Viral Resistance

In this paper I will briefly situate the current coronavirus outbreak in its political context and draw attention to some key conceptual issues, before going into a little more detail, into different political responses to the crisis, from the far right and from mainstream governments, and then make some proposals for strategic demands we might make of the state and of each other to get through this in such a way as to avoid returning to the kind of business as usual that got us into this mess in the first place.

Viral crisis

The most detailed analysis of the current coronavirus outbreak is provided by Chuǎng, which is available on the internet, called ‘Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China’. The analysis includes a historical survey of pandemics and, although it does not actually name itself as such, the Chuǎng analysis is ‘ecosocialist’; that is, the analysis is in line with the argument that contemporary capitalism is indeed, as Joel Kovel put it in his book of the same name ‘the enemy of nature’.

The conditions of possibility for this current viral crisis include the concentration of human populations, industrialised farming in which huge populations of genetically-similar animals are bred and contained in the same space, and the rapid destruction of natural habitats such that virus’s in the ‘wild’ are released into food production networks.

The rapid spread of a viral outbreak, including this one, then relies on a degree of calculated mismanagement, bureaucratic concern with secrecy and control of populations combined with material incentives to keep production and consumption going for as long as possible.

Contemporary capitalism is configured as ‘the enemy of nature’ not only in the sense that the planet is treated as inert matter to be exploited, a process driven by the search for profit, but also in the sense that each one of us, subjects of capitalism, become alienated from nature. This is not a new idea, actually, and was noticed by Karl Marx who described alienation as proceeding through a fourfold separation.

Alongside the separation of each human subject from the fruits of their labour, a toxic distortion of our creativity, and separation of us from each other as we compete to sell our labour power, a toxic distortion of our sociality, there is a separation of each of us from our own bodies, a fear of the body that must work for us without breaking down, and our separation from nature as such.

One can make a further conceptual link here with the distinction drawn by Lacanian psychoanalysis, between reality as that which we navigate in our day to day lives, the stuff of everyday life, and the ‘real’ as the sometimes traumatic eruption into our consciousness of brute matter, that which is impossible to fully represent to ourselves, comprehend and manage, still less for us to predict and control.

This aspect of Lacanian psychoanalysis is one of the conceptual frameworks, along with lite-touch Hegel and a sprinkle of Marxism that Slavoj Žižek brings to bear on the coronavirus crisis in his rapidly written and published recent book PANDEMIC!: COVID-19 Shakes the World. I will touch on arguments in this book here as I think it does raise some interesting issues, but does not always do that in the right way. There are attempts to conceptualise the coronavirus crisis in the book, but we need some more concrete analysis of the political situation if we are to make use of some of its insights.

We have a difficult task here of navigating our way, first, between two far-right responses to this crisis. If we at least understand how these two far-right responses operate, we will be in a better position to work out what we should do. This is especially important given that this crisis is very likely to trigger further crises as the coronavirus threat appears to recede, and the shape to those crises is already starting to appear.

Far right state-oriented response

A first far-right response is to call upon the full resources of the state and to demand total obedience to rules over social distancing and lockdown. We’ve seen in Britain, for example, calls for an increase in police powers, and those powers have already been augmented by restrictions on freedom of movement and the right of the police to detain people, so this a real threat.

Some on the left are tempted to take this kind of position. I have heard leftists argue along the lines that were we in control we would be as tough, if not tougher on those who flout social distancing rules, tougher than our government. This is where we see, of course, an increase in state surveillance of everyday life.

These calls for an increase of police powers, and such calls don’t only come from the right, include a nationalist element. The fascist ‘Tommy Robinson’ who set up the English Defence League a while back, as a case in point, is sharing videos purportedly of Muslims gathering at mosque, the message being that these gatherings are enabling contagion, with the sub-text that Islam itself is a threat. This is a time of viral signifiers, potent poisonous ones.

