Revolutionary Communist Group

Zulu Dawn is a 1979 racist classic directed by Douglas Hickox, and starring a ripe old cast including Peter O’Toole as Lt. General Lord Chelmsford, commander of British forces. He aimed to take his troops into Zululand from Natal in South Africa in 1879, despite warning from British and Boer military advisors that this would fail. Chelmsford tries to blame the predictable disastrous defeat at the hands of the Zulu army at the Battle of Isandlwana, the culmination of the film, on Colonel Anthony Durnford, Burt Lancaster. Burt Lancaster plays the reasonable more humane colonial ruler, with some kind of drifting location Irish accent, and is killed during the big battle, set against brutal Peter O’Toole who has been enjoying lunch during the massacre of the Brit forces at the hands of the Zulus, having dished out the dictum that guides him that ‘for the savage as for the child, chastisement is sometimes a blessing’.

The racist stereotypes that litter the film are lathered with liberal guilt over the studied and sometimes well-meaning incompetence of the colonialists, something that is supposed to justify the images of desperation and death. Other assorted character actors, such as Denholm Elliott as Colonel Henry Pulleine, are too decent by half, and when the good white guy is found writing a last letter to his wife back in Blighty he cannot bring himself to shoot that Zulu ex-prisoner, who then duly shoots Pulleine. Also perishing, to the angst of cinema audiences, no doubt, is John Mills as the British High Commissioner for South Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere.

This sets the scene for the successful defence of Rorke’s Drift by a small British contingent shortly afterwards, so fuelling a sense of justifiable defiance against the Zulus during that more iconic colonial moment. So they all fall, and the film itself, shot in South Africa with the assistance of the then apartheid Minister of Information Connie Mulder, operates as an exercise in bad faith, the Zulu extras being paid less than the dog. There are a few historical and technical quibbles about the film, but that’s beside the point. Although the film did badly at the box office, its distributors soldiered on, and it eventually became a staple of afternoon television. Here are plucky Brits under siege, bravely carrying on against insuperable odds and advice from comrades and friends that it would end badly.

You need to track the way this film operates as an ideological document of colonial history in order to understand how it has hooked so many gung-ho supporters of British imperialism as well as hand-wringing liberals agonising about what is to be done about the natives when we have behaved badly and they behave badly in return. Instead of doing that, you can flip over a reading of the film, as if viewing the negative copy, and you’ll then find quite a neat narrative about a tiny group that puts the fight against racism and imperialism at the centre of its work, the Revolutionary Communist Group, RCG, its troops commanded by David Yaffe. You won’t find many groups more committed to a black and white reading of colonial history than the RCG, a reading which leads them to steadfastly avoid political alliances with anyone or everyone because every other political force is treated as a rival and obstacle.

It should be said that David Yaffe, a former Sussex University academic who specialised in the falling rate of profit – inventing a ‘velocitometer’ to measure it in detail – comes across as a nice guy; taking the trouble to humorously and rather self-deprecatingly inform readers of the Guardian in 1999 that his machine disintegrated in the 1987 stock-market crash. Peter O’Toole could play this little left-sect general in a future biopic of the RCG, which would admittedly be rather unfair. Read the trajectory of the group instead as besieged by the rest of the white left complicit in imperialism, as Zulu Dawn played out in negative, not positive direct form.

Yaffe had led a split from International Socialists, the previous incarnation of the Socialist Workers Party, in 1974, forming the Revolutionary Communist Group soon after (quickly dispatching his rival Frank Furedi (not Burt Lancaster) in a quick purge which led to the birth of the current that mutated into Spiked). But Yaffe can’t blame Furedi, his Durnford compatriot for the disastrous politics he was himself about to enact with his always-beleaguered band. The RCG are visible on demonstrations, and on their own street stalls as sellers of Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism (FRFI), by which they do their very best to alienate the rest of the left. RCG and FRFI shot to prominence through its non-stop picket of the South African embassy for ten years from 1982 through its own front organisation City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, pissing off the Anti-Apartheid Movement by demanding the struggle against racism in South Africa be linked to the struggle against the British state (this at a time that the Anti-Apartheid Movement was doing its best to build the broadest possible Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment campaign).

