From interwar Vienna through 1980s London and beyond, municipalities are the crucible of compelling socialist initiatives.
Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London, by Owen Hatherley, Penguin Random House, 2019
Paint Your Town Red, by Matthew Brown and Rhian E Jones, Penguin Random House, 2020
Das Rote Wien, 1919-1934: Ideen, Debatten, Praxis, Wien Museum, Birkhäuser Verlag, 2019
In January 2014, Gabor Vona, leader of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, an organisation in the vanguard of a rightist insurgency across the world, visited London. Emerging at Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner, he was confronted by thousands of anti-fascist demonstrators. With his small group of helpers and advisers hemmed in by police, he was unable to move, let alone address his fanbase, those supporters of Jobbik based in London. Eventually, he was forced to retreat back into the Underground network, tail between his legs—banished from London, an apparently unequivocally left-wing city.
Surveys of social attitudes consistently locate London as having one of the biggest left-to-liberal progressive majorities—not only in the United Kingdom, but quite probably also on a European or global scale. There is a notion of radical London: the 1936 Battle of Cable Street defying Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, the 1970s Rock Against Racism concerts challenging the National Front (and sympathetic rock stars), the huge anti-apartheid festivals and protests. But how mobilised is this apparent ‘left’ majority to address injustices, beyond flagship issues or particular hate figures?
Almost wholly unregulated
Two years after Vona’s attempt to rally his London supporters, the UK voted to leave the European Union, with immigration cited as a major factor. Forty per cent of the London vote went to Leave. The apparent weakness of the labour movement’s response to this—its failure to defend its most crucial frontline workers in a country where some hospitals had more Polish nurses than English—arguably made us all look petulant.
Cynics may suggest that migrant workers, such as those Vona was aiming to address, are just the latest group to be failed by the mainstream labour movement at the UK level. And it is precisely the possibility of taking arguments away from that level—shifting attention towards the local, the practical and grounded issues of resources and services—which perhaps represents the political possibility of municipal socialism.
Across Europe, it certainly seems that left and social-democratic voters are increasingly clustered in cities. Yet, even so, it is a challenge to define what this means, culturally and economically. Owen Hatherley’s book makes a crucial start to facing up to these questions.
Written in the aftermath of the historic defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the Westminster election of December 2019, Hatherley’s book looks to draw upon past examples of municipal socialism and self-organisation. Where he excels is perhaps as a result of his background writing about architecture.
The sense of London as a constantly shifting entity comes across strongly. Manuel Castells’ theories of urban competition almost jut out of the pages, like pop-up cardboard constructions of contested spaces. The comprehensive account of the partly self-inflicted problems experienced after 2000 by Ken Livingstone, as the first directly-elected mayor of London, and of the city being devoured by the City (the London of financial services) is graphic, bleak and utterly convincing.
Historic victories for democratisation of urban space and resources seem extremely difficult to sustain. A few examples do stand out. Coin Street is an area near the City where in the mid-1980s community activists successfully prompted a left-led Greater London Council (GLC)—Livingstone was its then Labour leader—to provide them with collective ownership and a say in the development of their area. Today’s social enterprise is the antithesis of the London in which super-rich individuals and corporations rule the roost, relying on barely-settled and poorly-paid service workers.
But perhaps Hatherley, along with all of us, needs to consider how well we really know the other London. Far from this apparent anti-racist consensus, a low-paid casual worker from Szolnok or Bucharest may experience London as a raw, exploitative entity, something like a pre-war central-European city. Whole aspects of migrant life have remained almost wholly unregulated—and this is not confined to accommodation.
Defining a new economic model
The political conditions now are, in some ways, even less promising than the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher as prime minister was deteminedly implementing the market-fundamentalist ideology of Friedrich Hayek. It’s here that Paint Your Town Red shows some ways forward.
The book is co-authored by Matthew Brown, leader of Preston Council in the north-west of England. The austerity pursued by Conservative-led or Conservative governments since 2010, and the collapse of large-scale property projects, prompted Preston Council to define a new economic model based upon localism. Preston now serves as an alternative to simply accepting the hollowing out of local government. Brown and his co-author, Rhian E Jones, document alternative approaches, based on community involvement and ownership schemes.
The aim is collaboration, association and development in a way which develops local communities. Spending and procurement go to local producers and municipal enterprises create new growth, while regional co-operative banking ensures more equal distribution of wages. The book cites examples of democratic development strategies from around the UK—including towns and cities in Wales, Scotland and Salford, as well as rural areas.