Note in this case that the real name for ‘Tommy Robinson’ is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, and his chosen public name is a clever semiotic blend of ‘Tommy’ (the brave working-class soldier defending Britain during world wars) and Robinson (which, in the British imagination signifies a range of things, including Robinson Crusoe and a brand of jam for which the Robinson brand ‘gollywog’ functions as a still popular and supposedly humorous but racist image). All kind of toxic ideological stuff is coming to the surface with this viral crisis.

This is a message and Islamophobic intervention that chimes with the activities of the Modi government in India where far-right groups are claiming that Muslims are a source of the virus, even that they are thereby launching a ‘Corona-Jihad’. Images of Indian police brutality against Muslims outside a mosque are then being re-tweeted by other far-right figures in Britain, with the accompanying suggestion that police here could learn something from the Indian police. Here we see the chiming of nationalist response with nationalist response.

There is an increasing globalisation of right-wing nationalist movements each pitting the population of their own nation against all the others. There is thus intensification during these times of virus crisis of already-existing alliances; of Johnson with Trump with Modi with Orbán with Netanyahu with Bolsonaro and so on. One only has to conjure up these names to realise how dangerous it is to simply call on the state to do its appointed task, and hope for the best.

Here is a point where it is necessary to disagree with Žižek’s hope that it would be possible, as he put it in his recent Pandemic book, that we could demand of the state ‘show us what you can do’ and thereby by some clever subversive overidentification with the state hasten the transition from the ‘disaster capitalism’ Naomi Klein describes to what Žižek dubs ‘disaster communism’.

Far right libertarian response

A second far-right response mirrors the first. This is to accuse the state of arrogating to itself increasing power, using the opportunity of the virus threat to increase surveillance, even, in the most extreme off-beam of these responses to claim that the virus threat is exaggerated, that it is merely a pretext for ramping up of state control.

One of the most poisonous vectors of this response lies at the heart of government itself; for example, in the case of Trump, who is keen to warrant his own denial of the scale of the problem by referring to the ‘deep state’. This is the liberal ‘deep state’ that is, we are told, intent on sabotaging Trump’s efforts to make America great again.

As with the first far-right option, there are some on the left who have been, until a very late stage of the spread of coronavirus, arguing that this is not as serious as it is made out to be, even hinting at hidden agendas. And, as with collusion with the first far-right response, this is playing with fire. We have seen this already in the United States where there has been sympathetic reporting even in some of the far-left press of the libertarian survivalist militias who are refusing to obey state directives around coronovirus.

Conspiracy theories thrive in times of coronavirus. There have, for example, been attacks on telephone masts in Britain, including some of those serving the emergency hospital building set up in Birmingham in the centre of the country, by people who are convinced that 5G mobile network signals are responsible for spreading the virus. It is not clear whether these people are on the right or left

Whatever their declared political allegiances they effectively operate on the right, peddling conspiracy theories that begin with the spreading of memes that show hidden imagery on twenty-pound banknotes of the coronavirus and of telephone masts and end with the ramblings of David Icke who believes that the British royal family are really alien lizard-beings.

Icke is a one-time sports commentator, but not a joke. A clip of an interview with him was very recently shown on BBC television in which he was suggesting a mysterious connection between the spread of coronavirus and the Israeli state. This goes along with suggestions that we, the ‘sheeple’ who follow orders, are tranquilised by way of ‘chemtrails’ released by jet planes. If that theory was right, the absence of chemtrails now should surely lead to the sheeple waking up.

The mystery is why the lizard-beings slip up so often, why they let clues slip out about their secret agenda. It is unclear that Icke really believes that the lizard-beings are Jews, the tragedy of his trajectory is probably more that he does actually believe they are lizards. I digress; it is too easy to mock these people.

The problem and the toxic political effect of all this, though, is that paranoiac suspicion of any and every authority undermines rational debate. It intensifies the segregation of the population into groupings of people who already agree with each other about alien threats, as well as intensifying ethno-nationalist segregation as such.

