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.