More than voting now!

Ian Parker is on the doorstep with Labour.

These are the last days, a countdown to 8 June, and to a vote that will set the course for more austerity, more privatisation and a crackdown on civil liberties over the next five years, or one that will lay the basis for an increasingly confident fight-back and the resurgence of the left, of feminist, anti-racist and ecological struggle.

You do not have to be a member of the Labour Party to support the campaign, through leafleting or even through canvassing. I am not a member, but I simply turned up at the campaign office round the back of Withington Community Fire Station and asked for some leaflets. Withington constituency was seized from the Tories in 1987 by Keith (now Lord) Bradley who held it until 2005, part of the wipe-out of the Tories in Manchester, one of the side-effects, I was told by the Labour campaign team, of Thatcher. They gave me a round to do, letters which were targeted letters to possible voters, which is where you start to realise how hard a postie’s job is, how important it is to know how door-numbering works, and how misleading addresses are in this part of the world. The anthropologist Kate Fox notes in her book Watching the English, that these people who are so proud of their home as their castle also seem to take great pains to conceal the numbers on their houses.

Delivering personally-addressed messages from Jeff Smith – sitting MP for Withington – was not as easy as it seemed, involving endless detours around the backs of shared buildings and down hidden stairwells to doors with tiny letterboxes. The next round the next day, a huge block of glossy fold-over A4 leaflets with Jeff’s face all over them was a different matter. A bit more freedom over the addresses because I didn’t have to search for particular numbers, but more difficulty getting the things through letterboxes that seem to be cunningly and deliberately blocked with layers of brush; to get the leaflets through those ones you have to fold the leaflets around several times more and push them through with some force. And there is the question of what to do with multiple-tenancy houses with up to eighteen separate flats, whether to push eighteen leaflets through or make do with a smaller sample.

You don’t need to be the cleverest detective in the world to deduce that Jeff Smith is no friend of Corbyn. This is an issue that came up at the Withington for Corbyn campaign meeting soon after the election was called; activists were angrily asking why it was that the usual Labour Party practice of showing the smiling candidate shaking hands with the leader had been abandoned. There are no pictures or mentions of Corbyn on Jeff’s leaflets. This is the onward march of two parties – Labour divided between the apparatus (central office, the sitting MPs and a host of loyal members who have been in this for the long haul and who set their sights on a party in government that hopes to stem the worst effects of the crisis and save as many services as possible) and the new upsurge of membership, with supporters energised by what Corbyn promises; a movement that will take us beyond the limits of what capitalism will give us, that will mobilise people to build for more fundamental change.

There is a problem, and the deep rift between apparatus Labour politics and the new Corbyn supporters does not directly map onto a difference between passive reformists on the one hand and activists on the other. In some places, the mapping is exactly the opposite of what the new Corbyn left would hope for, with the old Labour apparatus supporters now actually the most hard-working activists campaigning for a Labour victory and bitterly complaining about the absence on the doorstep of all the new Corbynites who, they claim, are no more than paper members. I have already been harangued by an old comrade, a member of the Labour Party who told me that she hadn’t seen any of the new members out to leaflet or canvas. Actually, she also told me during the last general election campaign that she was happy to agree with voters on the doorstep that a vote for the Greens would do just as well, and she told them to go for it. This time I think that line will be harder, the stakes are higher.

Withington is not, strictly-speaking, a ‘marginal’ constituency, but it could still slip back into the hands of the Liberal Democrats who held it until the last election. It is home of John Leech, the only Lib Dem (and the only non-Labour councillor) on Manchester City Council, Leech who briefly held the seat until Jeff Smith took it. (It is a deeply liberal place, including a recent influx from the media-workers relocated to Salford from London, and Leech’s ward in Withington also recorded the lowest percentage vote for UKIP in the whole country.) The Lib Dems are a real threat, with the Tories pretty well invisible, and most Tory voters going for the Lib Dems, especially this time with the absence of a UKIP candidate.

A little team met on bank holiday Monday in the car-park behind the Co-op, and we were given canvassing prompt leaflets: Say “Sorry to disturb you” when someone opens their door, “Smile and be polite” and “always shut the gate”, and so on. And there were codes for the team leaders to indicate how people were going to vote. L = Labour and T = Tory, of course, and S is for Lib Dem because S stands for SDP, the old 1981 breakaway from Labour led by the gang of four (Jenkins, Owen, Rogers and Williams), an outfit that eventually folded into the Liberals to form the Lib Dems, and B is for UKIP (that is, B for BNP). Jeff Smith was there. “And if someone keeps banging on and on about Brexit”, one of the team was saying, “point out that Jeff voted against triggering article 50 twice”. I commented that he was right to do that (yes I do think that), and then Jeff drove us over to East Didsbury, taking us via Fog Lane to see if the Tory campaign office was open. It was not. Jeff talked about discussion on the MPs WhatsApp group about the recent slippage in support, grimly putting it down to what he called ‘The Leadership’. No one disagreed with him. I asked him about a phone conversation he had a few days ago with a relative keen to quiz him about antisemitism and the necessity to support Israel. Jeff said he thought the conversation had gone well and that he had some sympathy with her. There was then agreement in the car that the best way to deal with Ken Livingstone was to expel him from the party. I said that it was probably a good thing that Ken was keeping quiet at the moment. This was not the moment for a political fight. We were, at this moment, striking together.

