In exploring the controversy surrounding social cleansing in East Berlin, Joe Reilly discovers that while Stalinism is officially dead, the fear and loathing of working class independence is alive and kicking.
Politics is a dirty business. It is a hard business. It can be a demoralising business. But more than anything it is a confusing business. Facing one-way and rowing in the opposite direction is more or less common practice. Consequently, a movement can only be judged on the difference it makes en route to its eventual destination. It is not therefore what it appears to be doing, or what it may think it is doing, but only what it is actually doing that counts.
In all of it, the greatest contradictions most regularly appear in the division between practice and theory, between the general and the particular, between the macro and the micro. Or, the choice between ‘head down community politics’ set against the overriding need for a ‘world vision’ as a critic of the IWCA once described it.
Approximately twenty years ago, I found myself drawn into a struggle between the NF and the local ANL branch for control of a sales pitch near a market in Islington in north London. It was a conflict that had already been ongoing, on a weekly basis, for five or six years. Islington NF was the biggest, and had a greater capacity for violence than any other NF branch in the entire country at the time. Armed robbery, was, without exaggeration, considered a favoured method of fund raising. In the summer of 1981 things were beginning to hot up with the fascists scenting victory. The SWP leadership, having some time previously decided that the NF had indeed ‘gone away you know’, were considerably put Out by the failure of the entire membership at a local level to appreciate their genius. So when they decided to intervene it was to bring things to a head. Distilled, their reasoning was as follows: if the ANL in Islington did not exist then neither, in all probability, would the NF in Islington.
So in order to achieve the desired accord between the micro and macro, a moratorium on any further party support for an already seriously beleaguered ANL branch was imposed from the top. It should, as intended, have proved a crippling blow. But the branch appealed to the membership over the heads of the leadership. By far the most positive response was from some elements who had cut their teeth in the ‘squads’, and who immediately offered political and all importantly physical back-up. Under the circumstances, it was understandably they who now assumed operational control on the ground. This decisive tilting of the balance meant that within a matter of literally weeks it was the turn of the NF to appeal for allies. The turning of the tables in Islington had a domino effect on the morale of the other NF branches in the vicinity sucked into the conflict. The upshot being that within exactly twelve calendar months, not only the Islington branch but the NF in the whole of north London called a cessation on all street operations in exactly twelve months. On its own it was a quite stunning victory.
However it was not really until after the purges within the SWP that the wider strategical and political significance of the ‘Battle for Chapel Market’ came to light. Certainly key to my personal enlightenment was a small pamphlet in defence of physical force anti-fascism written by Trotsky in 1935, in which he launched a blistering attack on the opponents of the anti-fascist militias. In doing so, he exposed not only the weasel words of his Stalinist opponents in the French Communist Party, but drew attention to the identical line of argument being pursued at the time (and ever since) by his supposed disciples within the SWP!
It is now broadly accepted that the Chapel Market experience was, with some refinements, the m.o. which would eventually see the Far-Right concede ‘the battle for control of the streets’ on a national basis. And yet this vindication from the grave, in authenticating an admittedly ‘rough hewn but instinctive communism’, may yet leave the more lasting legacy. The impact of the Trotsky revelation was this. If on such a black and white issue, we who supposedly knew nothing, could be so tactically, historically, and yes even morally right, and they the intellectuals in turn so wrong, what else had they bastardised (Almost all of it, as we would eventually discover)
Though a Damascene awakening of sorts, in truth it would take over a decade and a half before a scheme to fill the political vacuum created in Islington in 1982 was even to be attempted. Once again the operational plan was designed to cater to the specific needs of Islington IWCA - only. In a further coincidence it would be to be on the estate at the exact opposite end of the same Chapel Market, where AFA strategists cut their teeth in 1981, that the IWCA would first alert tenants to the twin dynamic of gentrification and “social cleansing” some seventeen years later. Soon however, both the phrase and the campaign would find resonance not only on other estates, but in other boroughs, and even the national press. The half formed suspicions within Islington IWCA of some wider conspiracy became Gradgrind fact in January, with John Prescott’s announcement of government plans ‘to end all council housing by 2010’. Quickly followed in February by leaks from a government ‘green paper’ which expressed the intention to establish symmetry between the public and private sector rents.
