Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 classic The Red Shoes is one of their best films. This was another fruit of their writer-producer-director partnership, one that starred Marius Goring as Julian Craster, a composer hopelessly in love with Moira Shearer (as Victoria Page, the ballet dancer carried away by the red shoes) who is lured away, eventually to her death, by impresario Anton Walbrook (as Boris Lermentov).
As with many films, what goes on off-set is as indicative of the underlying and most significant narrative of the film as what appears on the screen. And it is only after the event that viewers can better reframe what they have seen and make sense of what is going on. In this case it is Marius Goring who is one of those centre-stage, bewitched by the dancer with the red shoes, and in a tense rivalrous relationship with Walbrook, but given a role by his rival as répétiteur with the ballet after it has become clear that he, Marius Goring, was the composer of some excellent pieces that had been passed off as the work of another.
No rebel is Marius, though; off-screen he was one of the key players in the British actor’s trade union ‘Equity’ after having been a founding member in 1929, and president of it from 1963 to 1965 and from 1975 to 1982. A great actor but a reactionary political actor, attempting to break the union boycott of apartheid South Africa, and at war with the left who were mainly organised by then influential Workers Revolutionary Party before the WRP collapsed after the Gerry Healy ‘red in the bed’ scandal. He is a real unrecognised genius in the film, watching with horror the love of his life expire, but in real life joins the camp of those in power. One might say that just as it is Moira Shearer who is captured by the beautiful red shoes who dance their way to her demise, so it is Marius Goring who is captured by political forces that he thought he could control. The narrative that flows from the film into real life is one in which a clever writer is tempted by the promise of influence and ends up at the mercy of the objects of his love.
All this takes a little decoding, something that is equally the case for the shadowy group Socialist Action that once imagined that it had influence in the British Labour Party but ended up becoming a creature of the apparatus, a group led by figures who were tempted by the lure of influence in the Chinese Communist Party but ended up as propagandists for the Stalinist tradition they were once so cleverly critical of. Much as you might like Socialist Action, you won’t find out how to join through its website or its members, but you might get a lucky tap on the shoulder and be invited in one day if you can prove how enamoured you are of it.
The group is the sorry residue of the decision by the International Marxist Group, IMG, then British section of the Fourth International, to enter the Labour Party in 1982, changing its name to the ‘Socialist League’ in the process as cover, and folding up its paper Socialist Challenge, replacing it with its own tabloid and then eventually, from 1988 a magazine called Socialist Action. A three-way war broke out, with one group vying for the affections of the Fourth International, succeeding and so splitting away in 1985; this was the group that eventually, after several more splits, mutations and fusions with some fragments of the old WRP, became Socialist Resistance. Another group, acolytes of Jack Barnes’ US-American-based Pathfinder Tendency, nearly succeeded in seizing control, and was expelled in 1988, to become the Communist League.
The Fourth International and Pathfinder Tendency which was run by what was effectively once the American section of the Fourth International are the two red shoes. What was left was the third group run by a prominent former leader and theoretician of the IMG John Ross. It is John Ross who would be played by Marius Goring in a film of these times. A very clever guy, sometimes a bit of a demagogue, author of key IMG texts under his own name and under a pseudonym Alan Jones, he wanted a new arena, new company in which he could exert some influence. After having watched his red shoes dance his old partners away from him, he searched around for replacements. There were two options, both of which are visible in the present-day productions of Socialist Action. In the process, the women, as is so often the case in left groups, disappear from the scene. There is no Moira Shearer in this story. It is Marius Goring who is the focus of attention.
One red shoe was and still is the British Labour Party; apparatchiks from Socialist Action burrowed their way into Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, GLC, several of them, including John Ross, functioning as advisors and authors of key policy documents. This was one machine that ran away with them, carrying them far away from their old Trotskyist roots into social-democratic administration. Livingstone had actually appeared on a Socialist Challenge platform with Ernest Mandel from the Fourth International as speaker shortly after becoming leader of the GLC, and most members of the IMG were in the Labour Party way before its transformation into the Socialist League in 1982.
Lurid stories appeared in the London mainstream press as late as 2002 fingering Ken Livingstone’s ‘policy directors’ Redmond O’Neill and John Ross, both of Socialist Action. This, we were told, was Livingstone’s ‘Praetorian Guard’. Ross is said to have courted capitalists in the City of London on Livingstone’s behalf, and raced back to London to be his economic advisor during the mayoral race from Moscow where he was advising financial institutions about how to negotiate the new capitalist reality after the fall of the Wall. He is described as a ‘jovial man’, one picture of him that IMG members will remember.
And then, it is from Moscow to Beijing. The other red shoe that was dangled in front of the group was the fabulous economic success of the Chinese regime, and so a regime that had imprisoned and murdered Trotskyists, became academic and political home for Ross, who now pushes out remarkable defences of the bureaucracy. Now Ross is Senior Fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University, and it is from that platform that he firmly denies that China is capitalist. This leads him to defend the regime, and then, just as loyally, to line up with the regime against the protesters in Hong Kong.
In Powell and Pressburger’s film The Red Shoes, the ballet company and the internal alliances and intrigues in that company are as important as the machinations of director, if not more so. This is a company firmly rooted on the European continent; the final action takes place in Italy, and the film was shot in England and France. The allure of continental Europe was always important to the IMG, and to Ross; that was always part of the appeal of the Fourth International to British Trotskyists. Now Ross’s group Socialist Action has simply transferred its affections to a much bigger continental landmass, China, one that paints itself red, and has Ross to help them do that, but in the process he has painted himself into a corner. His enthusiasm has run away with him and led him far away from his first loves, and from socialism itself.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.