Socialist Appeal

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle with the tagline ‘the game has changed, but the legend continues’ is a 2017 remake by director Jake Kasdan of the classic 1995 film, itself an adaptation of ‘Jumanji’, a 1981 children’s book of the same name. Actually the format of the game is still much the same as in the original, with an old dusty video taking the place of a tatty board game, and the four characters are launched into a jungle in which they must find the escape route back, the key that will unlock them from this new world (the film was shot in Hawaii). The twist this time is that when they plug in the video game and are sucked into the surreal jungle-scape they are also morphed into a set of four avatars that are very different from their home-world selves.

The high-school teen gang are transformed into bodies that they will have to escape when they escape the jungle – babe Bethany turns into a chubby bearded male scientist (Jack Black), left-field Martha is now the beauty in the pack (Karen Gillan), the football jock turns into a weedy guy (Kevin Hart), and geeky bright nerd Spence turns into Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson. There is a baddy behind all of this, of course, an evil explorer who wants to control the ‘Jaguar’s eye’ stone, a magic jewel that turns on its owner ring-style and possesses its possessor (as in the Lord of the Rings, this is a good analogy for the way that commodities under capitalism turn their owners into things so that those who frantically try to grasp the commodity find their own lives weirdly controlled by the objects they try to accumulate).

Before the team get hold of the Jaguar’s eye and pop it in place exactly where it belongs, in an occult statue, and shout the talismanic key word to return home they must encounter all varieties of animatronic hazards – hippos and rhinos and so on – and in this they are guided by a fifth-player Alex Vreeke (Nick Jonas) who has been living trapped in the game from the last time round, twenty years ago, as an aviator-explorer Jefferson ‘Seaplane’ McDonough. It is a five-player game, but it is Alex who has the edge, plenty of knowledge of how the thing works from the inside, and (spoiler alert) it is Alex who doesn’t make it back when things click into place and they cry ‘Jumanji’. The success of the team, however, has redeemed history, and our heroes discover when they get back home that Alex himself has been restored to where he was twenty years ago; it is as if, dead to the world Alex was more than alive for them as Jefferson ‘Seaplane’ McDonough in the game itself.

If you want a spirit guide from the past to help you work out all the right moves in the class struggle then you can’t do better than join Socialist Appeal. In fact Socialist Appeal, the name of the group which produces a magazine of the same name, is guided by a dynamic duo, one of which is still very much alive in this world and the other of which is rumoured to be dead. The live one is multilingual Trotskyist Alan Woods who runs the International Marxist Tendency as well as Socialist Appeal as its British franchise. The dead guy who lives on as an avatar of all that was and is and always will be correct about Marxist theory was and is and always will be ‘Ted Grant’, a South African Trotskyist Isaac Blank (a good proportion of Britain’s best Trotskyists came from South Africa). Ted Grant once upon a time led the Militant Tendency, itself an avatar in the Labour Party of the old Revolutionary Socialist League that burrowed its way in back in 1964. But he left Militant, or was expelled depending on whose account you believe, along with his mate Alan Woods in 1991 when a large majority of the organisation decided, in what was known as the ‘Open Turn’, to leave the Labour Party and set up what became the Socialist Party.

Alan and mentor Ted stubbornly carried on inside the Labour Party, and Alan, at least (Ted died in 2006), has been guiding his comrades in there ever since, all of them with the exception of their very successful student group that to all intents and purposes operates independently of the Labour Party as the Marxist Student Federation. Alan and Ted are twin souls (a double-role in the future biopic for a much older Nick Jonas perhaps), and much of the Socialist Appeal bookstall fare consists of the writings of Ted Grant as theoretical and practical key to action. The students don’t just dust off old videos of Ted Grant or race around in multiple personas in the student movement and (sometimes, as they get older) in Labour Party branch meetings, they are hot on theory.

What is distinctive about ‘theory’ in the International Marxist Tendency and so also in Socialist Appeal, however, is that it is a kind of Marxism that functions as an all-powerful because it is true kind of worldview against which everything else must be measured to see if it is correct or not. This is rather strange because the Marxist Student Federation which laps up theory relayed to them from Ted (via Alan Woods as his voice on earth) are a bright lively lot, great activists and internationalists, but it might explain why there is quite a fast turnover of membership, and not so many graduate from the student wing into full-blown Labour Party politics. Readers of Mark Fisher’s ground-breaking Capitalist Realism, for example, are ticked off for enjoying a book that is, we are told, ‘a poor imitation of Marx’. It is clear that what we need is a good imitation of Marx, the Ted talks version, for example, that will show us exactly what’s what and what to do. This is the other aspect of ‘theory’ for Socialist Appeal, a timelessly true frame that, if is really correct, will magically unlock us from capitalism.

