Why I wrote Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left

I was trained to be an academic, and spent much of my working life in academic institutions. That kind of life encourages people who work there to frame questions in certain kinds of ways. Some people bury themselves in that enclosed world, cut off from the outside, developing theoretical systems that have little to do with the lives of people in the real world. They speak a language that doesn’t connect with external reality. Much of what passes for social and political and economic ‘science’ operates in that detached way, as does much philosophy. Other academics, those with some consciousness about their privileged role, try to reach out, sometimes romanticising the real world, and still often unable to overcome that gap that separates their particular way of describing things from what is actually going on out there.

One way I tried to tackle this problem of the separation of academic description from everyday life was to study ‘discourse’, to engage in different kinds of ‘discourse analysis’. In fact, ‘discourse’ was one of the first keywords that I wrote about, and, as I explain in the book, ‘discourse’ became a useful way of describing the work of ideology and the way that people become hooked into certain ways of speaking, and then certain ways of thinking about the world and about who they are. Some of us shifted the focus of our research, from looking at the ‘facts’ about society and individuals that are supposedly discovered by the social sciences or puzzled over by philosophers, to the descriptions that are given of those facts, the discourse that is used to frame the facts, and frame us. This turn to discourse is one way of treating academic theory as ideology.

Discourse is anchored, held in place, by specific words or phrases. When you are able to use those words in the language game of a community or an institution or a group, use them competently, you are acknowledging yourself as a member and you are usually acknowledged to be a member by others who use that language game, who use that discourse. Whether we like it or not, that’s the way that discourse operates in the academic world and in political movements. The keywords that anchor discourse can signal whether you are an outsider or an insider, whether you really know what you are talking about, whether you are really signed up to a particular way of looking at the world or not. The best way of defining discourse analysis is as sensitivity to language, and new social movements are for sure sensitive about the language we use to describe things. In fact, the left has always been sensitive to this; maybe what has changed now is that there is more reflexive deliberate attention to language as such.

You could say that what you have here in this book is the ongoing preliminary result, a work in progress of a research project that is a kind of applied discourse analysis. What makes it different from most academic discourse analysis is twofold. First, we turn the gaze around, so that instead of looking at what people do in the outside world, framing them within an academic discourse, we look at what the academic researchers are doing. Actually, in this case we look at how political theorists and political activists inside and outside different groups frame things when they use old and new keywords to anchor their descriptions of the world. Second, we aren’t simply describing the world, or describing keywords that are used to describe the world, we are actively intervening. This is sometimes called ‘action research’, but it’s basically taking seriously the point that Marx makes, that philosophers have hitherto simply interpreted the world, whereas the point is to change it.

This kind of analysis has actually been going on from before the development of discourse analysis, for well over fifty years. The most well-known attempt to define and map keywords in contemporary culture was made by the cultural materialist Marxist Raymond Williams, an attempt that was eventually published as his book ‘Keywords’. What Raymond Williams does there is to trace the historical emergence of terms that hold culture in place, and to show that the meanings of those terms operate as a set of shared cultural resources. Those cultural resources, those constellations of keywords mark out the terrain on which the left argues and mobilises against bourgeois ideology. ‘Bourgeois’ is one example of a keyword that Williams discusses, shifting meaning from referring to the ‘middle class’ to describing those who own the means of production under capitalism, effectively operating as a synonym for the ruling class.

What Williams ends up with is a kind of cultural-political map, and you can see two things, at least two things, that are really interesting. The first is that if we look, as Williams does, at the historical origins of some of the terms, we can see how original meanings of the keywords have been obscured, covered over so that we become embedded in a taken-for-granted image of the world. For example, the term ‘consciousness’ is usually used today to speak about awareness an individual has of themselves, but early meanings of the term were concerned mainly with the relationship of things to each other. The second thing that Williams makes clear is that these keywords mark out a field of meanings, a field of debate in which there are many different vantage points, constellations of different political positions. So, he is coming at this question from the left, mapping keywords from a left vantage point, and it is clear that he is concerned with the broader cultural matrix. This means, for example, that ‘consciousness-raising’ will always be from a specific standpoint. It doesn’t lead to one overall complete objective account. We have to situate ourselves.

This is why I do two things in this book. There are, if you like, two parts of the book. The first part, the bulk of the book, comprises fifty different keywords, with short essays about each of them. I don’t actually trace the etymology and historical twists and turns of meaning of each keyword in such detail as Raymond Williams does of his. I’m concerned more with the way they function at the moment in revolutionary politics. I’ll say a bit about those actual keywords in a moment. The second part of my book is a much longer essay which takes up the question of the way we map the relationship between keywords, and that’s where I pick up from Williams’ own ‘keywords’ project. The key here is the way that the map itself has changed over time, so what we’re faced with here is not only the emergence of revolutionary keywords that are new to us, that disturb our way of thinking and working with the left, but also the transformation of the way they work together. I’m interested in the long essay at the end of the book in the map itself.

So the issue here is not only to do with the spatial map, the layout of keywords at a particular time, but with a temporal process, that is, how the maps change over the course of history. And I want ground that historical change in an account of the material conditions that make certain kinds of relationships between the keywords possible. When we look at ‘discourse’ as one of the keywords, for example, or at the flow of discourse around that keyword, what we say about it and how we use discourse, we also need to look at the ‘conditions of possibility’ for that discourse to appear and make sense to us. That focus on ‘conditions of possibility’ was the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault’s way of working with some kind of Marxist approach. History consists of many things, including transformations in ways of speaking and writing and thinking, and the discourses that keywords are embedded in are bound up with material processes, real historical events. This is a historical materialist account.

Let us turn to look at our history. History has been punctuated by a series of key events over the last hundred years that recur in the way that those involved in left and liberation movements speak and think about themselves. We have to be careful here though. We have to be careful not to reduce a historical materialist account to a caricature of Marxism in which it is only brute economics, only economic events that count. We have to bear in mind that the events I refer to here are charged with significance in the life of the left, not of the whole population but of the Left, and these are positive events, openings. There are plenty of disasters in history, which are framed by the left as failures, failures of revolution. The events I am concerned with are, in some sense, revolutions or rebellions with a revolutionary edge. They energised the discourse of the left, and the map of keywords changes. We also have to notice that these events are of paramount importance to the European left, and a left oriented to European history.

The first key event is the Russian Revolution a century ago. Whatever stand you take on the role of the Bolsheviks, and the Kronstadt rebellion, say, this revolution then has massive consequences for many years, and it shapes the way that the left, and many other radical movements, think about what revolutionary change is. The second key event – really a sequence of linked events which are given meaning as they are reinterpreted – is the revival of the left and feminist and national liberation movements in 1967. This has repercussions lasting through 1968, which some on the left see as culminating in the student demonstrations and workers strikes in and around May 1968 in Paris. Paris, London, Rome, Berlin each become a focus with rebellions in the heart of Europe, rebellions that include the Prague 1968 revolt against Stalinism, become linked with social movements inside the United States and solidarity with struggles against imperialism, most significantly in Vietnam.

Over the fifty years following the Russian Revolution, from 1917 to 1967, something really interesting happens to the map of keywords. From being a quite diffuse field of concepts that define political discourse, ranging from questions of consciousness to the nature of bourgeois society, our left discourse between 1917 and 1967 starts to crystallise into some kind of grid where it is much clearer how different keywords of the left are arranged on a spectrum. We become clearer during this time about what is reactionary and what is progressive, and even those two notions begin to operate as keywords, to the extent that we refer to ‘progressives’ and ‘reactionaries’. You could say that while Raymond Williams was describing the keywords that comprise progressive bourgeois culture, the culture that holds democratic capitalist society in place, what 1917 eventually does is begin to lock keywords into place in a representation of how we need to talk, act politically, and think about the world in order to defend the Soviet Union as a workers state, or at least to define ourselves in relation to what happened there. This is either as a triumph or as a betrayal of revolution.

Then what happens after the series of rebellions through the late 1960s, rebellions that bring an autonomous women’s movement onto the stage and national liberation movements pressing the Western left to develop solidarity campaigns, is that new keywords begin to flourish, and, this is crucial, they disturb the map of keywords. This is the accumulating set of keywords that I track in the book, keywords that have appeared in the last fifty years. But instead of being arranged in some kind of grid in which reactionary is linked explicitly to bourgeois society and capitalism and imperialism, defining where all the other movements must fit in order to be progressive, and progressive is linked explicitly to communism, socialism and national liberation, now there are cross-cutting alliances and groupings of keywords that define radical struggles around gender and sexuality and identity, even ‘identity’ as a keyword, for example.

If we turn to the new revolutionary keywords themselves, we can see that some of them actually reflect and reflect upon that changing map of radical political discourse from 1967 up to the present day, to where we are fifty years later, one hundred years after the Russian Revolution. Take the keyword ‘intersectionality’ for example. Intersectionality is a way of settling accounts with a kind of Marxism that is often locked into a rather bureaucratic kind of politics that either prioritises defence of the Soviet Union or one of the other workers states or the kind of critique that is still made from within left opposition groups that operate as a kind of weird mirror image of the Stalinism they set themselves against. For intersectional politics, struggles of women and black activists, for example, are neither subordinated to the working class or an idealised image of the working class, nor do they replace working class struggle, nor are they simply added in to it.

This brings us back to the question of the role of the academic in relation to revolutionary struggle, whether that is left or feminist or anti-racist or queer struggle. One of the peculiar things about much left politics between 1917 and 1967 is that it begins to be absorbed and neutralised by academic institutions. That is, it is ‘recuperated’, drawn in and smothered. The first keyword in the book, by chance because it begins with ‘a’, but quite conveniently, is ‘academicisation’. Yes, there are left academics that support the left movements, and fellow travellers of the communist parties who supported the Soviet Union, and even then some who supported Mao, but one of the effects of this recuperation of the left by academic institutions is that left discourse and the set of radical keywords between 1917 and 1967 become organised in a grid that looks very ‘academic’ itself. What happens after 1967, in the last fifty years of our revolutionary century, is that the new keywords disturb that relation with academia.

For example, the keyword ‘performative’ disturbs the usual academic research goal of describing the world and predicting what might happen next. For queer theorists who emphasise performativity, whether they are inside or outside the university, the issue is not what we ‘predict’ as if we play no part in the phenomenon we are describing, but what we ‘perform’, what we make happen in our descriptions; we are not merely interpreting but changing the world. ‘Queer’, which is one of the revolutionary keywords that has appeared in the last fifty years, is another example of a word that changes shape when it is embedded in a political movement that reclaims identity and, at the same time, questions identity, questions identity as such. Queer politics disturbs identity by refusing to treat ‘identity’ as a description of something but as a ‘performative’ operation which repeats and reinforces identity. You can see how the links between the keywords are as important as the particular keywords themselves.

Many of these keywords have developed in a kind of ‘liminal’ space, that is, not entirely inside the academic institutions and not completely outside them either. The term ‘liminal’ describes what lies at the limits of something, of an institution or a concept, working at the limits and drawing attention to how those limits work to separate, divide us. Actually, ‘liminal’ as a keyword is not in the book, partly because I noticed it after I had put the book to bed, and partly because I had a too-neat compartmentalisation in the book so that there would be a discussion of what happened in two different fifty-year stretches of time, and I wanted to explore fifty revolutionary keywords. I noticed the revolutionary keywords partly because I was still spending some time in academic institutions, surrounded by academic discourse. I was moving across different academic disciplines, mixing with people in psychology, education, literary theory and management who were trying to do ‘interdisciplinary’ research, defying some of the intellectual boundaries in the university, and I was working with people who were trying to break across the boundaries between theory and practice.

