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The lumpen rebellion

What lies behind the riots seen on English streets three weeks ago?

In January ‘09, an IWCA analysis piece entitled ‘Dealing with the renegades’ stated: ‘Amidst all the concern about knife crime and gang culture, it is often tacitly assumed that the perpetrators are representative of alienated working class youth. Not so: what they are more generally representative of is a new -and growing- social formation that has willingly embraced a non-work ethic. It needs to be recognised that these lumpen elements represent a grouping that is quite separate from, and actively hostile to, the interests and well-being of the working class proper.’

It was a piece which provoked controversy, including within the IWCA itself. After all, right-wing commentators delight in denigrating the ‘underclass’: were we not now joining in? Whenever the right, or the liberal left, discuss this matter, there is an underlying assumption that ‘underclass’ and ‘working class’ are two interchangeable terms: the two groupings are one and the same, to be regarded with either pity or loathing depending on one’s orientation. By contrast, the IWCA analysis made clear that not only is the ‘underclass’ not synonymous with or representative of the working class, its instincts and actions are often opposed to the working class (who tend to constitute its primary prey). The term ‘lumpen proletariat’ is not a right-wing canard, but was coined by Karl Marx, who described this grouping as ‘the “dangerous class”’ whose ‘members felt the need of benefiting themselves at the expense of the labouring nation’. Our analysis explicitly distinguished between the working class and what we described as ‘a renegade section of the working class that has learned to embrace the ‘no-work ethic’’.

The riots and looting of three weeks ago mark the emergence of that renegade section onto the national stage. It became newsworthy because its actions have, for the first time, impacted on the middle class, particularly for those who choose to live in areas they like to describe as ‘edgy’. Previously reassured by the deference of Big Issue sellers and the unfailing good manners of street drinkers, the stepping up onto the stage of the militant wing will have caused profound shock.

Ganging up

The riots have been reported as though they were, in the first instance, a spontaneous reaction by the community to the killing of Mark Duggan by the Met. The background is in fact more complicated, and the initial rioting was much less impulsive and more organised than has generally been presented. Understanding this is key to understanding the riots, and the motives, reasoning and disposition of those involved.

A few days prior to the killing (execution?) of Duggan, police raided 25-30 homes on the Pembury estate in Hackney. A whole layer of drug-dealing middle-management were lifted and remanded in custody. This was the result of an eighteen-month ‘Wire’-style operation, so inevitably the remands were all custodial. One of the critical details largely missed by the media is that many of the gangs, who generally spend their leisure time gouging, stabbing and shooting each other, came under one flag for the jaunt. According to Daniel Weston, a youth worker in Brixton, Peckham, Clapham, Tulse Hill and Brixton ”came together and forgot their rivalries.” The Pembury, London Fields and Frampton Park similarly formed a united front in Hackney. The latter was very much an ‘old school riot’, in that they were ‘defending’ ‘their’ estate, as they saw it, from further police encroachment. As was Tottenham old-school, to a large degree led by rioters first, and looters second. Almost all the others inverted that order. Large gangs two hundred-plus strong were moving -or were being directed- from Croydon to Lewisham to Camden and wherever else took their fancy. The police were not the target, but were instead a force to be circumvented.

It was well known on the Pembury that there would be a return of serve after the arrests (shots from pellet guns were fired at caretakers the same day). The scale of the backlash may have been a result of gang leaders in Tottenham and Hackney deciding that the shooting of Duggan (who was a major player, and perhaps tellingly also something of an elusive pimpernel) and mass arrests were all part of the same dance. Prior to the riots the Met were moving against gangs across five London boroughs simultaneously. Though for operational reasons the boroughs have not been identified, it’s safe to assume that Haringey and Hackney are amongst them. So the united front may have come about in response to an escalation made against them by a common enemy, and would have been put together prior to riots in order to maximise impact and drive the message home to both police and politicians that ’leaving sleeping dogs lie’ is generally a wise adage.

Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester confirmed that rioters in Salford were specifically looking to “get back at police” after a clampdown on them in that area. In Newtown in Birmingham, police claim that they were shot eleven times, from four different guns. While in London, police estimate that of the 1500 arrested in the first week or so, ‘one in four’ were either gang members or ‘affiliates’. In 2007 there were an estimated 170 streets gangs in London, according to Scotland Yard’s Barry Norman. But on Question Time, Tory MP David Davis flagged up a figure of 240 (some of them up to a hundred strong).

