Communism on the Second Floor

by Owen Hatherley

Alexander Vasudevan, The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting Verso 304pp ISBN 9781781687864 £16.99
Andy Willimott, Living the Revolution: Urban Communes and Soviet Socialism, 1917-32 Oxford University Press 224pp ISBN 9780198725824 £60.00

Running through Alexander Vasudevan's history of squatting are a series of sudden, violent dispersals of buildings that had become established as squats, social centres and communes. Early on, we learn of the 2007 eviction of the Ungdomshuset ('Youth House') in Copenhagen, which had by then been an 'autonomous' social centre for some decades. 'An airport crash fence was deployed,’ he writes, and an 'elite anti-terrorist unit was . . . dropped onto the roof of the home using an S-61A Sea King helicopter.’ This would seem a wildly disproportionate response to the straightforward act of squatting, but these large, spectacular eviction events recur and recur as he moves back in history. It can be found on East 13th Street in New York, in 1995, when squats were assaulted in 'a heavily militarised multi-million dollar operation involving riot police, SWAT teams, snipers, helicopters and even an armoured tank from the Korean War that had been re-purposed by the city'; in the Stamford Hill estate in London, in 1988, which was cleared by 500 police officers, in an operation that residents saw as 'Orgreave come to Hackney'; it can be found in Hamburg, in 1973, when dockside squats were set upon by a Commando unit 'shooting machine guns into the air', and then beating many of the hitherto peaceful squatters, some of whom would later cite this as their casus belli for joining the Red Army Faction. What exactly is it that makes the act of squatting so threatening to governments that they would use such drastic measures?

The most simple and obvious answer, and the one provided in Vasudevan's The Autonomous City, is that squatting – the act of occupying empty homes without renting or purchasing them from their legal owners – is a threat to the sanctity of private property, and that while it may be tolerated at times, it cannot be allowed to become normal. He gives abundant evidence that governments across Europe and North America are tightening up their laws on squatting and argues that this is precisely because 'normal' means of housing provision are patently incapable of dealing with the scale of the housing crisis in the US, Spain or Britain. 'The new wave of anti-squatter legislation,’ he writes, 'is designed to protect the ongoing commodification of housing at a moment when many young people are looking for alternatives that reassert the cultural, social and political value of housing as a universal necessity and as a source of social transformation.’ That last point is the real crux of his argument, and the most interesting aspect of this short, polemical book – that squatting isn't just a response to emergency, it is a means of living in a different way. 

The Autonomous City is divided by a dichotomy that the author never really acknowledges – and can't – between squatting as necessity, and squatting as lifestyle. Of course, there are times when these overlap, and one may give rise to the other. The book includes chapters on London in the late 1940s, post-war Italy in general and contemporary Naples, Detroit and New York today; it also touches more briefly on the drastic example of contemporary Spain (where, 'between 2008 and 2012, over 400,000 evictions took place . . . between 5 and 6 million housing units sit empty', consisting of 'roughly 20% of the country's housing stock'). These are all examples where decent, sanitary housing at a reasonable price is simply not available for either the majority or a very large minority of the population, and where squatting is a response to the impossibility of being decently housed through either the market or a rudimentary or dismantled welfare state. The same is not true of the other examples in the book, which are in fact its centre – a north-western European squat belt of Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which has emerged since the late 1960s in cities that have largely been comfortably housed.

Pointing to this difference is not to disparage the experiments in living that are in many ways the real subject of the book, although Vasudevan does sometimes provoke such a reaction in blatantly ahistorical statements such as 'for poor, working class communities, the housing crisis has always been the norm', which reflect his grounding in the strident, theoretically dense milieu of Italian Autonomia. Those experiments in living differently were often taken very seriously by those who embarked upon them, and they represent a genuine alternative to conventional forms of housing. They have faced an uneasy alternation of violent clashes and also reluctant backing from what have mostly been Social Democratic local authorities. Rather than just being a matter of intense men with dogs on strings escaping their bourgeois backgrounds (though there has been a lot of these), the residents of Vasudevan's autonomous city have included Black Power squats, feminist-separatist squats, migrant squats, and even Berlin's recent 'Grey Panthers'. All of these have taken up what he calls the 'opportunity to become a squatter, to explore new identities and different intimacies, to experience and share feelings and to organise and live collectively'.

