Oct 31, 1981
When the Pakistani and Indian youth of Southall, in London, took to the streets on the night of July 3, they ignited a flashfire. Within three days of the original incident a dozen neighborhoods in London, as well as the poor neighborhoods in 30 other cities and towns were engulfed by social warfare. Within 10 days, the total had grown to more than 75 cities and towns. Sections of the working class youth, both immigrant and English, by their actions if not by conscious design, turned their backs on the traditional channels of protest and redress.
Widespread fighting lasted for almost two weeks, moving in waves from one location to another. As late as September, the British authorities were admitting that the police were still not free to come and go as they would like in the poor neighborhoods of the big industrial cities like Liverpool and Manchester. The mass arrests, quick trials and long sentences meted out have not been sufficient to re-establish the order which had prevailed before July 3.
This is due in part to the fact that the young people were willing to defend themselves against the violence of the racist gangs and the police, meeting violence with violence. The burning buildings and the looted stores reflected their anger. And when they took to the streets, they took their revenge on the police and other symbols of their oppression and victimization. As the days passed, the police stations became targets and many of them came under siege. In an area like Toxteth, in Liverpool, in 3 days of fighting, it was reported that 400 police were wounded, 40 buildings burned out, dozens of cars burned, and widespread areas looted.
This social explosion was undoubtably a response to the ravaging effects the economic crisis has had on the laboring masses of Britain. But it was a response confined essentially to young people. The prison sentences bear that out. Of the hundreds sentenced within the first 3 weeks, the overwhelming majority were under 20, with ages for the most part much younger than that. One person sentenced was only 11 years old.
Among the young people who fought, the immigrants provided the largest number of the fighters. To see why, it’s enough to point out that it was actions by racists and police, actions which are everyday occurrences in the immigrant neighborhoods, which provoked the most important of the conflicts. If the unemployment and lowered standard of living was the essential cause of the struggles, nonetheless that cause was transmitted through the prism of police brutality against all poor youth, magnified by the racial oppression which harasses the lives of the immigrants.
After the uprisings of black people during the 1960s in the U.S., it is no longer so surprising to see something bordering on urban insurrection in the big industrial cities. What was significant was to see how easy it was for the young Asian and West Indian people to pull the English youth after them, to see how struggles which began in protest of racist violence were quickly generalized by the community of interest held by all the poor working class youth.
The effects of the economic crisis, reinforced by the austerity program of both the Labour and the Conservative governments, have hit the British working class hard. And clearly the situation has worsened drastically in the past year: the government’s own statistics on unemployment show that while a year ago last summer slightly over one and a half million were unemployed, this summer the figure had almost reached 3 million.
It is the youth, and even more the immigrant youth who have taken a disproportionate share of the blows.
The overall rate of unemployment stands at 11%, and the rate for young people is now 3 times greater than that for adults. And in the poor quarters of the big industrial cities, the disparity is even worse, particularly in those areas with large immigrant populations. For example, in Liverpool, the rate today stands at 17%; in Toxteth, a neighborhood of Liverpool, the overall rate for the unemployed, the majority who are immigrants, is 45%, and 60% for young West Indian workers. The government itself has estimated that if current trends keep up, by 1983, 60% of all those under 18 will be unemployed.
Patently, these conditions are not peculiar to Britain. In the U.S., the thoroughgoing racism of the society has produced these kinds of disparities in an even more exaggerated fashion for black youth. It’s enough to point out that the nationwide rate of unemployment for black youth today stands at just over 50%, while the rate for adult white males is less than 5%. And in the large industrial cities, hardest hit by the crisis, the official figures seem more appropriate to the large urban areas of an underdeveloped country, where the economy is so distorted that it is more able to create a large lumpen-proletariat than anything else.
In all the industrialized countries of the West we find similar disparities. Perhaps not as great in some countries, but in a country like Italy, the rate of unemployment among young people is 7 times as great as that of the adult workers. In these times of economic crisis, it is apparent that its worst effects rest on particular layers of the working class, such as the youth or the immigrants or the black people.
What we see today in Britain in the current economic crisis simply reflects in a more distorted fashion what is usual in bourgeois society. That is, special layers of the working class often suffer disproportionately from class oppression. The reasons for this are historically evolved ones. With the youth, it may be that they are the most recent to enter the work force and the less skilled; and on the other hand, the existence of the family, established as it is now, can make their low wages and periods of unemployment easier to bear. With the immigrants, it may also be because they are recent arrivals in the work force, at least in the new country, and less skilled; at the same time, they are more or less completely isolated from the rest of society: not only are they not so apt to benefit from the support of their fellow workers, they also often become targets of the wrath of their fellow workers. It is this latter aspect which encourages the particularly violent daily attacks associated with all the different kinds of racism.
Whatever was the historic evolution that set these certain layers of the working class apart from the rest of their class, their special situation makes them the usual and permanent victims of this society. They are the permanent inhabitants of the reserve army of capitalism: thrown out in the streets in the bad times; working at the worst jobs, for the lowest pay in the good times.
This is true of a number of different segments of the working class. In the U.S., it is the black people; in many European countries, it is the immigrants, particularly those from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In almost all countries women are relegated to this kind of role and the youth are automatically included among the layers which suffer the most.
The oppression of such a layer of the working class, to the extent that it works to the continuing benefit of the capitalists, tends to become a permanent feature of capitalist society. Inextricably tied to the society, this extra severe oppression of certain layers will not be rooted out completely by means other than the removal of that society, that is, by its revolutionary overthrow.