I have also been working outside, and well aware of how academic framing is a problem, not only for those working in and at the edges of universities, but also for those in different political groups that do themselves operate like academic institutions. I do mean this in its very worst sense. Academic institutions work as power hierarchies, structured by dimensions of class, race and gender as well as the exclusion of those labelled as disabled, those they continue to disable. Many left political groups operate in the same way, and the separation between intellectual and manual labour is reproduced, with those who write the documents defining the direction of the organisation, and other members effectively excluded from decision-making. The feminist revolt in the SWP over the Comrade Delta rape case in 2013 was an indication not only that revolutionary keywords were necessary, but also that they were dangerous to what I call the ‘old left’. It is not that they are necessarily old, or that the old traditions of left politics were all bad, but that they were fixated on ways of doing politics that were hierarchical and locked in the bureaucratic 1917-1967 academic grid.

I’ve been lucky in being involved with a left group that is bit more forward-looking than many of the others. Not all of the time, and over the years I would notice that quite basic concepts that were being used in the black and feminist movements, for example, would be repeated and puzzled over. My comrades clearly wanted to know what these new terms meant, and one thing I wanted to do in this book is to explain how these terms functioned in practice. That’s why in quite a few cases I take a keyword and put it to work outside its own domain. The keywords were accumulated over the last two years, written as little pieces as direct interventions into live political debates, and published on the FIIMG, Fourth International in Manchester blog page. I posted the links in different places, in different emailing lists, and got feedback from comrades, sometimes detailed feedback from comrades in Socialist Resistance.

Those who are subject to power notice its operations, and are able to most accurately define and challenge what is happening. This is one of the key points of a ‘standpoint’ approach, one of the keywords I discuss in the book. Working at the edge is another way of noticing how boundaries close thinking and practice down, limit and define it. This book doesn’t speak from within any particular group or political movement, but operates at the edges. Who knows if we are at the edge of significant time period, whether the fifty year stretch from 1967 to 2017 might really mark something new. We need to act as if it might, and the revolutionary keywords need to be built on, made more than fifty if we are to succeed in changing left discourse and changing the world.

Ian Parker

More about the Keywords project here

 

 

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Republic of Cuba

Cuba is a ‘unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic’. That is what it says in the constitution, and that official designation needs to be taken seriously in any evaluation of Cuba’s place in the world, and where we place ourselves in relation to it. A victorious liberation struggle was led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara at the head of the July 26 Movement, J26M, named for the date of an unsuccessful attack on the Moncada Barracks in Oriente province in the east of the country in 1953. The J26M succeeded in chasing out military dictator Fulgencio Batista at the end of 1958.

1959 was the year everything changed, not only in Cuba, where a wave of land reforms, expropriation of land and takeover of large cattle estates went way beyond what many of the local and expatriate financial backers of J26M expected, but also in the wider world. The United States quickly reassessed the cautious support it had given Castro the previous year while it was trying to disentangle itself from Batista’s obviously corrupt and unsustainable regime, and the Soviet Union came into the frame as an alternative source of support, as supplier of petroleum that Cuba desperately depended on, and as customer for the sugar which made up over 80 percent of its export industry. Castro promised compensation to the US-based sugar companies, to be paid out of the revenues from sales to the US, a canny move that sent a clear message to Cuba’s old masters barely 100 miles to the north at its closest point, so close, so deadly. A deal was signed early in 1960 with the Soviet Union – sugar for oil – and through 1960 there was nationalisation of sugar mills and refineries, and of electric power and telephone companies. By the end of the following year, 1961, Castro declared himself to be a ‘Marxist-Leninist’.

While 1959 was the hinge-point for the transition, from the Cuban revolution being a national-democratic rebellion against US control and against its local puppet leaders, to being something more recognisably socialist, the following three years – 1960 to 1963 – were crucial in shaping Cuba as it is today. Banks, both US-owned and locally-owned were nationalised in 1960, as were all remaining US businesses shortly afterwards. Guevara, who had brokered the crucial sugar for oil deals, was now in charge of setting up new trade deals with China, and began steering the internal financial reorganisation of the country as President of the National Bank, while trying to manage Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union and China.

Cuba was caught politically between two versions of Stalinism, needing the two powers for economic survival and necessarily, inevitably perhaps, accommodating to the demands placed by each bureaucratic leadership, mainly with that in Moscow which, at one moment sought status from links with revolutionary anti-colonial movements and at the next sought to contain those movements in order to safeguard diplomatic relations with imperialism. Peking was a dangerous counterweight to that, dangerous to the revolutionary left, no more democratic, less powerful on the world stage but with more prestige in the so-called ‘third world’.

J26M was merged with the student Revolutionary Directorate and the Popular Socialist Party in 1961, and in 1963 the United Party of Socialist Revolution was formed, accompanied by a purge of nearly half the membership. These years, seeing attempted invasion by the United States at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, the missile crisis in October 1962 (a standoff in which the Cuban government had no say over what was being threatened and negotiated between the two superpowers), and the US blockade lasting to the present day, are when the shape of the one party, officially re-launched as the Cuban Communist Party in 1965, the one that now governs this island of little over 11 million people, was forged.

Today it is not sugar but tourism that is touted by the regime as a key economic driver; President Miguel Díaz-Canel declared in early 2019 that every tourist to Cuba is breaking the blockade, a blockade tightened by the Trump regime following 60 years of pressure, sabotage, terrorist attacks and assassination attempts designed to bring Cuba back into line as a client state of imperialism. More than half of Cuba’s food comes from imports, and now it must also import tourists. Guevara, murdered in Bolivia in 1967, and Castro, who died in 2016, might be gone, but the regime is still searching for new ways to circumvent the blockade as something that functions not only as a political-economic choke-hold on the Cuban people but also symbolically as an isolation device, threatening to enforce the impossible idea that only ‘socialism in one country’ can be, and must be, constructed here, an island of socialism in a sea of sharks and crooks intent on getting their property back, getting all property back into private hands.

Cuba is a case example of the way international context, the balance of forces in a world that is still capitalist, now more intensely and triumphantly hostile than ever to socialism after the transition to capitalism that took place in Russia and then China, enters into the political organisation and everyday institutions and the mindset of those who support and of those who oppose the regime in this enclosed trapped space. Every step forward, every step towards reform, and every attempt to adapt the country to the changing balance of forces is marked by the consequences of isolation. The consequences are practical, direct restrictions on what is available and how people can live and how they are materially divided from each other, and ideological, how the Cuban people, and we who would wish to build solidarity with what remains of what became a successful and enduring anti-capitalist revolt against the US in its backyard, make sense of this, how reality is filtered. What we see when we are there is filtered by the contradictory play of forces, and filtered for a visitor even before they arrive.

Propaganda

First filter, for visitors, comprises the competing images of Cuba as anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist icon and of it as state-managed top-down authoritarian regime. We know that, know that there are those competing images, but what is worst is the way this filter is reconfigured in the tourist guide-books, the most insidious of which at the moment is the CubaConga 2019 ‘underground guide’. This is an excellent place to begin, actually, for it neatly pits itself against the bland ‘introductions’ to Cuban reality that the most popular travel handbooks dish up, and it plays into the suspicion that these handbooks are playing safe. All information about Cuba, it warns, is ‘tainted’, and worse than that, ‘nothing is as it seems’. CubaConga 2019 plays on the motif of the video game – the reference in the title is to the 1980s arcade favourite Donkey Kong which spawned the Mario series – promising to raise the visitor up to level 5, warning them that they will never make the top level. This because under ‘tropical communism’, we are told, life is one big scam; every Cuban will be out to scam you, just as they scam the system and each other. No one in Cuba really works, nothing works, and you better get ready to be treated as what the Cubans called a ‘yuma’; a ‘yuma’ is a visitor, gringo or not, waiting to be squeezed of their money, and all the better if they can be shared, in which case they become what is known locally as a ‘punto’. In this way the visitor is launched into a paranoiac journey where they will distrust everything that is told them and everyone they meet. The CubaConga 2019 guide exemplifies the operations of ‘fake news’, feeding suspicion, with the message ‘nothing is what it seems’ seeming to undermine ideology while simultaneously reinstating it, discrediting each fact in the name of revealing the facts to be simply elements in the game.

Once we are in this paranoid universe, one that is antithetical to any solidarity that the visitor may feel for Cuba, every disconfirmation of the handy information this guide offers is further evidence that nothing is what it seems; the game has simply been quickly upgraded to fool the player. But I will tell you anyway that; when the CubaConga guide informs you that you can only buy roadmaps of Cuba in the departure lounge of Havana Airport, that is a funny fact, but incorrect; that none of the owners of the ‘Casas Particulares’ – licensed bed and breakfast home-stay accommodations – we stayed in were ‘elite’ members of the Cuban Communist Party intent on stopping you from talking to ordinary people, unless they were good liars; that you will not be made to pay extra car service costs by state rental firm Havanauto on your return to the airport, in fact our car, a bit ropy with a weird tiny battery, was fixed twice free, and then we were given a replacement car; that you will not be overcharged in hotels and restaurants, every bill was accurate, in some cases effectively rounded down. This even in taxis after we had been warned by locals that you should take care not to be squeezed, and taxis were organised for us – something CubaConga 2019 would tell you is the sure sign that you will be squeezed again – were in line with the agreed fare. In one ‘cafeteria’ near the north-west coast, the hot old woman owner showed us her medicines, complained about her health and climate change, but didn’t want to charge us for the coffees. Some people were reticent, more about that in a moment, but it was not at all a case of having to read between the lines, but being prepared to have open conversations when it was possible and listen to what people said.

Twenty years ago, my last visit to Cuba, was toward the end of the ‘Special Period’, an awfully difficult time in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, when the sugar and oil agreements were ended, as was all other aid, aid that was necessary to counter the effects of the US-led blockade. The country was just beginning to pull itself out of economic hardship and, in some cases, hunger, hunger that was only alleviated by the ration system. Twenty years ago, yes, I got badly ill after eating in an illegal home restaurant while driving down the battered bicycle and donkey-strewn highway to Santa Clara and Trinidad de Cuba south-east of Havana, and I was hassled to give the guy who found accommodation with a freezing cold shower more money afterwards. But where have I not been treated as a money-tree and shaken down by poor people, something that is quite understandable. In some parts of the world a network of tourist police cracks down on this kind of thing, intensifying oppression and exploitation rather than addressing it. Is that what you want? This time out to the west of Havana, both in areas near the coast where there were few tourists and inland where there were many, we were given gifts of local food to see us on our way, we were not ‘squeezed’. What contradictions there were, were in the main more open and transparent than they are under full-blown neoliberal capitalism where the scam-element is woven into every promise and delivery of a good or a service.

Money

The second practical-ideological filter on the visitor experience comes into play in the very real division between the two currencies (a division that is now being re-evaluated by the Cuban government). For visitors to the country there is the CUC, the Convertible Cuban Peso which is directly pegged to the US Dollar, one for one; and for the locals there is the Cuban Peso which currently runs at about 25 to a dollar. The CUCs have images of monuments on, and the Cuban Pesos have images of famous figures (the 1 with Jose Martí, the 3, rarer, sold on the Havana streets to tourists, with Che Guevara on it).