This was very probably not paramount in the minds of the settlers of early 19th-century New York, who Vasudevan describes romantically as 'makeshift and precarious on the one hand' but 'resilient and resourceful on the other...anathema to the gridded regularity of the 19th century American city'. This is a rather conventional urban studies admiration for the ingenious things people are forced to do by poverty. These were squatters of need, and most of those involved would very likely have been satisfied with, say, rent control and good public housing that kept the rain off. So too the British squatters in the aftermath of the Second World War, where the very fact that they had to squat was seen as an indictment by their supporters, an interesting spectrum that ran from the Communist Party of Great Britain to the Daily Mail. Compare this with the 1970s Brixton squatter, asked why he chooses to squat. 'It means living amongst people who are trying to set up alternatives for themselves, and anyone else who can no longer accept what society offers or is doing to itself.' This meant alternatives not only in housing, but also in 'ways of living with people, education, community care, sex attitudes, work and technology'. 

This is the authentic voice of post-1968 squatland, and it is not a shrill or hysterical one. It is found also in the famous Christiania in Copenhagen. A former barracks was occupied by young leftists, who then invited locals to come see 'the forbidden city' – and create it. Their manifesto called for 'a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible for the well-being of the entire community. This society is to be economically self-sustaining, and its common aspiration is to be steadfast in the conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted'. This is not the same thing as squatting a row of bombed-out terraces, and different even to the CPGB's 1940 occupation of the Savoy. It was not intended to draw attention to housing poverty, but to something else – that 'psychological destitution', represented by the entire post-war world of 9-5 work, technocracy, full employment, Fordism, predictability, the nuclear family, advertising, property development and municipal housing.

Because of this, we are often dealing with an argument within the left, between the Social Democrats who were at that point rather successful in humanising capitalism, and a then far-left fringe of environmentalists, Maoists and anarchists for whom this did not, and could not, deal with the fundamental problems caused by private property and wage labour. That's why the most intensive experiments could be found in places like Copenhagen, the London of the GLC, Hamburg and Berlin, both East and West. Vasudevan finds that one of the most important battlegrounds was on the perhaps unexpected matter of architectural heritage and preservation. Sometimes, as in west London, motorway construction was a target – but public transport too could be. In Amsterdam, the Provo movement (essentially a friendlier version of the International Situationists) began protesting in the late ’60s against the effects of the construction programme for the Amsterdam Metro, which involved significant demolition of 'Golden Age' Amsterdam. After long-running campaigns involving occupying buildings, protests peaceful and sometimes violent, the Metro was significantly limited, with fewer stations in the central area than originally planned. Around the same time, Surinamese migrants squatted some of the sprawling deck-access blocks of the Bijlmer estate. Vasudevan notes that these are seldom discussed, and that little is known about them. I wonder what they would have made of their comrades in the centre, who were actively making it more difficult for people to get cheaply in and out of it to the extensive new concrete suburbs. Preservationism was the squatters much more successful, if somewhat disavowed child.

The absence of questions about the sense, in socialist terms, of defending bourgeois tenements of the 17th century against the transport needs of migrants is a rare lapse of critical judgement in The Autonomous City; mostly, Vasudevan is strong on the limits of the prefigurative politics tried out in the occupied tenements of northern Europe, particularly with reference to Germany. The context here, in SPD-run municipalities like Hamburg, Frankfurt and West Berlin – and also, as he is smart to point out, in the 'real socialist' dictatorship of East Berlin – was a process whereby 19th-century housing stock in the city centres was being demolished, often in favour of office development. This would in turn help subsidise massive new suburbs with all mod cons, frequently prefabricated, with little real formal or actual difference between the Märkisches Viertel in the west, and Marzahn in the east, into which working class residents were mostly eagerly moved. '1968' here, as everywhere else, strongly opposed these places, but the relative institutional blockage compared with the Netherlands (or France, or Britain) meant that the squatters' response was particularly intense. Vasudevan quotes a text by the small Maoist group Proletarische Front: 'to squat means to destroy the capitalist plot for our neighbourhoods. It means to refuse rent and the capitalist shoe box structure. It means to build communes and community centres... it means to overcome helplessness.’ 