They then turned their attention to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, PSC, insisting on a perpetual picket of Marks and Spencer stores, starting in Manchester and then expanding to other stores in other parts of the country, this to the embarrassment of PSC activists who had been doing their best to distinguish anti-Zionism from antisemitism. The RCG claimed to make the same distinction, but somehow their obsessive focus on the Jewish character of Marks and Spencer led them to unhelpfully muddle the issue again. At protests against Israeli apartheid in Manchester, for example, the RCG still try to divert marches to shout at Marks and Spencer while more sensible Palestine activists do their best to keep the march on track.

Things are always black and white for the RCG, and their support for Cuba, claiming that it is socialist, and that any criticism of that socialist anti-imperialist government is to play into the hands of imperialism, leads them to some strange and unpleasant manoeuvres. This is where Peter O’Toole as General Lord Chelmsford could himself be directing RCG operations, here as operations that seem designed to be ‘anti-imperialist’ but actually backfire. When Socialist Resistance – a group that can hardly be considered hostile to Cuba – organised a day-school in London in 2006, for example, the RCG did their level best to alert the Cuban government to block Celia Hart Santamaria from coming over to talk about her book It’s Never Too Late to Love or Rebel, which was linking reflections on the Cuban revolution with Trotskyist perspectives on Stalinism.

The RCG is quick to draw round the wagons and treat every other member of every other group as a hostile force. They posture as the authentic only true voice of anti-imperialism, valiantly going into enemy territory to put up the flag, waiting to be shot down, almost as if that is what they always wanted. Their posturing and provocations at demonstrations puts the rest of the left at risk. They have consistently attacked the Labour Party in some weird counter-effective stunts, and then intervened to attack Left Unity on the basis that it was soft on Labour, this mainly because at one time Left Unity did threaten to actually bring the left together.

RCG stand at their bookstalls shooting suspicious looks at anyone they recognise, glaring at them if they come too close. For most everyone they know has already been encountered and denounced. It is as if they are getting ready for their own Rorke’s Drift to show they were always right, but they actually set themselves up as the victims at repeated battles of Isandlwana, as if identifying with the victims of racism will absolve them from responsibility for the harm they are actually doing to the left.

They are, to put it simply, ultra-left saboteurs who have learnt from the very kind of Stalinism the IS/SWP tradition had tried to set itself against, and ended up mimicking Stalinist methods. They have isolated themselves in the process, despite the warnings of those around them who wanted to be their friends, and they will be isolated from any mass movement that actually brings about socialism in Britain.

 

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

 

Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century

The Wife, the 2017 film starring Glenn Close as Joan Castleman, real author of her husband’s prize-winning novels, blows the lid on the crucial role of social reproduction, women’s labour in every creative human activity. The script and the novel on which it was based were both written by women. Yes, ok, it was directed by Björn Runge and also starred Jonathan Pryce as the husband Joseph Castleman who is invited to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize for literature, and Christian Slater plays a sleazy journalist poking around in the story and intent to paint Joan as victim rather than heroine. You always need these kinds of men, it seems, to bounce the feminist plot off in big cinema, but here it works well.

Glenn is the real star, the emotional pivot of the film, with a performance all the more powerful because she transforms her sinister-powerful persona, crafted for her by Hollywood in productions like Fatal Attraction and then hammed up in 101 Dalmations. She has seized the typecasting of her as deadly woman – Alex Forrest stalking the poor married guy who slept with her – and turned it around, using it to give to Joan Castleman a cool studied power that will dare to speak truth to power, not in the spirit of revenge but in the spirit of dignified responsible action; what is feminism but that?

Joan has good reason for revenge, and as we track in flashback through her history as brilliant student at college – one who clearly has the ability to write – we ask ourselves how she could have agreed to sleep with her married professor Joseph Castleman and then accepted that pact to turn herself from Archer to Castleman, to save her husband Joseph from the indignity of not being able to write, and to hide in the shadows while he took the glory. It was certainly a puzzle for the kids, wondering why their mother was locked away in that study all the time. This is, as one reviewer put it, Stockholm syndrome with a twist. She takes hold of the means of production, and by the end of the film we know not only that she will tell all but that she will speak and write, as she always could, to do that.

