Socialist Party of Great Britain

Lars and the Real Girl, a romantic comedy from 2007 directed by Craig Gillespie, brings together two dolls for the lead parts signalled in the title of the film. One is the ‘Lars’ played, if that is the word, by Ryan Gosling in a typically blank performance, perfect for the role; the other lead is the ‘Real Girl’ Bianca who doesn’t do much acting either but we don’t expect her to do much. There is really no single lead, no hero in this film, but a blank robotic space, Lars responds in what is supposed to be stereotypic autistic fashion to encounters with others – this is supposed to be part of the comedy – is looking for a companion, which is the romantic hook of the film. There is some cod-psychobabble in the film; we learn that after Lars’ mother died all that he had left of her was her scarf which he clutches against his mouth as a kind of comfort-blanket, and it his loss of mother which, we are led to believe, is at the core of his refusal of relationship with a woman, with others, with community.

Bianca is an anatomically-correct life-size doll that Lars gets mail order after shrinking from a romantic approach by a real real girl Margo (Kelli Garner). Lars backs off from real relationships, he does not like being touched, and we are quickly cued in to some pathological stuff. When Bianca arrives in town and is introduced to the family – key players here are his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) – and to the local parish he is taken on a pretext to a doctor who diagnoses his ‘delusion’, the way he fabricates a new reality around the doll. He is isolated, and the community is encouraged to humour him. Pretty predictably, Lars and Margo will get together by the end of the film in what was touted in the reviews as a heart-warming life-affirming paean to the good Christian communities of the US mid-West.

‘Bianca is a missionary’ Lars tells bewildered friends and family, says she is half Danish and half Brazilian. The narrative runs on two tracks: as his sister-in-law comes closer to giving birth, gruff heartless brother Gus who thinks that humouring Lars over his life-size doll is crazy comes around and he turns out to have a heart of gold just in time for him to mature into his impending role as a good father; doll Bianca gets ‘sick’, ends up in hospital, ‘dies’, and her exit opens the way for Lars to let go of her and find a place in his heart for Margo. Some of the Christian commentaries on the film were a little worried about the anatomically-correct doll stuff but reassured that Lars was doing the decent thing and that it was clear that he wasn’t having sex with Bianca, and so they eventually declared it a perfect example of what a loving embrace by a god-fearing community should look like; Lars is spiritually pure, no threat. And, on top of that, of course, once Bianca was in the ground his deviant behaviour eventually gave way to a double heteronormative embrace as Lars matured enough to move onto a concluding tentative relationship with Margo.

Lars is a good boy who grows up and might then connect with others. There is no prospect yet of that happening to what has become known to its detractors and ex-members as ‘the small party of good boys’, the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). The SPGB pops into the media from time to time, sometimes when journalists confuse them with SPEW (the Socialist Party of England and Wales), and then the party operates as a stand-in for a real Trotskyist group. This is weird because the SPGB are not at all Trotskyist, wary even of calling themselves Marxist. Their ‘revolution’ will come by way of a parliamentary majority, they claim, more than that, a parliamentary majority in every country in the world. They’ve been round the block for longer than most British left groups, mostly around Hyde Park Corner where they hone their skills in winning the working class to socialism, winning one member at a time, recruiting very carefully, and only, the satirist ex-member John Bird disclosed, after passing a test. The SPGB split from the Socialist Democratic Federation back in 1904, and has maintained itself in splendid isolation from the rest of the left ever since, insisting that any other group that wants to engage in joint activity has to sign up to its own complete programme.

Their socialism is ‘real socialism’ in much the same way as Bianca is a ‘real girl’ – that is, not at all – constructed as a delusory fantasy which harms no one else around them, and that because it has absolutely no effect on the world. It is an ideal construct completely uncontaminated by anything that actually happens in the real world, and their dwindling membership keeps itself busy evangelising to those who will listen, and writing letters to newspapers about why the solution to this or that problem is socialism now. They have no leader, that is a blank space which means that even Ryan Gosling won’t be up for the part, and are governed instead by a ten-man council, and every split away gives rise to another little group – the short-lived ‘Movement for Social Integration’ being one case in point – that itself has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the left and stumbles along in its own little world before it expires (though Joan Lestor, who left during the ‘Turner Controversy’ in the mid-1950s, did end up as a Labour MP).

The SPGB and a miniscule collection of like-minded parties in other countries (in the World Socialist Movement) are very protective of their Bianca doll-like image of socialism, and have kept with her far longer than Lars did, and along the way they’ve been able to keep her pure; we can be sure they’ve never done anything unseemly to her or with her. Like Lars, they don’t like to be touched, and they cut themselves off from revolutionary politics over a century ago when they refused to have anything to do with the Russian Revolution, it was a coup they say. Instead they cling onto their programme as their little comfort blanket when faced with reality.

Even before the death of the mother of all revolutions in October 1917, which was also the mother of all of the other Marxist groups, the SPGB had condemned the Irish Easter Rising against British imperialism in 1916 on the basis that it was a violent fragmentation of the unity of the world working class. They opposed the Suffragettes because that movement, they claimed, pitted women against men (the SPGB is mainly composed of men). They’ve been true to form ever since, refusing to be involved in anti-fascist struggle (nothing so special about fascism when capitalism is the underlying problem, they say, and anyway if the fascists were elected by the working-class who are they to poo-poo it), against the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (ditto, get rid of capitalism and you deal with the real problem). They, like Lars, are proudly ‘impossibilist’, that is, they won’t have anything to do with reforms to the capitalist system – any reforms will only strengthen and validate capitalism – and the only possible route to socialism is to win everyone over to their ideas, to recruit them into their own view of the world. There is no Margo on the horizon for them.

