It is no surprise that the bourgeoisie, the reformist bureaucracy and their mouth pieces utilise the looting as a pretext to denounce the August Uprising as criminal and apolitical. It is a shame that the majority of the centrist left adapts to this “public opinion” and emphasizes the criminal, looting character of the uprising.
But in fact history has seen many protests which involved mass violence and looting. For example in Vienna in 1911 mass protests occurred against the inflation of food prices. When the police dispersed the demonstrators with brutal force and killed several of them riots broke out.
The social democratic leader Otto Bauer wrote at that time about the forms of this uprising:
“In whole districts of Vienna there was no house, no window, no lantern which was still intact. In the working class district Ottakring school building and tram wagons were set on fire. Barricades were build, the soldiers shoot at the people and behind the enraged masses the lumpen proletariat looted the shops.“ (13)
Marxists take the class struggle as it is. They do not raise arrogantly their noses if the masses do not organise the way they would like them to. If an anti-colonial uprising included the “senseless” slaughtering of white settlers and their families and the destruction of property this certainly could never have stopped revolutionaries to support this uprising (while of course rejecting all harmful actions). When the national uprising of the Tibetans erupted in March 2008 it also involved a number of attacks against the Chinese and the destruction of their shops. Again only a Stalinist or a reactionary lump could have refused support for this progressive national liberation struggle (again this has to be combined with sharp propaganda and agitation against nationalism). Also today many spontaneous mass protests are accompanied with such features as looting and burning. One just has to look to the hunger revolts of the last years. The author of this article himself saw such results of a spontaneous insurrection when he was in Argentina after the revolutionary days in December 2001.
A number of socialists are prepared to accept this argument … if it is about events far away. But at home where the pressure of the bourgeois public and the petty-bourgeois milieu of the reformist bureaucracy is strong, they “forget” this, i.e. they capitulate to the pressure of the class enemy.
It is characteristic of the reformist and centrist left that many of them approach an uprising by judging it if it meets the standards of a “pure”, peaceful and orderly protest. To avoid any misunderstanding: We Marxists say that looting of small shops, burning of shops which can even lead to the destruction of working class homes are wrong. But what various left reformists and centrists do is that they claim that such looting of small shops, burning of houses – the “mindless destruction of the working class community” – were the main feature the essence of the uprising. This is nothing else than capitulation to the British bourgeois public opinion produced by the ruling class, their Tory government and their servants at the top of the Labour movement.
Without claiming to have a full picture it is worth mentioning that when our comrades from the RKOB delegation visited Tottenham it was visible that small shops were not the targets of destruction but supermarkets and betting shops were.
Yes, if the revolutionary party is a mass party and has an organised workers militia we would have stopped the looting of small shops and similar destructive acts. But this is not the case today and the revolutionary party will be built via struggles which are either spontaneous or under the leadership of the reformist bureaucracy. Revolutionaries take developments in class struggle with the masses on the streets as they are; they join the masses with a given consciousness and fight inside the militant masses for the correct, the consequent revolutionary line.
As Marxists we denounce all those who claim that the looting is the essential, the main characteristic of the August Uprising. Yes, there were many weaknesses in the uprising. But this is natural for a spontaneous movement. And even organised mass movements can and do have many weaknesses. Let us not forget the huge weaknesses of the peaceful protests or the orderly general strikes. Does anyone seriously believe that they are sufficient to bring down a government?!
“But the August Uprising with its destructions weakened the popular support and divided the working class!” – the centrists say to cover their betrayal. But Marxists reply that it often happens if the oppressed rise up that the backward layers of the working class are opposed to it. Many workers in Germany initially opposed the student uprising in the 1960s. Many white workers in the USA opposed the black insurrection in Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore etc in the same decade. And does anyone believe if the public transport workers, the hospital workers or the kindergarten workers go on strike that the majority of the working class always supports them?!
No, all these reference to the wrong actions of the oppressed which divide the working class are a reflection of the failure to withstand the pressure of the bourgeois public opinion and the labour bureaucracy by the reformist and centrist left.
The leader of the Bolshevik party, Vladimir Illich Lenin, once wrote about the contradictory nature of mass uprisings:
„To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will he a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.
Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.
The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a bourgeois-democratic revolution. It consisted of a series of battles in which all the discontented classes, groups and elements of the population participated. Among these there were masses imbued with the crudest prejudices, with the vaguest slid most fantastic aims of struggle; there were small groups which accepted Japanese money, there were speculators and adventurers, etc. But objectively, the mass movement was breaking the hack of tsarism and paving the way for democracy; for this reason the class-conscious workers led it.
The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of tile petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible—and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses slid errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will he able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for difficult reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately “purge” itself of petty-bourgeois slag.“ (14)
These observations are particularly true today in the period of capitalist decay, mass upheavals and at the same time a lack of revolutionary leadership.
(13) Otto Bauer: Die Teuerungsrevolte in Wien (September 1911); in: Die neue Zeit (Wochenschrift der deutschen Sozialdemokratie), Jahrgang 29, Band 2, S. 913, online: http://library.fes.de/cgi-bin/neuzeit.pl?id=07.08072&dok=1910-11b&f=191011b_0913&l=191011b_0917&c=191011b_0913 (our own translation)
(14) W. I. Lenin: Die Ergebnisse der Diskussion über die Selbstbestimmung (1916), in: LW 22, S. 363f.; in English: The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up, http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jul/x01.htm (Emphasis in the Original)