The Irish Workers Group, Peoples Democracy and early Irish Trotskyism

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I was reading Henry Patterson’s Ireland since 1939 the other day, which is never a good sign, and was taken aback by his account of the 1960s. Specifically I am thinking of the Peoples Democracy “Long March” of January 1969, which Henry these days ascribes to a Leninist vanguardism on the part of PD. Back in his Workers Party days, Henry would have accused PD of ultraleftism, which I believe Peter Hadden still does. The thing is that, although PD’s historical record deserves a good bit of criticism, this is anachronistic and owes more than a little to the historiography developed by SFWP in the late 1970s, when they had long since fallen out with PD.

It’s a criticism, though, that pops up in the most striking places. I well recall Lord Trimble some years ago, no doubt drawing on the account of his friend Lord Bew, expatiating on how the “Trotskyites” had undermined the reforming unionist government of Captain O’Neill. You can, to be sure, draw a sort of line of descent, in that the nearest PD had to a theoretician was Mike Farrell, and Mike had been in the Irish Workers Group, which was Trotskyist after a fashion, and the Young Socialist Alliance of which he was the leading figure played a considerable role in setting up PD. QED. But again, this is anachronistic. The early PD wasn’t Trotskyist, and didn’t become so until about 1974-5. This anachronism, though, opens up the fascinating world of Trotskyism as it began to emerge in this country. Seán Matgamna, by the way, is writing a series on this, although like much of Seán’s work, while it contains lots of valuable nuggets, it’s prolix and tendentious in the extreme. Anyway, I’ll wait until it’s finished before reviewing it.

As Rayner Lysaght remarks in his “Early History of Irish Trotskyism”, a most enjoyable little essay, the movement only got established here very late, and after a number of false starts. The wartime RSP showed some real potential, but quickly sank without trace. For a brief while in 1944, the Trotskyists were holding bigger meetings in Belfast than the official CPNI, but by 1947 the Irish “section” of the FI was reduced to Johnny Byrne, a sympathiser of the US Shachtmanites, and Tony Cliff, cooling his heels in Dublin while waiting to be allowed back into Britain. And so the RSP was pretty much forgotten. (Paddy Healy eventually acquired a copy of the RSP’s 1944 Theses, but rather than publishing them as he should have done, kept the document stashed away in his sock drawer.)

Nor did the Trotskyist groups in Britain show much interest in Ireland, despite Gerry Healy, their main leader, being a Galway man by origin. Healy’s Socialist Labour League came to establish a branch of itself in Belfast (the young Tom Paulin was a member), but Gerry didn’t bother to try setting up an Irish section until 1970, when he needed an extra vote against Lambert in the International Committee. Militant picked up Irish students in Britain by ones and twos in the late 60s and early 70s before setting up an organisation, and IS did likewise after an abortive attempt to win over PD as a fraternal group. What that bequeathed us was the two most prominent groups on the further left today, although they remained very much moulded by the worldview of their British parent groups.

Post-war Irish Trotskyism as such therefore is the progeny of one man, that man being Gerry Lawless. Gerry, having been a dissident republican of sorts during Operation Harvest, somehow got a hold of some Trotskyist publications via the good offices of the American SWP, and became much taken with Trotsky’s analyses. Fetching up in London in the mid-60s, he founded the Irish Workers Group as a broad revolutionary formation, no less broad because of its small size.

The IWG was not initially a Trotskyist organisation, which is important to note. It began as a holding pen for anyone slightly to the left of the CD Greaves-Connolly Association milieu. Likewise, its membership in London was open to Irish expats, British leftists of Irish extraction, and British leftists with a vague interest in Ireland. It eventually acquired branches in Belfast and Dublin through London members going back home, circulation of the Irish Militant and so on. It also got a bit more politically defined, more by the natural workings of things than by design, notably when Brendan Clifford decamped with the Maoist faction to form the ICO, later the BICO.

Then Gerry did one of those things that must have seemed like a good idea at the time. He correctly realised that one of Irish Marxism’s big historical weaknesses was in the realm of theory – we’re even weaker in that area than the Brits and Yanks – and was also aware of his own limitations as a theoretician. So he recruited a bright young man, an expat from Clare, who seemed to have some ideas, and had already gathered a small following around himself.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Seán Matgamna (for it was he) had just completed his reading of JP Cannon’s The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, a great book but a dangerous one in the wrong hands. All fizzing over with Cannonite zeal, Seán had no sooner been recruited into the IWG than he declared a faction around the demand for a “homogeneous party”. What this meant in practice was a demand for the expulsion of Gerry Lawless. Seán was eventually defeated at the IWG’s March 1968 conference, but not before the atmosphere had considerably soured and the IWG was a limping shell.

