Fourth International World Congress 2018: Praxis

The Seventeenth World Congress of the Fourth International (FI) took place on the chilly Belgian coast from 25 February to 2 March 2018. This congress takes place eighty years after the FI was founded by revolutionary Marxists on the outskirts of Paris in the extremely difficult conditions of 1938 Nazi-occupied Europe. Leon Trotsky in exile wrote the founding document ‘The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’, usually referred to as the ‘Transitional Programme’ after the demands it included; transitional demands such as to open the books of the large companies and implement a sliding scale of wages linked to inflation. Such demands are ‘transitional’ because, reasonable though they are, they cannot be met by a capitalist system which relies on trade and diplomatic secrecy and on shifting the burden of economic crises in times of austerity onto the working class. The transitional demands link theory and practice, link Marxist theory of how the capitalist economy works with political practice to overthrow this wretched economic system. The link between the two is sometimes named as ‘praxis’, and this praxis in one form or another runs as a red thread through the history of the FI up to the present day.

The Fourth International continues the Marxist tradition of the first four congresses of the ‘Third International’, congresses which were rooted in the revolutionary practice of the 1917 October Revolution. Those first four congresses, in 1919, 1920, 1921 and 1922, operated as a space of debate and sharing of experience from Russia, of course, and from communist parties that were being formed around the world to extend and protect the revolution. Each congress was a place for the theorisation of the quite unexpected leap from Tsarist feudalism to the construction of socialism, an experiment in freedom that was brutally crushed by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1920s. Trotsky’s call for a new international in the 1930s set itself against this bureaucratic counter-revolution headed by Stalin and the disastrous transformation of communist parties of the Third International, the ‘Comintern’, into diplomatic tools of Moscow. The criminal twists and turns of political line transmitted to the German Communist Party by this highly centralised bureaucratic apparatus – an apparatus that separated the ossified ‘theory’ which Stalin treated as a quasi-religious worldview from manipulative ‘practice’ – had left the working class defenceless in the face of fascism. We face such dangers again and new threats alongside an intensification of repression around the world to which sections of the FI and other revolutionary organisations are subjected.

The twists and turns of the bureaucracy are tragically mirrored in the various splits and purges of the myriad groups and ‘internationals’ that have spun out of the history of the Fourth International since 1938 and the murder of Trotsky by a Stalinist assassin in Mexico two years later. At every point in that history of the attempt to connect theory and practice we have been participating in a praxis which takes us forward in the struggle against capitalism, a praxis in which it is absolutely essential that we avoid two traps: we have to avoid academic-style theory which tells us how the world is or should be rather than learning from the experiences of revolutionaries around the world; and we have to avoid a simple direct jump into activity without the critical reflection that practical engagement with different contexts enables. Praxis was a signature concept in the work of Hungarian Hegelian Marxist Georg Lukács who, before he went on to head the Star Wars film franchise (not), developed an account of the collective self-conscious agency of the working class. The notion was taken up by anti-Stalinist dissident philosophers in Yugoslavia, the Praxis Group which the FI was in close contact with in the 1960s and 1970s.

Reflections and interventions on how to link theory and practice were the stakes of the debates from 1917 just over a century ago, and they were the stakes of the debate at the Seventeenth Congress in 2018 which brought together delegates from Sections of the FI as well as sympathising organisations and permanent observers and visitors. Nearly 200 revolutionaries were able to travel to the congress, a major accomplishment in the face of travel and visa restrictions for many comrades. Some sections were missing, a disappointment, but the Philippines section made it, as did delegates from other countries in Asia and across the Americas.

The three main documents worked up over the last few years by the elected leadership of the FI, the International Committee, separated out three main aspects of an orientation to contemporary struggle in different contexts around the world. This was a contentious choice itself, and one which the ‘opposition platform’ refused to go along with (and that platform stayed firm to its one document which was voted on at the end of the conference along with a second opposition text on the new era and tasks of revolutionaries that had been submitted by a minority of the FI leadership). It would be possible to argue that such a separation into a first text on capitalist globalisation and geopolitical chaos (what we are up against now), a second text on social upheavals and fightbacks (forms of resistance), and on role and tasks of the FI (what we must do in order to build that resistance and our own organisations) itself cut into praxis, that is, separated theory from practice. Did it? No.

