Two or Three Things to Remember on this Day of Remembrance

A conflict started by the ruling classes of Europe’s Imperial nations for the right to expand or maintain their empires in the Balkans, the Middle East, India, Africa and Asia, the Great War was overwhelmingly fought by the working classes of those nations, who – even if they saw through the nationalist rhetoric of their country’s propaganda – were trapped between the firing squads of their own army and the trenches in which their fellow working men faced the same. Of the 200,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers court-martialed during the First World War, 20,000 were found guilty of offences carrying the death penalty, 3,000 were sentenced to death, and 346 were shot. Up to 1.25 million were killed in combat or by disease, and a further 1.675 million were wounded. Those who survived the slaughter returned to the poverty and exploitation of the economic system they died to defend.

Although the defeat of the Germany Army brought down the German Imperial Family that had initiated the conflict, the working-class communist revolution of November 1918 was bloodily suppressed by that army and right-wing militia, and a social democratic system of capitalist exploitation by parliamentary republic replaced the old constitutional monarchy. Despite being on the ‘winning’ side, Britain remained a constitutional monarchy under a Head of State and King drawn from the same royal family as the deposed German Kaiser and the executed Russian Tsar, and whose daughter is today the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Head of the Commonwealth.

Hostilities didn’t end on 11 November 1918. British troops from the Western Front were deployed against the Irish Republican Army in the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921. And the Imperial powers of Britain, France and the USA supported the White Russians in the Civil War of 1919-25 that cost the newly founded Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic a further 7-12 million casualties, most of them civilian, on top of the 3.5 million dead and 5 million wounded they had already lost in the Great War; and in the resulting famine of 1921-22 a further 5 million Russians starved to death.

From the British point of view, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Great War is that at the time of the armistice 6 million British men, almost all of them from the working classes, laid down their arms, their guns, their tanks, their ships and their planes and went back to the factories, farms, mines and shipyards that had produced them, back into serving and waiting on the ruling class, back into rising unemployment, reduced wages, worse working conditions, poor access to healthcare, slum housing and non-existent political representation. And despite the workers’ uprisings of 1919 that were bloodily crushed by the same army that had fought in France, and the brief General Strike of 1926 that was betrayed by the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party, within 10 years the families of the men who fought in the Great War were facing destitution and malnutrition in the Great Depression that followed the collapse of the stock market, and in 20 years their children were called up to fight another Imperialist war.

A hundred years later, the war that the Saudi-led coalition has waged on Yemen since 2015, that has killed tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians and currently threatens 17 million Yemenis with starvation, cholera and typhoid from a famine the United Nations has declared the worst humanitarian crisis in 100 years, is being supported and armed by the UK, which is now the sixth largest arms dealer in the world, and the second highest arms dealer after the USA to Saudi Arabia, to whom it exports half of all its arms. Since the war in Yemen began, the UK government that today is solemnly remembering the 1 million British and Commonwealth soldiers that died in the Great War has licensed £4.7 billion of arms to the Saudis.

Remembering the 19 million dead and 23 million wounded in the Great War without understanding why they died and at whose command is to continue to swallow the propaganda of Imperialist nations that continue to dispose of the working class bodies of their own nations and those of others to serve the competing financial interests of their ruling classes. Every official act of remembrance is a deliberate act of forgetting what is happening in the present. So lest we forget: there is only one war – the class war, and we’re still losing it.

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
The grace is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrappèd up;
The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk and dry’d,
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing, awakening,
Spring like redeemèd captives, when their bonds and bars are burst.
Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field,
Let him look up into the heavens and laugh in the bright air;
Let the enchainèd soul, shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years,
Rise and look out; his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open;
And let his wife and children return from the oppressor’s scourge.
They look behind at every step, and believe it is a dream,
Singing: ‘The Sun has left his blackness, and has found a fresher morning,
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear and cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion and Wolf shall cease!’

– William Blake

Simon Elmer

The Peasants’ Revolt: Lessons from History

This article, published on the 27th anniversary of the attack by the Metropolitan Police Service on the Poll Tax demonstration in London on 31 March 1990, is dedicated to Ian Bone, class warrior and comrade. The illustrations of the Peasants’ Revolt are by Clifford Harper.

01

When looking back on an historical event it’s useful to compare the social conditions in which it occurred with those of the present day – not, as our history lessons inevitably do, in order to show how much more advanced, just, equal, wealthier and democratic society is under capitalism, but to reveal just how contingent, unjust, exploitative, impoverished and elitist our present economic, political and legal structures are.

