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.

 

Counterfire

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.

 

Alliance for Workers’ Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Socialist Workers Party

Falling Down spins out a desperate narrative of confusion and mania, one man’s response to increasing alienation, an increasingly crazy and violent response that feeds on that alienation to compound the problem rather than finding a way through it. Michael Douglas excels in this film, which was released in 1993, playing Bill Foster, a defence engineer estranged from his wife (who has taken out a restraining order forbidding him contact with both her and their daughter) and cracking. This is a man who wants to be in control but who is losing it. There are two key moments in the film that crack open the fragile ideological carapace of Western capitalist culture, revealing something of the hopeless pain for individuals at the heart of it, and showing how these individuals are incited to thrash out at those who should be their allies rather than against the wretched political-economic system that has driven them into this mess.

The first moment is the first crack, the first moment when Foster falls. He is in a long traffic jam in the highway, people are getting agitated, his car air-conditioning breaks down, and Foster loses it, abandons the car and spends much of the rest of the film taking out his anger on those who frustrate him. This is a man who is blocked from getting what he wants, and immediate goals are configured as things he must attain if he is not to be a failure. He is angry, understandably angry, but his energy is channelled in destructive and self-destructive ways rather than in a collective process through which he might learn from those around him who are also oppressed. He acts alone, to solve the problem that he finds himself in, isolated from others, and that increases the problem. Foster trashes a Korean convenience store with a baseball bat after the owner refuses a request for change, and in a fast-food restaurant he shoots up a phone booth after being unable to get access to call his wife. Foster is by now caught up in racist assaults – congratulated by a white supremacist in a military surplus store – and this makes him all the more agitated.

The second moment cracks open this complicity with the violent events of the day, the escalation of a situation Foster was himself trying to escape. Before he is shot dead after pulling a water gun on a policeman, he stands – and at that moment he falls, repeats the process of moral failure, of falling down – and voices his rage and incomprehension that he is actually in some way responsible for the carnage. This is the moment when he bewails the inability of the others to understand what is happening to him, what, ‘I’m the bad guy!’ I help to protect America he tells the policeman, I did everything they told me to, they lied to me. It is surely the most stunning moment in the film, repeating in miniature the incomprehension of the United States as invader and cause of carnage around the world; it is merely protecting itself, its leaders say, amazed that anyone could see otherwise, bewailing this situation by asking, what, ‘I’m the bad guy?’.

Falling Down stages a symptom of masculinity in crisis in conditions of alienation and the mistaken attempts to seal off the self as a solution to that crisis. It is a failure that is indicative of the lives of many men, and also of many organisations and even ‘opposition’ groups under capitalism, even of groups that aim to overthrow capitalism itself. This is the peculiar and sad symptomatic predicament of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain in recent years, a group mired in complaints about sexual violence, and responding to those complaints with increased confusion, denial and attack on those who raise the question again. The facts of the case are well-known – accusation of rape against SWP national secretary, investigation committee reporting to annual conference that case is not proven, mass resignations – and the increasing isolation of the SWP is very understandable, oscillating between some shame on the part of some of its members who have dared to challenge the party leadership over what happened (with many leaving and setting up shop elsewhere in new groups, like RS21, that treat feminism as a resource rather than an enemy) and defiant claims that what is past is past and that now it is time to move on. In some cases that demand that we move on has itself been accompanied by threats typical of an abuser who has been caught out; shut up, it is time to move on, or else.

What is at issue here is the longer history and mode of functioning of the SWP, a party that was founded in 1977 out of the International Socialists founded by Tony Cliff in 1962 out of the 1950 Socialist Review Group after their break from the Fourth International (over the question of the nature of the Soviet Union and consequent responses to the Korean War). One of the enduring characteristics of the so-called ‘Cliffite’ tradition which was carried forward into the stereotypically male leadership of the SWP (and also into some of the groups that it spawned in many purges and splits over the years) has been control, and the other is urgency, urgency bordering on mania. SWP leader Alex Callinicos, a new role for Michael Douglas after Tony Cliff, runs the International Socialist Tendency from London. Yes, they are good at organisation and speed of response, but …

Anyone who has been in the SWP or subjected to their antics in the front-organisations they use to recruit members, ranging from the Anti Nazi League (a success) to Stand up to Racism (tinged with hypocrisy after the SWP support for Brexit) – sign a ‘petition’ on one of their stalls concerning any one of a number of current issues and you will find yourself on their recruitment mailing list – will know well that they are control freaks of the worst kind. The organisational rigidity of the party apparatus – prohibition of internal opposition tendencies outside of the short pre-conference discussion period, for example – is also evident in their pre-meeting caucusing and then intervention and elections for positions in the campaign leaderships. Those non-members who are willing to serve as padding to show that the front is ‘open’ quickly discover that they are just treated as useful idiots if they speak out against the prescribed direction of the campaign.

And anyone who has been in and around the SWP at campaign meetings and demonstrations that they don’t directly control will know that, not only does every party member repeat what they have read that week in their newspaper, which is tedious enough, but the solution always amounts to ‘building a massive movement’ against x y or z, and increasing our activity. A situation that is a ‘crisis’ is always, you will hear members claim, turning into a ‘disaster’ (or vice-versa). There is manic optimism in practically every intervention, the idea that if only you do this or that (in line with SWP priorities) you must surely succeed.

The problem with mania is that it expresses a fragile and uncertain grasp on reality, so that when things shift from optimism to pessimism, there is a long way to fall, and the fall-out often has violent consequences for everyone around. The SWP response to the crisis over sexual violence in their organisation was to shut everyone else out and to try and deal with it themselves – big mistake – and then to blame anyone who pointed to their own complicity in the mess they had created for themselves. That’s what they still say if they are confronted over their mistakes; what, ‘I’m the bad guy?’ They don’t get it, that they are part of the problem, that they repeat and reinforce alienation and patriarchal domination in capitalist society and in so much of the far left.

 

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