They act as if they are the only Marxists in the world who understand what Marxism really is, and with this all-seeing eye on the world lodged in the right place, all will be right. This is surely the exact opposite of what theory is for Marxists who attend to the dialectical practical interweaving of ideas as they become transformed in new contexts, in new conditions of capitalist accumulation and at the intersection with other forms of oppression. It is as if the most radical core of Socialist Appeal, its student activists, have been set off on a wild goose chase by their guide Alan Woods for the magical talismanic form of Marxist theory that will, when it is put to work, bring Ted Grant back to life again and release him and them and us all from the capitalist jungle.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

Advertisements

Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee)

Fight Club from 1999 has an unnamed narrator, played by Edward Norton, as the central character. Who is he? He is not all right Jack, not a collective subject, and his wretched life as an alienated individual is not going to get any better in this tale that the director David Fincher once called ‘a coming of age story’. It sure is, of a type. Our narrator engages in a fruitless search for recognition in a myriad of self-help support groups in which he learns to spill his guts and talk about his feelings. Here he meets Meat Loaf in a group for victims of testicular cancer and Marla Singer, played by Helena Bonham Carter, as a cynical fellow-traveller who fakes different kinds of symptoms and identities to join in each of the different groups. These are forms of ‘safe space’ that are anything but; not refuges from identity but sink-clubs in which identity is relentlessly mined at the very same moment that they make victims of all who join them.

One day, returning from a soul-draining business trip, our narrator swaps gossip with a nice young guy about their similar briefcases, and this spins into a fistfight. This ostensibly nice guy is Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, who inducts him into something a little more exciting, more blood and full-body clutches in ‘Fight Club’. Fight Club pits itself against the commercialised self-soothing consumerism that is contemporary US-America, and operates as a secret fraternity – these are all men – who fight bare-knuckle and revel in the violence. And so we move into Tyler Durden’s underworld of macho homoerotic physical combat in which the men rebel together against consumerism. Up pop Marla and Meat Loaf again, converts to the cause, either as sinister accomplices or place-men, dupes.

The radical shift from consumer society into a world of brutal fistfights flowers in ‘Project Mayhem’ as a full-blown revolt in which it is unclear who the enemy is and even more uncertain what the progressive alternative will be. There are famously no rules in Fight Club, or, rather, there are many rules which bind it and protect it against the outside world, most important is the repetitive overarching rule that ‘You do not talk about Fight Club’. At the denouement of the film it is unclear who Tyler Durden is exactly, and who the narrator is; Edward Norton’s character refers to himself as ‘Jack’, which one of the many ‘explanatory’ websites, www.jackdurden.com, picks up on. The narrator says of his saviour and nemesis Tyler Durden ‘I am Jack’s wasted life’, ‘…smirking revenge’, ‘…complete lack of surprise’; the young men are as glued to each other as much as they fight each other, and the physical violence is both cathartic release from the pressure to be the image of a well-behaved man sold back to them by the advertising industry and deadly trap which basically makes visible the ‘obscene underside’ of the Law, of hegemonic forms of masculinity (as Slavoj Žižek and his pals would say).

What a journey the key characters in the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee) (CPGB-PCC) have made since their days in the New Communist Party in the late 1970s, a super-Stalinist split from the old CPBG that was viewed as having gone soft under the influence of Eurocommunism, a historic compromise with consumerism which bore fruit in the rebranding of its magazine Marxism Today as an advertising brochure for ‘New Times’. The narrator in the weekly podcasts produced by its leader John who has taken on the pseudonym ‘Jack’ – ‘Jack Conrad’ to signal perhaps his own journey into the heart of darkness – complement a series of videos on the group’s website which mainly consist of lean young men aping the lecture style of a combination of urgent salesman and televangelist. The standard opening to these little lectures seems to be that you will not be told what you thought the talk was about, but something else. Toying with the audience replicates something of the internal structure of the group. There is something brutal and sad about these advertisements for the party which either parade their cadre or mock those who are desperate to be part of the fun (the video of poor Chris Knight bleating that it is months since he applied for membership and has still not heard anything since being a case in point). At this point, before they went back into the shadows, they were the obscene underside of Fight Club, the rule being that ‘You must talk about the CPGB-PCC’.

This has been a journey from Stalinism and from attempts to return the old Communist Party of Great Britain to the true path, to what it was when it was the British Section of the Communist International and loyal to Moscow (before the party packed up complete after the failed attempt to rebrand itself as Democratic Left in 1991). Some weird encounters since those days with some of the most robotic of the Trotskyist groups – the CPGB-PCC seems to have learnt something about politics and organisation from its time with the Spartacists – have left their mark. The internal life of the CPGB-PCC as well as its interventions in other groups unfortunate enough to give them house-room seems modelled on Tyler Durden’s image of rebellion, with Jack morphing at moments into former IMG member and now party comrade Mike MacNair hatched back into politics after his time in Law at St Hugh’s College Oxford. It’s not clear now who will be up to replace Edward and Brad in the remake of Fight Club, and which one will be which.