It took a long painful struggle inside the organisation before the last large tranche of leading activists decided that enough was enough and that the 2013 rape crisis inside the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and the failure of the organisation to take the question seriously, meant they had to break from it. Some who had already left, and some who always knew that it would end in tears, thought they were too late. The SWP had been spewing out new organisations in Britain over the years, as disaffection with the mainly male leadership and repeated purges of those who refused to comply took their toll. But this time it was different. Finally, a year later, after there had been a series of other resignations and the formation of younger groupings like the International Socialist Network (which itself split into fragments after a dispute about political correctness in representations of race-sex play in social media), the older battle-hardened seasoned socialist-feminists broke away to form ‘Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century’ (RS21).

Attempts by other groups on the left who had either been born from within the SWP tradition and flown the nest, or by rival organisations many-times burnt by SWP fake ‘unity’ initiatives and front campaigns, circled around RS21 in 2014, waiting to pick up the pieces, offering talks about ‘regroupment’ of the left. And it is easy to see why. This was not one more mere internal opposition grouping that would burst into light only to fade away, fade out of politics altogether as many casualties of the SWP mania for total control did. This was the real deal, with comrades who had been accused of being ‘feminist’ – that was a term of abuse in the SWP who would weirdly pride themselves on their struggle for women’s liberation – taking on that term and turning it around. The SWP under Tony Cliff who morphed into Alex Callinicos who was then morphing into Jonathan Pryce, were history, and pretty soon it became clear who had been doing the best theoretical work in the party.

It would be too easy – no, actually it would be difficult, that is the point – to point to one single figure in RS21 that Glenn Close could play in the biopic of the events in 2013-2014. It is true that there were plenty of scary strong women who went into action around the rape crisis; they had been scary enough over the years operating machine-guns of the SWP in factional far left politics over the years – part of the apparatus – but now they were turning their fire back on the party that had effectively betrayed them. In some respects, the new organisation also broke the mould of British far left politics, within a few years able to proclaim not only that a majority of their Central Committee were women – look at the history of the far left in Britain and you’ll see what a big deal that is – but also to develop a theoretical underpinning for their revolutionary socialist group as one committed to revolutionary socialist feminism.

Partly through international alliances that had been forged over the years with other socialist feminist comrades who had also gone through the mill of the London-centric SWP apparatus, treated as appendages of male-centred ‘Marxist’ politics under Cliff and Callinicos, RS21 participated actively in debates over the nature of ‘social reproduction’. First issues of their magazine embraced ‘intersectionality’ as a theoretical-practical approach to linking questions of class, gender, sexuality and ‘race’, and then ‘social reproduction’ became one of the buzz-phrases for a broad though theoretically-rigorous understanding of how it is that women’s labour is central to the emergence and maintenance of capitalism; and, crucially, central to the emergence and maintenance of the liberation organisations that aimed to put an end to capitalism. RS21 thus give voice to the movement for Feminism for the 99%, and actively promoted the manifesto of that movement by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser.

The emergence of RS21 was one of the best things to happen on the far left in recent years, but we need to add a note of caution. Rather like cautious Joan Castleman, who is unwilling to take that last bold step to write herself into history, tell the truth and take up her vocation as novelist, until her husband actually dies (of a heart attack in the hotel in Stockholm), RS21 still often seem a little too closely tied to their old aging partner in the form of the SWP than is good for them. In trades union meetings, for example, we often notice the mainly women comrades from RS21 sitting apart from the mainly male comrades of the SWP, but still on the same page as them in many of the disputes with the bureaucracy. They probably won’t be completely free until the SWP is finally dead, and the process through which that will happen, can only be a deeper more thorough-going revolutionary one that brings to the fore new forms of struggle fit for the times. The comrades from RS21 held back from ‘regroupment’ initiatives in 2014 because they were not ready to take that step, but one day they will take that step, when other activists have really taken on board the feminist politics they have put on the agenda.

 

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

 

 

Socialist Resistance

Groundhog Day, the 1993 romantic comedy directed by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray as weather reporter Phil Connors, was not an immediate hit at the box office. However, bit by bit it wormed its way into our affections, much as Phil did wooing Rita Hanson, played by Andie MacDowell. Phil discovered that he was stuck in a weird time loop with Rita in Punxsutawney in Pennsylvania, and had all kinds of opportunities wooing her with different strategies that, he guessed, she would appreciate.

