths of West Indian origin have drifted into a life of idleness and crime’ [91] – despite the fact that there were only 215 cases of theft from the person in the area in 1977 and these were nearly all of small amounts. [92] In fact, it is clear that only a small minority of black unemployed youth can be involved in these crimes.

However, for the policeman who is charged with suppressing the crime, the racist stereotype seems to fit. If robberies occur more from the unemployed than the average, then if you harass the unemployed you are more likely to catch robbers. If youth are more likely to commit petty crimes than the average, then devote your attention to the youth. If the inner cities are the places where there are a higher than average number of thefts from the person and of cases of drugs and drunkenness then have your patrol cars prowling round inner city streets and not the suburbs. If blacks are more likely to be unemployed and to live in the inner city than average, then make it part of their routine to stop them in the streets and search them.

Above all, if you want a good record of arrests, then treat every young, unemployed black you see on an inner city street as if he is a criminal. Assert yourself against him, don’t put up with any cheek, let him know who’s boss – and if you can’t find any evidence of crime, plant it so that he doesn’t get away scot free. Or as the Metropolitan Police have said in writing: ‘Our experience has taught us the fallibility of the assertion that crime rates among those of West Indian origin are no higher than those of the population at large.’ [93]

It is not a long way from this assertion to the organisation of ‘nigger hunts’ by keen young officers out for arrests and promotion. They follow logically from the task set the police of protecting property and ‘law and order’ in a society in a deep crisis which hits black people disproportionately hard. Racial harassment is not something that can be understood apart from the aggravation of the economic crisis, but has to be seen as one of its by-products. It cannot be fought merely by outraged liberal protests over police behaviour or racism in general. It has to be tackled at the root.

Once you grasp this, you can also see why it is not only black people who suffer from ‘hard’ policing. Such harassment is a feature of all areas of high unemployment. Hence the fate of a Liddle Towers or a Jimmy Kelly. Hence the way in which a survey of attitudes to the police in the North West in April 1980 found that although most people had confidence in the police, there was marked hostility in two areas of high unemployment – Huyton Merseyside, which is almost entirely white, and Moss Side, Manchester, which is mixed black and white. [94]

As the crisis deepens, growing sections of white youth are also going to be on the receiving end of police harassment. After all, they too are more likely than not unemployed, they too hang about the streets, they too disturb ‘law-abiding property owners’, they too are potential, if not actual criminals. Hence a recent speech by the chief constable of South Yorkshire who used phrases about white youth that you normally expect to hear about blacks: ‘44 per cent of all robberies in South Yorkshire last year were carried out by so; called skinheads ... the skinheads were also responsible for 50 per cent of all assaults ...’ [95]

As Pete Barry of the Liverpool 8 defence committee has pointed out: police harassment now is against both black and white. To the police, ‘down here if you’re black you’re a nigger, and if you’re white you’re a nigger-lover. That’s the racial abuse white people have to suffer. ‘ [96]

It is important in this connection not to overlook an important difference between the typical inner city area in Britain and in the US. In the US the tendency has been for virtually all white people to move to the suburbs in the last 30 years, leaving the inner city areas as overwhelmingly black. In Britain, with its much smaller black population, this has not happened.

As one sociologist has noted of St Paul’s in Bristol: ‘Above all it must be emphasised that the St Paul-Montpellier area was in no sense a “ghetto” ... In the US it is the Negro population that tends to live in the most ethnically segregated neighbourhoods of the large cities, where 90 per cent or more of the population may be black. The spatial separation of Negroes and whites gave rise to a characteristic Negro subculture and segregated institutions, including churches, stores, banks, insurance companies, politics and styles of recreation ... The Bristol area differed from either a Jewish or a Negro ghetto in a number of important respects. Racially and ethnically the population was extremely heterogenous ... There was no distinctive subculture pervading the area as a whole ...’ [97]

Another sociological study, of Handsworth, Birmingham, shows that 69% of its population are white (even if half these are over the age of 60) and concludes, ‘Clearly the term “ghetto” is inappropriate.’ [98]

This does not mean there is no racialism in the inner-city areas – far from it. Nor does it mean that there is no tendency for large numbers of people to mix almost entirely with members of their own ethnic group. In St Paul’s for instance, ‘Although coloured immigrants lived in close physical proximity to other residents and there was a good deal of face to face interaction in the street and at work, primary group relations within the area were almost entirely confined to others of the same racial, national or religious grouping ...’ [99]

The fact that the areas are not ghettos has important effects. It means there is not the de facto segregation of the educational system that exists in some US cities, so that there is a certain tendency for mixed gangs of youth to grow up. It means that the very high levels of inner city unemployment affect whites as well as blacks (so that in Handsworth in 1977 19% of Asians and West Indians were unemployed but also 13.3% of white, with long term unemployment tending to be about the same level for whites and West Indians [100]; while in Toxteth earlier this year, 47% of blacks were jobless but also 43% of whites [101]). It means that police harassment is something witnessed, and to some extent suffered, by whites. Thus in Moss Side, after the riots ‘ordinary law abiding folk and supporters of the established order ... were shocked to see the Police in a new light during the riots. They are coming to believe that long standing complaints from the black community about police harassment and racism may have some substance ...’ [102]

Capitalism divides and rules. It separates off the problems of one group of workers from those of another – young from old, unemployed from employed, the inner city dweller from those in the suburbs, black from white. In certain historically conditioned circumstances, the divisions become virtually complete – the young unemployed black inner city dweller suffers conditions, especially police harassment, that just cannot be comprehended by the older, white, employed suburban worker. Rebellion then is isolated rebellion, which at best gets passive sympathy from a minority of workers elsewhere. This was the experience in the US in the 1960s This too was the pattern of most of the clashes between young blacks and the police in Britain in the early and mid-70s – from the ’battle of Atlantic Road’ in 1969, through the Brockwell Park disturbances of June 1973, the Carib Club raid of 1974, and the Chapeltown bonfire clashes of 1975, to the defence of the Notting Hill Carnival against the police in 1976.