The morning round was targeted at households where there had either been an indication that they might vote Labour or had voted Labour in the past. One voter told me she wanted the flood waters outside her house dealt with but that, whether or not anything was done about it, she would vote Labour. She took a poster to put up. Another voter told me that he would vote for whoever stopped the kids riding their motorbikes around the park and throwing stones at his windows. I said I would talk to the team about it. A Green voter told me that this time he would make an exception, this time he was for Labour, and he took a poster for his window. Another told me that she was worried about Diane Abbott, and wanted to know how “we” – she said she had once been a Labour Party member and “not a Blairite” – “could get our party back”. She said she felt sorry for us, and I felt sorry too. This was not the moment for a political fight; we needed to get round the rest of our target voters.

The afternoon round in Burnage included a member who said he supported Corbyn, but my campaign team was led by someone who I knew from a while back, and knew he was resolutely hostile to Corbyn. It didn’t stop us working together, even when I forgot the names of some of the people in one house I had knocked on; he tapped his clip-board saying “we need the data”. There were moments when anxiety about accusations that could be levelled against us kicked in; at one point, for example, one of us helped a voter fill out his postal vote, but then had to take the envelope back to that house saying that we could not actually post it for them, but they could ask their neighbour to do it. Would it matter that I was not actually a member of the party I was campaigning for? No. I realised quite early on that it didn’t make sense to say that I was a member of the Labour Party and managed things by saying (politely) that I was “with the Labour Party”. That’s true. I was.

Leafleting and canvassing for Labour – particularly when the literature is so obviously side-lining the Corbyn leadership and when the activists on the doorstep are willing to collude with the demonization of this leadership and reassure them that this local MP is a more sensible character – poses activists on the left with a painful question about their own double-role, about the double-effect of their involvement. On the one hand, yes, this support for Labour – the largest possible vote, including securing seats against the Lib Dems as well as against the Tories – is absolutely necessary for any sustained fight-back against Tory policies. On the other hand, and at the same time, this kind of support is, let’s face it, support for the apparatus. In Withington we will succeed in returning an MP who has been openly hostile to Corbyn and who will continue to manoeuvre against the left of the party when he is elected. It will, for some, be seen as a vote for the ‘moderate’ kind of cuts politics pursued by the local Labour council. It is both things.

There is a dialectical contradiction at the heart of this election, uncomfortable and unavoidable, but that should not prevent us from being actively involved in it. Anyone who is for Corbyn should now be out on the doorstep for him, on the doorstep with the Labour Party teams; go on, do it for Jeremy. It is vital that the left supporters of Corbyn are active and visible in the campaign, active and visible as members of the Labour Party, and active and visible outside the party too. Theresa May’s snap election could well be the opportunistic gamble that failed, and now is the time for us to make sure it fails in the most dramatic way possible. We need more than voting, yes, of course, and we need more than simply voting now. We need to get that vote out as a precondition for building a real left Labour mobilisation against the Tories. Whether we have signed up as members of the Labour Party inspired by the Corbyn leadership or whether we still feel queasy about signing up to a party apparatus that continues to administer cuts through local councils and that is intent on blocking Corbyn, this is the moment to act.

You can read and comment on this article here

NSK’s Apology for Modernity

The NSK State Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale takes an unexpected and brave step, locating the NSK State in Time project in cultural-political context, taking responsibility for the resources IRWIN and other components of NSK have mobilised over the past years and giving response to some of the problematic aspects of the project. There has been a perpetual temptation on the part of some NSK State Citizens to imagine that this State in Time stands completely outside any geographical location. It is, after all, a State in Time as opposed to a State in Space. But this imaginary location of the State – and it must always necessarily be a location of some kind for it to exist – is symbolically anchored in a series of coordinates in which Western Nation States were born and through which Western States have offered themselves, sometimes imposed themselves as models for political organisation across the rest of the globe.

NSK State took shape first in Slovenia during the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, harnessing modernist motifs – including the reflexively disruptive notion of the retro-avant-garde – to reconfigure national identity through a fiction, a series of fictions which borrowed from the imagery of statehood to disturb that imagery. How could it not, in that very deconstructive response to the symbolic forms of Western national statehood, borrow from those forms, using the stones from the master’s house and so bit-by-bit reconstructing the architecture of that house in its own image? The political project was the dissolution of the appeal of States in Space, but the conceptual-artistic project entailed, necessarily entailed, a replication of forms of Western modernity, its ideological texture which was named ‘Modernism’. NSK Citizens come from around the globe, yes, but in unequal balance and, whatever the fantasy of its Citizens, with unequal power. This much was clear from the entry into the State of the Nigerian Citizens who had bought passports in the hope that they might thereby gain access to Europe, to the West, even we might say, to taste the fruits of modernity.

IRWIN well know that no ‘metalanguage’ can be spoken, that is, that there is no pure neutral external vantage point from which we might speak about politics or Statecraft. We speak languages, always within them, inhabiting those languages, repeating their terms, implicated in them. We never speak a ‘metalanguage’ which escapes language as such. It is this sense of their being a location inside rather than outside language, the language of modernity, that IRWIN were taking responsibility for when they issued their Apology for Modernity. This is not the empty apology of the West – the standard hypocritical game of the Western States – but an apology with consequences, consequences which we must trace through together with those we make ourselves accountable to, to those who are routinely excluded from the Western version of the modern world. So, when IRWIN call for NSK Citizens to vote for this project, I vote yes.