The crack battalions of the lumpen class

Perhaps the most important characteristic of the recent riots has been the self-evident differences between these and those of the 1980s, something which is deeply illustrative. In 1985 after Cherry Groce was shot by the Met, ‘Paul’ -a long-term member of south London Anti-Fascist Action- estimates that the make-up of the subsequent Brixton riot “was approximately 90 per cent fighters to just 10 per cent looters.” Ten years later in 1995, in the disturbances after Wayne Douglas was killed, “it was more like 60-40.” Come 2001, after Andrew Kernan was shot down, “looting was the primary motivation, with the fighters already reduced to a tiny minority.” So if we follow the trend, of the 30,000 estimated by police to have played some part in the riots nationally, the politically progressive will at best, have made up no more than the smallest of fractions.

Furthermore, from studying the extensive television footage it is also clear that it was only the organised elements in the gangs who had the necessary authority and swagger to give the impetus to the riots. It was they who picked the shops, put in the windows, and where there was serious money to be made (other than where the vandalism and fire-setting was intended as a diversion) had pre-arranged for vans and cars to be available to make off with the loot. The looters summoned by social media to provide cover were generally patsies, who only followed on in the aftermath, while the former functioned as the crack battalions not just in the riots themselves, but of the lumpen class as a whole. So in that sense the riots were indeed politically motivated, but just not in the way the liberal left would be willing or capable of understanding.

Laughably, in a discussion with Michael Gove on Newsnight Harriet Harman had suggested that at least in part the rioters were incensed by the “tripling of tuition fees”. Cameron has promised to ‘declare war’ on the gangs, but after this show of force and with the Olympics just around the corner, discretion will likely trump valour. On discussion sites in the immediate aftermath, the prescience of the original IWCA article was rewarded with a collective flinch. Refreshingly, Rob Berkeley, a director of Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank, was honest enough to admit that it is indeed “new phenomenon about which we know very little.”

Neo-liberal riots

If this is a ‘new phenomeneon’, where does it come from? That can be answered relatively easily. A pre-condition has been the ending of the full employment of the post-war boom era, with insecure employment and large-scale unemployment becoming the norm over the past thirty years (it is unlikely that unemployment has ever truly fallen below the three million mark of the Thatcher years), and the concomitant destruction of the working class movement that has accompanied it. This has brought about demoralisation, degradation and dependency where once there was pride, strength and independence. In many places it has created a generational culture of worklessness from which it is almost impossible for youngsters, often semi-literate and semi-numerate, to escape. Such a state of affairs would be bad enough in itself, but when the old values of solidarity, community and hard work are not just lost but increasingly replaced by neo-liberal morality –greed, avarice, pathological self regard- it leads to the creation of the sub-set that made their presence felt three weeks ago. Those who attempt to paint these riots ‘red’ –as some kind of political  response to the cuts, or youth poverty and hopelessness- misunderstand both their character and how defeated and broken the last thirty years has left our side. These were neo-liberal riots in every sense.

Two years ago the journalist Peter Wilby wrote of the Thatcher revolution:

‘Once, western governments tried to subjugate the working class. The governments of the postwar era, by contrast, tried to pacify it. High wages, good working conditions, decent housing, stable employment, predictable pensions and, crucially, the power of a large state sector to head off deep recession through fiscal intervention delivered the workers’ consent to, even enthusiasm for, a capitalist economy. It also ensured the stable domestic markets that provided the basis for unprecedented economic growth. Thatcher offered what you might call a “third way”. The working class was not to be enslaved or tamed, but abolished. Everyone would become, in their private if not in their working life, a member of the bourgeoisie, owning a house, acquiring debt to improve themselves, trading in shares and bonds. With such financial commitments, they would be reluctant to sacrifice regular income by going on strike. Better still, they would vote Conservative, or at least for an alternative party that accepted, as new Labour did, the broad principles of Thatcherism. The spectre of communism or socialism would be exorcised.’ (New Statesman)

In short, the aim of neo-liberalism was to ensure everyone became a mini-capitalist: we were ‘all middle class now’ as John Prescott told us. Eliminating the working class as a political entity would, in turn, eliminate the threat of socialism. There would be no ‘working class’ any longer: there would be those who had managed to get on board and literally buy into the system (supposedly ranging from anyone with a mortgage up to Roman Abramovich, all forming part of the same strata), and those unfortunates who had not. The latter phenomenon forms the counterpoint of Wilby’s thesis: the working class wasn’t just to go through embourgeoisment at one end, but also lumpenisation at the other, and in all cases were to internalise the same neo-liberal values. While one may feel greater sympathy with the latter grouping (the former are soon to receive a particularly rude shock, as the economic crisis inexorably works itself out), from a tactical point of view once the neo-liberal mindset has been accepted the individual has to be viewed as being in the enemy camp. It was this layer who came to the fore in the riots.