And it is for their intervention in Left Unity that they will be remembered by many of the rest of the left, bruised by the experience. Left Unity was set up to ‘do politics differently’, but the CPGB-PCC comrades were having none of that. Jack and his team seemed to turn every attempt to make discussion meetings into ‘safe spaces’ (in which people new to politics would feel able to contribute) into, instead, bear gardens. This was necessary, it was explicitly said by our macho mates, because only those with thick skins would really turn out to be the ones with the mettle enough to change the world. What was effectively bullying of members of Left Unity inside the meetings was extended to verbatim reports of what the weaklings had said in the CPGB-PCC gossip sheet Weekly Worker – it functioned for a while as the Private Eye of the left – and members of Left Unity used to wait in dread for what would be reported about them, named, for their comrades, work colleagues and bosses to read about them. The CPGB-PCC was on form, and their comrades sure seemed up for a fight. They left, but not until they had hastened the decline of the organisation, before jumping ship and entering the Labour Party to torment new activists who had looked for something better with Jeremy Corbyn only to be faced with the latest incarnation of this Fight Club of the Left as Labour Party Marxists.

These guys are tough on their enemies and on their friends, and, to their credit, they have dealt firmly and fairly with some pretty unpleasant types who threatened to turn them in some strange new directions; their support for Moshé Machover (who has always denied that he is a member) and their expulsion of Ian Donovan (who found a new home in Socialist Fight) has been exemplary. On the downside, and this where the CPGB-PCC operates as the worst arena for young men to come of age in politics, they have spewed out a stream of dodgy characters who all seem to want to be little Jacks who are confused about what it is to be Tyler Durden and end up causing mayhem in any other group or campaign they touch.

They were predictable as an internal opposition inside the old CPGB they attempted resurrect from the dead, and predictably bad as a stand-alone alternative. From bad old Stalinism to a form of quasi-Trotskyist politics that repeats all the worst of the organisational practices that Lenin and Trotsky themselves criticised, this lot is one to avoid; those who have been on the sharp end of their politics would say this was a group with a wasted life, smirking revenge and complete lack of surprise.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

Plan C

The Dispossessed, first published in 1974 with the subtitle ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’ by feminist Taoist science-fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin should be a film, or perhaps not. Perhaps there is something necessarily ambiguous and so something all the more revolutionary about this account of a communist planet that is not pinned down, concretised in images of heroes and sanitised for commercial gain on the big screen. When it was published back in the 1970s the story of dissident scientist Shevek making the unprecedented journey from anarcha-communist Anarres to its capitalist twin planet Urras to work with colleagues he assumes to be freer resonated with the Cold War split between the ‘free world’ and the bureaucratic Stalinist dictatorships behind the Iron Curtain.

Le Guin’s description of Anarres was actually explicitly based on the ‘post-scarcity anarchism’ of revolutionary US ecologist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin, who died in 2006, was once a member of the Fourth International, but gravitated toward anarchist politics with an ecological and feminist edge. But the problem, which The Dispossessed explores with a sensitivity to the lures of power, including to the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ – the illusion of transparent debate which obscures still-potent hierarchies around dimensions of oppression and exploitation – is that Anarres was not at all a ‘post-scarcity’ planet. It was barely surviving in desert conditions of great scarcity, and so the pressure for corruption of power was all the greater. Anarres has been quarantined, cut off after its successful rebellion by its rich twin planet Urras.

Shevek discovers on Urras that a rebellion is brewing there, that the legacy of the revolution on Anarres is still alive, that the very existence of an alternative, for all of its limitations, energises a new generation of activists. And so Shevek is able to break out of the privileged academic-scientific elite bubble that welcomes and contains him as a celebrity dissident from another world, paraded as a symbol of rebellion against the supposed horrors of collectivism, and he connects with the resistance, realises there is more to the future than isolated individualism. Another world is possible, but what ‘utopia’ is really, in practice, unambiguous? The Dispossessed traces the need for the struggle of the left within the left, of a continual opening of the revolution to multiple and intersecting forms of rebellion, the revolution in permanence. One of the great things about the absence of a film of The Dispossessed is that there is no one big star marked as the hero of the story, no one who would turn Shevek into a real superstar. He plays a key role in the book, but is more than anything a cipher for the differences between communism and capitalism and the struggle to ensure that the overthrow of capitalism really does arrive at a communist future instead of being stalled half-way.