Ian Parker, NSK Diplomatic Passport-holder

You can read this on the nskstate site and comment on it here

Mad to be Normal

A new film about R D Laing should be something for the left to watch and learn from, about the politics of madness and the connection between different forms of liberation. But you won’t find any of that in Mad to be Normal which stars David Tennant reincarnated in some place called ‘the sixties’ as Dr Ronnie. Most of the action is set at Kingsley Hall, the alternative non-medical facility directed by Ronnie Laing in East London from 1965 to 1970, though a poster in Ronnie’s bedroom – that’s where he beds a composite character American student besotted with his work – is of the Dialectics of Liberation conference which took place in July 1967, so we are actually in a very compressed time-scale in Laing’s medical and anti-psychiatric celebrity career.

There is a heck of a lot of ‘acting’ going on in this film, and ‘mad’ people have often provided good fodder for thespians wanting to try out their skills at challenging notions of normality. The funniest moment is when two old thesps, Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon, have a muddled conversation, and it is funny not because they are good at playing crazy but because it is difficult not to imagine them chuckling away to each other during rehearsals. The shame is that, apart from Ronnie’s valiant efforts to spring one of his patients from a psychiatric hospital towards the end of the film, there is plenty of play-acting and very little actual resistance to power in the film. This makes it very different from the classic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, where at least there is rebellion by the patients themselves against the institution.

The sequence of vignettes – patients doing stereotypically mad things, Laing behaving badly, traditional psychiatrists enraged to the point of closing down Kingsley Hall – strip out the history of Laing’s evolution from undergoing medical training, to training as a psychoanalyst, realising that patients are more than bundles of chemical reactions, searching for alternatives, linking with other liberation movements, raging against the nuclear family, finding Eastern religion, and then celebrating the family again before dying of a heart attack while playing tennis in St Tropez. We have nothing of the work of the therapists who worked with an argued with Laing in the organisations he founded, and nothing of the legacy of those debates in the present-day radical training organisation the Philadelphia Association.

And, apart from the Dialectics of Liberation conference poster, there is nothing of the political context for that resistance against medical power. One of the characters in the film is a young Black man who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and subjected to Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – electroshock that has seen an over ten percent rise of use in the last ten years and which is given disproportionally to Black people (and elderly women). His parents bring him to Kingsley Hall, running the gauntlet of hostile locals who stand outside the main entrance taunting the residents. It seems odd that there is no mention at any point that this guy is Black, no discussion of the racism that pervades mental health services, but then, there is no mention of either racism or sexism or the conditions that cause distress.

At his most radical moments – and, yes, these were limited – Laing did, at least, begin to indict alienation under capitalism as a factor in distress, that’s why he was invited to the Dialectics of Liberation conference to speak alongside Stokely Carmichael and Herbert Marcuse. In this respect, he was very different from the right-wing libertarians like Thomas Szasz who argued both against psychiatric coercion and what he called ‘psychiatric excuses’. And Laing was much more cautious than those who were always on the left such as Franco Basaglia, founder of Democratic Psychiatry in Italy (Basaglia, who Laing, toward the end of his career, attacked for being an anti-family Marxist). Why the anti-psychiatry movement should have developed is a mystery in this film, with some suggestion, instead, that poor pathetic Ronnie never got over the death of his dad.

The film warns us that none of the characters depicted in the film have any relationship with actual people, living or dead, and it is tempting to apply that warning to Laing himself. Tennant does a good job on his hesitant drunk narcissistic drawling when surrounded by admirers and there are occasional hints of his charismatic humane approach to people in distress, but this Laing is a one-dimensional snapshot of a much more complicated figure in the history of resistance to mainstream medical psychiatry. I went into the cinema wishing I had taken packs of leaflets for the Asylum Democratic Psychiatry conference, but by the end I was relieved that I had not, for this was a film that does not do revolutionary politics any favours, for what it omits as much as what it portrays. This film evokes a mythical folk character, a time and movement, reducing them to caricature. This is one doctor to avoid.

If you liked the film or thought it was even worse, you can read this article and comment on it here

Socialist Party

The Remains of the Day released in 1993, directed by James Ivory and starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, is a meandering wistful evocation of class relations of patronage, obedience and restrained resentment seen mainly through the eyes of Mr James Stevens (Hopkins) the butler at Darlington Hall. Set in the 1950s, the film follows Stevens after he receives a letter from a previous housekeeper at the Hall (Thompson), and borrows the new owner’s Daimler to drive down to the West of England to meet his old colleague. The lines of the plot unravel through flashbacks as Stevens remembers his time as loyal servant at the Hall, which include the inter-war years when Lord Darlington dabbled in Nazism, a error of judgement which led to the eventual destruction of his former master’s reputation and career.

The two threads of the film are packed with motifs of reminiscence on the one hand, as Stevens looks back at his life as a functionary in the great Hall, and decay on the other as we see England conjured into his memory at the very moment that it fades from old aristocratic power. The film, rather unsuccessfully, traces elements of the 1989 book by Kazuo Ishiguro who condenses a representation of peculiarly English class servitude into the figure of the butler, a figure who adapts himself to the whims of his masters and learns to bend to the rules while finding little spaces in which he can find some dignity while still being governed.