This currency division effectively divides the country into two layers. The first layer is the state-organised economy, the bedrock of the political-economic basis of the revolution that was laid down in 1959. It is at this level that the rationing system works. A small quota of milk, sugar, flour, coffee and other essentials are available at very low cost. This ration system continues today – in one simple ration centre, the guy sweeping the place up at the end of the day invited us in and showed us the table of goods and prices. Children and pensioners will get the basic goods free of charge. So, the actual cost of living in Cuba is about a third lower than in the UK, and rent is nearly 80% lower. The pay is low, and seems at first sight lower still when it is calculated in the Cuban Pesos in which it is paid, but then the cost of accommodation is incredibly low, and education and health are, of course, free. A basic level of housing, social and welfare support are thus provided, from which the remaining Cuban Pesos can be set aside for ‘luxuries’, but then again, this currency is actually useless for anything beyond housing, collective transport and the local restaurants. For that you need to have access to the CUCS.

It is those who have access to the CUCS who circulate in the second layer, the one in which tourists experience Cuba most of the time, and this monetary division often goes alongside geographical division. There are visitors who now travel outside Havana into the countryside, especially to holiday towns like Viñales to the west which are often packed with Western day-trippers spending CUCS, and some who hire cars, but this is still unusual, and several times we were asked, with some astonishment, why were not in Varadero, spending our time, and money, in one of the all-inclusive beach resorts. Life with the CUCS is effectively more like life under neoliberal capitalism, where there is precarious and sometimes lucrative employment; to rise from the world of the Cuban Peso into the world of the CUCS is to touch the tourist economy and to function as part of the service sector, from which come the images of ‘yumas’ and ‘puntos’; here, as under capitalism in any other part of the world, things and people are turned into commodities.

One taxi driver told us that he used to work as an engineer, and got 1000 Pesos a month, but then shifted over to tourist work because he got better paid, and he then had access to CUCS. Owners of Casas Particulares may not be CCP members, but they are lifted away from the rest of the population through their access to the CUC economy. These CUCS are valuable, for what they signify and for what they can actually buy. At La Roca restaurant in Havana – an old cheap state-run restaurant with an old slow jazz orchestra playing to a small audience of diners – we handed over a 50 CUC note, which was then passed up from the waitress to the cashier and then to manager. There was a tiny nick out of the corner of the note, and so it was returned to us, refused because, we were told, the overall manager, when they saw it, would refuse it.

At the currency exchange at Havana’s José Martí International Airport on my way out of the country the woman in front of me in the long queue to change CUC convertible currency back into Western currency again was a Cuban woman. She was not travelling, but had come in to the airport just to change money, from US Dollars into CUC. We waited for nearly an hour before it was her turn to go to the counter. She handed over five Dollars, one of which was refused because there was a little tear in the note, and came away from the counter with four CUC.

Dissent

The third filter is an unavoidable one which separates out the life-world of the tourist from the world backstage. You see the signs for the operation of Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the network of CDRs that have formed the local backbone of the revolution since 1960, but you don’t, of course, see how these work. Glimpses of their representative and sometimes coercive function are but that, glimpses. There were advantages to hiring a car and driving the pot-holed country roads away from the main tourist centres, and there were many disadvantages to long journeys in battered cars on difficult terrain. Hitch-hikers were grateful for a lift. One woman we picked up near Bahia Honda way east of Havana was travelling, she said, to her church in the next village. Cuba now defines itself as a ‘secular’ state rather than as atheist, and though Jehovah’s Witnesses have had a hard time – banned from organising in 1974, and so about 3,000 left in 1980 from Mariel, a time when those who fled were referred to as ‘gusanos’ (worms) – there are still Roman Catholic churches and, increasingly, evangelical Pentecostal churches, for one of which our evangelical hitchhiker on this occasion was a worker. The Roman Catholic church claims that 60% of the population are of their flock, though actual attendance is actually between 1 and 2 percent. This woman said that in that part of the country things were pretty evenly split, among believers, between Roman Catholics and Pentecostals. We asked her what her work was, and she said she worked as a teacher. What did she teach? ‘The Creation!’

There is still Santeria, Afro-Cuban local religion from the old slave times, with competing stories about whether this was celebrated or dissuaded by the CDRs, probably both. And there were competing stories about Jews. We were told by one opposition activist, for example, that most of the Jews had left the country after the revolution, some to go to Israel, some to the United States, where there are now specific ethnic Cuban-Jewish communities. But we found an active synagogue in Havana, and we were told by a Lebanese family-background maintenance man in one Casa Particular on the edge of Havana that, no, there was an extant Jewish community, but they kept out of politics. This guy also told us that after the revolution he had to give over the top floor of his large house to homeless people, but he didn’t complain about this, accepted it as part of the process of fair redistribution of resources he was living through. We were told that there were some converts to Islam, and that there had been some fights between Sunni and Shia in the street recently. Among the opposition there is also some contempt for the progressive shift made by the Cuban government under the impact of HIV/AIDS to active support for LGBT rights (something that pits the government against the Catholic Church), and contempt for the quite good, not perfect, public policy and information campaigns against sexism and racism.

In Viñales on the main stretch there was a brightly painted Freemasons Hall, open, it said, on Saturday morning at 9am. This is a reminder that the freemasons were the guild organisations of the bourgeoisie, progressive at one point in our history as the bourgeoisie replaced feudal rulers, but reactionary now in the West where capitalism is entrenched and the freemasons remain dedicated to its existence. In Latin America, where the bourgeois independence struggles came later, the freemasons played a progressive role within living memory, and key figures like José Martí and Simon Bólívar were members. Remember that the Cuban revolution was a bourgeois-democratic revolution against US imperialism that then had to grow over into socialism in order to carry out the basic bourgeois-democratic tasks, it was an instance of ‘permanent revolution’.

 

There is some suspicion of the CCP, but not, as you might expect, a sense that membership is necessary to advance through a career or to get special privileges. In fact, despite Castro’s decision, after the death of Guevara in Bolivia – death which followed brave if mistaken attempts to extend the revolution through ‘foco’ guerrilla warfare – to put in place financial incentives, and despite the selective distribution of television sets and other electo-domestic goods to ‘vangard’ party members in the 1980s, there is still not a privileged class layer of the population in anything like the same way as exists outside the country (whether in the remaining Stalinist states or in the capitalist countries). We spoke to young lecturers in Havana University who shrugged their shoulders as they told us that while the average wage is around 1000 pesos a month for skilled workers, it is 600 pesos for academics; but why not pay those who have worse jobs more money? These young academics were rather distant from the regime, pointing out the private restaurants that were, they said, much better than the state ones. When we asked them if they were members of the CCP, they said that, no, the party was for old people, something quite evident in the televised reports of meetings on the television. But when we asked them if they thought they should join the CCP, they said, no, they had never felt it would be a disadvantage not to be a member, so no point joining. As for Marxism, if Marxism meant falling in line with the ‘Sino-Vietnamese’ model much vaunted by the regime at the moment, then, no, they were not Marxists, but if it meant that one could be critical while supportive, then that was another question. The big battle in the Department of Philosophy, they told me, was over changing the title of the degree, which was actually a general degree in philosophy, so that it would not be a degree in ‘Marxist-Leninist Philosophy’, a title that was a millstone around the neck of any young academic who then wanted to go and study elsewhere.

A sprightly woman in her seventies, not the owner of a Casa Particular, told me that she had been a student activist before the revolution, an exciting time, she said, with continuous perilous activity that she enjoyed very much. We asked her if she was a ‘communist’, and she said no, but then elaborated a detailed narrative for why this was so, one that was at one with the revolution she had lived through, not against it. Yes, she remembered that in the early years of the revolution, time when there were still armed counter-revolutionary groups engaging in sabotage, she had heard the noise of gunfire early in the morning in Havana as opponents were seized and shot. The death penalty was restored in Cuba under the new regime. This woman was not a member of the Cuban Communist Party, but the reason she would not call herself a communist was because this was surely, she said, a state of being to be aimed for, not one that we could or should imagine to be achieved now. I was reminded of Che Guevara’s rather moralistic injunctions to the Cuban people to work harder to build socialism as a function of aiming to build what he called the ‘New Man’, not to rely on material incentives. The office building Guevara oversaw the construction of did not, apparently, have elevators because, he argued, it was better that office workers get some exercise climbing the stairs.

There were, in the early years, immense political differences between the three different organisations that were brought together first into the Integrated Revolutionary Organisations, in 1961, then into the United Party of Socialist Revolution two years later and then into the Communist Party of Cuba, which was founded in 1965 and which had its first congress ten years after that. Castro and Guevara’s J26M had, of course, been forged primarily in the peasant struggle, and it needed to link with the student Revolutionary Directorate which was based mainly in the towns and in Havana, which was then and is still the largest city in the Caribbean. And J26M needed a disciplined organisational resource base that was to be found in the Popular Socialist Party which had been founded way back in 1925 as the local communist party, section of the Third International, and so tightly controlled by Moscow.

Here is the internal local root of the problem that Cuba has faced from the beginning, a root of the problem of Stalinist bureaucracy that was intertwined with the Soviet compact. It should never be forgotten that the Popular Socialist Party, PSP, actually supported Batista right until the last moment, opposed the Havana General Strike that was called to support the J26M guerrillas in the countryside, and tried to put the brakes on the nationalisations that turned Cuba into something like a workers state. There are three elements of this direct local influence of Stalinism on Cuba that gives to Cuba both a bureaucratic and a deserved ‘Radical Face of Stalinism’ and which Castro and Guevara, at times, fought.

The first is the political apparatus that J26M lacked, and which it needed in order to be able to govern the country. The twists and turns of the PSP as it followed one disastrous line given by Moscow to the next had the effect, as with other communist parties that were franchises of the Third International, of hardening the organisation, making its leadership all the more obedient while all the better placed to give orders, to enforce top-down administrative rule.

The second element of the direct local influence of Stalinism was the commitment of the PSP and then the continuing Stalinist apparatus inside the CCP from 1965 to a ‘stage’ notion of historical-political development in which the ‘national democratic’ stage must come first, and only then can the ‘socialist’ stage be advanced. In countries dependent on imperialism, as Cuba was dependent on the United States up until 1959, that meant that the Stalinists opposed the revolution growing over from carrying out basic bourgeois democratic tasks by engaging in socialist revolution. We are not there yet, but this revolutionary space is blocked, distorted, waiting its moment to flower again.

The third element is the classic distortion of Marxism expressed in Stalin’s notorious phrase ‘socialism in one country’. Here in Cuba it means not merely an attempt to cope with the brute reality of the situation, to make the best of the isolation the country suffered, and then to attempt to break out of that isolation (as Guevara tried to do in the Congo and then, fatefully in Bolivia), but to twist the narrative into celebration of this isolation. The celebration of socialism in one country not only leads to nationalist distortions, something that Cuba has bravely challenged – with an internationalism that is also, then, tangled in the manoeuvres of the Soviet bureaucracy, but an internationalist spirit nonetheless – but also to a concordat with other regimes around Latin America, and around the world that call themselves socialist but are not, or with others that would not even claim to be so.

Together these three elements have enabled hard-line pro-Soviet forces inside the regime to sometimes gain ascendency, and for Castro, after Guevara’s death, to wobble between critique and praise of his Soviet ally; this leading him, for example, to endorse the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 – a turning point for Cuban foreign policy – and to condemn Solidarnosc in Poland in 1980.

The symbolic re-framing of Cuba as if it were merely another iteration of Soviet rule can be seen in documentary films such as the 1964 I Am Cuba, a film that is effectively unravelled in interviews and quasi-semiotic analysis by the 2004 Brazilian documentary The Siberian Mammoth. Inside Cuba, despite the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ tag-line in the constitution, there are busts aplenty not of Marx or Lenin, but of José Martí, a revolutionary democratic leader of the movement for independence from Spain who was killed by the Spanish in 1895. In a case of history repeating itself, this first time in Cuba as tragedy, we might say, the movement Martí led was actually ‘annexationist’ rather than ‘secessionist’; the aim was to break from Spain and attach to the United States; in this first round repeat performance during the Cuban revolution of 1959 we see the regime surviving by breaking from the United States and ending up in hock to the Soviet Union.

