Disturbing the peace: riots and the working class

by Mick Armstrong • Published 12 July 2012

In a frenzy of moral outrage, the English riots of August 2011 were denounced as “sheer criminality”, “mindless thuggery”, “a product of moral decay”, “a fit of collective pathology”, “the work of a feral, uneducated underclass” or alternatively all due to “street gangs.”[i] Such hysterical reactions were to be expected from Tory politicians, the mainstream media and all shades of establishment opinion in both Britain and Australia. But numerous commentators supposedly of the left also sought to disown the riots; to dismiss them as apolitical or simply “consumerist looting”, as the actions of a demoralised “underclass” or as counterposed to working class methods of struggle.

In this article I want to look at the long and proud history of riots in Australia and take on the arguments of those who dismiss rioting as mindless, apolitical, counterproductive or anti-working class. I will argue that rioting is a legitimate form of struggle that working class people and sections of the oppressed have resorted to time and time again to defend their interests. Indeed, they have found them an exhilarating experience – a brief moment of liberation. For Marxists who look to the actions of the masses themselves to change the world, riots are just as much part of our tradition of rebellion as strikes, picket lines, occupations, or mutinies. Far from being counterposed to other forms of struggle, riots have commonly been combined with or flowed out of strikes, workplace occupations, protest marches and other demonstrations. Moreover, riots are far from always being counterproductive. At times they have helped win important economic gains, wage rises and improved working conditions, or political victories such as greater democratic rights, the shutting down of racist meetings, and the like.

This is not to say that all riots have been progressive. Far from it. Australia has had more than its fair share of racist or other outright reactionary riots, the 2005 Cronulla riot being but the most notorious recent example. Riots, just like street demonstrations or protest meetings, are a method of struggle that can be used by both the left and right in society.

There have been thousands or possibly even tens of thousands of small and large scale riots in Australia over the last 200 years. So I am only going to be able to scratch the surface, and there is much I will leave out. The heroic riots of Aboriginal people from Palm Island to Walgett to Redfern merit a whole article in themselves, as do the courageous revolts in immigration detention centres such as Port Hedland and Christmas Island. There is also a long history of prison riots and youth riots that I am hardly going to touch on.

Riots and the struggle for democratic rights

The 1854 Eureka Stockade is famous for its role in winning the right to vote and other democratic reforms in Victoria. What is a lot less well known is that the revolt at Eureka was preceded by a series of riots and disturbances between 1851 and 1854 across the whole of the Victorian goldfields. The riot that burnt down Bentley’s Eureka Hotel in Ballarat in 1854 was no one-off. It had much in common with the 1853 riot at Reid’s Creek where the police were “disarmed, beaten and pelted by the enraged crowd”, after which three thousand diggers “stormed the Assistant-Commissioner’s camp, smashing to pieces all the arms they could find there”.[ii] It was the combination of these revolts on the goldfields and the widespread support they evoked in Melbourne that forced the authorities to grant major concessions. Subsequently, on 28 August 1860, three thousand rioters demanding the vote and also grants of land under the slogan “a vote, a Rifle and a Farm” battled police in an attempt to destroy Melbourne’s Parliament House. They had an impact too, as a month later the government passed legislation to unlock the land.[iii]

It was not just in Victoria that riots played a major role in winning democratic reforms in colonial Australia. Terry Irving in his history of the democratic movement in NSW before 1856 makes the powerful point that, at a time when most people could not vote, rioting was an important expression of popular power. He points out that while riots are often dismissed as not being political – as just rowdiness – in fact they were central to winning basic democratic rights.[iv]

On election days, for example in 1843, there were continual riots that spread from Sydney to Windsor, Campbelltown, Melbourne and Wollongong as workers attempted to impose their will on the middle class electorate. Reactionary mobs organised by the likes of William Wentworth who attempted to whip up anti-Irish and anti-immigrant racism were countered by well-organised Irish rioters and their supporters. But it was not just on election days – there were literally hundreds of riots in NSW in the course of the 1840s. By 1848 there had been ten highly destructive riots in Sydney in seven years. A typical riot was started by sailors outside the Victoria Theatre in Pitt St in October 1841. The sailors were quickly joined by a crowd in attacks on police, who were hated by workers as they were brutal, indisciplined and corrupt. “Armed with bludgeons and iron hoops, the crowd, swollen to over 200, now took possession of the streets, attacking police wherever they could be found. There were many injuries, including to onlookers, and much destruction of windows and lamps.”[v] The next night they attacked again to free their arrested comrades. In the Rocks,

the watch house was quickly broken into after the mob attacked it with heavy flag and paving stones. Five prisoners were released and the building destroyed…the crowd grew to four or five thousand… It was seen as three-layered: a leadership of naval and other seamen, an activist core of stone-throwing labourers and youths, and a larger fringe of excited but mainly non-violent supporters, many of them “respectable” tradesmen.[vi]

Queensland also witnessed literally hundreds of riots during the course of the 1800s around innumerable issues, from basic democratic rights to a major food riot by retrenched workers in Brisbane in September 1866, who raised the slogan “Bread or Blood!”[vii]

The other persistent cause of rioting throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century was racist or sectarian attacks by the Orange Lodge and other Protestant establishment organisations on the oppressed Irish Catholic minority of the working class. With their long history of rebellion against British colonial rule in Ireland and their prominent role in Australian rebellions at Vinegar Hill in 1804 and at Eureka, the Irish were not prone to submit meekly and repeatedly got the better of their attackers. So when the Orange Lodge attempted to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne, a notorious English victory over the Irish, in Melbourne in July 1845, the local Irish community advertised a hurling match and “used the game as a pretext for hundreds of southern Irish with home-made clubs to congregate on Batman’s Hill.”[viii] The following year a number of people were shot in clashes between well-armed rival rioters. One of the most dramatic riots occurred in Brisbane in 1900 when a Loyal Orange Lodge meeting to denounce Catholicism and attended by the cream of Brisbane’s “high society” was besieged. “‘A fusillade’ of stones began to rain down on the roof” of the Protestant Hall and shatter its windows. The Courier reported that: “half bricks, sharp slate and stones, several pounds in weight, were among the missiles.” The meeting had to be abandoned as more and more rocks rained down and audience members began taking injuries. “As Protestants left the darkened hall, they were set upon by those in the street, hit by missiles, physically assaulted with fists and sticks and had their clothing torn and dishevelled.”[ix]