The book and the film are more about what has been and gone, the lines of regret and the comfort that comes from remembering the little gains that were made, than about what might be possible. Reminiscence in the film is as much about self-deception – the covering over of the moments in which Stevens collaborates with his employer when he agrees to dismiss some Jewish maidservants, for example – as it is about the attempt to come to terms with what has actually happened. In this way the film is about being English and of Englishness as a condition for boring good behaviour, fitting in as the condition for being fitted up and so eventually being unable to resist. And so it is with the trap of reminiscing on the left.

The Socialist Party of England and Wales members usually prefer the more respectable acronym SP – say it fast as ‘espee’ – to the more down-at-heel and rather unappealing ‘SPEW’. They have a sorry history of oscillating between ostentatiously playing at being ‘workers’, proclaiming that their elected representatives take only the national living wage home with them (popping the rest of it into the party’s coffers, then to be poured into the full-time apparatus and lost election deposit payments), and wanting to be taken seriously as having policies that will manage the economy well enough to keep Johnny foreigner out; free movement of capital is one thing, but when it comes to election or referendum time they effectively side with capital and complain about the ‘free movement of labour’.

Their loyalty to the British state and willingness to pander to little-Englander politics flows directly from their many years embedded in one of the most efficient help-mates of imperialism, the social-democratic Labour Party. Once upon a time the British Section of the Fourth International as the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) dating from 1956, they began their journey into loneliness (and now they are well known for refusing to engage in solidarity campaigns they do not control) as ‘entrists’ in the Labour Party in 1964, putting into practice a policy flagged by their leader Ted Grant five years earlier. During years of patient work in Labour Party ward meetings, they burrowed away into the host party flogging the very boring and distinctively shiny bright orange mast-headed ‘Militant’ newspaper. That was until they came a cropper after fumbling their management of Liverpool City Council (where they controlled the local Labour Party) and then declaring that it was time to go in their ‘Open Turn’ of 1991, a turn from which they emerged blinking into the light as SPEW, spewed out.

They never recovered from the glory days of Liverpool, and it is true that the Militant Labour councillors put up a brave fight against government cuts, attempting to balance the budget and save services in the face of threats to prosecute them. And they never recovered from the very bad tactical mistake of dismissing council employees, shuttling around the city in taxis to deliver the bad news while promising reinstatement immediately afterwards. They played the game, and failed. What could they do? But instead of an honest balance-sheet of the successes and failures, they wallow in what they wish had been and deny any responsibility for their mistakes.

Ted Grant, unwillingly, it should be said, passed the baton to Peter Taafe, landing a juicy future double-role for Anthony Hopkins. Taafe now runs the SP, with Hannah Sell as deputy leader (our Emma Thompson), as well as its Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition front-organisation from north London (the SP is last man standing in TUSC after the SWP decamped in 2017). And, predictably for a British group with any pretensions to equal status in the far left, the SP runs its own ‘international’, the Committee for a Workers’ International which chips off sections every now and again from rival pretenders to the heritage of the Fourth International, and loses sections just as fast when comrades around the world realise that Taafe much prefers the ‘centralism’ to the ‘democratic’ parts of a revolutionary party.

Those long years inside the Labour Party sure left their mark, and the ‘Millies’ could always be quickly detected by way of their habit of repeating the formula that an ‘enabling act’ would bypass the attempts of the capitalists to make the state work for them and so allow a Labour government elected on a ‘bold socialist programme’ to nationalise the top 200 or 250 or 400 monopolies (or whatever the number was that month). There is that, and their habit of insisting that comrades read the Financial Times to discover what the capitalist class was thinking and so reel off lines of economic statistics, to mind-numbing effect in public meetings. Lower level members shook their hands up and down, chopping the air as they spoke in deadening monotone correcting each other about the latest financial data gleaned from the FT, middle cadre reached arm to waist velocity as they harangued a meeting, but it was Ted who provided the model, a living windmill who mesmerised annual conferences of Labour Party Young Socialists during the Millies’ years of pretend power.

Other distinctive Millie political lines followed faithfully from their assigned role as a very English little party. On the question of Ireland, for example, they quickly adapted to the Labour Party view of the northern six counties of Ireland as being part of the UK, and argued for mobilisation of the loyalist working class as members of the British Labour Party (and, of course, if at all possible, as members of Militant and then SPEW). They also had a fond spot for the English nuclear family, perhaps another effect of remaining so long as butlers inside the great hall of social democracy, waiting for their chance to get into the master’s bedroom and find the enabling act. And so they were very unimpressed with uppity groups like feminists or Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, arguing that homosexuality was a symptom of decay. It was, at those moments, as if the good old red, white and blue-blooded aristocracy was better than pink degenerate capitalism.

Now SPEW, with a central committee consisting entirely of full-time paid workers, is really a party of butlers who are dependent on their masters for their living and so anxious to twist and turn to the latest line. Every British left group is afflicted with the pull of the past, repeating stories about the good old days, but SPEW is a special case. Whenever we read copies of the outstandingly dull ‘The Socialist’ and the interminable references to the brave battle for Liverpool we are haunted by the dead-eyed face of Stevens the butler reminiscing about the past and going nowhere with it, apart from a futile nostalgic road-trip around old England.

 

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

 

Liminal: Working at the boundaries of the Labour Party

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party was a significant event in Britain, changing the terrain of politics at a time when things were generally already shifting to the right. The Brexit result in the referendum and the election of Trump on the wider world stage were symptomatic of this rightward shift. The election presented, and perhaps it still does present, an opportunity, but not if we simply engage in wish-fulfilment about what we hoped it would be rather than look the facts in the face.