That’s the joke, the hook in Groundhog Day; just as the Groundhog in the annual Punxsutawney festival revolves around a futile attempt by Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, to predict the weather, so our hero learns that he cannot get love by simply predicting and calculating what the other wants. Phil repeatedly makes the same mistake, of using his knowledge of one day’s events, one set of failed encounters with Rita, in order to impress her, to fit in with exactly what he has imagined she wants. But, in the process of bettering himself, learning new skills to directly impress Rita the next day when the alarm clocks goes at 6.30am – ‘I Got You Babe’ blasts out every morning – he unintentionally turns into someone else, someone who actually is better, someone who was so dislikeable and manipulative becomes someone likeable and genuine. Phil has had to move beyond tailoring his every word to what he expects Rita will go for and, eventually, be himself. That’s finally when he succeeds.

Punxsutawney is a real place and Groundhog Day is real festival, but the film was not shot there because it is actually a bit of a dump (believe me, I’ve been there). There are two subtexts to the film, or rather to the conditions of its production. One is that Bill Murray was himself a bit of a mess at the time of filming, and was rather like the disagreeable character he played; he is a good actor, but you sense with Bill that he is always actually playing himself, something of the same grumpy grudging guy he is comes through. The other subtext is that, like Lassie in all those old doggy films, Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog is never the same little guy. A different groundhog is recruited each year to play the part of Phil, and there are always a number of other substitute Phils on hand to step in should one of them not be up to throw the right shadow and whisper its meaning into the ear of the master of ceremonies.

Groundhog Day might be touted as one of the most spiritually significant films of our age, but it runs on a premise unconsciously enacted by many left groups, and no more so than for Socialist Resistance, SR. Their wackier enemies on the left have a name for it, and are obsessed with it as the main obstacle to bringing down capitalism, ‘Pabloism’ named after a past leader of the Fourth International Michel Pablo. And because SR are the British Section of the Fourth International (FI) – the reunified world organisation that can trace its lineage back to the one founded by Trotsky and his followers back in 1938 – this Pabloism is all the more formidable a force on the practice of the left, not only in Britain. And, worse for the dedicated anti-Pabloites, as the current manifestation of the British Section of the FI – for many groups have stepped into the role over the years – SR comprises personnel from the old FI groups and some grizzled old activists who were themselves brought up to hate Pabloites.

In one of the more remarkable chapters of the history of Trotskyism, there was a significant merger of two groups – the Socialist Group and the International Group – in 1987 to form, wait for it, the International Socialist Group (ISG). It was the ISG which became British Section of the FI in 1995, and that went on to help found Socialist Resistance in 2002 (alongside the Socialist Solidarity Network and other assorted independent activists) and then took SR as a whole into the FI as British Section in 2009. That merger was so significant because the Socialist Group (SG) consisted of comrades led by Alan Thornett who were expelled by the fiercely ‘anti-Pabloite’ Workers Revolutionary Party in 1974; those expelled comrades formed the Workers Socialist League a year later before becoming, after some other failed encounters, the SG. Meanwhile, the IG were seen as the worst of Pabloites, individual members of the FI, remnants of the old International Marxist Group (IMG), led by figures like Terry Conway. The IMG had joined the Labour Party in 1982, changed its name to the Socialist League, and then was taken in a weird direction under the name of its magazine Socialist Action advising key left Labour Party politicians like Ken Livingstone. A small group left to form the International Group (IG) in 1985, and remained individual members of the FI. In Britain, then, there was a fairly successful healing of wounds brokered by Alan Thornett and Terry Conway, old enemies and now comrades, from the unconscionable separation of the FI from 1953 to 1963, something we could, for shorthand, refer to as the ten-year-Pablo-split.

The thing with Michel Pablo, and this, perhaps, is what makes SR what it is today, staggering on in its own peculiar version of Groundhog Day, is that, after the proposal to enter mass workers parties – the Stalinist International Communist Parties where they were big and the parties of the Second Socialist International (which in Britain is the Labour Party) where they were popular – came the temptation to tail behind existing movements and adapt to them in order to win friends and influence people. That’s basically what Pabloism is, though in their defence, those accused of being ‘Pabloite revisionists’ and suchlike would say that we need to be where the action is, not just dust off Trotsky’s Transitional Programme and hoist up the flag of the FI and expect people to rally to it. That’s the way Alan Thornett tells it when he is rallying the troops, and so it is sometimes Alan who plays grumpy Phil Connors searching for socialism, and sometimes Terry who takes up that role.

