CLR James film feast

The film Every Cook Can Govern: The Life, Impact and Works of C.L.R. James was released in April last year, and has been doing the rounds in meetings organised by different front organisations of the Spiked-online network, an ex-Trotskyist group led by the sociologist Frank Furedi and ubiquitous media pundit Claire Fox. It turned up in Manchester at the beginning of September at an event hosted by the Salon, and leaflets for the audience from ‘Worldbytes’ and ‘Citizen TV’ included the usual tell-tale Spiked lines on things like ‘economic growth and serious development for all’. No mention of socialism here, but the film itself is actually quite fantastic. The audience at the Manchester showing consisted, on my rough count, of members of at least six different activist groups. We were stunned at the unfolding story of CLR James, the revolutionary Marxist from Trinidad who joined the Trotskyist movement in the early 1930s and died in Brixton south London as an unrepentant activist in 1989.

The film traces a narrative arc from James’ love of cricket in Trinidad to his time in London and then, crucially, his experience of working class militancy in the Lancashire mill-town of Nelson. James lodged with the cricketer Learie Constantine and became active in the Independent Labour Party as a Trotskyist. We learn how it was the practice of class struggle and solidarity in the community that led James to revolutionary and so then to Trotskyist politics, and we are then taken through his experience of becoming a member of the Fourth International, which was formed in 1938, and then writing his classic text Black Jacobins and his play about the Haitian slave rebel Toussaint L’Ouverture which starred Paul Robeson in the leading role. The struggle against the US American and European ruling class and against Stalinism through the Second World War eventually leads us back to cricket as site of class struggle in James’ book Beyond a Boundary. We are then taken through interviews with his nephew Darcus Howe and interventions by Selma James, his partner and founder of the Wages for Housework campaign, to the end of his life.

The film doesn’t pull its punches, clearly locating James as a Marxist and revolutionary humanist in the best tradition of the Western Enlightenment, and it succeeds in opening up questions for activists today about our history and the place of colonialism and imperialism in contemporary capitalism. There is not time in just over two hours of a film that includes much unseen footage of James to cover all the aspects of his life.

There are two aspects that could have been stretched a little further. One is James’ continuing relationship with the Fourth International after the 1930s. The film notes that he visited Trotsky in 1939 and was still a revolutionary when he was deported from the US in 1953. What is not made clear is that James was part of an intense struggle inside the Fourth International as half of the ‘Johnson-Forest Tendency’ (James was Johnson and the Hegelian Marxist humanist Raya Dunayevskaya was Forest) which anticipated some early debates about the nature of the Soviet Union as ‘state capitalist’ and provided a platform for James’ argument that revolutionaries should support autonomous black self-organisation. He did not leave the Fourth International until 1949, and the FI can be proud to claim him as part of its history, a history of black struggle from which it has learnt much in recent years.

The other aspect concerns the way that James articulated the question of autonomous black struggle with standpoint and ‘identity’. It is clear that resistance to racism is necessarily bound up with the assertion of the common identity of the oppressed (as, for that matter, is working class struggle against capitalism). It is this concern with identity politics that the complex network of organisations around Spiked has spent so much time rubbishing in recent years, part and parcel of its hostility to the ‘nanny state’. It is intriguing and puzzling that James would be subject of a film documentary made by this group.

There are, it should be said, some very traditional and problematic aspects of the documentary format that the film follows. So, we have mainly young black women interviewing mainly white men who tell us how to understand James as a historical figure. Spiked community stalwarts like James Heartfield and Alan Hudson are dominant voices. There is a bizarre scene shot near Nelson where Alan Hudson and the young women are arrayed along one side of a picnic table. The jars of olives and other foodstuffs are turned so that the brand labels are hidden, while Hudson as the main figure in this last supper scenario is speaking into a microphone with a large Worldbytes sign stuck on it. Nevertheless, for all that, for all of the constraints of the format (and perhaps of the background guidance by Spiked in the writing, editing and format of the film), both Heartfield and Hudson speak as Marxists about a Marxist. This is a marvellous film, and you don’t have to be a supporter of ‘Citizen TV’ to love it.