And this leads us directly to October ’68 and the founding of Peoples Democracy. The YSA was the socialist core of PD, to be sure, but their socialism was of a very vague kind, and owed more to Marcuse than Trotsky. They were at the time extremely anti-Leninist in their organisational ideas, mainly because Farrell had been profoundly browned off by Matgamna’s habit of pulling out a quote from Lenin to sanctify whatever Matgamna wanted to do. And this, mixed in with the general 1968 zeitgeist, goes a long way to explaining just what an anarchic setup the early PD was. It was a regime that would even have our modern anarchists tearing out their hair.

Yes indeed, it was another age. Dovetailing a little with the Left Archive project over on Cedar Lounge, this sort of thing is worth coming back to again. Some of the exotica of Irish leftism – I’m thinking outfits like the LWR or the Workers League that have left the scene entirely – has a real antiquarian interest. And some might be embarrassing to those who don’t want their past record open to scrutiny. I really should do more of this historical sectariana.

Loyalists say “we’re not bigoted” with no sense of irony

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While our New Dispensation is supposed to be all about diversity and pluralism, it seems that the zeitgeist has not quite filtered through to the loyalist marching community. Belfast’s kick-the-pope bands are up in arms about Stormont MLA Anna Lo (Alliance, South Belfast), who made the mistake of not realising that loyalist bands have a god-given right to march wherever they like, to inconvenience whomever they like, and to be accountable to nobody.

The bare bones of the story are simple. A constituent wrote to Mrs Lo complaining that a loyalist parade had hemmed her into her house and prevented her getting to her nursing job. Mrs Lo forwarded the letter to band leader George Spence. Mr Spence then threw a wobbly, claiming that his security was put at risk by him being identified as a loyalist band leader. Maybe he should take this up with the local media who have been publicly identifying him as a loyalist band leader. Or consider whether leading a band that parades down the public highway might identify him as a band leader.

Mrs Lo then wrote to Mr Spence apologising for any offence she may have caused, which was nice of her – certainly nicer than I would have been. But Mr Spence is not mollified. You can guess what comes next – the loyalists are planning to have a march in protest at Anna Lo, and have applied for permission to mobilise 3000 marchers and 40 bands.

The Irish News reports that the parade route will pass two Catholic churches, but that’s par for the course. What is more interesting is that the march will go out of its way to proceed along Donegall Pass, home to a large slice of Belfast’s Chinese community and the area where the UDA put out their infamous “Yellow Invasion” leaflet a few years back. Mrs Lo says, “I feel this parade has deliberate racist overtones and has been designed to intimidate the Chinese community who live and work on Donegall Pass. This parade is having to make a major detour just to go through Donegall Pass. People feel it’s for no other reason than to show the Chinese community who’s boss.” And I think, given the history of the area, that’s a reasonable interpretation to put on things.

The loyalists, of course, deny this has anything to do with racism. A band spokesman is quoted as saying, “The fact that Anna Lo is Chinese is irrelevant to the issue at hand. Anna Lo’s introduction of the racist card into this issue is regrettable. The fact that she is Chinese does not, in the eyes of the band, impart any blame or responsibility for her foolishness on to the wider Chinese community.” The spokesman then underscores his commitment to diversity by adding, “Indeed, many of the bandsmen may on their way home enjoy a Chinese meal.” Indeed.

It is unfortunate for the image-conscious bandsmen, therefore, that their case has been taken up by those well-known champions of diversity, the BNP. Under the headline “Immigrant MLA puts local mans security in jeopard” (sic), the BNP website has quite a dig at Mrs Lo as a “foolhardy, illogical, pseudo-politician” and gripes about the “anti-British, anti-Protestant Parades Commission”. The fascists then go on to say about the forwarding of the original letter, “As our BNP colleagues on the mainland are familiar Royal Mail is littered with Anti British, foreign traitor sympathisers, we have a similar problem in Ulster and this problem could have potentially lethal consequences for Mr Spence.” By the way, I love their command of the Queen’s English.

I am perplexed as to how this forwarding of a letter may have endangered a band leader’s security. There may well have been some sectarian assassinations of loyalist band leaders during the Troubles, but they would be so far in the past that I honestly can’t remember any. These days, the main danger faced by a loyalist band member would be from members of a rival loyalist band. And I certainly don’t believe the Triads are on the case. Anyway, our nice pluralist loyalist bands might like to ponder the kind of people who are rushing to their defence.