Why not Oxford?

The Labour party has traditionally been happy to foster working class dependence, rather than independence. The Joan of Arc of British socialism, Beatrice Webb, came out against the 1926 General Strike, describing it as “a monstrous irrelevance in the sphere of social reform” and the notion of workers’ control of industry as “an absurd doctrine… a proletarian distemper which had to run its course – and like other distempers, it is well to have it over and done with at the cost of a lengthy convalescence”. It’s an attitude which Labour has never lost towards its constituency: something to be controlled, not controlled by. Gordon Brown’s ‘socialism’ was to remove all restraints on the City of London and use the tax receipts to buy what was left of Labour’s core vote. The notion of any kind of return to full, productive employment was never part of the game.

Labour’s stance towards the worst elements in its domain has usually been to either ignore them, excuse them or co-opt them. One place which saw no trouble in the riots was Oxford. One would think that somewhere like Blackbird Leys –one of the largest housing estates in Europe, and which saw rioting in 1991- would have been a prime candidate for copycat violence, but it never happened. It did happen in Gloucester fifty miles to the west, but not Oxford. Why was this? There may be many reasons, but one thing which is certain is that on Blackbird Leys the worst elements have, over a number of years, been identified and confronted instead of being appeased or pandered to, and this has been solely down to the efforts of Oxford IWCA. In the words of IWCA councillor Stuart Craft:

“Back in 2004 on Blackbird Leys, we proved that working class activists can also set the agenda. By exposing and challenging the authorities policy of containment of crack and heroin dealing – in particular the exploits of a recently arrived yardie gang implicated in at least two murders and two gang rapes on our estate - and by putting into place (or often merely threatening to) our own popular strategies to deal with these problems, we too had the political establishment, police and housing authorities desperate to be seen to address a problem that they had hitherto been happy to pretend didn’t exist. The pressure we brought to bear had a significant impact so that many of the worst elements fled the estate. It seems inconceivable that without the efforts of IWCA activists and residents that the ‘top shops’ area (which sits opposite the yardies’ old base, the Blackbird Leys Community Centre) would not have suffered the same fate as other such areas across the country.” (See ’IWCA calls for clean sweep at community centre bar‘ and ’Management to vacate community centre bar‘ on the Blackbird Leys IWCA website for further background.)

It speaks volumes about the character and nature of these riots that the rioters folded and melted away almost everywhere they encountered any kind of resistance. It is equally significant that these same elements were stopped from reaching critical mass through the promotion of working class first policies on Blackbird Leys. If the first rule of war is to know your enemy, identifying an opponent (the purpose of these articles) is arguably the first rule of politics.


17 Responses to “The lumpen rebellion”

  1. pc repair Says:

    Well, when you treat people like wild animals, they’re going to act like wild animals. With high unemployment, the welfare state, education and health care crumbling, the rich getting rich and everyone else getting poorer, the rioters were not acting up. They were acting out.

  2. Martin Says:

    They ‘acted out’ in a manner that was largely directed against the working class. This would seem to confirm the observation that this is ‘a renegade section of the working class’ who constitute ‘a social and political menace that is deeply corrosive first and foremost to the morale and well-being of working class communities themselves’.

  3. Paul B Says:

    “With high unemployment, the welfare state, education and health care crumbling, the rich getting rich and everyone else getting poorer, the rioters were not acting up. They were acting out.”

    You what? There is no evidence at all that there was a link between the motives of the looters and the issues that you refer to. In fact the available evidence indicates that the only ‘acting out’ was by gang members seeking to assert their authority and influence which, if true, poses serious issues for anyone profressing to be interested in pro working class politics for the reasons that the article makes clear.

  4. ProgContra Says:

    While I disagree with your analysis of ‘neo-liberalism’, I think your underlying point is well made and deserves some comment from what passes as the ‘left’ in this country. But I’m not holding my breath, it seems to me that most of the self-styled left are far happier polishing their old cliches about working class resistance to actually engage any brain cells.

  5. Martin Says:

    What part of our ‘analysis of ‘neo-liberalism’’ do you disagree with? It’s rather central to the points we’re making here.

  6. Kevin Says:

    Possibly one of the best and most insightful articles the left has written about the riots. The point about the ‘neo liberal’ nature of the riots is a sad but true reflection of the state of class-based politics in this country. Thanks for this. Unfortunately, I expect most of the far left to continue with its blind romanticism of trying to ‘paint the riots red’.

  7. andy5759 Says:

    Thanks for that. I think you may have got much closer to the truth than anyone else I have read. My education continues.