Alongside, and in tension with these far-right responses to coronavirus are the attempts by the liberal and neoliberal states to themselves hold things together now so that there is a better more realistic prospect of guiding us back to what they would like to see as business as usual. They operate on that premise, that capital accumulation must be allowed to resume as soon as possible, and that the kind of social relations that would enable that must be restored sooner rather than later. In reality, the so-called ‘lockdown’ in Britain has many loopholes that are encouraging businesses to break it, and many precarious workers are being pressured to leave their homes and put themselves and their families at risk.

You do not have to be a raving Marxist to acknowledge that this is what the capitalist state agenda must be. That is, production must be restored, production under private ownership, and consumer demand be encouraged. You cannot have it any other way if you believe that capitalism is intrinsically a civilizing force. This agenda establishes the contours of the ideological responses of most of the existing authorities.

There are two versions of established dominant ideological responses which guide policy, and they entail and feed ideological motifs that we need to grapple with.

Neoliberal response

The first, more brutal response was articulated very clearly by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the early days of the crisis. This line had it that we should allow the virus to sweep through the population, and here Johnson was pitching his theory at the British population, and this would then lead to ‘herd immunity’; the ‘herd’ in this case being the British herd, so already semiotically-speaking, a nationalist motif was being mobilised.

The rhetoric Johnson used would then come to haunt him when he ended up in hospital on oxygen, though not actually on a ventilator; this rhetoric included stating openly at press conferences that he ‘shook everyone’s hand’ during his official visits to hospitals, and that we should ‘take it on the chin’, and accept, as he put it himself, ‘that you will lose loved ones’. So sanguine was he that he reportedly flippantly suggested that the plan to bring in emergency ventilators to hospitals be called ‘operation last gasp’.

The hopes were that Johnson’s own stay in hospital with coronavirus would lead to a change of heart. The problem was that the ‘herd immunity’ motif already operated in the popular imagination as a version of quasi-Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’, and was spun as such by the tabloid press which have been functioning throughout the crisis in Britain as propaganda sheets for the Conservative Party. They have been keen to ram home Johnson’s victory over Labour in the election and to bury the threat from supporters of Jeremy Corbyn once and for all.

The discourse about Johnson’s hospitalisation and recovery was anchored by claims that he has a ‘zest for life’, that he has the strength to pull through, and that this was a victory, as one tabloid headline had it, for ‘battling Boris’. This narrative is mirrored in other contexts; in India, for example, there is anxiety about heading to hospital because, in some bizarre way, the representation of the virus as foreign to the Hindu body-politic means that to contract coronavirus is to show not only failure but to be tinged with treason, to be ‘un-Indian’.

Poor people, people from minority groups, who are more often poor, will die in greater numbers as a result of this virus. This is already the case in Britain, and not only in Britain. And so, ‘herd immunity’ of one form or another is bound up with nationalism. There is another version of nationalism, however, that is also concerned with attempting to bind the community together, which I turn to next. Here it is not so much oriented to accepting that people will die, that you will lose your loved ones, but it relies on the fiction that all will survive, that we will come through this.

Liberal response

The second established ideologically-framed state response is more benign, and this is the kind of thing that the left usually has in mind when it calls on the state to show what it can do, but it is also problematic. This second response can be summed up in the claim that this natural crisis, this crisis caused by a virus that emerged unbidden from the natural world that no one could predict or control, has had the effect of giving us common purpose, as if we are all in the same boat. It is a response that can be summed up in the claim that ‘we are all in it together’.

This claim, as always, is, at best, no more than a wish of liberal and social-democratic political leaders, and, at worst, a malicious attempt to occlude the inequalities that structure capitalist society, inequalities that are intensified under these crisis conditions. We are patently, not ‘all in it together’. This ‘all together’ is evoked time and time again during the crisis, for it is ideologically necessary, pragmatically necessary for the political leaders of each nation state to try and hold people together, to encourage them to obey the rule of law in potentially chaotic times.

