2015: Some Thoughts On Riots
I have contributed an article entitled “Imagined Violence: Some Riots in Fiction” to the new book “A History of Riots” (edited by Keith Flett, Cambridge Scholars); see http://www.cambridgescholars.com/a-history-of-riots . I was unable to attend the launch – http://londonsocialisthistorians.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/book-launch-history-of-riots.html – but submitted these brief comments.
My contribution to the book is a piece called “Imagined Violence”, in which I look at the depiction of riots in some novels from the Chartist period to the present. There is a complex interaction between fiction and reality. Thus in Zola’s novel Germinal there is a scene where the shopkeeper Maigrat dies after a fall; for years he has sexually abused the women of the mining community in return for credit. A group of women castrate him; the amputated organ is placed on the end of a stick and carried like a flag.
Now I recall reading (and unfortunately I have been unable to trace the reference) that some time after the publication of the book a group of women strikers did something very similar to a hated shopkeeper. The episode had caused a certain degree of scandal, so even if they had not read the book they might well have heard of it. One can only applaud Zola for giving them the idea.
But my main interest was in seeing how depictions of riots in fiction reflect and often condense themes in popular consciousness, which are often reinforced by media distortions. Riots tend to be a stumbling block for even the most perceptive social observers. Engels pointed out that intelligent conservatives such as Balzac may be able to tell us more about social reality than apparently more “progressive” commentators. And there can be no doubt that such writers as Disraeli and Dostoevsky were intelligent and perceptive conservatives, whose thought has to be respected and taken seriously, and not simply rejected.
But in the face of rioting some of the best writers seem to lose their bearings. Rioting tends to be explained in terms of two complementary myths. On the one hand rioters are seen as being wholly irrational, maddened by anger into a state of total destructiveness, a state often aggravated by drunkenness. The rioters are dismissed as “riff-raff” and treated with contempt. At the same time riots are seen as being manipulated by sinister “outside agitators”.
By the 1960s the “riff-raff” often included students, at a time when the expansion of higher education seemed to be diluting the privileges of the élite. In Simon Raven’s novel Places Where They Sing, which depicts a student riot in Cambridge, one of the Cambridge academics notes that the demonstrators “had come by coach for the day from places like Essex and Sussex. I thought they looked too awful to be ours, even in the distance.”
And since the riff-raff lack any ideas or moral values of their own, they are easy prey to the “outside agitators”. Thus Disraeli imagines the character of Bishop Hatton, leader of the Hell-cats. He is presented as totally ignorant of the movement he is taking advantage of, not knowing even the five points of the Charter. Disraeli was well aware that Chartism was an expression of powerful proletarian articulacy, with orators, mass meetings and numerous publications. Yet as soon as working people started to take things into their own hands, with a bit of collateral violence, his understanding seemed to collapse into crude caricature.
Likewise Dostoevsky sums up the relation between “riff-raff” and the political left in a paragraph of the most astounding arrogance and condescension: “This riff-raff almost always falls unconsciously under the control of the little group of ‘advanced people’ who do act with a definite aim, and this little group can direct all this rabble as it pleases, if only it does not itself consist of absolute idiots, which, however, is sometimes the case.”
I think socialist historians have to counter these myths with a proper understanding of the dynamics of riots - and there are some insights in faction which can help us.
Firstly, we have to insist that riots are not irrational. They have real causes, which are deeply rooted in social and historical factors. Thus in his very fine novel L’Art français de la guerre Alexis Jenni shows that if we want to understand riots in contemporary French cities, often involving the immigrant population, we have to understand French history since 1945, the way that French imperialism clung on to its territory at the cost of enormous brutality, especially in the course of the Algerian War. As he puts it: “One spark and everything burns. If the forest burns, it’s because it was dry and covered with brushwood. They track down the spark; they want to nick the offender. They want to have him, to name him, to expose his ignominy and hang him. But sparks are produced endlessly. The forest is dry.”
Likewise, riots in the Chartist age were the result of an accumulation of oppression and violence. The oppressed had no votes; if peaceful demonstrations and petitions could not achieve their aims, then rioting was an eminently rational option. Today the most deprived in society do have votes – but apparently the only choice is between two equally corrupt and ineffective parties.
If rioting has real causes and is not irrational, then there is no place for sinister agitators. But that does not mean that there is no place for leadership. No riot is purely spontaneous – there is always some leadership, whether from those already established in the class or community, or from individuals who take an initiative at a crucial moment. As Daniel Guérin put it: “There’s always somebody pushing for spontaneity”. On 14 July 1789 someone (and we’ll never know who) said “Let’s go to the Bastille”. Others thought that was a good idea and the word was quickly passed around.
I’ve once experienced this process on a much less historically significant scale. Sometime around 1970 we were marching down the Strand towards Rhodesia House, which, of course, was defended by large numbers of police. Suddenly somebody (and again I’ve no idea who the person was) suggested we turn round and go to South Africa House in Trafalgar Square. Within moments the suggestion was passed on – we all thought it was an eminently good idea and turned round. For a few minutes the front door of South Africa House was protected by one solitary policeman – we almost got in.
Finally, let me make it clear that I am not advocating rioting. I’ve no desire to see Keith Flett and the London Socialist Historians Group prosecuted under anti-extremism legislation. And even more seriously, I’ve no desire to see rioters scapegoated and punished for taking on a state machine that is stronger than they are – as happened in 2011. There can be no moral objection to violent demonstrations against Tory austerity, but there is a serious tactical question as to their advisability. As William Morris, one of the few writers I considered who had actually been a rioter, put it: “If a riot is spontaneous it does frighten the bourgeois even if it is but isolated; but planned riots or shows of force are no good unless in a time of action, when they are backed by the opinion of the people and are in point of fact indications of the rising tide …”