With most of the revolutionary left groups there is a clear history that tracks the way they each try to replicate the struggle of Leon Trotsky, the ‘old man’ who resisted Stalin and tried to keep the hope of the October revolution alive and who paid with his life. So powerful is the sorry narrative of repetitive split and purge in the Trotskyist movement that there is palpable suspicion of new groups who seem to come out of nowhere, as if from dotted lines in the genealogy of the far left. When such libertarian alternatives on the edge of Trotskyism do emerge they are sometimes shunned, shunted off to the anarchist fringes (fringes as much fraught with rivalry as among the Trots) or avidly courted, as was the case, for example, with Liverpool-based Big Flame, a group that burnt the Fourth International in Britain in the 1970s, that was not as open to regroupment or ‘socialist unity’ as it seemed. But, remember that every real revival of a section of the Fourth International has come from new forces that are able to re-energise it and take it in unexpected directions; such was the case, for example, with the rebellions in the student movement in France that led to emergence of the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire which became a centre of gravity of the International in the 1970s. Perhaps the time has come for Plan C, a vibrant young organisation to play that role today, and perhaps the existing affiliate of the Fourth International should join Plan C, which will then become the British Section of something quite different.

Plan C emerged from a meeting of ‘Network X’ in Manchester less than a decade ago, and linked together activists close to the ‘autonomist’ tradition in different cities, significantly cities outside London, away from the traditional centres of state power and power of the centralised left. One of their few points of reference, not as origin-point but as source of lessons about autonomist politics recently has been the old Big Flame. So, the ‘C’ clearly doesn’t stand for ‘centralism’, but perhaps for ‘communes’ or ‘communism’ (which is how members and supporters and friends of Plan C usually understand it). They are one of the nicest groups on the far left today, but niceties aside, what are they up to and how do they actually work with the dispossessed?

One of the key axes of their intervention has been in solidarity campaigning for Rojava, the radical experiment in Kurdish north Syria, an experiment of direct rule in which women have been a visible force both in the ‘peshmerga’ resistance to Islamic State and the Turkish State and in the local council assemblies. The experiment in Rojava is explicitly indebted to the writings of Murray Bookchin, and so we have an actually-existing reproduction of the Planet Anarres described in The Dispossessed, an actually-existing reproduction in exactly the self-same desertified conditions of isolation and quarantine, but with the added threat of continual armed attack from fascists on all sides. It is site of contradictions that betoken exactly the kind of corruption of power that Le Guin describes, this is a revolution still led by Abdullah Öcalan from his Turkish prison cell. Öcalan discovered Bookchin’s writings, and wrote to Bookchin, too late for that old ex-Trotskyist anarchist to be of help, and built those ideas into what Öcalan calls ‘democratic confederalism’. Women are powerful in Rojava, for example, and they still pose for revolutionary publicity in front of posters of their leader Abdullah Öcalan. And Plan C too, the good autonomists, are actually in practice a little more closed and centralist than they seem, a perfect mirror for the Rojava revolution they celebrate.

Plan C also jump into line when a new leader appears, even if it is a leader of an apparently more cosy and comfy jumper kind at the head of the British Labour Party. They are good at organising corporate style away-days, feel-good festival style meet-ups with plenty of vegetarian food, but they have not been so good at arriving at a democratically arrived at decision about how and why to go into the Labour Party. Instead, members of Plan C, and not all of them, have dribbled into the big Party, led by example, led by their leaders, the ones who are never named as such, those directing a structure that pretends to be structureless. The ‘debate’ about Corbyn has been happening after the policy as such it is has been arrived at. They have been called out on this by their anarchist friends who are keen to make a raid, a version of the old ‘unity’ offensives the Trots practised on each other in the old days. There is a real danger here that they will be eaten up by the fake-super-transparent-democratic autonomists rather than the Trotskyist left that has been genuinely trying to make sense of how politics must change to include all of the exploited and oppressed. They straddle two worlds, of the old and new left, ambiguous about what the plan is, about what is next.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

Socialist Fight

Taxi Driver, the 1976 classic film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, was apparently as seedy in its making as it was in its depiction of its anti-hero. The film became a source of oft-repeated motifs – ‘you talkin’ to me?’ – and became a classic because it eventually spun itself out in cine-history as a string of clichés. It was a lesson in how to dredge around in alienated inner-city life and serve up the mess on-screen as entertainment, an indictment and replication of a sick world which produces sick characters who thrash around trying to make sense of it, taking it out on the wrong guys.

Travis Bickle is the discharged US-Marine after the end of the Vietnam war who sinks into a spiral of depression and paranoia and ends up as a vigilante who takes on the self-appointed role of city cleaner, cleaning the urban landscape of the scum who feed and feed on the rotting society which surrounds him. This context is also the perfect feeding ground for a weird mixture of narcissism – you lookin’ at me – and conspiracy theories which systematically misrecognise and mis-locate the cause of evil in the world.