Berlin's notorious Kommune 1 was one of the most celebrated examples, a pioneer of a 'new way of living', albeit not necessarily a universally desirable one. Skipping quickly over the commune's more dated antics, Vasudevan outlines the ways in which the communards treated the space of the 19th-century tenement they had occupied. It was 'organised around two large rooms. One was used as a library, the other was a workroom and dormitory with mattresses spread on the floor. There were two smaller rooms and a room originally used by servants. Most of the 'communards' slept in the large room that served as the main dormitory, while others worked around them on political posters and pamphlets'. Kommune 1 and its derivatives included some long-running successes, such as Hafenstrasse in Hamburg and the social centre Red Flora, which have endured for longer than some of the concrete housing estates intended to replace them, and have alternately received subsidy and repeated eviction attempts from the city's Social Democratic rulers.

Vasudevan has strong and welcome words on the degeneration of many of the lesser-known radical squats into paranoid cliques, and particularly the depressing recurrence of sexual violence – a persistent risk in prefigurative enclaves trying to devise 'autonomous' approaches to crime and punishment. He is less able to explain why it is that the social centres and squats of the 1970s and 1980s gave birth to an urban conservationism that has been the handmaiden of inner city gentrification, something in which Kommune 1 and other squats where mostly middle-class youth re-appropriated derelict inner city space appear an inadvertent forefather rather than a concrete alternative. 

Much of this hinges on Vasudevan’s treatment on the most-squatted urban typology – the Mietskaserne. Oddly, in a book so full of multilingual research, Vasudevan translates this as 'tenement houses'. He knows well that it actually means 'rental barracks', a derisive term coined by the 19th-century left. These ornamented blocks of five storeys were for decades despised by residents for their incarnation of class society in their very structure – decorative fronts that hid courtyards within courtyards where poorer tenants lived in the danker, darker flats deeper into the block, which had been practically filled to bursting in order to squeeze as much profit as possible from them; ancestors of today's 'poor doors', not of a viable system of autonomous non-profit housing. Vasudevan, like the communards themselves, claims that these tenements were intrinsically flexible, unlike the concrete 'shoeboxes' being built on the outskirts. Actually, these were and are equally adaptable, because only their concrete frames are load-bearing. The heavily squatted Hulme Crescents estate in 1980s Manchester, for instance, had many examples of self-created new layouts, configured within the frames. What made Mietskaserne interesting to squatters? Aside from the simple fact that so many had been compulsorily purchased by the state and left derelict, the attraction was not functionalist but intrinsically romantic. Their central locations were a vote of confidence in the excitement and diversity of the inner city; their density was part of an urban life imagined as teeming and communal; and, importantly, their high ceilings and decorative excrescences made them places to dream in, the opposite of the everything-you-need-but-nothing-more approach of modernist technocracy.

Some of the people involved in the pioneering squats would help plan the new Berlin that emerged after 1989, when urban radicals had lost their commitment to lifestyle experiments and the abolition of property (but not, necessarily, to communal living – Berlin's co-operative Baugruppen are a straighter, but still communal continuation of the autonomous project, and one Vasudevan doesn't explore here). They retained a liking for the city built by the Kaisers and a bitter hostility to modernism and the suburbs. 

