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.

Advertisements

Socialist Appeal

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle with the tagline ‘the game has changed, but the legend continues’ is a 2017 remake by director Jake Kasdan of the classic 1995 film, itself an adaptation of ‘Jumanji’, a 1981 children’s book of the same name. Actually the format of the game is still much the same as in the original, with an old dusty video taking the place of a tatty board game, and the four characters are launched into a jungle in which they must find the escape route back, the key that will unlock them from this new world (the film was shot in Hawaii). The twist this time is that when they plug in the video game and are sucked into the surreal jungle-scape they are also morphed into a set of four avatars that are very different from their home-world selves.

The high-school teen gang are transformed into bodies that they will have to escape when they escape the jungle – babe Bethany turns into a chubby bearded male scientist (Jack Black), left-field Martha is now the beauty in the pack (Karen Gillan), the football jock turns into a weedy guy (Kevin Hart), and geeky bright nerd Spence turns into Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson. There is a baddy behind all of this, of course, an evil explorer who wants to control the ‘Jaguar’s eye’ stone, a magic jewel that turns on its owner ring-style and possesses its possessor (as in the Lord of the Rings, this is a good analogy for the way that commodities under capitalism turn their owners into things so that those who frantically try to grasp the commodity find their own lives weirdly controlled by the objects they try to accumulate).

Before the team get hold of the Jaguar’s eye and pop it in place exactly where it belongs, in an occult statue, and shout the talismanic key word to return home they must encounter all varieties of animatronic hazards – hippos and rhinos and so on – and in this they are guided by a fifth-player Alex Vreeke (Nick Jonas) who has been living trapped in the game from the last time round, twenty years ago, as an aviator-explorer Jefferson ‘Seaplane’ McDonough. It is a five-player game, but it is Alex who has the edge, plenty of knowledge of how the thing works from the inside, and (spoiler alert) it is Alex who doesn’t make it back when things click into place and they cry ‘Jumanji’. The success of the team, however, has redeemed history, and our heroes discover when they get back home that Alex himself has been restored to where he was twenty years ago; it is as if, dead to the world Alex was more than alive for them as Jefferson ‘Seaplane’ McDonough in the game itself.

If you want a spirit guide from the past to help you work out all the right moves in the class struggle then you can’t do better than join Socialist Appeal. In fact Socialist Appeal, the name of the group which produces a magazine of the same name, is guided by a dynamic duo, one of which is still very much alive in this world and the other of which is rumoured to be dead. The live one is multilingual Trotskyist Alan Woods who runs the International Marxist Tendency as well as Socialist Appeal as its British franchise. The dead guy who lives on as an avatar of all that was and is and always will be correct about Marxist theory was and is and always will be ‘Ted Grant’, a South African Trotskyist Isaac Blank (a good proportion of Britain’s best Trotskyists came from South Africa). Ted Grant once upon a time led the Militant Tendency, itself an avatar in the Labour Party of the old Revolutionary Socialist League that burrowed its way in back in 1964. But he left Militant, or was expelled depending on whose account you believe, along with his mate Alan Woods in 1991 when a large majority of the organisation decided, in what was known as the ‘Open Turn’, to leave the Labour Party and set up what became the Socialist Party.

Alan and mentor Ted stubbornly carried on inside the Labour Party, and Alan, at least (Ted died in 2006), has been guiding his comrades in there ever since, all of them with the exception of their very successful student group that to all intents and purposes operates independently of the Labour Party as the Marxist Student Federation. Alan and Ted are twin souls (a double-role in the future biopic for a much older Nick Jonas perhaps), and much of the Socialist Appeal bookstall fare consists of the writings of Ted Grant as theoretical and practical key to action. The students don’t just dust off old videos of Ted Grant or race around in multiple personas in the student movement and (sometimes, as they get older) in Labour Party branch meetings, they are hot on theory.

What is distinctive about ‘theory’ in the International Marxist Tendency and so also in Socialist Appeal, however, is that it is a kind of Marxism that functions as an all-powerful because it is true kind of worldview against which everything else must be measured to see if it is correct or not. This is rather strange because the Marxist Student Federation which laps up theory relayed to them from Ted (via Alan Woods as his voice on earth) are a bright lively lot, great activists and internationalists, but it might explain why there is quite a fast turnover of membership, and not so many graduate from the student wing into full-blown Labour Party politics. Readers of Mark Fisher’s ground-breaking Capitalist Realism, for example, are ticked off for enjoying a book that is, we are told, ‘a poor imitation of Marx’. It is clear that what we need is a good imitation of Marx, the Ted talks version, for example, that will show us exactly what’s what and what to do. This is the other aspect of ‘theory’ for Socialist Appeal, a timelessly true frame that, if is really correct, will magically unlock us from capitalism.

