Anarchy back on the streets of London
Anarchists, as one of the few actual anarchists in London recently told me, don't really go in for group activities. You might bump into them at a demonstration, a squat party or a pop-up exhibition but they are just as likely to be found nailing a trout to their living room wall. But events have taken a radical turn of late and we can start to see the outlines of a new culture of protest in the capital.
One night in October last year a dozen friends got together for a drink at The Nag's Head in Islington. The conversation turned to Vodafone's tax settlement with the government. An estimated bill of £6 billion had shrunk to less than £ 1billion, even as the Coalition was warning of steep cuts in public spending. A few days later the group - twenty-somethings with a little experience of environmental activism - organised a sit-in at Vodafone's flagship store on Oxford Street. A few days later Vodafone stores were being shut down nationwide. A conversation in a pub had turned into the most important campaign against tax avoidance in British history.
In the intervening two months a loose coalition of groups called UK Uncut has staged sit-ins at Topshop, Boots and Barclays. Companies that use sophisticated accounting to keep their taxes to a minimum are getting used to the sight of protesters. And now the first US Uncut groups are being created to fight Obama's budget plans. Demanding a more assertive approach to tax doesn't go far enough for the purists, but UK Uncut has done more than anyone else to open up a debate about the deep structure of the governing system. And they have done it with little more than aTwitter account, a bit of media savvy and a modicum of courage. They are basically your mate after a few pints, bemoaning bankers' bonuses - but they do something about it.
UK Uncut were not the first radicals to ferment revolt in a London pub. Karl Marx was a notorious toper. He was particularly fond of a pub crawl (or 'beer trip') from Oxford Street to the Hampstead Road. And on his jaunts away from The British Library Reading Room he wasn't averse to childish disorder of the kind we now associate with the pampered sons of rock aristocracy. His friend Wilhelm Liebknecht tells how, when their friend Edgar Bauer threw a stone at a gas lantern, the greatest socialist intellectual of all time and one of the founders of German social democracy both joined in. Together they ended up smashing five street lamps. Liebknecht remarks in his description of the evening that 'madness is contagious', something for Dave Gilmour's son Charlie to bear in mind next time he tries a spot of protesting.
If you can't face the full rigours of a Marxist beer trip you can, instead, raise a glass to dialectical materialism at The Museum Tavern on Great Russell Street, Marx's local when he was working on Das Kapital. Coincidentally, urban legend has it that Lenin and Stalin used to drink together at The Crown and Anchor, now The Crown Tavern, onClerkenwell Green. As far as we know neither of them went in for Marx's brand of high jinks - maybe a bad sign, in retrospect.
London's free and easy attitude towards those seeking asylum from Tsarist Russia and the crazier German principalities means it was the world capital of anarchism and revolutionary communism at the same time that it was the world capital of, well, capitalism. London has a rich tradition of disorder, which predates the arrival of Marx by some centuries. Saint Bartholemew's Fair used to turn the City of London into a cauldron of debauchery every year, until the Victorians got rid of it. It is surely only a matter of time before an enterprising mayoral candidate promises to revive Britain's greatest carnival and bring some much needed fun to the Square Mile.
For those looking to delve deeper into London's anarchist traditions, Housmans, on Caledonian Road, stocks books that will be more enlightening than anything in Waterstone's. Modern revolutionaries are more likely to be reading Richard Seymour'sThe Meaning of David Cameron than the latest Malcolm Gladwell.
Of course there's more to life than books. There's also squatting and films. The Really Free School, formerly of Bloomsbury Square, has relocated to The Black Horse pub in Rathbone Place, by way of a brief stop at Guy Ritchie's house in Fitzrovia. Founded way back in the winter of 2010, The Really Free School re-imagines education as something a little less rules-bound than most of us are used to. The school is already known for its Libertarian attitude towards private property. Just try to get there before the bailiffs do.
Like most of the groups emerging from the recent protests the radical media collective the New Left Project doesn't have a bricks and mortar address. It can be found on Twitter and Facebook, like all self-respecting change-makers. But when it was organising its first event earlier this month, it chose Café OTO in E8. A bit of Brooklynaround the corner from the Arcola Theatre, OTO hosts bands and spoken word events for local free thinkers. Also operating in the East End is the Whitechapel Anarchist Group (WAG) on Fieldgate Street. The WAG holds regular public meetings and also runs a library providing a great introduction to anarchist ideas.
'If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution,' said the great Lithuanian anarchist Emma Goldman. But where do anarchists go to dance these days? The posh ones - the ones with pictures of radical environmentalist Tamsin Omond on their wall - do their thing at Passing Clouds in Dalston or at the New Empowering Church in London Fields. But as we all know, Hackney Wick is where the cool kids rock these days. Elevator Gallery isn't an anarchist hangout, exactly, but Emma Goldman would have liked it.
Arguing in pubs, dancing and reading books are all very well but as Goldman herself observed, 'Direct action is the logical, consistent method of anarchism.' So the place to be seen in the next few months is staring quizzically at undercover policemen as they shout abuse at their uniformed colleagues. UK Uncut will be out again at banks and shops in London and across the country in the coming weeks. If you want to see a bank turned into a library, or if you'd like to come up with your own take on UK Uncut's version of the Big Society, then why not join them? And if you find yourself having fun and being free, then that's where the real spirit of anarchism is, right there.
Dan Hind is the author of The Return of the Public (Verso, £10.65)