A fourth main document, on the destruction of the environment and an ecosocialist alternative, could also be accused of separating out one aspect of the current global context of exploitation, resistance and revolutionary tasks. However, the key question was whether the contributions around these documents that took up the bulk of the time comrades were together would also weld these separate theoretical-practical issues together. The proof of the pudding would be in the eating (as Engels once remarked in an essay on utopian and scientific socialism), in this case, for the vegetarian minority, alongside the eating of too much cheese and quorn cutlets in a total institution with us packed into shared bedrooms at night and well sealed off from the freezing wind and sea outside.

The discussion and voting consolidated a profound shift that had taken place inside the FI in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the disintegration of any pretence that socialism had existed in that part of the world and the first signs that China too was taking a path from bureaucratic repression to full-blown capitalism. The 2003 World Congress of the Fourth International rewrote its constitution to finally break from the impossible unwieldy task of maintaining itself as a ‘world party of socialist revolution’ (which had been proclaimed in Trotsky’s founding document) to be run on Leninist democratic centralist lines. This shift in perspective was also bitterly contested by the opposition platform who view it as a profound mistake, and they still also contest the parallel shift from building democratic centralist revolutionary groups around the full programme of the FI to an orientation to ‘broad parties’ of the left. These broad parties of the left provided the context for being able to argue for revolutionary ideas, a much more complicated and difficult task than simply unfolding the flag of the FI and waiting for the working class to rally to it. After all, with all the hundreds of orthodox Leninist-Trotskyist groups around the world that have emerged from the FI over the years, we have had many empirical tests of the thesis advanced by the opposition platform; not one of these theoretically-pure groups have struck lucky, and it is clear we need to tread a different path which actually connects with ongoing struggles.

A repetitive theme running through the World Congress, a theme which tangled itself around the red thread of praxis, was the idea advanced by the opposition platform – sometimes explicitly and many times implicitly – that if only they had the chance to present themselves openly as revolutionaries with the right programme, then there could have been breakthroughs, or at least we could avoided some of the demoralising failures we have experienced over the years. It is as if the working class is reaching out here or there with its hand ready to grasp the revolutionary flag, and the vanguard party in the right place at the right time with the right programme needs to put that flag into that eager hand.

The failure of the Workers Party in Brazil, of the regroupment process around elements of the communist party in Italy, and of the Syriza government in Greece are each, in one reading, evidence of the failure of broad parties, or, on another reading, of the force of circumstance, of the balance of forces that were against us in every case, and from which we must learn and rebuild ourselves. Each reading of these situations and of the way they can be linked together is grounded in a kind of practice, revolutionary praxis, and that is precisely what made the debates at this World Congress so sharp.

For many comrades of the Greek section of the FI who stand now with the opposition platform, for example, even the attempt to build Syriza was doomed to fail. For them, they repeated, Tsipras as leader of Syriza did not ‘betray’ when he caved in to the EU, he was always going to betray, and that betrayal needed to be mobilised against in alternative left coalitions like Antarsya. If so, shame on the FI leadership for sowing illusions in what Tsipras and Syriza could or would do. But then, does this mean that the four different parts of the FI who now work in Brazil in the new broad party PSOL are equally culpable, part of the same pattern of compromise and failure, as if the shift to the right of the Workers Party under Lula was inevitable and unavoidable? At what point should we shout ‘betrayal’ against those we are allied with us as we build a left alternative. It is gratifying to be able to say that you have been proved right, but every such prediction and complaint against the reformists is itself ‘performative’, it has effects, and usually those effects are to isolate yourself from any and every movement. This is what will be insisted on by those who are with the FI majority leadership, including comrades in Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. If so, shame on the sectarians for sabotaging what is being created, the conditions in which we can learn and build from those we struggle alongside.

In some respects the opposition platform are right, the Greek section was effectively sidelined by the FI leadership which was intent on supporting Syriza and it ignored the warnings and crucial necessary independent activity on the left by our comrades. A critical honest balance sheet still needs to be made of these events. But the ‘pattern’ that the opposition platform claims to find in the broad party projects of the FI, a theoretical fiction which relies on an abstract return to the good old days before 2003 when we were a world party composed of Leninist democratic centralist sections, leads to gross accusations and misrepresentations; false accusations that the Danish comrades in the Red Green Alliance voted for war in Syria, for example, or that our comrades in the Spanish State are colluding with the leadership of Podemos. Obsession with this ‘pattern’ of betrayal would, among others things, lead comrades in Britain to begin denouncing Jeremy Corbyn now instead of building for Labour victory in the next election. Work in the Labour Party and for Corbyn creates the conditions for revolutionary debate, in line with a transitional method. We know this from our own praxis.

