One of the most striking things about Lars von Trier’s 2008 film The Boss of It All is not so much the plot as the way it was made, and then the weird disorienting effect it has on the viewer as they try to work out what is going on. Everyone in the company is trying to work out what is going on, and who is in charge. That’s the crux of the plot really. The real head of a Danish IT company, Ravn (played by Peter Gantzler), has been outsourcing all the bad and unpopular management decisions to a fictional ‘Boss of it all’ somewhere overseas for years, and that means he doesn’t take the flak when things go wrong. But now when he wants to sell the company to some Icelandic guys, they want to meet the real big boss to sign the handover documents, and so Ravn hires Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) to play the part. When they encounter Kristoffer, different members of the company play out their own fantasies and theories about what kind of guy he is, assuming, for example that the dopier he seems the more brilliant a manager he actually is, and so on.
It’s a bit of a shaggy dog story from Trier, better known for his more disturbing erratic off-the-wall films. It all looks innocent enough, but, given his past form, we are always expecting this farce to slide into something worse. And there are some nice barely hidden subplots in the film, with the Icelandic buyers at one moment making demands to see the main man, behaving like US American corporate asset-strippers – that gives a particular frisson of fear to the company staff who don’t know what the transfer of management-ownership betokens – and at the next behaving like upstart entrepreneurs; remember that Iceland is a former colony of Denmark, and so there are old historical master-slave dynamics at work at different levels of this deception.
The company employees are being duped about who really runs the show, but this uncertainty about what the film is really about is replicated in the production process. Von Trier repeatedly suddenly ‘jump cuts’ from one scene to another, and the film, critics have pointed out, has an ‘uncannily detached feel and anaesthetically flat look’. At the same time, there are shifts in image and sound so that there is a sense of ventriloquism at work: bits of dialogue are assembled as if from different places, and so it is not clear at any moment who is really speaking, or, more to the point, who is speaking beyond or behind or through another character.
So it is with the bit part members of the Communist League, who have managed to keep the show on the road in Britain since they were ejected from a more mysterious and deliberately secretive group, Socialist Action, in 1988. They will show up at demonstrations and unfold a bookstall with some very old pamphlets and copies of their newspaper, well, not their own newspaper, but one put together by the big boss over the pond, The Militant. The Militant was founded back in 1928, and is the public voice of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, and every twist and turn of this once-significant force on the US-American left is dictated by Jack Barnes and relayed to followers in the so-called ‘Pathfinder Tendency’ around the world, including the Communist League franchise in the UK.
Jack Barnes was elected National Secretary of the Party in 1972, and has clung onto power ever since. The American SWP was effectively the section of the Fourth International (though prohibited from officially declaring itself to be such, as it reminded readers of its pamphlets and books in a phrase pasted in as a footnote in every text, by the Voorhis Act), but the party under Barnes’ leadership finally broke from the Fourth International in 1990 after some bizarre attempts to make Fidel Castro boss of it all. Then there is a strange and sad political journey, from debates over independent revolutionary strategy in Latin America to cheer-leading the Cuban leadership whatever it does, from leading worker protests through the Teamsters Union in the US, to hailing the victory of Trump in the presidential election and then siding with the right-wing libertarian Trump protesters against COVID-19 lockdown, and from principled support for the Palestinians to welcoming the re-election of Netanyahu and explicitly supporting Israel.
You can’t understand what the Communist League is up to unless you are au fait with the twists and turns of the Barnes group, now a shadow of its former self, and its publishing arm Pathfinder Press. But wait a minute, things aren’t as they first seem. President of Pathfinder Press is Mary-Alice Waters, Jack Barnes’ partner, and the actual ownership of these entities seems vested in the Anchor Foundation, which sold off the SWP headquarters in Manhattan for an eye-watering sum, 20 million dollars. The legal tangle of share ownership of different aspects of the controlling stake in the Pathfinder Tendency and the paper and pamphlets and books that the Communist League hawk around the place in the UK is pretty complicated. Every revolutionary group has to manoeuvre its finances to escape the gaze of the capitalist state, but that is not the point now. Now it is not clear who indeed is the Boss of it all, and who benefits. This is what stokes accusations that Barnes and Walters are running a business and sit in the most expensive seats at the New York opera.
Back to the Communist League, in bad company and following Barnes every step of the way. Back in the day, in the 1970s, Jonathan Silberman, who leads the Communist League, would regale members of the International Marxist Group, IMG, with stories of his motorcycle journeys across the US to attend the SWP congress in Oberlin, Ohio. Then Barnes’ supporters would operate in Britain inside the British section of the Fourth International as the ‘Leninist Trotskyist Faction’, and a small group of Canadians ran the Pathfinder Bookshop in The Cut near Waterloo Station south of the Thames in London. What was crucial to their success was winning IMG leaders Brian Grogan and John Ross to support them. the fatal blow was struck by Barnes insisting on a ‘turn to industry’ that effectively destroyed many sections of the Fourth International for a while, including in Britain.
When the IMG changed its name to the Socialist League, went into the Labour Party and disintegrated, Socialist Action appeared as its best organised successor organisation; Ross broke from Grogan to continue with Socialist Action. The Barnes group had held on as long as they could, even winning a majority just before a conference, but the writing was on the wall, and out they went. Today they are reduced to being little more than a joke item in the bourgeois press, including the Jewish Chronicle, who didn’t know quite what to make of a self-declared communist standing for London mayor.
The giveaway about the Communist League’s political allegiances comes in rather odd references to support for ‘workers and farmers’, a legacy of the call for ‘workers and farmers’ governments everywhere, particularly Cuba. Candidates pop up in different places every now and again, in London, in Edinburgh, and in Manchester, to get derisory votes even less than random mistakes in the polling booth. Today, it is unclear which actors, Peter Gantzler or Jens Albinus, would play Barnes and Silberman in a dramedy based on the trajectory of the Pathfinder Tendency. What is clear is that the Communist League are playing supporting roles to Barnes. Silberman for one has certainly been taken for a ride, and anyone who joins them is going to go nowhere fast.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.