But the divisions are by no means watertight. That is why since the anti-Nazi confrontations at Wood Green and Lewisham in 1977 there has been a tendency for white youth to join the struggles of blacks on the streets. That is why the explosions at Bristol, Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side, Handsworth were black-led but multi-racial. And that is why they could produce ‘copycat’ riots, often almost entirely white, in scores of other places.

Reformism is always taken by surprise by any great upsurge of popular rebellion. It is thrown off balance and at first does not know how to respond. But it is rarely long before it tries to regain control, by blunting the edge of popular militancy so as fit it back into its schemes for patching up the system.

In the case of the riots, this has meant separating out the issues that produced the riots, picking on this or that aspect of the situation and treating it as something that can be dealt with in isolation from the general crisis of society. The reformist politicians or social workers can then present themselves as the essential mediators between those who rioted and the system, alone able to defuse tension and prevent new riots.

Different groups of reformists pick upon different issues to separate out and present as the key to future social peace. But the method is the same in all cases. There have been four main sorts of reformist response:

1.Youth employment reformism. The ‘wets’ in the government and the Labour front bench alike combine strong support for the police (’We have to put the police in a position to deal with serious violence immediately’ – Michael Foot, 15 July; the opposition ‘accept that the police should be properly protected’ – Eric Heffer, 15 July) with pleas for Thatcher to take measures to reduce the immediate level of youth unemployment. They demand the extention of YOPS and other youth training schemes so as at least to reduce the number of school leavers on the register and they suggest schemes for public sector capital investment – as, for instance, the TUC’s plan for £5 billion a year capital spending to create an extra half a million jobs. The weakness of all these schemes is self evident: they remove the school leaver from the dole queue for a short time only, they give them a ‘wage’ which is hardly more than the dole, and they would still, even if successful, leave the permanent level of unemployment at 2.5 million.

2. Inner city reformism. The idea that the crisis of the inner cities can be solved without fundamental alteration in the system goes back at least to 1968, when the then Labour government introduced a £15m a year ‘urban aid programme’. The 1970-73 Tory environment minister, Peter Walker, (one of today’s ‘wets’) followed this through with a wide ranging review of the problems of the inner city areas; the 1974 Labour government finally brought in ‘partnership schemes’ for these areas which involved spending £113m last year. Today the riots have led to the digging up of all the surveys and suggestions from the Peter Walker era and to still more talk of reform. Yet all these schemes have been completely ineffective. They have not been able to stop the deindustrialisation, the run down in services caused by the wider spending cuts (the £133m of partnership money last year contrasts with the £200m the inner city areas lost through the cuts in the rate support grant), the persistence of unemployment totals double regional averages, the growth of despair, vandalism, petty crime, and, of course, police harassment.

‘Inner city reformism’ has been inspired by the plethora of schemes introduced in the US after the ghetto uprisings of the 60s. But the ‘success’ of these schemes was not in producing any permanent reduction in unemployment or any permanent improvement in the conditions of the inner city areas. They defused the tensions that produced the ‘uprisings’ – but only because they led to a massive expansion in the layer of black middle class mediators between the ghetto and the outside world (businessmen, social workers, community organisers, Democratic Party politicians). The worsening of the economic crisis in the last 10 years has meant a deterioration of the conditions of the majority of the ghetto populations, leading to widespread predictions now of a new wave of ghetto revolts. [103] If such were the meagre results of ‘inner city reformism’ in the still powerful American economy of the late 1960s, much, much less can be expected in the feeble, crisis-ridden Britain of the 1980s.

3. Race relations reformism. The American black uprisings had another by-product in Britain – the growth of a flourishing race relations industry, based upon a network of full time workers for the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) nationally and the different Community Relations Councils (CRCs) locally. So in a typically inner city area you will find at least half a dozen CRC staff plus I host of other social and community workers employed by local councils or funded by charitable trusts, all aiming to tie the day to day grievances of black people into the structures of the local and national state.

Those involved in this type of reformism see their job as being to push certain demands of black people in such a way as to get them settled without the need for any great change in the structures of society. They react against any attempt to see the riots as an outcome of the wide social crisis with its affects on unemployment and housing conditions as well as racialist and police harassment. They see any talk of these issues as diverting attention from the particular problems of the group they mediate for – black people. And so discussion on the riots gets reduced to discussion on particular discriminatory practices in employment and how to weed out individual racialists from the police force. [104]

4. Community policing reformism. The final palliative offered is a change of police methods. There is a weak and a strong version of this. The weaker version is pushed by some in the police hierarchy itself and by Liberal and Labour politicians: it is the call for the return of the local bobby who walks round the neighbourhood getting to know local people and ingratiate himself with them.

This method of policing has actually been introduced in Handsworth in Birmingham. In the first days after Toxteth, it was praised as the way to avoid inflaming riots. For example, John Brown of Cranfield Institute of Technology told the Guardian on 1 July, that the Handsworth scheme was a great success: ‘It is succeeding and is therefore much more of a threat to political extremists than repressive policing. The police have the backing of the Asian community and many rastafarians in Birmingham ...’

Three days later Handsworth exploded and as local youth turned on the ‘community police’; the ‘friendly bobbies’ took their revenge with 329 arrests.

The stronger version of ‘community policing’ involved a change in the structures of control over the police, so as to subordinate them to elected local bodies. This is what is demanded by Labour councillors like Ted Knight of Lambeth, Ken Livingstone of the GLC and Lady Simey of Toxteth.

Unlike the softer version, this does at least focus on police violence, police harassment and police racism. But it suffers the great weakness of assuming that these aspects of police behaviour can be detached from the role the police play in a crisis-ridden society as a whole. Police violence is seen as the product of an autonomous self-sustaining development within the police hierarchy, of a move to a ‘strong state’ produced by the momentum of the state structures themselves. It fails to see the most elementary things: the police exist to keep present day society in order; this order consists in protecting the propertied from the propertyless; such protection is going to require ever higher levels of repression as the material condition of the propertyless gets more and more desperate. Those who do not see these links end up in the contradictory position of exaggerating the power of police repression, and yet suggesting it can be ended by the exercise of a little political pressure through parliamentary channels.