The film traces Bickle’s journey from dalliance with big politics to his eventual isolation in the tiniest imaginable sect politics – his own ruminations on power and sleaze and what needs to be done to put it right – and, disconnected from reality, he goes in for the kill. After a failed attempt to assassinate the Senator whose campaign team he was briefly on, he heads for a brothel where there is a shoot-out, and finally, through lucky chance, he hits out at other characters that public opinion also views as vermin, and turns up lucky. The film successfully mixes the mistaken and dangerous emerging worldview of an outsider – Travis Bickle doesn’t really have a plan or know where he is going – with a series of stereotypes, of sex and race and corruption and crime, systemic misrepresentations of the nature of capitalist society, society that provokes and welcomes his erratic and destructive acting out.

His is a lonesome fight which wallows in ideology, enacting and confirming it, just as it is in the case of Socialist Fight, one of the tiniest of splinters from the nine-way fragmentation of the old Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) in the 1980s. In this case, the replay of Taxi Driver Travis Bickle’s journey round the edge of politics will entail a contest for the Robert De Niro role between Gerry Downing and Ian Donovan. Downing, not to be confused with Gerry Healy (though that little Gerry was once the big man for our future star), has written reams about the break-up of the WRP, and he will surely beat Donovan for the role, but this time in a rather more downbeat version of the film, ‘Bus Driver’ perhaps. Socialist Fight, which proclaims itself to be the British Section of the ‘Liaison Committee for the Fourth International’ (with three other appendages), is the latest incarnation of Downing after his Workers International League and its paper ‘Workers Action’ hit the buffers. Donovan, meanwhile, has form in many different roles, having been through more far-left groups than you have had hot dinners, and he’ll get a bit part. Just as he does now in Downing’s Socialist Fight, which has given Donovan a home following his well-deserved expulsion from the CPGB-PCC. The film-score, by the way, will be by jazz saxophonist and antisemite Gilad Atzmon.

Well, one thing we learn from the spectacle of Downing and Donovan splitting with the rest of the left is that unfortunately there sure is antisemitism on the left too. This is not surprising given that antisemitism still swills around contemporary culture, but revolutionary socialists who take this seriously have been to the forefront of struggles against it. The Socialist Fight version of what August Bebel called the ‘socialism of fools’ is no less dangerous for being all the more ridiculous. Socialist Fight has already marked itself out on the far-left and alienated many comrades willing to ally with Downing by declaring, for example, that Islamic State is not all bad, and so Downing and Donovan’s protestations that they do not at all see themselves to be antisemitic now already ring pretty hollow. It is to the credit of other left groups involved in the campaign Labour Against the Witch-hunt (LAW) that they are having none of this nonsense. LAW, which was set up to defend, among others, Moshé Machover from accusations of antisemitism, quite rightly draws a sharp line between criticism of Israel – a principled anti-Zionist position in solidarity with the Palestinian people – and the half-baked racist ramblings that Donovan came up with in the CPGB-PCC before he was given the push (by Machover) and that Downing has been pushing in Socialist Fight.

In the tiny narcissistic and paranoiac world of Socialist Fight, there is a ‘Jewish Bourgeoisie’ that has intimate direct ties to the State of Israel, and it is this conspiratorial vision of the world that supposedly explains why the Jews who are, we are told, ‘over-represented’ in the ruling class must be called out. Full-blown ‘anti-Zionism’ must, according to Downing and Donovan, name this Jewish bourgeoisie as an influence to be rooted out, and so (as many hard-line Zionists would predict and wish) anti-Zionism shades into antisemitism. This is no longer socialism as such. No wonder these two are admired by Gilad Atzmon who has made a disgusting speciality of celebrating self-hatred – a Jew who hates, he says, every bit of him that reminds him that he is Jewish – and no wonder that they return the favour.

This is a time of strange but necessary alliances, among which the most important are those alliances of anti-Zionists in the Labour Party that refuse to pander to antisemitism. Many Jews on the left have a proud history of standing out against the Israeli State, protesting against the attempts of Zionists to invoke some weird kind of collective responsibility in which all Jews are expected to fall in line and keep silent for fear of being labelled antisemitic. Moshé Machover is one, an old Trotskyist with a lifetime of resistance to Zionism inside Israel and then outside it, and Tony Greenstein is another (the latter having also written scorching attacks in the CPGB-PCC press on Downing and Donovan), both active members of Labour Against the Witch-hunt.