In England we are constantly told by foreigners stupefied by our entrenched class structure that it survives because we never had a social revolution – such as they had in North America or France or even Germany, let alone like those in Russia or China – and therefore retain the anachronism of a monarchy, even if under a parliamentary democracy. It’s slightly odd that so many people, and not only from abroad, are unaware that in 1640 England had the first revolution of any Modern nation, nearly 150 years before the French Revolution, that like it was a revolution of the middle classes, and which – following the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 – gave birth to our current system of constitutional monarchy. Long before even the English Revolution, however, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the first large-scale uprising of the English working classes, and therefore the most significant social event in England during the Middle Ages; and in this centenary of the Russian Revolution it’s the conditions from which that revolt arose, rather than those ten days in October 1917, that I’ve been looking at and comparing with the England of the present.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is now the most unequal country in Europe, and one of the most unequal countries in the world, worse even than the United States of America. The wealthiest 1 per cent of our population of 65 million people own nearly 24 per cent of the UK’s total wealth: equivalent to that of the poorest 55 per cent, and more than 20 times the wealth of the poorest 20 per cent. The richest 10 per cent of our population owns 54 per cent of the national wealth, with the poorest 20 per cent owning just 0.8 per cent, and the poorest 40 per cent just 14.6 per cent of wealth – the lowest proportion of any Western country. Just 34 per cent of the population owns the UK’s £9 trillion of private wealth, with the remaining 66 per cent holding no positive financial assets. 21 per cent of the population, 13.4 million people, are living in relative poverty – that is, they earn less than 60 per cent of the median income; and 17 per cent, 4.5 million households, are living in fuel poverty – meaning that to heat their homes they have to fall below the poverty line. Over 1 million provisions of three days’ worth of emergency food were handed out at food banks last year. There has been a 71 per cent increase in hospital admissions for people suffering from malnutrition, with 391 people dying from it in 2015. Cases of scarlet fever have doubled in recent years, and we have the fifth highest infant mortality rate in Europe. Yet as home to 120 billionaires the UK has the most per capita of any country in the world, including the USA. The wealth of our richest 1000 people has doubled in the past decade to £547 billion, more than a third of the annual economic output of the entire UK, and we have the fifth largest economy in the world. It seems useful to ask, therefore, not how far we have come from the England of 1381, but how close we still are to a time that may seem unimaginably backward, corrupt and violent to us today, but to which we are not so much returning, as is often said, but seeking to emulate under the conditions of monopoly capitalism. If we don’t think the vast inequalities, social oppression and political violence of England’s Middle Ages could ever return to these isles, we haven’t been paying attention to history.

That’s hardly surprising, since history isn’t something that happened in the past, but something that’s written, or more accurately different texts competing to become the official version of the past. As George Orwell rightly wrote: ‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’ It’s not by chance that so few English children have even heard of the Peasants’ Revolt, with history only being compulsory up to year 3 of secondary school. Nor that until fairly recently in our history what accounts there were of it served the ruling class of the past the better to ensure the continuation of their descendants’ rule in the future. That’s changed slightly over the past few decades, but the control of the ruling class over the present has made sure that few of the children of the ruled classes will ever read a history book or take an interest in the repressed history of their oppressed class. In an effort to take back this control of our future, I’ve been looking at the Peasants’ Revolt, its causes, their similarities to today, and what lessons from history we can learn about changing our present from what happened in the south-east of England in the summer of 1381.

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Entente Cordiale: An anal probe into London’s housing crisis

Anal Probe

London’s a cesspit. Wherever you stick your probe, it comes out stinking of corruption.

Last Tuesday, 21 February, over two weeks after a possession order was granted on the land (but not the property) at 18 Grosvenor Gardens, the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians moved to new premises, their third in Belgravia in recent weeks.

Their new address is 19 Buckingham Gate, SW1E 6LB, a property that sits opposite Wellington Barracks, home of the Foot Guards battalions on service at Buckingham Palace. It’s a commercial property that has served as an office for the Communications Group, a PR consultancy. Their lease expires this June, but it seems they’ve got out early.

In June 2015 Westminster Council granted planning permission for the demolition of the properties at both 18 and 19 Buckingham Gate and their redevelopment as 14 residential flats, all with car-parking access in a proposed newly-dug basements car park. The redevelopment is being funded by GSP Real Estate, which their website describes as specialising in ‘entrepreneurial property investments with high growth potential’.

In considering the planning application, Westminster Council decided that 18 Buckingham Gate, a 1960s office building, makes a negative contribution to the conservation of the area, while no. 19, which was rebuilt in 1953 following war damage, is neutral at best because it was re-modelled in the 1980s.

