Introduction to Mapping the English Left Through Film

The FIIMG project mapping the English Left through Film is but one way of describing the way the favourite narratives of the left groups work separately and in relation to each other. The project picks up and develops a series of existing older commentaries on the nonsense that divides us. The left does not spring out of nowhere, but is embedded, whether it likes it or not, in a series of other powerful popular cultural narratives about power and resistance, and filmic representation is one of the most accessible of these popular cultural forms. Most of us escape from our dear comrades at one time or another and find refuge in film, and so it is all the more disturbing, perhaps, to find that films provide persuasive frames to illuminate what the left is up to as it tears itself apart instead of tearing down capitalism.

Tempting though they are, jokes about the People’s Front of Judea are trite, partly because they have been repeated so often against the divided left – a measure of incomprehension at what the political divisions are about – but also because the left itself already recognises the problem and enjoys those caricatures so much. It is often forgotten that most of the richest veins of humour concerning the fragmentation of the left, and their supposed humourless complaints about ‘political correctness’ actually have their roots in the left as reflexive self-critique. To do that constructively, we also need to know something about the shape of the problem on the ground. This is where this mapping through film project should help, so you know something of the terrain of the left in England.

The organisations covered in this guide are ordered roughly in order of size, but we know that this is, strictly speaking, an impossible exercise because left groups are notoriously cagey about their membership figures and prone to exaggeration about their influence. Like cult films, their weight in the left does not so much lie in how many audience members they have, nor what positions they hold in the social movements or trade unions or labour bureaucracy but in their perceived influence. So, the ordering here reflects a rough guess made from working through an equation that factors in claims for size, their impact on the political scene and, to be honest, where they appear on the radar in Manchester in the north of England, itself not a good guide since so much political work is centred on the capital, London, in the south.

Not only is this a geographically limited survey inflected by my own sectarian inclinations, limited to England, not including Scotland or Wales, and confined mainly to the Trotskyist tradition (or how organisations impact on or are impacted on by Trotskyists), but there is a limited time frame to the account. The time frame is set by the period during which the pieces were first written and revised, by a radical leadership of the Labour Party, that is, between September 2015 and April 2020. This was a time of high hopes, for a left government with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm who had his own history of engagement with the revolutionary left even though he was not a revolutionary.

Back to the Future

We begin with the Labour Party, a very large mass-membership socialist party, and trace our way down, second, through Momentum operating wholly inside the Labour Party. Although the time-period in which we freeze-frame each organisation is within that nearly five-years, the narrative must, of course, trace where each group has come from. The Labour Party is not only the largest but the oldest of the organisations, founded in 1900 and for many years part of the ‘Second International’ or ‘Socialist International’ (which still exists, bringing together social democratic parties from around the world). Each of the groups has its own origin story and, in some cases, chosen trauma to mark its appearance in the world, its break from or expulsion by another group. History is crucial to each of these accounts, history which interweaves the fate of each of them and ties them together as much as it separates them from each other.

Once upon a time, the fourth organisation in this account, the Communist Party would have been second in size and influence, after the Labour Party. The Communist Party, now a shadow of its former self after the fall of the Soviet bloc from which it was guided in its political manoeuvres, was once the British Section of the ‘Third International’ or ‘Communist International’ founded by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution and then controlled and manipulated by Stalin. The degeneration of the Third International led to the formation, by Leon Trotsky and his followers, of the Fourth International, which operates as the compass for so many of the rest of the groups (with the exception of the Socialist Party of Great Britain which wanted nothing to do with the Russian Revolution and plods its own path, and Plan C which emerged from the more autonomist socialist groups operating in parallel to the Trotskyists). The Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee) is a mutation of an opposition group inside the old Communist Party, taking its name from the old CPGB, and from that old group comes the present day Communist Party of Britain, which has remained more faithful to its old Stalinist heritage.

It is from the Fourth International in its various incarnations that the rest of the groups emanate, and here we can identify three broad sub-traditions which depart from and sometimes reconnect with Trotskyism. The first sub-tradition is that of the second group discussed here, the Socialist Workers Party (the British group, not to be confused with the US-American organisation that was for many years the American section of the Fourth International). What became our SWP broke from the Fourth International during the Korean War with its own distinctive analysis of the Soviet Union (and China) as ‘state capitalist’ rather than as a workers state (and so, logically, unlike Trotskyists, the SWP tradition would never support the workers states against capitalist states). And then, from that we have a constellation of groups that were purged or split from this SWP (or its previous incarnations), that include Counterfire, Spiked, Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century, Alliance for Workers Liberty, the Revolutionary Communist Group, Workers’ Power and Socialist Fight.

The second sub-tradition comes from the fateful division of the Fourth International into two competing internationals from 1953 to 1963, and from one side of the split which called itself the International Committee of the Fourth International, ICFI, which was led in Britain by Gerry Healy and which eventually took form as the Workers Revolutionary Party. It is from that ‘Healyite’ sub-tradition that we have still with us the present-day Workers Revolutionary Party, a very different and reduced beast now, and the Socialist Equality Party, the International Socialist League and the barely-existent Spartacist League.

The third sub-tradition comes from the ‘International Secretariat’ of the Fourth International, the other side of the 1953-1963 division, and then the ‘United Secretariat’, USFI from 1963. (The reunification of the Fourth International was, of course, incomplete, with the Workers Revolutionary Party keeping its own ICFI going until it imploded.) It is from the USFI sub-tradition that we have emerging a third constellation of organisations that include Socialist Appeal, the Socialist Party, Socialist Action, the Communist League, and, of course, Socialist Resistance which is the present-day section of the USFI, and whereupon comes FIIMG, the Fourth International in Manchester allied with Socialist Resistance. Members of the three sub-traditions encounter each other from time to time in the Labour Party, Momentum and in Left Unity.

This is not going to be a best-seller. It is a very niche project about warring niche organisations vehemently defending their turf against each other. There is something of Blue Velvet running through these accounts, and you might imagine yourself as Jeffrey Beaumont peering from the closet to see scenes of incomprehensible stupidity. In some cases there is misogyny too, some groups behaving worse than others, but in all cases you will notice that it is men who are usually in command, and men who, with power, tempted to abuse it. There are few leading roles for women, and we will need a more powerful socialist feminist movement inside these organisations to match and extend the #MeToo movement in the film industry. This is where we are now. These are twenty five uneasy pieces.

This is the introduction to the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.