To see what is wrong with the idea of community control over the police, you simply have to question: how would a police force controlled by the Knights, the Livingstones and the Simeys react if the unemployed took it into their heads to engage in a bit of looting for basic goods they could never afford to buy? One suspects that Labour councillors would soon see the need to reassure local property owners by sending in the police to restore order, and that the police would do so by using violence to restrain the looters. But if the police force is going to be given carte blanche to use violence against looting, it is going to use it to stop petty thefts, to stop handbag snatchings, to stop gangs of youth hanging about the street ready, it seems to the police, to engage in such crimes the moment their backs are turned.

The reformists conceal from themselves this reality of the state as a product of capitalist society. Instead, they reify it, see it as a thing existing outside of a society based upon the dynamics of capital accumulation, refer to it in an almost anarchist way as the enemy. But because this enemy exists for them in a vacuum it can be reformed out of existence without any great struggle. The struggle becomes not a struggle against the system, but to build pressure groups to get rid of individual, particularly nasty, police officers.

EACH SORT of reformism focusses on one, important, factor in producing the riots. But by taking that factor in isolation from the total situation, each ends up trying to channel the anger that exploded on the streets into channels that are safe for the system.

Of course, revolutionaries do not abstain from the campaigns the reformists launch – whether over youth unemployment, against racial discrimination, for more funds for the inner cities or to curtail the repressive actions of the police. But we seek to build out of these campaigns wider political generalisation, while the reformists seek to substitute narrow, one issue pressure group politics for the generalised anger shown in the riots.

Black separatism and the riots

Among Britain’s black population the reformist ideas we have outlined above are not the only ones that are prevalent. Of considerable significance among the more radical layers of black youth, especially Afro-Caribbean youth, are versions of black separatism – the idea that black people can only win by organising and fighting autonomously from white people of all sorts.

Like all political ideologies, black separatism exists at two levels – on the one hand as widespread, often not fully articulated currents of popular attitudes; on the other as more or less coherent analyses of the world and programmes of action propounded by formal political organisations.

In the ‘popular’ form what this amounts to is a tendency for many West Indian youth to identify with symbols of black assertiveness – in the late 1960s with the black power slogans from the US, today with some of the imagery of Rastafarianism and with reggae music.

The number of committed, believing members of the Rastafarian cult is very small. But the number of youth who vaguely identify with its symbolism is much higher. A survey of a group of black youth in Handsworth showed that half thought Rastafarian ‘significant’. [105]

A sociologist who studied an inner city area in a Midlands town [106] has described: ‘a recently formed youth subculture, based around distinctive speech patterns, appearance, fashion and music forms, ... within one distinguished a small, strictly religious group, a wider “political” grouping which has “assimilated various Rasta conventions – speech, fashion and appearance: the locks, patois, ganja smoking and hatred of Babylon ...” [107] Finally, there is a much wider youth culture based upon reggae.

A study of St Pauls, Bristol, by a West Indian sociologist concludes that: ‘In Bristol (and elsewhere), reggae took hold and helped to inject a much needed sense of identity and cultural solidarity into the life style and thinking’ of a typical younger West Indian, ‘not only because it was an easy kind of dance music, but also because its self-conscious critical messages on society were relevant to his needs and desires. The eruption of music in the late 60s coincided with the worsening of race relations in Britain ...’ [108]

Both Rastafarianism and reggae were initially a reaction among lower classes in Jamaica to a society where the heritage of slavery still meant that the darker your skin was, the lower was your social status, and where to be black was almost certainly to be poor. The West Indian immigrants who came to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s expected things to be different here. They found in practice that they were discriminated against for being black when it came to housing, jobs and treatment at the hands of the police. They were prepared, by and large, to put up with this because they still felt as ‘foreigners’ in Britain. The second generation find they suffer all the same problems as their parents, plus the frequent indignity of being out into the ‘inferior’ streams at school. But they are not nearly so prepared to simply tolerate these conditions. They want to put up some resistance.

But forms of successful physical resistance are difficult to arrive at, particularly since they find racist attitudes among the white people who live and work alongside them. As one black youth in Leeds summed up a very widespread feeling: ‘I’m an apprentice precision engineer. Out of 300 workers, I’m the only black one there. I think all white men are two faced, and you never know what they are thinking ...’ [109] Of the black youth interviewed in Handsworth, only a ‘minority’ said they ‘got on well with whites’. [110]

For such youth, a diluted version of Rastafarianism could become a means of maintaining their own feelings of identity in the face of a hostile white society, of defending their self-respect in the face of racialism from police, from landlords, from employers – and, all too often, from fellow workers.

But as a form of resistance to the racialism from which black youth have suffered it has had one great defect. It has been a form of cultural resistance, of reaction to the ideology of a society that downgrades you because you are black. But it has left untouched the material features of that society. It has been a defensive reaction to that society, not a perspective for organising a successful fight back against it.

This is shown even more clearly when you look at what has happened to the small political groupings that have attempted to build some sort of continuing organisation out of this much wider ‘popular’ separatist sentiment.

There were a plethora of such groups in the late 1960s, mainly basing themselves on the experience of the American black power movement. But many withered in the early 1970s and no national black consciousness or black nationalist movement developed. In most localities all that exist are small black bookshops or centres, run by half a dozen activists, the political groups that could provide some national structure for these being very small.

Of these probably the most influential (although not necessarily the biggest) is the Race Today collective, who have produced a monthly magazine for the last seven years and who have played a role in leading struggles such as that of the East End Bengali community in 1976, the Carnival Development Committee Campaign in 1977, The George Lindo Campaign in Bradford in 1979, the New Cross Massacre Action Committee in 1981. An examination of Race Today’s analyses and demands shows in a clear form the limitations involved in any attempt at separatist black ‘revolutionary’ politics in Britain today.