An interesting question, not posed here, is whether or not these intense experiences, needing an acute sense of organisation and spatial awareness, were a great training ground for the 1990s elite, much as many of Israel's early leaders, generals and bureaucrats drew their number from the Kibbutzniks. Delving into these forbidden places where yesterday's autonomy meets today's conservatism is not one of the least virtues of Andy Willimott's study of the urban communes of the early Soviet Union. Reappearing here in a different guise, in the first fifteen years after 1917, are fundamentally the same young people: desperate to experience communism now, rather than wait for the 'productive forces' to make it for them; experimenting with ways of living together outside the isolated individual and the family; and occupying derelict historical buildings in order to do it. They were, Willimott writes, people 'impatient for change', asking 'if not us, then who?' 'By asserting their choice to live collectively and in ways they defined as socialist,’ he argues, 'the subjects of this book tried to be the change they wanted to see in the world.’ 

There is, however, a crucial difference. Rather than facing the unpredictable combination of official tolerance and sudden violence that has been the fate of communards in Europe and North America since the 1960s, they were actively encouraged by the government, and they considered aiding that government in its aims to be the motivation for their autonomous action. As a result, in Willimott's words, 'the urban communes existed in-between autonomy and authority', a looking glass version of the squatland we know so well, bitterly hostile to the state even when subsidised by it. Unlike previous historians of early Soviet experiments in everyday life such as Richard Stites, he does not see communards as marginal or alternative to the Bolshevik state, but as influential outriders of it.

Urban communes, very much unlike the coerced 'collective farms' of the 1930s, were set up by their residents of their own volition. They progressed slowly: the first generation of these officially approved squats were mostly found in Moscow and Petrograd/Leningrad, before spreading across the USSR at the end of the '20s. An average urban commune had no clear boundaries – it might grow from three people to expand into neighbouring flats. As with Hafenstrasse or Christiania, 'the most successful and ambitious groups expanded into the low hundreds, filling large sections of residential blocks and occasionally whole buildings'. The first thing one did to create an urban commune in an early Soviet city was the establishment, usually by a group of students or other young people, of a decision to live together consciously and pool their wages into a 'common pot'. One of the earliest, a 1919 commune in a Polytechnic dormitory in Petrograd, decided upon a common set of clothes to go with their common cooking and eating. Beds in the dorm rooms would be pushed up against the wall for group meetings and public discussions. Communards would take control of old and dilapidated buildings in a similar manner to the denizens of 1980s Kreuzberg or Brixton. In 1918, for the communards of apartment block 22, Preobrazhenskaya Gate, Moscow, 'amid the ruins of a dilapidated apartment, with peeling wallpaper, draughty windows, and no running water, the prospect of renovation... was understood in revolutionary terms'. They would, however, approach historic buildings in a very different way to the communards of the sixties. These were a deeply odd thing – Fordist squats, occupations determined by the principles of scientific management in the absence of its actuality, the very invasion of everyday life by the assembly line that created angry communards in late '60s northern Europe.

Most urban communes were committed to a 'war on the kitchen' and the sluggish torpor of the 'old everyday life'. Urban communards were committed to what they called the 'new life', and what they sometimes called the 'new person', which they intended to forge for themselves through a very un-’60s concern with cleanliness, hygiene, health, and 'enlightenment', whereas 'the past was labelled “dirty” and “unordered”’. Essentially, the communards tried to live in 19th-century barracks (and not only 'rental' ones) as if they were already living in the gleaming modernist interiors of Constructivist propaganda posters. This is romanticism of a sort – romanticism against the conventional tropes of romanticism. 'The reinvention of life attempted by the urban communards,’ Willimott points out, regularly borrowed from 'the time-management techniques of Henry Ford's factories and the efficiency theories of FW Taylor. Once the preserve of the inconsequential, the management of everyday life was now elevated to a science.’ As with the multifunctional rooms of Kommune 1, 'they not only tried to reinvent their everyday residences, many rejected the very idea of private spaces.' But they had no sympathy at all with the buildings that they were doing this in. In 1929, members of the Commune at the Kauchuk factory in Moscow insisted upon keeping the windows open at night, in order to ventilate their dusty old flat – in Moscow winters. At the same city's Water-Transport Workers Commune were found Taylorist 'duty boards', with scheduled mealtimes, exercises and periods of study for communards, willingly inflicted upon themselves, with no central authority. 