 

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Alliance for Workers’ Liberty

A Canterbury Tale, a Powell and Pressburger classic from 1944, stars Eric Portman as Thomas Colpeper, a magistrate and gentleman farmer who gives improving cultural lectures to the community, but who is then revealed to be the ‘glue man’. This is the glue man who has been pouring sticky stuff into the hair of girls too friendly with the American GIs stationed in the fictitious little town of Chillingbourne near Canterbury in Kent. Colpeper’s rationale for doing this, he says when he is uncovered, is that this will frighten the girls away from fraternising with the outsiders and so glue together the community. In this film Colpeper is, in some sense, the obscene underside of the law, the smear on the community necessary to hold the good moral law in place. In spite of itself, the film reveals something of the dirty often secret violence that holds a clean wholesome community in place, a united community that in this film is configured as a very English ethnic community. It is Bob, an American army sergeant who gets off the train to Canterbury at Chillingbourne by mistake, who links up with Land Girl Alison (played by Sheila Sim) to track down the glue man after she is attacked on the first night.

A Canterbury Tale has become a cult favourite among a small group of devotees who visit Canterbury every year and declaim from the script, visiting Canterbury Cathedral at the end of their visit. They are then able to re-enact the final scene in the Cathedral where the British Army Sergeant Peter (played by Dennis Price) plays the organ after deciding not to report Colpeper to the police. Bob has discovered that letters have indeed arrived to his sweetheart, and Alison has discovered that her boyfriend has not been killed in the war as she feared. Just Chaucer’s pilgrims travelled to Canterbury, Colpeper says, ‘to receive blessing, or to do penance’, so Colpeper and his English community are blessed after having been glued together; the implication being that these desperate measures of deception were necessary after all, and the good that came from them will bear fruit.

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) popped into the headlines in 2016 as the mainstream press tried to track down evil Trotskyists who were infiltrating the Labour Party, but their supposed crime of supporting Jeremy Corbyn and taking the Labour Party further to the left is nothing to some of the strange alliances they have made since they were formed. In fact, while they were busy circulating petitions against a ‘witchhunt’ in 2016, they were keen to reassure their hosts that they are very loyal to the party, taking the opportunity to draw a contrast between their own fealty to the party apparatus and the dastardly operations of nasty ‘entrists’ who are not really concerned with unity at all. The AWL appear to operate as poachers turned gamekeepers, but things are more complicated than that; they are, at one moment, poachers who are willing to pretend to be with the gamekeepers, and, at the next, gamekeepers for the unity of a community who will do a little poaching on the side to glue things together.

The mastermind behind the AWL’s twists and turns as they burrow into organisations and then emerge triumphant with a handful of new members out the other side is Sean Matgamna who founded Workers’ Fight in 1967 after a brief faction fight inside the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), forerunners of the Militant Tendency and today’s Socialist Party (SP). He then took the group into Tony Cliff’s International Socialists (IS), forerunners of today’s Socialist Workers Party, after IS made a unity call in 1968 and invited different organisations on the revolutionary left to come together under one umbrella (theirs). The story that went the rounds is that IS had their eyes on the International Marxist Group, a fairly important organisation at the time which counted Tariq Ali as a prominent member, but instead of Tariq Ali they got Sean Matgamna. IS paid dearly for their mistake, and Matgamna’s Trotskyist Tendency was expelled from Cliff’s group in 1971, and buoyed up with new members scooped out during the adventure.

Unity was now the name of the game for Matgamna, but unity with a twist, which was that each and every other Trotskyist group that made the mistake of responding to the siren calls of his group in good faith got badly bruised. Unity, it seems, could only be brought about by a healthy dose of internal strife. It set a pattern for a peculiar ‘inoculation’ model of entrism in which Matgamna’s comrades join as very loyal members of the organisation they have targeted but then ally with part of the apparatus to attack enemies and so emerge as the winners at the end of the process. Workers Power made the mistake of fusing with Workers’ Fight to form the International Communist League (ICL) in 1975, for example, but things ended badly in less than a year. Matgamna shut down the ICL and its paper Workers Action in 1978 and launched Socialist Organiser, which styled itself as ‘the paper of the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory’. Now inside the Labour Party, they managed to persuade Alan Thornett’s Workers Socialist League (formed after the expulsion of Thornett and other comrades from the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1974) to agree to merge with them in 1981 and close down their own paper Socialist Press. It was another bad mistake, and the joint organisation lasted less than a year.