It is imperative that the new doppelgangers for Travis Bickle are not given the opportunity to fight their way into this campaign again, nor to be given comfort by those who deliberately or unwittingly misunderstand what the stakes are and make them seem as if they are in any way victims of a witch-hunt or heroes as they thrash around looking for someone to blame for their isolation on the left. They reflect the worst of the society they think they pit themselves against. Their fight, let’s be clear, is not at all a socialist fight.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

 

Radical Fiction

Holiday and travel reading for Marxists (with links to the Hive site so you can see the details of these books and then track them down yourself – and earn money for your favourite local high street bookshop):

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin was written when the Soviet Union still existed, but today this marvellous book by a feminist Taoist is actually more about revolution in Rojava. The planet Anarres is based on Murray Bookchin’s anarchist vision of a non-capitalist society, a vision which animates ‘democratic confederalism’ in the north of Syria today.

HHhH by Laurent Binet is a harrowing but ultimately redemptive historical fictional account about anti-fascist struggle. It is faithful to the real events in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War when Allied agents were parachuted into the country in Operation Anthropoid to assassinate the Nazi butcher Reinhard Heydrich.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is an incredibly prescient novel about capitalist crisis and migration. Set during the 1930s when Oklahoma has turned into a dust bowl and small farmers try to escape to California, it resonates today with the massive human flows across the globe from regions despoiled by the drive for profit.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood is a parallel world near future thriller about the inevitable necessary shift from late capitalism into the prison industrial complex. It traces how the marginalised poor are inducted into forms of control, and shows how forms of new technology which promise to augment life actually corrupt it.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie meshes historical materialism and fantasy in the journey of characters around India and Pakistan post-Partition. The book’s narrative travels around the sub-continent, illuminating different forms of dictatorship in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, including under Indira Ghandhi, for which the book was banned.

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy focuses on the intersections of class oppression, racism and sexism and, crucially, the brutal treatment of those labelled mad when they dare to speak out. An angry and inspiring radical feminist time-shift narrative shifts between life inside mental hospital and liberated space in 2137.

2666 by Chilean Fourth International comrade Roberto Bolaño is an amazing multi-layered magical realist novel grounded in the reality of power and resistance in Latin America. It ranges from colonialist fears of the telepathic powers of the Mapuche to contemporary femicide – systematic murder of women – in Mexico, and much more along the way.

If it is suggestions for non-fiction Marxist reading you want, start here

 

 

 

 

Green and Red Rules for Radicals

Derek Wall’s new book Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals (2017, Pluto Press)

Of the main complaints made against ‘ecosocialist’ politics, attempts to combine Red and Green in a radical alliance to combat capitalism’s deadly environmental and existential threat to our planet, one of the most common is that revolutionary Marxists thereby get drawn into an unholy alliance with bourgeois environmental liberals. The complaint hinges around the very real fear that left politics will be ‘recuperated’, neutralised and absorbed by mainstream ecological discourse, and we will be tempted to abandon changing the world because we are too busy building broader alliances to save it.

This new book by Derek Wall, who is former Principal Speaker of the Green Party, turns this question around, to reclaim for the left the ideas of a liberal economist, Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom, who died in 2012, was the only woman so far to win a Nobel Prize for economics. She was best known for her 1990 book Governing the Commons, and put the ideas in that book to work in a series of community activist projects in the US, drawing on experiences around the world. Her key argument flowed from a liberal-humanist refusal of one of the most powerful ideological motifs in the social sciences, the assumption that there is something necessarily destructive about human beings that will lead them to competitively destroy what they hold in common.

Students in the social sciences will at some point in their classes learn about the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’, described by Garrett Hardin back in 1968. The ‘tragedy’ is that people will tend to exploit the good nature of everyone else who holds resources in common, and that this selfish approach will eventually disintegrate any well-meaning attempts to build human solidarity. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ argument overlooks the brutal process by which land was enclosed during the early development of capitalism, and the way that the ‘commons’ – common land and herding and agricultural resources – was threatened by those who wanted to shift from community to individual ownership. Ostrom showed that Hardin’s claim was, in practice, quite untrue.

For the left, seizing back our land and what we ourselves create, ‘common ownership’, is, of course, the basis of a real movement towards communism. Our starting point is that the expulsion of peasants from the land, and the forcing of people into factories so that they must earn the wherewithal to buy back on a temporary basis what had been taken from them, is one of the foundational crimes of capitalist political economy. But that view is a tough one to win, with all kinds of very drastic consequences for private ownership of the means of production. It is not actually a view that will be won in a simple ‘battle of ideas’, it will be won in practice as people come to realise that exploitation is grounded in the dispossession of us all from the commons.

