Baristas of the world unite

Can a left-wing café fight capitalism?

March 21, 2013
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The tables are red and glossy—some of the chairs bear the word "Pret” on their backs. But despite the insistence of the furniture, this is not Pret a Manger. It is Firebox, London's first avowedly left-wing café in some decades. Firebox is the creation of Counterfire, a small activist group that split from the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) in 2010. When I visit the café, which is in Bloomsbury, several of the group’s most active members are gathered in the corner. "Pret were throwing the tables out," one explains.

London was once scattered with hubs of revolutionary activity, but today only two well-known locations remain. These two bookshops—Housman's and Bookmarks—are within a mile of Firebox, yet neither serve lattes, and both seem like relics, if welcome ones, of a bygone age. As rents have soared in London, and the left has splintered further (we’re in “People’s Front of Judea” territory by now), owning a physical headquarters has become increasingly difficult for fringe parties. And it is even harder to open a space for the general public, many of whom will be unaware  of parties like the SWP.

Beginning with the anti-tuition fees demonstrations of 2010, activists have looked more and more to the internet. Campaigns such as Save EMA and UK Uncut mobilised support without depending on the old institutions of the left. Organising through Twitter helped them to draw in unlikely activists who might be intimidated by the intense atmosphere of socialist reading groups and bored by the prospect of going through the minutes of the last meeting.

Lenin once said that a newspaper to a political party is like “scaffolding to a building.” But Counterfire put forward an alternative strategy. As member Elly Badcock wrote on the organisation’s website: “As 21st-century Leninists we understand that the format of this ‘scaffolding’ can change—we can… instead utilise new online technologies.” The group is also characterised by a less formal structure, and is rarely described as a “party.”

Yet Counterfire has now come to invest a huge chunk of its resources and activist base in opening a café that doubles up as a meeting space and cultural centre. Is this an abandonment of its “21st century Leninism” in favour of the props of decades past?

Creating new physical spaces isn’t incompatible with online innovation. In recent years, places like Firebox have become useful locations for meetings and left-wing film screenings. Berlin has long had a culture of activist gatherings at cafés and bars, and when seeking to reorient revolutionary activity to “new social movements,” perhaps one must remember that this is the age of the cappuccino rather than the printing press.

Hardened Trotskyists remain unimpressed, arguing that any turn away from workplace organisation is a mistake. A member of one far-left group, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty says: "While the left needs to create more public spaces in which ideas can be debated and discussed, Counterfire's main focus these days seems to be running Firebox. That’s symptomatic of a group which is primarily orientating itself towards a milieu of Bloomsbury postgraduates and away from workplace struggle, the trade union movement, and in short, from the working-class as the agent which can fundamentally transform society."

Firebox has also attracted scorn from the political mainstream. “You see them all at Starbucks on demos anyway,” says an activist on the right of the Labour party. And what sort of consciousness can a lone café raise, anyway? Even though it’s one less empty shop-front, won’t most working class Londoners walk straight past it or never hear of its existence?

Perhaps. But how much harm can there be in a small group taking a different tack to the rest of the far-left? The café’s “organiser” reports that it has even been visited by former comrades from the SWP. Others might stick to Starbucks, but at least they no longer have the excuse that there is no choice but capitalism when it comes to lattes.