The isolation that has distorted, even, if some analysts are to be believed, ‘deformed’ this worker’s state from day one, is welcomed by those who would wish to crush the life out of anything remaining of the revolutionary hopes of late 1950s. Owners of the Casas Particulares said that business was bad with the tightening of the blockade by Trump, with a sharp decrease in numbers of visitors from the United States, and we could see that many of them were empty. But for those who are intent on bringing down the regime, an increase in hardship is the price worth paying, and would even be better because it would also result in more dissatisfaction with the government.

We had a long conversation with an opposition activist, the son of a friend who had left Cuba, who made it clear that for him the blockade and Trump’s recent pronouncements about human rights were good things, at last the opposition had an ally in the White House, in contrast to the tentative links that Obama had made with Havana. Trump tells the truth, we were told, and, when pushed, this guy said that although it would be bad, although it was not what he wanted, he would go so far as to support an invasion by the United States, because, he said, they, the regime, ‘they are killing us’. He was against the recent election of López Obrador because that would relax blockade pressure from Mexico, and against the recent pension and ration and minimum-wage increases because that would mean that the population would be more contented with the regime.

There was also delighted support by him for Jair Bolsonaro’s reference to the Cuban doctors as ‘slaves’. We knew that medical training is a big thing in Cuba, and not at all the elite specialised technocratic enterprise it has become in so many parts of the so-called developed world. A Mexican friend’s son training to be a doctor had elected to do his placement in Santa Clara, for example, and he described how the lack of up-to-date medical equipment – the lack a function of the blockade – actually meant that doctors were trained to feel and interpret the body. Their expertise really was hands-on, and the treatment was geared to the lives of the patients rather than to the needs of the large pharmaceutical companies. Medicine was geared to health rather than to profit. One of the hitch-hikers we picked up was travelling with her niece to the small town of La Palma to do shopping and, she said, to buy medicine. Her niece would, she said, be enrolling in medical school in Pinar del Rio, the nearest large city, and it didn’t seem a big deal. This woman was otherwise quite scornful about local provision of services, but medical training was taken for granted as something that was available to everyone. There has been a huge outflow of medical expertise and of development of medical training. 400,000 medical professionals working in 165 different countries since 1960, and, with 31,000 students from 103 different countries coming to Cuba to be trained in its Latin American School of Medicine since 1998. Life expectancy in Cuba is currently 79 years, high given the conditions it has been exposed to by its neighbour to the north for daring to defy it.

The doctors working abroad are ‘slaves’, according to Bolsonaro, because the Cuban government draws up the contract for them to work abroad, obtains 4,000 pesos a month, and then passes on only 1,000 of this to the doctor. But the contract is quite clear, and the doctor chooses to sign up, and the wage they send home is good payment. Our opposition activist would have none of this, pointing to the difficulty that the doctor then had in breaking from the contract, or returning home to be with their family in case of domestic crisis, illness or death. This is true, and there is a degree of bureaucratic control, and monitoring of the population that is uncomfortable. It is true but clear, unfortunate but understandable in a country still effectively on war footing against the United States.

When we asked our oppositional activist friend what he thought about Trump and Bolsonaro, he said he didn’t care; all he cared about was, in a mantra relayed through the Madrid-based online paper Diario de Cuba from the US state department, ‘freedom of association’, ‘freedom of movement’ and ‘representative democracy’. Yes to freedom of association – that is happening in effect with access, in 2019 to the internet an instant group social media messaging, and yes to freedom of movement, but ‘representative democracy’ where those with the most money have access to propaganda tools turns democracy into a market-place with a corrupt layer of ‘politicians’; then we will be in the world described by CubaConga2019. One owner of a Casa Particular complained that their kids were now spending their time playing games on the internet. What the guys who wrote CubaConga2019 are unable to reflect on is the fact that the metaphor of the Donkey Kong video game expresses perfectly the condition of life under capitalist fake democracy; everyone is encouraged to scam everyone else in the field of politics. For the oppositional activist, it was as if, in a message in reverse, we had the true meaning of what ‘socialism in on country’ means. This was ‘reaction to socialism’ in one country.

Here is a paradox. We were told that people cannot move freely around the country, and there is a particular problem for those who would want to relocate their families or find work outside their home town. Dervla Murphy’s typically idiosyncratic 2009 The Island That Dared: Journeys in Cuba, a book which was commended by the British Communist Party paper Morning Star in the UK (a reliable barometer of Stalinist solidarity sensibility), doesn’t pull its punches on the bureaucratic pettiness that can mark some encounters of ordinary people with the system of rules, rules which are sometimes inflexible and harsh, sometimes relaxed and humanised. For example, despite the oft-repeated claim that people outside the tourist convertible economy are wary of interacting with foreigners, we found ready takers for offers of rides in our car from village to village, and we heard from locals who complained bitterly about the state of the roads, and laughed contemptuously when we asked what local representative body they might talk to in order that things might be put right. When it came down to it, the complaint was about lack of resources, lack of goods, and lack of medicines. One woman asked us to let her out of the car just before we arrived at the town she was aiming for – there for her fortnightly shop – and was quite clear that this was because she needed to check into the police station to register her presence there for the day. She said she would rather walk along to the police station than have us drive her there, in case questions were asked. We dropped her and watched her as she popped in and out of the police station, and then carried on to do her shopping. Perhaps she also told the police about us, who knows.

An older woman, not a member of the CCP, described to us the ethical dilemma the blockade posed for her. She, not incidentally, was someone who tactfully talked about Cuban friends who had chosen to live abroad, neither referring to them as ‘gusanos’, as was once the way at the time of one of the many mass exoduses permitted if not encouraged by the Cuban state, nor referring to them as ‘mariposas’, the wonderful wealthy creatures who returned later. (8% of the population, of which many were middle class professionals in addition to the very wealthy and the crime gangs who ran the casinos and brothels, left in the years after the revolution.) There were, this woman said, medicines available for her outside Cuba, and so, because of the blockade, unobtainable. If she thought about this question as an ‘individual’ question – as one concerning only her own rights to the medicine – then she might feel sad and even bitter about it, but if she thought about this as a collective question which spoke of the plight of the Cuban people as a whole facing unfair sanctions for taking back their country under their own control, then, no, that was a different matter.

Solidarity

Human rights cannot be reduced to basic provision of food and education, as some more hard-faced Stalinist supporters of every twist and turn of the regime will make out, and revolutionary Marxists should insist that more opportunity for critical political critique is the pre-requisite for better social organisation, not a hindrance to it. However, it should be remembered that the political-economic basis for human rights is exactly what is being attacked by the imperialist powers circling Cuba. Trump and Bolsonaro do this in the name of ‘Human Rights’, and so we need to be clear where we stand on this. Those political-economic gains of the revolution need to be vigorously defended, gains which include, note, that infant mortality in Cuba is now lower than it is in the United States, that over half of Cuban MPs are women, the second highest proportion in the world, that forest cover in Cuba is now up to 30% compared with 11% before 1959, and that diseases have been eradicated in Cuba that have are beginning to reappear in other parts of the world afflicted by poverty and corruption.

It is astonishing that Cuba has survived so close to the United States, and so all the greater threat to the oppressed there who might dare to take back into their own hands the wealth they had created for the few. It has been under pressure of the blockade which denies the basic trade links that are the lifeblood of a globalised world, under pressure from the Soviet Union to imitate its own bureaucratic forms of rule, and then more isolated through the ‘Special Period’ and collapse of Soviet aid in the 1990s. It has come through all this to the current oil-dependent relationship with Venezuela, a capitalist country where the regime is clinging onto power and also faces invasion threats from the United States.

Solidarity with Cuba as a revolutionary break from imperialism would be easier for us, for revolutionary Marxists, if our own Trotskyist comrades had not taken such bizarre political positions during the crucial years at the beginning of the 1960s and if the Cuban leadership had not fallen in line with some of the worse Stalinist caricatures of Trotskyism. The Trotskyist POR(T) were followers of Juan Posadas, issuing ultimatums to the regime to move fast and then, incredibly, urging the Soviet Union to unleash a worker’s ‘Atomic War’ with a first strike on the United States. Guevara, for his part, first defended the ‘comrade Trotskyists’, but then defended the smashing of the printing plates for a copy of Trotsky’s 1936 very relevant classic The Revolution Betrayed. Guevara had a copy of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution in his knapsack when he was caught and killed. Against this background, it is all the more understandable, if regrettable, that Castro should denounce Trotskyism as counterrevolutionary, a line taken direct from the Stalinists. From these contradictory indications as to the political leanings of the Cuban leadership also flow some of the more ridiculous notions in the Trotskyist movement, that Castro is an ‘unconscious Trotskyist’ on the one hand, or that there could not have been a revolution because there was not revolutionary Trotskyist party leading it on the other. This double-failure, a political failure of analysis and leadership at crucial moments since 1959 has then led revolutionaries themselves to oscillate between starry-eyed enthusiasm for the regime and over-harsh condemnation which chimes with imperialist attempts to destroy what remains of this beacon of hope.

Earlier in 2019 there was a Trotsky conference in Havana – good – a positive event, but at the same time the organisers made clear that they wanted an ‘academic’ debate, and they did not want this to lead to the little sects arriving and trying to set up their own franchise groups on the island. External quarantine leads inevitably to internal quarantine. When I asked the young lecturers at Havana University, and they were interested in alternative approaches to Marxism, doing theses on the work of one-time Trotskyists Perry Anderson and Terry Eagleton, they said they had never heard of the Trotsky conference.

Of course the Cuban revolution faltered, it could not do otherwise, but in this very incomplete imperfect process there exist the grounds for hope that the revolution might be extended, as it must be in order for Cuba to survive. The blockade will either be lifted in such a way as to allow US-American capital to flow in and for property to be re-privatised, for the misery of life under capitalism to return, with massive wage and status differentials. Or the blockade will be broken through active solidarity with what is most alive in Cuba now. What is most alive in Cuba now is what resists the encroachment of imperialism in the country, for sure – that is where the debates about whether it is a ‘deformed worker’s state’ or ‘state capitalism’ come into play – but also what is most alive in Cuba is the inspiration it gives to revolutionaries outside. This was possible here, something was possible, and such a thing might be possible again somewhere else, in many places; international socialist solidarity and action for Cuba is crucial if the revolution is to become something real for us all.

 

This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles

 

Revolutionary Communist Group

Zulu Dawn is a 1979 racist classic directed by Douglas Hickox, and starring a ripe old cast including Peter O’Toole as Lt. General Lord Chelmsford, commander of British forces. He aimed to take his troops into Zululand from Natal in South Africa in 1879, despite warning from British and Boer military advisors that this would fail. Chelmsford tries to blame the predictable disastrous defeat at the hands of the Zulu army at the Battle of Isandlwana, the culmination of the film, on Colonel Anthony Durnford, Burt Lancaster. Burt Lancaster plays the reasonable more humane colonial ruler, with some kind of drifting location Irish accent, and is killed during the big battle, set against brutal Peter O’Toole who has been enjoying lunch during the massacre of the Brit forces at the hands of the Zulus, having dished out the dictum that guides him that ‘for the savage as for the child, chastisement is sometimes a blessing’.

