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 in order to be eligible 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 Norton 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 completely 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.
It is for their awful 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. then setting up other front organisations such as Labour Left Alliance (after closing down the Labour Party Marxists site), during which time they expelled one of their few remaining female members.
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 English Left through Film project.