What Is To Be Done? Changing Metaphors of Change

Jean-Luc Godard, La Chinoise (1967)

1. Radical for Revolutionary

During my misspent youth we spoke, however hopelessly – no doubt because hopelessly – of ‘revolution’; even, with an eye to dialectical materialism, of ‘The Revolution.’ I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. But nowadays (except among my communist comrades) the standard appellation among socialists and activists alike, including many self-styled anarchists, is the word ‘radical’, which is used to describe everything from networks, assemblies, meetings, marches, communities, groups and theories, to book fairs, magazines, trainers, pop bands, fitness clubs, restaurants, marketing consultants and advertising agencies. To understand this shift in metaphor – from the turning wheel of revolution to the excavated root of radicalism – it’s useful to consider the origins of this word, both etymological and historical, and why it has been adopted as a viable alternative to the previously revolutionary aims of political practice. This definition is from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Radical / adjective & noun
[Late Latin radicalis, from Latin radix: root.)
A. adjective. 
1. Forming the root, basis, or foundation; original, primary. (Late Middle English)
2. a. Of a quality etc: inherent in the nature of a thing or person; fundamental. (Late Middle English) b. Of action, change, an idea, etc: going to the root or origin; pertaining to or affecting what is fundamental; far-reaching, thorough. (Middle 17th Century) c. POLITICS. Advocating thorough or far-reaching change; representing or supporting an extreme section of a party; specifically: History. belonging to an extreme wing of the Liberal Party. (Early 19th Century) d. Characterised by departure from tradition; progressive; unorthodox. (Early 20th Century)
B. noun.
1.
PHILOLOGY. a. A root; a radical word or letter.

2. A basis, a fundamental thing or principle. (Mid 17th century)
5. A politically radical person. (Early 19th Century)

The political sense of radical as meaning ‘change from the roots’ was first recorded in 1802 (as a noun) and in 1817 (as an adjective) to describe the extreme section of the bourgeois Whig Party, which went on to form the Liberal Party in 1859. It has been used to mean ‘unconventional’ since 1921, and has been used in slang since 1983, derived from 1970s U.S. surfer-slang meaning ‘at the limits of control’.

Radicalism, which originates in Liberal thought, does not seek political revolution, but radical and progressive change within the existing Parliamentary system. It is for this reason, perhaps, that every ‘radical’ meeting, assembly, march, network, community and group I have strayed into has been fixated with (and paralysed by) seemingly endless discussions about its own identity in relation to that system, rather than with how to bring about the actions through which that identity might be formed in practice.

It is why, also, the numerous housing groups calling themselves radical – from the Radical Housing Network to the Radical Assembly – have so readily subordinated themselves to the Labour Party, which has appropriated the language and slogans of radicalism to its own agenda (which is neither radical nor revolutionary).

Why, too, the word ‘radical’ has been so easily subsumed within capitalism for the promotion of trainers, magazines, book fairs, pop bands, fitness clubs, restaurants, marketing consultants and advertising agencies, whose claims to radicalism are indistinguishable from the promotion of the always new, always changing commodity form.

Which is why, finally, I reject both the terminology and practice of ‘radicalism’, which – as the predominantly middle-class membership of socialist and activist groups indicate – is a middle-class ideology whose effect (if not intention) is to subsume the potentially revolutionary energies of that class into a program of ‘inaction’ – in endless meetings, marches, assemblies, networks, and the purer-than-thou show trials of identity politics, all expressed (self-expression being the politics of youth) in the spectacle of ‘radical dissent’.

The numerous examples of such dissent, which typically involve a form of spectacular self-abnegation in the face of power – half naked women writing slogans on their tits, people chaining themselves to buildings and covering themselves in paint or oil, groups of people sitting or lying down in the road and pretending to be dead, sleep-outs in solidarity with the homeless in £500 sleeping bags, people protesting censorship by putting ducktape over their own mouths, protesters standing with their arms raised as police strike them with batons, etc – are sufficiently common these days for me not to have to list them all here; but they spring more from middle-class guilt and the Liberal’s need to escape this by identifying with a (preferably distant, preferably brown-skinned) victim, than from any plan of political action and social change.

