Introduction to Mapping the English Left Through Film

The FIIMG project mapping the English Left through Film is but one way of describing the way the favourite narratives of the left groups work separately and in relation to each other. The project picks up and develops a series of existing older commentaries on the nonsense that divides us. The left does not spring out of nowhere, but is embedded, whether it likes it or not, in a series of other powerful popular cultural narratives about power and resistance, and filmic representation is one of the most accessible of these popular cultural forms. Most of us escape from our dear comrades at one time or another and find refuge in film, and so it is all the more disturbing, perhaps, to find that films provide persuasive frames to illuminate what the left is up to as it tears itself apart instead of tearing down capitalism.

Tempting though they are, jokes about the People’s Front of Judea are trite, partly because they have been repeated so often against the divided left – a measure of incomprehension at what the political divisions are about – but also because the left itself already recognises the problem and enjoys those caricatures so much. It is often forgotten that most of the richest veins of humour concerning the fragmentation of the left, and their supposed humourless complaints about ‘political correctness’ actually have their roots in the left as reflexive self-critique. To do that constructively, we also need to know something about the shape of the problem on the ground. This is where this mapping through film project should help, so you know something of the terrain of the left in England.

The organisations covered in this guide are ordered roughly in order of size, but we know that this is, strictly speaking, an impossible exercise because left groups are notoriously cagey about their membership figures and prone to exaggeration about their influence. Like cult films, their weight in the left does not so much lie in how many audience members they have, nor what positions they hold in the social movements or trade unions or labour bureaucracy but in their perceived influence. So, the ordering here reflects a rough guess made from working through an equation that factors in claims for size, their impact on the political scene and, to be honest, where they appear on the radar in Manchester in the north of England, itself not a good guide since so much political work is centred on the capital, London, in the south.

Not only is this a geographically limited survey inflected by my own sectarian inclinations, limited to England, not including Scotland or Wales, and confined mainly to the Trotskyist tradition (or how organisations impact on or are impacted on by Trotskyists), but there is a limited time frame to the account. The time frame is set by the period during which the pieces were first written and revised, by a radical leadership of the Labour Party, that is, between September 2015 and April 2020. This was a time of high hopes, for a left government with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm who had his own history of engagement with the revolutionary left even though he was not a revolutionary.

Back to the Future

We begin with the Labour Party, a very large mass-membership socialist party, and trace our way down, second, through Momentum operating wholly inside the Labour Party. Although the time-period in which we freeze-frame each organisation is within that nearly five-years, the narrative must, of course, trace where each group has come from. The Labour Party is not only the largest but the oldest of the organisations, founded in 1900 and for many years part of the ‘Second International’ or ‘Socialist International’ (which still exists, bringing together social democratic parties from around the world). Each of the groups has its own origin story and, in some cases, chosen trauma to mark its appearance in the world, its break from or expulsion by another group. History is crucial to each of these accounts, history which interweaves the fate of each of them and ties them together as much as it separates them from each other.

Once upon a time, the fourth organisation in this account, the Communist Party would have been second in size and influence, after the Labour Party. The Communist Party, now a shadow of its former self after the fall of the Soviet bloc from which it was guided in its political manoeuvres, was once the British Section of the ‘Third International’ or ‘Communist International’ founded by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution and then controlled and manipulated by Stalin. The degeneration of the Third International led to the formation, by Leon Trotsky and his followers, of the Fourth International, which operates as the compass for so many of the rest of the groups (with the exception of the Socialist Party of Great Britain which wanted nothing to do with the Russian Revolution and plods its own path, and Plan C which emerged from the more autonomist socialist groups operating in parallel to the Trotskyists). The Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee) is a mutation of an opposition group inside the old Communist Party, taking its name from the old CPGB, and from that old group comes the present day Communist Party of Britain, which has remained more faithful to its old Stalinist heritage.

It is from the Fourth International in its various incarnations that the rest of the groups emanate, and here we can identify three broad sub-traditions which depart from and sometimes reconnect with Trotskyism. The first sub-tradition is that of the second group discussed here, the Socialist Workers Party (the British group, not to be confused with the US-American organisation that was for many years the American section of the Fourth International). What became our SWP broke from the Fourth International during the Korean War with its own distinctive analysis of the Soviet Union (and China) as ‘state capitalist’ rather than as a workers state (and so, logically, unlike Trotskyists, the SWP tradition would never support the workers states against capitalist states). And then, from that we have a constellation of groups that were purged or split from this SWP (or its previous incarnations), that include Counterfire, Spiked, Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century, Alliance for Workers Liberty, the Revolutionary Communist Group, Workers’ Power and Socialist Fight.

The second sub-tradition comes from the fateful division of the Fourth International into two competing internationals from 1953 to 1963, and from one side of the split which called itself the International Committee of the Fourth International, ICFI, which was led in Britain by Gerry Healy and which eventually took form as the Workers Revolutionary Party. It is from that ‘Healyite’ sub-tradition that we have still with us the present-day Workers Revolutionary Party, a very different and reduced beast now, and the Socialist Equality Party, the International Socialist League and the barely-existent Spartacist League.

The third sub-tradition comes from the ‘International Secretariat’ of the Fourth International, the other side of the 1953-1963 division, and then the ‘United Secretariat’, USFI from 1963. (The reunification of the Fourth International was, of course, incomplete, with the Workers Revolutionary Party keeping its own ICFI going until it imploded.) It is from the USFI sub-tradition that we have emerging a third constellation of organisations that include Socialist Appeal, the Socialist Party, Socialist Action, the Communist League, and, of course, Socialist Resistance which is the present-day section of the USFI, and whereupon comes FIIMG, the Fourth International in Manchester allied with Socialist Resistance. Members of the three sub-traditions encounter each other from time to time in the Labour Party, Momentum and in Left Unity.

