Emir Kusturica’s 1995 very long film Underground might look to some like a searing critique of ethno-nationalism, but it actually replays and reinforces the very nationalist tropes it parodies. The biggest clue as to how we should read the film can be seen in the director’s own political trajectory; when the film was released, Kusturica was known internationally as being of Bosnian Muslim background, but he quickly evolved into a self-declared Serbian patriot. He later began work on a Serb-nation theme park Drvengrad, a joint project with the ethno-fascists of Republica Srpska, stumping up over ten million Euros to fund it. The mystery now is why Kusturica’s post-Yugoslav tragic-comic revelries would ever have been seen as ‘socialist’; he has traced his own journey from the old Stalinist socialism in one country under Tito to something that is much closer to the red-brown plague politics of Vladimir Putin, now the model of choice for ex-leftist one-nation partygoers.
The subtitle of the film, by which it was known in much marketing was ‘Once Upon a Time There was One Country’, which speaks to the desperate hope of a return to a united Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, perhaps, but is actually a long lament for the impossibility of such a hope. And insofar as it yearns for the past, it is for a Yugoslavia dominated by Belgrade, as is clear from the decision by Serbian RTS television to show the original 5-hour version (which was cut for the cinema audience) as a five-part mini-series.
The film begins in 1941 in Belgrade, where two near-do-wells boast that they have enrolled one of their friends in the Communist Party, and the first part of the film takes us through underground resistance to the Germans during the war, including time suffered by the main character after being caught and tortured. Part two moves from World War to Cold War and confusion about whether our main man is still alive or dead, during which he is commemorated with a statue erected for him. This confusion is compounded by time underground – this is one underground referred to in the title of the film – and our heroes journey above ground at one point into a film set, which leads them to believe that the war with the Germans is still raging. Part three takes us through the 1990s Yugoslav civil wars. In the final scene of Underground, the musical folk drift into the seas while a cynical narrator speaks to camera, telling us that once upon a time there was one country.
There are plenty of deaths, rumours of death, and bizarre revival of those who should have been corpses in this film, but none so bizarre as the organisational revival of British tankie-Stalinism in the form of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB). If Kusturica’s fantasy-film pins its heavy-handed metaphorical narrative on the link between the lives of individual characters and the life of a nation – here the Serbian nation as the real core of old Yuguslavia – so the CPB makes a big deal of its role as the voice of the British people in a ‘United Kingdom’ floating free from the European mainland while actually functioning as a little-Englander outfit to which Scotland must remain attached in a subordinate position.
The Stalinists in the old communist party, the original ‘Communist Party of Great Britain’ made a big deal about their own unity, with a supposed absence of the kind of splits that beset the pesky trotskyites (while flirting with the idea that Britain should be ‘Great’ again, viewing their ‘British Road to Socialism’ not only as a template for non-revolutionary class-collaborationist politics in Britain but a model for their comrades in other parts of the world). What united them all the while until their demise under the guidance of the Eurocommunist ‘Democratic Left’ which took hold of the levers of power in the party in 1991, was actually their loyalty not to Britain as a nation but to the Soviet Union. Shed-loads of their daily newspaper the Morning Star would be bought by the Soviets in return for buckets of cash. There was some rationale for this craven subordination to Moscow until 1989 and the disintegration of the bureaucracy there, for the CPGB was defending what they thought was socialism; it was important to line up with the socialist ‘camp’, and so ‘campism’ as an international political strategy, which then played into national politics, made perfect sense.
There had actually already been splits from the old CPGB, the exodus of members following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 (which boosted the ranks of the Trotskyists in Britain) being one instance. Disgust at the disloyal Eurocommunist loosening of ties with the Soviet Union led a small group of ‘tankies’ – Stalinists who resolutely supported every armed invasion by Moscow – whether it was East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 – formed the nucleus of the Communist Party of Britain, CPB, as early as 1988. The problem was that ‘campism’ quickly – with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the transformation of Russia into a fully-fledged capitalist country under Putin – turned into the defence of one camp of imperialism against another, into what has been termed ‘Zombie Stalinism’.
The CPB then succeeded in wresting control of the People’s Press Printing Society through bureaucratic manoeuvres and mobilisation of new share-holders, and so now once again it has the Morning Star as its daily mouthpiece, also a mouthpiece for a motley crew of misguided fellow-travellers wishing for the old days and transphobes wishing for a time when men were men and women women. The crisis in the far-left since the 1980s – control-freakery at the head of many organisations, and desperation in the wake of neoliberal consumerist new mass media that they could not control – has also led some old activists to flock to the Morning Star and then into the CPB; hardened Trotskyist organisational skills plus bankrupt ‘campist’ politics is a recipe for disaster, nationalist red-brown disaster.
This politics is driven by campism and by the Putinite international networks of Stalinist organisations. Thus, we are told by the CPB and the Morning Star that Bashar al-Assad, the butcher of Homs, is a peace-maker, and this because the Syrian Communist Party (Unified) has been rewarded with a seat in government for playing go-between between Moscow and Damascus. Regime after regime is cheered on, ranging from China (where the Hong Kong protesters are portrayed as dupes of the West) to Nicaragua (where the crackdown by a government dedicated to private property is defended on the grounds that some protesters are linked to imperialism). This campism finds its way down on the ground to backing for trades union bureaucrats who spend their organisational energies on protecting their own jobs.
It leads to the idea that little island Britain, by which they mean England steered from London, of course, should go it alone; they are for a ‘united kingdom’ against Scottish independence. Now we have the old ‘British Road to Socialism’ dusted off, with the ‘socialism’ bit airbrushed out and effectively replaced with Boris Johnson (or by Jeremy Corbyn playing the nationalist card, if his circle of tankie-advisors that assiduously shielded him from his old Trotskyist friends had their way). Putin has been pushing for the break-up of the European Union for many years, and in the CPB he has the perfect political tool here to support that aim; and the Morning Star does its bit, publishing articles by those who once proudly declared themselves to be for neither Washington but Moscow, calling for what is laughably called the ‘LeFT case’ (Leave, Fight Transform) in which international trade would, they promise, be with China and Russia.
These guys really are the bitter fruits of socialism in one country. As with the characters in Underground, they have forgotten nothing and learnt nothing, repeating old international alliances, their ‘campism’, while repeating the call for old national alliances that are designed to ensure that Britain remains a capitalist state, that never comes remotely close to the ‘communism’ they sing and dance about.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.