Strikes and riots

Those on the left who are dismissive of riots commonly counterpose them to other forms of struggle, such as strikes, which they see as more effective and organised forms of working class collective action. There is no denying the central role of strikes in working class struggle. Strikes are the means by which workers assert their power at the point of production and shut off the flow of profits. Mass strikes threaten the rule of capital. But this is not a reason to deride other forms of struggle. Demonstrations, sit-ins, boycotts, mass meetings, hunger marches, mutinies and riots can all play a role in a successful struggle. In any case, Marxists are for workers and the oppressed standing up and fighting back, not meekly accepting their lot. It is much better to be out protesting or rioting than moping at home or impotently screaming abuse at your television set. And it is far from being the case that riots are counterposed to strikes. Riots have been an integral part of many of the major industrial upheavals in Australia. Importantly, riots drew in support for the strikers from outside the workplace itself, both from other workers and, in particular, from working class women, children and the unemployed.

It is usually argued that rioting and other violent action is utterly counterproductive for workers in industrial disputes. R.B. Walker, for example, in a study of violence in NSW strikes in the 19th century, claims: “Nowhere had violence won concessions for the unions, and by rational calculation in such adverse circumstances labour would seek other and lawful means to achieve its ends.”[x] However as the case studies below clearly demonstrate this is far from being universally the case. Walker also ridiculously asserts that “there was not a signal instance of a shot being fired by a unionist”.[xi]. But in Queensland alone during the 1894 shearers strike “a ‘free labourer’ was shot at Coombemartin…and at Dagworth shed police and unionists exchanged forty rounds of rifle fire.”[xii]

The 1890 Maritime Strike

The 1890 Maritime strike was the greatest industrial battle in Australia in the nineteenth century – outright class war. It was no mild, peaceful affair. Both sides pulled out all stops. As one historian of the epic struggle, Bruce Scates, writes:

Labour historians have downplayed the significance of working class violence. The riots have been attributed to larrikins, the scuffles have been set aside to examine orderly union debate. But violence was part of the Maritime Strike: it was a product of a community’s anger, hunger and frustration, the last option when peaceable means of persuasion had failed, the first when tempers were frayed…

But the violence was organised and premeditated as well. Then the targets were carefully chosen, men who had deserted their unions…

In Adelaide…women joined men as they broke through the barricades on the wharf…in Sydney, four “riotous” women chased a driver through the streets…shouting “blackleg” and pelt[ing] him with stones. In Kent Street, a crowd of women and children showered specials with blue metal… In September four blacklegs…were chased through Argyle Cut by over 200 people. By the time the police arrived a single man was surrounded by a crowd of seven hundred, his body battered by a barrage of brick and stone… “large numbers of women and children” took part in the rioting intent (as the Mail put it) “to do some injury to the men”… The Mail reported “the crowd seemed to increase itself in a miraculous fashion, and the lower end of George Street was filled by a surging mass of men, women and children, estimated at from 4,000 to 5,000 persons. For a time these seemed almost to lose their reason, and made a fearful noise, yelling, hooting and shouting as if they were mad.”

Madness for some, liberation for others. In September 1890 the citizens of Sydney reclaimed control of the streets of the inner city, streets that were to be taken from them by troopers and policemen, specials and scabs. The same electric “festive” atmosphere was noted when workers and their families occupied the railway or took possession of the wharves. For women especially it was an exhilarating experience.

In Adelaide on 28 October,

strikers who had congregated on the wharves from 6am surrounded strikebreakers leaving ships… One non-unionist drew a revolver and aimed it at unionists; in the scuffle which followed, police confiscated the weapon, allowed its owner to go, and arrested three strikers. The incident sparked two days of riots and stone-throwing on wharves and in woolstores and warehouses.[xiv]

The 1894 Shearers’ Strike

Shearing is an industry noted for violent strikes. As the saying went, the outback squatters were tamed by Bryant and May (i.e. deliberately lit grass and woolshed fires). The 1894 shearers’ strike proved to be the most violent strike in Australian working class history. With their backs to the wall in the face of mass unemployment and the consequent widespread availability of scab labour, the shearers made a heroic and desperate attempt to ward off the graziers’ attempt to drive down wages and working conditions. The strikers set up a series of armed camps and there were shoot outs and riots on innumerable sheep stations. At least eight woolsheds were burned to the ground in Queensland and of the 175 “apprehensions” listed in the annual report of the NSW Inspector General of Police nearly half were for riot and riotous behaviour.

In western NSW the strikers imposed a form of workers’ control over all movements in and out of the area. The high point of the strike was the daring raid on the riverboat, The Rodney, which was transporting scabs up the Darling River. In the middle of the night armed shearers captured The Rodney and set it on fire. Then in a defiant gesture they marched away in a body with the scabs as prisoners to the accompaniment of a concertina, playing the then popular air, After the Ball is Over.[xv] There was widespread sympathy for the shearers’ cause and their daring attack on The Rodney. When Crown witnesses arrived in Broken Hill for the trial of those charged with burning The Rodney, they were assaulted in the main street and refused accommodation in any hotel in town. The icing on the cake came when the jury acquitted all those charged.

The outcome of the shearers’ strike was a stand-off. In Queensland, the shearers went down to a bad defeat, but in NSW, as a correspondent for the Pastoralists’ Review conceded, “no one can claim to have gained anything. There have been losses on both sides.”[xvi] In western NSW where the strike was most militant the shearers fared best, maintaining their union membership and fighting spirit much better than any other section of the union. In other words, far from rioting being counterproductive, it was precisely in the region where the rioting was most intense that the shearers were most successful in holding off the pastoralists’ offensive.

The 1903 Chinese Cabinet-Makers’ Strike

After Chinese cabinet-makers in inner Melbourne had been on strike for six weeks in 1903, their Chinese bosses imported scabs from Sydney who, armed with knuckledusters, attacked the workers. The strikers were not intimidated and organised the next day to take on the scabs. The Herald reported; “Hammers, sticks and dumb bells rose and fell, yells rent the air, and very soon blood began to flow.”[xvii] Many workers carried hammers and other tools of their trade, with which they quickly put the scabs to flight. The next day saw more fighting and the bosses were forced to withdraw the scabs altogether. The strike ended in a partial victory for the workers. Again, a quite effective riot.

