It’s more than possible to build infrastructure that’s of use to the left, campaigning organisations and those lost souls looking for a place to be, we need more of them argues Jim Jepps


You don’t have to go back very far to see that ‘once upon a time’ the left had a modest but actually existing infrastructure of buildings, clubs, printing presses and other physical ‘stuff’.

One of the building blocks of the European left right now is the significant amount of halls, shops, headquarters and resources that they have at their disposal, often left over from now defunct Communist Parties. When left regroupments have taken place in Italy, France, Germany and Greece – for example – they didn’t have to start from scratch, there was a physical legacy to draw upon, as well as a political one.

What have we got?

In the recent past most towns had Labour clubs for instance where left leaning people could drink, where unions and campaign groups held meetings and they served as a kind of cultural hub for the left in the area. However the nineties saw these clubs sold off and shut down, with a few honourable exceptions.

Bradford’s 1 in 12 club, set up in the 80′s from a local claimants’ union is one example of the left producing a permanent feature on the landscape still there thirty years later. Impressive stuff.

Possibly the most consistent left resource across the country are the Quaker meeting houses, which are a great asset for the left (and the community) in towns and cities up and down the country, I believe most of these were set up in the 19th century, what legacy is our generation of leftists leaving the next?

The Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town serves a similar purpose for a different demographic, and the threatened Women’s library serves as a well used archive for the feminist movement.

The anarchist-influenced movement “often” set up squatted social centers and the like. I’ve always admired that get up and go. The downside is that in my experience these can become downright repellent places to be and those squatted spaces do not tend to sustain themselves over long periods of time. In this sense they are very much of a piece with Occupy whose audacious taking of public space was also sadly accompanied by a degeneration into a less than safe space.

Further reading

Housmans bookshopWe have a few booksellers and publishers like Bookmarks and Housmans, Pluto Press or Zero Books – as well as a smattering of leftist newspapers of varying quality like the ca, Peace News and Socialist Worker. Publications like Red Pepper have a wider, fresher reach than most left papers but their combined circulation doesn’t come anywhere near the poorly performing Guardian.

Personally I wish we had more left-wing publications, all be it with a higher journalistic standard, but right now the ability of your “ordinary person in the street” to regularly come across a diverse left press,even online, is far lower than we need for a healthy and rich movement.

Organisations like the SWP outsourced their printing operation years ago and, outside of specialist feminist publishers like Persephone Books we don’t own much of the means to produce and distribute literature.

Doing as well as reading

It doesn’t stop at the written word though. Groups like Red Rope (socialist walking and climbing club), the Woodcraft Folk (for right-on kids), Food Not Bombs, Critical Mass, or more recently left run food banks do exist, and are great, but they are few and far between. It’s a long way from the socialist cycling clubs, gymnasiums, libraries and like that the British left was once able to sport.

There are a few remaining lefty theatre groups, choirs, and bands but mercifully few of us are forced to sit through any agitprop these days. Where once the left looked towards a thriving cultural scene that it owned and controlled now we have to content ourselves with left field films and TV that falls through the cracks of the corporate hegemony.

Where do we go from here?

While I couldn’t list every relevant resource it seems to me that there’s enough around to show that it’s more than possible to build infrastructure that’s of use to the left, campaigning organisations and those lost souls looking  for a place to be. There’s also not so much of it that we can say it’s easy to do.  Each and every example I’ve given here has been created with blood, sweat, courage and imagination – and I guess we need more.

FireboxThe most recent example shows that leftist infrastructure does not have to be tatty, amateurish or difficult to engage with. Yes, the excellent Firebox. A Trotskyist cafe in Camden just round the corner from Kings Cross, if you’re in the area. While the group who set it up, Counterfire, have specific views on the shape of the world it hasn’t held them back from throwing the doors open to a whole range of organisations across the breadth of the left. The cafe finds itself serving a dual purpose as a general left hub, with very nice cakes, and an invaluable organising space – that they have created out of almost nothing.

Firebox shows that when the left makes an imaginative leap it’s hard work can produce something well beyond an extra recruit here and there – building a well used space that develops real political relationships. There’s depth there and I like it.

For me this means two things. First, I’d like to see Firebox survive (go to their site, they have ways you can help with that) and keeping all these resources financially viable is a job we should all help with where we can. Second, I’d like to see more of this. Not necessarily coffee shops, of course – and from a plethora of traditions – but the experience of the past shows we can leave the left richer than we found it. That seems worth doing.

Reposted from Jim’s blog: Adventures in political dreaming

Please add other examples of other ‘left infrastructure’ in the comments section