Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century

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 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 bounce the feminist plot off in big cinema, but here it works well.

Glenn 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 – 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 married professor Joseph Castleman and then accepted that pact to turn herself from Archer to Castleman, 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 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 deal, 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 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 British Left through Film project.

 

 

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Socialist Resistance

Groundhog Day, the 1993 romantic comedy directed by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray as weather reporter Phil Connors, was not an immediate hit at the box office. However, bit by bit it wormed its way into our affections, much as Phil did wooing Rita Hanson, played by Andie MacDowell. Phil discovered that he was stuck in a weird time loop with Rita in Punxsutawney in Pennsylvania, and had all kinds of opportunities wooing her with different strategies that, he guessed, she would appreciate.

That’s the joke, the hook in Groundhog Day; just as the Groundhog in the annual Punxsutawney festival revolves around a futile attempt by Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, to predict the weather, so our hero learns that he cannot get love by simply predicting and calculating what the other wants. Phil repeatedly makes the same mistake, of using his knowledge of one day’s events, one set of failed encounters with Rita, in order to impress her, to fit in with exactly what he has imagined she wants. But, in the process of bettering himself, learning new skills to directly impress Rita the next day when the alarm clocks goes at 6.30am – ‘I Got You Babe’ blasts out every morning – he unintentionally turns into someone else, someone who actually is better, someone who was so dislikeable and manipulative becomes someone likeable and genuine. Phil has had to move beyond tailoring his every word to what he expects Rita will go for and, eventually, be himself. That’s finally when he succeeds.

Punxsutawney is a real place and Groundhog Day is real festival, but the film was not shot there because it is actually a bit of a dump (believe me, I’ve been there). There are two subtexts to the film, or rather to the conditions of its production. One is that Bill Murray was himself a bit of a mess at the time of filming, and was rather like the disagreeable character he played; he is a good actor, but you sense with Bill that he is always actually playing himself, something of the same grumpy grudging guy he is comes through. The other subtext is that, like Lassie in all those old doggy films, Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog is never the same little guy. A different groundhog is recruited each year to play the part of Phil, and there are always a number of other substitute Phils on hand to step in should one of them not be up to throw the right shadow and whisper its meaning into the ear of the master of ceremonies.

Groundhog Day might be touted as one of the most spiritually significant films of our age, but it runs on a premise unconsciously enacted by many left groups, and no more so than for Socialist Resistance, SR. Their wackier enemies on the left have a name for it, and are obsessed with it as the main obstacle to bringing down capitalism, ‘Pabloism’ named after a past leader of the Fourth International Michel Pablo. And because SR are the British Section of the Fourth International (FI) – the reunified world organisation that can trace its lineage back to the one founded by Trotsky and his followers back in 1938 – this Pabloism is all the more formidable a force on the practice of the left, not only in Britain. And, worse for the dedicated anti-Pabloites, as the current manifestation of the British Section of the FI – for many groups have stepped into the role over the years – SR comprises personnel from the old FI groups and some grizzled old activists who were themselves brought up to hate Pabloites.

In one of the more remarkable chapters of the history of Trotskyism, there was a significant merger of two groups – the Socialist Group and the International Group – in 1987 to form, wait for it, the International Socialist Group (ISG). It was the ISG which became British Section of the FI in 1995, and that went on to help found Socialist Resistance in 2002 (alongside the Socialist Solidarity Network and other assorted independent activists) and then took SR as a whole into the FI as British Section in 2009. That merger was so significant because the Socialist Group (SG) consisted of comrades led by Alan Thornett who were expelled by the fiercely ‘anti-Pabloite’ Workers Revolutionary Party in 1974; those expelled comrades formed the Workers Socialist League a year later before becoming, after some other failed encounters, the SG. Meanwhile, the IG were seen as the worst of Pabloites, individual members of the FI, remnants of the old International Marxist Group (IMG), led by figures like Terry Conway. The IMG had joined the Labour Party in 1982, changed its name to the Socialist League, and then was taken in a weird direction under the name of its magazine Socialist Action advising key left Labour Party politicians like Ken Livingstone. A small group left to form the International Group (IG) in 1985, and remained individual members of the FI. In Britain, then, there was a fairly successful healing of wounds brokered by Alan Thornett and Terry Conway, old enemies and now comrades, from the unconscionable separation of the FI from 1953 to 1963, something we could, for shorthand, refer to as the ten-year-Pablo-split.

The thing with Michel Pablo, and this, perhaps, is what makes SR what it is today, staggering on in its own peculiar version of Groundhog Day, is that, after the proposal to enter mass workers parties – the Stalinist International Communist Parties where they were big and the parties of the Second Socialist International (which in Britain is the Labour Party) where they were popular – came the temptation to tail behind existing movements and adapt to them in order to win friends and influence people. That’s basically what Pabloism is, though in their defence, those accused of being ‘Pabloite revisionists’ and suchlike would say that we need to be where the action is, not just dust off Trotsky’s Transitional Programme and hoist up the flag of the FI and expect people to rally to it. That’s the way Alan Thornett tells it when he is rallying the troops, and so it is sometimes Alan who plays grumpy Phil Connors searching for socialism, and sometimes Terry who takes up that role.

Sometimes it really works, as in the turn to feminism, in which Terry Conway has been a key force in SR and in the FI; in this respect SR really becoming what they think they should be. In other cases it is difficult to bring all comrades on board, as in the case of Cuba where some cannot stomach cheer-leading the regime simply because other activists involved in Latin American solidarity movements tend to do that. The recent turn to ‘ecosocialism’ that has been pushed by SR, and by its comrades on a world scale inside the FI, could be seen as the latest attempt to get Rita, to win the socialist workers and make revolution. In the process there have been some successes in building alliances, and SR have often endeared themselves by pouring their energies into joint projects that they were careful not to control. But then, there are moments when this goes wrong, when the Phil Connors leadership of SR go too far repeating back the message they think the others want to hear; a case in point is the embarrassing ‘ecosocialist’ defence of population control in which Thornett will bang on about it while other SR comrades look at their shoes and wish they could change the topic.

The comrades of SR have become who they are, really honestly authentically reconfiguring themselves to what they imagine and hope others will want, and want of them, but, this is the problem, still all the same mutating, chameleon-like to adjust their politics to each new political movement they hope to impress. The deepest underlying problem is that while they do have their eyes on a prize they can just about name – revolutionary socialist transformation of capitalist society into a world in which we will treat each other as human beings instead of as objects, just as Phil Connors has his eyes on Rita Hanson in the film, SR twists and turns to give this future goal a different name each time it twists and turns to make itself loveable. This is, after all, of a piece with the FI itself, and it is not surprising, perhaps, that recent meetings of the International Committee of the FI have embarked on a discussion of what socialism would actually look like. Meanwhile, as it burrows into the Labour Party in its new guise as Corbynite, SR in Britain has dropped the perhaps offensive term ‘revolutionary’ from the masthead of its website.

There is a happy end to Groundhog Day, but that is cinematic fantasy. Meantime, we are stuck in SR with the real world in which socialism is not yet on the horizon. They keep trying out new tricks, waiting for applause, and maybe, one day, they will hit the right note, build the kind of limited alliances they have been so good at forming in the past, and really be part of a revolutionary mass movement in the future.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.