They act as if they are the only Marxists in the world who understand what Marxism really is, and with this all-seeing eye on the world lodged in the right place, all will be right. This is surely the exact opposite of what theory is for Marxists who attend to the dialectical practical interweaving of ideas as they become transformed in new contexts, in new conditions of capitalist accumulation and at the intersection with other forms of oppression. It is as if the most radical core of Socialist Appeal, its student activists, have been set off on a wild goose chase by their guide Alan Woods for the magical talismanic form of Marxist theory that will, when it is put to work, bring Ted Grant back to life again and release him and them and us all from the capitalist jungle.

 

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

Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee)

Fight Club from 1999 has an unnamed narrator, played by Edward Norton, as the central character. Who is he? He is not all right Jack, not a collective subject, and his wretched life as an alienated individual is not going to get any better in this tale that the director David Fincher once called ‘a coming of age story’. It sure is, of a type. Our narrator engages in a fruitless search for recognition in a myriad of self-help support groups in which he learns to spill his guts and talk about his feelings. Here he meets Meat Loaf in a group for victims of testicular cancer and Marla Singer, played by Helena Bonham Carter, as a cynical fellow-traveller who fakes different kinds of symptoms and identities to join in each of the different groups. These are forms of ‘safe space’ that are anything but; not refuges from identity but sink-clubs in which identity is relentlessly mined at the very same moment that they make victims of all who join them.

One day, returning from a soul-draining business trip, our narrator swaps gossip with a nice young guy about their similar briefcases, and this spins into a fistfight. This ostensibly nice guy is Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, who inducts him into something a little more exciting, more blood and full-body clutches in ‘Fight Club’. Fight Club pits itself against the commercialised self-soothing consumerism that is contemporary US-America, and operates as a secret fraternity – these are all men – who fight bare-knuckle and revel in the violence. And so we move into Tyler Durden’s underworld of macho homoerotic physical combat in which the men rebel together against consumerism. Up pop Marla and Meat Loaf again, converts to the cause, either as sinister accomplices or place-men, dupes.

The radical shift from consumer society into a world of brutal fistfights flowers in ‘Project Mayhem’ as a full-blown revolt in which it is unclear who the enemy is and even more uncertain what the progressive alternative will be. There are famously no rules in Fight Club, or, rather, there are many rules which bind it and protect it against the outside world, most important is the repetitive overarching rule that ‘You do not talk about Fight Club’. At the denouement of the film it is unclear who Tyler Durden is exactly, and who the narrator is; Edward Norton’s character refers to himself as ‘Jack’, which one of the many ‘explanatory’ websites, www.jackdurden.com, picks up on. The narrator says of his saviour and nemesis Tyler Durden ‘I am Jack’s wasted life’, ‘…smirking revenge’, ‘…complete lack of surprise’; the young men are as glued to each other as much as they fight each other, and the physical violence is both cathartic release from the pressure to be the image of a well-behaved man sold back to them by the advertising industry and deadly trap which basically makes visible the ‘obscene underside’ of the Law, of hegemonic forms of masculinity (as Slavoj Žižek and his pals would say).

What a journey the key characters in the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee) (CPGB-PCC) have made since their days in the New Communist Party in the late 1970s, a super-Stalinist split from the old CPBG that was viewed as having gone soft under the influence of Eurocommunism, a historic compromise with consumerism which bore fruit in the rebranding of its magazine Marxism Today as an advertising brochure for ‘New Times’. The narrator in the weekly podcasts produced by its leader John who has taken on the pseudonym ‘Jack’ – ‘Jack Conrad’ to signal perhaps his own journey into the heart of darkness – complement a series of videos on the group’s website which mainly consist of lean young men aping the lecture style of a combination of urgent salesman and televangelist. The standard opening to these little lectures seems to be that you will not be told what you thought the talk was about, but something else. Toying with the audience replicates something of the internal structure of the group. There is something brutal and sad about these advertisements for the party which either parade their cadre or mock those who are desperate to be part of the fun (the video of poor Chris Knight bleating that it is months since he applied for membership and has still not heard anything since being a case in point). At this point, before they went back into the shadows, they were the obscene underside of Fight Club, the rule being that ‘You must talk about the CPGB-PCC’.