Alongside that political practice that makes communist ideas into a reality, there is a necessary painstaking process through which the left works away at the contradictions in bourgeois ideology, showing that underlying assumptions about fairness and justice are antithetical to private ownership. This is what Wall does so well in this book, acknowledging that Ostrom was ‘not a leftist in a traditional sense’, but was a profound ecological thinker and someone who was drawn by the political logic of her argument about community action into some radical positions. Her take on political action could, Wall, argues, even be interpreted today as a kind of intersectional feminist approach. This is one of the many points in the book where Wall moves back and forth from the small-scale level of theory and practice to global contexts and larger political ideas.

A brief biographical sketch grounds Ostrom’s ideas in US-American communitarian context, a context in which radicals did eventually gather around her, and try to find ways of opening up the contradictions to engage in genuinely radical ecological projects. Wall traces through some links between Ostrom’s concern with democratic governance and recent attempts in Rojava in the north of Syria to develop ‘democratic confederalism’ as, in Abdullah Ocalan’s words ‘the cultural organisational blueprint of a democratic nation’. Wall is concerned with what in socialist feminist politics was once framed as the link between the personal and the political, and here his argument is that Ostrom can be viewed as a feminist precisely because she emphasised ‘the co-production of knowledge … rather than simply developing formal models to then tell people what to do.’

Wall also shifts back and forth between some of the pernicious ideas in sociology and economics – that the human being is a ‘rational maximiser’, for example, and will always calculate what is best for the individual as they engage in some kind of game to seize resources and thereby destroy the commons – to debates about the relationship between social structure and free will; for Wall, and this is one of the implications of Ostrom’s work which does connect with revolutionary Marxism, ‘we don’t have complete free will but if we learn more about the structures that shape our behaviour we can gain more freedom’. This is what ecosocialist struggle is about, enlarging the sphere of human freedom as we learn together to take back and manage the earth’s resources.

And the rules? These include some quite radical arguments in a neoliberal world, reframing and making accessible the ideas Marxists take as their touchstone for changing the world: the rules include things like ‘everything changes’, ‘self-government is possible’, ‘all institutions are constructed and so can be constructed differently’, ‘collective ownership can work’ and ‘human beings are part of nature too’. This looks simple, but this is deceptively simple book about an economist who had a canny ability to connect what could be accomplished in a capitalist economy with a vision of a quite different world. There are complex ideas buried in this book which are made accessible by an engagement with Elinor Ostrom so that we learn from her and can find a way of radicalising her work, making it ecosocialist. Derek Wall lays out one path through which this can be accomplished.

 

You can read and comment on this review here

Žižek vs Lenin, again

‘Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating and Working Through’ by VI Lenin and S Žižek (Verso, 2017)

This book brings together some articles, letters and speeches by Vladimir Lenin from 1922 and 1923, difficult years when the Russian Revolution was under threat, corroded from within and attacked by surrounding capitalist states intent on ensuring that October 1917 would end in failure. Lenin here is tackling two intertwined problems. One is the isolation of the revolution; having always been clear that the revolution needed to be spread internationally if it was to succeed, the prospect now with the defeat of working-class uprisings in other parts of Europe was that Russia would be encircled, that the revolutionary process would be fatally distorted, reduced to what Stalin was to trumpet as ‘socialism in one country’. The other is the increasing bureaucratisation in the face of depletion of Bolshevik forces as so many party activists die in the civil war, and in combatting the imperialist army invasions on so many fronts; having always been clear that the revolution required an expansion of democracy, the revolutionary process was being reduced to a relatively small isolated and incompetent apparatus, reduced eventually to small groups, individuals, leaders.

Lenin rails in these pieces against impending failure, and we can see him searching for new ways of combining revolutionary Marxist principles – defence of the gains of the revolution – with pragmatic attempts to make the best of things, to buy time, to build something from the wreckage of the war. There are attempts to deal with the hostile press, a context in which ‘freedom of the press’ as an abstract principle actually ends up allowing external imperialist states to support the White Russian counter-revolutionaries to flood the beleaguered workers state with overwhelming poisonous propaganda. And, crucially, there are attempts to reach out to the peasantry, to make connections between the isolated and weakened new state apparatus based on the ‘soviets’ – workers councils – and small businesses, family and single-person enterprises in the countryside who orient to the market rather than to centrally-directed organisations. Lenin proposes that a ‘Central Control Commission’ be set up to oversee party and state processes, independent bodies that would check the corruption and temptation for individuals to increase their own power in these harsh times.

These are outstandingly difficult conditions in which to build socialism, impossible in fact, and, worse, these conditions pose new problems that have never been faced by revolutionary Marxists. Lenin’s attempts to grapple with these novel conditions have a bearing on problems faced by socialists today, ranging from the isolation of the left in different national contexts to the influence of a hostile mass media. The globalisation of capitalism means that even more so today, a hundred years after October 1917, the fate of each socialist or even left social-democratic attempt to build a fairer more democratic society is bound up with what happens around it. And the media in private and big-business hands has power to turn collective politics into a matter of individual personalities, mercilessly attacking those who dare to voice opposition to the rule of capital. There is no level playing field for the left now, and neither was there when Lenin was writing.