The Lithgow Ironworks Strike, 1911-12

In July 1911, after a union delegate at the Lithgow Ironworks Tunnel Colliery was sacked for attending union meetings, the miners walked out on strike. The strike soon spread to the steel works and scab labour was brought in by the manager Charlie Hoskins. In response workers stormed “the ironworks, locked up Hoskins and his two sons, and his furnace manager, smashed windows, and burned the bunks in the quarters of the free labourers and one of Hoskins’ cars; several police were injured.”[xviii] “One of the police was thrown into an adjoining dam” and the “homes of some of the scabs were also given ‘attention’.”[xix] “A number of unionists were gaoled for the attack and the strike continued for nine months; only ending when the employee at the centre of the dispute was reinstated.”[xx] The workers had won a partial victory.

The 1911 Queensland Sugar Strike

During the course of this long and bitter strike by canecutters and sugar mill workers there were numerous violent incidents and riots in a series of centres. Contingents of police armed with rifles and fixed bayonets were deployed to guard the sugar mills against attacks from strikers. At Childers a “train load of workers [scabs] headed for the CSR mill at Huxley was stoned, the train tracks were greased, and the Childers CSR Mill was stormed and its windows smashed.”[xxi] In a compromise agreement the workers won a shorter working week and higher pay. Again, rioting was far from counterproductive.

The 1912 Brisbane General Strike

On 31 January 1912 “violent actions…by mobs of several thousand strikers…forced the closure of hotels, restaurants and business premises at the city centre, South Brisbane and Fortitude Valley.”[xxii] The general strike went down to defeat, not because of the rioting, but because of betrayal by ALP politicians and union leaders.

The 1919 Fremantle Wharf Riot

In May 1919 a major riot which became known as “Bloody Sunday” successfully drove out the scabs that had been introduced to the waterfront during the course of the 1917 General Strike. “The attempt by Premier Colebatch to restore order by means of police and bayonets was defeated by a mobilisation of much of the population of Fremantle, led by returned soldiers, for whom the amateur bayonet practice of policemen was not much of a deterrent. One wharfie [Tom Edwards] was killed…but the police, the premier and the scabs were driven out of Fremantle.”[xxiii] Bobbie Oliver writes that police numbers were

insufficient to stop a crowd of 600 to 700 lumpers re-entering the wharf when they saw launches arriving with volunteer [scab] workers. The lumpers began throwing iron bars and other missiles at the police. They also stoned the launches carrying the Premier and some members of the volunteer labour force. The crowd soon swelled to about 1000 men, women and children, including several returned soldiers in uniform.

The battle for possession of the wharf went on for over an hour, by which time the crowd had increased to three or four times its previous size…for the next few days, Fremantle was for all intents and purposes, controlled by the lumpers. Twenty-six police and seven lumpers had been injured.”

As Tom Edwards lay dying from a fractured skull,

a series of riots involving returned soldiers and lumpers rocked Fremantle…a large crowd, several thousand strong, gathered between the Federal Hotel and the post office. Two constables had been set upon in High Street. The armed officers who went to their aid were also attacked and savagely beaten.[xxiv]

The Townsville Meatworkers, 1919

In the course of a bitter strike in Townsville in 1919 meatworkers raided the cattle yards at Stuart’s Creek abattoir. As Terence Cutler writes: “Soon after midnight…a mob of 300 men appeared at the yards armed with sticks and palings…the men tore down the gates, drove the cattle out, cut up saddles and poisoned the drinking water.” After the raid, the police arrested prominent union leaders, and when workers marched to the lockup demanding their release, the police opened fire. “Shots were returned from the crowd, and those at the front broke through the gate and tore down part of the fence. At least nine people were injured in the shooting.” The next day. at another mass meeting at the Tree of Knowledge,

when several constables attempted to mingle with the crowd to note proceedings they were mobbed, and the whole police contingent were forced to take refuge in the bank across the road. During this retreat shots were fired, narrowly missing the policemen…the meeting broke up and large numbers of men rushed to the hardware stores…and seized all the firearms and ammunition in sight. [xxv]

“The main street of Townsville was in the possession of the meaties and their allies” and the police were forced to release union organiser Pierce Carney from custody.[xxvi] The Queensland Labor government rushed police reinforcements to Townsville by rail to restore “order”. But “for weeks the town remained in a state of siege. On one side was the small army of policemen, on the other the strikers and the unemployed…bread riots began to break out.”[xxvii] Other workers were not alienated by the meatworkers’ militancy – railway workers at Charters Towers in solidarity refused to transport police to Townsville.

The Melbourne Police Strike, 1923

Probably Australia’s most notorious riot occurred in the course of the 1923 Melbourne police strike. Police are not themselves part of the working class and police strikes can often be reactionary affairs in support of tougher law and order measures. However the 1923 strike against the appalling working conditions of the rank and file cops, who were all summarily sacked for “mutiny”, did not have such right wing connotations and won official trade union backing and significant working class sympathy. On the first night of the strike, Friday 2 November, the small numbers of scab police were attacked with fusillades of bottles and eggs and driven back to the Town Hall which came under a virtual siege. Meanwhile, as repeatedly occurs in mass popular riots, in the liberated streets a carnival atmosphere prevailed. It was a joyous occasion. The mass of workers who day after day have to succumb to the authority of the boss or the police were now asserting, at least briefly, their own power. They were winning back control. “These are our streets.” That is why. even in the face of severe repression by the state, few rioters subsequently regret the experience.[xxviii]

In 1923, the rioting reached its crescendo on the Saturday night, as vast crowds poured into the city after the Derby day races. When the glass of the Ezywalkin building in Swanston St was smashed, looting began in earnest. More than 30 shops were attacked and looted.