The racist stereotypes that litter the film are lathered with liberal guilt over the studied and sometimes well-meaning incompetence of the colonialists, something that is supposed to justify the images of desperation and death. Other assorted character actors, such as Denholm Elliott as Colonel Henry Pulleine, are too decent by half, and when the good white guy is found writing a last letter to his wife back in Blighty he cannot bring himself to shoot that Zulu ex-prisoner, who then duly shoots Pulleine. Also perishing, to the angst of cinema audiences, no doubt, is John Mills as the British High Commissioner for South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere.

This sets the scene for the successful defence of Rorke’s Drift by a small British contingent shortly afterwards, so fuelling a sense of justifiable defiance against the Zulus during that more iconic colonial moment. So they all fall, and the film itself, shot in South Africa with the assistance of the then apartheid Minister of Information Connie Mulder, operates as an exercise in bad faith, the Zulu extras being paid less than the dog. There are a few historical and technical quibbles about the film, but that’s beside the point. Although the film did badly at the box office, its distributors soldiered on, and it eventually became a staple of afternoon television. Here are plucky Brits under siege, bravely carrying on against insuperable odds and advice from comrades and friends that it would end badly.

You need to track the way this film operates as an ideological document of colonial history in order to understand how it has hooked so many gung-ho supporters of British imperialism as well as hand-wringing liberals agonising about what is to be done about the natives when we have behaved badly and they behave badly in return. Instead of doing that, you can flip over a reading of the film, as if viewing the negative copy, and you’ll then find quite a neat narrative about a tiny group that puts the fight against racism and imperialism at the centre of its work, the Revolutionary Communist Group, RCG, its troops commanded by David Yaffe. You won’t find many groups more committed to a black and white reading of colonial history than the RCG, a reading which leads them to steadfastly avoid political alliances with anyone or everyone because every other political force is treated as a rival and obstacle.

It should be said that David Yaffe, a former Sussex University academic who specialised in the falling rate of profit – inventing a ‘velocitometer’ to measure it in detail – comes across as a nice guy; taking the trouble to humorously and rather self-deprecatingly inform readers of the Guardian in 1999 that his machine disintegrated in the 1987 stock-market crash. Peter O’Toole could play this little left-sect general in a future biopic of the RCG, which would admittedly be rather unfair. Read the trajectory of the group instead as besieged by the rest of the white left complicit in imperialism, as Zulu Dawn played out in negative, not positive direct form.

Yaffe had led a split from International Socialists, the previous incarnation of the Socialist Workers Party, in 1974, forming the Revolutionary Communist Group soon after (quickly dispatching his rival Frank Furedi (not Burt Lancaster) in a quick purge which led to the birth of the current that mutated into Spiked). But Yaffe can’t blame Furedi, his Durnford compatriot for the disastrous politics he was himself about to enact with his always-beleaguered band. The RCG are visible on demonstrations, and on their own street stalls as sellers of Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism (FRFI), by which they do their very best to alienate the rest of the left. RCG and FRFI shot to prominence through its non-stop picket of the South African embassy for ten years from 1982 through its own front organisation City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, pissing off the Anti-Apartheid Movement by demanding the struggle against racism in South Africa be linked to the struggle against the British state (this at a time that the Anti-Apartheid Movement was doing its best to build the broadest possible Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment campaign).

They then turned their attention to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, PSC, insisting on a perpetual picket of Marks and Spencer stores, starting in Manchester and then expanding to other stores in other parts of the country, this to the embarrassment of PSC activists who had been doing their best to distinguish anti-Zionism from antisemitism. The RCG claimed to make the same distinction, but somehow their obsessive focus on the Jewish character of Marks and Spencer led them to unhelpfully muddle the issue again. At protests against Israeli apartheid in Manchester, for example, the RCG still try to divert marches to shout at Marks and Spencer while more sensible Palestine activists do their best to keep the march on track.

Things are always black and white for the RCG, and their support for Cuba, claiming that it is socialist, and that any criticism of that socialist anti-imperialist government is to play into the hands of imperialism, leads them to some strange and unpleasant manoeuvres. This is where Peter O’Toole as General Lord Chelmsford could himself be directing RCG operations, here as operations that seem designed to be ‘anti-imperialist’ but actually backfire. When Socialist Resistance – a group that can hardly be considered hostile to Cuba – organised a day-school in London in 2006, for example, the RCG did their level best to alert the Cuban government to block Celia Hart Santamaria from coming over to talk about her book It’s Never Too Late to Love or Rebel, which was linking reflections on the Cuban revolution with Trotskyist perspectives on Stalinism.

The RCG is quick to draw round the wagons and treat every other member of every other group as a hostile force. They posture as the authentic only true voice of anti-imperialism, valiantly going into enemy territory to put up the flag, waiting to be shot down, almost as if that is what they always wanted. Their posturing and provocations at demonstrations puts the rest of the left at risk. They have consistently attacked the Labour Party in some weird counter-effective stunts, and then intervened to attack Left Unity on the basis that it was soft on Labour, this mainly because at one time Left Unity did threaten to actually bring the left together.

RCG stand at their bookstalls shooting suspicious looks at anyone they recognise, glaring at them if they come too close. For most everyone they know has already been encountered and denounced. It is as if they are getting ready for their own Rorke’s Drift to show they were always right, but they actually set themselves up as the victims at repeated battles of Isandlwana, as if identifying with the victims of racism will absolve them from responsibility for the harm they are actually doing to the left.

They are, to put it simply, ultra-left saboteurs who have learnt from the very kind of Stalinism the IS/SWP tradition had tried to set itself against, and ended up mimicking Stalinist methods. They have isolated themselves in the process, despite the warnings of those around them who wanted to be their friends, and they will be isolated from any mass movement that actually brings about socialism in Britain.

 

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

 

Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century

The Wife, the 2017 film starring Glenn Close as Joan Castleman, real author of her husband’s prize-winning novels, blows the lid on the crucial role of social reproduction, women’s labour in every creative human activity. The script and the novel on which it was based were both written by women. Yes, ok, it was directed by Björn Runge and also starred Jonathan Pryce as the husband Joseph Castleman who is invited to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize for literature, and Christian Slater plays a sleazy journalist poking around in the story and intent to paint Joan as victim rather than heroine. You always need these kinds of men, it seems, to bounce the feminist plot off in big cinema, but here it works well.

Glenn is the real star, the emotional pivot of the film, with a performance all the more powerful because she transforms her sinister-powerful persona, crafted for her by Hollywood in productions like Fatal Attraction and then hammed up in 101 Dalmations. She has seized the typecasting of her as deadly woman – Alex Forrest stalking the poor married guy who slept with her – and turned it around, using it to give to Joan Castleman a cool studied power that will dare to speak truth to power, not in the spirit of revenge but in the spirit of dignified responsible action; what is feminism but that?

Joan has good reason for revenge, and as we track in flashback through her history as brilliant student at college – one who clearly has the ability to write – we ask ourselves how she could have agreed to sleep with her married professor Joseph Castleman and then accepted that pact to turn herself from Archer to Castleman, to save her husband Joseph from the indignity of not being able to write, and to hide in the shadows while he took the glory. It was certainly a puzzle for the kids, wondering why their mother was locked away in that study all the time. This is, as one reviewer put it, Stockholm syndrome with a twist. She takes hold of the means of production, and by the end of the film we know not only that she will tell all but that she will speak and write, as she always could, to do that.

It took a long painful struggle inside the organisation before the last large tranche of leading activists decided that enough was enough and that the 2013 rape crisis inside the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and the failure of the organisation to take the question seriously, meant they had to break from it. Some who had already left, and some who always knew that it would end in tears, thought they were too late. The SWP had been spewing out new organisations in Britain over the years, as disaffection with the mainly male leadership and repeated purges of those who refused to comply took their toll. But this time it was different. Finally, a year later, after there had been a series of other resignations and the formation of younger groupings like the International Socialist Network (which itself split into fragments after a dispute about political correctness in representations of race-sex play in social media), the older battle-hardened seasoned socialist-feminists broke away to form ‘Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century’ (RS21).

Attempts by other groups on the left who had either been born from within the SWP tradition and flown the nest, or by rival organisations many-times burnt by SWP fake ‘unity’ initiatives and front campaigns, circled around RS21 in 2014, waiting to pick up the pieces, offering talks about ‘regroupment’ of the left. And it is easy to see why. This was not one more mere internal opposition grouping that would burst into light only to fade away, fade out of politics altogether as many casualties of the SWP mania for total control did. This was the real deal, with comrades who had been accused of being ‘feminist’ – that was a term of abuse in the SWP who would weirdly pride themselves on their struggle for women’s liberation – taking on that term and turning it around. The SWP under Tony Cliff who morphed into Alex Callinicos who was then morphing into Jonathan Pryce, were history, and pretty soon it became clear who had been doing the best theoretical work in the party.

It would be too easy – no, actually it would be difficult, that is the point – to point to one single figure in RS21 that Glenn Close could play in the biopic of the events in 2013-2014. It is true that there were plenty of scary strong women who went into action around the rape crisis; they had been scary enough over the years operating machine-guns of the SWP in factional far left politics over the years – part of the apparatus – but now they were turning their fire back on the party that had effectively betrayed them. In some respects, the new organisation also broke the mould of British far left politics, within a few years able to proclaim not only that a majority of their Central Committee were women – look at the history of the far left in Britain and you’ll see what a big deal that is – but also to develop a theoretical underpinning for their revolutionary socialist group as one committed to revolutionary socialist feminism.

Partly through international alliances that had been forged over the years with other socialist feminist comrades who had also gone through the mill of the London-centric SWP apparatus, treated as appendages of male-centred ‘Marxist’ politics under Cliff and Callinicos, RS21 participated actively in debates over the nature of ‘social reproduction’. First issues of their magazine embraced ‘intersectionality’ as a theoretical-practical approach to linking questions of class, gender, sexuality and ‘race’, and then ‘social reproduction’ became one of the buzz-phrases for a broad though theoretically-rigorous understanding of how it is that women’s labour is central to the emergence and maintenance of capitalism; and, crucially, central to the emergence and maintenance of the liberation organisations that aimed to put an end to capitalism. RS21 thus give voice to the movement for Feminism for the 99%, and actively promoted the manifesto of that movement by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser.

The emergence of RS21 was one of the best things to happen on the far left in recent years, but we need to add a note of caution. Rather like cautious Joan Castleman, who is unwilling to take that last bold step to write herself into history, tell the truth and take up her vocation as novelist, until her husband actually dies (of a heart attack in the hotel in Stockholm), RS21 still often seem a little too closely tied to their old aging partner in the form of the SWP than is good for them. In trades union meetings, for example, we often notice the mainly women comrades from RS21 sitting apart from the mainly male comrades of the SWP, but still on the same page as them in many of the disputes with the bureaucracy. They probably won’t be completely free until the SWP is finally dead, and the process through which that will happen, can only be a deeper more thorough-going revolutionary one that brings to the fore new forms of struggle fit for the times. The comrades from RS21 held back from ‘regroupment’ initiatives in 2014 because they were not ready to take that step, but one day they will take that step, when other activists have really taken on board the feminist politics they have put on the agenda.

 

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

 

 

Socialist Resistance

Groundhog Day, the 1993 romantic comedy directed by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray as weather reporter Phil Connors, was not an immediate hit at the box office. However, bit by bit it wormed its way into our affections, much as Phil did wooing Rita Hanson, played by Andie MacDowell. Phil discovered that he was stuck in a weird time loop with Rita in Punxsutawney in Pennsylvania, and had all kinds of opportunities wooing her with different strategies that, he guessed, she would appreciate.