Coupled to this, an adjustment to housing benefit provision, which would, as The Sunday Telegraph casually acknowledged, see the less wealthy forced out of what it described as “good areas”. Although evidence from other anti-privatisation campaigns elsewhere in the country had already begun to indicate the existence of some form of nation wide privatisation blue print, the notion that it might have had a European antecedent has only recently surfaced. In the same way we are working toward a strategy from the bottom up, working toward a theory from practice, the practice of the privateers is it appears being guided by a theory drawn up at a pan European level. The main focus of this theory is, needless to say, how best the lower orders can be manipulated, brow beaten, and coerced into abandoning both “good areas”, and effectively their rights as citizens.
Consequently the “social cleansing” currently being attempted in inner London is very much on the agenda in Berlin and inner Amsterdam as well.
The rationale for the policy of displacement being practiced in Germany and Holland with such gusto is, when articulated, helpfully blunt. For example in outlining the need for greater living space for ‘middle Holland’ a member of the liberal VVD party quoted in the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool on January 26 this year, explained his proposal as follows: “Every year 40,000 people are forced to leave Amsterdam because there are so few attractive houses available. Usually they are replaced in each neighbourhood by people with low incomes”. What is needed he insisted was “a more balanced population structure”. Toward this objective the council should “take the initiative in developing PRIVATE [our emphasis] housing in the neighbourhoods and sectors with the highest concentration of low incomes.” In turn as he explained only “the councils AROUND the city should build more social housing.” And ultimately in his opinion in order “to create better opportunities for people with low incomes.., it is necessary to reduce the percentage of low-income people.”
No acknowledgement of the need to ‘reduce the numbers on low incomes’ through progressive taxation you notice. No, our Dutch friend simply wants them to be physically removed from areas of Amsterdam coveted by his middle-income constituents. 40,000 year on year would be a start. Middle Holland like middle England is set on re-conquering the inner city for itself. To emphasise the point he stresses that only councils around, meaning OUTSIDE, the city should build the social housing he claims “works as a magnet” for the dispossessed. It requires little imagination to envisage what, considering the primary motivation, is in store following this ‘dispersal’ to the city outskirts.
It is on the face of it hard to imagine anyone on the Left taking a position other than full-blooded support for the working class tenants. But then politics is a confusing business, and more often than not, it is the so-called Left that does most of the confusing. In the fog of class war, what is therefore more than a little useful, what can greatly clarify things for the activists on the ground is access to any viewpoint, sympathetic (or other wise) other than their own. In this field of struggle as in any other, a journalistic, academic, or as mentioned even historic perspective can be critical to fully understanding the bigger picture. Possibly even better, if only in a neighbouring borough, is the opportunity to study an account of a concurrent struggle fought over similar terrain by similar people, involving a recognisable enemy. An advantage all the richer, if as here, the lessons can be drawn from the state of play on working class estates in another country. Wir Bleiben Alle: We’re All Staying drawn up in 1998 by activists in east Berlin is a case study which allows the rival strategies to be judged on a broader canvass.
It is to begin with it a familiar tale of the “running down the conditions of the blocks, a climate of uncertainty and psychological pressure to move, sometimes ‘premiums’ to convince residents to leave, hired thugs demolishing the flats around [the remaining] tenants, in some cases even physical attacks, fire bombings and sabotaging gas pipes in order to compel the original residents to leave”. It is also a tale of the “the co-opting and formalising of local protest” and last but not least the complimentary intervention “of an ignorant and arrogant Berlin Left”. The area concerned Prenzlaeur Berg, (or as it has been retitled by colonisers ‘Prensleberg’) is subject to a media hype that will be familiar to anybody involved on the ground, in Islington in particular. Prenzlauer Berg is trendy, it’s “in”. “Almost all of the national papers - and even the New York Village Voice - have published reports about the area.”
Initially the ‘social cleansing operation’ began in 1992, when the government ordered 200% rise in rents in east Berlin in order, it said, to achieve ‘parity’ with rents in the more prosperous west Berlin. This led to a wave of protests, sometimes up to 20,000 strong, and the setting up of the Weir Bliebin Alle (WBA) alliance. However six years on there would be nothing of this ‘fighting spirit left’. As proof of their total victory rent rises of 30% were introduced two years ago. So what happened in Prenzlauer Berg is a salutary lesson and worth studying in some detail.