If the working class is to form a revolutionary alternative to middle-class radicalism and fight the class war being waged against it, it must distance itself from all such programs of direct inaction masquerading as political practice. 150 years ago Marx wrote of the illusion of believing that the Prussian Government of Otto von Bismarck, who created the first welfare state, would ever implement socialist policies: ‘The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing!’ And while we continue to struggle under the same illusion, the events of the past decade and more have demonstrated – once again and for all with eyes to see – that this is the heavy but inescapable judgement of history.

2. Revisionism for Revolution

Compared to our carefully stage-managed marking of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution last year, the 50th anniversary of the Paris uprisings in 1968 passed with relatively little recognition in the UK. Perhaps, given the political atmosphere, our masters thought it would be a revolution too far. So back in May of this year I watched Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, which is bit like watching a film made by ASH with actors drawn from the more youthful ranks of the Revolutionary Communist Group. Released in August 1967, it’s extraordinarily prescient of the événements of May ’68, as they are called. I also watched several documentaries about those events, and seeing the Sorbonne occupied by students furiously discussing the cultural manifestations of capitalism while neglecting to take control of its economic, legal and political infrastructure, it reminded me of that brief moment following the election of Oh Jeremy Corbyn to the Leadership of the Labour Party back in September 2015, when Momentum, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, the Radical Assembly, the Radical Housing Network, Brick Lane Debates, and all the other student radicals started rehearsing their own historical moment, with the same rhetoric, slogans, clenched fists, marches, po-faced lectures on ‘Corbynomics’, the establishment of ‘radical’ cells across London, the creation of phone trees to mobilise activists, the self-identifying women’s only caucuses for the overthrow of world capitalism by 4pm next Sunday, etc.

Fifty years later, the difference is that, although the French workers were easily fobbed off with mildly less exploitative conditions of wage slavery negotiated by their union bosses, the French students had some sort of utopian idea of revolution, even if they hadn’t a clue how to bring it about, the organisation to do so even if they did, and were themselves defeated by a democratic vote called by Charles de Gaulle, who won the largest vote of any President in French history, and to which, like the dutiful children of the bourgeoisie they were, the students conceded, not understanding – for all their debates on capitalist ideology – that a democratic majority is a product of capitalist media and propaganda, and revolutions are always made by minorities.

Oscar Wilde once wrote that ‘a map of the world that didn’t include utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing.’ Less than fifty years later, our own students couldn’t conceive a more utopian project than to vote for a social democrat to the prime-ministership of a capitalist state who promised them slightly increased taxes for the rich and some vague idea of returning us to the nationalised industries, utilities, railways and health service of the 1970s – which was hardly a socialist utopia. In this failure of imagination they re-enacted Marx’s dictum (which he attributes to Hegel) that ‘all great moments in history are repeated, the first time as tragedy, the next as farce’.

But then I watched the recording of a 2008 talk by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the student leaders of the ’68 événements, and he helpfully clarified that, no, they were in fact never trying to seize power from de Gaulle, but merely wanted to, in Rimbaud’s words, ‘changer la vie’, so that (these were some of his examples) a woman could open a bank account without the permission of her husband, sex between people of the same sex was legal, and students of different sexes could sleep in the same dormitory.