This is not going to be a best-seller. It is a very niche project about warring niche organisations vehemently defending their turf against each other. There is something of Blue Velvet running through these accounts, and you might imagine yourself as Jeffrey Beaumont peering from the closet to see scenes of incomprehensible stupidity. In some cases there is misogyny too, some groups behaving worse than others, but in all cases you will notice that it is men who are usually in command, and men who, with power, tempted to abuse it. There are few leading roles for women, and we will need a more powerful socialist feminist movement inside these organisations to match and extend the #MeToo movement in the film industry. This is where we are now. These are twenty five uneasy pieces.

This is the introduction to the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.

 

 

Bibliography for mapping the English left through film

Bibliography for mapping the English left through film

 

Aguirre, C. and Klonsky, M. (n.d.) As Soon As This Pub Closes… http://www.whatnextjournal.org.uk/Pages/Sectariana/Pub.html (pathbreaking)

 

Callaghan, J. (1984) British Trotskyism: Theory and Practice. Oxford: Blackwell. (useful)

 

Callaghan, J. (1987) The Far Left in British Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. (dated)

 

Frank, P. and Bensaïd, D. (2010) The Long March of the Trotskyists Contributions to the History of the Fourth International. London: Resistance Books. (good)

 

Gittlitz, A. M. (2020) I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalyptic Communism. London: Pluto. (zippy)

 

Kelly, J. (2018) Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain. London and New York: Routledge. (terrible)

 

Maitan, L. (2019) Memoirs of a Critical Communist: Towards a History of the Fourth International. Dagenham: Merlin Books. (impressive)

 

Mitchell, A. (2011) Come the Revolution. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing. (sad)

 

Parker, I. (2017) Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left. Alresford: Zero Books. (excellent)

 

Riley, S. (2019) Winter at the Bookshop: Politics and Poverty St Ann’s in the 1960s. Nottingham: Five Leaves. (nostalgic)

 

Splits and Fusions (m.d.) Splits and Fusions, https://splitsandfusions.wordpress.com/ (indispensable)

 

Tate, E. (2014) Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s. Volume 2. Britain 1965 – 1970. London: Resistance Books. (interesting)

 

Thornett, A. (2010) Militant Years: Car Workers’ Struggles in Britain in the 60s and 70s. London: Resistance Books. (inspiring)

 

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

 

International Socialist League

The very short unfinished film of the very big classic book Moby Dick was made by Orson Welles in 1971. He wrote it, directed it and took all the roles. This 21-minute film has a history, of course. Welles had appeared in the John Huston 1956 version of Herman Melville’s novel as Father Mapple, an ex-whaler who gives a stirring sermon, about what Ishmael will face when he goes to sea. The novel is great; all you want to know about whales is crammed in there. It is as obsessed with whales as is Captain Ahab who searches out the great white whale Moby Dick.

The novel has spawned a whole industry of literary interpretation, with the whale functioning as metaphor for what both drives and pulls us, and as an object lesson in obsessional lusting, both for revenge against what has deprived us of what we once were and for something that will make us whole, fully-present in the world. The whale stands both for nature that must be tamed, brought under control, subdued, and for the highest cultural goals, emblem of success. In the meantime, we plot and rage and seize every opportunity to convey to others the importance of our quest. That is precisely why it would have been such a spectacle, authentic to the book, to have the same actor play the crew-member Ishmael, the sermonising Father Mapple and the main protagonist Ahab.

What better actor-director than Orson Welles to take charge of this, and how great he would have been as Captain Ahab, driving his ship through the sea in search of the object cause of his desire, willing the crew on, taking them through the perilous journey. Orson Welles’ 1971 film, if it had been finished, could have taken us way beyond the John Huston version, and we would then really have had a driving force, with the energy not only to guide and lead the mission but to be present in every figure that appears onscreen, in full charge of what was going on.

ISL

Revolution is not yet in sight for the crew of the International Socialist League, ISL, but their doughty leader Martin Ralph guides them from the port of Liverpool, and has much larger ambitions than just taking Old Swan ward in Wavertree constituency. His ‘international’ is the LIT, of which the ISL proudly declares itself to be the British section. We in Britain should really translate that Latin-America-based network as the ‘International Workers League’, but the Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (Cuarta Internacional), is usually known by members and ex-members alike simply as ‘the LIT’. Even the ISL is usually known as the LIT, or often hereabouts as ‘the Ralph International’.

It has a few members, and does some quite good work locally, but Martin Ralph is the guiding light, a driving force, so much so that it appears to outsiders to be a one-man band, even when Ralph appears at local events with groups of Brazilian visitors in tow, or makes amazing claims about the even more amazing numbers his group has leading the masses across Latin America.

The LIT are ‘Morenoites’, a species of Trotskyist we don’t often encounter in the UK, though occasionally in the North West in the form of Martin Ralph. Nahuel Moreno from Argentina was a larger than life buccaneering figure who joined the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, USFI, at the crucial reunification congress in 1963, but fell out with them after a crazy adventure during the Nicaraguan revolution when he organised the disastrous ‘Simon Bolivar International Brigade’ to go and fight with the Sandinistas in the 1980s civil war, something the Sandinistas were explicitly advising against. The British Section of the Fourth International, the IMG, expelled a few Morenoites in 1980 organised as the ‘Bolshevik Faction Group’.

