Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1977

Do riots achieve anything?

This article is over 16 years, 1 months old
As France reels Anindya Bhattacharyya examines the consequences of previous uprisings
Issue 1977
1964 — Newark, US
1964 — Newark, US

The two weeks of rioting across France have seen extraordinary confrontations between young people and the police.

But they have also been accompanied by an ideological battle in the mainstream media over what measures French society, and in particular the state, should take in response.

The French riots also raise questions for Europe’s emerging new left movement, and for revolutionary socialists in particular.

What should our attitude to the riots — and the rioters — be? Can we simply take at face value the assumption that riots are inherently irrational and destructive? And if we don’t, what can their connection be to collective, effective action to transform society?

The reactions of right wing commentators in papers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have been little more than bizarre racist conspiracy theories, amounting to a crude attempt to yoke the riots to the ideological crusade against Muslims that underpins the “war on terror”.

Most commentators with even a passing connection to reality admit that the French riots have nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with decades of grinding poverty, racism and police brutality.

“The reality is that there is nothing particularly Muslim, or even French, about the violence,” wrote the liberal sociologist Olivier Roy in the New York Times. “Rather, we are witnessing the temporary rising up of one small part of a Western underclass culture that reaches from Paris to London to Los Angeles and beyond.”

He notes that “most of the rioters… wear the same hooded sweatshirts, listen to similar music and use slang in the same way as their counterparts in Los Angeles or Washington”.

Roy adds, “It is no accident that in French-dubbed versions of Hollywood films, African-American characters usually speak with the accent heard in the Paris banlieues.”

Poverty is a consistent factor in the history of urban riots, which date back to the earliest days of capitalism.


The economic slump in the last third of the 19th century reached its depths in 1886. A mass demonstration against unemployment in February of that year turned into a riot as it passed the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall, central London.

As one historian wrote, “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.”

The return of mass unemployment in the early 1930s again brought mass demonstrations, and rioting.

In October 1931, 50,000 Glasgow unemployed defied a police ban on their demonstration which ended in a battle that “extended throughout the centre of the city. For hours it raged, shop windows were broken and extensive damage was done.”

Decades later, these riots generally came to be seen as understandable upsurges against suffering. But at the time the establishment and right wing labour leaders attacked them as the work of “criminals” that had nothing to do with the “respectable working classes”, who stoically suffered in silence.

That was also the response to the hundreds of inner city riots that swept the US between 1964 and 1968. An additional factor was that it was black ghettos that erupted. Poverty was endemic and racist police brutality was often the trigger.

The same was true in Britain’s inner cities in 1981 where large numbers of unemployed white youth joined blacks in battling the police.

On each occasion it was not simply enough for the left to recognise the underlying social conditions that led to the riots. It was imperative to challenge the offensive by the right, conceded to by many liberals, which sought to drive a wedge between “decent” workers and “criminal” youths lashing out against the police and burning cars.

These major riots were driven by the same frustrations that led to other more organised and collective acts of resistance at the time. And they are not aimless expressions of rage.

In fact, under certain circumstances, they can contribute to winning reforms and concessions from the state.


The 1960s ghetto uprisings in the US came at the same time as a burgeoning movement against the Vietnam war and a growing student revolt. The first stirrings of organised working class resistance in major workplaces came a little later.

The riots deepened the political crisis facing the US establishment and forced it to acknowledge that resources and jobs had to be brought into the ghettos.

Simarlarly, the 1980s riots in Britain forced the state to retreat from hardline policing strategies.

The existence of racism pushed its way into public debate, even though the official Scarman inquiry stopped short of admitting it was structured into British institutions.

The Tory government was forced to invest in inner city areas throughout much of the decade.

Above all, the experience of black and white young people fighting on the same side cemented the anti-racist atmosphere that had been built up through agitation against the Nazi National Front in the 1970s. And, fleetingly, riots can provide a sense of asserting some power and control against a hostile state.

As one participant in the Notting Hill riots in London in the 1970s recalled, “It was fantastically liberating at the time. There was a sense that you didn’t have to just take it from the police — if there’s enough of you the police will run away.

“But the question is — what do you do with that feeling?” That points to the limitations of riots. The spontaneous nature of such outbursts means that the police can always ultimately quell the disturbance.

This is especially so if it is contained in isolated working class areas. Writing after the 1981 riots Socialist Worker’s Chris Harman described how “riots rise like a rocket, but fall like a stick”.

More seriously, the lack of any overall direction and control means the force unleashed is diffuse and poorly targeted.

The police, banks and supermarkets can be targeted — but schools and community centres can also get burned.

In Los Angeles in 1992 black residents of the South Central area vented their fury at police racism, but also, in some instances, at local Korean-owned small businesses.


The spontaneous character of riots means they tend to lack collective organisation and, as a consequence, the kinds of shared ideas and strategies that are vital to confronting something as centralised as state and corporate power.

A comparison with major strikes — another form of working class collective rebellion — sheds light on this.

Mass strikes involve a far greater degree of collective organisation and conscious deliberation among workers than riots. They also hit capital at its weakest spot — at the point at which profits are made.

The gains they make and reforms they win tend to be deeper and longer lasting. Riots worry the ruling class, but militant mass strikes truly scare them.

However, it would be a big mistake to artificially counterpose strikes to riots and other forms of protest.

In the battle against apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, there was an interplay between collective action in the mines and factories, and eruptions of street protests and violent confrontations with the police.

Student protests in France in 1968 led to riots which drew in other young people. The students’ organisation meant that the rioting was relatively organised and directed against the police.

This street fighting tapped a wider feeling of bitterness in French society and triggered what was up to that point the biggest general strike in history. Society did not break down into random violence.

On the contrary working people began occupying factories and workplaces, posing an alternative way of running society.

The critical issue is how to blend the anger, energy and defiance shown by the rioting young people of France’s estates with the political consciousness and strategy of collective action.

In such circumstances, calls for order and denunciations of people for burning cars serve only to reinforce the government’s attempts to batter the estates into submission.

Nearly 1,000 local committees in France delivered a no vote in the referendum on the neo-liberal European constitution earlier this year, confounding the entire political establishment.

There have been major strike movements across Europe in recent years, drawing in previously poorly organised workers. It is from these forces that the potential exists to connect the rage on the isolated estates in the French suburbs with the wider bitterness at the Tory government and its policies.

It takes organisation and initiative from the left to do that, and discussion of precisely what initiatives to take.

But at the heart of that means a radical left politics that does not shun the young rioters for falling short of the left’s ideals. It must instead seek to draw them into the kind of powerful, collective fight that riots, by themselves, cannot deliver.

1981 — Brixton
1981 — Brixton
1990 — Trafalgar Square
1990 — Trafalgar Square


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