Now, these may be the reflections of an old man looking back on his youth and trying to justify his present adherence to the radically shrunk demands of identity politics within the prison-house of monopoly capitalism, but perhaps the Paris students of 1968 were not so different from the London students of 2015, in that both were what Godard, in La Chinoise, contemptuously calls ‘revisionists’. Perhaps, after all, the soixante-huitards were already farcically repeating the Popular Front demonstrations of 1936, which brought the similarly revisionist Léon Blum to power, and which were themselves farcically repeating the February revolution of 1848, which three years later brought Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte to power (which was the trigger for Marx’s dictum), and which was itself farcically repeating the July revolution of 1830, which overthrew the restored Bourbon Monarchy, and which was in turn farcically repeating the French revolution of 1789, which had beheaded Louis XVI and founded the French Republic. Whether that was a tragedy or a farce, as Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai famously didn’t say in 1972, it’s too early to say. But what all these events have in common is that they were all bourgeois revolutions.

So the question is, where is the great moment in history that these tragical and farcical bourgeois revolutions repeat? The only answer to that question can be: in the future. To bring this about, and to be ready for its presages when they appear – as we so farcically failed to be after the referendum on Brexit, when the country was effectively leaderless for several weeks and the so-called Radical Left responded by organising a march to demand that workers from countries obedient to the European Union be allowed to work in the UK under the same exploitative relations of production as the rest of us – it will be necessary to confront vague ideas of liberal revisionism with clear images of working-class revolution.

3. Consensus for Truth

In contrast to these bourgeois revolutions and revisionist uprisings, the Paris Commune of 1871 was the real thing – which is to say, a working class revolution. However, as Marx argued in The Civil War in France, the Commune, which lasted only two months, made two fundamental mistakes: first, in not taking over the Bank of France, whose gold reserves would have brought the bourgeoisie (both French and Prussian) to heel; and second, in not marching on Versailles immediately and hanging Adolphe Thiers and every other member of the National Assembly from every tree in its famous gardens. The Communards’ belief that no French soldier would fire on French ‘citoyens’ was a sad hangover from the bourgeois revolutions of 1789, 1830 and 1848 – patriotism being the last refuge of the bourgeois revolutionary. To their cost they learned that class always trumps nationality, just as orders trump solidarity (and money trumps humanity), and hopefully the lesson will not have to be learned again (inevitably it will). Marx’s comments on the Commune are interesting from several perspectives, but for the purpose of educating us in something that has assumed almost mythical status and about which, because of that, we haven’t a clue, there are two primary lessons.

First, that the citizens of Paris could only resist the French government because the four-month siege of Paris by the Prussian Army had rid them of the defeated French army, which Marx understood full well was an army of occupation, not protection, except of bourgeois markets; therefore, that revolutions aren’t brought about at a moment chosen by revolutionaries, but are always contingent upon historical circumstances to which an organisation like the Communist Party or the politicised members of the National Guard, or interest groups like students or industrial workers, can take advantage. The UK has never had such a revolutionary organisation, certainly in modern times, and what potential to form one the industrial working class once presented has been effectively shepherded by the trades unions and, above all, by the Labour Party, which exists to hand the gelded workers over to the bosses. As for the students, well . . . Momentum is the short answer to that. And second, Marx’s comments on the Commune contain some of his most interesting statements arguing for the decentralisation of the state as an instrument of capitalism, very much at odds with the proto-totalitarian aspects of the Communist Manifesto, and more in line with the anarcho-communism of someone like Nestor Makhno and the Ukrainian Free Territory, which after three years of resistance was ruthlessly crushed by Trotsky 50 years after the Commune.

One of my favourite films is La Commune (de Paris 1871), about which the director, Peter Watkins, wrote that while the French Revolution of 1789 is endlessly taught to the children of the petit-bourgeoisie, and La Marseillaise has been sung at its every repetition from 1830 to 1968 (although I doubt it was during the country-wide protests and strikes in response to the so-called Socialist Government’s Labour reforms in 2016; and it certainly wasn’t during the banlieues protests against police brutality in 2017), the history of the Commune is rarely taught in French schools and not recognised in state commemorations. Yet it was the closest France has ever got to a working-class revolution. Still, that’s closer – in both time and success – than perfidious Albion has ever come. The last and only time we came close to the same was the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which ended in very much the same way as the Commune – that is to say, in betrayal by the head of state and bloody retribution by the army. The first lesson of revolution is: decapitate your enemies at the first opportunity, because if you fail to do so they will surely decapitate you, and with the interest of capitalist usury!