The shift in the 1990s, away from democratic centralist world party to broad parties and alliances in social movements, was in response to a dramatic transformation of the conditions for revolutionary work and enabled two things; it was to a new ‘praxis’ open to anti-imperialist struggle and to the diversity of forms of resistance to multitudinous forms of oppression. On the one hand, it enabled an opening of the FI to parts of the world that had until then either deliberately or unwittingly been treated as outposts in which the flag should be planted. On the other hand, at the same time, it enabled an opening to feminist and LGBTQI and anti-racist activity, and, of course, to ecology, to ecosocialism, to an eventual self-definition of the FI (at the last World Congress which took place in 2010) as a revolutionary ecosocialist international.

Practical experiences from around the world directly linked with theoretical questions in the congress. Around the question as to whether China should be characterised as imperialist, for example, comrades from the Antilles and Pakistan explained how Chinese strategic investment and control buttressed local regimes. This debate gave us a different vantage point on the vexed question of ‘campism’, that is the temptation to side with the enemy of your enemy; concretely the temptation of some US-American comrades of the FI to combine valiant defiance of their own government’s military adventures with implicit support for China and Russia and then, a slippery slope, to the Assad regime in Syria.

The closed section of the congress voted on amended documents, delegates heavily endorsing the main texts and then electing a new International Committee (IC). The IC met immediately after the congress to elect a Bureau charged with the day-to-day running of the FI between its annual meetings. Four new sections of the FI were recognised at this congress as well as new sympathising groups and permanent observer organisations. Organisations from over 40 countries now participate in IC meetings alongside existing FI sections voting at this world congress. In some countries there is more than one section which are in the process of merging (as has happened since the last world congress in the case of Germany) or which are operating together as publicly visible parts of a section of the FI (as is the case now in Brazil where the four groups which constitute the section today are all working together in PSOL).

On a world scale, these leadership bodies, the IC and Bureau, are almost the equivalent of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and then the Politbureau, but with a crucial difference; we speak openly about the differences in our organisation and are keen to learn from comrades and activists outside this ‘party’ that is no longer a world party at all. It is the tradition of the FI that voting is open on the floor of the congress, and that as well as votes for or against, abstentions and ‘no votes’ are recorded as well as indicative votes by the outgoing leadership, sympathising organisations and permanent observers. The amended ecosocialist document was overwhelmingly carried (apart from a couple of opposition platform delegate abstentions or votes against), as was a statement on the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh (for which some opposition platform delegates inexplicably submitted a ‘no vote’ – this in line with a distancing from the FI overall, a refusal to take any responsibility for decisions collectively made in the congress, something which augurs badly for the next years).

Among other things, not all positive to be honest (representation of women on the Bureau is now actually worse than before, and this will be addressed by the new 40%-women IC), this World Congress of the FI marked another significant shift in the centre of gravity of the international. We were originally rooted in Europe, the site of our first congress in 1938, and even when there were significant numbers of members in Latin America they were still often guided from Europe, and then from time to time rebelled against that. That problematic aspect of our history as a ‘world party’ was continued in even more extreme form in other rival internationals that split away and claimed to really be or to be reconstructing the FI (with some such international tendencies still directly ruled from London).

What we saw at the 2018 congress was a conceptual shift in terms of intersectional and postcolonial perspectives; which could be seen also as a deliberate engagement with some of the new ‘revolutionary keywords’ of the kind that FIIMG has been noting and exploring in the practice of the new social movements. The theory and practice of the first fifty years of our revolutionary century which was inaugurated with the October Revolution in 1917 was hobbled by the rise of the bureaucracy in the workers states, and it has been in the next fifty years, from the rebellions and new wave of struggles in the late 1960s that Trotskyists have learnt from different movements of the exploited and oppressed around the world. Now over 40% of members of the FI are in Asia, with new perspectives and histories to enrich the revolutionary tradition. Reports on the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam, Islamabad and Manila made it clear that this ongoing development of revolutionary theory is being combined with practice. This was praxis, and the path ahead will be global debate combined with action to end capitalism, not simply to interpret the world but to change it.