One of the nice things about the SPGB is that they are about as endearing as Ryan Gosling if you just face up to the fact that there is nothing beneath the blank face; they don’t run front organisations to draw potential members in, they are playing the long game. What you see is what you get, there is nothing else beneath the surface of their programme – you can take it or leave it – and if you humour them and leave them alone they will be happy with their entirely self-constructed ideal ‘real socialism’, a threat to no one, and no threat at all to the capitalist state.


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


Socialist Equality Party

La La Land released in 2016 was a musical comedy romance filmed against a backdrop of violence that was both implicit in the film itself and in the directorial history that preceded it. The film shot into the headlines, first in the flash of hype which successfully publicised its launch, and made out that it was a more substantial reflection of Hollywood life than the light froth it turned out to be, and then in the embarrassed mistaken announcement of best picture award at the Oscars through which it almost eclipsed the success of the black and queer film Moonlight. Just as much as Moonlight was about the weight of history, about the multiple forms of oppression that condition contemporary politics, so La La Land was about the erasure of history and its replacement with a glossy surface and the pretence that an image of success should be enough to win out in the end, even if that was a bitter-sweet image of success haunted by the regret of its two main characters at their actual failure to make it into the big time.

The film traces the interwoven wannabe-celebrity life trajectories of Emma Stone as ‘Mia Dolan’, and Ryan Gosling as ‘Sebastian Wilder’. They meet and fight and part and meet again in a sequence of elaborate dance numbers which conjure up the heyday of the entertainment industry they themselves want to break into, and there are a number of faux-reflexive reminders that they really are actors, including their own film date when they see Rebel Without a Cause before going to the planetarium which also features in that classic film. Emma wants to be an actress, which entails a running pretend in-joke for the audience as she struggles at auditions and then fails with her own one-woman show. Ryan, meanwhile, wants to perform at his own jazz club, for which he is eventually rewarded with a cringe-making final scene in which he hosts and stars at the piano as a nice white guy surrounded by black musicians as his employees, and that involves a darker joke in which Ryan replicates the recuperation of jazz by white mass culture and sidelining of its history.

The opening scene has Mia and Sebastian enacting a first missed encounter during a traffic jam on a Los Angeles highway, during which the first big stage number ‘Another Day of Sun’ sees drivers leaping from their cars and dancing across the bonnets and roofs as they sing of their aspiration to make it in Hollywood and of unfulfilled dreams. One cannot watch this six-minute single take – fake, it turns out, for it was stitched together from three separate shots with some clever cuts – without thinking that these poor saps pouring their hearts into the opening number are the self-same characters they are performing, a very postmodern replication of what is represented that most Marxists hate. Class is pretty much missing from the film, replaced with aspiration, a self-admiring film about two narcissists who we are supposed to sob over when they are unable to get it together. As well as this implicit symbolic violence in the texture of the film, there is the violent quasi-prequel in the director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash two years earlier which stages sadistic coaching of a jazz student in which the message is no pain no gain, lots of pain and humiliation.

The big oft-repeated accusation in the mainstream media against revolutionary Marxists is that they live in some kind of La La Land, doomed to hope for somewhere over the rainbow where their dream of another world beyond capitalism might come about, and it is unfortunately true that some left groups do actually already live there. Some groups really do fit the bill, hallucinating into existence a version of the world as they would like it to be so their own version of Marxism can be made to appear foolproof. Meet the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), formed out of the ruins of what was once one of the largest Trotskyist groups in Britain, the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) led by Gerry Healy – a plum part for Ryan Gosling coming up – who danced on the international stage of far-left politics until the mid-1980s with his best friend Vanessa Redgrave, who will one day perhaps be played by Emma Stone. They have gone their different ways now – Gerry to the great Fourth International in the sky, and Vanessa in other political and artistic directions (with fanfare launches of the now defunct ‘Marxist Party’ and then the ‘Peace and Progress Party’).

Those were the days. Those old WRP years were years of steady industrial implantation from its formation as ‘The Club’ in 1947 which was encouraged by the Fourth International (FI) to split from the Revolutionary Communist Party (then the British section of the FI) and work inside the Labour Party. The Club recruited leading Communist Party activists after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and then announced a jazzier new name, the ‘Socialist Labour League’ in 1959 before its final incarnation as the WRP in 1973. By that time the WRP had broken from the Fourth International to become a key player in its own ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’ (ICFI) in 1953, and it then refused to take part in the reunification of the FI in 1963. It was from that experience that it hallucinated into existence its favourite bugbear ‘Pabloism’ (the argument named after Michel Pablo that the FI should participate in larger organisations in order to win activists to a revolutionary programme).

That old WRP is not to be confused, SEP and WSWS supporters will remind you, with the treacherous splitters of the present-day so-called fake rival WRP which still publishes the old WRP newspaper ‘Newsline’ (founded in 1976 as successor to ‘Workers Press’). The SEP insists that it and it alone is the ICFI, as do the current WRP. The disintegration of the WRP was a tragic, slow-burning spectacle staged for the rest of the left through the 1970s and then dramatically fast in 1985. Fantasy displaced reality as the WRP turned into a kind of cult, and Gerry Healy began to give lectures on ‘dialectics’ during which a correct Marxist account of the world was advanced to explain, for example, that there could not possibly have been a revolution in Cuba because there was no revolutionary party.

The rest of the British far left knew there were serious problems, that the glittery promises of the WRP to its actor members that they would have their own clubs were empty. Corin Redgrave had bought them White Meadows Villa in Derbyshire in 1975 for ‘training’, but finance also came from the brutal regimes in Iraq and Libya in return for favourable coverage in its press. 1976 saw the launch of the WRP ‘Security and the Fourth International’ investigation and a campaign which saw a stepping up of violence against other groups that were viewed as complicit in the death of Trotsky. This crazy conspiracy theory carries on today in the fevered imagination of the Socialist Equality Party and in  WSWS accusations against rival groups.