Hope, however, is the opium of the revolutionary classes; just as the greatest barrier to revolution is the refusal of would-be revolutionaries to confront the barriers to revolution. Marching in the street, carrying banners, repeating chants, and all the other props in the theatre of protest were outdated and redundant by 1871 at the latest, as the Paris Commune demonstrated, probably before that. Add to that today: communists with their noses buried in well-thumbed books by Marx, Lenin, Mao, Che Guevara et al, as if the world they must overthrow is not everywhere all around them; a working class that has reified its own humiliation and subservience as cultural ‘identity’; and an intelligentsia wailing like a baby in shit-stained nappies desperate for a slap from its masters to validate its servile existence. Above all: the vast corporate-military-surveillance complex under whose permanent occupation we are living and to which, like the willing slaves we are, we hand over a greater and greater proportion of our wealth and freedom.

And yet, however unlikely it seems, if we don’t do it soon the chance won’t come again, if indeed it is not already passing into impossibility in our lifetime, and those who come after us will look back on this moment as the final one in which the last flicker of hope gave way, irrevocably, to despair. In Eric Rohmer’s film Ma Nuit Chez Maud the Marxist mathematician, discussing Pascal’s wager on the probabilities of God’s existence, draws parallels with the Russian Revolution. He quotes Lenin (or Gorky or Mayakovsky) saying that historical circumstances forced the Bolsheviks to take the chance in a thousand of it succeeding, since it was infinitely better to take that chance than to have no chance at all. They risked everything, but the rewards being infinite it was worth the wager. A century later, we’ve replaced the calculation of probability and risk – which takes planning, organisation and courage – with hope. Hope is the realm of faith, of politics, of occult knowledge, of spiritualism – which is to say, of ideology, false consciousness, bad faith and cowardice.

In his introduction to Lenin 2017, a selection of texts that was published last year on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Slavoj Žižek wrote about the difference between the manufacture of democratic consensus and the truth from which revolutionary action takes its authority:

‘In this case of attesting the truth, Robespierre said in the National Assembly on 28 December 1792, any invocation of majority or minority is nothing but a means to “reduce to silence those whom one designated by this term [minority]’: “Minority has everywhere an eternal right: to render audible the voice of truth”.

‘Robespierre’s argument effectively points toward Lenin, who, in his writings of 1917, saves his most acerbic irony for those who engaged in an endless search for some kind of “guarantee” for the revolution. This guarantee assumed two main forms: either the reified notion of social Necessity (we should not risk the revolution too early; we must wait for the right moment, when the situation is “mature” with regard to the laws of historical development; “it is too early for the socialist revolution, the working class is not yet advanced enough”) or a normative notion of “democratic” legitimacy (“the majority of the population is not on our side, so the revolution would not really be democratic”) – as if, before the revolutionary agent risks the seizure of the state power, it needs to secure permission from some figure of the big Other (e.g. organise a referendum to be sure that the majority supports the revolution).’

I imagine that, at the end of every financial year, when the accountants have counted up the pre-tax profits, the bonuses have been handed out to the City boys (a record £10 billion in 2018), and the lawyers have hidden them in offshore companies, the captains of industry and the CEOs of multinational corporations, the senior politicians and civil servants, the army generals, the heads of the secret services, the billionaire financiers, oil magnates, industrialists, press barons and arms dealers, and of course the landowners and royal families, all gather together in a sound-proofed dungeon built for the purpose (and with public money) a thousand metres below ground where they can’t be heard by even the most sensitive of instruments, and after they’ve shagged the hookers and snorted all the drugs and had their nobs sucked just the way they like it, they fall down laughing for about a week, pretty much continuously, and loud enough for the vibrations to ripple down to the planet’s core. Up here on the surface we pretend we can’t hear that laughter, but deep down we feel it vibrating in our bones as shame. It’s this we feel at every Orgreave, every Hillsborough, every Iraq War, every Royal Marriage, every Sunday Times Rich List, every lawful killing of every Mark Duggan, every Grenfell Tower fire, every time we look up at the clock and wonder how many more days of our lives we have to kill before our bosses let us go home to die. Belief in revolution is, perhaps, the refusal to believe that, after 300,000 years of evolution, this is all we are; and this, at least, is something I still hope.