The Morenoite LIT picked up its ‘British section’ from the meltdown of the Workers Revolutionary Party that ran its own ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’, ICFI. In 1988 a group led by Bill Hunter, who is no longer with us, and Martin Ralph emerged from the wreckage. Nahuel Moreno was a big man, an energetic and controlling figure in Latin America with global ambitions, and Martin Ralph is now one of the best suited to stepping into his shoes, at least around Liverpool. Orson Welles would be a fine choice to play both Moreno and Ralph.

Martin Ralph is well-known for never letting go once he gets hold of the microphone at a meeting; when he was advised by a comrade once that this might be counter-effective, he replied straightaway that revolutionaries need to seize every opportunity to give their message and speak for as long as possible. The Martin Ralph international in Britain it was that, along with Bob Myers, another old WRP-hand, steered the ‘Workers Aid for Bosnia’ outfit in the 1990s, building a base in the North West. So significant it was that Alan Thornett, from the group that became Socialist Resistance (and so in the USFI tradition of Trotskyism that the ICFI always pitted itself against and that Moreno had fallen out with over his intervention in Nicaragua) came to Manchester to try and mediate between Workers Aid for Bosnia and another broader alliance ‘International Workers Aid for Bosnia’, IWA. The mediation might have worked because Thornett was once upon a time in the WRP with Bob and Martin, but that might have antagonised them even more. It failed.

We knew that the hopes for a regroupment of the far-left in 2013 were really scuppered when a few groups, including Socialist Resistance, came together for talks but Martin Ralph turned up at a Manchester meeting. He was unusually quiet at the meeting, and it was Workers’ Power who were the real destructive element, but it was a powerful indication that the vultures were circling to pick up as many pieces as possible from the resulting quarrels. The enthusiastic participation of the Martin Ralph International in Left Unity was always a liability, one of the tiny sects that fed upon that broad alliance. He is a nice guy, but he carries with him the ambition and energy of Nahuel Moreno, and his single-minded full-on revolutionary programme interventions have their sights on the big prize, nothing less than the big prize now.

This Captain Ahab of the left is the LIT in Britain, and for that his efforts to build the world Trotskyist movement should be acknowledged, if for no other reason than that the Moreno tradition will one day need to play a part again in joint efforts to seek out Revolution, our own big whale. For the moment, though, the ISL is a very little and unfinished project.

 

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

 

Workers Revolutionary Party

Only a film as weird as Carlos Vermut’s 2018 Quién Te Cantará will do justice to the key question we are often posed when we see or read something, and wonder who it is for and who it is by. This is a film as much about the audience, who is to be witness to a performance, as it is about the performer and what they are trying to tell us. While ‘quién te cantará’ translates from Spanish most literally as ‘who will sing to you’, and the identity of the singer is clearly at issue here, one might most properly interpret the meaning of the phrase in the context of the film as ‘who is it that is singing to you (and who would you be that they are singing to you)’.

Famous singer Lila, played by Najwa Nimri, is a pop star who hasn’t sung for ten years and is about to make a comeback when she has an accident while swimming in the sea and loses her memory, including remembering how to sing. So, an avid fan Violeta (played by Eva Llorach) who performs a tribute act to Lila in a small-town bar is enrolled in the secret task of singing for her, singing to her, reminding her who she, Lila was, who she is. The story does and does not have a happy end (spoiler alert) depending on which Lila you are; Lila the star who does appear on stage in a successful performance or the would-be Lila who walks slowly to her death in the sea at the end of the film.

There is a sub-text of simmering violence, including, crucially between Violeta and her daughter Marta (played by Natalia Molina), and the small town on the coast where the film is shot is called ‘Rota’ which, as some admiring and critical reviews have pointed out, could be both the name of the place and a descriptor of ‘broken woman’. This is one of those rare films about relationships between women, with very few men on the scene, and about women, who they are when they must perform to others.

WRP

A key question for anyone who stumbles across the Workers Revolutionary Party today is, Who reads their daily newspaper News Line, and who are they that would produce and sell this thing? That there is a daily newspaper of the revolutionary left in Britain is still quite incredible, but it is now only on odd occasions that the thing pops into view; in a public square in Manchester, for example, when the old-timers on their collapsible chairs admit that they have travelled over from Leeds to sell it even though they claim to have hundreds of members in the city; or in the centre of London late on a deserted dark night outside a University library; or, most alarmingly during the COVID-19 crisis, on a street in the East End of London knocking door to door to sell the paper.

Once upon a time the answer was clear, if not to the readers at least to the members of the WRP, then the largest Trotskyist organisation in Britain and convinced that if they were not on the brink of power, they were at the edge of the cliff, at the point in history when there would either be socialism (under their leadership, for any other version could not be socialism at all) or barbarism. Many branches of the WRP, those that did not consist of resting actors battling for leadership of their trade union Equity, had a family-clan structure, with kids around the country enrolled into the desperate and unceasing task of cycling to the railway station late at night, every night, and then delivering the news of impending dictatorship if there was no revolution. Gerry Healy led the outfit and succeeded in recruiting working class families, and some prominent actors into his party that started as The Club in 1947, became the Socialist Labour League in 1959 and blossomed into the WRP in 1973.

The ten-year division of the Fourth International from 1953 to 1963 saw Healy’s group recognised as one of the halves of the International when the division began, of the so-called ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’, ICFI, a designation the WRP and News Line, retains for its almost non-existent network of sister organisations in different countries to the present-day. The reunification of the Fourth International in 1963 was, predictably, an incomplete one, and the SLL, as it then was, stayed out, battling for what it continued to call the ‘ICFI’ on the world stage obsessively pitted against the ‘United Secretariat’, the USFI which was led for many years by the Marxist economist Ernest Mandel, an International Healy branded as ‘Pabloite’ (after FI secretary Michel Pablo, even if there were actually few self-declared ‘Pabloites’ around).