The WRP industrial base was bit by bit eclipsed by the influx of revolutionary luvvies attracted by the passion for Gerry by Vanessa Redgrave and her brother Corin who at one point made serious inroads into the actors union ‘Equity’. Equity members who joined the WRP would then get a taste of the humiliation that had been metered out to other petty bourgeois types, well, actually to anyone who disagreed with Gerry, and some of them seemed to enjoy it. It might be a public tongue-lashing or, if you were lucky, you might even be slapped by the great man. The all-singing all-dancing dream crashed as the violence came to a head in revelations that Gerry Healy had sexually abused young women in the organisation during what the British tabloid press called the ‘Red in the Bed’ events.

They were all already heading for La La Land, whether that included buying Trotsky’s death-mask and displaying it at rallies, or using Richard Burton’s photo as Trotsky in public literature in place of a picture of the real thing. Today the SEP and WSWS lurches from fantasy to fantasy, including bizarre reflexively ironic attacks on postmodernism, which they now seem to hate almost as much as Pabloism. They were once a serious industrial force and did good anti-racist work which won black youth to their party, but now all the SEP and WSWS really seems to rebel against is the rest of the left, and reality has been left far behind.


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




Left Unity

Looking for Eric, a Ken Loach film from 2009, sees Manchester postal worker Eric Bishop (played by ex-Fall bass guitar player and palindrome Steve Evets) at the end of his tether. He is messing up his job and his life, and it will be the collective mobilisation of his fellow postal workers that finally brings him back to reality. There are two kinds of reality in this film. The first is a fuzzy cannabis-induced dream state, false solutions to his problems in which his work comrades mix some stupid therapeutic self-help encouragement for Eric with time chilling out on pot. It is then, from this safe space, that Eric first encounters his hero, one-time Manchester United philosophical poetic footballer Eric Cantona. Eric Cantona becomes a kind of super-charged ideal of Eric Bishop, his spirit-guide mentor, and big footballer Eric gives little postal-worker Eric the advice and strength to trust himself and his mates. Ken Loach uses a cinematic directorial device in the film that has marked a number of his films, one in which he springs a surprise on the actor to get a more authentic reaction, in this case on Steve Evets who never imagined that he would actually meet big Eric. The turning point is in little Eric’s bedroom when he appeals to a life-size poster asking big Eric for advice, turns around, and finds your man standing there in the room. Loach aims to dissolve boundaries between cinema and reality, for the actors and for viewers who he clearly hopes will also become actors on the stage of life.

The second reality is one that little real-world Eric is now ready to confront, the grim reality of harder drug-gangs, gun-violence and YouTube blackmail. Now he is ready, with the big hallucinatory Eric’s advice, to take on the gang leader, and does this by mobilising his worker-comrades and other Manchester United supporters in ‘Operation Cantona’; in a glorious collective rebellion, they all descend on the house of the gang leader wearing Eric Cantona face-masks, trash the place and make it clear that they won’t take any more shit, forcing the baddies to pull the incriminating clips from social media. Solidarity is the watchword of this film, and Eric Cantona, who approached Loach and part-funded the film, is but a mediating fiction, something that will galvanise our Eric into action, to take control of his life again. It’s a great political comedy through which Ken Loach makes use of the big screen to re-energise non-celebrities, making use of figures like Cantona to build something different from the base up. But the rebellion is still cinematic rather than realistic; staged and feel-good, it is unclear how this dream-mobilisation will play out after the fun is over, giving us an inspiring moral tale in which we don’t know what will happen when big Eric leaves the field, no pointers to what to do next. Could the next step be to form a political party?

We had to wait for Loach’s 2013 The Spirit of ’45 about the formation and erosion of the National Health Service to spark an alliance of left groups and individuals pissed off with mainstream politics to try to build something different. Loach’s call for a new party to the left of the Labour Party led to the founding of Left Unity (LU) later that year after his call was signed by over 10,000 people. The Eric Cantona figure in the history of LU, and Cantona should be first-choice to play our hero in any future bio-pic, our hero who is, of course, Ken Loach. Ken was the inspiration and guide of LU, attending the founding conference and other key events, until, that is, the nucleus of a new party to the left of Labour started to appear in a most unexpected place, inside the Labour Party itself with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. Then Ken had done his work for all the little Erics in LU, marched them up the hill and down again to leave them to it, up the creek without a paddle, without a strategy, the fun and the party all but over.

As a result, LU is now suspended somewhere between two dream-worlds, between the optimistic heights of its influence with over 2000 members in the two years between 2013 and 2015 and a harsher more disappointing time of plummeting membership as people have drifted, along with Ken Loach himself, into the new Jeremy fan-club and old-style party-political bureaucratic hell. The first dream-world was bad enough, and in some LU branch meetings a good deal worse than staggering through a smoky weed-garden. Would-be ‘policy-makers’ seized control of different commissions in the new party, spending months hammering out pie-in-the-sky proposals which would, everyone involved knew, never be put into practice. These folks jostled alongside individuals who had either been burnt once by the far-left and who, understandably, never really wanted to be in a left party ever again and hardened apparatchiks of some of the worst of the existing revolutionary organisations who piled in, either to raid LU for new members or to steer it to a full revolutionary programme (that is, theirs).

In the middle of all this for these two years, the hey-day of LU, were individuals who really did, in the words of the tag-line of the party, want to ‘do politics differently’, and that included feminist and anti-racist activists who also wanted this to be a different kind of space, safe to talk, to share ideas and organise without being shouted down. This argument for much-parodied therapeutic ‘safe spaces’ in LU became one of the bug-bears of the hard-faced old left, particularly the little robotic battalions of the sects who used their paper to name and shame anyone they disagreed with. LU as a consequence became very unsafe for a lot of people, a bit like coming down after a bad trip. Social media spaces for LU rapidly degenerated from being opportunities for debate into arenas for recrimination and threat, lurching from one ridiculous topic to the next (with one notorious Facebook discussion thread devoted to whether we should have the right to masturbate at work). It looked like we would be dragged back into the first fuzzy reality when nothing really happened, waiting hopelessly for the call to action, for the breakthrough into the second reality of collective resistance.