For example, Boris Johnson was admitted to a National Health Service, NHS, hospital, which was ideologically significant, not accidental. Given the popular knowledge of his own class background, immensely rich and immensely privileged, schooled at Eton and Oxford, it was politically unavoidable. This necessity cemented by the recent election campaign in which the Labour Party, knowing full well that the NHS was already being privatised, most likely ready to be sold off to US American companies upon the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations, put most of its campaign energy into supporting the NHS. Johnson’s Conservative Party undercut that campaign with its own cynical and dishonest claim that the NHS would be safe in his hands, and more resources, insufficient but an impressive amount, were put into the NHS in the first budget after the election.

There has, during the crisis, been a significant manifestation of popular support for the NHS, gratitude to health workers. Each Thursday evening at 8pm people appear on their doorsteps or at windows clapping, sometimes banging on pans. Each week the turnout for loud public support has been greater. Some right-wing Conservatives, not far-right but connected with the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, that is pro-Brexit, called for another manifestation on another evening while Johnson was in hospital, to clap for Boris. There was silence. It failed. And with that the line that ‘we are all in it together’ was thrown into question.

Ecosocialist response

We have a fundamental choice of political strategy here, we always had, but this choice is intensified under the coronavirus crisis. We could orientate ourselves to the state, demand action from the state, attempting to hold the state to account, and this seems to be the line argued by Žižek in his recent book. Or we can organise ourselves separately from the state, build on the networks of mutual aid and articulate these with already-existing organisations of what we can call, for shorthand, the 99% (that is working people, the excluded, marginalised, those who form the basis of the various different liberation movements around the world). This would be a form of viral resistance appropriate to this crisis, an ecosocialist response.

On the one side is the hope that this crisis will tip the state over from being a defender of property rights, of the rights of those who hold very large property, to coming over to our side, the shift that Žižek rather naively characterises as the shift from disaster capitalism to disaster communism. On this side of the choice too are the old naïve liberals who always hoped to harness the energies of the state for the social good, and the social democrats of various kinds who earnestly hope that if we play cautious we will win over everyone because, when it comes down to it, we are all in it together.

On the other side is a strategy of working from the base up, from the grassroots, and the crucial lesson we must draw from a critical analysis of the libertarians who are defying the state over the lockdown is that at the heart of our strategy must be an uncompromising internationalism.

There is an underlying conceptual and practical critique that we must take seriously here, a lesson we must draw from the nature of a political-economic system that has been despoiling the world since its inception and is now drawing us to the edge of destruction on this planet. Capital accumulation will not work unless it is driven by profit, and the profit motive underpins a double shift in human relations under capitalism, human relationships that are intimately tied to the ecology of the planet. Not to re-invent the wheel here, I acknowledge work by the Marxist geographer David Harvey on time-space compression as invaluable for understanding what has already been happening to us under classical and neoliberal capitalism.

Distance and Time

The first aspect of that double shift concerns distance, precisely involving the crisis of distance that the coronavirus faces us with. Capitalism entails globalisation, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and the key question is what kind of globalisation we are in favour of; globalisation of capital which entails and intensifies colonial oppression and postcolonial cultural domination of different kinds, or internationalism in which we acknowledge the diversity of ways of being human in a consciously articulated global response?

With train travel, essential to industrialisation, and then plane travel, and then with electronic communication, we have built a world, or a world has been built for us, which shrinks distance, as least for the sector of the population that controls and manages resources and for a significant layer of middle-class professionals, in which group we must include tenured academics.

One of the things we learn from strategies of social distancing to contain and slow the spread of coronavirus is that social distance is not necessarily segregation and alienation, but betokens new forms of solidarity. This is a point made well by Žižek in his book, that the very etiquette of respect for distance is a sign of respect and care for others. Here is the return of a notion of solidarity which is not reduced to charitable help for those we know, but internationalist solidarity, solidarity and care for those we have never met.