One of the crunch points in the faction fight that spat out the Thornett group again was the 1982 Falklands War and a response by Matgamna to the conflict which has been part of a pattern of adaptation to ethnic unity and notions of ‘community’ before the war and since. Before the Falklands War, Matgamna had already argued inside IS and after his expulsion, and against the anti-imperialist and Irish republication position of most of the British revolutionary left, that the Protestants of Ulster should be seen as a beleaguered community under threat with the right to self-determination. It was an argument that was in tune with some of his old comrades in the RSL back in the mid-sixties (and there are traces of that in the Militant and SP positions on Ireland). True to form, Matgamna argued that the Malvinas were not Argentina’s, but that the plucky Falklands Islanders did, just as Margaret Thatcher always claimed, have the right to self-determination.

The split with the Thornett group left Matgamna in charge to go on to found Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in 1992 after Socialist Organiser had been banned by the Labour Party two years earlier, and the AWL has been proving itself loyal to its host organisation ever since, and loyal to the different nationalist and ethnically-defined communities it has allied with. This is as well as having its newspaper operate as an outlet for Matgamna’s poetry, improving cultural material that is clearly an embarrassment for the poor AWL members who have to sell the thing. Would that Eric Portman were alive today to play the part.

The adaptation to ethnic unity and community identity took another turn when the AWL followed through the logic of Matgamna’s 1986 declaration that a ‘two-state’ solution was the only way forward for Israel, and for the defence of Israel. The AWL went on to forge a strong working relationship with Zionists in the Union of Jewish Students (more fool them, don’t they know it will end in tears), leading them to argue that Israel is not an apartheid state, a position very convenient for its loyal membership of the historically pro-Zionist Labour Party. This is a position that has drawn the accusation that the AWL are ‘revolutionary imperialists’. This particular alliance with Zionism also, rather predictably, led the AWL to publish Islamophobic trash, glue in the hair; an alliance, for unity and community, against outsiders. The AWL line, a weird perversion of the internationalist tradition they were born from, seems to be that community identity is an underlying good, and that a measure of deception and dirty work for the enemy will eventually result in something blessed for all.

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

Trotsky: What was that?