This has been a journey from Stalinism and from attempts to return the old Communist Party of Great Britain to the true path, to what it was when it was the British Section of the Communist International and loyal to Moscow (before the party packed up complete after the failed attempt to rebrand itself as Democratic Left in 1991). Some weird encounters since those days with some of the most robotic of the Trotskyist groups – the CPGB-PCC seems to have learnt something about politics and organisation from its time with the Spartacists – have left their mark. The internal life of the CPGB-PCC as well as its interventions in other groups unfortunate enough to give them house-room seems modelled on Tyler Durden’s image of rebellion, with Jack morphing at moments into former IMG member and now party comrade Mike MacNair hatched back into politics after his time in Law at St Hugh’s College Oxford. It’s not clear now who will be up to replace Edward and Brad in the remake of Fight Club, and which one will be which.

And it is for their intervention in Left Unity that they will be remembered by many of the rest of the left, bruised by the experience. Left Unity was set up to ‘do politics differently’, but the CPGB-PCC comrades were having none of that. Jack and his team seemed to turn every attempt to make discussion meetings into ‘safe spaces’ (in which people new to politics would feel able to contribute) into, instead, bear gardens. This was necessary, it was explicitly said by our macho mates, because only those with thick skins would really turn out to be the ones with the mettle enough to change the world. What was effectively bullying of members of Left Unity inside the meetings was extended to verbatim reports of what the weaklings had said in the CPGB-PCC gossip sheet Weekly Worker – it functioned for a while as the Private Eye of the left – and members of Left Unity used to wait in dread for what would be reported about them, named, for their comrades, work colleagues and bosses to read about them. The CPGB-PCC was on form, and their comrades sure seemed up for a fight. They left, but not until they had hastened the decline of the organisation, before jumping ship and entering the Labour Party to torment new activists who had looked for something better with Jeremy Corbyn only to be faced with the latest incarnation of this Fight Club of the Left as Labour Party Marxists.

These guys are tough on their enemies and on their friends, and, to their credit, they have dealt firmly and fairly with some pretty unpleasant types who threatened to turn them in some strange new directions; their support for Moshé Machover (who has always denied that he is a member) and their expulsion of Ian Donovan (who found a new home in Socialist Fight) has been exemplary. On the downside, and this where the CPGB-PCC operates as the worst arena for young men to come of age in politics, they have spewed out a stream of dodgy characters who all seem to want to be little Jacks who are confused about what it is to be Tyler Durden and end up causing mayhem in any other group or campaign they touch.

They were predictable as an internal opposition inside the old CPGB they attempted resurrect from the dead, and predictably bad as a stand-alone alternative. From bad old Stalinism to a form of quasi-Trotskyist politics that repeats all the worst of the organisational practices that Lenin and Trotsky themselves criticised, this lot is one to avoid; those who have been on the sharp end of their politics would say this was a group with a wasted life, smirking revenge and complete lack of surprise.

 

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

 

Plan C

The Dispossessed, first published in 1974 with the subtitle ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’ by feminist Taoist science-fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin should be a film, or perhaps not. Perhaps there is something necessarily ambiguous and so something all the more revolutionary about this account of a communist planet that is not pinned down, concretised in images of heroes and sanitised for commercial gain on the big screen. When it was published back in the 1970s the story of dissident scientist Shevek making the unprecedented journey from anarcha-communist Anarres to its capitalist twin planet Urras to work with colleagues he assumes to be freer resonated with the Cold War split between the ‘free world’ and the bureaucratic Stalinist dictatorships behind the Iron Curtain.

Le Guin’s description of Anarres was actually explicitly based on the ‘post-scarcity anarchism’ of revolutionary US ecologist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin, who died in 2006, was once a member of the Fourth International, but gravitated toward anarchist politics with an ecological and feminist edge. But the problem, which The Dispossessed explores with a sensitivity to the lures of power, including to the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ – the illusion of transparent debate which obscures still-potent hierarchies around dimensions of oppression and exploitation – is that Anarres was not at all a ‘post-scarcity’ planet. It was barely surviving in desert conditions of great scarcity, and so the pressure for corruption of power was all the greater. Anarres has been quarantined, cut off after its successful rebellion by its rich twin planet Urras.