The second aspect of this double shift concerns time, the possibility of engaging in a quite different way with the acceleration of life under capitalism, acceleration which is always, of course, unevenly suffered or enjoyed. There has always, with the distinction between those who own the means of production and those who work to live, been a correlative distinction between those who are time-rich and those who are time-poor, a distinction that then mirrors its way down through social classes to manifest itself in relations between men and women, in which it is women who are expected to have more time, to wait in line, and to shop, and even to speak. Acceleration of the speed of life does not mean more time for all, but less.

That vector of time is radically challenged in times of lockdown, times in which there is enforced work for some, including for those neoliberal subjects that Byung-Chul Han describes where it is, indeed, as if class struggle is internalised such that each individual subject becomes at war with itself. Again, Žižek has useful critical things to say about that analysis, pointing out that this description applies to a certain limited sector of the world population.

This brings us to the many who are thrown out of work during these times, and who face time as something unstructured, empty. We are faced then with time, what to do with it when it is ours. It opens once again the question of how work could be redistributed so that there is also redistribution of time.

A crisis is a turning point, a political strategic choice point as to whether to continue and exacerbate the consequences of that double shift or to do something different. So, let’s bear in mind those background issues, for developing a strategy that is grassroots up, independent of the state, and that is international, and that aims to reconfigure our lives in such a way as to work with what the coronovirus crisis has opened up as possibilities, of a transformation of what we understand by ‘distance’ and what we understand by ‘time’.

Four elements of viral resistance

It is tempting to draws up a long and ever-expanding list of strategic responses that cover each and every aspect of our lives. I first read the title of this conference as ‘The Psychology of Global Crises: State Surveillance, Solidarity and Everything Else’, which would have been a fairly good summary of what we are up against now, for the coronavirus crisis does basically demand a transformation of everything. So you can just add ‘everything else’ to this list of four strategic points I want to conclude with.

We can formulate these four strategic points as demands, and, yes, these are demands on the state authorities but also, more importantly, demands on each other.

  1. The first demand concerns work. There is already massively increasing unemployment, and increasing poverty as a result of this crisis, and that will get worse. The millions of pounds that have been poured into keeping the infrastructure going during lockdown and into support payments will be followed by austerity as working people, those who can return to work, will be made to pay for this crisis. We need guarantees of work and distribution of work and pay, and forms of support that are collectively organised. It is interesting, and not surprising, that calls for Universal Basic Income have increased during the crisis, including among the left, but that is a trap. What that does is to, first, rely on the state to pay out to each individual – it is a top down solution – and, second, to rely on each individual to act as a consumer, still at the mercy of competing profit-driven goods and services offered by the parasites, the ruling class, who make money out of human need.
  2. The second demand concerns health. We have learnt something about the nature of health provision, that private health care is not only insufficient but damaging, and that there needs to be fully-funded free health care at point of provision for everyone. In some local contexts, in the case of the National Health Service in Britain, for example, free public healthcare is a historic gain that we cannot let go, that needs to be defended and extended. In other contexts there are more limited services, but coronavirus again shows that care work in its manifold forms is vital. Coronavirus, and the role of the state in utilising existing healthcare provision, gives new impetus to this basic element of a left response, and the demand must be for an extension of care when the immediate threat recedes.
  3. The third demand concerns communication. The coronavirus crisis opens up new possibilities for distributed work, education and, of course, leisure, and for networks of solidarity to be formed in which there is sharing of information. The main social media companies are private companies that have benefitted from the crisis, and there should be a demand not only for these to be socialised, ensuring that information is not bought and sold for commercial gain, nor for surveillance of populations, but also that there be developed forms of internet technology that are autonomous of the state. That also means developing technology that is not enclosed by the private companies running the ‘online teaching’ we are being press-ganged into now. We have seen that it is easy for state authorities to shut down the internet at times of crisis, and so it is vital that work is put into developing alternative networks that can survive such outages.
  4. I like three part lists, but should add a fourth demand in the context of a broader discussion of the psychology of global crisis, which concerns mental health. This demand links with questions of work, for which distribution of time will be good for the mental health of all, it links with questions of health, free public health care which includes mental health, and it links with questions of communication, and the autonomous functioning of networks of mental health system survivors. Surveillance today is not merely a material practice involving the collection of information about the population, but also, as Michel Foucault pointed out, a practice of self-monitoring that is connected to the sense of being watched, something that activists in the Paranoia Network in Britain have long been aware of.