The time for not one, but two, and then many Workers Revolutionary Parties came in 1985, when Gerry Healy was expelled, basically for sexually assaulting over twenty women in the party, and then Corin and Vanessa Redgrave were expelled for supporting him. Here indeed there was a sub-text of simmering violence against women in the group, and desperate attempts to remind Healy what he was once was, what he should be as a revolutionary leader instead of a mere abusive crook.

Different editions of News Line reported that Healy had been expelled and that he hadn’t – a case of Schrodinger’s trot – and the two different fragments then each published versions of the newspaper for a while. One fragment eventually mutated into the Socialist Equality Party, while another was still headed by Gerry Healy and Sheila Torrance, one of the few women still loyal to the old brute. Healy and the Redgraves then, in the name of the ICFI, expelled people who produced News Line and formed the ‘Marxist Party’ in 1987 oriented to the Soviet Union (a very untimely move, in retrospect) before dissolving after Healy’s death and re-emerging as the ‘Peace and Progress Party’ before disappearing into the wilderness.

There are actually very few people in the film Quién Te Cantará, and they move around quite deserted bare settings as they attempt to act out and re-establish the lives they once had, trying to remember how and why they once did what they did, and who they are. This is a very miserable and reduced game of doubling and identification, each pretending to be someone they are not, something that ends in tragic violence, with women suffering, as they so often do at the hands of male leaders in corrupted sectarian left groups that become little worlds enclosed and closed in on themselves.

So, we are left with Sheila Torrance still claiming that her WRP and her newspaper News Line is the real deal, and she continues the well-established Healy tradition of feting Arab dictators (something Healy’s WRP was willing to do in return for hard cash, but which Torrance does now, it seems, for free). What Torrance is doing in keeping the Healy legacy alive is anyone’s guess, and who she is doing it for is an even bigger question.

Healy himself met his maker a while ago now, and, fortunately, there hasn’t been another quite like him to take his place, thank goodness. Gerry Healy was no Lila, no superstar, even if the Redgraves and the rest of the gang treated him like one, and so it will be Eva Llorach who will be condemned one day to play Sheila Torrance on the big screen, Sheila mimicking the lines of Gerry’s ghost. All that is left is the name of his pretend ‘International’, the ICFI, and Torrance as the sad reminder and remainder who keeps it going, as nothing, for no one.

 

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

 

Socialist Action

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 classic The Red Shoes is one of their best films. This was another fruit of their writer-producer-director partnership, one that starred Marius Goring as Julian Craster, a composer hopelessly in love with Moira Shearer (as Victoria Page, the ballet dancer carried away by the red shoes) who is lured away, eventually to her death, by impresario Anton Walbrook (as Boris Lermentov).

As with many films, what goes on off-set is as indicative of the underlying and most significant narrative of the film as what appears on the screen. And it is only after the event that viewers can better reframe what they have seen and make sense of what is going on. In this case it is Marius Goring who is one of those centre-stage, bewitched by the dancer with the red shoes, and in a tense rivalrous relationship with Walbrook, but given a role by his rival as répétiteur with the ballet after it has become clear that he, Marius Goring, was the composer of some excellent pieces that had been passed off as the work of another.

No rebel is Marius, though; off-screen he was one of the key players in the British actor’s trade union ‘Equity’ after having been a founding member in 1929, and president of it from 1963 to 1965 and from 1975 to 1982. A great actor but a reactionary political actor, attempting to break the union boycott of apartheid South Africa, and at war with the left who were mainly organised by then influential Workers Revolutionary Party before the WRP collapsed after the Gerry Healy ‘red in the bed’ scandal. He is a real unrecognised genius in the film, watching with horror the love of his life expire, but in real life joins the camp of those in power. One might say that just as it is Moira Shearer who is captured by the beautiful red shoes who dance their way to her demise, so it is Marius Goring who is captured by political forces that he thought he could control. The narrative that flows from the film into real life is one in which a clever writer is tempted by the promise of influence and ends up at the mercy of the objects of his love.

SA

All this takes a little decoding, something that is equally the case for the shadowy group Socialist Action that once imagined that it had influence in the British Labour Party but ended up becoming a creature of the apparatus, a group led by figures who were tempted by the lure of influence in the Chinese Communist Party but ended up as propagandists for the Stalinist tradition they were once so cleverly critical of. Much as you might like Socialist Action, you won’t find out how to join through its website or its members, but you might get a lucky tap on the shoulder and be invited in one day if you can prove how enamoured you are of it.

The group is the sorry residue of the decision by the International Marxist Group, IMG, then British section of the Fourth International, to enter the Labour Party in 1982, changing its name to the ‘Socialist League’ in the process as cover, and folding up its paper Socialist Challenge, replacing it with its own tabloid and then eventually, from 1988 a magazine called Socialist Action. A three-way war broke out, with one group vying for the affections of the Fourth International, succeeding and so splitting away in 1985; this was the group that eventually, after several more splits, mutations and fusions with some fragments of the old WRP, became Socialist Resistance. Another group, acolytes of Jack Barnes’ US-American-based Pathfinder Tendency, nearly succeeded in seizing control, and was expelled in 1988, to become the Communist League.