We need to know what the election of Corbyn was and what it was not. It was not a transformation of the Labour Party (LP), and phrases like ‘Corbyn revolution’ are inspiring but inaccurate representations of what happened when Corbyn was elected. Neither was it an organised rebellion against the LP apparatus with a broader movement able to build an alternative politics with Corbyn as the public face. Again, that characterisation of the ‘Corbyn movement’ is quite misleading, even though it is understandable that supporters of Corbyn use that phrase as short-hand to describe the process. Neither was it the election of a charismatic populist who was able to inspire people desperate for an alternative; there were aspects of that desperation, but Corbyn was a much more careful and humble figure than some of the talk of ‘Corbyn-mania’ made him out to be. No, it was the election of a decent hard-working left MP who was, first, well-known among the far left inside and outside the LP and, second, respected as an alternative to old crony left politics. The two aspects are interlinked, and they could be as much the undoing of Corbyn now as they were the making of him two years ago.

The first aspect is Corbyn’s record on the left, a supporter of different campaigns, a voice inside parliament and willing to use the resources he had there (physical and symbolic) to link not only with extra-parliamentary politics but also, importantly, to link across to the outside of the LP. This immediately made him a trustworthy figure for many on the left as well as those involved in different solidarity movements, and even connecting with feminist politics (in a more muted way, but even so significantly beyond the scope of usual left LP practice). Those in the left groups and, more importantly, those who had once been involved in left groups mobilised for him. Those were the closest to the organised ‘Corbynistas’ feared by the popular press, and they valued something in Corbyn’s approach after having been sickened by the sectarian and bureaucratic practices of their own past groups. These forces connected with a second aspect.

The second aspect brings in many of those new to politics, suspicious of the political elites, suspicious actually of party politics as such, and not only of the far-left. Their involvement came at a time when the sexual violence scandals in the SWP were still in the recent memory of those starting to be involved in anti-austerity campaigns; the far-left as an organised political alternative to the LP was pretty well dead, written off by many young activists (particularly those drawn into a kind of politics in which feminist and ecological and alternative-movement politics was important). What is crucial here was that Corbyn was not ‘charismatic’ in the old sense, not a ranting populist, not making empty promises; his new supporters are the people who streamed into the LP, but then, after joining, kept away from the branch meetings, leaving space for the ‘organised’ left to move in and, in most cases, mess things up again.

We should be clear about this, however much we admire Corbyn, and however much we hope that something can be built from his election victory; that the election was for Jeremy Corbyn as an individual, and that if and when he leaves the scene, for whatever reason, there is no other ‘Corbyn figure’ to replace him. When he goes, the LP as a left force is likely to wither with his departure. He is a strange ‘anti-charismatic’ figure whose very break from charismatic politics makes him function in an appealing, almost charismatic way. They voted for Jeremy, not for a fictitious ‘team Corbyn’, and as an individual, not part of a movement. He was never, as the chair of the north Manchester rally kept desperately repeating during the first election leadership campaign, to be ‘the man with the plan’. He didn’t have a plan.

The attempts to cobble together a ‘movement’ in the LP after his leadership election have been shambolic. And this is partly because the LP apparatchiks simply repeat the way they usually organise, and partly because they have been joined by left-sectarians, some of whom jumped ship from Left Unity soon as they saw a bigger recruiting ground. Momentum is one key example, but not the only site in which ‘Corbyn supporters’ try and build something after the event of the leadership election, and do actually reinstall exactly the kind of politics that Corbyn opened up an escape from, opened an alternative to. What these attempts to build something after the event around Corbyn have done is actually to fall into a trap, the trap of old-style left ‘party’ politics in its worst sense, of bureaucratic fronts and manoeuvres and stitch-ups.

It is sometimes said that Corbyn is ‘trapped’ by the apparatus. That is true, to an extent, but it is a trap he has willingly embraced. He, for all his strengths, is a Labourite, he sees change in society as being brought about through the LP, and he is surrounded by a coterie of advisors who are in tune with that project, a political project that means humouring the left Trades Union bureaucrats and holding the party together at all costs. This has played out in appalling ways, with John McDonnell and other Corbyn supporters calling on LP activists to respect local council budgets – to set ‘legal’ budgets which effectively administer the austerity and neoliberal cuts handed down from central government – and with Corbyn even at one point compromising on the ‘free movement’ question, even imposing a three-line whip to vote for triggering of Brexit (after not doing the same over the Trident vote). And it is evident in Corbyn’s attempt to win back seats for the LP in Scotland (where the LP is, in some parts of Scotland, so unionist it is willing to stand down candidates in order that the Conservatives will win against the SNP). The LP is a unionist party, and Corbyn does not challenge that (ironically, paradoxically, after his honourable record in support of Irish republicanism).

Space to the left

The effect of the return to the old party politics that Corbyn was elected by many precisely to combat is toxic on progressive politics and on the far left, which should have, which was starting to learn better. It is toxic on progressive politics in the sense that it takes us back to machine-party politics, exactly the politics that those who voted for Corbyn were repelled by. Now they are repelled again. Many of those who joined the LP don’t even need to actively decide to leave because they never really signed up to be part of branch squabbling, but they are drifting away, disappointed already. When they encounter what is going on in Momentum, or when they come into contact with ‘revolutionary party’ alternatives to the LP (like the SWP or its little brother Counterfire) they are then repelled by politics altogether. At best, they go on to join campaigns and anti-party network organising. Let’s hope they at least do that, and we can try to stay in contact with them when they do that.