  8. ProgContra Says:

    You can see some of my thinking on this here:

    I think the IWCA has a lot to teach those of us who want to change things – but that doesn’t mean having to agree on eveything. Does it?

  9. Vincent Says:

    A quick question (or two): how do these riots differ in character from the ones in the 1980′s (Brixton, Merseyside, etc)? and does the IWCA have a position on those?

  10. Martin Says:


    It’s stated in the piece how these riots differed from those of the ’80s: ‘In 1985 after Cherry Groce was shot by the Met, ‘Paul’ -a long-term member of south London Anti-Fascist Action- estimates that the make-up of the subsequent Brixton riot “was approximately 90 per cent fighters to just 10 per cent looters.” Ten years later in 1995, in the disturbances after Wayne Douglas was killed, “it was more like 60-40.” Come 2001, after Andrew Kernan was shot down, “looting was the primary motivation, with the fighters already reduced to a tiny minority.”‘ While those of the ’80s can be seen as being directed against the powers that be – kicking upwards -, the recent riots were largely acquisitive and directed against the general populace: kicking sideways, or downwards. This reflects what has happened to the working class in the intervening period: the acceptance and internalisation of neo-liberal values and ideology in place of pro-working class politics of any stripe. To again quote the piece: ‘the riots were indeed politically motivated, but just not in the way the liberal left would be willing or capable of understanding’.

  11. boris Says:

    Not sure I agree totally with this analysis.
    For starters i am not even sure what is the working class anymore. Given the decline in manufactering jobs in the uk and growth of the service sector can we say that people employed here are part of the working class because i guarantee that that many will think themslves middle class and many of the left would agree !
    How realible is one person from AFA estimates of fighter & looters ? The truth is not much very but if its helpful in constructing an argument then so what .
    There have been big changes since the 80′s, materialism now is even more pronounced, consumerism is king it just many have not noticed it is has no clothes.Thre is almost no sense of a future for the youth and this has been on the rise since thatcherism, and in all sectors of society greed governs. THe rioters were doing what they have been shown by their rulers….. Iraq…..etc
    Our country engages in mass looting of another country and most do not give a shit. Nilhism rules

    The riots were so widespread and divergent that you can look it from many angles but it is all too easy to fall into the trap of generalising.
    The recent report commision by the Govt. pinpointed not gangs persay but povetry & unemployment . The rioters really are those on the periphery and is may be those people who are the only ones with nothing loses by engaging in full spectrum rioting.The foot solideirs of the revolution.

    For years many on the left have lamented the fact that people just riot in their own localities yet in The summer riots there were many instances of rioters going to prime shopping areas to kick off, a case of a expensive resturants being targeted.. in Bristol rioting kicked off in the new city centre shopping mall.
    The riots were what you should expect given the social and economic conditions in the uk. For an neber employed semi illerate youth the local small business may signify something he can never aspire to and so is a target.

    Also it seems that many of the discucsions about the summer riots seem to think that looting never place in previous rio.
    In some way the summer riots were akin to the LA riots and for obvious reasons

  12. M Risbrook Says:

    Developments in communications technology underpinned the speed at which the riots progressed. The underclass nowadays has access to mobile phones, text messaging, the internet, YouTube, Facebook, etc. Back in the early 80s half of the working and underclass didn’t even have a landline phone in their home.

    It’s undeniable that the riots were fuelled by greed from a ‘renegade’ section of society rather than a revolt against the establishment. One of the best commentaries and analysis is that by Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

  13. Marcos Says:

    Decent analysis as always. Good to see that the IWCA are still not afraid to go against the conventional wisdom on the left. SolFed’s community strategy also seems to have taken some inspiration from the example set by the IWCA, which is a positive development in the anarchist movement…

  14. Chuck Wilson Says:

    Interesting that the early Communist Parties were not scared of using the term ‘slum proletariat’ and distinguishing them from the proletariat. The British CP used the term when looking at where the fascists recruited from.

    Kautsky has this to say which I found interesting :

    “The conditions of existence and struggle of this class are entirely different from those of the wage-earning class. Just as the former are indispensable to the well being of society, so the latter; the slum proletariat, are useless, yes, even harmful, for they are pure parasites.
    Both carry on a struggle against existing society; both are propertiless and disinherited: both must combat the existing form of property. But the working proletariat fights openly as a mass, its weapons are solidarity and economic indispensability, its aims the changing of the laws regarding property. The slum proletariat fights individually and secretly, its weapons are lies and breach of confidence; its aim is not the changing of the property laws, but the possession of the property of others.
    Contact with the slum proletariat and acceptance of its war methods cannot but compromise and disorganize the proletarian movement.”