Presiding uneasily over these different kinds of politico-head very keen to give stupid and misleading advice about the way forward were Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson; now the captains of the ship trying to keep it afloat. Helping them in the first two years was Socialist Resistance (SR), a group reluctant to lead and spending most of its energies trying to stop LU going too far to the left, to keep it functioning as a broad left alternative to Labour. This was a group that eventually jumped ship and many of its members found what they thought would be a safer home in the Labour Party, along with mentor spirit-guide Ken. So loyal were SR to Ken that members of rival groups accused him of being a member of SR. He was not, and, if anything, was viewed by many in SR as being ‘ultra-left’.

LU was waiting for ‘Operation Ken’, but Corbyn’s election did for that hope, and now the dwindling party is left on the rocks, still ‘Looking for Ken’. Perhaps he was no more than a dream, evoking no more than the ‘spirit’ of free health care and a welfare state, welfare that is efficiently being demolished. The brute reality is that the Labour Party apparatus seems unable or unwilling to build a campaign against austerity, hobbled by its loyalty to local Labour-led councils that are implementing the cuts, even when Corbyn himself built up the Labour vote on a radical vote during the election campaign. LU is still an alternative, the best alternative in complex times, but now struggling to find the plot, and will have to do it on its own, a diminished but necessary force outside the Labour Party. The nasty surprise now is that, when members of Left Unity appeal to their posters of Ken Loach for advice on their bedroom walls today they then turn around and, they find that he is not there.


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




Socialist Party

The Remains of the Day released in 1993, directed by James Ivory and starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, is a meandering wistful evocation of class relations of patronage, obedience and restrained resentment seen mainly through the eyes of Mr James Stevens (Hopkins) the butler at Darlington Hall. Set in the 1950s, the film follows Stevens after he receives a letter from a previous housekeeper at the Hall (Thompson), and borrows the new owner’s Daimler to drive down to the West of England to meet his old colleague. The lines of the plot unravel through flashbacks as Stevens remembers his time as loyal servant at the Hall, which include the inter-war years when Lord Darlington dabbled in Nazism, a error of judgement which led to the eventual destruction of his former master’s reputation and career.

The two threads of the film are packed with motifs of reminiscence on the one hand, as Stevens looks back at his life as a functionary in the great Hall, and decay on the other as we see England conjured into his memory at the very moment that it fades from old aristocratic power. The film, rather unsuccessfully, traces elements of the 1989 book by Kazuo Ishiguro who condenses a representation of peculiarly English class servitude into the figure of the butler, a figure who adapts himself to the whims of his masters and learns to bend to the rules while finding little spaces in which he can find some dignity while still being governed.

The book and the film are more about what has been and gone, the lines of regret and the comfort that comes from remembering the little gains that were made, than about what might be possible. Reminiscence in the film is as much about self-deception – the covering over of the moments in which Stevens collaborates with his employer when he agrees to dismiss some Jewish maidservants, for example – as it is about the attempt to come to terms with what has actually happened. In this way the film is about being English and of Englishness as a condition for boring good behaviour, fitting in as the condition for being fitted up and so eventually being unable to resist. And so it is with the trap of reminiscing on the left.

The Socialist Party of England and Wales members usually prefer the more respectable acronym SP – say it fast as ‘espee’ – to the more down-at-heel and rather unappealing ‘SPEW’. They have a sorry history of oscillating between ostentatiously playing at being ‘workers’, proclaiming that their elected representatives take only the national living wage home with them (popping the rest of it into the party’s coffers, then to be poured into the full-time apparatus and lost election deposit payments), and wanting to be taken seriously as having policies that will manage the economy well enough to keep Johnny foreigner out; free movement of capital is one thing, but when it comes to election or referendum time they effectively side with capital and complain about the ‘free movement of labour’.

Their loyalty to the British state and willingness to pander to little-Englander politics flows directly from their many years embedded in one of the most efficient help-mates of imperialism, the social-democratic Labour Party. Once upon a time the British Section of the Fourth International as the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) dating from 1956, they began their journey into loneliness (and now they are well known for refusing to engage in solidarity campaigns they do not control) as ‘entrists’ in the Labour Party in 1964, putting into practice a policy flagged by their leader Ted Grant five years earlier. During years of patient work in Labour Party ward meetings, they burrowed away into the host party flogging the very boring and distinctively shiny bright orange mast-headed ‘Militant’ newspaper. That was until they came a cropper after fumbling their management of Liverpool City Council (where they controlled the local Labour Party) and then declaring that it was time to go in their ‘Open Turn’ of 1991, a turn from which they emerged blinking into the light as SPEW, spewed out.

They never recovered from the glory days of Liverpool, and it is true that the Militant Labour councillors put up a brave fight against government cuts, attempting to balance the budget and save services in the face of threats to prosecute them. And they never recovered from the very bad tactical mistake of dismissing council employees, shuttling around the city in taxis to deliver the bad news while promising reinstatement immediately afterwards. They played the game, and failed. What could they do? But instead of an honest balance-sheet of the successes and failures, they wallow in what they wish had been and deny any responsibility for their mistakes.

