Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Monday, November 07, 2005

The power of protest

The BBC Politics Show is asking people to nominate their top ten political protests in the light of the death of Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger in Alabama in 1955 galvanised the American civil rights movement. Political protest I think has to be seen as something distinct from riots and revolutions, though it may inspire such mass collective actions of rebellion. The problem with any form of 'lists' of political protests is that only symobolic actions, normally undertaken by individuals, have any chance of making the top ten - despite the fact that real change comes when millions of ordinary people undertake lots of extraordinary little actions that simply do not get recorded. But that taken into account, here are ten inspiring protests for you - in chronological order. Not all of the ten below are 'protests that shook the world' - but I think all are quite timely ones to remember in the current climate - though there are hundreds, if not thousands, of others that could easily make such a list.

1. Martin Luther's 95 Theses in 1517 'On October 31, 1517, according to traditional accounts, Luther's 95 Theses were nailed to the door of the Castle Church as an open invitation to debate them. The Theses condemned greed and worldliness in the Church as an abuse and asked for a theological disputation on what indulgences could grant.'This arguably helped to kick off the Protestant Reformation, which split the Church, up to then the key ideological buttress of European feudalism.
2. Emily Davison, Suffragette who threw herself under the King's Horse 1913
3. Gandhi's Salt March, 1930, against the British Empire.
4. Battle of Cable Street, East London, 1936, which smashed Mosley's British Union of Fascists.
5. Rosa Parks, Alabama, 1955 - sparked the Civil Rights movement.
6. Black Power at the Mexico Olympic Games, 1968.
7. Tiananmen Square, China, 1989 - inspiring pro-democracy protest.
8. Poll Tax riots, London, 1990 - brought down Thatcher.
9.The 'Battle of Seattle', 1999, which shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organisation, and brought the anti-capitalist movement into the front rooms of people across the world.
10. Global Day of Protest against the Iraq War, February 15th, 2003. Thirty million demonstrate globally - will ultimately be the thing that brings down Blair.



At 12:48 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know you say that this list is totally arbitrary but I feel there is one which could usefully be included to fit in with your sweep of 20th century protest.

I can't remember in which exact year it took place but the image of the buddhist monk who set fire to himself in Vietnam to protest against the corrupt nature of the South Vietnamese government and the involvement of the United States was a powerful act of protest by one individual.

That image very succinctly summed up the nature of the conflict in Indochina at the time. It also illustrated the profound difficulties encountered when one country attempts to impose its will on another with little or no regard for the indigenous population.

Its relevance in today's world is startling.

At 11:55 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Thanks for reminding me about that instance of self-immolation - yep indeedy - very powerful indeed - on the front page of a Rage Against the Machine album wasn't it? I might well try to dig it out and put on me blog when I have a spare five minutes to kill.

What is also interesting is the religious aspect of that protest (by a buddhist monk) but also many of these protests - even in the twentieth century - from Gandhi, to the baptist preacher Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (in the American Civil Rights movement) to CND and the Muslim Association of Britain in the current StW movement in Britain.

At 11:21 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being a bit of a situationist obsessive, I'd put Paris 1871 and 1968 in there somewhere (1871 is not a protest in the "15 February 2003" use of the word, but it should certainly qualify). Speaking of an enflamed Paris, here's a link from Apostate Windbag which sums the current situation up pretty well:


At 11:22 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

shit, sorry, i've just noticed yr doing 20th century only - i guess 1871 doesn't count.

At 1:18 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

I am doing pre-1900 (hence Martin Luther in 1517) but I just didn't bother to put much effort into thinking about protests before 1900 that really changed the world. 1871 and the Paris Commune I think is a little bit bigger and more important than just a 'protest' - it was the first time workers took power themselves - and so can't really count. I could really have included key early protests that played important parts in say the American Revolution (Boston Tea Party?), or the French Revolution - (Tennis Court Oath?) but I didn't - so most are 20th C I'm afraid. Still I expect the BBC poll will pick things like the Countryside Alliance march or fucking Fathers for Justice - though I hope I am wrong.


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