Much destruction occurred in Elizabeth Street between Bourke and Flinders Streets. Women used their skirts to carry the goods. Small boys hid cans of fruit up alley ways, to return with more as they scavenged the streets.[xxix]

Just as in the recent English riots and the US ghetto uprisings of the 1960s, “the authorities quickly blamed the looting on the city’s criminal element, [however] most of those arrested proved to be perfectly ordinary working class people”; while the Herald observed: “A remarkable feature was the number of women and girls who took part in the demonstrations against the police.”[xxx] This is a regular pattern in riots. The average rioter is not some gang member or member of the “underclass”. As Chris Harman writes about the 1960s riots in the US:

The rioters came from a complete cross section of the younger population of the ghettos. They were not, by and large, the “marginal types” – those who dropped permanently out of the job market and were attracted to hustling and petty thieving. In the case of Watts “the great majority” of rioters were “currently employed” – despite the fact that 25 percent of high school graduates in Watts could not get a job.[xxxi]

In response to the rioting during the police strike, the Victorian government mobilised and armed thousands of middle class “specials”, the precursors of the fascist secret armies of the 1930s, who within a few days managed to restore “order” in the central city. But the “specials found it difficult (and dangerous) to venture into working class suburbs, where they were regularly stoned, bashed and even shot at.”[xxxii]

West Melbourne was the “Fort Apache” for the specials. Lights were few and far between. Garden rockeries, road metal and industrial works provided handy ammunition… On Monday evening a mob gathered at a fire in a timber yard… The two sons of the owner of nearby Leeming’s Boots fired over the heads of the mob… Notwithstanding this, eight windows, seven mirrors and a showcase were smashed and stocks were stolen in the rampage.

The mob taunted the specials sent to keep order and for some time hand-to-hand fighting developed… In the melees two specials received head injuries…the following night about sixty-five specials baton charged a mob very much out of control. On the following Friday night…the most serious incident occurred when four of six specials in a motor car in Dudley Street were wounded by a shotgun blast.

The Wharf Riots, 1928-29

In the lead-up to the Great Depression the ruling class went on a concerted offensive against key sections of workers, such as the miners and the wharfies. Waterside workers engaged in a desperate losing battle as thousands of scabs were brought in to break their strike. In Melbourne in October 1928 rioting broke out outside the Customs House where scabs were being licensed.

Some unionists pelted the newly licensed men with rotten oranges… Others armed with billets of wood, coal shovels and hammers, and set about the scabs. The Argus reported: “the first serious incident occurred when a man …was pursued by a mob of hooting strikers”… A police baton charge rescued the scab but from then on, the clashes developed into a fully fledged riot…fights raged across the city… The riot continued to early evening. Equally violent clashes flared over the next few days.[xxxiv]

Scabs were also attacked while going to Port Melbourne by train. According to an Age report, striking wharfies “commenced swinging batons wrapped in newspapers on the heads of the volunteers” and a number of scabs were thrown out of the train into the Yarra River.

Pandemonium reigned until the train stopped at Pt Melbourne station. The bewildered volunteers made a wild dash for the gates, closely pursued by their attackers. On passing over the railway bridge to reach Princes Pier the volunteers received a second shock by running into about two thousand more trade unionists… The second body of unionists gathered around the volunteers, and a brisk quarter hour of fisticuffs ensued. One volunteer was picked up and thrown over the esplanade into the sea.

The cry went up from the ranks of the work-denied stevedores to rush the ships…the watersiders broke through a police line about fifty strong and stormed Station Pier… Scabs were jumping into the water to escape their attackers.”


The police then launched a vicious baton charge and without warning opened fire on the wharfies, killing at least one worker, Allan Whittaker, and wounding many more. Meanwhile in Adelaide there were repeated riots which dragged on well into 1930 as wharfies attempted to drive scabs out of Port Adelaide. On Thursday 27 September 1929, 4-5,000 wharfies marched on the Labour Bureau. After routing the scabs there, The Advertiser reported, “they moved to the wharves with the object of driving the volunteers from the ships…those who resisted the waterside workers’ demands came in for rough treatment.” In another assault the following day:

one volunteer who resisted the waterside workers was knocked to the ground with a length of wood, kicked and then had a cargo hook driven into his thigh. A plain-clothes constable…was also knocked down and kicked… As soon as the volunteers had been cleared from the wharves and the ships in the immediate vicinity of the Labour Bureau, the waterside workers moved towards the Ocean Steamer’s Wharf with the same object in view… Stones were thrown at the police and several times the crowd surged forward in an attempt to break through the police line.[xxxvi]

In this case, the balance of forces was so unfavourable that the only thing that could have won it for the wharfies was mass strike action by broad sections of other workers, but the union leaders were having none of this. Nevertheless, the wharfies’ militant stand did establish a tradition of struggle that stood them in good stead for the future when economic conditions improved.

The Ford Broadmeadows Strike, 1973

The riot and nine-week strike at the Ford Broadmeadows plant in 1973 was an iconic revolt. Ford was renowned as an absolute bastard of a company. Wages were low. The speed of the assembly line was relentless. There was the humiliation of begging a foreman to give you a toilet break. Add to this pressure-cooker a widespread hostility to union officials and something was simply bound to blow. Ford had been dragging out negotiations over a union log of claims and the workers were becoming increasingly frustrated. The Metalworkers Union officials did not want serious strike action at Ford and the more conservative shop stewards went along with the officials. But after one meeting between shop stewards and management a more militant Greek shop steward had had enough and decided to stir things up. To use his words:

I know how to address a crowd in Greek. ‘While you’ve been working’, I said, ‘we’ve been taking tea and biscuits with the management. This was to pay us for telling you the following bullshit on their behalf’.[xxxvii]

The Greeks in the crowd erupted and carried the meeting to strike. Then on 11 June Laurie Carmichael, the Communist Party leader of the Metalworkers Union, chaired a mass meeting at which the officials and stewards recommended a return to work. Carmichael declared the close vote carried. There was uproar. On the day they were supposed to return to work only a minority of workers attempted to enter the assembly plant where a large crowd gathered and tried to block the way. One of the leading migrant stewards was arrested and all hell broke loose. Workers stoned the factory and the plate glass windows, pushed over a brick wall and invaded the plant and sprayed offices with a fire hose and used steel poles as battering rams. Cars belonging to management were smashed and offices trashed. The police were repelled again and again by showers of bricks, stones, cans, fruit and horse manure.