Ted Grant, unwillingly, it should be said, passed the baton to Peter Taafe, landing a juicy future double-role for Anthony Hopkins. Taafe now runs the SP, with Hannah Sell as deputy leader (our Emma Thompson), as well as its Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition front-organisation from north London (the SP is last man standing in TUSC after the SWP decamped in 2017). And, predictably for a British group with any pretensions to equal status in the far left, the SP runs its own ‘international’, the Committee for a Workers’ International which chips off sections every now and again from rival pretenders to the heritage of the Fourth International, and loses sections just as fast when comrades around the world realise that Taafe much prefers the ‘centralism’ to the ‘democratic’ parts of a revolutionary party.

Those long years inside the Labour Party sure left their mark, and the ‘Millies’ could always be quickly detected by way of their habit of repeating the formula that an ‘enabling act’ would bypass the attempts of the capitalists to make the state work for them and so allow a Labour government elected on a ‘bold socialist programme’ to nationalise the top 200 or 250 or 400 monopolies (or whatever the number was that month). There is that, and their habit of insisting that comrades read the Financial Times to discover what the capitalist class was thinking and so reel off lines of economic statistics, to mind-numbing effect in public meetings. Lower level members shook their hands up and down, chopping the air as they spoke in deadening monotone correcting each other about the latest financial data gleaned from the FT, middle cadre reached arm to waist velocity as they harangued a meeting, but it was Ted who provided the model, a living windmill who mesmerised annual conferences of Labour Party Young Socialists during the Millies’ years of pretend power.

Other distinctive Millie political lines followed faithfully from their assigned role as a very English little party. On the question of Ireland, for example, they quickly adapted to the Labour Party view of the northern six counties of Ireland as being part of the UK, and argued for mobilisation of the loyalist working class as members of the British Labour Party (and, of course, if at all possible, as members of Militant and then SPEW). They also had a fond spot for the English nuclear family, perhaps another effect of remaining so long as butlers inside the great hall of social democracy, waiting for their chance to get into the master’s bedroom and find the enabling act. And so they were very unimpressed with uppity groups like feminists or Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, arguing that homosexuality was a symptom of decay. It was, at those moments, as if the good old red, white and blue-blooded aristocracy was better than pink degenerate capitalism.

Now SPEW, with a central committee consisting entirely of full-time paid workers, is really a party of butlers who are dependent on their masters for their living and so anxious to twist and turn to the latest line. Every British left group is afflicted with the pull of the past, repeating stories about the good old days, but SPEW is a special case. Whenever we read copies of the outstandingly dull ‘The Socialist’ and the interminable references to the brave battle for Liverpool we are haunted by the dead-eyed face of Stevens the butler reminiscing about the past and going nowhere with it, apart from a futile nostalgic road-trip around old England.


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



In Seconds, directed by John Frankenheimer in 1966, Rock Hudson plays Antiochus Wilson, enjoying a second life after plastic surgery. He was an ageing businessman Arthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph) whose attachment to his loved ones had loosened and whose life was a dreary failure. Arthur goes to a secret organisation, known only as the Company, and pays them to have him disappear from his first life and old identity, and be reborn a new man, as Rock, Rock as Antiochus.

Seconds, after The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, is the last in Frankenheimer’s early sixties ‘paranoia trilogy’. Antiochus has to resort to a number of tricks to get out of his old life, to distract attention from his getaway plan and to find his way to the Company, and this trickery is replicated in the making of the film. For one scene in Grand Central Station, for example, commuters were distracted by the director’s stooges having sex on the stairs while Frankenheimer filmed the main action using a camera hidden in a suitcase.

The hideous twist in the narrative begins when poor Antiochus begins to feel nauseated by his new life, being resettled in a community of ‘reborns’ like him, their hedonistic lifestyle is unsettling and he yearns for his old life, even going to the point of turning up at his wife’s house. She doesn’t recognise him, and it pains him that he has taken such a drastic step. He eventually goes back to the Company to tell them that this isn’t the life he expected, he now wants a new one. They agree, but then we discover, as Antiochus struggles on an operating trolley, strapped down while wheeled to a horrible operation designed to disfigure him, that his body is to be used as alibi for another new Company client getting ready for their own plastic surgery. There is a gruesome cycle in this film, then, as the main character realises he cannot escape his previous life, and is eventually returned to it, second-hand, at last a corpse.

It began so well at the beginning of the film when Arthur first escaped the old routine, and, released from the old constraints, was as a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, now one of the beautiful people. He was, in this respect, very much like John Rees who, sick and tired of the control-freaks of his once-beloved Socialist Workers Party (SWP), was able to break free in 2010 and, from being known as Tony Cliff’s second, almost as shouty but not as charismatic, he was able to blossom as head of his own outfit which he called Counterfire. Better, he was able to get out of his old life before the sexual violence scandal hit the SWP two years later. It seemed like a smart move. John is our Rock.

His resignation letter pulled out 42 SWP members immediately, and then another 18, and then, with Lindsey German, founding member and convenor of Stop the War Coalition, these splitters who knew well the usual next step of ex-SWP activists (having purged quite a few themselves in their time as members of the SWP Central Committee) were able to found their own counterfire to the SWP very quickly. They succeeded in getting over 1200 people to London for a ‘Coalition of Resistance’ founding conference later that same year, a less sectarian version of the SWP front which was cobbled together a year later under the misleading name ‘Unite the Resistance’.

The Coalition of Resistance conference included some moments of high drama that turned out to be neat distraction techniques. Some members of the audience gasped as SWP apparatchik Chris Bambery strode to the lectern to deliver a blistering attack on the Tories’ austerity agenda, very noticeably strode past John Rees, very publicly ignoring his old party comrade. As some suspected though, this was a stage-managed snub, concealing the real action; that Chris was just about to break from the SWP too, and pull out key members of the SWP in Scotland to form the International Socialist Group. Once again, the SWP was doing what does best, haemorrhage its members into nothing – many ex-members are so demoralised they leave politics altogether – or seed new revolutionary organisations that then go on to populate the landscape of the far left in Britain. The tragedy is that many of these new revolutionary organisations have been so well-schooled in the manic top-down mode of operation of their progenitor that they can’t shake it off.