  15. Simon Says:

    “The lumpen rebellion ” acknowledges that its own analysis could lead to it being ‘lumped’ (!!) in with the Right and then does little to avoid such a fate!
    Firstly it quotes IWCA analysis that the looters ‘willingly embraced a non-work ethic’ This is naive. The looters grew up in real places , working class areas. They went to school and probably under-achieved in working class areas. They are unemployed, disenfranchised and disaffected in working class areas. Surely this gives us a clue! To say they willingly embraced a non-work ethic glosses over the social and economic conditions that give rise to such behaviour. It suggests that the looters made individual decisions for themselves, in control of their destinies. This is neo-liberal philosophy not socialist analysis.
    The London rioters vented their anger upon the police, the system of law and order,small businesses and multi-national retail corporations, all bastions of the Right. They may not have been targetted as such but nevertheless.
    It is too sensationalist and simplistic to talk of the gang members ‘gouging, stabbing and shooting each other’ as if they are animals. This smacks of the Daily Mail. Some of their behaviour may be quite violent and vicious but it is as a result of something. Let the analysis go deeper. Anyone with an understanding of GCSE Sociolgy will know that gangs fill a vacuum for young people who have little way of belonging or achieving in society. Young people, many of whom are intelligent and enterprising, join gangs. If, as has been said, the London riots were a show of strength by the gangs on the streets of London, then this may be because the police-led, stop and search oriented system of law and order has no legitimacy on the streets and the riots showed this.
    It is interesting to see how rival gangs came together in the face of a common enemy. Working class youths fighting each other is not new though e.g Mods and Rockers, football hooligans.
    There are interesting lessons to be learnt but only if the analysis is thoughtful. The writer refers to “politically progressive” elements as if these are distinct from other elements i.e the looters. How would the writer categorise these elements in relation to the working class who work hard, in poorly paid jobs, watch SKY TV, eat crap and vote Tory or worse. Are these elements more progressive than the looters?
    We have to ask where disenfranchised , disaffected, angry people go to have a voice and if they are not ‘politicised’ why not. These forces have to be understood not ridiculed. While the British left sleeps life goes on . People have to live.
    The London riots showed the left that there are real problems in British society. There are splits and cracks did appear. If anything this gives us on the left hope that the neo-liberal state can be swept aside and destroyed and that in its place a society based on need not profit can and should be fought for.

  16. Stuart Says:


    As the article points out, it was Marx himself who initially identified the lumpen proletariat as a class whose interests lie at odds with those of the working class. How you have come to the conclusion that the analysis in The Lumpen Rebellion is ‘right wing neo-liberal analysis’ really does beggar belief.

    You may be struggling with the analysis at the heart of this article as it has been developed through lived experience rather than through the blind adherence to political dogma that seems to inform your critique. Our analysis has been born of necessity; as a guide to action written by those who actively engage in putting theory into practice for the struggle for social justice. Politics is just a game with no consequences for those who engage in academic theory alone, but working class activists who get it wrong risk getting hurt – at best.

    The fact that you make no distinction between politically progressive elements, hardworking, decent, yet misguided workers and anti-social gangs says it all. Drug dealers and other anti-social criminals are, in common with those at the top of the economic and political ladder, parasites who live off our backs. The lumpen youth referred to in the article share a gangster mentality with the free market capitalists, a world view that dictates that the working class are on this earth to be used for their own profit. To quote Gangster turned informer Henry Hill made famous through Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas:

    “For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again”.

    It is true that some gang members can be turned around, but this will not be achieved through capitulation to the gangs – this would obviously just entrench them. The IWCA won the respect/fear of some gang members, but only by facing them with a united, tough, working class movement. This neutralised the gangs and forced them to abandon their activities and/or flee the area, leaving those left behind to re-evaluate their position.

    In contrast, by your twisted logic, working class militants of the thirties for example should have made common cause with fascist street fighters who came from the same working class ghettos or miners on strike in 1984 – 85 should have supported the scabs from their own communities who actively undermined the strike for their own benefit. Nowhere in history has this strategy worked and I defy you to be the first to try it and succeed!

    People can often be conned into siding with politicians who do not represent their interests, but in my experience, most respond favourably when supplied with a balance of information. But real life experience trumps all and I have yet to meet anyone who currently lives on a council estate (other than the gangsters themselves) who doesn’t view the lumpen element as a separate, hostile entity.

    This is ABC stuff Simon. Only an academic would fail to grasp it.

  17. Simon Says:

    Stuart, this is disappointing. You don’t seem to engage with the arguments at all but instead make barely disguised personal slurs which to be honest I thought you were better than.

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