“Social Centre” – a working class history

by Christopher Wellbrook – Anarchist Federation (Britain and Ireland)

The reclamation of “social space”, whether in terms of common ground for a community or for ones own household, has been a clarion call of the oppressed throughout history. Squatting, expropriation, reclamation (whatever the appropriate term) dates to the imposition of private property rights itself and the struggle for free access to basic resources. Indeed, most industrialised cultures still harbour a traditional belief in “squatters rights”, whether it is recognised in law or not. In England such sentiments stretch as far back as the injustice felt by landless peasants towards massive land relocations following the Norman Conquest.

Industrialisation, however, meant fundamental changes in the nature and purpose of this struggle. Throughout the 1800’s major cities in Britain were subject to campaigns to preserve public space. This time the demands were no longer based on peasant claims to fuel or hunting rights. Rather, there was a desire to save free land as a space to socialise and for fun and games. Working class people were anxious to preserve a social sphere away from the miserable conditions of work in the factories and the oppressive environment of the city. In the 1820’s hundreds rioted in Loughton to prevent a landowner felling trees in Epping Forest; On Wanstead Flats in 1871, thousands of working people pulled down enclosure fences after the Earl of Cowley enclosed 20 acres of wasteland; And on Leyton Marches, on the 1st August 1892, three thousand people organised through the Leyton Lammas Lands Defence Committee to pull down railings unpopularly erected around common land.

However, GHHin response to the increasing alienation of heavily urbanised and industrialised city’s the working class began to gradually move further afield. The early 1900’s saw a wave of rural squatting with families from the city constructing makeshift communities and self-made resorts on previously unoccupied land in the countryside and on the coast. Tents, old buses, sheds, broken railway carriages were converted into weekend holiday dwellings for the urban poor. Such communities were renowned for their libertarian atmosphere and attracted their own “Bohemian” clientele. Actors and actresses, artists and writers, stars of music halls and early films all spent time at the DIY holiday resorts. Unfortunately, the advent of WWII brought an end to such practices. Most of the coastal dwellings were devastated by the fighting during the war. The war also gave the state the opportunity to heavily legislate against any further violation of landowner property rights.

As a result of war time restrictions on building, large cities in early post-War Britain faced a severe housing crisis. In the face of the threat of homelessness thousands of empty properties were taken over by squatters, organised by working-class and socialist organisations and with the support of
anarchists. The squatters took over churches, hotels, mansion houses and hospitals. Tenement apartments that had been lying vacant for up to ten years were taken over and converted into households. These were very much self-managed affairs with squatters organising their own communities and Defence Committees in reaction to state oppression. The response from property owners and local government was predictable. Many families were forcibly evicted from their homes and key activists were arrested. However, despite heavy legal oppression the movement did not completely fade away. Many activists continued to play a key role in the fight for better housing and against cuts in public services. Local authorities were still trying to evict squatters as late as 1959.

The 1960’s saw the birth of the modern squatter’s movement. In 1968 a group of housing activists formed the London Squatters Campaign and in December of that year they occupied a luxury block of flats that had stood empty for four years. Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s thousands of working people in major cities moved themselves into empty dwellings. By now, however, the nature and purposes of the social spaces within these reclaimed buildings had become much more ambitious. Large squats were able to facilitate community gardens, gig spaces, radical film collectives, bars, coffee shops, libraries and the provision of cheap food. There was also an incorporation of newer political movements with the setting up of free women’s, LGBT centres and unemployment unions.
It is in the solidifying of all these trends that has led to the modern “social centre” and social centre movement. The idea of “social centre” shares two fundamental impulses inherent in the struggle of the working class against the conditions of capital. The first is the desire for self-organization, especially in the provision for the very basic needs for shelter. In a society where it is more acceptable for an empty building or abandoned land to waste than satisfy basic human needs it becomes necessary to take direct action. This has led to land being reclaimed by the oppressed and converted into self-managed communities. The second impulse is for leisure, the need for a social space away from the drudgery and boredom of work. Again in a society where our mental health is sacrificed for our productive capacity it becomes necessary to take direct action.

Whether it is rural or urban, the creation and self-management of social space has always been fiercely confronted by the state. The challenge such acts represent not only to sacrosanct liberal notions of private property rights but also in terms of self-organisation of the class, results in an open defiance of oppressive, capitalist relations. It confronts the central purpose of the state – the control and maintenance of inequalities in property. Such confrontation should not be evaded. Social centres need to be combative; they need to be on the frontline of struggle.

The encroachment on common ground by the landowner and the state did not end when industrialisation began. Today, in our advanced capitalist societies social space is still shrinking. Working class space is still shrinking. While the city executives may have their spas and their private clubs, community centres, public baths and libraries are disappearing across the country (or falling into private hands). The free public house and the union clubs of generations before are becoming a rarity. Localities are becoming more and more commercialised as local shop is replaced by the chain store, high street by the shopping mall. Leisure is no longer “free” time, it is a commodity. Social space is not social at all but bought at the expense of others labour and provides further opportunity to buy and sell. The idea of voluntary association, of communal enjoyment, of free social time is disappearing. It is imperative therefore that the modern social centre movement clings to its class heritage.

Social Centres have the potential to be the face of class struggle, to present an easy point of access to others in the community, to encourage communication, education and confidence within the class. Workingmen’s clubs, union clubs and public houses have in the past typically represented a forum for agitation and organisation amongst workers. Commercialisation of these social spheres represents yet another barrier to the self-emancipation and unity of the working class. Social centres have the potential to reclaim this legacy, to act as a focal hub of organisation and struggle. This also represents an important step in taking class struggle out of the confines of the workplace and into every aspect of community life. It has the potential to act as a source of class power outside of the industrial relationship, to unify struggles under a broader banner and fight for the extension of self-managed space into every community and workplace. Social centres must seek to destroy as much as they hope to create.

If they are to do this then efforts must be made to reach out to the community, to be involved intimately in the concerns of working people and to win their support. Insularity must be avoided at all costs; centres must be welcoming places and efforts must be made to steer clear of the activist ghetto. Most importantly, if they are to be successful they must satisfy a need. “Social” is after all the key term in social centre. They must allow for the reproduction of unconstrained social life for all. Social centres should reflect the need to fulfil a desire to be a human being, rather than simply a consumer. To give workers a safe place to relax, to kick back and to have fun.

The Anarchist Federation is an organisation of class struggle anarchists that aims to abolish Capitalism and all oppression to create a free and equal society. The Anarchist Federation has members across the British Isles. Contact us at— Anarchist Federation BM ANARFED, London, WC1N 3XX info@afed.org.uk www.afed.org.uk / www.iaf-ifa.org

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