That’s the joke, the hook in Groundhog Day; just as the Groundhog in the annual Punxsutawney festival revolves around a futile attempt by Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, to predict the weather, so our hero learns that he cannot get love by simply predicting and calculating what the other wants. Phil repeatedly makes the same mistake, of using his knowledge of one day’s events, one set of failed encounters with Rita, in order to impress her, to fit in with exactly what he has imagined she wants. But, in the process of bettering himself, learning new skills to directly impress Rita the next day when the alarm clocks goes at 6.30am – ‘I Got You Babe’ blasts out every morning – he unintentionally turns into someone else, someone who actually is better, someone who was so dislikeable and manipulative becomes someone likeable and genuine. Phil has had to move beyond tailoring his every word to what he expects Rita will go for and, eventually, be himself. That’s finally when he succeeds.

Punxsutawney is a real place and Groundhog Day is real festival, but the film was not shot there because it is actually a bit of a dump (believe me, I’ve been there). There are two subtexts to the film, or rather to the conditions of its production. One is that Bill Murray was himself a bit of a mess at the time of filming, and was rather like the disagreeable character he played; he is a good actor, but you sense with Bill that he is always actually playing himself, something of the same grumpy grudging guy he is comes through. The other subtext is that, like Lassie in all those old doggy films, Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog is never the same little guy. A different groundhog is recruited each year to play the part of Phil, and there are always a number of other substitute Phils on hand to step in should one of them not be up to throw the right shadow and whisper its meaning into the ear of the master of ceremonies.

Groundhog Day might be touted as one of the most spiritually significant films of our age, but it runs on a premise unconsciously enacted by many left groups, and no more so than for Socialist Resistance, SR. Their wackier enemies on the left have a name for it, and are obsessed with it as the main obstacle to bringing down capitalism, ‘Pabloism’ named after a past leader of the Fourth International Michel Pablo. And because SR are the British Section of the Fourth International (FI) – the reunified world organisation that can trace its lineage back to the one founded by Trotsky and his followers back in 1938 – this Pabloism is all the more formidable a force on the practice of the left, not only in Britain. And, worse for the dedicated anti-Pabloites, as the current manifestation of the British Section of the FI – for many groups have stepped into the role over the years – SR comprises personnel from the old FI groups and some grizzled old activists who were themselves brought up to hate Pabloites.

In one of the more remarkable chapters of the history of Trotskyism, there was a significant merger of two groups – the Socialist Group and the International Group – in 1987 to form, wait for it, the International Socialist Group (ISG). It was the ISG which became British Section of the FI in 1995, and that went on to help found Socialist Resistance in 2002 (alongside the Socialist Solidarity Network and other assorted independent activists) and then took SR as a whole into the FI as British Section in 2009. That merger was so significant because the Socialist Group (SG) consisted of comrades led by Alan Thornett who were expelled by the fiercely ‘anti-Pabloite’ Workers Revolutionary Party in 1974; those expelled comrades formed the Workers Socialist League a year later before becoming, after some other failed encounters, the SG. Meanwhile, the IG were seen as the worst of Pabloites, individual members of the FI, remnants of the old International Marxist Group (IMG), led by figures like Terry Conway. The IMG had joined the Labour Party in 1982, changed its name to the Socialist League, and then was taken in a weird direction under the name of its magazine Socialist Action advising key left Labour Party politicians like Ken Livingstone. A small group left to form the International Group (IG) in 1985, and remained individual members of the FI. In Britain, then, there was a fairly successful healing of wounds brokered by Alan Thornett and Terry Conway, old enemies and now comrades, from the unconscionable separation of the FI from 1953 to 1963, something we could, for shorthand, refer to as the ten-year-Pablo-split.

The thing with Michel Pablo, and this, perhaps, is what makes SR what it is today, staggering on in its own peculiar version of Groundhog Day, is that, after the proposal to enter mass workers parties – the Stalinist International Communist Parties where they were big and the parties of the Second Socialist International (which in Britain is the Labour Party) where they were popular – came the temptation to tail behind existing movements and adapt to them in order to win friends and influence people. That’s basically what Pabloism is, though in their defence, those accused of being ‘Pabloite revisionists’ and suchlike would say that we need to be where the action is, not just dust off Trotsky’s Transitional Programme and hoist up the flag of the FI and expect people to rally to it. That’s the way Alan Thornett tells it when he is rallying the troops, and so it is sometimes Alan who plays grumpy Phil Connors searching for socialism, and sometimes Terry who takes up that role.

Sometimes it really works, as in the turn to feminism, in which Terry Conway has been a key force in SR and in the FI; in this respect SR really becoming what they think they should be. In other cases it is difficult to bring all comrades on board, as in the case of Cuba where some cannot stomach cheer-leading the regime simply because other activists involved in Latin American solidarity movements tend to do that. The recent turn to ‘ecosocialism’ that has been pushed by SR, and by its comrades on a world scale inside the FI, could be seen as the latest attempt to get Rita, to win the socialist workers and make revolution. In the process there have been some successes in building alliances, and SR have often endeared themselves by pouring their energies into joint projects that they were careful not to control. But then, there are moments when this goes wrong, when the Phil Connors leadership of SR go too far repeating back the message they think the others want to hear; a case in point is the embarrassing ‘ecosocialist’ defence of population control in which Thornett will bang on about it while other SR comrades look at their shoes and wish they could change the topic.

The comrades of SR have become who they are, really honestly authentically reconfiguring themselves to what they imagine and hope others will want, and want of them, but, this is the problem, still all the same mutating, chameleon-like to adjust their politics to each new political movement they hope to impress. The deepest underlying problem is that while they do have their eyes on a prize they can just about name – revolutionary socialist transformation of capitalist society into a world in which we will treat each other as human beings instead of as objects, just as Phil Connors has his eyes on Rita Hanson in the film, SR twists and turns to give this future goal a different name each time it twists and turns to make itself loveable. This is, after all, of a piece with the FI itself, and it is not surprising, perhaps, that recent meetings of the International Committee of the FI have embarked on a discussion of what socialism would actually look like. Meanwhile, as it burrows into the Labour Party in its new guise as Corbynite, SR in Britain has dropped the perhaps offensive term ‘revolutionary’ from the masthead of its website.

There is a happy end to Groundhog Day, but that is cinematic fantasy. Meantime, we are stuck in SR with the real world in which socialism is not yet on the horizon. They keep trying out new tricks, waiting for applause, and maybe, one day, they will hit the right note, build the kind of limited alliances they have been so good at forming in the past, and really be part of a revolutionary mass movement in the future.

 

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

 

 

 

Communist Party of Britain

Emir Kusturica’s 1995 very long film Underground might look to some like a searing critique of ethno-nationalism, but it actually replays and reinforces the very nationalist tropes it parodies. The biggest clue as to how we should read the film can be seen in the director’s own political trajectory; when the film was released, Kusturica was known internationally as being of Bosnian Muslim background, but he quickly evolved into a self-declared Serbian patriot. He later began work on a little Serb-nation theme park Drvengrad, a joint project with the ethno-fascists of Republica Srpska, stumping up over ten million Euros to fund it. The mystery is now why Kusturica’s post-Yugoslav tragic-comic revelries would ever have been seen as ‘socialist’; he has traced his own journey from the old Stalinist socialism in one country under Tito to something that is much closer to the red-brown plague politics of Vladimir Putin, now the model of choice for ex-leftist one-nation partygoers.

The subtitle of the film, by which it was known in much marketing was ‘Once Upon a Time There was One Country’, which speaks to the desperate hope of a return to a united Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, perhaps, but is actually a long lament for the impossibility of such a hope. And insofar as it yearns for the past, it is for a Yugoslavia dominated by Belgrade, as is clear from the decision by Serbian RTS television to show the original 5-hour version (which was cut for the cinema audience) as a five-part mini-series.

The film begins in 1941 in Belgrade, where two near-do-wells boast that they have enrolled one of their friends in the Communist Party, and the first part of the film takes us through underground resistance to the Germans during the war, including time suffered by the main character after being caught and tortured. Part two moves from World War to Cold War and confusion about whether our main man is still alive or dead, during which he is commemorated with a statue erected for him. This confusion is compounded by time underground – this is one underground referred to in the title of the film – and our heroes journey above ground at one point into a film set, which leads them to believe that the war with the Germans is still raging. Part three takes us through the 1990s Yugoslav civil wars. In the final scene of Underground, the musical folk drift into the seas while a cynical narrator speaks to camera, telling us that once upon a time there was one country.

There are plenty of deaths, rumours of death, and bizarre revival of those who should have been corpses in this film, but none so bizarre as the organisational revival of British tankie-Stalinism in the form of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB). If Kusturica’s fantasy-film pins its heavy-handed metaphorical narrative on the link between the lives of individual characters and the life of a nation – here the Serbian nation as the real core of old Yuguslavia – so the CPB makes a big deal of its role as the voice of the British people in a ‘United Kingdom’ floating free from the European mainland while actually functioning as a little-Englander outfit to which Scotland must remain attached in a subordinate position.

The Stalinists in the old communist party, the original ‘Communist Party of Great Britain’ made a big deal about their own unity, with a supposed absence of the kind of splits that beset the pesky trotskyites (while flirting with the idea that Britain should be ‘Great’ again, viewing their ‘British Road to Socialism’ not only as a template for non-revolutionary class-collaborationist politics in Britain but a model for their comrades in other parts of the world). What united them all the while until their demise under the guidance of the Eurocommunist ‘Democratic Left’ which took hold of the levers of power in the party in 1991, was actually their loyalty not to Britain as a nation but to the Soviet Union. Shed-loads of their daily newspaper the Morning Star would be bought by the Soviets in return for shed-loads of cash. There was some rationale for this craven subordination to Moscow until 1989 and the disintegration of the bureaucracy there, for the CPGB was defending what they thought was socialism; it was important to line up with the socialist ‘camp’, and so ‘campism’ as an international political strategy, which then played into national politics, made perfect sense.

There had actually already been splits from the old CPGB, the exodus of members following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 (which boosted the ranks of the Trotskyists in Britain) being a case. Disgust at the disloyal Eurocommunist loosening of ties with the Soviet Union led a small group of ‘tankies’ – Stalinists who resolutely supported every armed invasion by Moscow – whether it was East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 – formed the nucleus of the Communist Party of Britain, CPB, as early as 1988. The problem was that ‘campism’ quickly – with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the transformation of Russia into a fully-fledged capitalist country under Putin – turned into the defence of one camp of imperialism against another, into what has been termed ‘Zombie Stalinism’.

The CPB then succeeded in wresting control of the People’s Press Printing Society through bureaucratic manoeuvres and mobilisation of new share-holders, and so now once again it has the Morning Star as their daily mouthpiece, also a mouthpiece for a motley crew of misguided fellow-travellers wishing for the old days and transphobes wishing for a time when men were men and women women. The crisis in the far-left since the 1980s – control-freakery at the head of many organisations, and desperation in the wake of neoliberal consumerist new mass media that they could not control – has also led some old activists to flock to the Morning Star and then into the CPB; hardened Trotskyist organisational skills plus bankrupt ‘campist’ politics is a recipe for disaster, nationalist red-brown disaster.

This politics is driven by campism and by the Putinite international networks of Stalinist organisations. Thus, we are told by the CPB and the Morning Star that Bashar al-Assad, the butcher of Homs, is a peace-maker, and this because the Syrian Communist Party (Unified) has been rewarded with a seat in government for playing go-between between Moscow and Damascus. Regime after regime is cheered on, ranging from China (where the Hong Kong protesters are portrayed as dupes of the West) to Nicaragua (where the crackdown by a government dedicated to private property is defended on the grounds that some protesters are linked to imperialism). This campism finds its way down on the ground to backing for trades union bureaucrats who spend their organisational energies on protecting their own jobs.

