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All hail to the mob

This article is over 12 years, 9 months old
The ruling class has always tried to paint riots as the actions of a criminal minority – but, as Simon Basketter discovers, the mob has a proud and radical history
Issue 2265

Riots scare people with property. The greater their property, the more scared they become. So they seek protection from bodies of armed men to keep “the mob” at bay.

While British politics is more polarised than it has been for a generation, the establishment has united in an age-old contempt for the poor.

Hatred of the mob was the front page of the papers after the riots last week. Demands for clampdowns and nostalgia for mythical pasts of social cohesion and family values are as predictable as they are pointless.

Rulers always treat mobs and riots with outrage. They try to dismiss them as exceptions involving small numbers of criminals. But they are actually a constant feature of history, and happen time and again when the anger and frustration of the dispossessed bursts out.

The Tory Edmund Burke, horrified by the French Revolution, wrote in 1790 of the “swinish multitudes” saying the mob had “cannibal appetites”.

In 1832 dukes Rutland, Argyll and Buckingham, among others, demanded the right to fire their private cannon at “mobs” proposing electoral change.

“The mob” is used to describe protesters when those at the top have no idea who is leading them, or what they might do.

As the former Tory MP and baronet Ian Gilmour wrote in his book on the history of rioting, “they are convinced that the ruled can have no cause for complaint; hence they infer that popular violence must stem from licentiousness, perversity or agitation”.

The Chartist revolt in the mid-19th century led to pontificating about the breakdown of traditional discipline and family life, which almost exactly mirrors the response of politicians today.

The moralists created a movement designed to wean the working classes from drink, fornication and political rebellion, and set them on the road to improvement.

The spirit of the Blitz has been invoked in response to the riots today. Yet in 1941 over 4,000 looting cases came before the courts, including children and a remarkable number of rescue workers, firefighters, police, bomb-disposal units and mortuary attendants.

Before the development of modern capitalist society, and to some extent after it, there was a tradition of what historian Eric Hobsbawm called “negotiation by riot”.

Crowds of the dispossessed would assemble and destroy property, or threaten to. Food rioters in the 18th century rarely inflicted serious injury on the farmers or shopkeepers whose prices they protested against.


And industrial rioters were far more likely to destroy machines they saw as putting them out of work, than attack their employers.

During the 112 years between riots in 1736 to the revolutionary year of 1848, only seven people were killed by protesters. But state forces putting down the protests killed 609 people.

And riots weren’t limited to a small group of criminals. Marxist historian George Rudé wrote that “popular rioting” was “endemic” throughout the 18th century. Those involved were described as “wage earners…rarely criminals”.

Of course, the London Gazette paper demanded, “to prosecute with utmost rigour such persons who have been active in the said riots.” But importantly, rioting did achieve the withdrawal of specific legislation, often over religious reform or taxation.

Those at the top like to contrast the mob with Britain’s peaceful, democratic traditions. But even elections have been marked by riots.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, they were crowd events. If a candidate wanted support he had to beg for and incite it. When candidates refused to play, the crowd would retaliate.

In Leicester in 1790 the two parties decided to compromise the election to save trouble and expense. The mob promptly gutted the town hall and public library—including lists of taxes owed.


The mob, as Marxist historian EP Thompson wrote, “is continuously regenerating itself as anti-capitalist critique, as a resistance movement”.

By the 19th century riots were no longer the main form of political protest, but they were an important one.

The development of an organised working class made other forms of collective protest possible. Now riots tended to start after a direct intervention from the state—police attacking a protestor or a miscarriage of justice.

In 1842, a general strike in northern mill towns saw troops despatched by train from London to keep order.

The troops had to charge through crowds of protesters to get to the station, injuring over 300 people. Ever since, police repression has been a focus of rebellion, often sparking the thing it is meant to prevent. The unemployed movement at the end of the 19th century escalated on the back of police attacks on demonstrators.

One 1880 account notes, “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”.

That was repeated in the 1930s with major clashes between police, hunger marchers and anti-fascists. There were baton charges against unemployed people in over 30 towns in 1931.

In Glasgow 50,000 defied a police ban. Wal Hannington wrote, “The battle extended throughout the centre of the city. For hours it raged, shop windows were broken and extensive damage was done.”


A pattern developed from the 1970s onwards of rebellion against racism and poverty.

Police racism triggered a revolt in Brixton, south London, in 1981 that spread. And in 1985 police brutality was the spark for the Tottenham riots.

A massive demonstration against the poll tax in 1990 turned into a riot after police attacked it.

That showed there isn’t a counter-position between riots and organising to defeat our rulers. As does the great industrial unrest at the start of the 20th century. Over 300,000 miners struck in South Wales over pay—despite opposition from increasingly conservative trade union leaders.

Attacked by the police, their revolt spilled over into rioting and near insurrection. Troops had to rescue the police. The same happened during mass strikes in Liverpool.

As British revolutionary Chris Harman wrote, “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.

“Riots, by contrast, cannot by their very nature last very long.”

The state can regroup and fightback. The police invariably use tactics that remind people that there are penalties for daring to protest. Their clubs teach a sharp lesson about state power.

This leads some to the belief that the only way to reform the system is from the inside. The revolutionary socialist conclusion is to deepen confrontation and to win larger numbers of people to adopting the best methods to bring down the system.

That means going beyond riots, and building mass resistance based on the power of the organised working class.

It means escalating struggle to organised mass strikes that can confront the system with the aim of overthrowing it.

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