Even useful remnants of the 'old' life could be ridiculed. In the early ’20s, when food was scarce, one Kolia Silin, a recently arrived rural migrant, joined a student commune at the Electro-Technical Institute in Petrograd and scandalised the communards by paying for a pig out of the 'common pot'; after a week they threw it out and subjected him to endless ridicule afterwards. Communards were activists, the loudest people in meetings, regulars on demonstrations, letter-writers to the newspapers, with boundless faith in the Communist idea. Those at the 'worker barracks of the Stalingrad tractor factory', for instance, were proud to be a unit of Russians, Tatars, Jews and Volga Germans. ‘For them, to be a “Soviet communard” meant ploughing all their energies into group work, industrial construction, anti-racism, and other revolutionary tasks, even when confronted with obstacles and opposition.’ The surprising inclusion here is 'industrial construction'.

By the standards of the time (and of the country in question), the gender politics of the urban communes were astonishingly enlightened, but they faced some familiar problems. Some communes were 'promiscuous and dissolute', but most were not – the AMO factory workers' commune in Moscow, for instance, was very concerned with discouraging 'hooliganism' and 'philistine behaviour'. Willimott's examples include several distinct types: youth communes; worker communes; byt ('everyday life') communes; and, in one of several all-female communes, something called the Plakatzhenarmiia, the Women's Poster Army, who can be seen in one of the grainy, poor-quality photographs Willimott has taken from the Soviet press. The most extensively analysed commune in the book, the evenly gender-balanced Mokrinskii Lane in Moscow, existed for several years and changed its policy on sexual matters several times. It began by declaring that 'sexual relationships should be open' – but then, after a few disasters, opted for a two-year freeze on sex between communards. That was then abandoned in favour of marriages, some of which were extremely brief – this was in 1927, several years before marriage was again made an ideal to aim towards in Stalin's 'great retreat' from the radical social policies of the '20s. The apparent shift of some communes towards a relative puritanism was motivated, it seems, by disgust at other, unnamed communes, where, as Willimott delicately puts it, 'certain unseemly men, fuelled with an excess of bravado, even decided they had a right to judge a woman's revolutionary credentials based on how readily she dropped her underwear for them'.

Men were encouraged to clean and iron, although they usually had to be taught how to do it first. After failing to successfully battle the chaos of the old world, the Mokrinskii Lane communards hired a maid, although they did in their defence make her a full member of the commune. These experiments in equality were frequent targets of hostility and derision, which often had an effect on their behaviour. One all-female commune in a factory barracks was mocked as the ‘bab'ia commune' (roughly speaking, the 'birds' commune'), in a factory barracks. In response to jibes they refused to wear 'frivolous' clothes or have 'pretty light shades' or 'decorations' in their rooms.

What is especially intriguing in this book, and which runs counter to many previous accounts of leftist experiments in the early USSR, is that it is precisely the prefigurative nature of their radicalism that led them to support an incipient Stalinism. Many felt frustrated at a perceived lack of support from local authorities and could be confrontational with them. In some cities in the mid-20s, this meant being frustrated with the anti-Stalin opposition, who blanched at their expectation their lifestyle experiments could be 'rolled out across the Soviet Union'. Leningrad communards, when the city was still run by Grigori Zinoviev, were strongly supportive of Stalin's call for 'socialism in one country' – something that is unsurprising given that they were trying to do it in one building or one flat. A satirical play by Nikolai Pogodin featured one character declaring 'I have created communism on the second floor'. 