Like most human beings, Leon Davidovich Bronstein was born and he died. He was born in 1879 in Ukraine, became active in left politics in Russia as a student and was imprisoned in 1905 for participating in protests and a failed uprising against the brutal Tsarist regime. It was a regime that was still feudal, barely developing capitalist economic relations that many Marxists at the time saw as being the necessary prerequisite for a transition to socialism. Leon, our hero, escaped from internal exile, taking the name of his jailor in Odessa to avoid capture, and that name is the one we know today as Trotsky.
One of the lessons of 1905 for Trotsky was that in place of a static ‘stage’ view of historical change, the globalisation of the world economy that had already been picking up pace at the time Marx was writing led to the possibility that protest could grow over from anti-feudal to anti-capitalist revolutionary politics. A ‘permanent revolution’ would therefore be one that was intrinsically internationalist, linking different kinds of struggles against exploitation and oppression. Actually, in practice, Trotsky himself as an individual was a little behind his own analysis. There was a gap. He had to shift rapidly during the 1917 October Revolution across Russia to join the Bolsheviks, something his enemies held against him afterwards. He then became one of the leaders of the Soviet Union, and of the Red Army which was combating invasion by fourteen capitalist countries keen to prevent this revolution from growing over into a genuinely ‘permanent’ and international one.
This is where another gap opens up between Trotsky as leader, now an inspiring strong personality able to lead the regime and its troops, and the revolutionary process itself. His role in the suppression of the rebellion by sailors in the fortress at Kronstadt near St Petersburg, then renamed Petrograd, made him complicit in the formation of the very bureaucracy he analysed so well. But personal failings do not invalidate the diagnosis he gave and his brave attempt to reassert what was most progressive and democratic about the revolution against Stalin’s ban on rival parties, internal factions and then on any dissent. Trotsky’s book ‘The Revolution Betrayed’ was the fruit of his own direct participation and reflection on the mistakes that had been made, and recognition that this crushing and distortion of the revolution was a function of its isolation. There could be no ‘socialism in one country’ as Stalin claimed while he massively increased his own power and that of the apparatus.
The Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1930s was determined to root out its internal enemies, and Trotsky was portrayed as the root of all evil, with claims that he was working with the fascists alongside a grotesque revival of Russian antisemitism used to target him and his followers. It is true, he was a revolutionary Jew who saw autonomous collective self-organisation of the oppressed as an energising force for authentic internationalism. He warned against the trap of closed nationalist politics, and against the disastrous mistake of Zionism which would itself settle Israel on the land of others. He worked as a journalist before the revolution – they are not all bad – and after that he became the conscience of the revolution, a reminder of what it should have been. That meant connecting political-economic protest with cultural rebellion, including on the position of women as an index of how progressive or reactionary a regime is. Trotsky’s activities and writings on culture span engagement with psychoanalysis – meeting with Wilhelm Reich in exile in Norway, for example – and surrealism, writing a manifesto for revolutionary art while in Mexico toward the end of his life, a manifesto that was published under the names of André Breton and Diego Rivera.
That broad contradictory open and inclusive practice of revolutionary politics is what characterises the best of Trotsky, and it provides the background for two further key innovations. We can link the two. The first was the recognition that there was a marginalisation of revolutionary groups with the rise of fascism and Stalinism and then of the Cold War, and a domination of left politics by large reformist social democratic parties or, in some places, by communist parties tied to the Soviet Union. In these new conditions, Trotsky argued for what has been called ‘entrism’; not the secretive manipulation of the larger party apparatus, but direct membership and participation in the mass movement organisations. This is one way of drawing those who thought voting would change the world into action themselves, to themselves become those who would change things.
The second innovation was voiced in the founding document of a new international organisation in 1938 the Fourth International, a document known as the ‘transitional programme’. For Trotsky, ‘transitional demands’ like a sliding scale of wages or for opening the books of the corporations were eminently reasonable and democratic calls that capitalism could not and would not agree to. It was ‘transitional’ because it brought those in struggle up against the limits of the regime, and it then became transitional in practice, growing over from a series of demands into a linked political challenge to capitalism itself. Again, what was crucial for Trotsky was that it would be through the collective self-activity of people themselves rather than through diktats by their leaders that any revolutionary change worth the name would happen. In this, Trotsky is close to the revolutionary democratic politics of Rosa Luxemburg who was killed in 1919 in Berlin on the orders of the social democrats after an uprising that would have broken the isolation of the Russian revolution.
All this is anathema to big dictators and those who want to be like them. Trotsky was murdered by an agent of Stalin in Mexico, the only country that would give him a visa, in 1940. His son had already been murdered in Paris. The agent plunged an ice-pick into Trotsky’s head. Those who use the term ‘Trotskyite’ as a term of abuse sometimes joke about ice-picks, and they focus on the personality of Trotsky himself, avoiding the theory and practice he helped to build. Those of us who call ourselves ‘Trotskyists’ admire his life struggle and try to learn from that, drawing a balance sheet which puts that life in context, and aiming to build a different context in which such a hardening of character and brutality of politics will no longer exist. He didn’t drink much, and by all accounts lunchtimes in exile before he died were not a bundle of laughs. There are no pictures of Trotsky with cats, something which makes him less immediately internet-friendly, but if you twist a Trotskyist’s arm they will sometimes admit that they did once name their cat ‘Rosa’ or ‘Leon’.
You can also read this article where it was first published and comment on it here.

Pabloism: Joining up

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work on this site. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, which includes a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.

Fascism: and ‘jihadist barbarism’

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work on this site. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, which includes a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.