The personal and the political – a reflection on lost utopias and future activism on the day of remembrance for Rosa Luxemburg

The year 2017 sees the 100th anniversary of the socialist October Revolution in Russia, a revolution that in spite of all its flaws served as an inspiration to many who in the coming century believed in alternatives to global capitalism and new conceptions of solidarity.

Memorial service for Rosa Luxemburg, 15 January 2017 in Berlin. Photo: Stefan Boness,

Memorial service for Rosa Luxemburg, 15 January 2017 in Berlin.
Photo: Stefan Boness,

In the 1980s, when I grew up and was politicized, many of these alternatives had at their heart the conviction that the personal is always political and vice versa, thus that how one lived was either supporting an exploitative global system, or contributing to its destruction or at least contestation, no matter how small the steps an individual might take towards the latter would be. One could live on the face of it a conventional life (even if few of us then did), but still do so in a way that challenged those conventions, some did so more radically than others, but that was fine as long as one was aware of what one was doing.

I was reminded of this past understanding of one’s role in society (that perhaps few of a younger generation can make sense of) when I read a new-year social media messages of a fellow academic. The academic in question proclaims at every opportunity how proud they are of contributing to educate a new generation in meaningful ways, in ways that may ultimately inspire students to change the world and ‘make a difference’. So far so good, even if a more cynical person may question how many of todays students who pay high fees for the privilege of attending university (at least in the UK where this colleague is based) may wish to have a well-paying career in future, rather than forgo such a career in order to make the world a better place. But leaving such cynicism aside, when I then read this colleagues new year message, proclaiming that the year 2016 was the best in their life ever, and that 2017 was looking to be even better – based on stories of complete private happiness that would do any Hollywood tearjerker proud – I found myself gasping in disbelief (which may just show my age). While it is of course entirely legitimate to withdraw into one’s own private happiness and lose sight of the world as a whole, coming from a person claiming to have a progressive agenda beyond private bliss, I found this elegy rather painful to read. After all, 2016 was the year of a number of political earthquakes that will impact all our lives, very likely in a disastrous way, including Brexit, the election of Trump as US president and the erection of borders wide and far – all making the outlook for 2017 even worse. How can for somebody who claims to be politically conscious and hopes to influence future generations the personal be seen as so detached from the political?

One of the cities that in the past stood at the forefront of making the personal political and vice versa has been Berlin – well, rather the old West Berlin one should probably say. It used to be a laboratory for those who rejected traditional careers, gender roles, and what have you, and experimented with new forms of political engagement as well as the personal lived in unconventional ways (having said that, I have friends in Manchester who did exactly the same at the same point in time, the 1980s and 1990s). Thus fittingly, one of the global initiatives concerned with economic rights, with a counter-system to the constraints global capitalism imposes not only on society but all its members, born out of the realisation of the threat of global inequalities and ecological disaster, launched a book in Berlin in January 2017 that promises to take this ‘system without a future’ to account. The book, (ironically?) named the red book (and thus far only available in German), is based on the ‘capitalism tribunal’ held in May 2016 in Vienna. It includes well-know critiques of global capitalism such as Saskia Sassen, Achille Mbembe and Ilija Trojanow among others, even though none of the three could make it to the event, nearest was Achille Mbembe stuck at Milan airport.

If one had expected – like I did perhaps naively – a proper debate about global alternatives and potential social action on how to bring change about, one would hardly believe how the evening unfolded: The event took place in a side building of a well-know Berlin Theatre, the Volksbühne am Rosa Luxemburg Platz, run for decades (since 1992) by Frank Castorf, a controversial director. One may or may not like Castorf and his way of making every serious play into a slapstick-orgy, but each theatre benefits from a change of director eventually, and to many it seemed high time to bring some new ideas into the Volksbühne. Not surprisingly, the replacement of Castorf in summer 2017 with Belgian curator Chris Dercon (from Tate Modern) has proved controversial, with critics often alleging that this amounted to a sell-out of the ‘progressive’ theatre. But one could not have foreseen the course the debate on actions to change the world and show resistance against capitalism took at the above event: It centred ultimately on the suggestion to occupy the theatre and take a stand in the dispute, against the new director. In all likelihood, some of those who propagated this course of action saw something of the personal being political enacted here – but in the way this suggestion was enacted and performed, it reminded me more of self-adulation and the celebration of one’s self-importance, maybe akin to what Chouliaraki calls ‘solidarity as irony’. I did not wait to see if the suggestion was actually carried out (it was not), as I found the whole event and its self-centredness as painful as having to read news of personal bliss while the world around falls apart.

This was even more so the case as in the history of resistance, occupying houses, literally and metaphorically, was an important weapon of the weak (or in fact not so weak). The squatter movements in former West Berlin in the 1980s, and in post-reunification East Berlin in the 1990s were important alternative spaces that allowed new forms of communal solidarity. A day after the ‘red-book’ event I was thus at the pre-book launch of a comprehensive new analysis of these movements in Berlin and beyond, Das ist unser Haus (unfortunately only in German). One of the authors was a founding member of the band that accompanied many occupations then, Ton, Steine, Scherben, who at the time were important to advance the movement through joint actions between artists, musician in this case, and political protest. Many of those creative types who now flood into Berlin because it still has, comparatively, cheap rents and an alternative vibe, may not be aware that this state of affairs is strongly connected to the squatter movements then, even if a lot of communal projects are under renewed threat from property tycoons and speculators. But the legacies of this past protest movement, a movement that combined political actions with personal lifestyles, helped shape planning in Berlin and protected important urban spaces from destruction. And while this may sound little in the grand scheme of things, initiatives like milieu-protection, that put boundaries on what private investors and speculators can do, have become mainstream politics and had some effect in the protection of alternative spaces.

My week reflecting on contemporary activism and political engagement ended on 15 January 2017, at the annual memorial gathering for Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (both of whom were murdered in Berlin on 15 January 1919) at the socialist memorial section of the cemetery in Berlin-Friedrichsfelde. Every year on that day, thousands of people leave red carnations on the gravestones of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and others buried next to them. On the overarching memorial stone the inscription reminds later generations of their responsibility for a better world. On this day in January 2017, when hard Brexit and the creation of new hard borders moved a step closer, while refugees shiver in snow-covered summer tents just a few hundred kilometres from Berlin, the question about new forms of activism that correspond to the state of the world in 2017 seems to become very urgent indeed. As Rosa Luxemburg once said: Those who do not move do not notice their chains. And as I would add, once the chains are being felt, it is time to act (to be continued).

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