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Is Gardening for Guerrillas? by John Latham

Is Gardening Really for Guerrillas?

Guerrilla gardening has been a thing for quite some time. People have been growing stuff on disused sites, unappreciated spaces and private property which does not belong to them. Enterprising and colourful as this may have been, are practitioners of this art urban guerrillas?
An urban guerrilla would actually be in conflict with a government. It is unlikely that an authentic urban guerrilla has much leisure time. Participant observation is not necessary to establish that the majority of governments have the capacity to survive an onslaught of daffodils. Nevertheless, gardening in unauthorised plots may be subversive in a manner which initially avoids direct confrontation

The French philosopher Voltaire was a great fan of gardening. In his satire Candide, the acute thinker noted that it was a wonderful thing to work without engaging in argument. As a result, the characters of Voltaire settle down to tend a garden at the conclusion of his text. If the products of labour are shared fairly then this questions the standard logic of capital accumulation. So collective work can be disruptive, regardless of where it takes place

Guerrilla warfare has had a large political impact in certain historical contexts. But the risks of guerrilla warfare are extremely high, and the rewards are uncertain. It is unfortunate that a tyranny can be replaced by another tyranny. History may not be cyclical in nature, but the mature Karl Marx noted its tendency to contain disturbing elements of repetition:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

When it comes to socialism in this century, the political implications of gardening have remained important. A leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has always made a great deal of political capital out of his allotment. The opportunity to relax in a green space in an urban environment is of genuine value. In a media age, the idea of a politician spending time growing vegetables was vital in pushing forward an image of down-to-earth authenticity during the course of his general election campaign

However, gardening has not always had such a progressive content. After all, the most affluent citizens have grounds rather than gardens. And they do not necessarily engage in gardening themselves. Furthermore, garden designers and ordinary gardeners can receive divergent incomes for their efforts. While garden designers may win prizes and abundant pay packets, self-employed gardeners can struggle in their partly seasonal labour. Therefore we should be careful in the claims that we make for gardening

Despite these caveats, it is hard to ignore the radical aspect of gardening entirely. The aristocratic Vita Sackville-West was an influential garden designer as well as quite an innovative literary figure. Her writing was evidence of her creativity, whilst Virginia Woolf fictionalised her dominant and transgressive character in the pages of Orlando. No Signposts in the Sea, a beautiful novel by Sackville-West, is well worth a read. The garden of Sissinghurst was developed by Sackville-West and her husband

Nevertheless, the radicalism of Sackville-West only went so far. It is not a surprise that her aristocratic background impacted on her politics. During the 1920s and 1930s, sections of the British upper class were really impressed by the likes of Mussolini and Hitler. Fearing a substantive change to the social order, some of them became infatuated with the British Union of Fascists. While Woolf disapproved of such reactionary thinking, despite engaging in some controversial behaviour in Europe, Sir Harold Nicolson, the husband of Sackville-West, did not see through the fascism of Oswald Mosley. After the tragic death of Woolf and the end of the war, the gardening of Sackville-West gained more attention through her journalism. She believed in informal planting, which was a bold departure from the orthodoxy of the era. Sackville-West then became heavily involved with the National Trust

It seems that political generalisations about gardening are very hard to sustain. Translating the vision of Voltaire into reality is not at all straightforward. Gardening might be wonderful for wellbeing and it may be possible to grow some fruit and vegetables, but the work alone is not sufficient to transform individual or collective consciousness. People tend to believe things which come from sources other than their personal experiences of digging and cutting the grass. What we believe about gardening might not flow from engaging in gardening—lots of people watch Gardeners’ World on the television while relaxing with a cup of tea. So perhaps the forces of conservatism have their own subtle battalions in the mass media. If gardening is not necessarily going to help future guerrillas in practical terms, reflecting on the political uses of gardening might assist them to think about media constructions of everyday life. As the thinker Guy Debord once wrote:


“The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object (which is the result of his own unconscious activity) is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him. This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.”



Older than he cares to admit, John spends his time feeling even older than he is. He produces content, while seeking quiet contentment. He supports Liverpool FC and Jeremy Corbyn, and likes the colour red. His blog Cheepcheepcopy is a scrapbook of political economy, with book reviews. Comments are always welcome.


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