4. Demolition for Refurbishment

‘But what’s all this got to do with the fight to save our council estates from demolition, privatisation and redevelopment?’ – I hear you demand from another room. Well, last week the newly-elected Cabinet of Haringey Labour council voted to halt the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), a joint venture the previous administration had entered into with Lendlease, an international asset and property management group with nearly $21 billion in assets and which made post-tax profits of over $750 million in 2017. The HDV, which threatened over 20 council estates in the borough with demolition, would have handed over a 50 per cent stake in £2 billion worth of council land and property to Lendlease, including management of the commercial and housing portfolio it planned to build in its place. On the face of it the halting of this mass demolition and privatisation vehicle looks like a victory for local campaigners, and gives some ground to their claim that the estate-demolishing Labour Party of Oh Jeremy Corbyn can be changed for the better from within.

However, having halted the HDV, Haringey council is now in the process of setting up a Wholly Owned Company (WOC) for housing development, just as other Labour councils have already done in Hackney, Camden, Newham, Waltham Forest, Barking & Dagenham, Greenwich, Southwark, Lambeth and Croydon, where such Special Purpose Vehicles have one purpose (and one purpose only): to demolish their council estates and redevelop them as housing associations. Indeed, Brunel Walk and Turner Avenue estates have already been targeted for demolition. And if Haringey council continues with its policy of demolishing the estates under its stewardship, the cost of replacing the lost homes alone, plus that of demolition and compensation for leaseholders, means the new developments will have to be tripled in housing capacity over that of the demolished estates, with at least half the new properties for market sale, half the affordable housing provision composed of properties for shared ownership, and little or no homes for social rent. Indeed, Haringey council has already specified that the only affordable housing the WOC will build will be for target rent (which is around double social rent), for London Living rent (which is a rent to buy product), and for shared ownership, with the bulk being for market rent and market sale.

As ASH has demonstrated with arguments and facts that can be independently corroborated by anyone wishing to do so, the stated development intentions of the WOC are not only determined by Haringey council’s conformity to the neo-liberal policies of the Labour Party, which a change of membership doesn’t alter, but also – as ASH will shortly be showing in verifiable detail – about basic economics, and no number of speeches about socialism from Oh Jeremy Corbyn will change the financial figures that make this outcome necessary on any estate regeneration scheme that starts with demolising the existing homes. We shouldn’t forget that the Haringey Labour Party voted against the HDV not because it opposes the social cleansing the demolition of that housing will cause, but because of the financial risks of handing over such huge swathes of the council’s land and housing stock to an international property developer with such an appalling track record of public fraud, financial manipulation and aggressive litigation in a post-Brexit UK in which investment in London’s hitherto booming property market is anything but assured. Indeed, Lendlease have threatened Haringey council with legal action for ‘loss of profits’ should it dare to vote against the HDV.

It’s long overdue that we brought some clarity of understanding to what estate regeneration is and what it isn’t. It’s not an attempt to build more homes for an expanding London population. It’s not an option forced on councils by central government cuts that prohibit them from refurbishing their housing stock or building more against the collateral of their current assets. It’s not a means of cross-subsidising the building of more council homes. That’s all a lie from beginning to end, and I hope that anyone that’s been reading the ASH blog for a while will understand that by now. The estate regeneration programme – which on London’s immensely lucrative land always means demolition and redevelopment – has been very carefully designed, legislated and publically financed for one purpose: to demolish the council housing stock that presents a threat to the rising prices of private property; to privatise or gain access to the land it stands on; and to realise the maximum potential residual value of that land by replacing those homes with investments for global capital. That’s all it is.