JT

 

You can read this report and comment on it here

If you liked this report then you will like Revolutionary Keywords

 

 

 

Advertisements

Extractivism: GB84

We learn from analyses of ‘extractivism’ that the plundering of the earth will not only deplete the natural resources we need to live, will turn us against our relationship with nature as natural beings born from the same stuff that we are incited to exploit and destroy, but will also end up driving us all into ruin.

It is difficult to know what to make of a tangle of narratives about the end of coal-mining in Britain that pulls us into a pit of demoralisation and despair; whether this could energise us to renew our struggle for dignity and labour or whether it effectively undermines that struggle, opening the way to something worse. Undecided, unlike the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, which settled a lot of things at the time, with consequences; triumph for Margaret Thatcher (and the unleashing of more sexist abuse against her in particular, and against many other women politicians of the right and even of the left since, from the slogan taken up by one far-left group ‘ditch the bitch’ to the efforts to get the song ‘ding dong the witch is dead’ to the top of the charts on her death two decades later); defeat for the National Union of Miners (NUM) under the leadership of Arthur Scargill (and suspicion of the kind of Stalinist command politics that was necessary to hold the strike together but which continued in Scargill’s bizarre entry into revolutionary sect-politics in the ‘Socialist Labour Party’ and the disintegration of most British trade union left power-bases).

The book GB84 by David Peace, published in 2004, after the defeat was definitely sealed and hopelessness was being drummed in by the right set on privatisation, is certainly a grim read. It is a book that not only raises questions about the performative qualities of a style of writing that defuses hope instead of inspiring resistance – it is a book that extracts the worst most miserable elements of a struggle we now know to have ended in abject failure, brings them to the surface and rubs them in our face until we are exhausted – but also raises questions about the nature of ‘extractivism’ as such, extractivism that was the life-source for the miners even as it blighted their lives.

The drive to extract what we can now, short-term gains with poisonous consequences for our environment and for ourselves, is organised by an extractivist logic of capitalist accumulation; it is not only human labour that is corrupted and drained, lives broken and bodies thrown onto the scrap-heap for an early death, but the interior of the earth which bears us and sustains us destroyed in a broader logic. This is sometimes conceptualised as ‘neoextractivism’ on the part of regimes desperate to protect themselves and the limited gains they have made in encroaching on dominant profit-led economies only to find themselves dependent on deeper processes of global ecological destruction. This is what intertwines the reactionary logic of GB84 with the reactionary logic of extractivism; the danger of political paralysis in the face of the question that returns to haunt us when we reflect on the energy we poured into the NUM solidarity campaigns; what are we to do about extractivism as an integral part of capitalism? Was support for British coal-mining, for the extraction of fossil-fuel and for an industry that led to early death of those sent down into the ground and the rest of us coughing up our guts when the stuff is burnt, tactical, or what?

This is one question among the many that divides the left in Latin America torn between defence of the ‘pink-tide’ governments attempting to draw on the strength of their land to keep their economies afloat when under attack from imperialist encirclement, and celebration of Pachamama, ecosocialist defence of mother earth and indigenous peoples against the quasi-Stalinist fake-socialist governments who are willing to sacrifice ecology on the altar of realpolitik. This is why ‘extractivism’ is such a big deal in Latin America among revolutionary socialists, and why the stakes are so high as the Latin American left agonises about a choice between finishing off capitalism or finishing off the world. The debate forces a more complex historical-materialist system-oriented reflection on the broader deeper conditions of possibility for capitalism to have developed in Latin America and the reliance of the West on the material necessary for communication technologies, for the development and survival of high-tech service sector late capitalism, neoextractivism. The debate has consequences for some of Marx’s extractivist assumptions, and for the intersection between working-class and anti-extractivist feminist struggle in Latin America.

GB84 plunges the depths of misery and conflict in a cut-up genre of writing that was defended by some reviewers as being ‘political gothic’ and by others as compatible with a leftist post-punk radical re-working of fake-objective journalistic style. Some of the right-wing press complained that it was ‘obscene’, noting that the year of the start of the strike, 1984, was indicative of the paranoid elements of the book. And this paranoia is actually at the heart of the book, revolving around two characters ripe for conspiratorial framing. One is ‘Terry Winters’ (loosely based on NUM chief executive Roger Windsor) who goes to Libya to get money from the regime for the strike, embarrasses Scargill after embracing Gaddafi on TV, and then takes a cut from the takings. The other is ‘Stephen Sweet’ (loosely based on Working Miners’ Committee impresario and Thatcher-stalwart David Hart) who is constantly manoeuvring to crush the strike and who is linked, through his driver ‘Neil Fontaine’ to a series of paramilitary interventions against the pickets and crackpot military coup scenarios.