For a moment, though, it really looked like Counterfire was going to do something different, abandoning a weekly newspaper and producing free flashy newssheets at demonstrations, and having an ostensibly looser organisation without an elected leadership, until it turned out that this lack of accountability was nothing much more than a convenient mechanism for John Rees and Lindsey German to keep control. What was different about Counterfire, it transpired, was largely as a result of it emerging, not from a left split from the SWP (as the name of their tendency ‘Left Platform’ inside that organisation would have it seem) but from the right. This then had a bearing on their strategy of accumulating new friends and being very careful not to criticise them, first in the Coalition of Resistance and then in the much more successful recent initiatives of their new front ‘People’s Assembly’.

The People’s Assembly, which was launched in 2013, has been a terrific energising force against austerity, and has succeeded in doing what the SWP always did best; make alliances with left Trades Union bureaucrats keen for left cover, draw in celebrities attracted by sharp logos and eye-catching protests, and manage them all by focusing on the kind of ‘united front’ initiatives in which the lowest common denominator is not only the guiding spirit but the absolute agreed platform. Here Counterfire are true to their own tradition of political work, with an understanding of the ‘united front’ as being rather much the same as the old ‘popular fronts’ of the Stalinists. For them a ‘united front’ means humouring your allies rather than, as Lindsey German should well know, building the kind of alliance in which you ‘march separately strike together’.

There is a logic to this approach – it worked well for the SWP during the early years of the Anti-Nazi League – but this logic also leads to compromises that can draw the organisation closer to those it is working with, too close, something the SWP would risk tactically but which its democratic centralism prevented from leading to full-blown collusion. Counterfire encourages participation by outsiders in People’s Assembly meetings – other leftists involved sometimes have the illusion of influence while merely being good foot-soldiers – until those meetings actually suggest something that goes against the line. It is in its other front organisations, like Stop the War, that the logic of ‘building to the right’ has blossomed, and this has led Lindsey German to reign in criticism of Russia’s actions in Syria (more convenient for their alliances with old Stalinists of the Communist Party of Britain) and to fall in line with the little Englanders on the left with shameful support for leaving the EU (and note that it was old comrade Bambery that was wheeled in to make that argument on their website) as if that fake ‘Lexit’ strategy was in some way necessarily ‘anti-capitalist’.

And so, the new John Rees and his friends have reverted to type, perhaps nostalgic for the old days of leading a mass-membership revolutionary party; he seems to have tired of the reborns around him and let them go; Neil Faulkner was one casualty of being told what to do. This has prompted some of those who left Counterfire to repeat history, hopefully this time to learn from it. It is not simply that Counterfire has made mistakes, it is that it replicates too well its own origins, finds them impossible to resist. The Rees and German outfit is rather like the SWP they thought they left behind them. They are Seconds, second-life versions of the old organisation they yearn for, and whose practices they replicate.

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

Spartacist League

Silence, Martin Scorsese’s 2016 historical drama, shows the search by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries for Cristóvão Ferreira, a real-life early seventeenth-century missionary who was captured and tortured in Japan and renounced his faith. The film begins with two young priests who hear with disbelief about this apostasy and decide to set off to Japan to find Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson, and discover the truth. The film traces their voyage to Japan and then their encounters with villagers who have converted to Christianity before being tracked down and punished by the authorities. Along the way, the priests learn something about the forms of resistance to local power that Christianity keys into in Japanese villages, and about the local forms of belief that might, they conclude, provide the natives with access to a God that is, perhaps, as authentic as that offered by the Jesuits.

A crisis point of faith and redemption in the film comes when Sebastião Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield), a character based on the real-life missionary Giuseppe Chiara, hears the voice of Christ telling him that the apostasy demanded of him by the Samurai is justified, it is Christian in fact, because it will thereby save the lives of others that he hears being tortured for their faith. The film is a complex theological as well as historical depiction of the role that Christianity played when the Jesuits in the seventeenth century functioned as the Pope’s foreign agents determined to install the rule of the Catholic Church around the world.

There is no such crisis of faith on the part of members of the Spartacist League when they arrive on foreign shores. The ‘Spartacist League / Britain’ was formed in 1978, but they no longer even have an independent web presence in Britain. Their publicity operations are handled direct from the US, and this might be because, just as they specialise in provoking splits in rival groups, they are susceptible to divisions and periodic purges in their own ranks. The ‘Sparts’ as they are not affectionately known (and there are audible groans of recognition from the rest of the left when they turn up outside a target meeting to pitch their stall) have their origins inside the US section of the Fourth International in the early 1960s. They are Trotskyists of a peculiar kind, quick to leap to the defence of the Soviet Union and then of China and North Korea. If the big Stalinist states they love to hate are today’s incarnation of the Catholic Church, then the Sparts are bit like modern-day Jesuits. They are willing to defend the indefensible in twisted dialectical moves that would defeat the imagination of modern-day theologians, exporting a weird version of US-American colonial Marxism. They act as the shock troops of their own version of the Vatican to spread the gospel, while bizarrely supporting oppressive states in order, they claim, to defend workers rights.

A quick glance at their newspaper Workers Hammer and the folded over pages of Workers Vanguard they like to carry around to tempt readers with exposés of the crimes of their enemies quickly reveals that their main enemies are actually other groups on the left. They target these rival groups as what they call ‘OROs’ (‘Ostensibly Revolutionary Organisations’) which they aim to destroy and then pick over the remains to feed their own organisation. Their papers were actually the best source of information on rival revolutionary groups for many years (a gap in the market that was then filled by the Communist Party of Great Britain – Provisional Central Committee’s dirt-sheet ‘Weekly Worker’). The groups on the left they most like to bait and break up are sections of rival internationals to their own International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist). For many years, the tagline of their forerunner organisation, ‘The International Spartacist Tendency’, was ‘Reforge the Fourth International’ (a slogan pinched by a member who was expelled and set up his own international later on).