And it is toxic on the far left. It leaves groups like the SWP crowing at Corbyn’s missteps on the side-lines, waving their papers and ready to try and mop up those who are disillusioned with the so-called ‘Corbyn revolution’. They can even, for a brief period of time, present themselves as a radical alternative to old-style LP politics that the new generation of activists are fleeing from when they flee the LP after their brief time inside it. And it leaves some groups who have gone into the LP with a context in which they are drawn back into their bad old ways, not least dishonest deceptive ‘entrist’ politics in which they rely on ‘front’ organisations and hide their real allegiance.

We had a space to learn how to do things differently, and to learn from those involved in different campaigns. That space was and is Left Unity. Some of the left groups went into LU as a feeding ground and they had a destructive effect there. Groups like Socialist Resistance (SR) did, at least, work in LU openly and in a comradely way, trying to engage with anti-bureaucratic forms of working. It was a context – not perfect, but a good context – in which to connect socialist with feminist politics, in an organised way.

For all the problems with LU, what SR was able to do there, for example, was to configure its public activities – work with others and work with other activists who might hope at some point to be in the same organisation as its own – in a way that was congruent with some of the changes that were happening inside its own organisation. These changes were evident in the embrace of feminism and ecosocialist politics, changes intimately linked to being part of the Fourth International, which gave to those new politics an internationalist anti-imperialist edge. And those changes were manifest in the shift from ‘democratic centralism’ understood in a closed bureaucratic way to what SR now prefers to refer to as ‘revolutionary democracy’. The discussions of ‘safe spaces’ in LU (discussions that were problematic in lots of ways, problematic in the way they were framed by those in favour of them as well as those hostile to them) also connected with those changes. SR learnt what it was like to be able discuss with comrades it didn’t completely agree with about how to build something, and to be open about the disagreements among ourselves. There wasn’t a ‘line’ to be unrolled, and I think SR was respected for that by its old comrades and its new friends in LU.

The real danger now is that revolutionaries are jumping into the LP because it is afraid of ‘missing the boat’, but are jumping into a sinking ship. There are better ways of orienting to the hopes that Corbyn inspired and still, to some extent, inspires, than becoming part of the very LP apparatus that his election put into question. Insofar as there was a Corbyn revolution it lay in opening up a different kind of space in two ways. First, there opened up a gulf between activists and the apparatus – the LP today is two parties and we need to be clearly identified with the activists for whom Corbyn spoke during his leadership election campaigns. Second, there opened a space for exactly the kind of politics that Corbyn was once part of, a ‘liminal’ space that is neither entirely inside or entirely outside the LP. To be ‘liminal’ is to be at a boundary or at both sides of a boundary or threshold at the same time. The boundary in this case is the sharp-drawn boundary between the inside and outside of the LP, and the boundary some of us have unfortunately drawn between the inside and outside of LU. Being liminal also means treating what is happening now under Corbyn as being at an early stage of a process, a transitional point, not treating it as something decided. We don’t know what will happen with Corbyn and the LP, or with LU for that matter, and we need to be open to different possibilities, not abandon our friends in LU, not to burn our boats.

No, we don’t have to be like the control freaks of the SWP shouting from the sidelines saying that we always knew when he would slip up and posing as the fully-fledged alternative to the LP, and, no, we don’t have to be like the Socialist Party, now left in complete control of TUSC after the SWP have abandoned them, rather ridiculously offering ‘advice’ to him as to how he could really make the LP radical. Our place should precisely be in the ‘liminal’ space at the edge of the LP, working with comrades and new activists who have gone into the LP but also linking with comrades and new activists who are still suspicious about the LP, including those who are still in LU.

 

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Counterfire

In Seconds, directed by John Frankenheimer in 1966, Rock Hudson plays Antiochus Wilson, enjoying a second life after plastic surgery. He was an ageing businessman Arthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph) whose attachment to his loved ones had loosened and whose life was a dreary failure. Arthur goes to a secret organisation, known only as the Company, and pays them to have him disappear from his first life and old identity, and be reborn a new man, as Rock, Rock as Antiochus.

Seconds, after The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, is the last in Frankenheimer’s early sixties ‘paranoia trilogy’. Antiochus has to resort to a number of tricks to get out of his old life, to distract attention from his getaway plan and to find his way to the Company, and this trickery is replicated in the making of the film. For one scene in Grand Central Station, for example, commuters were distracted by the director’s stooges having sex on the stairs while Frankenheimer filmed the main action using a camera hidden in a suitcase.

The hideous twist in the narrative begins when poor Antiochus begins to feel nauseated by his new life, being resettled in a community of ‘reborns’ like him, their hedonistic lifestyle is unsettling and he yearns for his old life, even going to the point of turning up at his wife’s house. She doesn’t recognise him, and it pains him that he has taken such a drastic step. He eventually goes back to the Company to tell them that this isn’t the life he expected, he now wants a new one. They agree, but then we discover, as Antiochus struggles on an operating trolley, strapped down while wheeled to a horrible operation designed to disfigure him, that his body is to be used as alibi for another new Company client getting ready for their own plastic surgery. There is a gruesome cycle in this film, then, as the main character realises he cannot escape his previous life, and is eventually returned to it, second-hand, at last a corpse.