Nehmen Sie hoch das Bein, treten Sie ein – unser Tanz, er muß der nächste sein…

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To return to Roger Ebert, I’ve always been well served by his dictum that a film is not about what it’s about, but about how it’s about it. This is actually a basic part of literary theory that you can trace all the way back to Homer. After all, the Iliad is not about the Trojan War – I recommend Dio Chrysostom on this point as an early example of deconstructionist criticism – it’s about the wrath of Achilles. The Iliad’s modern-day equivalent, Catch-22, is likewise not about the Second World War but about the wrath of Yossarian.

I think this appeals to me so much because it echoes JP Cannon’s old crack that there are always two reasons for a split, a good reason and the real reason. Note that this isn’t the same as Kremlinology or the sort of second-guessing that the Phoenix goes in for with Bertie (often rising to the level of third- or fourth-guessing), but just a way of looking at underlying themes that often throws what people say – even what they consciously think – into sharp relief.

I wasn’t an Ard Fheis delegate in 1986, for two reasons. The first was that I wasn’t a member of Sinn Féin, although some other folks got in who were never seen before or since. More practically, I was in the Soviet Union, which made intervening in Irish politics rather difficult. Nevertheless, had I been a delegate, I would have voted for the abstentionist position with both hands, despite the fact that I’m not an abstentionist. I would have done so based not on the wording of the resolution as put, but on the trajectory that I thought it indicated, on the forces involved and, yes, on the personalities involved and my estimation of their characters.

Which leads me on to Mike Macnair’s latest, kindly pointed out by Cameron, which analyses the Respect crisis in terms of an outbreak of rhetorical leftism from the SWP CC. Mike’s position can be boiled down to the following paragraph:

The politics of the debate, such as it is so far, is not a pretty sight. It is a certain kind of debate: one like the debate between the Bukharinite ‘rights’ and the Stalinists in 1929-33; and one like the debate between ‘Euros’ and ‘tankies’ in the ‘official communist’ parties in the 1970s. In other words, a debate between rightists who represent themselves as favouring democracy, pluralism and broad unity and bureaucrats who for the moment represent themselves as leftists.

Let’s leave aside the historical analogies for the moment. I’m not sure of the relevance of the Bukharin-Lovestone-Brandler “right opposition”, who were much better than any of the participants in this fight. And Mike is just plain wrong when it comes to the CPGB of the 1970s – as any fule kno, the “tankies” were those who insisted on party democracy, while the Euros were those who resorted to a draconian regime of mass expulsions, exclusions and disbandment of recalcitrant party bodies. The devolution of most of the old Marxism Today hard right towards what is now New Labour was hardly an accident.

What Mike seems to me to be arguing is that there is a “fake leftism” in the air, specifically in the argumentation of the SWP CC, while what is needed is a “real left”. I’ll agree with him thus far, but would point out that it’s not always easy to tell the difference between the two, even for the adepts of Jack Conrad Thought.

But, put very basically, what I take from Mike’s article is that the SWP CC are disingenuous fuckers. No duh. It is rather difficult to take what the CC have been saying at face value, especially when they find it hard to get through a paragraph without contradicting themselves. So it’s fair to assume that a certain amount of posturing is going on. (I further note some – possibly tongue-in-cheek – support for the CC’s position from the AWL, who are disingenuous fuckers themselves.)

So what of George’s sudden conversion to democracy and pluralism? It will be recalled that supporters of Socialist Resistance – and the Lord loves a tryer – have been calling since the foundation of Respect four years ago for democracy, accountability etc. Consistently, George combined with the SWP to vote them down, which is why I thought they were on a hiding to nothing. It was abundantly clear that the kind of regime favoured by George was whatever regime gave George the maximum freedom of manoeuvre. As long as he had a chummy relationship with the Sheriff of Nottingham, that suited George down to the ground. But the more the SWP tried to import its internal regime into Respect… well, it’s not surprising George would chafe a little.

Is George serious about democracy and accountability? Well, his record to date suggests we should be a little sceptical. Nonetheless, if he is taking up the cudgels for democracy, it hardly matters. If he is serious, well and good. If, as Mike argues, he’s a fake democrat, then he’s making a noose for his own neck. Sin é.

Rud eile: I’m not doing Search of the Week, simply because there is very little of interest in this week’s searches. But I’m intrigued by celebrity women dentures, and even more so by Protocols of the Elders of Éire.

Left, right in the Respect split

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Just to ponder a little on this question of the alleged left-right split in Respect – I’ve written a bit on this, but I think it’s worth teasing out further. Nothing I have seen in the past few weeks changes my opinion that the “left-right” view being put forward by the SWP CC is anything more than a rhetorical device. What in fact has been striking about the CC’s interventions has been the almost total lack of politics. To date, I have seen absolutely no evidence that there is any deep political division behind the split. Which is not to say, of course, that there is not a serious question here in terms of the future direction of Respect.