Shevek discovers on Urras that a rebellion is brewing there, that the legacy of the revolution on Anarres is still alive, that the very existence of an alternative, for all of its limitations, energises a new generation of activists. And so Shevek is able to break out of the privileged academic-scientific elite bubble that welcomes and contains him as a celebrity dissident from another world, paraded as a symbol of rebellion against the supposed horrors of collectivism, and he connects with the resistance, realises there is more to the future than isolated individualism. Another world is possible, but what ‘utopia’ is really, in practice, unambiguous? The Dispossessed traces the need for the struggle of the left within the left, of a continual opening of the revolution to multiple and intersecting forms of rebellion, the revolution in permanence. One of the great things about the absence of a film of The Dispossessed is that there is no one big star marked as the hero of the story, no one who would turn Shevek into a real superstar. He plays a key role in the book, but is more than anything a cipher for the differences between communism and capitalism and the struggle to ensure that the overthrow of capitalism really does arrive at a communist future instead of being stalled half-way.

With most of the revolutionary left groups there is a clear history that tracks the way they each try to replicate the struggle of Leon Trotsky, the ‘old man’ who resisted Stalin and tried to keep the hope of the October revolution alive and who paid with his life. So powerful is the sorry narrative of repetitive split and purge in the Trotskyist movement that there is palpable suspicion of new groups who seem to come out of nowhere, as if from dotted lines in the genealogy of the far left. When such libertarian alternatives on the edge of Trotskyism do emerge they are sometimes shunned, shunted off to the anarchist fringes (fringes as much fraught with rivalry as among the Trots) or avidly courted, as was the case, for example, with Liverpool-based Big Flame, a group that burnt the Fourth International in Britain in the 1970s, that was not as open to regroupment or ‘socialist unity’ as it seemed. But, remember that every real revival of a section of the Fourth International has come from new forces that are able to re-energise it and take it in unexpected directions; such was the case, for example, with the rebellions in the student movement in France that led to emergence of the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire which became a centre of gravity of the International in the 1970s. Perhaps the time has come for Plan C, a vibrant young organisation to play that role today, and perhaps the existing affiliate of the Fourth International should join Plan C, which will then become the British Section of something quite different.

Plan C emerged from a meeting of ‘Network X’ in Manchester less than a decade ago, and linked together activists close to the ‘autonomist’ tradition in different cities, significantly cities outside London, away from the traditional centres of state power and power of the centralised left. One of their few points of reference, not as origin-point but as source of lessons about autonomist politics recently has been the old Big Flame. So, the ‘C’ clearly doesn’t stand for ‘centralism’, but perhaps for ‘communes’ or ‘communism’ (which is how members and supporters and friends of Plan C usually understand it). They are one of the nicest groups on the far left today, but niceties aside, what are they up to and how do they actually work with the dispossessed?

One of the key axes of their intervention has been in solidarity campaigning for Rojava, the radical experiment in Kurdish north Syria, an experiment of direct rule in which women have been a visible force both in the ‘peshmerga’ resistance to Islamic State and the Turkish State and in the local council assemblies. The experiment in Rojava is explicitly indebted to the writings of Murray Bookchin, and so we have an actually-existing reproduction of the Planet Anarres described in The Dispossessed, an actually-existing reproduction in exactly the self-same desertified conditions of isolation and quarantine, but with the added threat of continual armed attack from fascists on all sides. It is site of contradictions that betoken exactly the kind of corruption of power that Le Guin describes, this is a revolution still led by Abdullah Öcalan from his Turkish prison cell. Öcalan discovered Bookchin’s writings, and wrote to Bookchin, too late for that old ex-Trotskyist anarchist to be of help, and built those ideas into what Öcalan calls ‘democratic confederalism’. Women are powerful in Rojava, for example, and they still pose for revolutionary publicity in front of posters of their leader Abdullah Öcalan. And Plan C too, the good autonomists, are actually in practice a little more closed and centralist than they seem, a perfect mirror for the Rojava revolution they celebrate.