There was to begin with, the all too visible by-products of gentrification to be confronted. “While one yuppie shop after another opened up all the shops used by the working class residents were forced to close because they couldn’t afford the rising rents. The pensioner’s rooms, Post office, fruit and veg, and the local children’s library were all replaced with restaurants, cafes and health food/delicatessens.”
With the destruction of the traditional shops went as well the prospect “of payment on account or credit” but also the “places where people could meet”. Quite quickly the ‘hardware’ of the local ‘network’ was emasculated. Not only did the posh shops “act as a magnet” for the wealthy outside the area, but as living proof of the “shift in population”, the now undeniable evidence of a “yuppie infrastructure” helped make Prenzlauer Berg still more attractive to the more timid “pioneer”.
Initially this proliferation of new cafe/bars led to working class demands that due to noise and disturbance ‘serving booze in the open air after 10 pm be banned’. The response from “the media”, but also instructively “from leftists” to the problems working class residents and their families who had to get up early, was immediately caricatured as “philistinism”. Along side the extensive propaganda offensive, the co-opting of the WBA into consultative committees proved even more devastating to community resistance. From a position of demanding “everyone staying” co-option meant everything being immediately limited to the “do-able” - within the “project”. Within the limits of the project meant the localisation of protest, and over night the political scope of activists was restricted to “putting pressure on the regeneration authorities to act against SPECIFIC [eg the most crass] speculators, saving old chestnut trees from demolition squads” and such like. ‘One problem at a time’ was the project mantra. Coupled to ‘non statutory rent guarantees after modernisation’ purely for the “function of pacification”, the co-option/consultative stratagem also served to “depoliticise conflict over the future of the borough”. It led in addition to a tendency among activists to becoming “anti-speculator fire-fighters, running around from action to action” without even pausing to develop “a generalised critique of the praxis of regeneration.” This was of course precisely what was intended. The model of ‘consultative regeneration’ followed here to the letter, had some years earlier, after a similar ‘experiment’, been exposed by Berlin academic Karl Homouth. It was a stratagem, which he explained consciously “incorporates the potential for protest into its structure, vis a vis co-option. It brings groups previously not participating into the consensus model for urban restructuring. In this way it was able to transform heterogeneous demands, interests and needs of ‘interest groups’ into manageable problems and actions”. Put another way it encouraged opponents to see the world through the eyes of their erstwhile opponents; their problems became your problems and you helped them solve them. When eventually the contradictions cannot be papered over, when the penny drops, the former activists retreat, demoralised and burnt out. Round one to the colonisers.
‘Burnt-out’ is also a by word on the Left, and the processing method there is not too dissimilar. Though in Prenzlauer Berg, the involvement of the Radical Left was belated, having previously “either ignored or demonised” the struggle against expulsions it was nonetheless the final nail in the resistance coffin. Having lost the propaganda war, been seduced through co-option, this ideological battering from ostensibly the opposite end of the political spectrum was decisive. The attack from the Left came from two points simultaneously: “first” the residents were told, “the initiatives were ‘reformist’ (“we want more than low rents don’t we?”). Secondly, the warning/allegation, constantly repeated, that “false neighbourhood identities were being established” which meant, “that to defend the imaginary homogeneous neighbourhood, it would be necessary to attack marginalised members”. Not long after the WBA was itself caricatured as representative of “a closed white community, which opposes immigrants, as NIMBY’s, as a territoralist against.., every sort of cultural social and political ‘other’”. Amidst the suddenly endless discussions, a leaflet from the autonomen scene headlined “Against a left Nationalist position of the ‘poor German tenants’”, so successfully pigeonholed the neighbourhood initiatives as “nationalist v internationalist”, it was thereafter “repeated dozens of times”. Completely taken aback by the visceral nature of the condemnation, the WBA spent ‘valuable weeks discussing how to repair its image with the Berlin Left.’ When eventually it counter-attacked, correctly depicting their critics as ‘crass Stalinists’, they were, without a trace of irony, accused of being ‘pro-state’, and of ‘making radical politics impossible in the area’. With the resistance movement against social cleansing in tatters, the Radical Left returned to the sanctuary of the entirely ‘false identity’ of their own neighbourhoods. Mission accomplished?