Race Today’s political message goes something like this: The black population in Britain finds itself in a colonial situation vis-à-vis the British state. Its ultimate liberation will be through revolution. But this can only be achieved if each oppressed group develops its own struggle, without influence from outside. Whenever we struggle against the system, the magazine’s editor, Darcus Howe, told a meeting in Bradford in 1978, ‘there is one distinctive position we had to maintain ... that we had to come through on our own as blacks, independently ... The main vehicle of that must be our willingness ... to develop independent movement ... The black working class will be in charge ... The black struggle has an independent validity and vitality of its own.’ [111]

This perspective means that any attempt to involve black workers in joint organisation with white workers is seen as dangerous. So the conclusion in November 1977 was that ‘The Grunwick strike demonstrates that a victory is only possible if an autonomous leadership emerges which is capable of an international appeal and free from the traps inherent in (trade) unionism ...’ The mistake of the strike committee was to ‘believe that involving white workers had to be their primary purpose’. The mistake flowed from assuming that the traditions of ‘the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the matchgirls’ were the traditions of black workers, whereas, Race Today argued, black workers had quite different traditions: ‘Our history as black workers ... has forced us to create our own methods of struggle.’ The strike committee failed to raise this, and so failed ‘to tap the powerful national and international linkage of black struggle’ which could have brought victory. [112]

At the time of the one-day Asian stoppage in the Spitalfields area against racist attacks in 1978, the conclusion was that ‘the Bengalis will create their own organisational vehicle to carry their struggle forward, come what may’, but that it would have to avoid attempt to lead it astray by ‘the CRE, the ANL and the labour movement’. [113]

In November 1979 the future lay with ‘a radical and insurrectionary movement of Asian youth’, with the way forward being shown by the various Asian youth movements provided again that they could avoid ‘the influence of the white left groups ...’

For Race Today the ‘autonomous’ black movement is always threatened from two sides – from the black middle class certainly, but also from revolutionary left.

How exactly will the black community organise itself? In the mid-70s a lot of attention was paid to the predominantly Asian workforces that struck at Mansfield Hosiery, Imperial Typewriters and so on. But in recent years the focus has moved away from the factories to the streets, with hardly a mention of black strikers in recent issues of the magazine. What instead has tended to develop is an analysis of ‘youth’ as the vanguard. So Darcus Howe describes the conflicts of black youth with the police: ‘A section of the British working class, distinguishable by the colour of our skins, had declared open rebellion against the British state ...’ [114]

The rebellion does not, however, involve simply fighting the police. It also involves opting for unemployment as preferable to the ‘slavery’ of work: ‘And how they rebelled. En masse young blacks refused to follow their parents into the (unskilled, deadly, boring and repetitive) jobs ...’ [115]

Yet whichever emphasis Race Today has followed, the record of attempts to organise blacks on a separatist basis has not been a great success – despite the clear rhetorical appeal of parts of the separatist message. As Darcus Howe has admitted, ‘We are weak on organisation’. [116] Race Today’s attempt to generate mass self defence of the Bengali community through the setting up of a ‘command council’ led nowhere: ‘the euphoria of the self-defence movement has produced neither the disciplined paramilitary organisation that can undertake systematic self defence, nor has it produced the organisation that can undertake campaigns over material rights ...’ [117]

Race Today was able to organise a very large demonstration over the Deptford firebombings – but not to build any lasting organisation. In the wake of this summer’s riots, separatist groups in several areas (Brixton, Leeds, Woolwich) have argued for all black defence committees – despite the fact that about half those arrested have usually been white. The main result has usually been to stop any effective defence campaign at all getting off the ground. These failures are not an accident. They follow necessarily from the whole separatist approach.

Separatist agitation can only make sense for black people when they find themselves already separated from whites, so that self-organisation is the only way to get protection against the racism that exists around them. Such a situation can exist on the streets, where youth can congregate together, virtually ignoring whites except when it is a question of fighting back against the police or racists. It can exist in small factories, where whole departments, whole shifts or even the whole workforce can be black. But it cannot exist in the large factories where, after all, most black people work – and work alongside whites.

Even on the streets and in the small factories separatist agitation faces problems. Confrontation with the police on the streets – as opposed to merely receiving punishment from them – is actually only an occasional occurrence. And the confrontations rarely last very long – even the biggest riots this year started fading after two nights. The great majority of the time, black youth on the street are not acting together in any collective struggle, but are hanging about passing the time, generally being passive. The subculture that develops in these circumstances is not going to be a revolutionary subculture, concerned with fighting back. Instead, it is going to be one that stresses a protective withdrawal from existing society. That is perhaps why a vague Rastafarianism, which if taken seriously means worrying about Africa, not Britain, has taken over from the more confident black power talk of the late 1960s.

On the streets or in the black clubs, those who set the style are likely to be those who find themselves with most time on their hands, those who don’t work – whether this means the unemployed, the hustlers or the petty racketteers. Hence the way in which those who seek to organise black youth on the street all too often come back with the story that they are not interested in ‘the right to work’ – or even ‘work’ – although the vast majority of black youth have always worked (at least until this year’s catastrophic youth unemployment figures).

The whole experience of the revolutionary movement is that very little in the way of permanent organisation can be built from those who drop out of the capitalist employment market. In America too, one reason the Black Panthers eventually collapsed was that: ‘The party’s orientation towards ‘street youth’ resulted in a very unstable base and as a result Panther membership was frequently like a revolving door. Furthermore the Party’s orientation to this sector resulted in a rank and file which was difficult to control and would not act in a disciplined fashion. The leadership did not intend the emphasis on armed self-defence and the exaggerated significance of guns to mean immediate armed conflict with the police. But the membership did not always accept such an interpretation, and there was a continual tension between the leadership and the rank and file over questions of adventurism ...’ [118]

There is a very good reason why Marxists have always put enormous emphasis on the need for employed workers to lead others oppressed groups. It is not because they necessarily suffer most under capitalism, but because the capitalist economy itself, in its drive to expand the output of value and surplus value, binds workers together into coherent groupings that can fight back against it in a disciplined, conscious manner.

Even before capitalism, you would get occasional, very violent disturbances from the urban poor. But it is only with the creation of an industrial working class that you get long drawn out, organised struggles under the control of the workers themselves, that can lay the basis for the exploited to emancipate themselves.

What this means in practice is that those who orient on ‘street youth’ the vanguard, alternate between extravagant predictions of armed insurrection when rebellion flares up, and then lapsing into low level, defensive activities of the most unrevolutionary sort when the police and the courts get their revenge. [119] In this way the separatists merely participate in a division of labour with the race relations industry, for all their revolutionary rhetoric.