And it leads to the idea that little island Britain, by which they mean England steered from London, of course, should go it alone; they are for a ‘united kingdom’ against Scottish independence. Now we have the old ‘British Road to Socialism’ dusted off, with the ‘socialism’ bit airbrushed out and effectively replaced with Boris Johnson (or by Jeremy Corbyn playing the nationalist card, if his circle of tankie-advisors that assiduously shield him from his old Trotskyist friends have their way). Putin has been pushing for the break-up of the European Union for many years, and in the CPB he has the perfect political tool here to support that aim; and the Morning Star does its bit, publishing articles by those who once proudly declared themselves to be for neither Washington but Moscow, calling for what is laughably called the ‘LeFT case’ (Leave, Fight Transform) in which international trade would, they promise, be with China and Russia.

These guys really are the bitter fruits of socialism in one country. As with the characters in Underground, they have forgotten nothing and learnt nothing, repeating old international alliances, their ‘campism’, while repeating the call for old national alliances that are designed to ensure that Britain remains a capitalist state, that never comes remotely close to the ‘communism’ they sing and dance about.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

Georgia

The October Revolution in Georgia was late-coming, the Russians bringing Soviet rule arrived in 1921. Stalin, born in Georgia, had something to do with the twists and turns of this process, the revolution marked by manipulation and brute force that presaged what was to happen to the October Revolution in Russia itself. The way this overturning of feudal and capitalist rule occurred also introduced severe political-economic distortions into this small republic south of the Caucasus mountain range, a country smaller than the size of Scotland. Georgia is surrounded, in clockwise panoramic sweep, by Russia to the north, still a prison-house of nations which includes, on the Georgian border, Abkhazia on the Black Sea, North and South Ossetia, Chechnya and Dagestan, then Azerbaijan to the south east, and then, around along the south border, Armenia, Turkey and Ajara, another controversial, barely acknowledged enclave, back on the Black Sea. The Black Sea is west, and the capital Tbilisi is quite far over in the east of the country. The S1 highway from the coast to Tbilisi and beyond has signs to Ankara back west one way and Teheran east to the other, indication, if we needed it, that this place celebrates itself sometimes as the meeting point between Eastern Europe and West Asia, sometimes as the centre of the world.

The end of Soviet times also came late, shadowed again by relations with Russia to the north. Eduard Shevardnadze, First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party had been appointed by Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet foreign minister in 1985 to oversee the dismantling of the Cold War, correlate of Glasnost and Perestroika, and had then appointed himself Head of State in Georgia ten years later, in 1995. The kind of fake ‘socialism’ that was established in Georgia lasted way after the collapse of the Soviet Union, until the so-called ‘Rose Revolution’ of 2003. Five years after that the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 saw bitter defeat, with Russian-occupied Abkhazia, which had already been lost in an earlier bloody border dispute in the 1990s, now joined by South Ossetia, an occupied enclave which can be seen from the S1 highway. Russia moved the border further south a few kilometres recently, closer to Tbilisi, a show of power. That long historical arc of imposed ‘revolution’ and then late ‘counterrevolution’ which brought liberal democratic multiparty rule gives to Georgia a particular cultural-political complexion, and particular contradictions which continue to erupt in protests that have an uncanny continuing mostly covert relationship with Russia under Putin.

Stalinism

Josef Vissarionovich Djugahsvili was born in Gori in the centre of Georgia, in the Russian quarter of the town, in 1878 or 1879, depending on who you believe and when it was convenient for celebrations to mark significant birthdays after he assumed complete power at the head of the Soviet bureaucracy. Djugashvili, later Stalin, studied, with a scholarship, to be a priest in the Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church – Orthodox Christianity was then the state religion – at a seminary in Tbilisi, enrolling in 1894, expelled five years later. He then worked for a couple of years as an accountant, record-keeper, bureaucrat at the Tbilisi Meteorological and Geophysical Observatory for a couple of years before going underground. It was then, from 1901 onwards in the Caucasus and Russia, with spells in prison in Siberia, that he honed his skills as organiser, staging bank robberies and mobilising workers on strike in Batumi on the Black Sea coast and in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. The Stalin Museum in Gori is one of the few places in Georgia where you will find outright celebration of your man.

Georgians in control of state power in Tbilisi from 1921 through to 2003 were always in close contact with their compatriots in Moscow, whether that was Stalin himself at the beginning or Shevardnadze at the end, and the massive Italianate Museum in Gori was built next to Josef Djugashivili’s birthplace – a little house protected by a mausoleum-style structure round the corner from the Stalin train – in 1957, a year after Krushchev’s speech denouncing his former paymaster. The Museum was officially closed in 1989, year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and effectively the collapse of the Soviet Union, but slowly opened again on Stalin Avenue without fanfare, and so that’s where the tatty memorabilia of Soviet Georgian times is to be found. Elsewhere in Georgia, questions about Stalin get evasive answers or a frosty reception. You won’t find much post-socialist nostalgia in Georgia, and neither has Trotskyism taken root there, for various reasons rooted in the early history of the old regime.

This question of Stalin and the Soviet period in Georgia is resolutely avoided and bypassed in bizarre appeals to a past golden age of Georgian culture when, if we are to believe it, this was Colchis, site of the Golden Fleece, quest of Jason and the Argonauts, with Golden Fleece festivals appearing in the early 21st century to mark this. Georgian wine is relentlessly marketed as being fruit of the oldest wine in the world, evidence dredged up of wines dating back 6,000 years, and this alongside special double-editions of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Food Programme’ celebrating the wine and, we are told there, vegetarian food which is all the more widespread because there are so many Orthodox Church festivals during which meat and fish is prohibited. The Shotis Puri bread is still fresh-baked on the interior wall of kilns in local bakeries, as is the honey-bread around Surami on the S1 highway. The home-made wines cooked up in huge earthenware underground ‘qvevris’; this cottage industry production, together with some of the larger chichi wine estates, now replaces the much-resented and much muttered about standardisation of wine under the Soviets.

There are many different communities, including Christians, of course, and Muslims, especially in the south closer to the borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey. There are also local long-standing Kurdish communities, Yazidis. In Batumi on the border with Turkey, now a tourist playground for Arab-state visitors as well as Russians venturing south from Abkhazia just up the coast, there is an Ali and Nino ‘Statue of Love’ to commemorate the fictional characters in the popular novel by Kurban Said, a Romeo and Juliet-style romance between Ali the Azerbaijani Muslim and Princess Nino his Georgian Christian lover. The story of Ali and Nino is supposed to speak of toleration, but actually, first published in Vienna in 1937, speaks more of the poisoning of personal relationships as a function of imperial great-power conflict. Despite the oft-repeated claims that this was one of the few places in Europe to welcome different competing Jewish communities – and there are still two rival synagogues close by each other in Tbilisi – the famous ‘mountain Jew’ communities no longer exist, and the wooden synagogue in Kulashi was empty, as was the nearby Jewish Museum set up by an ex-policeman and, it turned out when the caretaker came to open it up, mainly devoted to links with Israel.

This area around Kutaisi, now the main decaying post-industrial base for the region, had been the site both of the Guria peasant rebellion in 1904, one in which something like a commune had been set up, and site of some of the key protests leading up the Rose Revolution nearly a century later. The caretaker for the Kulashi synagogue who showed us around wore a large wooden crucifix. Stepping back past the legacy of Stalin and Stalinism also enables the question of Stalin’s own antisemitism to be politely overlooked. A ‘New Communist Party’ was founded in 2001 by Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, the grandson of Joseph Stalin, and stood in parliamentary elections, but only in Ajara in the south-west of the country, a provocation linked to Russian attempts to stoke a local secessionist movement in the area around Batumi on the Turkish border, a secessionist movement designed to put further pressure on the Tbilisi regime.

Stalin, unfortunately, is intimately linked with the history of the ‘socialist’ years of the regime, and in a much deeper way than in Russia, where there were at least a few years of freedom, of experimentation with new ways of living that the October Revolution opened up. In Georgia, one route to ‘socialism’, that of the social-democratic Second International was opened up by the bourgeois-democratic ‘February’ revolution in 1917, but then shut down again. There had been Marxist groups in Georgia going back to 1892 with the formation of ‘The Third Group’, and there were peasant rebellions (with the Guria uprising ranking at one time as high as that of the Paris Commune among Russian Marxists as an inspiration) but revolutionary organisation became closely tied to the internal debates and splits in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). That party, the RSDLP, split at its second congress, in London in 1903, into the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. Then this split, despite or because of Stalin’s activities in the Caucasus, resulted in the formation of a strong Menshevik party, the Georgia Social Democratic Party, and a smaller but more militant communist party, Bolsheviks.

The Russian February 1917 formation of a Provisional Government is marked in Stalinist historiography as a ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution because it accords well with a quasi-Marxist ‘stage’ theory of history in which there must first be a bourgeois-democratic stage – which in Russia would be the unfeasibly quick implantation of capitalism – before the socialist stage in October later that year. The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, but in Georgia elections for a Constituent Assembly designed to lay the foundations for a bourgeois-democratic republic went ahead, and the local Menshevik ‘Georgia Social Democratic Party’ won by a large majority. The new regime rapidly made diplomatic and trade links with the German occupying forces and then with the British who replaced the Germans at the end of the First World War in 1918. The German and then British forces were keen to work with the Menshevik government as one that would guarantee the protection of large private property, foreign investment and, crucially, support for General Denikin’s Volunteer Army, one of the invasion forces worsening the Civil War inside the new Soviet Union. (Denikin died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1947.) The Bolsheviks in Georgia understandably needed to defeat Denikin and bring the Russian October Revolution south in order to protect it, and launched several coup attempts against the Menshevik regime before the Red Army finally entered the country in 1921. It is this period between 1917 and 1921 that is vaunted by contemporary supporters of the Second International as a bold ‘experiment’ in Georgian democratic socialism.

What is undoubtedly the case, and with grave consequences for the formation of the new Soviet republic in Georgia, was that Stalin was already mobilising his supporters inside Moscow to prevent Lenin and Trotsky from realising what was going on, and inside Georgia to install a regime that would, avant la letter, be Stalinist. The invasion force was led by one of Stalin’s loyal compatriots Sergo Ordzhonikidze, already a bad sign, and despite Lenin’s explicit orders that the Red Army should act with respect to the Georgians and try and win their support, Stalin pressed ahead. The head of the Cheka, Lavrentiy Beria, was moved from Baku to Georgia in 1920, and then appointed by Stalin to oversee counter-insurgency strategy, setting up the local secret police. The Red Army invasion of Georgia led prominent Second International social democrats, such as Karl Kautsky, to leap to the defence of the supposedly ‘democratic socialist’ regime and launch a tirade against Bolshevism in 1921 after his visit to the country, and it led Trotsky, as head of the Red Army, and one-time Menshevik himself, to respond to Kautsky in 1922, thereby implicating him, Trotsky, in Stalin’s manoeuvres in his own homeland.