Sometimes it really works, as in the turn to feminism, in which Terry Conway has been a key force in SR and in the FI; in this respect SR really becoming what they think they should be. In other cases it is difficult to bring all comrades on board, as in the case of Cuba where some cannot stomach cheer-leading the regime simply because other activists involved in Latin American solidarity movements tend to do that. The recent turn to ‘ecosocialism’ that has been pushed by SR, and by its comrades on a world scale inside the FI, could be seen as the latest attempt to get Rita, to win the socialist workers and make revolution. In the process there have been some successes in building alliances, and SR have often endeared themselves by pouring their energies into joint projects that they were careful not to control. But then, there are moments when this goes wrong, when the Phil Connors leadership of SR go too far repeating back the message they think the others want to hear; a case in point is the embarrassing ‘ecosocialist’ defence of population control in which Thornett will bang on about it while other SR comrades look at their shoes and wish they could change the topic.

The comrades of SR have become who they are, really honestly authentically reconfiguring themselves to what they imagine and hope others will want, and want of them, but, this is the problem, still all the same mutating, chameleon-like to adjust their politics to each new political movement they hope to impress. The deepest underlying problem is that while they do have their eyes on a prize they can just about name – revolutionary socialist transformation of capitalist society into a world in which we will treat each other as human beings instead of as objects, just as Phil Connors has his eyes on Rita Hanson in the film, SR twists and turns to give this future goal a different name each time it twists and turns to make itself loveable. This is, after all, of a piece with the FI itself, and it is not surprising, perhaps, that recent meetings of the International Committee of the FI have embarked on a discussion of what socialism would actually look like. Meanwhile, as it burrows into the Labour Party in its new guise as Corbynite, SR in Britain has dropped the perhaps offensive term ‘revolutionary’ from the masthead of its website.

There is a happy end to Groundhog Day, but that is cinematic fantasy. Meantime, we are stuck in SR with the real world in which socialism is not yet on the horizon. They keep trying out new tricks, waiting for applause, and maybe, one day, they will hit the right note, build the kind of limited alliances they have been so good at forming in the past, and really be part of a revolutionary mass movement in the future.

 

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

 

 

 

Communist Party of Britain

Emir Kusturica’s 1995 very long film Underground might look to some like a searing critique of ethno-nationalism, but it actually replays and reinforces the very nationalist tropes it parodies. The biggest clue as to how we should read the film can be seen in the director’s own political trajectory; when the film was released, Kusturica was known internationally as being of Bosnian Muslim background, but he quickly evolved into a self-declared Serbian patriot. He later began work on a little Serb-nation theme park Drvengrad, a joint project with the ethno-fascists of Republica Srpska, stumping up over ten million Euros to fund it. The mystery is now why Kusturica’s post-Yugoslav tragic-comic revelries would ever have been seen as ‘socialist’; he has traced his own journey from the old Stalinist socialism in one country under Tito to something that is much closer to the red-brown plague politics of Vladimir Putin, now the model of choice for ex-leftist one-nation partygoers.

The subtitle of the film, by which it was known in much marketing was ‘Once Upon a Time There was One Country’, which speaks to the desperate hope of a return to a united Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, perhaps, but is actually a long lament for the impossibility of such a hope. And insofar as it yearns for the past, it is for a Yugoslavia dominated by Belgrade, as is clear from the decision by Serbian RTS television to show the original 5-hour version (which was cut for the cinema audience) as a five-part mini-series.

The film begins in 1941 in Belgrade, where two near-do-wells boast that they have enrolled one of their friends in the Communist Party, and the first part of the film takes us through underground resistance to the Germans during the war, including time suffered by the main character after being caught and tortured. Part two moves from World War to Cold War and confusion about whether our main man is still alive or dead, during which he is commemorated with a statue erected for him. This confusion is compounded by time underground – this is one underground referred to in the title of the film – and our heroes journey above ground at one point into a film set, which leads them to believe that the war with the Germans is still raging. Part three takes us through the 1990s Yugoslav civil wars. In the final scene of Underground, the musical folk drift into the seas while a cynical narrator speaks to camera, telling us that once upon a time there was one country.