One notorious foray by the Sparts into the heart of the beast was during the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 when they recruited a villager in the Birmingham branch of the International Marxist Group (IMG, a forerunner of today’s Socialist Resistance and at that time British Section of the Fourth International) and formed the ‘Communist Faction’ to argue in a not-so-subtly-coded way for their line: Hail Red Army! Their attempts to provoke what they called a ‘debate’ over the question came to a head when a 1980 meeting of the IMG Central Committee called them on this and the valiant comrades happily admitted it, raising their fists and shouting ‘Long Live the International Spartacist Tendency’ before marching out the room.

It is partly because the catch-cry ‘police agent’ has had such a pernicious history in the British far-left (thanks, mainly, to the antics of the Workers Revolutionary Party who went for full-blown conspiracy versions of the accusation to attack other groups) that the left has been reluctant to name the Sparts as such. How could we know? But the softly-muttered consensus among members of most left organisations over the years that have been subjected to Spart tirades is that it is most probable that, if we look at the damage they have wrought among us, they surely must be financed by CIA. They are viewed as evangelists for a parody of Marxism configured as a creed to be spread from the United States, and they have often been lucky not to be strung up; their destructive interventions in left meetings are a wonder to behold (once) and then unbearable, driving away anyone coming close to Marxism for the first time. They are much-disliked, and it is understandable, perhaps, that they feel this distrust by the locals in their bones when they venture overseas. All the more so when they have targetted members of OROs by being very friendly, culturally inappropriate in the British left, with rumours that they then encouraged members to undergo psychoanalysis (a rather strange American pursuit).

The Sparts defend relics of the True Cross, putting the natives in their place when those natives dare to challenge the civilising influence of Marxist theory; one current favourite doing the rounds is their article reproduced from their South African outpost called ‘Against Black Nationalist Slanders of Marx and Engels’. They want to recruit the locals to build their organisation and spread the word, but they have been caught out more than once complaining at the backward nature of peoples who just don’t seem to get the message; in 1997, for example, the Pope of the Spartacists James Robertson was recorded as referring to Albania, the only Muslim country in Europe, as a nation of goat-fuckers. Robertson would be a good role for Liam Neeson or Andrew Garfield if it wasn’t that (unlike those two reactionary turncoats) James has kept the faith.

Actually, comparisons between the Jesuits, a canny crew with a sophisticated range of casuistical justifications for allying with the right or, more often, with the left, and the Sparts whose speciality is hectoring interventions which persuade nobody, are rather inaccurate. That’s what Scorsese’s film, if it really is about the Sparts, gets wrong. He should really have depicted his priests not as sophisticated sensitive souls agonising about the cultural differences that lead other people along their own path to salvation, but as all-too-certain raving evangelists screaming at would-be converts to bludgeon them into submission and obedient membership of their own cult.

This little group is actually nothing more than sectlet with a handful of members, and the resources of their base in the USA are getting overstretched as they continue to shrink. They are still good for a few minutes free entertainment on the fringes of a national demonstration, but you don’t find the Spartacist League around in Britain much beyond London these days, thank God, and their barking missionaries are usually mercifully reduced to silence.


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

The Labour Party

Total Recall from 1990 starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid, a ‘lowly construction worker’ who goes to Rekall Corporation in 2084 to have a brain implant to give him the memory of having been to Mars on a dream holiday, much cheaper than the real thing, and discovers that the memory is already there. The question that riddles the rest of the film is whether Quaid’s anxious uncertain sense that his troubled dreams of being on Mars that led him to Rekall were based in reality – whether he was always the leader of the resistance there as secret agent Carl Hauser – or whether this is a false memory that gives him the psychotic delusion that things are not as they seem, that he is more than he seems. There are three key hinge moments that the film, based on a short story ‘We can remember it for you wholesale’ by Philip K Dick, revolves around. The first moment is when Quaid learns that he may really already be Hauser, a fantastic discovery that tears aside the veils of reality as we know it and reveals another reality behind it that structures what we think we know. This is the Philip K Dick moment par excellence; there is another reality – it is not that another world is possible, it already exists. Quaid is, and always was, a secret agent and leader of the Martian resistance.

The second moment, a key scene in the film which elaborates a motif in Dick’s science fiction stories which is not actually present in the short story but true to the parallel reality themes throughout his work, is the moment of decision, of radical existential choice. This is the red pill moment (borrowed for the first Matrix film), one where our hero is faced with a forking path between two realities, one of which will spell disaster for him and everyone around him. But which? Quaid is told by the doctor that the red pill is ‘a symbol of your desire to return to reality’, and that if he swallows it he will fall asleep in the dream of being a rebel leader and wake up as what he was before. This second key moment is marked by hesitation and anxiety, and it is the bead of sweat on the face of the doctor that cues Quaid into this anxiety in the other; he shoots the doctor and his fight in and for his new reality resumes.

The third key hinge moment in the film is actually at the end, an unusually indeterminate and pessimistic denouement for a box-office bestseller – Total Recall was made on one of the most expensive film budgets of the time – when Quaid is sucked out onto the Martian planet surface after a reactor explosion and starts to suffocate. Perhaps he has successfully activated the reactor as he planned, however, and perhaps this has released oxygen into the atmosphere, and perhaps he lives. The final scene of the film though does not make this clear, nothing is certain, and it is possible that Quaid’s dream of a happy ending (like that in Brazil) is nothing but a fantasy he conjures up to console himself as he chokes to death.