Lenin’s little pieces are framed by rambling contradictory essays by Slavoj Žižek which systematically turn the problems faced by the October Revolution against itself, gutting this particular historical process of economic-political content, reducing the Bolshevik’s plight to an abstract philosophical conundrum. Despite the claims to be defending and ‘repeating’ Lenin, Žižek actually explicitly drums home the lesson that the revolution as such, and any revolution as such, is doomed from the start: ‘the project was genuinely tragic: an authentic emancipatory vision condemned to failure by its very victory’. Read that last bit again, condemned by its very victory. Worse, Žižek repeats the line much-beloved by anti-communist writers in the last hundred years that there was no real difference between Lenin and Stalin. This book includes letters by Lenin in which he warns against the party allowing Stalin to accumulate too much power, the Central Control Commission is clearly designed to limit the emergence of a bureaucracy organised around powerful individuals. Despite this, Žižek claims that Leninism is the authentic core of Stalinism, that there is a direct line between one and the other. This, for Žižek, is why this is a ‘tragic’ situation, Lenin’s warnings, his interventions in 1922 and 1923 were doomed to fail.

Žižek has some other good advice for the left today. In place of principled and pragmatic attempts to defend the welfare state, we should abandon that kind of politics because the failure of the welfare state will always anyway play into the hands of the right. And, in place of attempts to build participatory democratic forms of power – that’s what the soviets in Russia were trying to do – we should look to a strong leader. I kid you not, Žižek argues that ‘the reference to a Leader is necessary’. We need, he says, to make the ‘wrong mistakes’. Maybe he has in mind his endorsement of Trump in the run-up to the US Presidential elections, elections for a ‘Leader’ (which Žižek always capitalises to show how important it is) who was intent on destroying any semblance of a welfare state. ‘Our task today’, he argues, is ‘precisely to reinvent emancipatory terror’. Well, thanks, but no thanks, this is bankrupt anti-Leninist stuff.

The title of the book – a narcissistic title which enables Žižek not only to reinvent himself as a co-author with Lenin but also to claim authorship of an old classic psychoanalytic text – is drawn from a paper by Freud called ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working Through’. Here Žižek is, to give him credit, remaining true to an old well-worked line of work that he has rehearsed in countless books, that it is possible to solve political problems with a dose of psychoanalysis. Lenin didn’t like psychoanalysis much but the October Revolution did open up space for a flourishing of interest in new therapeutic approaches, and there was much interest in Freud’s work. Trotsky, for example, was interested in psychoanalysis (and sent his daughter Zina to a leftist analyst in Berlin after his family had been expelled from the Soviet Union by Stalin). Psychoanalysis draws attention to historical materialist processes which go beyond the control of any particular conscious individual. What Žižek does well, as he has in many other of his writings, is show how a psychoanalytic conception of the role of the unconscious in political processes is very different from the appeal to the psychological individual as the ‘nerve centre of liberal ideology’. When you hear appeals to individual ‘choice’ you can be sure that bourgeois ideology is not far behind (as in the destruction of state welfare services warranted by ‘individual choice’, and as in the appeal to ‘freedom of the press’ resting on ‘individual choice’ of the reader to select among a number of corporate newspapers).

What Žižek does with psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is to turn it from being a clinical practice into some kind of weird worldview; then it seems possible to ‘apply’ it and correct the mistakes of Marxists. Psychoanalysis in Žižek’s hands turns specific political-economic problems such as those faced by Lenin into ‘genuinely tragic’ inevitable failures. This is why Žižek uses the term ‘Leader’ and ‘Master’ interchangeably. There is no way out and no way round the necessary role of a Leader – ‘a Master is needed’ he claims – and so, he claims, ‘the path to liberation’ is through ‘transference’. That is, the clinical phenomenon of transference in which the patient relieves their past loving and traumatic relationships with significant others is repeated, ‘transferred’ onto the figure of their analyst.

Žižek sets himself up as the analyst, the Master in this book, the Master who will be able even to out-Lenin Lenin, configuring himself as the super-Lenin who is actually remembering, repeating and working through not the revolutionary Lenin who is struggling with the question of how to defend the gains of October but a Lenin in line with bourgeois caricatures as if he was always already ‘the authentic core of Stalinism’. This is an abysmal reactionary book, a betrayal of what Lenin was up to which anticipates Stalinism’s eventual complete betrayal of October, a betrayal of Lenin.

 

You can read and comment on this review here