The Fourth International and Pathfinder Tendency which was run by what was effectively once the American section of the Fourth International are the two red shoes. What was left was the third group run by a prominent former leader and theoretician of the IMG John Ross. It is John Ross who would be played by Marius Goring in a film of these times. A very clever guy, sometimes a bit of a demagogue, author of key IMG texts under his own name and under a pseudonym Alan Jones, he wanted a new arena, new company in which he could exert some influence. After having watched his red shoes dance his old partners away from him, he searched around for replacements. There were two options, both of which are visible in the present-day productions of Socialist Action. In the process, the women, as is so often the case in left groups, disappear from the scene. There is no Moira Shearer in this story. It is Marius Goring who is the focus of attention.

One red shoe was and still is the British Labour Party; apparatchiks from Socialist Action burrowed their way into Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, GLC, several of them, including John Ross, functioning as advisors and authors of key policy documents. This was one machine that ran away with them, carrying them far away from their old Trotskyist roots into social-democratic administration. Livingstone had actually appeared on a Socialist Challenge platform with Ernest Mandel from the Fourth International as speaker shortly after becoming leader of the GLC, and most members of the IMG were in the Labour Party way before its transformation into the Socialist League in 1982.

Lurid stories appeared in the London mainstream press as late as 2002 fingering Ken Livingstone’s ‘policy directors’ Redmond O’Neill and John Ross, both of Socialist Action. This, we were told, was Livingstone’s ‘Praetorian Guard’. Ross is said to have courted capitalists in the City of London on Livingstone’s behalf, and raced back to London to be his economic advisor during the mayoral race from Moscow where he was advising financial institutions about how to negotiate the new capitalist reality after the fall of the Wall. He is described as a ‘jovial man’, one picture of him that IMG members will remember.

And then, it is from Moscow to Beijing. The other red shoe that was dangled in front of the group was the fabulous economic success of the Chinese regime, and so a regime that had imprisoned and murdered Trotskyists, became academic and political home for Ross, who now pushes out remarkable defences of the bureaucracy. Now Ross is Senior Fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University, and it is from that platform that he firmly denies that China is capitalist. This leads him to defend the regime, and then, just as loyally, to line up with the regime against the protesters in Hong Kong.

In Powell and Pressburger’s film The Red Shoes, the ballet company and the internal alliances and intrigues in that company are as important as the machinations of director, if not more so. This is a company firmly rooted on the European continent; the final action takes place in Italy, and the film was shot in England and France. The allure of continental Europe was always important to the IMG, and to Ross; that was always part of the appeal of the Fourth International to British Trotskyists. Now Ross’s group Socialist Action has simply transferred its affections to a much bigger continental landmass, China, one that paints itself red, and has Ross to help them do that, but in the process he has painted himself into a corner. His enthusiasm has run away with him and led him far away from his first loves, and from socialism itself.

 

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

 

Communist League

One of the most striking things about Lars von Trier’s 2008 film The Boss of It All is not so much the plot as the way it was made, and then the weird disorienting effect it has on the viewer as they try to work out what is going on. Everyone in the company is trying to work out what is going on, and who is in charge. That’s the crux of the plot really. The real head of a Danish IT company, Ravn (played by Peter Gantzler), has been outsourcing all the bad and unpopular management decisions to a fictional ‘Boss of it all’ somewhere overseas for years, and that means he doesn’t take the flak when things go wrong. But now when he wants to sell the company to some Icelandic guys, they want to meet the real big boss to sign the handover documents, and so Ravn hires Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) to play the part. When they encounter Kristoffer, different members of the company play out their own fantasies and theories about what kind of guy he is, assuming, for example that the dopier he seems the more brilliant a manager he actually is, and so on.

It’s a bit of a shaggy dog story from Trier, better known for his more disturbing erratic off-the-wall films. It all looks innocent enough, but, given his past form, we are always expecting this farce to slide into something worse. And there are some nice barely hidden subplots in the film, with the Icelandic buyers at one moment making demands to see the main man, behaving like US American corporate asset-strippers – that gives a particular frisson of fear to the company staff who don’t know what the transfer of management-ownership betokens – and at the next behaving like upstart entrepreneurs; remember that Iceland is a former colony of Denmark, and so there are old historical master-slave dynamics at work at different levels of this deception.

The company employees are being duped about who really runs the show, but this uncertainty about what the film is really about is replicated in the production process. Von Trier repeatedly suddenly ‘jump cuts’ from one scene to another, and the film, critics have pointed out, has an ‘uncannily detached feel and anaesthetically flat look’. At the same time, there are shifts in image and sound so that there is a sense of ventriloquism at work: bits of dialogue are assembled as if from different places, and so it is not clear at any moment who is really speaking, or, more to the point, who is speaking beyond or behind or through another character.

CL

So it is with the bit part members of the Communist League, who have managed to keep the show on the road in Britain since they were ejected from a more mysterious and deliberately secretive group, Socialist Action, in 1988. They will show up at demonstrations and unfold a bookstall with some very old pamphlets and copies of their newspaper, well, not their own newspaper, but one put together by the big boss over the pond, The Militant. The Militant was founded back in 1928, and is the public voice of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, and every twist and turn of this once-significant force on the US-American left is dictated by Jack Barnes and relayed to followers in the so-called ‘Pathfinder Tendency’ around the world, including the Communist League franchise in the UK.