There was a feeling of jubilation amongst the workers and remarkably, no one was arrested. The Melbourne Herald was incensed that the workers were smiling and laughing as they attacked the factory. The Herald editorial solemnly declared: “That Ford affair was not funny.” There was considerable support for the strikers from other workers. An amazing $100,000 (worth massively more in today’s money) was collected in donations. The Furnishing Trades Union banned repair of the broken windows and wharfies banned the handling of all Ford parts.

Ford had to shut down the assembly plant and the strike continued for another two months. However there were no picket lines and no serious rank and file organisation to stand up to the union officials. To eventually get the workers back to work the union officials organised separate meetings in separate meeting halls for separate ethnic groups. The Turks voted en bloc to return, and this led to considerable bitterness. Nonetheless the workers won some gains – tea breaks, toilet breaks, and a pay rise. Most importantly in the aftermath of the strike better shop steward organisation was established. More militant shop stewards, most of whom were migrants, were gradually elected. This laid the basis for the next major strike at Ford in 1981.[xxxviii]

The Parliament House Riot, 1996

The ACTU organised a 25,000-strong cavalcade to Canberra in 1996 to protest against the Howard government’s new anti-union laws. But to the profound annoyance of the ACTU bureaucrats, a section of the crowd broke away from the official rally and mounted a sustained attack on Parliament House. According to the Speaker of the House of Representatives Bob Halverston:

The group…forced a breach in police lines and ran towards the main entrance of Parliament House… Police formed a protective line along the perimeter…which was subsequently forced back to the main doors…demonstrators using increasing force broke through the first line of doors…demonstrators used weapons including a large hammer, wheel brace, steel trolley and stanchion from the internal doors to break open the internal doors. Simultaneously, a second group of demonstrators used other weapons to break into the Parliament House shop… The shop was ransacked and major damage occurred… After about two hours the demonstrators were finally repelled from Parliament House.[xxxix]

A few thousand protesters, led initially by a contingent of CFMEU (construction union) members and Aboriginal activists, who were subsequently joined by groups of students, unemployed workers and younger workers, were actively involved in the riot. A Federal police report stated that “a high proportion of the younger people engaged in the conflict were women.”[xl]

The widespread involvement of employed workers in riots during the course of many of the most important industrial battles of the last 120 years goes a long way to refute the common assumption that riots are simply the weapon of the powerless, of an underclass, or of “the most demoralised and cynical sections of society” as Mel Gregson of the Socialist Party would have it.[xli]

Unfortunately it was not just the small-l liberal left that engaged in all sorts of hand-wringing about the 2011 English riots. Various socialist groups, most notably the Socialist Party of England and Wales, denounced the riots, declaring that it “gives absolutely no support to rioting as a method of protest”[xlii], proclaiming that “rioting is the worst face of capitalism, something socialists want to abolish, not encourage.”[xliii] Subsequently the Socialist Party in Australia published a concerted defence of the approach of their British comrades. In that article Mel Gregson dismisses the riots as a “frenzied rebellion” and argues that “genuine Marxists do not support rioting as a productive method of struggle” and that “the rioters offered no clear alternative, no new system, to that which they were rebelling against.” She states that socialists should call “for actions that can actually challenge capitalism, not simply react to it” and goes on to argue:

It is also the role of Marxists to fight for and point towards a socialist strategy of mass working class action, not tail end the actions of the most demoralised and cynical sections of society… What we need is not to burn them down, but to take them over under collective ownership and democratic control in a socialist society run for the benefit of all. [xliv]

But far from it being the poorly organised, marginalised, less powerful or unskilled sections of the Australian working class that engaged in rioting, rioters have been repeatedly drawn from core sections of the class. The shearers in 1894 were one of the most skilled, best paid and most highly unionised sections of the workforce. The miners who stormed and ransacked Hoskins Steel Works in Lithgow in 1911 were highly skilled, with a strong tradition of union organisation. The waterfront workers who engaged in riots in their great strikes in 1890, 1917 and 1928 had a long history of industrial militancy, and the construction workers who led the 1996 Parliament House riot are some of the highest paid and best organised workers in Australia. Riots are not then simply the weapon of the powerless. Indeed, a case could be made that when under serious assault from the bosses and the state, workers from the core sections of the industrial working class with strong traditions of militancy can be more inclined to engage in advanced actions, such as rioting, than workers with much weaker traditions of militancy. Rioting by blue collar workers is much more common than rioting by white collar workers.

As for rioting not being “a productive method of struggle”, riots have on a number of occasions, such as the 1919 Fremantle wharf riot, helped workers win slashing victories; or contributed to partial victories, as in the 1973 Ford Broadmeadows strike, the 1911 Lithgow Iron Works strike, the 1911 Sugar strike or the 1903 Cabinet Makers strike; or helped prevent an utterly demoralising defeat, as in the 1894 Shearers strike. But in any case how do we exactly judge what “a productive method of struggle” is? In terms of immediate concrete gains, most demonstrations or protest marches are unproductive, as are many strikes. Most mutinies and revolutions have been defeated. But workers stand up and fight not just for immediate gains, but because they have been pushed too far, or as an assertion of their dignity, or because there is no other alternative. When workers strike, soldiers mutiny, students occupy (unless they do so for utterly reactionary reasons), socialists need to be at their side, not joining in the right wing chorus denouncing their “frenzied rebellion.” It is only by joining actively in the struggle that socialists can hope to gain a hearing for their arguments for taking the struggle forward into a broader challenge to capitalism.

It is also politically absurd to dismiss rioters because they offered “no clear alternative, no new system, to that which they were rebelling against.” How many strikes, demonstrations, mutinies or student occupations offer a clear alternative or “actually challenge capitalism, not simply react to it”? Are we to dismiss them also? Most struggles are simply reacting against the immediate horrors of capitalism. If we sit on the sidelines waiting for struggles “that actually challenge capitalism, not simply react to it”, rather than engaging with and showing solidarity towards those who are actually fighting back, we will never have any hope of establishing “a socialist society run for the benefit of all.”

Riots of the oppressed

Of course it is not just employed workers who have engaged in rioting – the unemployed, students, Aboriginal people, children, prisoners and other sections of the oppressed have rioted time and time again to defend their interests. A small number of these riots are considered below.

