Silence, Martin Scorsese’s 2016 historical drama, shows the search by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries for Cristóvão Ferreira, a real-life early seventeenth-century missionary who was captured and tortured in Japan and renounced his faith. The film begins with two young priests who hear with disbelief about this apostasy and decide to set off to Japan to find Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson, and discover the truth. The film traces their voyage to Japan and then their encounters with villagers who have converted to Christianity before being tracked down and punished by the authorities. Along the way, the priests learn something about the forms of resistance to local power that Christianity keys into in Japanese villages, and about the local forms of belief that might, they conclude, provide the natives with access to a God that is, perhaps, as authentic as that offered by the Jesuits.
A crisis point of faith and redemption in the film comes when Sebastião Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield), a character based on the real-life missionary Giuseppe Chiara, hears the voice of Christ telling him that the apostasy demanded of him by the Samurai is justified, it is Christian in fact, because it will thereby save the lives of others that he hears being tortured for their faith. The film is a complex theological as well as historical depiction of the role that Christianity played when the Jesuits in the seventeenth century functioned as the Pope’s foreign agents determined to install the rule of the Catholic Church around the world.
There is no such crisis of faith on the part of members of the Spartacist League when they arrive on foreign shores. The ‘Spartacist League / Britain’ was formed in 1978, but they no longer even have an independent web presence in Britain. Their publicity operations are handled direct from the US, and this might be because, just as they specialise in provoking splits in rival groups, they are susceptible to divisions and periodic purges in their own ranks. The ‘Sparts’ as they are not affectionately known (and there are audible groans of recognition from the rest of the left when they turn up outside a target meeting to pitch their stall) have their origins inside the US section of the Fourth International in the early 1960s. They are Trotskyists of a peculiar kind, quick to leap to the defence of the Soviet Union and then of China and North Korea. If the big Stalinist states they love to hate are today’s incarnation of the Catholic Church, then the Sparts are bit like modern-day Jesuits. They are willing to defend the indefensible in twisted dialectical moves that would defeat the imagination of modern-day theologians, exporting a weird version of US-American colonial Marxism. They act as the shock troops of their own version of the Vatican to spread the gospel, while bizarrely supporting oppressive states in order, they claim, to defend workers rights.
A quick glance at their newspaper Workers Hammer and the folded over pages of Workers Vanguard they like to carry around to tempt readers with exposés of the crimes of their enemies quickly reveals that their main enemies are actually other groups on the left. They target these rival groups as what they call ‘OROs’ (‘Ostensibly Revolutionary Organisations’) which they aim to destroy and then pick over the remains to feed their own organisation. Their papers were actually the best source of information on rival revolutionary groups for many years (a gap in the market that was then filled by the Communist Party of Great Britain – Provisional Central Committee’s dirt-sheet ‘Weekly Worker’). The groups on the left they most like to bait and break up are sections of rival internationals to their own International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist). For many years, the tagline of their forerunner organisation, ‘The International Spartacist Tendency’, was ‘Reforge the Fourth International’ (a slogan pinched by a member who was expelled and set up his own international later on).
One notorious foray by the Sparts into the heart of the beast was during the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 when they recruited a villager in the Birmingham branch of the International Marxist Group (IMG, a forerunner of today’s Socialist Resistance and at that time British Section of the Fourth International) and formed the ‘Communist Faction’ to argue in a not-so-subtly-coded way for their line: Hail Red Army! Their attempts to provoke what they called a ‘debate’ over the question came to a head when a 1980 meeting of the IMG Central Committee called them on this and the valiant comrades happily admitted it, raising their fists and shouting ‘Long Live the International Spartacist Tendency’ before marching out the room.
It is partly because the catch-cry ‘police agent’ has had such a pernicious history in the British far-left (thanks, mainly, to the antics of the Workers Revolutionary Party who went for full-blown conspiracy versions of the accusation to attack other groups) that the left has been reluctant to name the Sparts as such. How could we know? But the softly-muttered consensus among members of most left organisations over the years that have been subjected to Spart tirades is that it is most probable that, if we look at the damage they have wrought among us, they surely must be financed by CIA. They are viewed as evangelists for a parody of Marxism configured as a creed to be spread from the United States, and they have often been lucky not to be strung up; their destructive interventions in left meetings are a wonder to behold (once) and then unbearable, driving away anyone coming close to Marxism for the first time. They are much-disliked, and it is understandable, perhaps, that they feel this distrust by the locals in their bones when they venture overseas. All the more so when they have targetted members of OROs by being very friendly, culturally inappropriate in the British left, with rumours that they then encouraged members to undergo psychoanalysis (a rather strange American pursuit).
The Sparts defend relics of the True Cross, putting the natives in their place when those natives dare to challenge the civilising influence of Marxist theory; one current favourite doing the rounds is their article reproduced from their South African outpost called ‘Against Black Nationalist Slanders of Marx and Engels’. They want to recruit the locals to build their organisation and spread the word, but they have been caught out more than once complaining at the backward nature of peoples who just don’t seem to get the message; in 1997, for example, the Pope of the Spartacists James Robertson was recorded as referring to Albania, the only Muslim country in Europe, as a nation of goat-fuckers. Robertson would be a good role for Liam Neeson or Andrew Garfield if it wasn’t that (unlike those two reactionary turncoats) James has kept the faith.
Actually, comparisons between the Jesuits, a canny crew with a sophisticated range of casuistical justifications for allying with the right or, more often, with the left, and the Sparts whose speciality is hectoring interventions which persuade nobody, are rather inaccurate. That’s what Scorsese’s film, if it really is about the Sparts, gets wrong. He should really have depicted his priests not as sophisticated sensitive souls agonising about the cultural differences that lead other people along their own path to salvation, but as all-too-certain raving evangelists screaming at would-be converts to bludgeon them into submission and obedient membership of their own cult.
This little group is actually nothing more than sectlet with a handful of members, and the resources of their base in the USA are getting overstretched as they continue to shrink. They are still good for a few minutes free entertainment on the fringes of a national demonstration, but you don’t find the Spartacist League around in Britain much beyond London these days, thank God, and their barking missionaries are usually mercifully reduced to silence.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.