Sweet/Hart is referred to throughout, through the voice of Fontaine, as ‘The Jew’, which gives an even nastier edge to the book, a repetitive insidious narrative device which gives a name to the class enemy behind the scenes, or, perhaps, in a generous reading, an enemy who merely thinks he is behind the scenes. The book paves the way for an image of the end of mining in Britain in which foreign forces will benefit and it implies that hidden enemies within were always pulling the strings.

The question ‘who are the extractivists?’ is the wrong question, one which launches us into a paranoid search for the enemy. The question is ‘What is extractivism?’ How does it function as part of capitalism, and what is the alternative?

Most left politics in the 1980s was organised around assumptions that growth would be the motor for us to release ourselves from capitalism, either through the canny policies of a social-democratic Labour government which would harness the accelerationist logic of capitalism – faster and more efficient production and consumption – or through a more radical break, acceleration of growth after a revolutionary transformation that would take us beyond the limits to growth that capitalism imposes on us. Green politics too often seemed to come at these issues from the right, and ecosocialist politics was hardly on the agenda then; and so the argument that the coal should be left in the ground and growth as such be put into question would then be seen as laying the ground for betrayal of the miners. That was betrayal which, paradoxically, some of the groups on the left most gung-ho for development were actually complicit in when they tried to spike the strike; so being bewitched by growth was clearly no guarantee of a progressive political position at the time. Instead, now we need to learn from the way one of the new keywords of the revolutionary left in Latin America, extractivism, is being put to work, and what the wider-ranging consequences are for ‘post-growth’ and ‘post-extractivist’ politics.

GB84 never asks what led to the miners’ strike or what happened after it, never contextualises the development of mining in the context of capitalism. Many things happened in the strike, and there was actually a different kind of growth, of human relationships and solidarity that continue to resonate today. There is little mention in the book of women organised against the pit closures, and then only to drive home the divisions between the impotent men and their angry wives, and there is no mention of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. There was historic defeat, true, but also some historic shifts, historic breaks. The book never asks whether one lesson of the strike is that we need to rethink whether we should simply push our foot harder on the acceleration pedal or whether we should look for the emergency brake.

 

If you liked this then you will like Revolutionary Keywords

 

Socialist Party of Great Britain

Lars and the Real Girl, a romantic comedy from 2007 directed by Craig Gillespie, brings together two dolls for the lead parts signalled in the title of the film. One is the ‘Lars’ played, if that is the word, by Ryan Gosling in a typically blank performance, perfect for the role; the other lead is the ‘Real Girl’ Bianca who doesn’t do much acting either but we don’t expect her to do much. There is really no single lead, no hero in this film, but a blank robotic space, Lars responds in what is supposed to be stereotypic autistic fashion to encounters with others – this is supposed to be part of the comedy – is looking for a companion, which is the romantic hook of the film. There is some cod-psychobabble in the film; we learn that after Lars’ mother died all that he had left of her was her scarf which he clutches against his mouth as a kind of comfort-blanket, and it his loss of mother which, we are led to believe, is at the core of his refusal of relationship with a woman, with others, with community.

Bianca is an anatomically-correct life-size doll that Lars gets mail order after shrinking from a romantic approach by a real real girl Margo (Kelli Garner). Lars backs off from real relationships, he does not like being touched, and we are quickly cued in to some pathological stuff. When Bianca arrives in town and is introduced to the family – key players here are his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) – and to the local parish he is taken on a pretext to a doctor who diagnoses his ‘delusion’, the way he fabricates a new reality around the doll. He is isolated, and the community is encouraged to humour him. Pretty predictably, Lars and Margo will get together by the end of the film in what was touted in the reviews as a heart-warming life-affirming paean to the good Christian communities of the US mid-West.

