It’s possible that there will be a map of Berlin in the local branch of WH Smith. That’s what I really want. A large, fold-out, paper map of Berlin. Something that shows the edges of the city, and then the places beyond the edges of the city. The villages and forests and lakes. I’m sure there are lakes surrounding Berlin. There is no map. But there are a two or three guide books. Do I want a guide book? I flick through one of them. Must see places that I will go out of my way to avoid. Bars and restaurants that I will never visit. A particular view of the history, but not much about what really happened. By chance a copy of ‘Revolutionary Berlin: A Walking Guide‘ arrives the day before I’m due to leave. I read it without stopping and decide that this will be the perfect companion.
Things that will be needed for the trip are slowly being assembled. Notebooks, pens, drawing materials, drawing book, camera, batteries, battery charger, phone, computer, books. I can’t decide what books to take. Art books. But they will be too heavy for my luggage allowance. This also creates a limit on what clothes to take. A white shirt is taken off it’s hanger. It’s a good shirt, well made, it has blue trim around the button holes on the cuffs. Unfortunately however in places it’s gone yellow. It’s difficult to work out what it looks like. In the bright sun it can hardly be noticed. Will anyone notice it? I’ll know it’s got yellow patches and that might make me self-conscious. Are there really yellow patches? Yes, when it’s held up to the light in different ways, there are definitely yellow patches. And the collar looks yellow. I think it looks odd; other people are likely to think it looks odd. Would bleach work? But that might rot the fabric. Perhaps the blue shirt would be better.
I talk to my mum on the phone about going to Berlin. ‘Oh, I would love to go’, she always says. She once visited Breslau, before the war, before the city was blown to pieces and then burned to the ground. One of her sisters was married to a soldier who fought in the defence of that city in May 1945. He was among the final German troops to surrender to the Russians. He was taken into captivity and held as a prisoner until about 1949. He was kept alive because he had mechanical skills which were a valuable labour commodity in those post-war years. He was released when it seemed certain that he would die. He returned to Germany and when his health eventually returned he devoted himself to the church.
Just before we finished talking, I remember that I’m going to Dresden too. That was a last minute change of plan, deciding to stay in Germany for a second weekend. That was another place my mum had always wanted to visit. That too would have been a fantastic sight before the war, before the fire-storm and the human bodies melting in the heat and people bursting into flames as they tried to run towards the shelters.
‘Do you remember Mrs E – ?’ she asked me. Of course I did. One of her sons was a neighbour of ours and I remember him with great fondness. We lived on a well built council estate. Everyone had big gardens and there was loads of green space for kids to play. It’s the sort of place that seems impossible to build today.
‘She came from Dresden’, my mum continued. ‘Her husband was an English soldier in Germany and they got married after the war. I’m not sure what year she came over. Maybe 1946 or 1947’.
I remember Mrs E – well. She had black hair and always seemed to be wearing the same coat. My memory suggests that her husband had black hair too and a similar coat. He rode a moped and wore thick glasses. They would always say hello and ask me how I was. But I was just a kid then, and they were grown up. And Mrs E – had lived through the fire-storm and Mr E had fought his way across Germany as a young man. And somehow they met and fell in love and got married and came back to live in a small town in Norfolk.
There are fragments of memory of Berlin. Being in the city in February 1990, a few weeks after the wall came down. A whole industry had grown up of people chipping chunks of concrete and selling them in the street. We bought a piece with blue paint on it from a grim looking Australian man. He never smiled and hammered away like someone on a chain gang. By chance we saw him in a bar later that day. He still looked dense and gloomy. He seemed like a man with no music or light or air, bought to life to do nought but hammer stone all day. Four or five of us in a Trabant, driving into the east of the city, Michelle Shocked played. Money changers in the streets. All that was left of our cash were notes with pictures of Rosa Luxemburg on them. Out, out into the city, there are photographs; an all night party, everyone fell asleep in a large room. In an ancient beer keller eating and drinking, a cafe which sold the most delicious lentil and sausage soup, an elderly woman pushing a barrel organ through the streets. She wore a brown wool dress and a brown wool jacket. She was so intensely alive, her eyes sparkling with irrepressible life. She stopped and wound up the machine and its mechanical melody filled the air. And she sang a Berlin song from the 1920s with a voice like Claire Waldorf’s.