Jack Barnes was elected National Secretary of the Party in 1972, and has clung onto power ever since. The American SWP was effectively the section of the Fourth International (though prohibited from officially declaring itself to be such, as it reminded readers of its pamphlets and books in a phrase pasted in as a footnote in every text, by the Voorhis Act), but the party under Barnes’ leadership finally broke from the Fourth International in 1990 after some bizarre attempts to make Fidel Castro boss of it all. Then there is a strange and sad political journey, from debates over independent revolutionary strategy in Latin America to cheer-leading the Cuban leadership whatever it does, from leading worker protests through the Teamsters Union in the US, to hailing the victory of Trump in the presidential election and then siding with the right-wing libertarian Trump protesters against COVID-19 lockdown, and from principled support for the Palestinians to welcoming the re-election of Netanyahu and explicitly supporting Israel.

You can’t understand what the Communist League is up to unless you are au fait with the twists and turns of the Barnes group, now a shadow of its former self, and its publishing arm Pathfinder Press. But wait a minute, things aren’t as they first seem. President of Pathfinder Press is Mary-Alice Waters, Jack Barnes’ partner, and the actual ownership of these entities seems vested in the Anchor Foundation, which sold off the SWP headquarters in Manhattan for an eye-watering sum, 20 million dollars. The legal tangle of share ownership of different aspects of the controlling stake in the Pathfinder Tendency and the paper and pamphlets and books that the Communist League hawk around the place in the UK is pretty complicated. Every revolutionary group has to manoeuvre its finances to escape the gaze of the capitalist state, but that is not the point now. Now it is not clear who indeed is the Boss of it all, and who benefits. This is what stokes accusations that Barnes and Walters are running a business and sit in the most expensive seats at the New York opera.

Back to the Communist League, in bad company and following Barnes every step of the way. Back in the day, in the 1970s, Jonathan Silberman, who leads the Communist League, would regale members of the International Marxist Group, IMG, with stories of his motorcycle journeys across the US to attend the SWP congress in Oberlin, Ohio. Then Barnes’ supporters would operate in Britain inside the British section of the Fourth International as the ‘Leninist Trotskyist Faction’, and a small group of Canadians ran the Pathfinder Bookshop in The Cut near Waterloo Station south of the Thames in London. What was crucial to their success was winning IMG leaders Brian Grogan and John Ross to support them. the fatal blow was struck by Barnes insisting on a ‘turn to industry’ that effectively destroyed many sections of the Fourth International for a while, including in Britain.

When the IMG changed its name to the Socialist League, went into the Labour Party and disintegrated, Socialist Action appeared as its best organised successor organisation; Ross broke from Grogan to continue with Socialist Action. The Barnes group had held on as long as they could, even winning a majority just before a conference, but the writing was on the wall, and out they went. Today they are reduced to being little more than a joke item in the bourgeois press, including the Jewish Chronicle, who didn’t know quite what to make of a self-declared communist standing for London mayor.

The giveaway about the Communist League’s political allegiances comes in rather odd references to support for ‘workers and farmers’, a legacy of the call for ‘workers and farmers’ governments everywhere, particularly Cuba. Candidates pop up in different places every now and again, in London, in Edinburgh, and in Manchester, to get derisory votes even less than random mistakes in the polling booth. Today, it is unclear which actors, Peter Gantzler or Jens Albinus, would play Barnes and Silberman in a dramedy based on the trajectory of the Pathfinder Tendency. What is clear is that the Communist League are playing supporting roles to Barnes. Silberman for one has certainly been taken for a ride, and anyone who joins them is going to go nowhere fast.

 

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

 

Fourth International in Manchester Group

The 2013 science fiction thriller Gravity raises a question as to who is in charge of the plot of a film; the main characters – in this case Lieutenant Matt Kowalski and Dr Ryan Stone – or the actors who play them, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, or, perhaps more likely still, the director, here Alfonso Cuarón for a film he co-wrote with his son Jonás. Cuarón has good radical form, directing the best of the crop of little boy wizard films with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004, and then, two years later, a film he also wrote, Children of Men (a film that twisted to the left a 1992 novel by Tory Peer P. D. James). In other words, Cuarón is really the main man here, taking bad material and making good of it.

It is then too easy to be misled by the antics of Clooney and Bullock. They look like the stars, up among the real stars on the NASA Explorer Space Shuttle to fix the Hubble Space Telescope. But, when they are hit by debris resulting from a Russian missile attack on one of its old pieces of equipment, it looks like Clooney and Bullock will both soon be dead meat. It is Clooney who pegs out first, reappearing in one of Bullock’s later hallucinations as she works her way into an abandoned Russian Soyuz craft and then onto a Chinese Shenzou vehicle, just in time to zoom in and break through the upper atmosphere and arrive safe back on earth.

We are up in space circling the planet for most of the film, getting more than a bird’s eye view of home, more than enough, too much to work out what is really going on down below. Instead, in a hyper-real internationalist perspective on the world, we navigate in this film the vain attempts by nation states to project themselves into space, into territory they do not yet control. Just as in Children of Men Cuarón was able to make us see something about our reality that we could not already see, to see more of it, so in Gravity, he was able to show us how little we are, little bit players in our national struggles; we have to step beyond the nation state, beyond earth itself, to get a better perspective on what is really going on.

FIIMG

The Fourth International in Manchester Group (FIIMG) is, let’s be honest, one of the smaller, if not the smallest of revolutionary organisations. If it were really led by George Clooney (which is a plausible supposition) then his partner Sandra Bullock would be rolling her eyes wondering what an earth he is doing most of the time tangled up with those old macho leftists who are tangled up in turn with the tangled lines of old clapped out group leaders. She’s the one who will survive this. But it’s not even down to George, this thing.