‘Bianca is a missionary’ Lars tells bewildered friends and family, says she is half Danish and half Brazilian. The narrative runs on two tracks: as his sister-in-law comes closer to giving birth, gruff heartless brother Gus who thinks that humouring Lars over his life-size doll is crazy comes around and he turns out to have a heart of gold just in time for him to mature into his impending role as a good father; doll Bianca gets ‘sick’, ends up in hospital, ‘dies’, and her exit opens the way for Lars to let go of her and find a place in his heart for Margo. Some of the Christian commentaries on the film were a little worried about the anatomically-correct doll stuff but reassured that Lars was doing the decent thing and that it was clear that he wasn’t having sex with Bianca, and so they eventually declared it a perfect example of what a loving embrace by a god-fearing community should look like; Lars is spiritually pure, no threat. And, on top of that, of course, once Bianca was in the ground his deviant behaviour eventually gave way to a double heteronormative embrace as Lars matured enough to move onto a concluding tentative relationship with Margo.

Lars is a good boy who grows up and might then connect with others. There is no prospect yet of that happening to what has become known to its detractors and ex-members as ‘the small party of good boys’, the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). The SPGB pops into the media from time to time, sometimes when journalists confuse them with SPEW (the Socialist Party of England and Wales), and then the party operates as a stand-in for a real Trotskyist group. This is weird because the SPGB are not at all Trotskyist, wary even of calling themselves Marxist. Their ‘revolution’ will come by way of a parliamentary majority, they claim, more than that, a parliamentary majority in every country in the world. They’ve been round the block for longer than most British left groups, mostly around Hyde Park Corner where they hone their skills in winning the working class to socialism, winning one member at a time, recruiting very carefully, and only, the satirist ex-member John Bird disclosed, after passing a test. The SPGB split from the Socialist Democratic Federation back in 1904, and has maintained itself in splendid isolation from the rest of the left ever since, insisting that any other group that wants to engage in joint activity has to sign up to its own complete programme.

Their socialism is ‘real socialism’ in much the same way as Bianca is a ‘real girl’ – that is, not at all – constructed as a delusory fantasy which harms no one else around them, and that because it has absolutely no effect on the world. It is an ideal construct completely uncontaminated by anything that actually happens in the real world, and their dwindling membership keeps itself busy evangelising to those who will listen, and writing letters to newspapers about why the solution to this or that problem is socialism now. They have no leader, that is a blank space which means that even Ryan Gosling won’t be up for the part, and are governed instead by a ten-man council, and every split away gives rise to another little group – the short-lived ‘Movement for Social Integration’ being one case in point – that itself has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the left and stumbles along in its own little world before it expires (though Joan Lestor, who left during the ‘Turner Controversy’ in the mid-1950s, did end up as a Labour MP).

The SPGB and a miniscule collection of like-minded parties in other countries (in the World Socialist Movement) are very protective of their Bianca doll-like image of socialism, and have kept with her far longer than Lars did, and along the way they’ve been able to keep her pure; we can be sure they’ve never done anything unseemly to her or with her. Like Lars, they don’t like to be touched, and they cut themselves off from revolutionary politics over a century ago when they refused to have anything to do with the Russian Revolution, it was a coup they say. Instead they cling onto their programme as their little comfort blanket when faced with reality.

Even before the death of the mother of all revolutions in October 1917, which was also the mother of all of the other Marxist groups, the SPGB had condemned the Irish Easter Rising against British imperialism in 1916 on the basis that it was a violent fragmentation of the unity of the world working class. They opposed the Suffragettes because that movement, they claimed, pitted women against men (the SPGB is mainly composed of men). They’ve been true to form ever since, refusing to be involved in anti-fascist struggle (nothing so special about fascism when capitalism is the underlying problem, they say, and anyway if the fascists were elected by the working-class who are they to poo-poo it), against the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (ditto, get rid of capitalism and you deal with the real problem). They, like Lars, are proudly ‘impossibilist’, that is, they won’t have anything to do with reforms to the capitalist system – any reforms will only strengthen and validate capitalism – and the only possible route to socialism is to win everyone over to their ideas, to recruit them into their own view of the world. There is no Margo on the horizon for them.

One of the nice things about the SPGB is that they are about as endearing as Ryan Gosling if you just face up to the fact that there is nothing beneath the blank face; they don’t run front organisations to draw potential members in, they are playing the long game. What you see is what you get, there is nothing else beneath the surface of their programme – you can take it or leave it – and if you humour them and leave them alone they will be happy with their entirely self-constructed ideal ‘real socialism’, a threat to no one, and no threat at all to the capitalist state.

 

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

Socialist Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Plan C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Socialist Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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