Well, It’s certainly hard to regard their intervention in anything but the most cynical terms. At best it is the type of ‘we know best’ self-opinionated, self-regarding nonsense that as Engels once observed caused the ‘working class to feel only disgust at learning even the best things from them’. At worst it is a semi-conscious expression of middle class nationalism; a determination to monopolise debate; a striving to represent both sides of the argument, from an instinctive understanding that any vestige of working class self-organisation is not to be trusted; is in effect a challenge to, as they see it, those best suited to political discourse. As the WBA activists themselves put it: “When the criticism against the nationalist perspective of the neighbourhood movements, though impossible to sustain, is nonetheless so stubbornly held, the basis for the critique should be looked for in the homes of their critics rather than their targets:’
In applying the lessons of Prenzlaeur Berg domestically there are obvious conclusions:
1. The propaganda arm of the social cleansing operation which conditions locals to accept the inevitable must be countered right from the outset.
2. Co-option, and any inter-relationship at the behest of the colonisers is designed to ensnare, and must be approached, if at all, with appropriate caution.
3. There must be a generalised critique of what they are doing in order to understand what we are doing we too must develop a ‘praxis’ a unity between theory and practice.
4. To avoid localisation and de-politicisation the campaign must of course be fought issue by issue, and estate by estate, while never forgetting for a moment that ultimately both our politics and theirs will be tested in the electoral arena, (There is no point in protesting about pro-privatisation parties if the intention is not to replace them.)
5. As the radical wing of middle class nationalism the left will often function as ‘fifth columnists’ within working class ranks.
A term ‘fifth columnist’ appears harsh, only when individuals are judged by motivation alone; by what they think they are doing rather than by the entirely negative political impact of their efforts.
No doubt when in 1981 the ‘squadists’ were expunged for inadvertently exposing what was in effect a Stalinist mindset within the Trotskyist psyche, the soubriquets ‘racist, homophobic, misogynist’ were attached with the intention of greasing their exit. The leadership were clearly aware that any awkward questions would be best avoided by tapping into, and confirming, the innate snobbery within its own membership. A membership who in turn fully appreciated that deep down, unless constantly tutored and supervised by their social betters ‘this is what THEY were all really like’.
Far better in the circumstances any unpleasantness be avoided by denying a pointless debate, and instead with as little fuss as possible, concretely remove the politically inassimilable from within ‘the party’. Today when the gentrifiers make the argument for deporting the culturally inassimilable from the community, they are in merely taking a leaf from the Lefty hand-book on conflict resolution.
On a broader scale this praxis of ‘social deportation’ is widespread within the European Left. Hence the concern, now openly being expressed within the Socialist Alliance, that it should only stand in ‘safe areas’. That its politics might not ‘translate’ across the class divide. That their policies on anti-racism for instance might in some cases even inflame ‘xenophobia within sections of the working class’ and so on. What the hand wringing vividly illustrates is that while out of expediency the socialist Left can, practically overnight, erase its own sectarianism in the form of an ‘alliance’, the ‘world vision’, so jealously constructed by them, is as a result exclusive to them too. Or put another way, the ‘immediate interests’ of working class communities, and the political priorities of a middle class Left, are as unbridgeable here as they were in Prenzlaeur Berg - and the Left after years of denial know it. In truth to be presented with the opportunity to begin at the point where recriminations in Prenzlaeur Berg ENDED, would register a step forward, in the vast majority of cases where such fraternisation exists.
Meanwhile as the various ‘pilot schemes’ continue to prove, when as a matter of routine all contradictions no matter how intractable or ticklish are addressed from a working class perspective; when ‘working class self-emancipation’ is taken literally the accord between the micro and the macro becomes free and easy.
And so while politics remains a fabulously dirty business, and an immensely difficult business, it is for those of us involved in the IWCA at least, happily no longer an entirely confusing business.
Reproduced from RA Bulletin Vol 4, Issue 6, April/May '00