When it comes to black workers, the problems for separatist agitation is even greater. For the only all black workplaces are small and in non-struggle parts of the economy. It is in hosiery and clothing industries, textiles, certain small plastic and light engineering factories that you find workforces, or at least night shifts, that are all black – it is not in motors, the docks, the mines, the power stations, the railways, even though some of these industries have many black workers working alongside whites. In general, workers in small, non-strategic workplaces are only able to enter into struggle with confidence when the big battalions have already broken through. Hence, there was a wave of ‘black’ strikes in the years 1972-5 after the struggles of UCS. The miners, and the dockers had shown the way forward and dented the confidence of the ruling class. But with the decline in the level of successful industrial struggle by the big battalions from 1975 onwards, you find an even bigger decline in the number of all-black strikes.

This did not mean that no black workers were involved in struggle: many were – in the Ford strike of 1978, the ‘low paid’ strikes of hospital and local authority workers in early 1979, and the one and two day engineering strikes later in that year. But these were not all black workforces and therefore were of no interest to the separatists for there was no way they could relate to black workers who worked, as a minority, alongside whites on the basis of telling them just to organise themselves and to stop worrying about whites. And so the black separatist papers hardly mention such struggles. Race Today, for instance, has only ever had one article on Fords Dagenham and that was back in 1976, even though 13,000 or 14,000 black workers are employed there.

Even in the case of a majority black strike Race Today did deal with, Grunwicks, it had nothing real to say in terms of strategy. As we have seen, its only positive suggestion was for the strike committee to rely upon ‘the national and international linkage of black struggle’. It is not clear how that would have stopped the scabbing which finally broke the strike, especially as one of the strike leaders, Mrs Desai, actually told Race Today, support from the black communities for the strike was limited: ‘We are beginning to see some support from our community, but it is only verbal support ...’ [120]

Despite its appeal to sections of black youth, separatism fail completely as a strategy for black people to fight back against their oppression. It is bound to. In Zimbabwe, where blacks are 97% of the population, a black-only struggle could defeat white racism. Again in the US where blacks are 12% of the population and the clear majority in the inner areas of many of the cities, they have the ability to force certain limited concessions if they fight alone. In Britain where they are only 3.5% of the population, and even in the inner city areas a minority of 15 to 20%, a long term strategy on fighting alone is a strategy of inevitable defeat. Separatism is, at best, a defensive reaction against the racism of British society by black youth – but it is not a defensive reaction that can lead anywhere.

Socialists defend the right of black people to turn away from British society and its racism by adopting a defensive, separatist cultural stance. But at the same time, we cannot keep quiet about the fact that such a defensive cultural stance cannot defeat the forces that oppress black people. Unless they can move forward from it, to participation in a wider movement that does not need to be purely defensive, then in the long run they will be defeated.

For black youth to accept the slogans of black power and black consciousness, for them to don Rastafarian colours, for them to insist on speaking the West Indian dialect that their teachers regard as ‘bad English’, can be a step forward in the building of self confidence. But it is a limited step forward if it still leaves them believing that they cannot change society and instead have to dream of opting out. Much more far reaching is the transformation of consciousness that can take place as black workers and youth gain self confidence from leading other white workers and youth in struggle.

As Mort Mascarenhas has written:

Black consciousness is ... a counter to white chauvenistic interpretations of history and culture. Since the first days of imperialism and slavery the oppressor forces, in order to justify their actions and maintain power, have deliberately denigrated black people, our culture, intelligence and traditions. This rewriting of history has been extremely successful and explains the ‘slave’ mentality of many black people. Black Consciousness, through emphasising the dignity and equality of being black (hence the black is beautiful campaign) is a very progressive and necessary force. People must feel they have a right to freedom, equality and justice before they will fight for such demands.

However Black Consciousness, while being progressive, cannot in itself provide solutions or a programme of action through which oppressed people can gain liberation. It is simply a counter to psychological oppression while oppression has very glaring physical manifestations. As such it can go two ways, it can slide towards the dead end of Black Nationalism or it can develop into a Marxist understanding.” [121]

The demand for physical forms of black self defence is certainly quite correct if a black locality is under attack from the Nazis or the police. But to be effective, black self defence has rapidly to pass over into defence involving anti-racist white workers and youth as well, to encompass industrial action from the mixed workforces of the large factories as well as just fighting on the streets. To refuse to encourage this because of a commitment to ‘black autonomy’ is to endanger black lives.

It is here that the experience of the riots is so important. In most of the struggles against the police in the early and mid 1970s it was a case of Afro-Caribbean youth fighting alone. But already by 1976 a different trend was emerging, for Asian youth to join with the mainly white socialist organisations in challenging the Nazis. In the late 1970s the two trends started to come together as mixed (white, Afro-Caribbean, and Asian) youth confronted the Nazis and the police at Wood Green, Lewisham, Leicester, Southall, and as wide sections of white working class youth began to identify with the ANL and join these confrontations. The same pattern has been shown in many of the local anti-Nazi activities of the last year (Paddington, Cardiff, Oxford, the Leeds carnival), with sections of West Indian, white and Asian youth all identifying with the ANL. The riots have been the great expression of this new form of unity-in-struggle. As a leading rail union activist from Liverpool told a Labour Coordinating Committee conference in July, ‘Toxteth saw the first white army in history to have black generals.’

The separatists want to negate this experience. They want to continue to keep black youth apart from the sections of white youth they could lead. If they are successful, they will be contributing to the eventual defeat and demoralisation of the black communities themselves.

From riot to revolution

For many of those who took part in the riots, it will have been one of the great experiences of their lives. For riots, even more than strikes, provide people who have often lived desolate, atomised, boring lives with an experience of solidarity, of collective power, of being able to affect the course of society at large instead of merely being on the receiving end. That is why after great riots, the participants and onlookers rarely express regret at what has happened, even though the casualties on their side are invariably greater than among the police.