The times of coronavirus are indeed times of paranoia, with regimes around the world feeding off the disorientation and uncertainty that fake news creates and sustains. Žižek includes an interesting discussion of the way the Putin regime peddles through its media networks bizarre theories before suggesting that not only do they emanate from the West, and are therefore to be suspected, but also that they may each contain a kernel of truth. The lockdown increases isolation, and official indicators already show an increase in distress, as well as other intensifications of the violence of everyday life in this wretched world that include incidences of domestic violence, of femicide.

Time and time again in times of crisis, and this coronavirus is no exception, those forms of everyday violence are exacerbated, and any political programme has to attend to the ‘personal-political’ dimension that socialist-feminism drew attention to many years ago.

Each of these four demands is interlinked with the others in the sense that they need to be made not only from the base up, directed up at the state rather than calling on the state to enact the necessary reforms, and thereby strengthen itself in the process. What they have in common is an attention to the form of politics as well as, if not more than, the content. How we live is at stake now, and our response to the peculiar nature of this viral problem must be configured as an equally innovative creative form of viral response, viral resistance.

Ian Parker

 

This talk was given on 22 May 2020 to the virtual ‘Psychology of Global Crises: State Surveillance, Solidarity and Everyday Life’ conference hosted by the University of Paris. The YouTube link for the talk is here and the Q&A following the talk is here.

Russian Federation

We begin in 1917 with a ground-breaking attempt to overthrow capitalism, a short-lived inspiring success that had consequences for the shape of other attempts around the world over the next century, and then failure, a return to full-blown capitalism with no-less dramatic consequences for socialists today.

 

The full chapter appears in Ian Parker’s Socialisms: Revolutions Betrayed, Mislaid and Unmade, published by Resistance Books and the IIRE (2020).

 

This was one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles

 

 

Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela

The revolutionary baton passed back to Latin America quite unexpectedly right at the end of the twentieth century, posing difficult questions about populism and state power for all of us looking for alternatives now, and especially so in forms of ‘socialism’ that are in the gift of charismatic leaders who operate in such a way as to make their own version of their so-called socialism operate completely independently of the economy, which remains in the hands of the big capitalists.

 

The full chapter appears in Ian Parker’s Socialisms: Revolutions Betrayed, Mislaid and Unmade, published by Resistance Books and the IIRE (2020).

 

This was one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles

 

 

Believe it or not!

I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalyptic Communism by A. M. Gittlitz published by Pluto, reviewed by Ian Parker

In 1962, just as the Fourth International was preparing its reunification congress, which took place the following year, an Argentinian Trotskyist Homero Cristalli seized control. His Buró Latinoamericano (BLA), the FI’s Latin American Bureau, expelled all European sections of the International and replaced them with a ‘European Bureau’ which he personally directed. A new Fourth International was declared at an emergency congress in Montevideo, Uruguay, and it was from here that Cristalli ran his operation under the pseudonym ‘Juan Posadas’; thus was born the Cuarta Internacional Posadista.

A. M. Gittlitz tells the story of the rise of Cristalli from being a shoemaker, union organizer, league footballer and singer of tango classics to being leader of an international organisation that implanted itself in most countries of Latin America and many others around the world, with local leaderships that were usually Argentinian or Uruguayan. There were sections in Europe including, in Britain, the Revolutionary Workers Party led by miners, and the book traces the emergence and disintegration of these groups as Posadas became increasingly erratic, taking us up to his death in 1981 and beyond, to his son León Cristalli’s attempts to keep his thought alive and to a strange afterlife of Posadism on the Internet.

