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, our ‘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.
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 and his legacy 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. This is not a film, and this is not an old Trotskyist group, and that is one of Plan C’s strengths,something that could re-energise Trotskyism itself.
There is a real danger, though, 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 English Left through Film project.