“By changing the world and changing our lives we transform ourselves.” –Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
While in Amsterdam in September I picked up a recent issue of the International Communist Current, which features a celebration of the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune. Despite my affinity for Marx and his legacy, I knew nothing of this brief period when the working classes and political radicals of Paris ousted the ruling government from the city, and ruled with a grassroots model for a couple of months. A bit of research into the founding, short duration, and goals of the Commune revealed once again that despite how much things seem to change, they remain mostly the same, particularly where power is concerned. One hundred and forty years later, Occupy Wall Street, now a globally dispersed movement of assembly and resistance to wealth inequality, is premised on many of the same ideals of the Paris Commune, as have been most successful and attempted political revolutions that came before and after it.
As I walked the streets of Amsterdam in late September of 2011, I sensed the oldness of the place all around me. As an American, I often find myself awestruck by the visible age of European cities. In terms of the built environment, the United States is a young place. I grew up in New Hampshire, one of the original thirteen British colonies, and have seen my fair share of old New England. I have eaten at “America’s Oldest Restaurant,” The Union Oyster House (established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1826), and have taken care of business in one of the nation’s oldest plumbed indoor toilets, at Harvard University. But, there is something different about Amsterdam, a city that was founded around 1300. Its oldness, and all that represents, is on the surface, looking back at you, as you look at it. Maybe it’s the distinctive and uniform architecture of the original brick buildings that line the city, or they way they tip toward and away from its streets, and slant sideways, due to their slow sinking. Maybe it’s the canals, which remind me of the role of waterways and seafaring in the building of the Dutch empire.
As I walked through Zurich’s old city to meet my friend Anne for a beer on a warm, late summer night, I paused at an intersection to wait for the signal to cross. A cyclist approached from across the intersection, and I noticed that he rode on the wrong side of the street. As he approached the corner on which I stood, he lifted his arm and shouted forcefully in the face of a man on a scooter, “Sieg heil!” Stunned, I turned toward the scooter rider, and noticed that he had dark skin. The signal changed, and I crossed the street as the man on the scooter rode away. Disheartened, I noted that this was not the first instance of open racism that I had witnessed in the city.