So why – as we are constantly asked – are Labour councils, under the guidance of and with funding from the Labour Mayor, following the housing policy of the Labour Party, and under the cloak of the propaganda sprouted by the Labour Leader, pursuing this programme? Please listen to this, because it’s about time people faced up to this truth: it’s in order to demonstrate to the City whose financial services contribute around 11 per cent of the UK’s GDP, to the CEOs of the FTSE 100 Index whose patronage makes or breaks our political parties, to the tax-avoiding press barons and heads of the BBC that tell us what to think, to the British aristocrats that still own most of our land, to the Arab oil sheiks, Russian oligarchs, and Chinese industrialists that are buying up the rest of it, to the peers in the House of Lords that protect the rights of that aristocracy, to the heads of the civil service that run the country no matter what political party is in government, to the heads of the Royal Army, Navy and Air forces that pursue and defend the UK’s imperial interests abroad, to the Police forces and Secret Services that watch and report on our every move at home, to the Royal Family that are wheeled out to keep the masses loyal every time the whole edifice of theft and exploitation is brought into question, and, of course, to the USA, without whose approval we do nothing – in other words, to the individuals, institutions and organisations that actually run the sixth largest economy in the world with the lowest public expenditure in Europe, rather than the mediocrities in the House of Commons – that Labour is a party fit to administer the current demands of capitalism.

I don’t know how the truth of this can be made any clearer than by just looking around us at what’s being done in our name on our land and with the profits extracted from our labour; just as I can’t understand how the people of Britain have suddenly been convinced by a ventriloquist’s doll in a crumpled suit that there genuinely exists a parliamentary road to socialism or anything resembling it through the democratic consensus of a capitalist state. There’s as much chance of that happening as there is of me becoming the next Minister of State for Housing. And just so it’s clear what I’m saying: even if I did, it wouldn’t make the slightest difference to the estate regeneration programme, any opposition to which would see me sacked immediately. The only opposition to this neo-liberal programme that will have any effect on it will come from the residents whose homes are threatened and the communities in which they live – not through petitioning the politicians and reshuffling the councils implementing the demolition and privatisation, not from painting banners and singing songs and marching around Parliament Square with Owen Jones & Co, and not from joining the Radical Housing Network and telling people to vote for Oh Jeremy Corbyn – but through taking back control of our homes and lives from the instrument and administrator of global capitalism we call the UK state.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

Architects for Social Housing is a Community Interest Company (no. 10383452). Although we do occasionally receive minimal fees for our design work, the majority of what we do is unpaid and we have no source of public funding. If you would like to support our work financially, you can make a donation through PayPal:

3 thoughts on “What Is To Be Done? Changing Metaphors of Change

  1. We, Montreal Square residents, are drafting a reply to the demolition-social-landlords (Cambridge Housing Society) letter sent to us on 26th July 2018.

    With your permission we are using your guide to resist demolition, as a template for resistance.

    In addition we seek out case studies, case law, judicial reviews, and all facts regarding estate demolition to back up our DIY legal case-work campaign on the one hand, and our street campaign on the other.

    We are just ordinary people and we have no access to experts, professionals, or bureaucratic artisans. With the trusted test of resistance practice guided by revolutionary theory we pursue both a legal and political (street) campaign jointly, mobilising working people as we move from one week to the next, in the long war against oppression in this vile oppressor nation.

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  2. You might also be interested in ASH’s advcie to residents resisting the demolition of their estate, which is contained in our critical commentary on the Greater London Authority’s Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration. The specific advice is contained at the end of each of the three chapters. Good luck with your campaign. https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/ash-good-practice-guide-to-resisting-estate-demolition-2/

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