This unexpected alliance between squatters and Stalinists could be seen in the massive growth between 1927 and 1929 of 'production communes', when groups of young factory workers, often living in barracks, opted to share their lives and livelihoods with each other. The result was that the commune spread from the two capitals right through the USSR, with major outposts as 'far afield as Novosibirsk in Siberia and Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine'. They were certainly voluntary and 'bottom-up', to use the contemporary cliché, but they were absolutely not a rebirth of 1917 workers’ control. In fact, they often had adversarial relationships to other workers and sometimes to the local Party organisation. Many were 'shock-workers', labour heroes that were the ancestors of the later 'Stakhanovites'. A typical production commune was that set up by six male and one female workers at the Bolshevik Factory in Kiev, in a one-room apartment, who set up their commune because they'd read about the Moscow ones in the Party press, and in sheer frustration at the 'conceited blockheads' of the local Party leadership. Yet almost as soon as they'd emerged, the production communes disappeared, declining sharply from 1931 onwards. This owed something to the opposition of many workers, who often found communards to be cliquey, bullying and elitist on the shop floor; but they were also no longer useful, given that wages policy was shifting towards deliberate differentials, rewards and piece rates, for individual workers rather than 'shock-work' collectives.

In the early ’30s, the commune quietly disappeared, without any need for violent dispersals or even press campaigns. The most consistent governmental opponent of experimental ideas in the 1930s, Lazar Kaganovich, was extremely hostile to any notions of purpose-built communal settlements, and even to the very few modernist, well-provisioned 'House-Communes' that had been designed by Constructivist architects and built at the turn of the thirties. However, he approved of the urban communes, seeing them, as Willimott puts it, 'as they wanted to be seen, as a possible appendage of the Komsomol and the Party', rather than as an alternative. In the process, the commune stayed, like the squat, something elective and chosen. It also meant that there would be no communal alternative to the 'emergency' version of the urban commune, the equivalent to the squatting-as-necessity Vasudevan describes in '40s London or contemporary Spain – in this case the Kommunalka, where pre-revolutionary bourgeois apartments were subdivided to provide what was first a temporary, then essentially permanent solution to overcrowding. These would be replaced not with a new, socialist mode of life, but by more bourgeois apartment blocks, and the entire experience of the urban commune was ignored. By the early 1950s, it was as if it had never happened.

What is interesting is that the communards were the first to dismantle their own experiment. The diary of the 1931 communard Molodtsov, published in the 1980s, reveals a seamless trajectory from commune to Party officialdom: for people like him, 'prospects of advancement within party-state structures rendered the urban commune a joyous but temporary construct.’ At around this time, Mokrinskii Lane just became 'bed and board', its members telling the disappointed German Communist Klaus Mehnert that the communal pot didn't work anymore because of piece-rates – which they were all in favour of, because they'd all grafted and put the hours in, unlike those new peasant workers who didn't even know how to operate machines. The communards Willimott focuses on most would soon become factory directors, scientists, educators, and had long lives - apart from Molodtsov, who was murdered by the Nazis as a resistance fighter in occupied Odessa.

What Willimott does not explore is the fact that the death, or rather the willing suicide, of the commune coincided with a shift towards nationalism, classical architecture, realist painting, fixed gender roles, and an entire worldview totally opposed to what something like the 'Woman's Poster Army' stood for. These experiments were about newness, prefiguration, about a leap into a perfect future from a present that is seen as thoroughly wanting – a sort of revolutionary fast lane. In the USSR, they were also thoroughly modern, and novel. Willimott gives extremely short shrift to the notion that the urban commune emerged out of the peasant mir, a point which compares favourably with Vasudevan's rather unconvincing attempts to draw a continuity between, say, squatting in New York in the 1820s and 1970s, or by implication between Copenhagen social centres and indigenous practices in Canada. In Russian, the word 'commune' was itself a French import, as the various synonyms in Russian were not sufficiently new sounding, did not imply that a sudden choice had been made for a new everyday life and for the total rejection of the old world. Kommune 1, if not the Grey Panthers, would have surely agreed with the words of Mayakovsky's 'March of the Komsomols', quoted as Living the Revolution’s epigraph: 

 ‘Let the old whine on!
Our ranks are young.
Shall surely enter
Into the high noon of the commune.’