The 1917 Food Riots

The most sustained and concerted rioting in Australian history was carried out by working class women during World War I. Wednesday 19 September 1917 was Melbourne’s “night of broken glass” as thousands of working class women and their male supporters took to the streets to oppose rising food prices and harsh wartime austerity. Initially two thousand assembled at the Yarra Bank, but the torchlight procession quickly swelled to ten thousand as it marched through the city. The police attempted to stop the march in Spring Street.

Two women carrying the red flag at the head of the procession were quickly arrested… Road metal picked up in Batman Avenue was hurled at police… Under cover of darkness (the city’s lamps had been put out because of the coal shortage) the demonstrators now began smashing shop and office front windows. The trail of damage extending along Collins, Russell, Bourke, Flinders and Elizabeth Streets… The police were on the defensive, unable either to see what was happening, or to predict the demonstrators’ next moves…about five to six hundred men and women ran down Flinders Street across Queens Bridge…and started breaking windows at Sennitt’s Ice Works. Mounted police were unable to reach them behind a barricade of rabbit crates… The crowd then surged…to the Dunlop Rubber Company’s factory at Montague. It was alleged that sabotage of Dunlop’s had been planned by unionists…and that workers from the factory had been specifically invited to attend the demonstration at a stop work meeting the day before. The building’s windows were smashed by the protesters before the police arrived and managed to disperse the crowd with gunshots fired overhead.”[xlv]

Five days later it was Richmond’s turn, when the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) organised another march from the Yarra Bank against the unfair economic burdens of the war. According to the daily papers, leading VSP member Jenny Baines “did not tell them to break windows, but she advised them to do what they thought best. She said that if people wanted food they should go to the cool stores or to the bakers and the butchers and take it.”[xlvi] The police were stationed on the wrong route, giving the demonstrators free rein. The first plate glass to go was at the shop of William Angliss. Dimmey’s and the furniture stores Tye and Co and Maples suffered extensive damage.

The protest campaign had been initiated by the VSP in August 1917, with VSP organiser and former British suffragette Adela Pankhurst in the vanguard. It coincided with the outbreak of the NSW General Strike, which dimmed the city’s lights, and ongoing industrial action by waterside workers against rising food prices. These violent street protests reflected the growing disaffection with the war, as the slaughter dragged on year after year and working class women and men were forced to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden while capitalist war profiteers made hay. In particular, working class women reacted with hostility to calls from respectable middle class women’s groups, like the Australian Women’s National League, to substitute “macaroni for meat” to help win the war.

On Wednesday 15 August a crowd of two to three thousand led by Adela Pankhurst gathered outside Melbourne’s Parliament House (then the federal parliament) in defiance of a War Precautions Regulation prohibiting demonstrations in the area. In wild scenes, Pankhurst was abruptly seized by police. Subsequent speakers called on women “to attack the cool stores and forcibly seize the meat.”[xlvii] This was the first of a series of demonstrations led by long-term socialist activists Lizzie Wallace, Jennie Baines and Adela Pankhurst, which grew bigger and bigger. The second major demo on Wednesday 22 August mobilised seven to eight thousand and the crowd sang The Red Flag as they marched. Pankhurst was again arrested along with Wallace and three male supporters. The last week of August saw daily demonstrations with Pankhurst calling on the crowd to break into Parliament. The first window-smashings occurred on 3 September. Pankhurst, who was becoming increasingly extravagant in her rhetoric and intoxicated by the growing size and militancy of the protests, seemed to believe that a campaign of window smashing could defeat the government. She declared:

They can easily stand a strike …as far as we are concerned the government does not care a bit, we had to adopt other methods. You saw the results last night. Panes of glass smashed, anyway glass windows have no feelings whatever, no friends if we can hold out, we feel we have got the government in a cleft stick. The government has got to keep order, the business people won’t stand more of it.[xlviii]

The protests had temporarily blindsided the authorities, who had particular difficulty coping with the militancy of the working class women. The Chief Secretary, McLeod, “complained about ‘the very large proportion of women among the crowd’ whose presence, he believed, inhibited the police from using their batons effectively.”[xlix] However, rioting and window smashing, in and of themselves, were never going to be enough to defeat a determined government. There was broad working class sympathy for the aims of the rioters and they were able to forge links with unionised workers with mass meetings being organised in their support in many workplaces, such as the Dunlop factory. But to win the campaign, the industrial action taken by the wharfies against high food prices needed to have been generalised to much wider sections of the working class. Precisely because the government was not facing such a broad upheaval, it had time to get its act together. It eventually banned all assemblies and enrolled hundreds of baton-wielding special constables to enforce the ban. Pankhurst subsequently served almost two months in jail.

The Adelaide Beef Riots, 1931

There is also a long history of riots by the unemployed going back to at least the 1840s. One of the most famous riots of the Great Depression years was Adelaide’s Beef Riots. Two thousand unemployed workers marched on the Treasury building in January 1931 after the South Australian Labor government removed beef from their food rations. A riot erupted which lasted for about half an hour. According to The Advertiser “bricks were hurled towards the police cordon in front of the building… That was the signal for a portion of the demonstrators armed with sticks and other crude weapons, to surge forward on the police and open an attack.”[l] Rioting resumed that night at Port Adelaide when a crowd of about 500 gathered at a Communist meeting to protest about the actions of the police during the day. When police moved in to arrest one of the speakers it was on for young and old.

The Melbourne Club Riot, 1982

More recently I was a participant in the 1982 unemployed riot that stormed the exclusive Melbourne Club. On 12 November 1982, a 3,000-strong Coalition Against Poverty and Unemployment rally in central Melbourne headed by a banner reading “Work or Riot” charged up to the Melbourne Club in Collins St and broke down the doors. A section of the crowd got inside Melbourne’s top ruling class club where an elite dinner was taking place. Most of us were removed by police but 15 were detained. The police sealed off the entrance but the crowd refused to disperse and demanded the release of those arrested. A long drawn-out battle followed. The crowd unleashed a barrage of rocks, drink cans and other missiles that smashed the windows of the club. The police were eventually forced to release the bulk of those arrested. Four demonstrators were subsequently prosecuted for riot, but a sympathetic jury that had little love for the denizens of the Melbourne Club threw out the charges.

