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The Red Lion Of Soho

The birth-place of Communism is boarded up and to be converted into flats.

20 Great Windmill Street, Soho, London,

"A spectre is haunting Europe--the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies." - The first sentence of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
"A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory... From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." - Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech, with suspiciously similar cadence and phrasing.

When I last visited it in spring 2006, The Red Lion of Soho was an absolutely terrible pub. The beer was generic and flavourless, the atmosphere was non-existent (battered oak fittings and tobacco stained walls) and the bar staff were surly. This was understandable, since Great Windmill Street is among the most disreputable neighbourhoods in Soho. And Soho, with its artists, journalists, writers and actors thronging and urinating down it's streets, has long been disreputable in a way that Paris's Montparnasse has tried so long and hard to be. A brief walk up Great Windmill Street will elicit numerous scantily clad invitations into dens of iniquity (the burlesque houses and peep shows are renowned), and more traditional theatres backstage entrances are blackened and littered. It has always seemed fitting to me that this disreputable little pub was the venue for an event that laid the course for the 20th century.

Back in November through December of 1847 when this pub was called The Red Lion Hotel, it was the setting for the second meeting of The Communist League(1) (the first organisation of international communists); a meeting which Karl Marx and Frederick Engels came across from Belgium to attend. Amongst the issues discussed, the meeting was to agree upon, edit, debate and confirm a drafted document, initially titled "The Principles Of Communism", that had been submitted to it by Marx and Engels. This small, smoke filled, venue was burdened with a group of agitators and propagandists of world class significance, who were to rename this document The Communist Manifesto and mandate Marx to produce a final version for publication immediately.

1848 was to be a year of unprecedented revolutionary significance, as governments fell from France to Brazil, and the states of Europe (Hapsburg, Italian, Polish and German) collapsed in blood and whisky; so when it appeared that Marx was proving reticent in finalising their manifesto he was pushed by the organisation to finish it immediately, and it was in print (from a small publishing house on Liverpool Street) by February 1848. This pamphlet was to be read and studied in schools, homes and universities to a degree few other books can approach, and numerous governments have fallen in its name. In 1849 Marx moved permanently to London, and lived for much of his life in a 2 bedroom flat on Dean Street (a five minute walk away), for £22 a year. Here he lived with his wife, 5 children, and maid Lenchen, who then became pregnant with his child.

However one may feel about the outcome of totalitarian 20th Century Communism, these men were idealists and in many ways liberals. I don't wish to discuss Marx's influence here (he was obviously more interested in his ideas of historical inevitability than in designing an ideal world; applied communism is almost entirely rooted in Stalin and Lenin, not Marx), but I do wish to defend this idealism and its significance to subsequent history. Since autumn '89 the history of Communism has fallen out of favour, as the closure of the Soviet period causes it to lose its life and death significance. But in the greater story of the 20th Century, Communism is far more important than Hitler's Reich. This utopian ideal, first solidified in this short document, was the ideological underpinning of almost every political debate of the era, and the seed that led to the Cold War, and Mutually Assured Destruction.

This pub (never granted a blue plaque to underline its significance), was closed and boarded up in the summer of 2006. And it is only as I write this article now that it became clear to me that it is to be converted(2) to luxury apartments. There have been more than numerous pub closures in Soho in the last year, as Westminster Borough Council refuses to allow any new late licenses to be permitted under the 2006 licensing liberalisation, forcing the hospitality industry to move further afield. Amidst the systematic slaughter of Soho's alcoholic heritage, the closure of a piece of global history has gone entirely unopposed(3).

I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves. - Henry A. Kissinger
Workers of all countries unite! - The last sentence of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

(1) http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/%7Esocappeal/150years/sewell.html
(2) http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/restaurants/article-23385477-details/Five+London+pubs+close+a+week/article.do
(3) http://www.beerintheevening.com/pubs/s/28/2824/Red_Lion/Soho

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