There are plenty of deaths, rumours of death, and bizarre revival of those who should have been corpses in this film, but none so bizarre as the organisational revival of British tankie-Stalinism in the form of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB). If Kusturica’s fantasy-film pins its heavy-handed metaphorical narrative on the link between the lives of individual characters and the life of a nation – here the Serbian nation as the real core of old Yuguslavia – so the CPB makes a big deal of its role as the voice of the British people in a ‘United Kingdom’ floating free from the European mainland while actually functioning as a little-Englander outfit to which Scotland must remain attached in a subordinate position.

The Stalinists in the old communist party, the original ‘Communist Party of Great Britain’ made a big deal about their own unity, with a supposed absence of the kind of splits that beset the pesky trotskyites (while flirting with the idea that Britain should be ‘Great’ again, viewing their ‘British Road to Socialism’ not only as a template for non-revolutionary class-collaborationist politics in Britain but a model for their comrades in other parts of the world). What united them all the while until their demise under the guidance of the Eurocommunist ‘Democratic Left’ which took hold of the levers of power in the party in 1991, was actually their loyalty not to Britain as a nation but to the Soviet Union. Shed-loads of their daily newspaper the Morning Star would be bought by the Soviets in return for shed-loads of cash. There was some rationale for this craven subordination to Moscow until 1989 and the disintegration of the bureaucracy there, for the CPGB was defending what they thought was socialism; it was important to line up with the socialist ‘camp’, and so ‘campism’ as an international political strategy, which then played into national politics, made perfect sense.

There had actually already been splits from the old CPGB, the exodus of members following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 (which boosted the ranks of the Trotskyists in Britain) being a case. Disgust at the disloyal Eurocommunist loosening of ties with the Soviet Union led a small group of ‘tankies’ – Stalinists who resolutely supported every armed invasion by Moscow – whether it was East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 – formed the nucleus of the Communist Party of Britain, CPB, as early as 1988. The problem was that ‘campism’ quickly – with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the transformation of Russia into a fully-fledged capitalist country under Putin – turned into the defence of one camp of imperialism against another, into what has been termed ‘Zombie Stalinism’.

The CPB then succeeded in wresting control of the People’s Press Printing Society through bureaucratic manoeuvres and mobilisation of new share-holders, and so now once again it has the Morning Star as their daily mouthpiece, also a mouthpiece for a motley crew of misguided fellow-travellers wishing for the old days and transphobes wishing for a time when men were men and women women. The crisis in the far-left since the 1980s – control-freakery at the head of many organisations, and desperation in the wake of neoliberal consumerist new mass media that they could not control – has also led some old activists to flock to the Morning Star and then into the CPB; hardened Trotskyist organisational skills plus bankrupt ‘campist’ politics is a recipe for disaster, nationalist red-brown disaster.

This politics is driven by campism and by the Putinite international networks of Stalinist organisations. Thus, we are told by the CPB and the Morning Star that Bashar al-Assad, the butcher of Homs, is a peace-maker, and this because the Syrian Communist Party (Unified) has been rewarded with a seat in government for playing go-between between Moscow and Damascus. Regime after regime is cheered on, ranging from China (where the Hong Kong protesters are portrayed as dupes of the West) to Nicaragua (where the crackdown by a government dedicated to private property is defended on the grounds that some protesters are linked to imperialism). This campism finds its way down on the ground to backing for trades union bureaucrats who spend their organisational energies on protecting their own jobs.

And it leads to the idea that little island Britain, by which they mean England steered from London, of course, should go it alone; they are for a ‘united kingdom’ against Scottish independence. Now we have the old ‘British Road to Socialism’ dusted off, with the ‘socialism’ bit airbrushed out and effectively replaced with Boris Johnson (or by Jeremy Corbyn playing the nationalist card, if his circle of tankie-advisors that assiduously shield him from his old Trotskyist friends have their way). Putin has been pushing for the break-up of the European Union for many years, and in the CPB he has the perfect political tool here to support that aim; and the Morning Star does its bit, publishing articles by those who once proudly declared themselves to be for neither Washington but Moscow, calling for what is laughably called the ‘LeFT case’ (Leave, Fight Transform) in which international trade would, they promise, be with China and Russia.

These guys really are the bitter fruits of socialism in one country. As with the characters in Underground, they have forgotten nothing and learnt nothing, repeating old international alliances, their ‘campism’, while repeating the call for old national alliances that are designed to ensure that Britain remains a capitalist state, that never comes remotely close to the ‘communism’ they sing and dance about.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

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.