The Wife, the 2017 film starring Glenn Close as Joan Castleman, real author of her husband’s prize-winning novels, blows the lid on the crucial role of social reproduction, women’s labour in every creative human activity. The film script and the novel on which it was based were both written by women. Yes, ok, it was directed by Björn Runge and also starred Jonathan Pryce as the husband Joseph Castleman who is invited to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize for literature, and Christian Slater plays a sleazy journalist poking around in the story and intent to paint Joan as victim rather than heroine. You always need these kinds of men, it seems, to drive the feminist plot on the big screen, but here it works well.
Glenn Close is the real star, the emotional pivot of the film, with a performance all the more powerful because she transforms her sinister-powerful persona, crafted for her by Hollywood in productions like Fatal Attraction and then hammed up in 101 Dalmations. She has seized the typecasting of her as deadly woman – Alex Forrest stalking the poor married guy who slept with her, for instance – and turned it around, using it to give to Joan Castleman a cool studied power that will dare to speak truth to power, not in the spirit of revenge but in the spirit of dignified responsible action; what is feminism but that?
Joan has good reason for revenge, and as we track in flashback through her history as brilliant student at college – one who clearly has the ability to write – we ask ourselves how she could have agreed to sleep with her already-married professor Joseph Castleman and then accepted that pact to turn herself from Archer to Castleman, then to save her husband Joseph from the indignity of not being able to write, and to hide in the shadows while he took the glory. It was certainly a puzzle for the kids, wondering why their mother was locked away in that study all the time. This is, as one reviewer put it, Stockholm syndrome with a twist. She takes hold of the means of production, and by the end of the film we know not only that she will tell all but that she will speak and write, as she always could, to do that.
It took a long painful struggle inside the organisation before the last large tranche of leading activists decided that enough was enough and that the 2013 rape crisis inside the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and the failure of the organisation to take the question seriously, meant they had to break from it. Some who had already left, and some who always knew that it would end in tears, thought they were too late. The SWP had been spewing out new organisations in Britain over the years, as disaffection with the mainly male leadership and repeated purges of those who refused to comply took their toll. But this time it was different. Finally, a year later, after there had been a series of other resignations and the formation of younger groupings like the International Socialist Network (which itself split into fragments after a dispute about political correctness in representations of race-sex play in social media), the older battle-hardened seasoned socialist-feminists and their allies broke away to form ‘Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century’ (RS21).
Attempts by other groups on the left who had either been born from within the SWP tradition and flown the nest, or by rival organisations many-times burnt by SWP fake ‘unity’ initiatives and front campaigns, circled around RS21 in 2014, waiting to pick up the pieces, offering talks about ‘regroupment’ of the left. And it is easy to see why. This was not one more mere internal opposition grouping that would burst into light only to fade away, fade out of politics altogether as many casualties of the SWP mania for total control did. This was the real thing, with comrades who had been accused of being ‘feminist’ – that was a term of abuse in the SWP who would weirdly pride themselves on their struggle for women’s liberation – taking on that term and turning it around. The SWP under Tony Cliff who morphed into Alex Callinicos who was then morphing into Jonathan Pryce, were history, and pretty soon it became clear who had been doing the best theoretical work in the party.
It would be too easy – no, actually it would be difficult, that is the point – to point to one single figure in RS21 that Glenn Close could play in the biopic of the events in 2013-2014. It is true that there were plenty of scary strong women who went into action around the rape crisis; they had been scary enough over the years operating the machine-guns of the SWP in factional far left politics over the years – part of the apparatus – but now they were turning their fire back on the party that had effectively betrayed them. In some respects, the new organisation also broke the mould of British far left politics, within a few years able to proclaim not only that a majority of their Central Committee were women – look at the history of the far left in Britain and you’ll see what a big deal that is – but also to develop a theoretical underpinning for their revolutionary socialist group as one committed to revolutionary socialist feminism.
Partly through international alliances that had been forged over the years with other socialist feminist comrades who had also gone through the mill of the London-centric SWP apparatus, treated as appendages of male-centred ‘Marxist’ politics under Cliff and Callinicos, RS21 participated actively in debates over the nature of ‘social reproduction’. First issues of their magazine embraced ‘intersectionality’ as a theoretical-practical approach to linking questions of class, gender, sexuality and ‘race’, and then ‘social reproduction’ became one of the buzz-phrases for a broad though theoretically-rigorous understanding of how it is that women’s labour is central to the emergence and maintenance of capitalism; and, crucially, central to the emergence and maintenance of the liberation organisations that aimed to put an end to capitalism. RS21 thus give voice to the movement for Feminism for the 99%, and actively promoted the manifesto of that movement by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser.
The emergence of RS21 was one of the best things to happen on the far left in recent years, but we need to add a note of caution. Rather like cautious Joan Castleman, who is unwilling to take that last bold step to write herself into history, tell the truth and take up her vocation as novelist, until her husband actually dies (of a heart attack in the hotel in Stockholm), RS21 still often seem a little too closely tied to their old aging partner in the form of the SWP than is good for them. In trades union meetings, for example, we often notice the mainly women comrades from RS21 sitting apart from the mainly male comrades of the SWP, but still on the same page as them in many of the disputes with the bureaucracy.
They probably won’t be completely free until the SWP is finally dead, and the process through which that will happen can only be a deeper more thorough-going revolutionary one that brings to the fore new forms of struggle fit for the times. The comrades from RS21 held back from ‘regroupment’ initiatives in 2014 because they were not ready to take that step, but one day they will take that step, when other activists have really taken on board the feminist politics they have put on the agenda.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.