There was, as we have seen, almost no overt politics in most of the big riots. They were spontaneous eruptions, led by those without worked-out political views, drawing behind them a cross section of the youth in their areas. Yet the experience of the riots will have been a very political one. It will have provided many white youth including some previously influenced by the Nazis with the novel experience of fighting alongside black youth against a very real and visible enemy, the police. It will have shown many blacks that once a real fight-back begins, then whites can be won to fight alongside the black community against common enemies. Above all, it will have pin-pointed to all groups that there is an alternative to merely acquiescing in the ravages of the crisis, the massive levels of inner city unemployment, the indifferences of the major political parties and the brutality of the police.

However, riots also have one great deficiency as compared with strikes. The strike is based upon a group of workers who experience a common, structured relationship with capital. By turning off the flow of value, workers are able to paralyse one of the basic mechanisms of the system and to insist it does not operate again until they have made tangible gains. Strikes therefore tend to last much longer than riots and the gains achieved can hold the group of workers together to some extent even after the strike is over. Strikes provide the basis for permanent encroachments on the power of capital and for the building of permanent forms of rank-and-file based organisation in the workplaces.

Riots, by contrast, cannot by their very nature last very long or result in the building of rooted, permanent organisation. They are characterised by clashes with the forces of the state on the streets. Yet a riot cannot hold the forces of the state back from a particular neighbourhood for more than a couple of days at most (unless of course, it develops into something more than a riot, into a revolution that destroys the ability of the state to concentrate its forces in one locality.) Once the police have retaken control of the locality, the crowds that provided people with a feeling of collective power are dispersed. People are driven back into the isolated homes, the segmented experiences, from which the riot drew them. Within days collective exhilaration, the festival of the oppressed, has been replaced by the old atomisation, powerlessness, apathy. The riot always rises like a rocket – and drops like a stick.

The result is that there is always the greatest possible difficulty in turning the politics implicit in the riot into sustained political organisation.

This has even been true when political organisations have played a key role in leading the struggles on the streets. Thus in the 1880s, the new socialist groups had great hopes of what could be built from the street agitation. ‘This period, apparently a time of great ferment and excitement raised apocalyptic hopes ... It was regarded by some socialist leaders as the eve of the socialist revolution.’ [122] Yet neither the SDF nor the Socialist League seems to have succeeded in expanding in the period of the agitation.

Again, as we have seen, in the riots of 1931-2, a major role was played by the Communist Party through the National Unemployed Workers Movement. Yet this did not stop the decline in the party’s membership (from 5,565 in 1928 to 2,555 in 1931 [123]). A small group of (mainly protestant) militants who had been won to Communism played a key role in the joint protestant-Catholic Belfast riots over unemployment in 1932; yet the Irish Communists were still not strong enough a year later to produce a regular paper. [124]

We cannot expect any greater degree of immediate politicisation from the riots this year. A survey of Socialist Worker Party branches suggests that where they have managed to get out a leaflet during the course of the riots, they have met a good response, with the leaflets eagerly being taken and read; and that there have been subsequent improvements in the sales of Socialist Worker in the locality, but the numbers of people showing an immediate interest in revolutionary politics has been a matter of ones or twos here or there.

This is not surprising. In the first few days of a great strike, you don’t find many workers turning to revolutionary politics. It is only as the strike drags on and as they get involved in activity and discussion with socialists lasting weeks, that they begin to see the relevance of our arguments. The problem is that riots do not last that long, and there is no other way the participants are drawn together to engage in that sustained activity and discussion.

Yet many of those who participated in the riots have been through the beginnings of a politicising experience. It will be up to socialists in the months ahead to search out ways of developing enduring contact with some of them, so as to draw these lessons out through regular paper sales in the riot areas, through mobilisations against unemployment, through campaigns in defence of those arrested and imprisoned, through using the ANL and local RAR clubs as a way of building upon the experienced united struggle.

In the long term, however, the energy displayed on the streets will be dissipated unless it moves to a terrain more favourable for the building of permanent organisation – to the workplaces.

It is when this has happened in the past, that the revolutionary movement has made real gains. Thus the riots of 1886-7 may have been ephemeral. But many involved with them were back in employment in 1886 and 1889 and contributed to the biggest wave of industrial unrest known in Britain for half a century – the match girls strike, the dockers tanner strike, the Beckton gasworks strike and so on. Out of these strikes were built new forms of trade unionism, among the previously unorganised unskilled workers, in which socialists could play an important role.

Again, in the early 1930s the Communist Party was able to build very little immediately out of the unemployed riots. But many of those radicalised by their activity in the unemployed agitation were to get jobs as the economy began to lift out of the recession from 1933 onwards, and to help the CP build a solid base in industries like motors, aircraft manufacture, and the mines. In the case of the US in the 1930s, the picture was to be even more spectacular: the slum-generated bitterness that found expression in unemployed rioting in 1932 was the direct predecessor of the great explosion of industrial unrest that produced the CIO a couple of years later.

Noone is predicting an industrial explosion on such a scale in Britain in the near future. But what is certain is that the bitterness building up among very large masses of workers at the moment – the bitterness which exploded so readily among the young and most volatile sections of the class in the inner cities is also present in the workplace. It will come to the surface the moment workers begin to feel that they can achieve victory if they strike – a feeling that can be engendered whether by a limited economic upturn (which even the most monetarist of governments can be expected to encourage in the run-up to the next general election) or by a major successful struggle by a large group of workers who still feel they have the strength.

At the moment, the mood in the workplaces is still, of course, very different to that experienced on the streets of Toxteth or Moss Side. The average industrial worker is older and feels he or she has much more to lose from all-out confrontation than do the youth who fought the police. But the separation between the two is not absolute. Many of those who rioted are to be found in workplaces: of the 106 arrested for ‘public order’ offences in Moss Side, 38 were employed [125] (as against 55 unemployed and 10 students). If 47% of black people in Toxteth are unemployed, that still means that 53 percent have jobs. Black workers can form one important link in the chain connecting anger on the streets to the bitterness which is growing in the factories. For unlike some other oppressed groups, they are over-represented rather than under-represented in some of the most powerful sections of the working class. 47% of ‘New Commonwealth’ migrants work in manufacturing industry (as opposed to only 33% of the general population) and another 12% work in transport. [126] Three quarters of West Indian women work, as against only 53% of women in general (and 90% of West Indian women workers are full time workers, as against only 60% of all women). [127] 43% of black workers are employed in plants of over 500 workers, as compared with 43% for indigenous white workers. [128] In the West Midlands one West Indian worker in three and one Pakistani worker in three work in the motor industry, while ‘twice the proportion of New Commonwealth women work in engineering and allied trades than white women.’ [129]