It began so well at the beginning of the film when Arthur first escaped the old routine, and, released from the old constraints, was as a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, now one of the beautiful people. He was, in this respect, very much like John Rees who, sick and tired of the control-freaks of his once-beloved Socialist Workers Party (SWP), was able to break free in 2010 and, from being known as Tony Cliff’s second, almost as shouty but not as charismatic, he was able to blossom as head of his own outfit which he called Counterfire. Better, he was able to get out of his old life before the sexual violence scandal hit the SWP two years later. It seemed like a smart move. John is our Rock.

His resignation letter pulled out 42 SWP members immediately, and then another 18, and then, with Lindsey German, founding member and convenor of Stop the War Coalition, these splitters who knew well the usual next step of ex-SWP activists (having purged quite a few themselves in their time as members of the SWP Central Committee) were able to found their own counterfire to the SWP very quickly. They succeeded in getting over 1200 people to London for a ‘Coalition of Resistance’ founding conference later that same year, a less sectarian version of the SWP front which was cobbled together a year later under the misleading name ‘Unite the Resistance’.

The Coalition of Resistance conference included some moments of high drama that turned out to be neat distraction techniques. Some members of the audience gasped as SWP apparatchik Chris Bambery strode to the lectern to deliver a blistering attack on the Tories’ austerity agenda, very noticeably strode past John Rees, very publicly ignoring his old party comrade. As some suspected though, this was a stage-managed snub, concealing the real action; that Chris was just about to break from the SWP too, and pull out key members of the SWP in Scotland to form the International Socialist Group. Once again, the SWP was doing what does best, haemorrhage its members into nothing – many ex-members are so demoralised they leave politics altogether – or seed new revolutionary organisations that then go on to populate the landscape of the far left in Britain. The tragedy is that many of these new revolutionary organisations have been so well-schooled in the manic top-down mode of operation of their progenitor that they can’t shake it off.

For a moment, though, it really looked like Counterfire was going to do something different, abandoning a weekly newspaper and producing free flashy newssheets at demonstrations, and having an ostensibly looser organisation without an elected leadership, until it turned out that this lack of accountability was nothing much more than a convenient mechanism for John Rees and Lindsey German to keep control. What was different about Counterfire, it transpired, was largely as a result of it emerging, not from a left split from the SWP (as the name of their tendency ‘Left Platform’ inside that organisation would have it seem) but from the right. This then had a bearing on their strategy of accumulating new friends and being very careful not to criticise them, first in the Coalition of Resistance and then in the much more successful recent initiatives of their new front ‘People’s Assembly’.

The People’s Assembly, which was launched in 2013, has been a terrific energising force against austerity, and has succeeded in doing what the SWP always did best; make alliances with left Trades Union bureaucrats keen for left cover, draw in celebrities attracted by sharp logos and eye-catching protests, and manage them all by focusing on the kind of ‘united front’ initiatives in which the lowest common denominator is not only the guiding spirit but the absolute agreed platform. Here Counterfire are true to their own tradition of political work, with an understanding of the ‘united front’ as being rather much the same as the old ‘popular fronts’ of the Stalinists. For them a ‘united front’ means humouring your allies rather than, as Lindsey German should well know, building the kind of alliance in which you ‘march separately strike together’.

There is a logic to this approach – it worked well for the SWP during the early years of the Anti-Nazi League – but this logic also leads to compromises that can draw the organisation closer to those it is working with, too close, something the SWP would risk tactically but which its democratic centralism prevented from leading to full-blown collusion. Counterfire encourages participation by outsiders in People’s Assembly meetings – other leftists involved sometimes have the illusion of influence while merely being good foot-soldiers – until those meetings actually suggest something that goes against the line. It is in its other front organisations, like Stop the War, that the logic of ‘building to the right’ has blossomed, and this has led Lindsey German to reign in criticism of Russia’s actions in Syria (more convenient for their alliances with old Stalinists of the Communist Party of Britain) and to fall in line with the little Englanders on the left with shameful support for leaving the EU (and note that it was old comrade Bambery that was wheeled in to make that argument on their website) as if that fake ‘Lexit’ strategy was in some way necessarily ‘anti-capitalist’.

And so, the new John Rees and his friends have reverted to type, perhaps nostalgic for the old days of leading a mass-membership revolutionary party; he seems to have tired of the reborns around him and let them go; Neil Faulkner was one casualty of being told what to do. This has prompted some of those who left Counterfire to repeat history, hopefully this time to learn from it. It is not simply that Counterfire has made mistakes, it is that it replicates too well its own origins, finds them impossible to resist. The Rees and German outfit is rather like the SWP they thought they left behind them. They are Seconds, second-life versions of the old organisation they yearn for, and whose practices they replicate.

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

Spartacist League

Silence, Martin Scorsese’s 2016 historical drama, shows the search by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries for Cristóvão Ferreira, a real-life early seventeenth-century missionary who was captured and tortured in Japan and renounced his faith. The film begins with two young priests who hear with disbelief about this apostasy and decide to set off to Japan to find Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson, and discover the truth. The film traces their voyage to Japan and then their encounters with villagers who have converted to Christianity before being tracked down and punished by the authorities. Along the way, the priests learn something about the forms of resistance to local power that Christianity keys into in Japanese villages, and about the local forms of belief that might, they conclude, provide the natives with access to a God that is, perhaps, as authentic as that offered by the Jesuits.