What Gittlitz does so well in weaving the life of Posadas with the enclosed parallel universe of Trotskyism he created is to embed that life in the particular conditions of possibility for the development of revolutionary movements in Argentina in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Not everyone ended up like Posadas and not every group became Posadist, but we can understand what happened better if we understand that context. Gittlitz describes the local context, the global situation and some of the key debates in the main Trotskyist organisations.

These were times of imminent threat of nuclear war intensified by the Cuban missile crisis after the successful unexpected revolution, and of a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, which had succeeded in sending Yuri Gagarin up in a rocket in 1961 and which, as Gittlitz describes in some detail, had a long history, back to Lenin and Trotsky, of intense engagement with technology and even speculation about life on other planets. The US SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) programme included advocates not only of communicating with alien life forms but also with dolphins. There were many sightings of UFOs in Argentina, and much popular discussion about what they were and what they portended, and there was Peronism, a peculiar blend of quasi-fascist populist rhetoric and incorporation of trades unions into state power that divided the revolutionary left.

There are plenty of amusing anecdotes in this well-researched book, one of which indicates the high stakes and macho braggadocio that ran through the rival revolutionary organisations bidding to become sections of the Fourth International in Latin America after the Second World War and before 1962. One contender for leadership of the Latin American Bureau, who eventually became part of the mother-ship, Nahuel Moreno, claimed, in a meeting with Posadas during a meeting of the Argentinian POR, that he had read all three volumes of Marx’s Capital; not to be outdone, Posadas shouted that he had read six. The underlying question was who would rule the roost.

Populism and power

It was that last aspect of Peronism, authoritarian populism, that fed the imagination of Posadas, and so one of his most powerful and lasting deviations from Marxist organisational practice was what he called ‘monolithism’. In place of democratic centralism – democratic debate and application of a common line by the organisation – was the direction of the party, and all parties in the Cuarta Internacional Posadista, by the leadership, by Posadas himself. That leadership was abusive and dictatorial, entailing humiliation and expulsion of dissidents and control of women, including the demand that wives and girlfriends must be members of the party and, almost inevitably, that they be available to sleep with Posadas.

Gittlitz weaves another technological element into his story of the rise and fall of Posadas, the invention of the tape recorder, which enabled the great leader to speak for hours on end and to dream up new theoretical innovations as he spoke. It was something like the opposite of psychoanalysis; here it was free association driven by the belief that everything that was said was true, and must be told to the world. It was not Posadas who began to speak about flying saucers, but one of his followers Dante Minazolli who insisted on the question; one that Posadas answered with the suggestion that other planetary civilisations advanced enough to arrive on Earth must, by definition, be socialist. The suggestion became a fetish, and made the Posadists the laughing stock of the rest of the left, and out of that spun other SETI-like ideas, about talking with dolphins, for example. That is what he is most remembered for now. Minazolli continued to propagate these ideas, and there were radical attempts to intervene in UFO-watching circles, after Posadas’ death.

It is here that Gittlitz spins a little too easily into common characterisations of the Posadist problem as to do with his mental health, something that leaders of the Fourth International who had to deal with him before 1962 had already rehearsed. We are told that the tape recorder allowed Posadas to convey his ideas more easily, for example, because writing was hindered by his ‘attention deficit disorder’; later his ‘mania’ increased, and his paranoia, and the narrative leads logically to his later ideas being plain ‘crazy’, culminating in his death-bed claim that although he may die, he would, he assured his followers, rise again.