For instance, continuing the thread from Coin Street in 1980s London, community land trusts have enabled democratisation of how land is used and the kind of housing provided. Newham Council, in particular, provides some practical examples of this in east London.
The concepts of Paint Your Town Red are, by and large, predicated upon finding different ways of channelling capital or compensating for its absence. Many of the projects have a history which precedes the current political situation, with connections to the co-operative movement: the Wales Co-operative Centre, for instance, has been influential for years in helping communities adjust to economic pressures.
Yet the question here is also one of concentrated wealth. The ‘heat map’ generated by urban luxury chains and property values in the 2010s seems like something with which we are all only slowly coming to terms—placing cities such as London on the very edge of modern capitalism.
When London was more normal
In this context, it may be helpful to contrast this with the London of the 1970s, which seems a very different place—more dowdy, but also, in some ways, more like a normal, northern European city. In its most leftist phase, from 1982 until its dissolution in 1986, the Greater London Council (GLC) aggregated single-issue campaigns and movements which were not necessary based on the Labour Party, or even political organisation on the left fringes.
Campaigns against gentrification had roots in the opposition to riverside redevelopment in Battersea, a district of London south of the Thames. There had been a massive rent strike in 1960s St Pancras in central London. Anti-racism movements were formed to resist the growing far right in the 60s and 70s, whereas gay-rights groups were slowly to become more influential in the period.
This complex milieux from which activist groups emerged tended not to get on to the radar of national political discourse. And such activism seems less likely to emerge today, although we may hope that the growth of campaigns such as the London Renters Union suggests otherwise.
This means that the potential of even a left Labour Party in London might be intrinsically limited, beyond certain ‘freak’ events. At best, perhaps a systemic environmental analysis—such as the ‘doughnut economics’ pioneered by the environmental economist Kate Raworth—can lead to the value of planning being reasserted, if in maybe a more technocratic way than envisaged in either Red Metropolis or Paint Your Town Red.
The GLC in the early 1980s did represent a form of post-capitalism in its attempt to develop economies based around human needs. But as a socialist experiment, it was in reality extremely short-lived and limited—a brief flowering of four years.
It didn’t have much power over housing, yet even its defence of social housing was weak, as Hatherley highlights. And in the centralised National Health Service, the GLC was always excluded from provision. Its eventual successor, the modern mayoralty and the associated Greater London Authority, is even more emasculated, being largely restricted to some planning and transport responsibilities.
Never a single approach
But municipal socialism remains interesting, perhaps because it gives physical form to collective enterprise, and there can never be a single approach which dominates. It incorporates pluralism by default. The Popular Planning Unit of the GLC, for instance, was divided between those who wanted more ‘associative’ approaches to economic development, centring on fair trade and community business, and those who were more interested in using municipal planning for socially-desirable industrial growth and modernisation.
To an extent, this contradiction continues within Labour, even within the Labour left. ‘New’ Labour under Tony Blair came to discount planning, even urban planning, almost entirely, leaving the left its only advocates. But even on the left of Labour, this planning is now often more ‘associative’—such as most of the examples in Paint Your Town Red. Meanwhile, voluntaristic strategies have arguably been absorbed by conservatives as part of the third sector’s accommodation with austerity.
Yet, in amongst this healthy diversity, municipal socialism also represents a return to the roots of socialism. As Hatherley points out, the London-based Progressive Party drove an interventionist municipal agenda before the first world war—well in advance of the growth of the Labour Party. And there are many examples, from around the world, of local collectivism.
But perhaps the most fully-realised case of municipal socialism would be the set of interlinking social projects in the interwar period of ‘Red Vienna’. Thus, for example, while the left-led Inner London Education Authority of the 1980s failed to be transformative, or even especially successful, in the Vienna of the 1920s there was nothing less than a refoundation of education on secular lines—new approaches to pedagogy to remove the cultural barriers to learning and a massive expansion of provision.
Interwar Vienna massively instructive
To demonstrate to an electorate that social democracy can be successful, rather than an apparently bottomless pit of futility, requires detail. The approach of the interwar socialist administration of Vienna remains massively instructive. A hundred years on, it’s the gold standard of how local democratic socialism can drive practical improvement for the many.
