Friday, 21 January 2011

Keith Flett on the London mob and the London crowd

1760-2010 - The London Mob and the London Crowd

From the LSHG Newsletter #41, (Spring 2011)

On the BBC's Weekly Politics programme on 9th December 2010 the historian David Starkey commented of the tuition fees protests in London that day that the capital had seen nothing like it since the Chartist period of the 1840s.

Starkey is an historian of the C16th not the C19th so he was hardly best
placed to make an informed comment. However, the broader point was well made. Whether the events in central London on 9th December really constituted a riot by either protesters or police is arguable, but there were certainly scenes reminiscent of the poll tax demonstration at the end of March 1990. That protest helped to spark a wider movement that saw the poll tax axed and is thought to have contributed to Mrs. Thatcher’s departure from No. 10.

Trying to understand these events is a problem for right-wing media commentators who believe that the era of street protest is long gone. Understanding what happens when ordinary people decide to protest has been an issue for as long as the inequalities and divisions of market capitalist society have sparked the protests themselves.

This is really, at least in part, where the term ‘the mob’ comes from. ‘The mob’ is a group of protesters about whom those in authority have little idea who, if anyone, might be leading them or what they plan to do. This worries those in authority, but it is a function of large cities like London. In crowded urban areas it is possible for people to get up to all kinds of things without it being officially noticed.

Well-off Victorians had a fear of the working classes living in areas adjacent to them - a concern that they might attack them or their property or both and then disappear back into the mysterious working class areas from whence they came. In 1848 the cry of ‘the Chartists are coming’ was sometimes heard in well-off London neighbourhoods, heralding an imminent invasion of protesters intent on creating havoc. Needless to say, in the main, Chartist demonstrations were orderly affairs. There were occasions, for example in early 1848, when Chartist influence was weaker, when less predictable protests took place.

Much the same fear underwrites current talk of ‘the mob’. It is not an anonymous group in reality. It is a mixture of the more and less committed, of all kinds of ideas and strategies and on occasion none. That is why the left, far from using the term ‘mob’, has tended to refer to ‘the crowd’. The pioneering work is by the late Marxist historian George Rudé, who wrote the classic text The Crowd in History. It could be said that the difference between ‘the mob’ and ‘the crowd’ is that the former has sometimes been reactionary, while the latter is generally progressive. That is perhaps stretching an historical point. Not all London mobs have been of the left and some attacked left-wing causes, for example during the period of the French Revolution in the 1790s, but there is a tradition of left-wing crowds, from those who stood up for ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ in the 1760s, to the unemployed who marched and rioted in London in the 1880s and who formed an audience for the marxist Social Democratic Federation, right up to the modern day with the poll tax.

It could be said that the street protests and their often chaotic nature represent an absence of the orderly traditions of the labour movement. Or we might argue that they are a force that can be organised to achieve real change. A great start pointing for better things.

Keith Flett
Edited to add: For a longer article by Keith on this topic, please see here

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