Cruciverbalists will detect in the initials FIIMG ‘Fourth International’, of course, and then ‘IMG’ which will remind old Trotskyists in Britain of the International Marxist Group, some of whose ex-members are accumulating a valuable public archive of material; that’s an invaluable accompaniment to the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project. The current incarnation of the IMG as British Section of the Fourth International is Socialist Resistance, SR, which might lead you to expect FIIMG to praise SR and the FI and attack the rest as pretenders. Not so, because the Fourth International has always comprised a weird mix of old-line Trotskyists, surrealists and libertarians, and all the more so today when it includes members around the world from very different revolutionary traditions; it is a space for action and critical reflection.

Ok, take a deep breath and admit it, there is now more than one ‘fourth international’, in the sense that there are actually many groupings of revolutionaries who link politics around the globe; you need but two Trotskyists to found a party, three to build an international, and four to produce a split. Maybe that is one reason why we, FIIMG, are actually less than one. We need to acknowledge the others racing around the globe in hyperspace because we are hit by their debris every now and again.

Next down in size after the Fourth International with credible continuity with the organisation founded by Trotsky and his followers in 1938 are, number two, the very nice on the whole comrades of the International Marxist Tendency, whose British section inside the Labour Party is named for its newspaper Socialist Appeal. Next down on the list, number three and four in the international hit parade, are two internationals with so few members here as to make them inconsequential to the British scene (unlike the other local groups, LOL), the Fourth International La Vérité, followers of Pierre Lambert (of which the British Section is ‘FI Britain’), and the Latin-American ‘Morenoite’ International Workers League, whose British Section is confined pretty much to the Old Swan district of Liverpool (where it is called the International Socialist League). The British SWP runs its own outfit called the International Socialist Tendency, a fifth contender on the world stage.

Sixth, there is a one half of the Committee for a Workers International (with a very small group in Britain called Socialist Alternative), though internationally the ‘majority’ and renamed in early 2020 the International Socialist Alternative; and, in seventh place, the other half of the Committee for a Workers International, the ‘minority’, still staggering on under its original name after a disastrous split in 2019 that was very much to do with London-centric control-freakery by one of its few remaining live groups, the Socialist Party. There are still tinier ‘internationals’, some of which still claim the title ‘Fourth International’ (fragment fall-outs from the sexual abuse scandals that spawned the current thankfully much-reduced version of the Workers Revolutionary Party and Socialist Equality Party, and some going where no one has gone before, or will do, to the ‘Fifth International’ of Workers’ Power. Unfortunately, the Cuarta Internacional Posadista, which did try to make contact with flying saucers no longer exists except in name.

It all looks very different from space, no doubt, but we didn’t need Alfonso Cuarón to tell us that in space no one can hear you scream. Comrades have given their lives to the tin-pot dictators that run some of these groups, and that’s why internal revolutionary democracy is the absolutely indispensable key to building anything that is worth the time and the energy we have left before the world itself heats up and capitalism kills us all. It is small consolation that people are able to escape every now and again and find a revolutionary space to work together instead of against each other.

You can fill out Gravity with any old ideological content, even with advertising, recuperate it, and turn it against the left. And you can do the same with each and every group on the left, drag it back into the orbit of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. In fact, that’s what many of the so-called revolutionary groups already offer themselves up to, set themselves up for, and then it is all the worse when they try and build their own ‘internationals’ in their own image, as simple projections onto a global scale of the way they see things on their home ground. FIIMG escapes that, circling around the British groups, liminal to them, whatever their size, and the various ‘internationals’ that pretend they are the one.

FIIMG cannot, of course, break free from the Fourth International which was actually founded by Leon Trotsky and fellow anti-Stalinist revolutionaries, not only because the FI can be traced back to the historical origins of revolutionary socialist struggle against both capitalism and Stalinism, but also because this Fourth International is the most honest and open about the need to connect with other revolutionary traditions. This Fourth International does its level best to build something from the fragments, to make another world possible, just as FIIMG shows you where those fragments colliding with each other in Britain come from, all the more effectively for you to make your own commitment to take them some place better.

 

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

Workers’ Power

The Wrong Trousers directed by Nick Park in 1993 was one of three very successful stop-motion animation films starring Wallace and Gromit, a toothy eccentric inventor voiced by Peter Sallis, and his dog. The film was made and released between A Grand Day Out (1989) and A Close Shave (1995), but should be seen as the third culminating episode in the career of this loveable clay-fiction master and his loyal though often exasperated best friend.

A Grand Day Out takes Wallace and Gromit to the moon, the logical place to go when they have run out of cheese. The rocket that takes them there is one of many weird contraptions dreamt up by our wacky inventor hero and off they go, where Wallace discovers that the moon tastes like Wensleydale – good – but that a local cooker-creature doesn’t want them to take it. Their love of Wensleydale, by the way, boosted British exports of this crumbly rather second-rate creamy stuff when Wallace and Gromit films became popular.

Then, in A Close Shave, new characters come onto the scene – Wendolene, her dog Preston, and Shaun the sheep – and it takes a few twists and turns of the plot for Wallace and Gromit, separated in the shenanigans that ensue, to get back together again. No plot spoilers here, that would be too cruel. But our hearts are in our mouths as we watch strange possible new alliances form that might expand the Wallace and Gromit household. Sadly, those fruitful alliances seem, after the event, to have been doomed to failure.

In The Wrong Trousers, Wallace gives Gromit a pair of techno-trousers for his birthday, but ends up being trapped by them himself when the penguin he had taken in as a lodger gets hold of the control mechanism, and takes sleeping Wallace off to the museum to steal a valuable diamond. It takes a while for poor Gromit, who has been sidelined by the penguin after winning Wallace’s affection, to work out what has been going on, and longer for Gromit to find a way of warning Wallace and exposing the penguin’s wicked scheme.

