The very short unfinished film of the very big classic book Moby Dick was made by Orson Welles in 1971. He wrote it, directed it and took all the roles. This 21-minute film has a history, of course. Welles had appeared in the John Huston 1956 version of Herman Melville’s novel as Father Mapple, an ex-whaler who gives a stirring sermon, about what Ishmael will face when he goes to sea. The novel is great; all you want to know about whales is crammed in there. It is as obsessed with whales as is Captain Ahab who searches out the great white whale Moby Dick.
The novel has spawned a whole industry of literary interpretation, with the whale functioning as metaphor for what both drives and pulls us, and as an object lesson in obsessional lusting, both for revenge against what has deprived us of what we once were and for something that will make us whole, fully-present in the world. The whale stands both for nature that must be tamed, brought under control, subdued, and for the highest cultural goals, emblem of success. In the meantime, we plot and rage and seize every opportunity to convey to others the importance of our quest. That is precisely why it would have been such a spectacle, authentic to the book, to have the same actor play the crew-member Ishmael, the sermonising Father Mapple and the main protagonist Ahab.
What better actor-director than Orson Welles to take charge of this, and how great he would have been as Captain Ahab, driving his ship through the sea in search of the object cause of his desire, willing the crew on, taking them through the perilous journey. Orson Welles’ 1971 film, if it had been finished, could have taken us way beyond the John Huston version, and we would then really have had a driving force, with the energy not only to guide and lead the mission but to be present in every figure that appears onscreen, in full charge of what was going on.
Revolution is not yet in sight for the crew of the International Socialist League, ISL, but their doughty leader Martin Ralph guides them from the port of Liverpool, and has much larger ambitions than just taking Old Swan ward in Wavertree constituency. His ‘international’ is the LIT, of which the ISL proudly declares itself to be the British section. We in Britain should really translate that Latin-America-based network as the ‘International Workers League’, but the Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (Cuarta Internacional), is usually known by members and ex-members alike simply as ‘the LIT’. Even the ISL is usually known as the LIT, or often hereabouts as ‘the Ralph International’.
It has a few members, and does some quite good work locally, but Martin Ralph is the guiding light, a driving force, so much so that it appears to outsiders to be a one-man band, even when Ralph appears at local events with groups of Brazilian visitors in tow, or makes amazing claims about the even more amazing numbers his group has leading the masses across Latin America.
The LIT are ‘Morenoites’, a species of Trotskyist we don’t often encounter in the UK, though occasionally in the North West in the form of Martin Ralph. Nahuel Moreno from Argentina was a larger than life buccaneering figure who joined the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, USFI, at the crucial reunification congress in 1963, but fell out with them after a crazy adventure during the Nicaraguan revolution when he organised the disastrous ‘Simon Bolivar International Brigade’ to go and fight with the Sandinistas in the 1980s civil war, something the Sandinistas were explicitly advising against. The British Section of the Fourth International, the IMG, expelled a few Morenoites in 1980 organised as the ‘Bolshevik Faction Group’.
The Morenoite LIT picked up its ‘British section’ from the meltdown of the Workers Revolutionary Party that ran its own ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’, ICFI. In 1988 a group led by Bill Hunter, who is no longer with us, and Martin Ralph emerged from the wreckage. Nahuel Moreno was a big man, an energetic and controlling figure in Latin America with global ambitions, and Martin Ralph is now one of the best suited to stepping into his shoes, at least around Liverpool. Orson Welles would be a fine choice to play both Moreno and Ralph.
Martin Ralph is well-known for never letting go once he gets hold of the microphone at a meeting; when he was advised by a comrade once that this might be counter-effective, he replied straightaway that revolutionaries need to seize every opportunity to give their message and speak for as long as possible. The Martin Ralph international in Britain it was that, along with Bob Myers, another old WRP-hand, steered the ‘Workers Aid for Bosnia’ outfit in the 1990s, building a base in the North West. So significant it was that Alan Thornett, from the group that became Socialist Resistance (and so in the USFI tradition of Trotskyism that the ICFI always pitted itself against and that Moreno had fallen out with over his intervention in Nicaragua) came to Manchester to try and mediate between Workers Aid for Bosnia and another broader alliance ‘International Workers Aid for Bosnia’, IWA. The mediation might have worked because Thornett was once upon a time in the WRP with Bob and Martin, but that might have antagonised them even more. It failed.
We knew that the hopes for a regroupment of the far-left in 2013 were really scuppered when a few groups, including Socialist Resistance, came together for talks but Martin Ralph turned up at a Manchester meeting. He was unusually quiet at the meeting, and it was Workers’ Power who were the real destructive element, but it was a powerful indication that the vultures were circling to pick up as many pieces as possible from the resulting quarrels. The enthusiastic participation of the Martin Ralph International in Left Unity was always a liability, one of the tiny sects that fed upon that broad alliance. He is a nice guy, but he carries with him the ambition and energy of Nahuel Moreno, and his single-minded full-on revolutionary programme interventions have their sights on the big prize, nothing less than the big prize now.
This Captain Ahab of the left is the LIT in Britain, and for that his efforts to build the world Trotskyist movement should be acknowledged, if for no other reason than that the Moreno tradition will one day need to play a part again in joint efforts to seek out Revolution, our own big whale. For the moment, though, the ISL is a very little and unfinished project.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.