Plan C also jump into line when a new leader appears, even if it is a leader of an apparently more cosy and comfy jumper kind at the head of the British Labour Party. They are good at organising corporate style away-days, feel-good festival style meet-ups with plenty of vegetarian food, but they have not been so good at arriving at a democratically arrived at decision about how and why to go into the Labour Party. Instead, members of Plan C, and not all of them, have dribbled into the big Party, led by example, led by their leaders, the ones who are never named as such, those directing a structure that pretends to be structureless. The ‘debate’ about Corbyn has been happening after the policy as such it is has been arrived at. They have been called out on this by their anarchist friends who are keen to make a raid, a version of the old ‘unity’ offensives the Trots practised on each other in the old days. There is a real danger here that they will be eaten up by the fake-super-transparent-democratic autonomists rather than the Trotskyist left that has been genuinely trying to make sense of how politics must change to include all of the exploited and oppressed. They straddle two worlds, of the old and new left, ambiguous about what the plan is, about what is next.

 

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

 

Socialist Fight

Taxi Driver, the 1976 classic film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, was apparently as seedy in its making as it was in its depiction of its anti-hero. The film became a source of oft-repeated motifs – ‘you talkin’ to me?’ – and became a classic because it eventually spun itself out in cine-history as a string of clichés. It was a lesson in how to dredge around in alienated inner-city life and serve up the mess on-screen as entertainment, an indictment and replication of a sick world which produces sick characters who thrash around trying to make sense of it, taking it out on the wrong guys.

Travis Bickle is the discharged US-Marine after the end of the Vietnam war who sinks into a spiral of depression and paranoia and ends up as a vigilante who takes on the self-appointed role of city cleaner, cleaning the urban landscape of the scum who feed and feed on the rotting society which surrounds him. This context is also the perfect feeding ground for a weird mixture of narcissism – you lookin’ at me – and conspiracy theories which systematically misrecognise and mis-locate the cause of evil in the world.

The film traces Bickle’s journey from dalliance with big politics to his eventual isolation in the tiniest imaginable sect politics – his own ruminations on power and sleaze and what needs to be done to put it right – and, disconnected from reality, he goes in for the kill. After a failed attempt to assassinate the Senator whose campaign team he was briefly on, he heads for a brothel where there is a shoot-out, and finally, through lucky chance, he hits out at other characters that public opinion also views as vermin, and turns up lucky. The film successfully mixes the mistaken and dangerous emerging worldview of an outsider – Travis Bickle doesn’t really have a plan or know where he is going – with a series of stereotypes, of sex and race and corruption and crime, systemic misrepresentations of the nature of capitalist society, society that provokes and welcomes his erratic and destructive acting out.

His is a lonesome fight which wallows in ideology, enacting and confirming it, just as it is in the case of Socialist Fight, one of the tiniest of splinters from the nine-way fragmentation of the old Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) in the 1980s. In this case, the replay of Taxi Driver Travis Bickle’s journey round the edge of politics will entail a contest for the Robert De Niro role between Gerry Downing and Ian Donovan. Downing, not to be confused with Gerry Healy (though that little Gerry was once the big man for our future star), has written reams about the break-up of the WRP, and he will surely beat Donovan for the role, but this time in a rather more downbeat version of the film, ‘Bus Driver’ perhaps. Socialist Fight, which proclaims itself to be the British Section of the ‘Liaison Committee for the Fourth International’ (with three other appendages), is the latest incarnation of Downing after his Workers International League and its paper ‘Workers Action’ hit the buffers. Donovan, meanwhile, has form in many different roles, having been through more far-left groups than you have had hot dinners, and he’ll get a bit part. Just as he does now in Downing’s Socialist Fight, which has given Donovan a home following his well-deserved expulsion from the CPGB-PCC. The film-score, by the way, will be by jazz saxophonist and antisemite Gilad Atzmon.

Well, one thing we learn from the spectacle of Downing and Donovan splitting with the rest of the left is that unfortunately there sure is antisemitism on the left too. This is not surprising given that antisemitism still swills around contemporary culture, but revolutionary socialists who take this seriously have been to the forefront of struggles against it. The Socialist Fight version of what August Bebel called the ‘socialism of fools’ is no less dangerous for being all the more ridiculous. Socialist Fight has already marked itself out on the far-left and alienated many comrades willing to ally with Downing by declaring, for example, that Islamic State is not all bad, and so Downing and Donovan’s protestations that they do not at all see themselves to be antisemitic now already ring pretty hollow. It is to the credit of other left groups involved in the campaign Labour Against the Witch-hunt (LAW) that they are having none of this nonsense. LAW, which was set up to defend, among others, Moshé Machover from accusations of antisemitism, quite rightly draws a sharp line between criticism of Israel – a principled anti-Zionist position in solidarity with the Palestinian people – and the half-baked racist ramblings that Donovan came up with in the CPGB-PCC before he was given the push (by Machover) and that Downing has been pushing in Socialist Fight.

