The Taming of the American Crowd

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Al Sandine, Monthly Review Press, £14.95

This is a history of the US based on the actions of the crowd. A brief review cannot do justice to the vast array of issues raised: anti-colonial riots, strikes and great industrial battles, racist lynch mobs, riots outside banks, passive crowds at football games and in shopping malls.

Al Sandine is clearly on the side of the crowd as a progressive force and he explains that spontaneity alone cannot define its behaviour. He refuses to define the crowd as a blind, easily led, mindless force - even when it pursues a reactionary cause. Public lynching was not a spontaneous outburst of ugliness, but premeditated and organised theatre, often sanctioned by figures of local power. The progressive crowd also sets its agenda in advance with networks and propaganda.

There was a time when crowd action had the sympathy of some of the local elite. Rioting was justified if the elite had not fulfilled its obligations to the lower orders, whether as a matter of price, taxation or justice. But the rules of engagement changed and the issue of taxation led to revolution.

The rise of bourgeois democracy saw the crowd's influence diminish. Change was supposed to come through the ballot box, and the destruction of property was no longer acceptable to local or national elites. They were united in their opposition to the crowd.

The vote benefited rich more than poor. Thus the crowd appeared on a new battlefield of strikes and demonstrations. US workers initiated the tradition of the May Day demonstration but, portrayed as anti-American, the tradition was brutally suppressed. Civil rights activists faced similar suppression but with a different outcome.

A sanitised version of May Day continued, but not until the 1980s did the real version reappear. The role of the crowd had changed - it was now rare for it to negotiate directly as it had in the 18th century. If crowd action was enough then we would not struggle to build a revolutionary party. Nonetheless the crowd still has its victories - the poll tax riot abolished the poll tax and ended Thatcher's reign.

Sandine believes that to an extent the crowd has been tamed, although he is not denying that crowds can, and may, play a role in creating change. He argues that the credit crunch, and the layoffs on the way, could thin the crowds of consumer society and see those absentees join with those like-minded to change society.