The perennial question about any attempt at piecemeal reform- and housing projects under capitalism can never be much more than this- is whether or not it serves to make the system more tolerable and in so doing prolongs its life. This is obviously not a burning question in Britain at the moment: postwar Keynesianism having done its work of alleviating the threat of revolution and being put to bed after outliving its usefulness- the queasy fact that Harold Macmillan would be considered a Left-wing extremist by the current Labour Party - but it is becoming an issue elsewhere, hence the debates that the Left is having within itself over the 'red tide' sweeping Latin America and particularly Venezuela (the only thing that currently seems to have offered any political hope for the last 15 years, whatever one might think about Castro's alleged sainthood): ie, whether or not to make people's lives better in incremental steps and not threaten the greater status quo, or whether to make a decisive leap into the unknown.
For all the bourgeois media's myth-making of him as some sort of semi-literate caudillo, the policies of Hugo Chavez's Venezuela seem to have some historical affinity with the rather ambiguous experiment in 'municipal socialism' made in Vienna between 1918 and 1934, an oasis of Socialism in a desert of Catholicism and Conservatism: however curious it might be curious to imagine Chavez and Austro-Marxists Otto Bauer or Rudolf Hilferding meeting up in a Viennese coffee house. In Victor Serge's peerless Memoirs of a Revolutionary (which I will write about more fully when someone tags me with a 'what are your 5 favourite books' meme) there's some wonderful passages where this professional revolutionary winds up in Red Vienna with fellow Comintern refugees like George Lukacs and Gramsci, enjoying the political largesse in a decidedly comfortable seeming Social Democracy: 'playing for time, building workers' flats and enjoying sweet music in every cafe down to the smallest';
'Austro-Marxism organised and influenced over a million proletarians, it was master of Vienna, where it was evolving a municipal socialism rich in achievement, it could mobilise, im a few hours, 50,000 Schutzbundler on the Ring, uniformed in sports tunics and (everyone knew) tolerably well-armed, it was led by the most able theoreticians in the working class world, and yet through its sobriety, prudence, and bourgeois moderation, it failed its destiny'.
If we use (and we should) the associational fallacy, then the experiments of Red Vienna are perfectly encapsulated by its architectural and urbanist flagship (both visually and politically speaking)- the Karl-Marx-Hof, a continuous wall of public housing running for nearly a mile, placed in the very heart of bourgeois Vienna: and the leaders of Red Vienna certainly thought so, with Karl Seitz claiming on its completion 'after we are gone, these stones will speak for us'. This is generally considered, unlike most state housing projects, an almost unassailable achievement: Lynsey Hanley, in her sometimes brilliant but deeply problematic 'intimate history' of Estates (more on which anon) repeats this view:
'The same pretty pitched roofs as the Boundary St blocks, but in place of the Arts and Crafts flourishes it combines the clear angles of Modernist architecture with the 'Viennese thirst for ornament'....KARL-MARX-HOF it shouts in claret capitals from the highest storey. Its name has never been changed (er, except when it was, from 1934 to 1945), unlike those of so many residual monuments to socialism: there may as well be a subheading that reads 'FOR WORKERS AND DIE-HARD SOCIALIST ROMANTICS ONLY'. It's the kind of model estate that moves architecture critics to compare it to a 'workers' fortress' immune to the destructive influence of the ruling class. That it was beseiged by Fascists in the 1934 putsch doesn't reduce its power to induce a sense of pride and optimism'.
A frequently made criticism of council estates, and of any space that marks itself out as deliberate, separate from the usual run of speculative housing, or where 'ownership' is not considered the sole possible good, is the lack of 'defensible space'- this, as opposed to say, poverty, is the reason for the social breakdown, graffiti and crime apparently rife in the last few edifices of social housing. This has a particularly bitter irony in the case of Karl-Marx-Hof, as only 3 years after it was finished it became an actual fortress in the brief Austrian Civil War- the flurry of violence in February 1934 when when the Catholic, Fascist countryside settled its scores with Vienna. Typically, the Social Democrats waited until the last moment before militarily defending themselves, but Karl-Marx-Hof held out for longest, subjected to bombardment before eventual capture- and renaming. Whether 4 days counts as a particularly impressive resistance is a moot point, but nonetheless it was symbolically, if only partly strategically, the place to defend.
Another layer of irony is laid on by the fact that its fortress-like design was one of the reasons it was mocked by the Functionalist Revolutionaries on the Left of the CIAM. Modernist it might have been, but with some decidedly decadent Viennese statues and decorations, giving more than a hint of the fin de siecle fripperies of the Secession: for Leninist Modernists like Karel Teige, in his manifesto of Socialist housing The Minimum Dwelling, the building epitomised the petit-bourgeois compromises and frivolity of municipal socialism in its every architectural gesture. The critique exhibits a hint of the irrational hostility to Social Democracy of the Communists' absurd 'Third Period' thesis (i.e, that Social Democrats were 'objectively' Fascist), but is worth quoting nonetheless...'the new, gigantic Karl-Marx-Hof Complex with its absurd tunnel gateways and turrets, which looks more like a preposterous medieval fortress than a dwelling place for workers...1,400 dwellings without bathrooms and central heating'- he quotes Stalin's spokesman Kaganovich: ' a fine Marxist house indeed, especially when we know that Marx fought consistently for high technology while here we heat with cast-iron stoves'. And on top of this, according to Teige, the low rents charged in the flats meant that Vienna's less enlightened employers could pay the lowest wages in Western Europe for the time.
Of course the Soviets would in a couple of years begin their own period of architectural-technological obscurantism, and Teige to his credit recognised this early on and linked it to the 'monumental' 'statement' made by the likes of the Karl-Marx-Hof: both were for him about symbolic power, instilling in the workers a sense that they were in control while in reality it was being taken from them: false consciousness via statues, public squares and and a hint of the grandiose, a process finished in Berlin's Karl-Marx-Allee (as the Stalinallee became in 1961), where the semi-Modernist gestures are by now totally absent: though the sheer majestic scale makes it hard not to agree with Philip Johnson, Miesian Modernist and Nazi Sympathiser turned Pomo Pioneer, who called it 'Europe's Last great Street': but for whom?
An very pretty website, the Web Lexicon of Red Vienna (in German, but worth putting through google translator, and not only for the bizarre Deutschlish that ensues) has a schematic logo of Karl-Marx-Hof as its header: a very rare example of an ideology being given total summation in a building. It's far too easy to give a pseudo-Marxist dismissal of the entire endeavour, although it's noticeable how much this is a story of failures. Municipal Socialism, or the graveyard of it scattered around the cities of Europe, is valuable partly because it's so tangible - a piece of the new world, a concrete manifestation of change. One of the first things done by the Militant controlled Labour council in Liverpool in the 80s was to start building houses before the Tory rate-cappers could have the chance to stop them, so that (regardless of their architectural timidity) there would be evidence of their existence and efforts to improve people's lives on the most basic level: and it'll be worth watching to see if Respect do the same thing if they take control of Tower Hamlets. Whether this tangibility is always concomitant with what Serge, on the Red Viennese, called 'the alternatives of hopeless resistance or total impotence' remains to be seen.