In the tiny narcissistic and paranoiac world of Socialist Fight, there is a ‘Jewish Bourgeoisie’ that has intimate direct ties to the State of Israel, and it is this conspiratorial vision of the world that supposedly explains why the Jews who are, we are told, ‘over-represented’ in the ruling class must be called out. Full-blown ‘anti-Zionism’ must, according to Downing and Donovan, name this Jewish bourgeoisie as an influence to be rooted out, and so (as many hard-line Zionists would predict and wish) anti-Zionism shades into antisemitism. This is no longer socialism as such. No wonder these two are admired by Gilad Atzmon who has made a disgusting speciality of celebrating self-hatred – a Jew who hates, he says, every bit of him that reminds him that he is Jewish – and no wonder that they return the favour.

This is a time of strange but necessary alliances, among which the most important are those alliances of anti-Zionists in the Labour Party that refuse to pander to antisemitism. Many Jews on the left have a proud history of standing out against the Israeli State, protesting against the attempts of Zionists to invoke some weird kind of collective responsibility in which all Jews are expected to fall in line and keep silent for fear of being labelled antisemitic. Moshé Machover is one, an old Trotskyist with a lifetime of resistance to Zionism inside Israel and then outside it, and Tony Greenstein is another (the latter having also written scorching attacks in the CPGB-PCC press on Downing and Donovan), both active members of Labour Against the Witch-hunt.

It is imperative that the new doppelgangers for Travis Bickle are not given the opportunity to fight their way into this campaign again, nor to be given comfort by those who deliberately or unwittingly misunderstand what the stakes are and make them seem as if they are in any way victims of a witch-hunt or heroes as they thrash around looking for someone to blame for their isolation on the left. They reflect the worst of the society they think they pit themselves against. Their fight, let’s be clear, is not at all a socialist fight.

 

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

 

 

Momentum

Antitrust from 2001 stars Tim Robbins as a seemingly good guy entrepreneur who turns out to be a control-freak corporate villain. Robbins plays Gary Winston, CEO of a software development corporation NURV (an acronym for ‘Never Underestimate Radical Vision’). He offers Milo Hoffman, played by Ryan Phillippe, a great position in NURV to develop a new programme called Synapse, a global media distribution network, with complete creative freedom. It is clear who Robbins is channelling for the part. There is a nice moment when Milo asks Gary about some neat bit of tech equipment and comments that Bill Gates must have one of those; ‘Bill who?’ says Gary. Milo moves with his girlfriend Alice to Portland to work on the project, but things quickly go sour after it turns out that the source code that Winston supplied Milo has been stolen from other indie programmers that NURV has then rubbed out.

The twists and turns in the thriller plot include revelations that Alice and another co-worker Lisa, who Milo allies with to figure out what is going on in the corporation, are in cahoots with NURV. Alice has been working with Gary Winston from the outset, and Lisa is also a double agent who turns Milo in to the corporation when he is getting close to the truth. The film, which carried the tag-line ‘Trust is not an option’ pits the idealistic high-tech every-youth Milo – ‘Human knowledge belongs to the world’ is his driver – against the Gary Bill Gates character who is a complex typical corporate mixture of bad faith altruism and instrumental power-hound; ‘Are we making chemical weapons, kiddie porn, are we strip-mining?, he complains at one point, ‘No! Why are they after me?’

This is a pro open-source film, with the real good guys – that’s what Milo stands for – drawn into a corporate world in which knowledge and organisational control go hand in hand. The film pitched itself as part an ethical collective alternative to instrumentalist politics and against the reduction of truth to pragmatics and competitive manoeuvres. In this sense the film is about the breaking of trust in new technological forms of networking and is ‘anti-trust’, against monopoly in the field of information and ‘radical vision’. There is even a culture-nature sub-text, in which Milo is almost killed off in a seduction scene by Alice with a secret stash of sesame seeds that Milo is allergic to.

