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Marx and the City

Updated: May 29, 2023

by Yassin Rida

This essay is dedicated to Yang Hoe-Dong, a trade unionist who died this month protesting against anti-labour policies in South Korea
I read the Communist Manifesto and then ran into these guys... - Young May Day Demonstrator in London, May 1st 2023

Strawberries in a bowl
Why, hello there! A bust of Lenin glares out amidst the blue. (Image from Pexels: Irina Kapustina)

The central London district of Clerkenwell strikes a curious note in the cacophony that passes for urban geography here in Britain’s capital. Part of Islington – that citadel of champagne socialism, that long-suffering punchline for Tory low blows against the ‘liberal elite’ – and home to the Marx Memorial Library (amongst other things), this former “Little Italy” was once an industrial hub for printing and clock-making.

Now, the neighbourhood that housed Lenin during his English exile, lies beneath the shadow of the financial district, where on the 1st of May each year you’d be excused for thinking that the clocks had turned back some 50 years and that the printers were again in business.

Take your pick from the pop-up newsagents selling their wares: Socialist Appeal, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, News Line, The Socialist, Socialist Worker, Worker’s Fight, Morning Star…grouplets whose practical differences you could hardly wedge a paper between, were on show between Farringdon station and Clerkenwell Green in preparation for the May Day march to Trafalgar. What distinguishes them from each other is primarily history and aesthetics.

The Socialist Appeal gang are obvious by their youthful demeanour, petty-bourgeois dress sense and Russell Group uni IDs. Revolutionary Communist Group members, on the other hand, seemingly take pride in brandishing banners with their own slogans and displaying puritanical haughtiness towards “revisionists”. Both hold questionable attitudes to the British working-class. Indeed, what unites this (dis)array of disparate sects is their general isolation from said class.

Ruthless criticism of everything existing

The purpose of this article is not to rage against the “revolutionaries”. It is in fact the opposite. On International Workers Day 2023, it is imperative that those who believe in the emancipation of the oppressed – Radical Art Review proudly amongst them – survey today’s situation as the wasteland that it is, not the utopia that we wish it to be or the nostalgia that once was. Remember: ruthless criticism of everything existing. It is our duty as a review to not shy away from this stance, and if art represents the avant-garde, glimpses of a world in making, that Gramscian notion of “the new struggling to be born”, then May Day is as good a point as any from which to observe the embryonic.

May Day 2023, London. In the visionary spirit of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, SAMO. Which is why most of the images accompanying this piece date from last year, because beyond the RCN nurse’s strike today (stopped short by way of legalist diktat, reminding us of the straitjacket of the UK's anti-union laws), there hasn’t been much more from the British Left since the last 12 months. One socialist newspaper declares that "nurses strikes break the Tories", but surely the reality is the other way round?

Not defeatism, but a sober recognition of where class consciousness is at and how the trade unions serve to stymie it. Present strategy is reminiscent of a line in the French-Italian film Wind from the East whereby an announcer declares news of a two-hour long general strike. In short, our State of the Arts editorial from 2022 has stood the test of time. Order reigns in the Labour Party. Long live first-past-the-post, secure borders and the blessed Royals! Down with wokeness, free education and oat cappuccinos! At Westminster, nobody’s left to raise the people’s flag.


Meanwhile over the Channel, the French state arrests protestors by the dozens and authorises the use of drones to monitor May Day demonstrators in Paris. Macron makes snide remarks about what pots are best used for – to which we reply, let there be music! – and the government attempts to draw attention back to immigrants, yet the people refuse to “return to normal”. It is apt to pause here and note our condemnation towards the treatment of Ernest Moret by British police on the 17th of April. We stand in solidarity with the 28-year-old French publisher who was detained whilst visiting the London Book Fair last month.

For those playing a numbers game, the May Day march attendance in London was nowhere near Parisian levels, although linking up with the nurses on strike that day did ensure greater numbers and press coverage. In numerous countries, ‘Labour Day’ is a nationally recognised public holiday. In Britain, this is not the case. 1st May 2023 represents an anomaly, a bank holiday (no less) on the first Monday of the month that simply happened to coincide with Workers’ Day.

So, if we are to comprehend actually existing capitalism, what better than to stroll around the Square Mile and observe the infrastructures – and superstructures - of our society?

Ask for more, sir

The City of London. It’s nearly surreal to think that a decade ago, alter-globo protestors occupied these streets as the onslaught of austerity shifted into view. Today, in between the glassy façade of countless Prets and the feebly waving coronation bunting, there is no hiding from the fact that we live amidst the rubble of their defeat.

Pass by No.1 Poultry - that architectural example of post-modernist hubris - and you might notice the "glazed two-sided clock that quotes the Fascist-era Palazzo delle Poste in Naples". Stuart Jefferies notes that what was once designed as a site for retail or office space, ended up as "a subsidary of an asset-management firm...and the place where a succession of depressed City workers plunged eight stories to their deaths".

Nearby looms the Bank of England and if you hold your breath, you might hear echoes of Andrew Bailey or Hugh Pill chastising us to not ask for more, sir. If the people do not have their own politics, they will enact the politics of their enemies. Here we might paraphrase and replace the word “politics” for “art”, but either way the substance remains the same, and the warning ever more urgent.

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Yassin Rida is a freelance journalist, cineaste and member of RAR's editorial committee. Follow him at @yacinemedia


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