The Austudy Riot, 1992

Students have also engaged in more than their fair share of riots, with the 1992 Austudy riot being one of the most militant and effective. On 26 March 1992, more than 3,000 students protested in Melbourne as part of a National Union of Students demonstration against the Labor government’s plan to scrap the student allowance Austudy and replace it with a loans scheme. They marched up Bourke Street and stormed the steps of Parliament House. When four protesters were arrested, the crowd surrounded a police van to prevent them being taken away. Police brought in horses to try to break up the protest but were unsuccessful. The crowd grabbed material from construction sites to build barricades, rocked the van, let down its tyres and climbed on the roof. The turning point came when protesters pulled a cop off his horse which galloped away. The police then pulled back, and after a long stand-off, released the four prisoners from the van – an extremely rare victory!

Over two weeks later the police raided five houses in pre-dawn raids and arrested five people, including myself, all members of the International Socialist Organisation.[li] We were charged with unlawful assembly (i.e. riot), obstructing police, rescue, assaulting police and reckless injury. But after a concerted defence campaign, the Austudy Five were acquitted of all the main charges.


In a period of deepening social and economic crisis in world capitalism, the English riots of August 2011 are but a straw in the wind. We are likely to see many more such upheavals, especially given the relentless shift to the right by the Labor and social democratic parties worldwide, and the failure of trade union leaderships to organise effective and concerted resistance to wave after wave of ruling class austerity measures. As a consequence, there is a growing layer of alienated and socially deprived working class youth in the large cities of Europe and North America which feels it has no stake in the system and no political representation. This is fertile ground for further social explosions.

The crisis, as yet, has not been as severe in Australia, but even in the “lucky country” there are widespread pockets of social deprivation and long-term unemployment or underemployment in both urban and rural areas. According to the Roy Morgan unemployment survey, which utilises a considerably more realistic definition of unemployment than the massaged official government figures, in December 2011 16.8 percent of the workforce – 2.01 million workers – were either unemployed (8.6 percent) or underemployed (8.2 percent). This rose to a total of 27.5 percent amongst non-electors, which includes recent migrants, refugees and young people under the age of 18, and to a total of 35.7 percent amongst young people aged 18-24.[lii] So we should hardly be surprised by the riot in the working class outer Sydney suburb of Macquarie Fields in February 2005, which lasted four nights following the death of two youths chased by police; or by the riot by hundreds of young people outside the Bob Jane T-Mart in the Melbourne suburb of Oakleigh in March 2010; or the Corey Worthington house party riot of January 2008; let alone by the Aboriginal riots on Palm Island and in Redfern in 2004 or by innumerable smaller scale riots and clashes with police.

The question is, how should the left respond to these outbreaks of rebellion? To dismiss or sneer at, let alone denounce the riots as “the actions of the most demoralised and cynical sections of society” is absolutely the wrong approach. The revolutionary left, if it is to have any hope of taking the struggle against capitalism forward, needs to reject the hysterical moral panics of the mainstream media and the politicians, and refuse to condemn the rioters. This is not because the riots at Macquarie Fields or outside Bob Jane T-Mart or on the streets of England in August 2011 represented some clearly articulated attack on the capitalist system, or that the rioters were some new revolutionary vanguard. It is because these elemental upswellings of anger are the inevitable product of a system that destroys the lives of tens of millions around the globe.

Abstractly, of course, it would be much better if the rioters had precise demands, a clearly articulated ideological critique of capitalism, and directed their anger solely at the police, the government and big business interests. But it is utopian nonsense to think that any of these things are possible today. We are coming out of a long period of working class retreat that has profoundly depoliticised society. The level of industrial action remains low in countries such as Australia, Britain and the US. The failure of Labor governments to deliver for their working class supporters has led to widespread political disillusionment, but the socialist left is nowhere near big enough to offer an alternative that can gain a resonance in working class communities. In these circumstances, to stand on the sidelines denouncing those outbreaks of resistance that do occur, no matter how “imperfect”, is precisely the worst possible response from those who proclaim themselves to be socialists.

Faced with elemental revolts that the left has no control over, the task of socialists is to come down clearly on the side of the rioters against the state. A genuine revolutionary party that could play a decisive role in galvanising future mass revolts from below is not going to be built by preaching socialism from the sidelines, while denouncing those who are actually fighting back today. Clearly socialists need to be arguing for a political critique of capitalism and for broadening the resistance. Mass strikes and protests by organised workers are vital for turning the tide against the ruling class’s attacks. Any self-respecting socialist or working class militant needs to be agitating in their union and in their workplace for just such action. But it is also the role of socialists to push forward every element of resistance to the system and to defend all the oppressed and exploited when they take to the streets against the police. And it is only by being part of the struggles that do take place, however limited, reactive or ideologically unformed, that socialists can hope to gain the respect of those who are fighting back and begin to influence them with our arguments for taking the struggle forward and for a socialist alternative to capitalism. A mass revolutionary party will not be built by those who stand on the sidelines condemning those who are actively rebelling for not measuring up to our ideological checklist. Socialists have to be in the thick of it.

Furthermore, as the case studies I have detailed make clear, riots are not simply the province of the poor, the marginalised or the “powerless” as they are commonly portrayed. Riots are not in the least alien to the Australian working class movement. From the waterfront, to the mines, to the outback shearers, to Ford Broadmeadows, riots have been part and parcel of the resistance to capital by key sections of the working class. At times they have been successful, at other times not. But that is true of every other form of working class resistance.

Riots, of course, can’t overthrow capitalism. That will take a co-ordinated working class uprising led by a revolutionary party with deep roots inside the class. But that is no reason to dismiss riots. After all, strikes, picket lines, demonstrations, student protests, soldiers’ mutinies and factory occupations on their own will not overthrow capitalism either. Nor, for that matter, will speeches for socialism or articles in socialist publications. That is not a reason to turn our backs on any of them or downplay their significance. All of them have their role. As long as capitalism exists, the exploited and the oppressed will fight back in one way or another. Riots will not go away. They are an elemental form of revolt that needs to be supported by all those who hate the current rotten system.

[i] Gary Younge, “Indifferent elites, poverty and police brutality – all reasons to riot in the UK”, The Guardian, 5 December 2011.

[ii] Bruce Kent, “Agitations on the Victorian Gold Fields, 1851-4: An Interpretation”, Historical Studies, Vol. 6, No. 23, November 1954, p.226.