Even though it is the society of the British bourgeoisie which has relegated the youth and especially the immigrant youth to their special place, it is not the bourgeoisie which directly confronts these layers. It is usually the cops; they are the enforcers of the bourgeois order, and for this reason, they seem to the youth to be their main enemies. And furthermore, the police, independent of the tasks assigned to them, are in themselves antagonistic to the youth and racist toward the immigrants. Most of them carry out their tasks with relish.
We can see this when we examine some of the incidents leading up to the July events in Britain. The incident which sparked the first night of rioting involved the Skinheads, some of the racist youth who have attacked the immigrants. The Skinheads invaded the Southall area, coming supposedly to hear a rock concert. In fact, the very fashion of their coming made it clear that they were organized for an attack. Busloads of Skinheads were brought into Southall by different right-wing organizations. When the concert was over, they began to attack the shops owned by the immigrants. When young people from Southall, mostly immigrant, but not all, began to respond to the attacks, and mobilized in the neighborhood, the police, who had not been around to defend the immigrants, suddenly were everywhere – to protect the Skinheads and spirit them safely away.
The police and the right-wing hoodlums stand on the same side, and that side is opposed to the youth, opposed to the immigrants. When the immigrants were attacked, the police seemed unable to do a thing. On March 13, in Deptsford, 13 young Jamaicans were murdered in an arson attributed to right-wing groups; on July 11, in Walthamstown, a Pakistani woman and her two children were burned to death under similar circumstances. In neither case were the police able to find out a thing despite evidence turned over to them.
At the same time, the police have used every protect to attack the young people, especially the young immigrant people. The Brixton area of London, which was attacked in 1977 by the National Front, has since been occupied by the police, under military law provisions – supposedly to defend the inhabitants. In reality, the so-called “defenders” use their special military powers to make continual identity checks of the young immigrants, and in general to maintain surveillance of all the young people in the area, all the more so after the riots broke out in April in Brixton. On July 15, twelve days after the young people had taken to the streets again, the police initiated a so-called “drug” search, which in reality was a search for weapons, which in turn became a destructive foray into 11 homes, when the guns weren’t found.
Confronting the events of July, what did the Labour Party propose?
When all their verbal axe-grinding against Thatcher is ignored, their basic proposals were quite simple. Oh yes, they admitted that the youths were aggrieved, and even legitimately so, but they insisted that no amount of grievance is enough to justify violence. They condemned the violence of the youth, ignoring in great part the violence of those who oppress the youth.
Certainly, as we might expect, they called for some reforms: a few more minimum-wage, ($72 a week), make-work jobs which wouldn’t even begin to put a dent in the problem of the unemployment, not to mention the other grievances of the youth. But the basic sense of their proposals was clear. The lined themselves up squarely on the side of bourgeois society, squarely against the youth.
And that’s all they really had to say, except to ask the young people to wait for the Labour Party to come back into the government. They asked the young people to entrust their hopes to the Labour Party, and to forget about their own struggle.
It was the British Labour Party, trying to play its old, well-established role. For years, the Labour Party has used its historic ties to the working class to focus the hopes of the working class on the next election. The trade unions have played an important role in all this. They are the organizations the working class looks to; they have used this privileged position to guarantee that, when the working class does begin to move, the struggles remain localized. It is the trade unions that counsel the workers to look to the Labour Party when the whole working class is implicated in some problem.
The Labour Party and the trade unions have been able to divert the hopes of the working class onto the electoral level; moreover, they have made use of these hopes to impose austerity on the working class when the bourgeoisie calls for it. In fact, the last time the Labour Party was in the government it enforced a policy of austerity on the working class. While the Labour Party did everything it could to try to protect the profits of the British bourgeoisie, it had nothing real to offer the youth in need of jobs.
The young people were right to turn their backs on all those people. They were right to refuse to be cowed by the violence of the racists and of the cops, right to take to the streets and use their own violence to defend themselves.
If those days in July were not nearly enough to bring down the whole oppressive system which victimizes the youth, nor even to make much progress in eliminating the particularly odious features which pick them out as its special victims, nonetheless their fight was not insignificant. If the youth are going to win anything, it will only be through their own fight.
But to overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie, it is necessary for those who fight to understand the link between their own struggle and that of all the oppressed, it is necessary to have goals which try to establish those links. That is, it is not enough just to have a spontaneous outpouring of anger, a spontaneous defense of themselves when they come under attack. In order to transform a rebellion into a real revolution against the old society, the people who fight must have a conscious perspective of where they want their struggle to go. That is, they must have a program, they must have goals for their struggle.
The youth could get these from revolutionaries, from those who do have a conscious perspective of destroying the power of the old ruling class. But the revolutionaries in Britain did not play a significant role in the events in July. They were not able to provide a perspective to the youth. Certainly, in part this is a question of strength and of how rooted an organization is, and the revolutionary organizations in Britain are small. But even small groups have the possibility to form links with the struggles of the youth, if they had something different to propose to those who struggle.
But to have something different to propose also means to be independent of the Labour Party, to not give it credit in the eyes of the workers. But it is not the way taken by most of the British left. Perhaps the young people were not exactly pushing the Labour Party aside, but clearly the Labour Party and the trade unions were irrelevant to them in their struggle. And so must anyone else seem who defends the Labour Party.
It often is the young who are ready to fight. They are not yet tied in the old ways, they see through fresh eyes, they see the world of exploitation and oppression for what it is. They are outraged by what their elders have accepted as the ordinary course of affairs. It is exactly for those reasons that the young people can often play an igniting role in the struggles of the working class. It is exactly why the young are often the best, the most audacious fighters of the oppressed classes.
Certainly, the young people of Britain do not today have the goals that revolutionaries could give them; nonetheless they demonstrated something important to the rest of the oppressed in Britain. They showed they were ready to meet the violence of the oppressors with their own violence. They were not ready to compromise.