WP

Workers’ Power’s Grand Day Out was in 1974, when dissident members of the International Socialists (now SWP) puked up another internal group into the outside world that had been organising as the ‘Left Faction’. They had run out of ideas in the SWP, so it was time to go and find some new ones outside. Luckily, or not, for the Trotskyists, this new group gravitated over the next five years or so away from the idea that Russia was ‘state capitalist’ (the calling card analysis of IS/SWP) toward the more standard Trotskyist position that it was a degenerate workers state. It clarified this position, as if it was a completely new home-grown invention, and in the process did battle with other unfortunate left groups which it merged with and then split from. The journey out into the left universe refreshed it and by 1980 it was back home and ready to go it alone again. New theoretical contraptions had to be mocked up in order to mark itself out from what was then a fairly crowded field back on earth.

We pick up the trajectory of Workers’ Power, then mainly led by Richard Brenner (who will be voiced by Peter Sallis when he goes into the dark again) in 2013, the year of the SWP rape crisis, something that was to have disastrous consequences for women who were still with the state capitalists, but which also reenergised the young left activists who were beginning to remake connections between socialism and feminism. The question is, of course, Whose close shave? Well, first, it was Left Unity who were unlucky enough to have Workers’ Power join them to piss off new members seeking a way out of the sectarian swamp.

Then it was a real possibility of romance that Workers’ Power muscled in on and helped mess up; the possible ‘regroupment’ taking place between different fragments burnt by old-left command and control politics. The key player here was the International Socialist Network which consisted mainly of ex-members of the SWP who had made the first break with their abusive home organisation in 2013, and who were now working closely with the Anticapitalist Initiative (ACI). This is when new avatars of Wendolene, Preston and Shaun come onto the scene, and part of the problem is knowing who is who, who you can trust to be engaging in the discussions in good faith, and who you can’t.

Leading members of the ACI had broken from Workers’ Power the year before, taking out most of its ‘Revolution’ youth organisation, but when the ACI and ISN were avidly courted by Socialist Resistance to build a new joint organisation – and it would have been a big step bringing in some of the best of the new activists together – lingering affections for their old comrades led some involved to ask if Workers’ Power could tag along; a big mistake, for it meant the end of the regroupment project (something that was not helped by the Socialist Resistance leadership becoming hopelessly enamoured with the newly emerging RS21 during the process).

There was a danger, of course, that Workers’ Power could haemorrhage more members to a new joint organisation in the process, and so Richard Brenner rushed around the country to keep the comrades in line. When Workers’ Power were asked if they would continue organising as a separate party inside a future fused organisation, they would robotically repeat that they would wait and see. They had their own escape vehicle almost ready, not completely built, but with the first panels and nuts and bolts stuck together in the form of an unstable rickety ship it called The League for the Fifth International. It was a close shave indeed for the British far left, for a lash up that incorporated them would have ended in the destruction of every other group involved. Those new alliances to expand the Workers’ Power household came to naught.

And so we come to The Wrong Trousers, in which Richard Brenner was completely trapped inside his Wallace persona, dragging along the rest of the comrades, who, by turns, rolled their eyes at new schemes to build Workers’ Power and the Fifth International, and at other times lie doggo until Richard pushed them into action. That was until they spoke up for trans-rights, and anatomically-correct Richard left the group. The ‘wrong trousers’ in this case is actually a bigger machine, the Labour Party, into which Workers’ Power stuck itself after saying goodbye to Left Unity. In it goes, and though they claim to have shut up shop in 2015, click on the Britain tab of the Fifth International site and you will be taken quick as a flash to Red Flag, and there they are proclaiming they are the ‘British Section’. They have trimmed down their programme now, keeping in their pockets their trademark call for resistance against Ukraine, which is depicted as a fascist state. You can still work out who is in Workers’ Power when they either try to stitch in a tendentious reference to Ukraine in joint platform proposals or react badly if you refer to the Maidan movement as in any way positive or even contradictory; it’s the opposite of ‘say cheese’ to these Wallace and Gromits, don’t say ‘Ukraine’.

Like most every other group, Workers’ Power has its own particular programmatic fetish-points to justify its own separate existence. As we know from The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave and A Grand Day Out, however, it is not actually Wallace and his new wheezes, who is the brightest item in the group. The Revolution youth group showed the way, turned from being Gromit into something really alive, something that did give hope to the left. The rest of the Gromits need to follow them, leaving behind the old men of clay.

 

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

Revolutionary Communist Group

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

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

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

RCG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century

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

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

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

RS21

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

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

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

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

The emergence of RS21 was one of the best things to happen on the far left in recent years, but we need to add a note of caution. Rather like cautious Joan Castleman, who is unwilling to take that last bold step to write herself into history, tell the truth and take up her vocation as novelist, until her husband actually dies (of a heart attack in the hotel in Stockholm), RS21 still often seem a little too closely tied to their old aging partner in the form of the SWP than is good for them. In trades union meetings, for example, we often notice the mainly women comrades from RS21 sitting apart from the mainly male comrades of the SWP, but still on the same page as them in many of the disputes with the bureaucracy.

They probably won’t be completely free until the SWP is finally dead, and the process through which that will happen can only be a deeper more thorough-going revolutionary one that brings to the fore new forms of struggle fit for the times. The comrades from RS21 held back from ‘regroupment’ initiatives in 2014 because they were not ready to take that step, but one day they will take that step, when other activists have really taken on board the feminist politics they have put on the agenda.

 

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