[iii] A.G.L. Shaw, “Violent Protest in Australian History”, Historical Studies, Vol. 15, No. 60, April 1973, p.556.

[iv] Terry Irving, The Southern Tree of Liberty. The Democratic Movement in New South Wales before 1856, The Federation Press, Sydney, 2006, p.152. M.M.H. Thompson, The First Election: The New South Wales Legislative Council Election of 1843, Alpha Desktop Publishing, Mittagong, 1996.

[v] Irving, Southern Tree of Liberty, pp.150-151.

[vi] Irving, Southern Tree of Liberty, pp.151-152.

[vii] Raymond Evans, A History of Queensland, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2007, p.85.

[viii] Jeff Sparrow and Jill Sparrow, Radical Melbourne. A Secret History, Vulgar Press, Carlton, 2001, p.36.

[ix] Raymond Evans and Carole Ferrier (eds), Radical Brisbane. An Unruly History, Vulgar Press, North Carlton, 2004, pp.119-120.

[x] R.B. Walker, “Violence in Industrial Conflicts in New South Wales in the Late Nineteenth Century”, Historical Studies, Vol. 22, No. 86, April 1986, p.70.

[xi] Walker, “Violence in Industrial Conflicts in New South Wales”, p.62.

[xii] John Merritt, The Making of the AWU, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, p.242.

[xiii] Bruce Scates, “Gender, Household and community politics: The 1890 Maritime strike in Australia and New Zealand”, Labour History, 61, 2006, pp.83-85.

[xiv] Jim Moss, “The Maritime Strike at Port Adelaide, 1890” in Jim Hagan and Andrew Wells (eds), The Maritime Strike: A Centennial Retrospective, Five Islands Press, Wollongong, 1992, p.29.

[xv] Mick Armstrong, Burning The Rodney. Dealing with Scabs in the 1894 Shearers’ Strike, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2007.

[xvi] Mark Hearn and Harry Knowles, One Big Union. A History of the Australian Workers Union 1886-1994, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1996, p.76.

[xvii] Quoted in Jeff and Jill Sparrow, Radical Melbourne, p.155.

[xviii] Joe Harris, The Bitter Fight. A pictorial history of the Australian labor movement, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1970, p.197.

[xix] Edgar Ross, A History of the Miners’ Federation of Australia, The Australasian Coal and Shale Employees Federation, Sydney, 1970, p.215.

[xx] Kevin Baker, Mutiny, terrorism, riots and murder. A history of sedition in Australia, Rosenberg, Dural, 2006, p.180.

[xxi] John Armstrong, “The Sugar Strike, 1911” in D.J. Murphy (ed), The Big Strikes. Queensland 1889-1965, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1983, p.109.

[xxii] Raymond Evans, Loyalty and Disloyalty. Social Conflict on the Queensland Homefront, 1914-18, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1987, p.17.

[xxiii] Robert Bollard, “Fremantle in Slow Motion: Winning Back the Melbourne Waterfront, 1919”, Labour History, Vol. 1, 97, November 2009.

[xxiv] Bobbie Oliver, War and Peace in Western Australia: The Social and Political Impact of the Great War 1914-1926, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1995, pp.176-178.

[xxv] Terence Cutler, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” in John Iremonger, John Merritt and Graeme Osborne (eds), Strikes. Studies in Twentieth Century Australian Social History, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1973, pp.93-94.

[xxvi] Doug Hunt, “The Townsville Meatworkers’ Strike, 1919” in Murphy, The Big Strikes, p.153.

[xxvii] Cutler, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”, p.97.

[xxviii] Chris Harman, “The summer of 1981: A post-riot analysis”, International Socialism, No. 14, Autumn 1981, p.12.

[xxix] Gavin Brown and Robert Haldane, Days of Violence. The 1923 police strike in Melbourne, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, 1998, p.54.

[xxx] Jeff and Jill Sparrow, Radical Melbourne, pp.202-203.

[xxxi] Harman, Summer of 1981, p13.

[xxxii] Jeff and Jill Sparrow, Radical Melbourne, p.63.

[xxxiii] Brown and Haldane, Days of Violence, p.141.

[xxxiv] Jeff and Jill Sparrow, Radical Melbourne, pp.40-41.

[xxxv] Rupert Lockwood, Ship to Shore. A History of Melbourne’s Waterfront and Its Union Struggles, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1990, pp.282-284.

[xxxvi] R.N. Wait, Reactions to Demonstrations and Riots in Adelaide, 1928-32, M.A. Thesis, Adelaide University, 1973, pp.31-34.

[xxxvii]Constance Lever-Tracy and Michael Quinlan, A Divided Working Class, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1988, pp.253-258.

[xxxviii] Mick Armstrong, Migrants and the Australian working class, http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&;view=item&id=7039:migrants-and-the-australian-working-class&Itemid=392.

[xxxix] Luke Deer, The Parliament House riot of 1996, www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/interventions/riot.htm.

[xl] Deer, Parliament House riot.

[xli] Mel Gregson, Riot for Revolution? A Marxist approach to riots, the police and the capitalist state, http://www.socialistpartyaustralia.org/archives/3237.

[xliii] http://socialistpartyp.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/london-rioting-the-tabloid-right-and-the-trendy-left-join-hands-to-misrepresent-working-people/. For more detail see Mick Armstrong, The English Riots: which side are you on?, http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&;view=item&id=7040:the-english-riots-which-side-are-you-on?&Itemid=390.

[xliv] Gregson, Riot for Revolution?

[xlv] Judith Smart, “Feminists, Food and the Fair Price: The Cost of Living Demonstrations in Melbourne, August-September 1917”, Labour History, 50, December 1986, p.122.

[xlvi] Sandra Bloodworth, “The Secret History of Dimmey’s”, Socialist Alternative, No. 21, October 1997.

[xlvii] Smart, Cost of Living Demonstrations, p.117.

[xlviii] Smart, Cost of Living Demonstrations, p.121.

[xlix] Smart, Cost of Living Demonstrations, pp.128-129.

[l] Wait, Riots in Adelaide, pp.136-138.

[li] The Battler, No 264, May 1992.

[lii] Roy Morgan Research, Unemployment Poll January 2012, http://www.roymorgan.com/news/polls/unemployment.cfm.

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