In some ways Gittlitz is too hard on Posadas and in others too easy. From his own account we can see that the melange of weird ideas that made up the stuff of Posadism was quite understandable. In other times in other contexts, some of them could be articulated with revolutionary Marxism. Posadas’ signature claim, one that really underpinned the formation of his own Fourth International based in Montevideo, was that nuclear war was going to happen, and that it would be better if the Soviet Union was to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike so that from the wreckage some socialist future might be built. It was a stupid political line, and one that led to a break with the Cuban regime, of course, where the Posadists, the only Trotskyists in the island, were then suppressed.

But, for all this exaggerated threat and fervent belief in the onward march of humankind, it was actually a line that was not so very far from that argued by Michel Pablo, secretary of the Fourth International. The world was changing fast, and was under threat, and revolutionaries were struggling with what to make of that situation. Posadas ability to take complete control is something that ran contrary to the dynamic of Trotskyist politics, and we do not need to resort to diagnosis of him being ‘mad’ to formulate a thorough critique of his methods, something that would be helped by a good dose of revolutionary socialist feminist theory of organisation.

After Posadas

León Cristalli is still churning out stuff in memory of his father in Argentina, but the only functioning Posadist political organisation in the world now is in Uruguay. I visited the headquarters of the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Trotskista, Posadista), POR, in Montevideo last year, and had a friendly chat with comrades there. The POR was founded in 1944, with continuous existence, the very same organisation that was seized by Posadas in 1962, and which became an active part of the progressive Frente Amplio which governed the country from 2004 until a few months ago. They were happy to meet someone from the International they had left so many years ago, but blanked me when I asked them about revolutionary nuclear war.

What Gittlitz omits from his account, and there is the very briefest mention of the group in Montevideo in which he indicates that they didn’t want to wax lyrical about Posadas to him either, is the very difficult journey that some leftists have had to make through Posadism and out the other side, back into socialist politics again. Posadas’ homophobia, his misogyny and his moralistic control of the personal lives of party members is now but a bad memory. The POR shop-front was sprayed with fascist graffiti; the organisation had recently come under attack because of its support for progressive Frente Amplio legislation over LGBT rights.

Although it was buried deep in that broad front, the POR also sold Posadist pamphlets, including those that claimed that the nuclear war had happened, but through other means like Swine Flu, and it called for support for the ‘regenerating’ socialist states, including Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela. One Posadist publication edited by León Cristalli included two articles by Vladimir Putin. Again, these are political questions, mistakes and debates that cannot be written off as signs of madness, for there is much the same in much propaganda among our divided left.

This book is zippily written, more engaging than most histories of the Fourth International, but with some political formulations that will jar for some, including the brief description of the Bolsheviks seizing power and establishing a dictatorship. No, it is not as simple as that. The Russian Revolution was contradictory; an opening, which was fought for by Lenin and Trotsky and present in the later debates about democratic centralism, and a closure around Stalin and the bureaucracy in which the centralist aspect took precedence and blotted out democracy altogether.

Overall the political tone and line of the book is not so much concerned with retrieving a revolutionary history from the Posadas debacle but transcending it. Gittlitz looks back, sometimes with a too-mocking journalist gaze, on these sorry episodes in the history of our movement and the lessons they hold for the way we organise now, finding some redemption only in whimsical intergalactic Posadist memes that circulate on Facebook, seeing in those an opening to the ‘otherness’ of other forms of life. It is as if Homero Cristalli did all these bad things but at least he made for some good jokes about old Marxism.

The book is well worth a read, and might even bring some new activists into first contact with Trotskyism, which is what Gittlitz does claim at some points, but is rather too quick to play up the ‘fun’ aspect of Posadism. You will learn many things about Posadas that you didn’t already know. Posadas, apparently, had his own theory of humour, declaring that while jokes are a function of contradictions under capitalism, under socialism jokes would no longer exist. Posadism itself was not funny, but tragic, and when we laugh at it we do need to ask ourselves what we are doing and what we are failing to learn in the process.

 

You can read and comment on this article here

 

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

 

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.