The jobs in which black workers are under-represented are, in fact, those in the white collar sector, particularly the higher grades. [130]

Because of the sorts of jobs black people do, they are considerably more likely to be trade union members than the average white person. But this is not the same thing as a high level of participation in the unions. The bureaucratic, sometimes racist attitudes of trade union officialdom on the one hand, the willingness of many first generation black workers to tolerate conditions in Britain as they found them on the other, have combined to produce a relatively low level of involvement in union branches, stewards committees, district committees and the like. Campaigning to change this situation is important if the activism of the streets is going to feed itself into the workplaces. Young, militant, black workers have to see union organisation in the workplaces as a means both of fighting against racist practices which would isolate them from other workers and of pushing for demands that would benefit the class as a whole.

Another vital link can be youth, both black and white. In order to try to defuse the situation on the streets, the government is pushing schemes both to expand ‘work training’ through YOPs and to subsidise employers who take on youth at wages of less than £40 a week. In the process, they are ensuring that some at least of those who have been throwing petrol bombs at the police are going to be concentrated together, subjected collectively to very clear forms of exploitation, in close proximity to adult workers. Attempts to organise these youth can also channel the anger from the streets into ranks of powerful sections of the class.

The short term political gains for revolutionary socialists from the riots have not been all that great. But the transformation in mass consciousness that began in the riots can have very big long term consequences. It is up to revolutionaries to seize the opportunities to build unity in struggle between black and white, young workers and adult workers, the unemployed and the employed.


1. Ilene Melish, Guardian, 31 July 1981.

2. Guardian, 7 July 1981.

3. Guardian, ibid.

4. Reply to Questionnaire sent to SWP branches a fortnight after riots; Liverpool reply. In future these replies will simply be referred to as Questionnaire, Liverpool etc.

5. Questionnaire, Manchester.

6. Ibid.

7. Financial Times, 10 July 1981.

8. Questionnaire, Handsworth.

9. Questionnaire, Southall.

10. Questionnaire, Leeds.

11. Questionnaire, Bolton.

12. Questionnaire, Luton.

13. Questionnaire, Leicester.

14. Questionnaire, Nottingham.

15. Questionnaire, Hackney.

16. Questionnaire, Hull.

17. Questionnaire, Gloucester.

18. Questionnaire, Hull.

19. Questionnaire, Walthamstow.

20. Questionnaire, Woolwich.

21. Questionnaire, Handsworth.

22. Questionnaire, Southall.

23. See the chart of arrests and police injuries, Socialist Worker, 18 July 1981.

24. Bob Holton, British Syndicalism 1910-14, London 1976, pp.81-82.

25. Ibid., p.99.

26. Ibid., p.100.

27. Quoted ibid.

28. Ibid., p.100.

29. Max Beer, History of British Socialism, Vol.II, London 1940, p.260.

30. Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London, Harmondsworth 1976, pp.291-2. For other accounts see Beer, op. cit.; Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx, Vol.II, New York 1976, pp.77-79; E.P. Thompson, William Morris, London 1977, p.486.

31. See quotations in Yvonne Kapp, op. cit.

32. Stedman Jones, op. cit., p.294.

33. Kapp, op. cit., pp.225-4.

34. Beer, op. cit., p.262.

35. Wal Hannington, Unemployed Struggles, London 1977, p.223.

36. Ibid, p.226.

37. All detail from Some Merseyside Militants by Tony Lane, in H.H. Hikins, ed. Building the Union, Liverpool 1973.

38. Ibid.

39. Hannington, op. cit., pp.248-9.

40. Kerner Report (The US National Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders, 1967).

41. Nathan Cohen, ed., The Los Angeles Riots, New York 1970, p.3.

42. Kerner Report, op. cit.

43. Ibid.

44. Joseph Boskin, Urban Racial Violence, Los Angeles 1969, p.59.

45. Bayard Rustin, quoted in Boskin, op. cit., p.105

46. F.J. Hacker, writing on Watts, quoted in Boskin, op. cit., p.90

47. Newsweek, 7 August 1967, reprinted in Boskin, op. cit., p.133. In Newark 21 of the 23 deaths were of blacks, (ibid., p.125), in Detroit 32 of the 40 deaths (ibid., p.133).

48. Cohen, op. cit., p.12.

49. Newsweek, op. cit.

50. Figures given by Baran & Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, Harmondsworth 1973, p.252.

51. Ibid, p.255.

52. Kerner Report, op. cit.

53. R.M. Egelson, quoted in A. Platt, The Politics of Riot Commissions, New York 1971, p.313.

54. Kerner Report, op. cit.

55. Tyrone, a black SWP member in Brixton, quoted in Socialist Worker, 18 April 1981.

56. Micky, another black SWP member in Brixton, interviewed in Socialist Review 1981:5.

57. Johnny Evans, Socialist Worker, 12 April 1980.

58. Guardian, 4 May 1981.

59. Questionnaire, Southall.

60. Questionnaire, Toxteth; see also Ilene Melish, op. cit.

61. Guardian, 19 August 1981.

62. Questionnaire, Wood Green.

63. Questionnaire, Handsworth.

64. Questionnaire, Woolwich.

65. Questionnaire, Leeds.

66. Questionnaire, Bolton.

67. Questionnaire, Halifax.

68. For details of all these trends, see Stedman Jones, op. cit., pp.19-159.

69. Department of Employment Gazette, August 1979, p.746.

70. Because of underregistration by women, the male figures give a better indication of average trends than do the figures for all unemployed.

71. Figures given in Friend and Metcalfe, Slump City, London 1981, p.118.

72. Quoted in ibid., p.118.

73. Quoted in Guardian, 1 July 1981.

74. Figures from Department of Employment Gazette, July 1981, table 2.5.

75. For details of the pattern of black employment, see The Runnymede Trust and the Radical Statistics Group, Britain’s Black Population London 1980, pp.55-63; and Smith, Racial Disadvantage in Britain, Harmondsworth 1977, pp.65-95.

