Revolutionary Communist Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Socialist Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Communist Party of Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Socialist Party of Great Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Socialist 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. then setting up other front organisations such as Labour Left Alliance (after closing down the Labour Party Marxists site).

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.