A crisis point of faith and redemption in the film comes when Sebastião Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield), a character based on the real-life missionary Giuseppe Chiara, hears the voice of Christ telling him that the apostasy demanded of him by the Samurai is justified, it is Christian in fact, because it will thereby save the lives of others that he hears being tortured for their faith. The film is a complex theological as well as historical depiction of the role that Christianity played when the Jesuits in the seventeenth century functioned as the Pope’s foreign agents determined to install the rule of the Catholic Church around the world.

There is no such crisis of faith on the part of members of the Spartacist League when they arrive on foreign shores. The ‘Spartacist League / Britain’ was formed in 1978, but they no longer even have an independent web presence in Britain. Their publicity operations are handled direct from the US, and this might be because, just as they specialise in provoking splits in rival groups, they are susceptible to divisions and periodic purges in their own ranks. The ‘Sparts’ as they are not affectionately known (and there are audible groans of recognition from the rest of the left when they turn up outside a target meeting to pitch their stall) have their origins inside the US section of the Fourth International in the early 1960s. They are Trotskyists of a peculiar kind, quick to leap to the defence of the Soviet Union and then of China and North Korea. If the big Stalinist states they love to hate are today’s incarnation of the Catholic Church, then the Sparts are bit like modern-day Jesuits. They are willing to defend the indefensible in twisted dialectical moves that would defeat the imagination of modern-day theologians, exporting a weird version of US-American colonial Marxism. They act as the shock troops of their own version of the Vatican to spread the gospel, while bizarrely supporting oppressive states in order, they claim, to defend workers rights.

A quick glance at their newspaper Workers Hammer and the folded over pages of Workers Vanguard they like to carry around to tempt readers with exposés of the crimes of their enemies quickly reveals that their main enemies are actually other groups on the left. They target these rival groups as what they call ‘OROs’ (‘Ostensibly Revolutionary Organisations’) which they aim to destroy and then pick over the remains to feed their own organisation. Their papers were actually the best source of information on rival revolutionary groups for many years (a gap in the market that was then filled by the Communist Party of Great Britain – Provisional Central Committee’s dirt-sheet ‘Weekly Worker’). The groups on the left they most like to bait and break up are sections of rival internationals to their own International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist). For many years, the tagline of their forerunner organisation, ‘The International Spartacist Tendency’, was ‘Reforge the Fourth International’ (a slogan pinched by a member who was expelled and set up his own international later on).

One notorious foray by the Sparts into the heart of the beast was during the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 when they recruited a villager in the Birmingham branch of the International Marxist Group (IMG, a forerunner of today’s Socialist Resistance and at that time British Section of the Fourth International) and formed the ‘Communist Faction’ to argue in a not-so-subtly-coded way for their line: Hail Red Army! Their attempts to provoke what they called a ‘debate’ over the question came to a head when a 1980 meeting of the IMG Central Committee called them on this and the valiant comrades happily admitted it, raising their fists and shouting ‘Long Live the International Spartacist Tendency’ before marching out the room.

It is partly because the catch-cry ‘police agent’ has had such a pernicious history in the British far-left (thanks, mainly, to the antics of the Workers Revolutionary Party who went for full-blown conspiracy versions of the accusation to attack other groups) that the left has been reluctant to name the Sparts as such. How could we know? But the softly-muttered consensus among members of most left organisations over the years that have been subjected to Spart tirades is that it is most probable that, if we look at the damage they have wrought among us, they surely must be financed by CIA. They are viewed as evangelists for a parody of Marxism configured as a creed to be spread from the United States, and they have often been lucky not to be strung up; their destructive interventions in left meetings are a wonder to behold (once) and then unbearable, driving away anyone coming close to Marxism for the first time. They are much-disliked, and it is understandable, perhaps, that they feel this distrust by the locals in their bones when they venture overseas. All the more so when they have targetted members of OROs by being very friendly, culturally inappropriate in the British left, with rumours that they then encouraged members to undergo psychoanalysis (a rather strange American pursuit).

The Sparts defend relics of the True Cross, putting the natives in their place when those natives dare to challenge the civilising influence of Marxist theory; one current favourite doing the rounds is their article reproduced from their South African outpost called ‘Against Black Nationalist Slanders of Marx and Engels’. They want to recruit the locals to build their organisation and spread the word, but they have been caught out more than once complaining at the backward nature of peoples who just don’t seem to get the message; in 1997, for example, the Pope of the Spartacists James Robertson was recorded as referring to Albania, the only Muslim country in Europe, as a nation of goat-fuckers. Robertson would be a good role for Liam Neeson or Andrew Garfield if it wasn’t that (unlike those two reactionary turncoats) James has kept the faith.

Actually, comparisons between the Jesuits, a canny crew with a sophisticated range of casuistical justifications for allying with the right or, more often, with the left, and the Sparts whose speciality is hectoring interventions which persuade nobody, are rather inaccurate. That’s what Scorsese’s film, if it really is about the Sparts, gets wrong. He should really have depicted his priests not as sophisticated sensitive souls agonising about the cultural differences that lead other people along their own path to salvation, but as all-too-certain raving evangelists screaming at would-be converts to bludgeon them into submission and obedient membership of their own cult.

This little group is actually nothing more than sectlet with a handful of members, and the resources of their base in the USA are getting overstretched as they continue to shrink. They are still good for a few minutes free entertainment on the fringes of a national demonstration, but you don’t find the Spartacist League around in Britain much beyond London these days, thank God, and their barking missionaries are usually mercifully reduced to silence.

 

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