The Success of Mobs

In 18th century England, food riots, which peaked in 1766, were common, increasingly due to hoarding of food, so in the absence of any formal controls, the riots were allowed to happen in order to keep the poor fed. But how successful were uprisings overall? This is again from George Rude’s The Crowd in History:

“In England, …victories were far less frequent than in France; and England probably stood near to revolution only in 1831, when Irish unrest, rural disturbance, and popular and middle-class excitement over the first Reform Bill combined to bring the country to the brink of civil war. This was not because Methodism or any other religious movement turned men away from earthly strife and thus averted a revolution; but, until the 1840s at least, no insurrectionary movement of the English “lower orders”, whether town or countryside, stood any chance of success without the support of some combination of other social groups. And in England this was rarely forthcoming; when it was, it was too short-lived to yield more than limited results. In the Wilkite movement of the 1760s and 1770s, popular radicalism won some victories; but this was only so long as the agitation of the crowd in the streets was supported by that of Middlesex freeholders and London craftsmen, shopkeepers, and merchants. Similarly, in the Gordon riots the crowd could hold the streets just as long as the City Magistrates and householders condoned their activities; but once this sanction was withdrawn, the movement had no future. In Birmingham, i 1791, it is doubtful if the “Church and King” crowd would have succeeded in wrecking Priestley’s house and driving him out of town without the active or tacit approval of a number of its magistrates. The “daughters of Rebecca” owned their success not to any defection of the military, which was eventually mobilized in sufficient numbers to suppress them, but to the support they enjoyed among the whole farming population – and even, in part, to the willingness of the government to remove the main abuses which had prompted them to riot. The Chartists failed in their immediate aims because their numbers, though considerable, were insufficient to compensate for their lack of middle class support; and yet, in the long run, most of their 6 Points were realized precisely because that support, refused in the 1840s, was forthcoming later. ..

But finally, should we judge the crowd’s importance in history purely in terms of its record of success or failure? …in general, it is perhaps not unreasonable to see these earlier, immature, and often crude, trials of strength, even when doomed to failure, as the forerunners of later movements whose results and successes have been both significant and enduring.”

I don’t believe it’s possible to assess riots etc in terms of success. There is always a lot of stuff happening off the record. In Bristol, the fear of rioting over high food prices probably urged – or forced – local gents to import cheap grain, to subsidise a wide range of foodstuffs. So it may not have stopped the centralisation of food, the development of mass markets but that would be trying to stop urbanisation as the two are linked.

There is ongoing debate as to how successful the protests of the 1960s and 70s were. But a lot of things were changed, people were empowered and formed new ways of organising and behaving. How do you measure these and their long term effects? as in the past, this can only be guessed at.


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