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 part of, 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. Downing will have difficulty rowing his way back from this position after Donovan declared that the Jewish bourgeoisie is the main enemy, and the two of them now can’t decide whether they hate those Jews more than they hate each other, a matter that was not resolved by Downing expelling Donovan (or vice versa, depending on whose account you read). This is no longer socialism as such, and merely led to two rival ‘Socialist Fight’ groups, tiny mirror images of each other. No wonder these two were 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 English Left through Film project.