In Seconds, directed by John Frankenheimer in 1966, Rock Hudson plays Antiochus Wilson, enjoying a second life after plastic surgery. He was an ageing businessman Arthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph) whose attachment to his loved ones had loosened and whose life was a dreary failure. Arthur goes to a secret organisation, known only as the Company, and pays them to have him disappear from his first life and old identity, and be reborn a new man, as Rock, Rock as Antiochus.
Seconds, after The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, is the last in Frankenheimer’s early sixties ‘paranoia trilogy’. Antiochus has to resort to a number of tricks to get out of his old life, to distract attention from his getaway plan and to find his way to the Company, and this trickery is replicated in the making of the film. For one scene in Grand Central Station, for example, commuters were distracted by the director’s stooges having sex on the stairs while Frankenheimer filmed the main action using a camera hidden in a suitcase.
The hideous twist in the narrative begins when poor Antiochus begins to feel nauseated by his new life, being resettled in a community of ‘reborns’ like him, their hedonistic lifestyle is unsettling and he yearns for his old life, even going to the point of turning up at his wife’s house. She doesn’t recognise him, and it pains him that he has taken such a drastic step. He eventually goes back to the Company to tell them that this isn’t the life he expected, he now wants a new one. They agree, but then we discover, as Antiochus struggles on an operating trolley, strapped down while wheeled to a horrible operation designed to disfigure him, that his body is to be used as alibi for another new Company client getting ready for their own plastic surgery. There is a gruesome cycle in this film, then, as the main character realises he cannot escape his previous life, and is eventually returned to it, second-hand, at last a corpse.
It began so well at the beginning of the film when Arthur first escaped the old routine, and, released from the old constraints, was as a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, now one of the beautiful people. He was, in this respect, very much like John Rees who, sick and tired of the control-freaks of his once-beloved Socialist Workers Party (SWP), was able to break free in 2010 and, from being known as Tony Cliff’s second, almost as shouty but not as charismatic, he was able to blossom as head of his own outfit which he called Counterfire. Better, he was able to get out of his old life before the sexual violence scandal hit the SWP two years later. It seemed like a smart move. John is our Rock.
His resignation letter pulled out 42 SWP members immediately, and then another 18, and then, with Lindsey German, founding member and convenor of Stop the War Coalition, these splitters who knew well the usual next step of ex-SWP activists (having purged quite a few themselves in their time as members of the SWP Central Committee) were able to found their own counterfire to the SWP very quickly. They succeeded in getting over 1200 people to London for a ‘Coalition of Resistance’ founding conference later that same year, a less sectarian version of the SWP front which was cobbled together a year later under the misleading name ‘Unite the Resistance’.
The Coalition of Resistance conference included some moments of high drama that turned out to be neat distraction techniques. Some members of the audience gasped as SWP apparatchik Chris Bambery strode to the lectern to deliver a blistering attack on the Tories’ austerity agenda, very noticeably strode past John Rees, very publicly ignoring his old party comrade. As some suspected though, this was a stage-managed snub, concealing the real action; that Chris was just about to break from the SWP too, and pull out key members of the SWP in Scotland to form the International Socialist Group. Once again, the SWP was doing what does best, haemorrhage its members into nothing – many ex-members are so demoralised they leave politics altogether – or seed new revolutionary organisations that then go on to populate the landscape of the far left in Britain. The tragedy is that many of these new revolutionary organisations have been so well-schooled in the manic top-down mode of operation of their progenitor that they can’t shake it off.
For a moment, though, it really looked like Counterfire was going to do something different, abandoning a weekly newspaper and producing free flashy newssheets at demonstrations, and having an ostensibly looser organisation without an elected leadership, until it turned out that this lack of accountability was nothing much more than a convenient mechanism for John Rees and Lindsey German to keep control. What was different about Counterfire, it transpired, was largely as a result of it emerging, not from a left split from the SWP (as the name of their tendency ‘Left Platform’ inside that organisation would have it seem) but from the right. This then had a bearing on their strategy of accumulating new friends and being very careful not to criticise them, first in the Coalition of Resistance and then in the much more successful recent initiatives of their new front ‘People’s Assembly’.
The People’s Assembly, which was launched in 2013, has been a terrific energising force against austerity, and has succeeded in doing what the SWP always did best; make alliances with left Trades Union bureaucrats keen for left cover, draw in celebrities attracted by sharp logos and eye-catching protests, and manage them all by focusing on the kind of ‘united front’ initiatives in which the lowest common denominator is not only the guiding spirit but the absolute agreed platform. Here Counterfire are true to their own tradition of political work, with an understanding of the ‘united front’ as being rather much the same as the old ‘popular fronts’ of the Stalinists. For them a ‘united front’ means humouring your allies rather than, as Lindsey German should well know, building the kind of alliance in which you ‘march separately strike together’.
There is a logic to this approach – it worked well for the SWP during the early years of the Anti-Nazi League – but this logic also leads to compromises that can draw the organisation closer to those it is working with, too close, something the SWP would risk tactically but which its democratic centralism prevented from leading to full-blown collusion. Counterfire encourages participation by outsiders in People’s Assembly meetings – other leftists involved sometimes have the illusion of influence while merely being good foot-soldiers – until those meetings actually suggest something that goes against the line. It is in its other front organisations, like Stop the War, that the logic of ‘building to the right’ has blossomed, and this has led Lindsey German to reign in criticism of Russia’s actions in Syria (more convenient for their alliances with old Stalinists of the Communist Party of Britain) and to fall in line with the little Englanders on the left with shameful support for leaving the EU (and note that it was old comrade Bambery that was wheeled in to make that argument on their website) as if that fake ‘Lexit’ strategy was in some way necessarily ‘anti-capitalist’.
And so, the new John Rees and his friends have reverted to type, perhaps nostalgic for the old days of leading a mass-membership revolutionary party; he seems to have tired of the reborns around him and let them go; Neil Faulkner was one casualty of being told what to do. This has prompted some of those who left Counterfire to repeat history, hopefully this time to learn from it. It is not simply that Counterfire has made mistakes, it is that it replicates too well its own origins, finds them impossible to resist. The Rees and German outfit is rather like the SWP they thought they left behind them. They are Seconds, second-life versions of the old organisation they yearn for, and whose practices they replicate.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.