Westminster Council also came to the convenient decision that affordable housing would not be appropriate on site, so accepted payment in lieu of £600,000, an increase on the original offer of £430,000, which GSP originally claimed was all they could afford. The Tory council acknowledged this sum was lower than would normally be required by policy, but bowed to the greater knowledge of the assessor, PNP Paribas, one of the largest banks in the world, and what they call its ‘rigorous independent viability assessment’.

To put this in context, the average price of a flat on Buckingham Gate is currently £1,787,012, meaning the Section 106 agreement, which requires 25 per cent of residential floor space to be provided as affordable housing, has generated the equivalent of about one third of a flat.

Despite this, Westminster Council concluded that since 5 of the 14 proposed new luxury apartments were for 3-bedroom units and 1 for a 4-bedroom unit, the plans met with Policy H5 of the Unitary Development Plan to provide more homes for families in the borough.

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Campaign for Beti: Equality Duties of the Guinness Partnership and the Human Rights of their Tenants

Betiel Mahari was a resident of the Loughborough Park Estate in Brixton who paid social rent on her flat. Despite living there for 10 years, Beti was kept on an assured shorthold tenancy by the housing association, who never gave her security of tenure. So when the Guinness Partnership demolished her home in 2015 and moved her into another of their properties in Kennington, they were able to change her tenancy from ‘social’ to ‘affordable’, and raise her rent from £109 per week to £265 per week for a two-bedroom flat – a 240 per cent increase.

As a result of this enforced eviction and relocation of her family, Beti lost her full-time employment as the manager of Brixton’s Art Nouveau restaurant. Although she subsequently found work as a waitress on a zero-hours contract, Beti is now reliant on benefits to pay her increased rent and support herself and her two children on a salary far less than she earned before. To make matters worse, while the Department of Work and Pensions worked out how much of her part-time salary she can keep while claiming benefits, they suspended all their payments to her for three months. Not only that, but because her employment hours change every week, her benefits have to be re-assessed every three months. As a result, Beti has fallen into arrears with her rent, and the Guinness Partnership is now trying to evict her from her home for the second time. Beti is on an agreed instalment plan for the rent arrears, but the Guinness Partnership wants to increase her payments still further. Her court hearing is on 7 March, 2017.

Last September Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, based on the report by the government inspector, Lesley Coffey, refused Southwark Labour Council’s compulsory purchase order (CPO) on the homes of leaseholders on the first development site of the Aylesbury Estate demolition. Some of that decision was based on the leaseholders not being offered enough compensation by the council to buy a new home in the same area, so that doesn’t apply to Beti as a tenant. However, two key reasons for his decision were based on residents’ rights, whether or not they own their home or not, and these rulings by the Secretary of State are applicable to Beti’s situation, and therefore her appeal against the eviction of her family from their home by the Guinness Partnership.

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Squat Belgravia: The Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians

First Occupation

On Wednesday, 25 January, the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians (a squat crew that go by the acronym of ANAL) occupied 102 Belgrave Place, SW1X 8BU, a Grade II listed building on Eaton Square, and invited London’s homeless to find a safe place to sleep under its expansive roof. The £15 million mansion, which faces onto Eaton Square, stands on the UK’s most expensive street, with homes costing on average £17 million. Owned by Russian billionaire Andrey Goncharenko, Chief Executive Officer of Gazprom Invest Yug – a subsidiary of Russia’s third largest gas and oil company – the Belgravia property is one of four the oligarch has purchased in London over the past three years, spending £41 million on a mansion on Lyndhurst Road in Hampstead, £70 million on 50 St. James’s Street in Mayfair, and £120 million on Hanover Lodge in Regent’s Park – the highest amount ever paid for a residential property in the UK.

The Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians announced their intention to turn 102 Belgrave Place into a homeless shelter, and between 30 and 40 people were housed there during the occupation. The building’s numerous small rooms make it an ideal layout for a hostel, giving rough sleepers somewhere safe and warm to stay – something that can mean the difference between life and death during the winter months. The three large reception rooms were turned into a kitchen and dining room, community hall and workshop space. Another room was transformed into a film room, and Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake was one of the films listed for screening. The central location of the new hostel made it easy for people to donate food, clothes and bedding, and visitors were generous in donating all three. Given Westminster Tory Council’s stated practice of forcibly sending its homeless out of London, the squat was also a shelter from the Westminster Police.

