Radical history of Islington: why Clerkenwell is the place where Russian Revolution Centenary is to be celebrated
A century ago on the 25 October, the October Revolution, an event that changed the world irreversibly, took place in Petrograd, Russian Empire. Now, the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution is taking place on the 7th November – as the new-style calendar dictates. Situated on Clerkenwell Green, the Marx House is having a month of lectures, meetings, exhibitions and film screenings dedicated to the Russian Revolution.
“The centenary is as relevant for the UK as it is for the former Soviet countries,” says Alex Gordon, left-wing trade unionist and a Chair of the Trustees of the Marx Memorial Library. “As one of the greatest, probably the greatest, political events of the 20th century, it also influenced British politics. It directly led to massive demonstrations of workers in February 1917 across Britain, to a formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. For socialists, it became a new template, by which they judged all of their actions,” he concludes.
Alex calls the venue of the event “the heart of radical Clerkenwell”. Penelope Dimond, an actress and Marx tour guide, says: “It has been a mental asylum for people with a revolutionary background. Exiles knew they could always meet like-minded people here who would support them.”
Geography is a crucial reason for this. Right outside the historic City Wall, Finsbury, to which Clerkenwell was formerly allocated, was one of the poorest boroughs of London. With Fleet Street not so far away, the radical print industry was developing here between the 17th and 18th centuries. “Small newsletters with devastating government criticism were circulated by hand around coffee shops,” Alex explains. There were all sorts of conditions that allowed radical politics to emerge: an independent-minded population and a high level of poverty.
The history of radicalism in the area goes back to the Peasants Revolt in the 14th century, later to Lollards and Chartists in the 16th century and up until Clerkenwell has finally become a haven for left-wing radicalism in the 20th.
In addition to this, The Marx Memorial Library is the main landmark for communist history. Originally a Welsh School, the building became divided into different workshops and coffee shops. Rented by William Morris, British artist and socialist, for “the Twentieth Century Press”, the building then becomes a focus of great socialist activity, with Marx giving his lectures here. Later, it became the headquarters for the Social Democratic Federation – the first UK Marxist party – and even Lenin’s office for publishing his newspaper, Iskra.
The place, where Lenin and Stalin allegedly first met, The Crown Tavern is right in front of the library, also on Clerkenwell Green. Another location, Three Kings Pub, was a meeting point for exiles. From 1868, when the wave of revolutions swept across Europe, a lot of people came to find their soul mates here.
Lenin can now be named as a notable citizen of Islington. His effort to encourage British socialists to found the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 resulted in launching The Daily Worker (now known as The Morning Star) newspaper publication on Farringdon Road. Although his house on Percy Circus was demolished during World War II, his bust can be found in the Islington Museum, situated on St John Street.
Now, all of these locations and the Marx House in particular, as Penelope Dimond says, “make you feel a part of history”. However, Marx’s ideas still seem to concern people. Tommy Hodgson, a young volunteer at the library says:
“Ideas of socialism go through different stages, but never die”.
He is not the only representative of a younger population of London to volunteer here. “Students come to do research, get interested and stay here,” comments Penelope.
Alex Gordon says that the main aim of the library is to teach the younger generation the key principles of Marx and Engels’ analysis:
“Most of them [volunteers] are educated young people, working on a zero-hour contract, which doesn’t give them any security”, says Alex. “Since the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the economic system the great leaders of capitalistic countries promised to be self-regulating, failed. Even the Financial Times, the voice of financial elite in Britain, recommended to read ‘Capital’ by Karl Marx in order to understand the working patterns of capitalism.”
None of the UK’s main political parties consider themselves as Marxist. Even the left-wing ones don’t usually like to be associated with socialism. However, despite the fact that the Russian Revolution is long ago in the past, Alex Gordon thinks that the ideology itself could be relevant to the current UK’s politics:
“What’s important for us is to address people of working class, those who don’t get a chance to read Financial Times, to give a scientific understanding of socialism. If we don’t do this, what can happen is presented by the current situation in the US with Donald Trump taking advantage of American working class people. People, who are angry with their financial position. They have questions to the system, and he’s giving them all the wrong answers. We could give all the right ones.”