It’s not always easy to place 1920s Viennese socialism neatly on a spectrum of contemporary left opinion. The ‘Austro-Marxism’ of Otto Bauer and Karl Renner had space and time not afforded to other countries, due to the weakness of communism as an alternative in the context of post-1918 Austria. As a domestic project, it was based upon improving living standards. The socialist movement of 1920s Vienna had its focus on developing human potential and everything—facilities, resources and the information to support these plans—had to reflect this aim.
It was also, to a degree, focused upon improving itself, flaunting its modernity. At some point, the schemes in Paint Your Town Red will need to demonstrate quantitatively their success—the graphical approach to data visualisation, pioneered in 1920s Viennese pedagogy, might still be useful.
As the designers of Vienna realised, when municipal socialism works, a map emerges. Swimming pools needed to be built to illustrate physically that nothing was too good for the workers—hence Amalienbad. Huge housing schemes, replacing privately rented slums, were built ostensibly to represent a particular style of socialism—so Karl Marx Hof. Kindergartens, schools, hospitals and sports stadia became physical representations of social change.
An attempt to define an ideal
As depicted in Red Metropolis, there was a lot of cross-fertilisation between 1920s Vienna and the then London County Council—especially in architecture and planning. But while the LCC leader Herbert Morrison was massively important to London’s development, the imagination of Viennese socialism went further in a number of ways. There was more elaboration, more articulation—an attempt to define an ideal.
If we’re looking for a cultural counterpart, the left-led GLC of the 1980s is probably the closest relation to the progressive experiments of Red Vienna. It can be forgotten how much the feminism of 1920s Vienna enraged conservative elements in Austrian society. It can be forgotten that, in developing secular education and widening access to challenging art forms, the city government left so many traditional Catholics fuming. Comparably, the GLC, through its grant system, unrepentantly supported feminist, anti-racist and LGBT campaigns and migrant solidarity. This was at a time when these causes were considered embarrassing within the Labour Party itself. In its last few years, perhaps alone among institutions aligned with the UK labour movement, the GLC managed to form some conjunctions—between open anti-racism, cultural programmes, work supporting migrants and people-centred economic development.
Sometimes the similarities are uncanny. The infographic booklets and design consciousness of 20s Vienna finds its equivalent in 80s London. Uniquely in Labour politics, the GLC developed a way of handling right-wing media bias. It supported specific media start-ups, such as City Limits, a listings magazine which, for a time, gave the established, though still largely left-leaning, Time Out some serious competition. With its emphasis on activism and the dynamic arts and music scenes of early 80s London, and their creative combinations, this was one time when a labour-movement attempt to create an alternative print-media resource in the UK actually worked—unlike the disastrous national News on Sunday initiative.
It was perhaps this cultural threat, the idea that a ‘rainbow coalition’ could succeed, that prompted Thatcher’s government to disband the GLC.
Abolished by the nation-state
The Viennese city state was also abolished by a jealous nation-state—in that case, after a bloody armed conflict which the left decisively lost, leading to a long interregnum. Austria spiralled into fascism, Nazism and destruction, before the Vienna city authority was eventually reconstituted after the war.
Given the suffering of so many of Red Vienna’s designers and workers—many ended their lives in Mauthausan concentration camp—external commentators should perhaps be wary when judging the more quietist, accommodating, post-1945 Viennese authority. Ex-GLC leaders could by contrast become, as with Livingstone, backbench MPs or, at worst, face banishment to the world of radical leftist publishing.
Yet avoiding confrontation is not necessarily always the best strategy politically—in many places people respond to initiative and action. And these diverse examples might inspire us to navigate a landscape hostile to the left, a left which often seems divided and demoralised.
Perhaps it is best to see municipal socialism simply as a gateway. While social-democratic parties often apparently lack basic coherence between theory and practice, we are still forced to confront the realities of the different cities and towns in which we live.
How ‘we’ judge what we do next—the role of electoral politics, the importance of participation in campaigns and the work required for economic solidarity—is up to ‘us’ and there is no single true path. A comparison of current examples from the UK with Das Rote Wien may be unfair, given the financial restrictions imposed by the central British state. Nonetheless, there is a suggestion that current developments are at a very early stage, with much still to learn or relearn.
There is, though, a sense that long-lost entrances are being found. Such very real constructions as these municipal-socialist entities—things you can see, touch and feel, with purposeful design and open social objectives—ultimately remain among the best bulwarks against the advance of the far right.