There’s a picket near the railway station. Three or four RMT flags and half a dozen people. It doesn’t feel very militant but a couple of passing cars blast their horns in support. At the station I can’t buy a return ticket because I’m travelling before 9.30am so I have to buy a single. It’s the same price as a return but the return is out of reach. This constant struggle against money power is demoralising for all concerned. For the railway staff who have to try and soak up the frustration of the passengers and for the passengers too. If it was left to the railway staff and the passengers to sort it out in an equal and democratic relationship it would be nothing like this at all.
The news is a long way off but even a brief listen to the radio for ten minutes confirms the horrible mess the world is in and how it’s all getting worse. All the small pleasures are slowly – and in some cases rapidly – being sucked out of life. The world becomes increasingly grey with only the blood of women and children being massacred creating any colour. A nine year old girl shot in the back trying to run away from Putin’s army. Some army that. My mum is 91 years old and lived through an earlier version of capitalist barbarism. She’s been upset by this war, as she’s been upset by many wars. She talked about the rape going on in the new war.
‘They’ve not changed then, have they’, she said, ‘doing the same as what they did to us’. She was 14 years old and living in Silesia when the war ‘ended’, and yet the carnage continued long after the surrender, and for many, wars never end.
Through the train window it all looks so fragile. The semi-detached houses and their well-tended gardens and super-size cars. They no longer look such safe European homes. It seemed unbelievable a month or so ago but now there is even talk of a nuclear war. We’ll get used to that too. Along the cutting that the train travels through, yellow primroses and bluebells. They provide a symphony of spring. Extraordinary, unpaid for, non-commodity beauty in such troubled times. But capital will try to crush these things too.
The plane is much busier than I was expecting for a Wednesday afternoon. There is a big crowd of Glasgow Rangers football fans who are off to Germany to see their team play Liepzig (I looked that up afterwards). They’re a little bit rowdy but it’s manageable. There’s no point huffing and puffing. They’re working class people on a rare holiday and as Trotsky said, if the working class don’t have manners that you’re expecting, well that’s because no-one ever taught them. Or something like that.
The young woman who is sat next to me tells me that she really doesn’t like flying. Sometimes I like flying, sometimes I don’t. The problem is that I’m never sure which will manifest when I get on the plane. On this flight, it’s fine. As we take off I snap a lot of photos.
‘You seem fine’, she says
‘Yes, well, if I’m going to go, I might as well get some aerial shots in’.
‘Don’t’, she said, as if I’ve willed the plane to crash. I look at her and hope she isn’t sick. We talk away. It’s a bit one-sided as she really is nervous. So I witter away about Red Vienna and New Frankfurt and Christopher Alexander and Catherine Bauer and Bauhaus and the Garden City Movement.
‘You know’ she says half way through the flight, ‘I’d forgotten I was on a plane’.
I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment or not.
And then the plane began it’s descent and bounced around as it went through the clouds. They had looked white and fluffy as we flew over them but as we flew through them they became grey and menacing and swirling and dense and icy. I diplomatically kept all these thoughts to myself. The plane then banked at what felt like 45 degrees and kept this up for some time. Again, whatever alarming thoughts this produced, they were better left unsaid. This of course was the cue for one of the Rangers supporters to start singing a pro-Unionist song just to add to the tension. I vowed that should the plane fail to get out of this particular manouvre – which was beginning to feel like a loop-the-loop – I would start singing The Merry Plough Boy. This would at least distract everyone from the impending doom.
And then we were on the ground and the girl next to me look half relieved and still half-panic stricken. I was last off the plane and walked through the deserted terminal. A young Indian woman wearing a yellow jacket asked me what sort of passport I had.
‘United Kingdom’, I said.
‘Oh dear’, she replied, with unconscious and perfect comic timing, and directed me to the long queue, rather than the exit lanes which said something like ‘European Union’ which was much easier to get through.
I caught a bus which drove around one of these new types of capitalist development. A big glass building here, another one there, a big line of motorway, a hotel that is unconnected to anything else, concrete viaducts and underpasses, a big car park. It’s car culture on a gigantic scale. I wanted to get out of the bus and walk around it but it would take days to do so and one would need the same amount of provisions as if it was a hike across the tundra of Siberia. And I suspect it might be impossible to ever escape from. It feels as if it’s the small building blocks for the next phase of capitalist development. If there is such a thing. But its almost something else. It’s as if a certain type of capital no longer considers use-value and that everything is exchange value. It’s pure capital with no social function at all. And that sort of capital should be feared more than any other. So transfixed am I by all of this that I don’t think to take any photographs. It’s a visceral experience of concrete, flattened nature and motorism. It’s in so many places and I’m not sure it even has a name. It’s an urban type but what to call it?