The following Saturday the occupation, which had announced itself as an ‘anti-fascist’ squat, was attacked by a group of about 20 fascists who smashed three windows and tried to force entry into the building. An English Defence League march was taking place in Westminster that afternoon, and it’s likely that the attackers, who included the Nazi-saluting Ian MacTaggot, was a breakaway group. There were about 50 squatters and visitors in the building at the time, and once the children were taken upstairs away from the stones, the attackers were fought off with fire-extinguishers. The police, who had sat in squad cars outside the squat all day, conveniently drove off half an hour before the fascists arrived, and returned shortly afterwards. The Metropolitan Police Force still hasn’t come up with an explanation of how a gang of 20 masked-up fascists were able to inflict such damage in broad daylight to a building on the most expensive street in London surrounded by CCTV at a squat that had been reported around the world and was being watched by private security guards – and still walk away without being stopped.

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The Anarchist Present: Eaton Square

I know almost nothing of anarchist theory, but of what little I know there seems to be a problem with what happens afterwards. A little like Jane Eyre’s famous concluding line — ‘Reader, I married him’ — it’s the unwritten bit that follows that will determine whether the love affair was real or just infatuation. But whether the idea is to destroy the power of the state (and refuse to get married) or take power (and abolish marriage as an institution), I don’t understand how that is meant to be done or maintained against the power of the military-industrial complex backed by the wealth of international capitalism. Communism, by contrast, came up with a pretty clear image of the future once their fabled Revolution was brought about, even though so far things haven’t quite gone according to plan — quite the contrary. However, the hope and faith in the Revolution has induced a sort of idealism in communists, who tend to act as if it was always just around the corner, capitalism always in crisis and just about to fall — as it has been, it seems, practically since it reared its ugly head. I have always felt that the contradictions of capitalism are more often to be found in the hope and faith of those predicting its imminent demise than in the economic, political and ideological system that has colonised the entire world.

This hope and faith — terms more appropriate to messianic religious nutters than materialist revolutionaries — leads communists to act in ways that are purely formal approximations of political activity. The latest example was last week’s communist protest outside a Glasgow bar, apparently against Bacardi for being ‘an enemy of Cuba’. If you can’t see the ridiculousness of this you belong in Stalin’s politburo — or worse, on Tariq Ali’s picnic guest list. Quite apart from the Borg-like behaviour of its adherents towards those who don’t toe the Party Line, it’s because of such absurdities that communism has never managed to appeal to the British working class sufficiently to make it a political force in the UK, as it has been, at times, in Germany, Italy and France. As much as communism gains a certain authority from its international scope, and notwithstanding the importance of its critique of capitalism as a global system of exploitation and violence, the British working class, faced with homelessness, unemployment and poverty, and without an apparent alternative to the corruption and capitalism of the Labour Party, are not going to be lured by communists banging on about Palestine, Cuba and Venezuela and thrusting one hundred year-old texts by Lenin in their faces. The failure of communism to increase its followers — even now when there is such a need for a political alternative — is, if not proof, then a strong argument for the truth of this accusation, no matter how unpalatable it may be. The working class of Britain want to be spoken to about solutions to their own sufferings, which however much they pale besides those of the people of Palestine, Yemen or Syria, are theirs, getting worse, and to which no political movement in this country is presenting a solution.

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Harrods and the Social Cleansing of London

uvw-protest

There was a disproportionately large police presence last Saturday at the United Voices of the World demonstration at Harrods Department Store. The protest was called in support of 450 waiters and chefs demanding they receive 100 per cent of their tips from customers, rather than the 25 per cent they are currently receiving, which reduces the salary of each member of staff by up to £5,000 per year. To put this in context, this theft of up to 75 per cent of staff tips by management comes in a year when Harrods announced that their pre-tax profits for 2015-16 had increased by 19 percent to £168 million, sales had risen by 4 per cent to £1.4 billion, and the owners had just paid themselves a juicy £100.1 million dividend. Architects for Social Housing turned up in support of this protest, as did members of Class War, while the Left – whether in the form of other unions like Unite, the Corbyn support group Momentum, or the various Trotskyist factions such as the Socialist Workers Party – were conspicuously if unsurprisingly absent: the UVW being unaffiliated to the Labour Party and therefore beyond the bounds of its control. Despite this, the protest was well attended and conducted peacefully and in good humour, stopping the traffic several times with the giant blow-up banner, but letting people pass freely along the pavement, and we were generally well received by passers-by, with none of the well-heeled patrons taking excessive umbrage at having to enter the Harrod’s Sale by the side doors.

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