Mobilisation for Jeremy Corbyn through technological networks quickly became one of the signature strategies of Momentum. Originally a network formed during the internal Labour Party campaign to get Jeremy elected leader in 2015, it then crystallised into an organisation under the control of Jon Lansman, a new bogyman for the right wing press. They should have admired him for his new tech corporate savvy manoeuvring. Lansman established Momentum as a private company. It flew, quickly drawing in thousands of members, and so Momentum expressed and channelled the hopes of a grassroots movement around Corbyn inside the Labour Party, and was even open in its early days to those outside the party too. Soon it began meeting and gathering together the range of activists who had been drawn in by what promised to be a new kind of politics, including many of those who had been involved in Left Unity outside the party. Meeting and gathering was good for Milo, but soon this would change.

It was not so much that we were all Corbyn – the bar for that kind of direct identification with Saint Jeremy was set much too high – but that we could all be Milo, and maybe Ryan Phillippe will stand in for us supporters in the future biopic of the Corbyn movement. Lansman will be played by Tim Robbins. The Alice and Lisa characters, unfortunately but tellingly in a left-landscape still populated by ambitious young men who reduce women activists to bit parts, will give a sexist aspect to the story of the rise and fall of Momentum, onlookers who are recruited and then ditched in the course of the interplay between different forms of power. Momentum was fantastically successful in the immediate aftermath of Corbyn’s victory inside the Labour Party, peaking at a membership of 24,000, and drawing in many of the new activists that had been enthused by a radical alternative, a membership that way out-numbered the profusion of little sects that hoped to feed on Left Unity and then swarm into Labour to recruit new members there. The problem Momentum had to confront was how to organise these new ‘Corbynistas’ without allowing them to be picked off and used by seasoned far-left organisers.

There were thus three forms of organisation at work in this process – big, middle-sized and little corporate entities, each with their own varieties of Bill Gates’ smiley but wily leadership – that is, first, the Labour Party as a massive bureaucratic apparatus and host organisation determined to strangle the Corbyn movement at birth, second, Momentum itself under the direct control of Lansman, and third, Momentum groups around the country who, in different measure depending on the location, attracted and then resisted the rise of little Bills.

Some of the local groups, the one in Manchester as a case in point, have been seized by little Bills who are loyal to London. Some intensive mobilising around the 2016 AGM which played to a new cohort of middle-class members who were suspicious of organised politics and what they claimed were ‘inward-looking’ old Labour and Trotskyist politics led to a shock victory for the right wing of Manchester Momentum. Dishonest attacks on activists from the Trades Council, those who had made a valiant effort to keep Momentum locally to the left and out of the grips of Lansman, and even channelling of claims of antisemitism when the left dared to support Jackie Walker at the AGM, were all put in the mix. As a result, most of the left have abandoned this group, left them to it, and some key figures in Manchester Momentum have pitched in with new left initiatives.

Meanwhile, high-tech Jon has battened down the hatches on the mother-ship by using ‘new technology’ and ‘new forms of organising’ to suspend all the structures of Momentum and turn decision-making into ‘consultation’ exercises, one of the favourite ruses of corporate management. This is politics reduced to business, and then the business ethos takes over. Meetings now come a poor second – window dressing – to media distribution.

What is the real momentum of this organisation now? In some places this Momentum is all there is of the Corbyn movement, and the left has to make the best of it, but they must beware; trust has given way to an atmosphere of antitrust. In some places now Momentum is still the name of the game for ‘Corbynism’, self-organised and independent of London (and Lansman), and effectively operating as local franchises that have spun out of control of the main organisation. In some places Momentum has been wracked by internal conflicts, and by the emergence of ‘Grassroots Momentum’ onto which some of the tinier groups like Labour Briefing have lashed themselves as it sinks into its own self-created sectarian swamp. This mini-momentum without a ruthless CEO – the only thing to recommend it over its parent company – is already a feeding ground for the myriad of tiny Leninist groups for whom ‘democratic centralism’ operates as name for robotic and dishonest manipulation of any other bigger network they can get their hands on.

In many other places, fortunately, and this is the case in Manchester, new networks of the left, including activists from the Trades Council, have completely bypassed Momentum. Some of those involved in ‘Withington for Corbyn’ and other parallel groups around Manchester still remember the founding meeting of Manchester Momentum where the chair referred to the group by mistake as ‘Monument’. They stuck with it for a while, tried to make it work, and then sought out better company.

 

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.