The legacy of the Soviet era is visible in the bureacratised processes through which you must pass if you are off the usual tourist routes. For example, in the town of Gurjaani in the far-east of the country, there is a health resort with mud baths, the sulphurous wet earth bubbling up from the ground in a public park. The Soviet-style concrete cultural centre in the centre of town is an empty wreck. We have been in mud baths in north Greece near the border with Bulgaria – an informal stroll through the showers and down into the immense thick brown puddles with frogs lounging around the edge – but this was entirely different, entirely medicalised. No one spoke English, and we spoke neither Georgian nor Russian; and so through a complex convoluted sign exchange we mimed that we wanted to visit the mud baths and were directed to the administrative buildings where our passports were demanded of us so we could register for our visit to the ‘clinic’. The options at Resort Akhtala included an apartment for one day at 10 GEL, a good deal, or ‘Electric Mud’ also at 10 GEL or, a little more expensive, a ‘Rectal Swab’ at 12 GEL. We just wanted the plain mud experience. It was there that the typical Soviet system of obstacles and loopholes came into play; we did not have passports with us but, they indicated, we could perhaps remember the numbers, and then, after we had registered, we went to the clinic where our blood pressure was taken – no other medical history was possible in the absence of a shared language – and we were ushered into the waiting corridor. Men and women were taken separately and put in large warm porcelain baths where we lay for 20 minutes before we were taken out to have our showers. We lay in the baths, four baths arranged in the room, and watched the clock.

The metro system in Tbilisi is typical post-Soviet design, with very little advertising, a grim if tidy journey from the centre out to the working-class estates where friendly drunks roam the streets helpfully misdirecting you to your small bed and breakfast which looks, in the booking dot com picture as if it is a palace when it is actually tucked behind a small unpainted wooden gate at the end of a cul de sac. In our case, the gate sign was painted during the day after we arrived; we had appeared, to the extreme surprise of the owner, as his first ever guests; we were distracted by the men with qvevri-wine while the women stripped the room of its inhabitants and bedding and prepared it for us. On our last evening we were invited to dinner and watched the family dance to music videos on the lap-top in which old Georgian melodies were matched, on the screen, with images of partisans fighting in the first war against the Russians in Abkhazia in 1992. Many booking dot com photos of places in the country-side depict gangs of men in wife-beater string vests standing by beat-up cars glaring at the camera. Refurbished cars are a main export product, and many cars have bits missing, matching the state of the roads, including the pot-holed Tbilisi bypass in spitting distance of the South Ossetia border.

The legacy of the Soviet era is also very much present in ongoing hostility to Russians, of which there are still many in the form not only of occupiers of twenty percent of Georgian territory in the north of the country (and threats to lop off another portion, Ajara in the south-west, but also of Russian tourists). If you don’t speak Georgian, then you will be asked if you speak Russian, and when you say you do not, there will often be a palpable sense of relief and, probably as a counter-reaction, extreme friendliness. The spa town of Borjomi, now in a national park, has been a favourite watering-hole (as it were) for Russian visitors since the mid-nineteenth century. There are 150 springs in the area, rediscovered by the Russian army returning home from fighting Turks and developed as a summer residence by the viceroy of the Transcaucasus Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich Romanov, brother of the Tsar between 1862 and 1871, an ambitious colonial project. Smudged photos of Tsars and Tsarinas and various other notables, including Chekhov and Tchaikovsky, adorn the run-down villa adjoining the central spa area which ejects sulphurous water, and through the gates of the Ekaterina Park you can trek a couple of miles to bathe in the waters at an open-air pool, also now still full of Russians. The men laughed, and none of the women tending the kids even smiled. Just north of Batumi on the coast we shared a balcony that stretched the length of our accommodation with three jolly Russian women who laughed a lot, until four in the morning, during which they drank and sang, and replayed recordings of their singing on their mobile phones.

Capitalism

The collapse of the Soviet Union and then the Georgian Rose Revolution, have opened up at least two competing cultural-political tendencies, both of which are riddled with their own contradictions. The first, following from the privatisation of state resources and the capitalisation of cultural assets, is an intensification of neoliberalism. There are offices and scam companies aplenty in Tbilisi adorned with NATO and EU paraphernalia, a promise that the locals can get a piece of the economic action by really being part of the west. One of my new Facebook friends who ran a bed and breakfast in Georgia now sends me messages inviting me to invest in this or that new ‘American’, he says, firm, one which is guaranteed to give a good profit return. Tourists, from Russia, Turkey, Israel (to name those we met and compared notes with) as well as from Western Europe, will pay at some point to drink qvevri wine and eat cheese and walnuts and maybe more depending on how much they are willing to spend at a staged ‘supra’. This sometimes elaborate meal, the supra, which should include speeches by the host and guests, is packaged and sold as an authentic Georgian folk experience, though it is possible, on occasion, to stumble across a small house with an image of a qvevri on a board hanging outside the gate and have some real fun. At one wine-cellar we were given wine, cheese and walnuts in set pomegranate paste, a speciality that you see hanging from stalls at the side of the S1 highway, but we had to hurry because a coach party of Latvians had already booked in for their supra.

Our worst experience was near Sighnaghi, a fortress town near the border with Azerbaijan, where the supra was led by a US-American guy called Paul. He was a retired businessman in a funny black hat (ethnic, but the type of which we saw no one else around wear) who had managed to discover some tendentious connection with his Georgian heritage after the Rose Revolution and had moved out east to make a killing in the concrete-construction business while running supras for the tourists as his hobby. Here was neoliberalism in action; iron-laws of the market protected by the state for new colonial enterprises to buy up local industries and sell them on. Not everyone was out to fleece you, and we were given Shotis Puri bread for free in villages when we peered into the bakery; an old guy in the ethnographic museum in Sighnaghi wanted money, but not Euros because he already had some of those, he was just collected the notes. Here was clear evidence, in reverse, that Trotsky was right when he formulated the law of combined and uneven development that underpins his theory of ‘permanent revolution’. There is no fixed unfolding sequence to the stages of history – as if there must be primitive communism characterised by scarcity and misery, then the rise of class society, with slavery and then feudalism and then capitalism, and only then socialism and a return to full communism characterised by technological success and abundance – but a potentially uninterrupted process by which one form of struggle can ‘grow over’ into the next. It is potentially uninterrupted, but it is often blocked, as it is when the Stalinised Communist Parties that hold the ‘stage’ conception of history to be true ensure that it is, and prevent bourgeois-democratic independence movements fulfilling their task by also turning socialist.

The ‘stage’ conception was ruthlessly implemented as a distortion of Marxist politics by Stalin, but before that, here in this part of the world, the Menshevik Georgia Social Democratic Party tried to put the brakes on historical development. One of the paradoxes of supposedly ‘anti-Stalinist’ Second International praise for the Georgia ‘experiment’ is that advocates of this Menshevik approach themselves also tell us quite clearly that a leap into the task of socialist revolution would have been too fast, too soon. Not for nothing was Georgia one of the sites of debate about the so-called ‘Asiatic mode of development’ as a way-station and exception to Marx’s own discussions of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in different parts of the world. Now, as a social-democratic political orientation that keeps itself carefully inside the limits set by bourgeois-democratic neoliberal capitalist society in Georgia, we see historical stages of ‘development’ run as if backwards. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution escaped from that rigid grid, and helps us make sense now of how quickly this supposedly ‘socialist’ society could transform itself into a neoliberal one.

The second cultural-political tendency at work in Georgia now is, in some ways, worse. Here there is a most peculiar alliance between the far-right – a political force intent on wiping out both the legacy of socialism and the liberal reforms that ease the transition to neoliberalism – and the Orthodox Church. This is not to say that every Christian believer in Georgia is allied with the far right, but this is an intensely religious country in which the tolerant and mystical tradition covers some more dangerous fundamentalist movements. This is not to pretend that religion was simply ‘repressed’ when it was a Soviet Republic, and that it then erupted again when the lid was taken off, any more than to it is to say that ancient wine varieties waiting to flourish found a way to do so after the mean times. In both cases we need a clearer, more elaborate, historical-materialist account of the way that countervailing political-economic forces at any particular moment are constructed.

At a supra in Kakheti, a schoolteacher told us, with the aid of a neighbour who spoke some English, that we must visit Mtskheta to the north-west of Tbilisi because, she said, Jesus Christ himself had visited it when he was in Georgia. Our translator, who was a retired academic from the department of sociology in the University of Tbilisi, wasn’t so sure this was true. In the wooded country-side outside the village of Akhasheni just north of Gurjaani, we sought out one of the Orthodox monasteries. People were mystified when we made the sign of a cross and pointed into the distance, indicating that the place we were aiming for was much too far away. Eventually a man we asked took pity on this, turfed his family out of his car, and drove us five miles or more along the bare drought-hit river into the trees, and then into a glade where a little cluster of houses stood around an old church. He dropped us and waved goodbye, and, while we were worrying about how we would get back we ventured into the church. An Orthodox priest with a big beard and big black hat came to meet us, and, grinning the while, gave us a tour, and showed us beautiful gold-edged but unfinished paintings of saints in the small dining room. There were, he said – I said ‘said’, this was in sign language – three of them, three priests living there, the others were out that afternoon. He made us some instant coffee, offered us sweets, and then gave us sweet wine, and finally, thank the lord, made the sign of driving a car, after which he drove us back to the main road. These are the religious fundamentalists who, in the cities, are mobilising their flock to protest against the liberalisation of drug laws – possession and consumption of cannabis was legalised in Georgia in 2018 though it is still illegal to cultivate or sell it – and these are the guys who are behind some of the most vicious Georgian stuff now going on.

Three years before, far-right activists wearing rings of sausages around their necks and wielding skewers stacked with slabs of meat attacked the ‘Kiwi’ vegan café in a quiet side-street of the capital Tbilisi. ‘Georgia for the Georgians’, a rallying cry for a range of religious nationalist groups and hard-core Nazis, had been centre-slogan for demonstrations in Tbilisi over the previous weeks. Fascist meat-eaters would not like this place, true; one large poster on the wall read ‘Seahorses against Gender Roles’. Up the hill nearby there was a sticker on a lamppost that read ‘FCK NZS’. Over the last couple of years vegetarianism has been on the nationalist radar along with gay rights, both seen as ‘Western’ imports, and each functioning as strange signifiers of all that is bad and foreign in a small country that has historically defined itself at as the crossroads of the West and Asia. Most recent protests have been against Russians, joyfully reported by Radio Free Europe, the peculiar paradox here being that while such rhetoric is very easily activated among a population with understandable antipathy to Russia, there is good evidence that Putin has been funding some of the far-right groups involved (as he has been in funding Jobbik in Hungary and Le Pen in France).

So-called ‘tradition’ in Georgia, as in other places is, in reality an ‘invention of tradition’. Authentic buried national forces do not lie buried beneath the surface as mystical anti-Marxist writers ranging from Madame Blavatsky (who visited the Borjomi spa town in her time) to George Gurdjieff (who settled with his followers briefly in Tbilisi in 1919 before relocating to Batumi) would claim. Marxist accounts of the ‘invention of tradition’ are designed to show us how what appears to be so deep within a culture is actually constructed and reconstructed according to present-day needs. Neither is there a naturally-unfolding irreversible process of change running through identifiable stages of political-economic development over the course of history. Instead, as Trotsky argued, there are strange leaps, and now we know that there are also strange reversals of fortune, of progressive movements and of societies that seemed once to have been able to break from capitalism and build something better. Those leaps and reversals are also always structured – they do not happen in a mystical way independent of human collective agency – and our task is to understand how they are structured.

The invention of tradition and our understanding of what ‘revolution’ is in Georgia is riddled with paradoxes, and that uncertain ambiguous character of the country is at stake in the new definitions of politics and identity raging there now in the wake of what was once mistakenly called ‘socialism’, but which was but a caricature of what we hope for in the world.

 

This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles