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The Socialist City, Still

July 22, 2003 by Administrator in Summer 2003

By Tom Angotti

Some thirty years ago when Planners Network started, many progressive planners proposed or discussed socialist alternatives to capitalist urban development and planning. Central planning in the Soviet Union, China and the emerging socialist nations of Africa and Asia was a reality, although there were differing judgments about the merits of these regimes. Many progressive planners went to Cuba and were inspired by the possibilities of revolutionary power. In the US, the civil rights, anti-war and new social movements were significant political forces and generated interest in socialism and Marxism. It was not unusual then to contemplate the prospect of planning without private property, even in North America. Marxist analysis was more commonly used to look at urban class and racial divisions. Though often the main theoreticians were European–North Americans have always had a strong pragmatist bent–Marxist categories were often used in urban analysis.

The Soviet Union is no longer and the mass movements have dispersed. With the Reagan Revolution, the entire political spectrum shifted to the right. TINA (“There Is No Alternative”) is touted as the only alternative. US free-market capital rules a global empire. The US model of sprawled, segregated urban development is spreading across the globe. The failed socialist alternatives are criticized for being utopian. Progressive planners in North America take part in the debates about New Urbanism, smart growth, equity planning, environmental justice and other major issues. But there’s virtual silence when it comes to the themes of socialism and Marxism.

Is Marxism relevant today as a theoretical or practical reference for progressive planners? What does dialectical and historical materialism have to offer in explaining urban phenomena and charting the course for progressive planners that deal with issues such as displacement, environmental justice, transportation equity, housing equity and participatory democracy? What can we learn from the history of socialist cities? In charting alternatives to capitalist urban development, is there a place for socialist alternatives, and if so, what is it?

This issue of Progressive Planning offers some answers to these questions.

Marxism Isn’t Religion

In this age of fundamentalism led by the Christian Coalition and its friends in the White House, all problems, including urban problems, are reduced to the supposed battle between good versus evil. The unregulated “market” is good and “planning” is evil. This simplistic dualism results in a simplistic public discourse about urban planning.

Marxism is commonly treated as simply an alternative set of dogma. I never was religious and distrust all holy texts. So did Marx, who didn’t like being called a Marxist. People use scriptures all the time to bless the cruelest atrocities. So I’m not going to defend “Marxism.”

Marxist fundamentalism isn’t the answer to right wing fundamentalism. Yet this is the “Marxism” that is most often taught in Political Science 101, and too often propounded by self-declared Marxists. Those who simply reduce all problems to the struggle between an angelic working-class and demonic capitalist-class (or vice versa) belong in Bible School or on a throne. Dialectical and historical materialism, the basic methodology of Marxist thought and action, rejects the use of simplistic dualisms, abstractions divorced from practice, and static social and economic categories.

Morris Zeitlin points out in this issue, in terms understandable to those not familiar with Marxist theory, how important methodology is to both our political and professional practice. Our all-American pragmatism pushes us too quickly to “get things done” without evaluating the underlying class and social forces we’re working with. Pragmatism is no doubt one of the occupational hazards of all practicing professions, but it can create serious problems when it’s used to shape political strategies. In her article, Renee Toback goes through a few basics of Marxist economics and shows their importance by linking them with current political challenges facing the progressive movements.

Class and Race

In the US the most perilous tripwire for Marxism has been the question of race. Too often class oppression is understood in a static way as separate from racism. Too many socialists, especially those with roots in organized labor, have failed to see racism as fundamental to the birth and expansion of US capitalism and fully entwined with class oppression. This is the only modern capitalist country that was founded on slavery. Large sectors of the white working-class continue to support racial apartheid. How can we understand the urban problems of segregation, inequality, suburban exclusion and urban rebellions without connecting racism with the growth of capitalism? How else can we understand North America’s suburban culture, the equation of public space with violence and danger and the readiness to kill people of color and bomb their cities in military exploits around the world to salvage the sprawled, gas-guzzling metropolis?

If there is any struggle that is central to the issue of labor’s political power in the US, it’s the struggle for racial equality. Indeed, the reason for the historic political weakness of workers, unionized and otherwise, has been the division of the working-class along racial lines from the time of slavery and Jim Crow until today. The same dialectical optic that is needed to get at the connection between race and class needs to be applied to the questions of inequality of women, immigrants, gays/lesbians/transgendered, people with disabilities, and the elderly. This isn’t strictly a matter of separate identities. It is the class struggle, never a “pure” struggle and always mediated by social identities and specific environmental conditions. Readers may find similar views in Andy Merrifield’s new book, Dialectical Urbanism, reviewed in this issue by Arturo Sanchez.

Urban Poverty and Displacement

While constantly in need of updating, the basic foundations of Marxist urbanism still seem to be valid. In the nineteenth century Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote extensively about the miserable living conditions faced by the industrial working-class in Europe’s large cities. They maintained that the accumulation of capital in large cities was accompanied by the accumulation of misery–the formation of separate working-class neighborhoods with inadequate housing in an unhealthy environment. Today, conditions have improved vastly in the developed nations of Europe, North America and East Asia (less than 20 percent of the world’s population) in part due to a century-and-a-half of working-class organizing, in part due to the enormous expropriation of wealth from poor nations by the rich. As capitalism has become increasingly global, the extreme conditions of inequality once observed in Birmingham now apply everywhere. The hundreds of global metropolises where finance capital is headquartered are miniature reproductions of London and New York City, with ghettoes and gold coasts, opulence and suffering, native elites and struggling immigrants. The metropolitan revolution is a by-product of the global rule of monopoly capital, not an outgrowth of local urban development. Outside the world’s metropolitan regions the majority of the population lives under conditions of increasing marginality, with their traditional sources of food and income priced out of the market by transnational corporations.

Since capital now rules the globe, the urban mess belongs to capitalism, which continues to reproduce it everywhere it goes. Oil and auto monopolies give us sprawled metropolitan regions that consume inordinate amounts of energy, extend the journey to work, create public health crises, pollute the air and contribute to the global environmental crisis. Capitalism’s urban environmental crises of the nineteenth century were nothing compared to today’s global warming, ozone alerts and epidemics of cancer, heart disease and obesity, all tied to the structure and process of urban development.

In a series of brilliant essays written in 1872-1873 and published as The Housing Question, Friedrich Engels picked up on perhaps the fundamental problem with the capitalist city. Unbridled real estate development, he said, forced working people out of their centrally-located neighborhoods so the property could be redeveloped for profit. Today, as global capital reaches cities everywhere with lightning speed, the process of urban redevelopment has accelerated. Displacement has become part of our everyday life, at home and at work. The commodification of land and housing makes planning in the public interest a difficult if not impossible task. Master plans and land use regulations are market-driven and growth is always good. In the latest phase of capitalist development, everything has been transformed into a commodity, including water, clean air and the human body. Towns and neighborhoods are branded, public places are privatized, nothing is left outside the capitalist circuit.

Lessons From The Socialist City

For most of the twentieth century, billions of people throughout the world lived in cities where capitalist growth was not the driving force. In the Soviet Union, China before Deng, and scores of less developed countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America that in myriad and diverse ways set out to develop cities and economies based on social cooperation rather than competition, there were many experiences worth looking at. In attempts to build socialist cities there were many successes and failures, but too often urbanists and planners in the West hear only about the failures, if anything. A balanced assessment of these experiences can offer us many important lessons.

In socialist cities, housing, public transportation, health care and education were offered at virtually no cost to the users. There were experiments with cooperative living. Tenants were rarely evicted. Private vehicular traffic, and all the environmental and public health problems that come with it, was minimal. There was no CBD enclave as we know it, and residential segregation by class and race was relatively limited.

In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, planners created over a thousand new towns following comprehensive master plans. Unlike the West, planned cities were actually built (of course, usually not as they were planned), and comprehensive planning was the rule, not the exception.

We also know the serious problems with socialist city planning. Some of these were the same old problems that came with capitalism, aggravated by insensitive technocrats in power. Urban residents were the objects of top-down urban planning and had little say in shaping or changing their neighborhoods. Old neighborhoods were summarily wiped out by planners and replaced by planned communities, though unlike capitalist cities displaced people usually got free housing in new buildings in exchange. Many new problems emerged in the socialist cities. Stability of tenure became stagnation and lack of mobility. Elimination of the capitalist housing crisis gave way to a socialist housing crisis where government planners simply did not divert enough resources away from production, which itself became inefficient, and when they did they were unable to meet the rapidly changing needs of individuals and households with serially-produced industrial housing.

The housing crisis was perhaps the main social problem underlying the collapse of the Soviet system and was intimately related to structural deficiencies in production, a lack of real democracy and the growth of inequalities. The Soviet system collapsed from its own inertia, but it was pushed into oblivion by a much stronger, better organized and more powerful force–the US and its Cold War allies. Savage, unregulated capitalism swiftly filled the void left by the Soviet collapse and in a short decade reduced much of the old Soviet Union to Third World status. With the collapse of the social welfare system, life expectancy dipped sharply, mortality rates spiked and the big cities sprouted CBDs, traffic jams and smog, ghettoes and gold coasts.

To many who saw no hope or inspiration for a democratic socialism in the Soviet Union, its collapse wasn’t mourned. But to everyone who at any time dared to dream of alternatives, of a Utopia, this was an historic setback. Now we have TINA: There Is No Alternative. Accept the inexorable march of capitalist development, let the “market” decide, and planners get out of the way.

The two articles in this issue about Cuba (Kennedy, Rivera and Tilly; and Hamberg) illustrate the many urban innovations in one socialist country still trying to hold on to the social welfare gains they made over almost four decades. The approach of these authors is balanced as they reveal the dilemmas and contradictions faced by communities and professionals in Cuba. We can see here how socialism is no utopia but a real struggle to end exploitative relations among people and improve the quality-of-life for all.

Community Versus Class Struggle?

Catalonian urbanist Manuel Castells was one of the first Marxists to analyze contemporary urbanization and community struggles, starting with his classic work, The Urban Question. Castells, however, expressed a more sophisticated version of dualist thinking with his critique of community struggles, which he saw as divorced from class struggle. To be sure, there are enough reactionary and exclusionary community-based organizations around to lend credence to this theory. But we also have a good share of reactionary and exclusionary labor unions. Many struggles to improve community life–from the suburban fights against Wal-Marts to central city fights against displacement and gentrification–lead people to confront corporate control over their lives. Some are militant and consciously anti-capitalist, many are not. The same can be said for union struggles. There’s nothing innate to community struggles that make them any more prone to narrowness, bigotry or conservatism. We need only look at the community movements in Latin America for examples of highly organized, class-conscious community movements. And in this age of hyper-consumerism, capital is being confronted more and more at the point of consumption, not just the point of production.

Keep Utopia Alive

Practicing urban planners face a real ethical dilemma. Are we simply stuck with serving developers (“the market”) or can we serve broader interests and help diminish inequities? Don’t try to answer this question in the abstract. First develop a relationship with social movements that are struggling to develop both the theory and practice of alternative forms of urban living that don’t rely on capitalism’s drive for profits. There is no shortage of community-based organizations struggling for a more open, democratic society, building new relations of cooperation and solidarity among people. There are little pieces of utopia: progressive local development corporations, non-profit and employee-owned enterprises, community land trusts, co-operative and mutual housing, consumer and credit co-ops, and so forth. All have severe limitations in an economy and society built around corporate greed. But they are a testing ground for an alternative society. And as Derek Chisholm argues in this issue, progressive planners need to make a personal commitment to put their progressive ideas into practice.

In her article, Joan Roelofs underlines the importance of utopias to progressive urban planning and gives us a useful sketch of history and theory. We should keep in mind the classical critique by Friedrich Engels of utopian thinkers of his day. The problem, he said, was that they divorced their ideal communities from the real on-going political struggles. They tried to create socialist enclaves by turning their backs on the revolutionary struggles and the working-class as a whole. Too many Marxists have taken this critique out of context and adopted the simplistic dualism of reform versus revolution. History shows that the two can and must be understood as a dynamic relationship.

Tom Angotti is Co-Editor of Progressive Planner and Professor of Urban Affairs & Planning at Hunter College, City University of New York.

Related writings by Angotti include: Metropolis 2000, Chapter One (Revised) athttp://urban.hunter.cuny.edu/~angotti; “The Housing Question: Progressive Agenda and Socialist Program,” Science & Society (Spring 1990); “The Housing Question: Engels and After,” Monthly Review (October, 1977).

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.