The question now is whether Jeremy Corbyn’s three-line whip for giving Theresa May the go-ahead to trigger Brexit Article 50 whenever she likes, and on the Tories own hard-Brexit terms, will be seen as his own ‘red pill moment’. We already look back with some fond nostalgia at what 2015 gave us as the first key hinge moment for left politics and for Corbyn when he discovered that he was at leader of the Labour Party. But what then?

The British Labour Party grew to over half a million members after Corbyn was elected leader in 2015. This was an incredible turning point for a political party that had been founded in 1900, and had come to function as the British representative of social democracy, the British section of the Socialist International (the Second International which became a network of reformist and ruling parties trusted by capitalism to manage piecemeal changes that do not threaten big business or colonial power). The Labour Party first became a loyal governing party of the British State in 1924, and presided over a number of important progressive initiatives over the years when it took turns to rule, including the founding of the National Health Service, during which time its membership rose to over a million. This was before it folded under the pressure of capital and then enthusiastically, under Tony Blair, implemented neoliberal policies as the natural and most efficient heirs of Margaret Thatcher.

The election of Corbyn did not shift the Labour Party to the left, but rather opened up the gap between two parties; The Labour Party of the Members of Parliament and the apparatus linked to the bureaucratic leadership of the Trades Unions determined to prevent any shift to the left on the one hand, and the grassroots base of members of local Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated trades unionists who were dismayed at the abandonment of ‘clause four’ of the party in 1995 which, when adopted in 1918, had called for ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. 2015 saw something of a time-shift, then, a dramatic victory for the left and a complete surprise for Corbyn, a hard-working and trustworthy Member of Parliament for Islington North since 1983, who had barely made it onto the ballot.

This was like a dream come true for comrades in different campaigns who had seen Corbyn up to then as the patron saint of lost causes, and it was as if the Labour Party had now been shifted into some kind of parallel reality. Things were no longer as they had seemed. This is the moment, the first crucial moment, when this once lowly worker with the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union and then National Union of Public Employees suddenly becomes Party Leader, as if it was always destined to be so. It was as if Corbyn had bid to have the secret agent for the resistance fantasy implanted in his brain only to discover, like Quaid, that this historical memory was already there, that this revolution was something like what Walter Benjamin called ‘a tiger’s leap into the past’, redeeming the radical history of the Labour Party for today, reactivating it, turning it once again into what it might have been, a vital force against capitalism.

It was, for some on the left, as if the Labour Party was now completely different from the rotting corpse it seemed to be, as if it was no longer an old social-democratic reformist party with the establishment, but now with the resistance. Perhaps Corbyn was leading the resistance to austerity that would turn the tide against the Tories. At last, a popular trustworthy figure, charismatic in a strange anti-charismatic way – something that appealed to distrust of old political bureaucratic machine politics among new activists – was really willing to change the symbolic coordinates of the left.

Since 2015 the Labour Party has twisted and turned between two realities. In one, Corbyn has indeed been the force of change, redeemed his reputation as honest parliamentary back-bencher unconcerned with power, and spoken out for the National Health Service, for immigrant rights and a number of other radical causes. In the other, however, Corbyn has surrounded himself with some dodgy Stalinist and bureaucratic party-political advisors soft on the Assad regime in Syria, for example, and he has tried to maintain party unity by fudging the debate over the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system. Worse, Corbyn has sided with the establishment in Westminster against Scotland, repeating his pledge to win back seats for a British Party run from London, his dearly-loved Labour Party, from the Scottish National Party. Those who flooded into the Labour Party to back Corbyn, and even members of some of the little left groups who have joined, were already asking themselves what is dream and what is reality.

And then came Corbyn’s red pill moment. The red pill was a symbol, of a return from the dream to brute reality, of falling in line with the ‘will of the British people’ that had been lied to and duped into voting by a very narrow majority on a low vote for Brexit. Corbyn had, quite understandably, been lukewarm about campaigning alongside the devious and divided Tories for the European Union in the June 2016 EU Referendum, but he has ever since been egged on by crowds of little Englanders who have been willing to play the patriotic card, to pander to British nationalism in line with their own delusional fantasy that Brexit meant Lexit (a ‘left’ exit from the EU). Corbyn’s decision to whip his MPs to vote for Brexit in parliament is a disastrous mistake, feeding the illusion that ‘amendments’ in parliament would have any binding authority on Theresa May (the vote gave her personally the right to trigger Article 50) and then bizarrely proclaiming that the fight begins after the vote has taken place.

Some desperately claim that Corbyn’s cunning plan has opened the way to another vote after the Brexit negotiations are over, but then it will be too late. They pretend that our hero has not yet swallowed the red pill, that there is still time to spit it out. Some hope; disappointed supporters who have already avoided attending Labour Party meetings after signing up as members are already dribbling away. What matters are not secretive strategies but Corbyn’s role as symbol of the resistance, what this vote means for the left. The Labour right-wingers who broke from the whip are now being cheered on by some of those who voted for Corbyn as leader. Disillusion with the ‘Corbyn revolution’ is already corroding the resistance.

It is as if our hero has turned out not be to be Carl Hauser, rebel leader, after all and perhaps not even Douglas Quaid, lowly construction worker. The worst scenario, and this is how it seems to some of those gutted at his inept mistake in parliament, is that, after whipping his own Members of Parliament into giving support for a politically reactionary vote, Jeremy Corbyn whipped off his cuddly beard mask and we did indeed find Arnold Schwarzenegger underneath. If this is the case then we could indeed be taking a short cut to the third key hinge moment in this story when it ends badly for all of us. It is not merely that Corbyn returns to the back-benches and that the Labour Party becomes a traditional social-democratic party again, a return to business as usual, but that Brexit is triggered under the Tories in a nationalist frenzy. Then the British nation state can expel foreigners, crush the rebellious Scots, re-assert itself in the world, and we will all hurtle to nuclear war and choke to death, as if we were on Mars.

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