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Repertoires of contention: their protests and ours

In light of the assault on Jeremy Corbyn under the guise of 'egg throwing,' historian KEITH FLETT argues right-wing and left-wing forms of protest are fundamentally different

ON Sunday March 3 outside Finsbury Park mosque Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was punched on the head by a man who was apparently also holding an egg. An individual has been charged with assault and the matter will be dealt with by the courts.

However the attack raised wider issues. The attack did not of course receive much media attention and the usual suspects who frequently weigh in about attacks on MPs were silent. That is hardly a surprise to those on the left aware that much of the media is not enthused by Jeremy Corbyn often to the point of lies and distortions.

The initial reports of the event however indicated that Corbyn had in fact not been punched but had an egg thrown at him. Egg throwing is a fairly regular occupational hazard for MPs, particularly those in the public eye. It is harmless (even if an expensive suit may require a trip to the cleaners) and without going into matters of tactics more difficult to do in terms of actually hitting the intended target than might be thought.

Indeed at the Battle of Wood Green in April 1977, where Jeremy Corbyn was the lead organiser of a counter demonstration to a march by the fascist and openly anti-semitic National Front in north London, eggs were thrown at fascist marchers. Some people were arrested for doing this and mostly acquitted in court on the grounds that throwing eggs (historically rotten eggs) is a traditional form of protest.

So is there no difference in the forms of protest used by the hard right and the left and the labour movement?

There certainly is. The key one is that the left invariably engages in collective rather than individual activity. The US social movement theorist Charles Tilly developed a schema of what he termed the repertoires of contention.

Many will be familiar to Star readers and as Tilly noted the Chartist movement in the 1830s and 1840s was one of the first in the world to run through the entire repertoire. It started with the petition to Parliament, still very much in use today. Then there were meetings, to organise and campaign, street protests and demonstrations. The Chartists engaged in what they called exclusive dealing – a refusal to buy the goods and services of shopkeepers or publicans who didn’t support them.

Following this came more tightly organised actions, strikes and potentially a general strike – the Chartists called one in 1842, and finally an armed revolt. It is the 180th anniversary in November of the Newport Rising, an attempt by the Chartists to organise an armed revolution which came nearer to success than many historians have acknowledged.

Tilly implies a hierarchy of forms of collective protest. While it is unlikely to be the case that people go from petitioning to armed revolt without some intermediate actions, reality is usually more complex with several different forms of protest in play at any one time.

Tilly was criticised by EP Thompson for having a static rather than a dynamic concept of forms of protest.

While fellow socialist historian George Rude researched and celebrated the revolutionary crowd, Thompson pointed out the dividing line between such a crowd and a reactionary mob was sometimes a fine one and could change quite quickly. For example the crowd, or mob, involved in the Gordon Riots in 1780 started out protesting outside the London houses of religious minorities and ended by attacking the Bank of England.

Not all protest is positive or progressive and it’s here that the collective framework of socialist politics becomes essential.

Keith Flett is a socialist historian.


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