The most important conclusion of both accounts is that black people are more concentrated in manual work than white (about the same proportion being skilled manual workers, but a much lower proportion being in white collar jobs and a much higher proportion in semi-skilled and unskilled manual jobs), were twice as likely to work shifts and earnt an average of about 11% less in the case of men (although ‘there are no such inequalities among women’, possibly because women are already discriminated against because of their sex).

76. Smith, op. cit., p.68. What the Department of Employment call ‘minority groups’ are people from Africa, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the West Indies and ‘other Commonwealth territories’ and those with one or more parents from these places.

77. Ibid., p.69.

78. Runnymede Trust etc., op. cit., p.66.

79. Department of Employment Gazette, June 1981, table 2.17.

80. For instance, see Runnymede Trust etc., p.66.

81. Ibid., p.76.

82. Smith, op. cit., p.96.

83. Runnymede Trust etc., p.67.

84. Guardian, 7 July 1981.

85. Rex and Tomlinson, Colonial Immigrants in a British City, London 1979, p.217. Interestingly, the Kerner Report on the US riots of 1967 finds ‘unemployment and underemployment’ to be second in the list of black grievances, just behind police practice and ahead of inadequate housing.

86. For a dismissal as ‘pure impressionism’ of a claim that youth unemployment in Handsworth was “25 per cent” in the mid-70s, see Rex and Tomlinson, op. cit., p.235.

87. I don’t intend here to go into the argument as to whether this is simply a response to economic hardship, or as some ‘deviancy’ sociologists argue, a sort of pre-political protest against society – see for instance, Michael Pratt, Mugging as a Social Problem, Ken Pryce, Endless Pressure, Harmondsworth 1979.

88. What is surprising is that so far this only applies to Afro-Caribbean youth, not to Asian youth who commit less than average crime. According to police arrest figures (which will of course be distorted by police racism) in Lambeth in 1977, West Indians, who were 10% of the population, were responsible for 28% of robberies (but only 10% of shop lifting and 14% of burglaries) while Asians were responsible for less than 2% or robberies and 1% of burglaries.

89. For a much more prolonged discussion of this question, see Stuart Hall and others, Policing the Crisis, London 1978.

90. Figures from Pratt, op. cit., p.152.

91. Brown, Shades of Grey, quoted in Rex and Tomlinson, op. cit., p.234.

92. Rex and Tomlinson, op. cit.; for the small amounts robbed in ‘muggings’ see Pratt, op. cit.

93. Memorandum to the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration, quoted in Pratt, op. cit., p.135.

94. Quoted in Friends and Metcalfe, op. cit., p.150.

95. Reported in Guardian, 30 June 1981.

96. Interview in the Leveller, 21 August 1981.

97. Richmond, Migration and Race Relations in an English City, London 1973, p.81.

98. Rex and Tomlinson, op. cit., p.78.

99. Richmond, op. cit., p.188. Cf. also Pearson, Race, Class and Political Activism, Farnborough 1981, p.116.

100. Rex and Tomlinson, op. cit., pp.80 and 116.

101. Guardian, 7 July 1981

102. Guardian, 24 July 1981.

103. See, for instance, W.J. Wetherby, Guardian, 24 August 1981.

104. See, for instance, the otherwise excellent article by a university research worker in race relations, Ilene Melish, Guardian, 31 July 1981.

105. Rex and Tomlinson, op. cit., p.229.

106. Almost certainly, from the description of it, Highfields in Leicester.

107. Pearson, op. cit.

108. Ken Pryce, op cit., p.156

109. One of the defendants in the 1976 Leeds Bonfire trial, interviewed in Race Today, September 1976.

110. Rex and Tomlinson, op. cit., p.225.

111. Race Today, March 1978.

112. Race Today, Nov-Dec 1977.

113. Race Today, July-August 1978.

114. Race Today, November 1980.

115. Ibid., The argument has been taken up by those who should know better. Quoting copiously from interviews with black teenagers in Race Today (April 1975), Tony Bogues has insisted: ‘Black youth have no interest in shit work. For them it is both lack of work and the nature of work. In other words, a rejection of the capitalist labour process ...’ As total unemployment goes up: ‘the tendency not to take part in the capitalist labour process is strengthened ...’ from this it follows that black youth cannot ‘accept the notion of “the right to work”’. The way to organise the ‘rejection of the capitalist labour process’ is not through workplace or unemployed struggles, but by defence campaigns over police harassment: ‘with the increasing scale of harassment by the police, the Defence campaigns will become vehicles by which mass organisations of the black community can be built.’ (International Socialism, old series, 101, Oct 1977).

This neither fits in with the findings of numerous surveys of black youth – that the overwhelming majority are as interested in getting jobs as white youth – or with the experience of ‘mass defence campaigns’ which rarely involve large numbers of people for more than one or two demonstrations.

116. Bradford speech. Race Today, March 1978.

117. Race Today, Nov.-Dec. 1974.

118. Laurie and Sy Landy, International Socialism (old series) 48.

119. A particular feature of these is the demand for ‘public inquiries’ of one sort or another – see for instance Black Voice, vol.12, account of a meeting of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee where ‘it was unanimously decided that an Independent International Commission of Inquiry would be set up ...’

120. Race Today, June 1978.

121. From a forthcoming paper on Black Nationalism.

122. Beer, op. cit., p.203.

123. Figures given in Pierre Frank, Histoire de I’Internationale Communiste, Paris 1979, vol.II, p.634.

124. I owe this information to Mike Millotte, who is working on a book on the history of Communism in Ireland.

125. Guardian, 19 August 1981.

126. Runnymede Trust etc., op. cit., p.60.

127. Smith, op. cit., pp.25 and 67.

128. Figures given in Hall and others, op. cit., p.341.

129. Rex and Tomlinson, op. cit.

130. Which is why it is mistaken as well as trite to denounce those socialists who insist on relating to industrial and lower grade white collar workers, for having ‘stereotype of the class’ as ‘white and male’ – that stereotype actually applies to the higher grade white collar layers from which most of those who repeat that denunciation usually come.

Last updated on 29.2.2012