I take the U-Bahn from Rudow to Adeneaurplatz. Twenty three stops and I’m half asleep. There’s a small flip-down seat in the corner by the door and I sit on that. Every person, every moment of the train, the sounds, each moment is to be experienced. I’m vaguely sorting through some bits of paper. There’s a train ticket from some years ago. How did that get here? It’s a significant personal date. Something quite special happened then, not just one single thing but several things came together and life changed direction. That ticket is like an entry ticket to the museum of my life.
The past isn’t taken seriously enough. In some places it’s not taken seriously at all. All those people who lived through the war in 1939 – 1945, the Holocaust, the war’s in China and across Africa, the wars in the Middle East, the massacres in Nanking, Amritsar, the genocides in North America and the Congo and Australia. The voices weren’t given much attention. Capital acts to silence such cries and any talk of hypocrisy and injustices. Let alone demands for justice and equality. Especially hard it works to silence demands for justice and equality. Or it seeks to make it impossible to hear from the shrieking sounds of rocket launchers and the crash of missiles into kindergartens and hospitals. The lens is sharpening, but the focus is still not sharp enough. But there’s a sense sometimes that it’s coming. There’s a boy on the U-Bahn train who looks about 14 years old. He has big boots on. The war mongers will eventually try to conscript him. They always do. But he might fight back. There’s also a revolutionary tradition.
Everything is like a dreamy film in Berlin. The people move as if in a film. There is a staggering coolness about people, place and time. A girl cycles past on a racing style bicycle and as she swooshes by carries the history of all that is majestic and fantastic of the history of this place. People in the street are as actors, conscious players in the Spectacle, acting the parts carefully but aware of the tensions and contradictions and in how they are only allowed to half-act; at times to be mere ciphers, aware that the tension of the city is always about the act becoming something else, the something else which so many people long for. They can’t articulate yet but feel towards it in the lyrics of songs and art and poetry and in the clothes they wear and attitudes and poses they hold. But it needs words, certain words rather than other words, words of capital and labour, words to express exploitation and alienation, words against concrete-capital money-power. Then the new style really can emerge. And style’s important. Class is a multi-faceted term. Working class, having class. These things are disparaged. The right wing forces, despite their violent bullying, lack a substantial social base.
I amble and zig-zag through the streets drinking it all up in the way that beer is consumed after a day-long walk in the hills. This street junction is probably the most perfect example of a street junction. But there’s a street scape up there that has magnetic interest. It pulls me along. These balconys are to be studied as part of an appreciation of a hundred years and more of central European architecture. And what’s this here? Why, if only Catherine Bauer could be my companion in the city, for this is Modern Housing.
I sit in a Turkish restaurant and drink beer and eat a delicious Yogurtla Adana. You know, when you look around, and out of the window, this could be so many cities in Europe. It could easily be London. I guess it could be like many cities in the United States, probably some Australian cities too. And many others. What is it? A strong sense of multi-culturalism, a strong pulse of being multi-racial. And it feels friendly, safe, equitable, democratic. No one freaks me out here. Approach it with a broad mind and be respectful and mind your manners and make sure you really understand that the poor are here, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised. And that if you think about stepping out of line you will discover that there is a surprising number of people who will jump to their defence.
Unity is what the right fear. Putin, Trump, Johnson, Biden, Mohammad Bin Salmon, Le Pen. It’s a strange trajectory and complicated to unpack. That the war between Labour and Capital should have this weird cultural dynamic. It’s easier for the right in the short term. Anyone can stoke up hate. It’s harder for the left in the short term. A universal working class opposition. It seems almost impossible. But….labour is a universal category, and as Marx points out in Capital, the universal nature of labour as a determinant in production. It’s both more abstract but at the same time incredibly concrete. What could be more concrete than the production of everything which is exactly what the working class does? It is both so-obvious and not-so obvious. The stakes are high. But if the working class can strive for – and achieve – an organisation based on the universal experience of the working class and it’s position in relation to capital and the universal character of working class labour; well then, the revolution.
The spirit and ideas of Rosa Luxemburg are still alive in Berlin, in which case, the revolution is also still alive. Now that’s a thought to throw at concrete, glass, steel, capital expansion with all its war and hate and bombs and missiles.
And again and again we must come back to Rosa Luxemburg. She is the theoretician of modern capitalism but she is also the poet of the oppressed. She found a way through the nonsense to leave us with stuff that works at the level of theory, life, everyday experience. Among her last, but everlasting words,
‘I was, I am, I shall be’.