Actually, the seeds of this go back right to the beginning of Respect, and the SWP’s formulation that Respect was not a party (there can be only one true party) but that it was a “united front of a special type”. Nick Wrack argues that this is under-theorised, and he’s right, but it’s hardly the point. You have to set this alongside the SWP’s long history of working through “united fronts” which in fact turn out to be little more than fronts, having virtually nobody in them but the SWP. A particularly blatant example occurred in the early 1990s when the British CC relaunched the ANL, and the SWM leadership in Dublin decided that Ireland also needed an ANL – in a country with no Nazis! The Irish ANL’s only regular activity for years thereafter was to march up and down O’Connell Street once a year. (Some anti-deportation work was also done, but there was no reason why an ANL was needed for that.)

Most examples aren’t nearly as staggeringly stupid as that one, but we know the pattern. The SWP will set up a single-issue campaign, get some well-regarded individuals to sit on the committee, and do activity under its banner. The purpose of this is to allow the party to do campaigning work in a broader milieu, to try and get support for a campaign that couldn’t possibly be mobilised by the SWP as such, and, last but not least, to recruit into the SWP. Critics sometimes charge that these campaigns are purely about recruitment, but they aren’t – the other functions are important as well, and it’s too cynical to suggest that SWP comrades don’t care about the issues in themselves. But this way of working – termed “united front” work although it bears little or no resemblance to the Comintern concept – has become a deeply institutionalised part of the SWP’s culture.

Now we turn to Respect, the “united front of a special type”. There was a clear schema at the founding of Respect, and people like Callinicos and Rees were quite open about this. That was that there would be a broad left-of-Labour formation – but not a party – emerging from the antiwar movement, that reformists would be in the majority and that the SWP would be the Marxist wing, which would swim in this formation and recruit to “the party”. The trouble with these schemas is that real life tends to work differently. For instance, the SWP in Ireland has been involved in recent years in no less than three electoral fronts, none of which has included anybody significant outside its own ranks, so it has had to substitute for the absent reformists, vote against policies it believes in, and act as a conscious right wing.

This is one of the big reasons why I was hostile to the setting up of Respect in the first place. If Respect had emerged organically, that would be different, but I didn’t think it was the SWP’s job to set it up. On the other hand, Respect now exists, and poses some interesting questions. One is that, yes, the SWP has acted as a substitute for the absent reformists. Another is that, unlike the usual SWP cornflake-box front, Respect has developed a bit of substance, a bit of a life of its own, and it contains a lot of people who don’t want to join the SWP and for whom Respect is a worthwhile project in its own right.

So, in this light, how are we to judge the issue of the “left-right split”? As I’ve said before, I think much of this only makes sense if you judge things in an idealist sense. And again, there’s a whole lot of plagiarism going on. The arguments being deployed by the CC about “communalism” and Asian businessmen are off-the-shelf arguments that have been used by the AWL, and in a moderated form the Weekly Worker, for several years. (Minus, of course, the AWL’s peculiar stance on “the Mooslims”, which gives its position some substance.) And then the Matgamnites and Conradites return the compliment by regarding, or affecting to regard, the SWP as the proletarian socialist component of Respect which must be supported against the “petty bourgeois” element around George. The justification for that is the idealist one that the SWP are Marxists and the other side mostly aren’t. It also leads to the delicious scenario where the Weekly Worker, whose whole purpose for being in Respect is to recruit the flotsam and jetsam of the SWP, can’t appeal to SWP expellees because it’s cheering on the expulsions.

What I want to argue is this. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to talk in terms of “left” and “right” in this discussion, as formal positions are less important than functional perspectives. But I do think the SWP can be described as the conservative bloc in Respect. That’s why, although I’m much closer to the SWP than to George in formal politics, I hope they get their ass kicked in this fight. If they get their ass kicked, there are possibilities for Respect to grow, to develop, to change – where it would go is unpredictable, but then we’re talking possibilities here. If the SWP win, you’re talking about Respect becoming a tightly controlled SWP front, which is, in the Rumsfeldian sense, a known known. We’ve been there before and don’t need to go back.

Empey in “I’m no Stalin” shock

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Well, the launch of the Programme for Government was a bit of a damp squib. The most interesting thing from my point of view was the extraordinarily prominent role played by the finance minister. This would seem to bear out the observation somebody made on Slugger a little while back that Robbo seems to see himself as the Stormont Executive’s prime minister, while the Chuckle Brothers are little more than a ceremonial joint presidency.

I was awaiting the list of proposed bills in the hope that there would be a few big ideas in there to catch the public’s imagination. Maybe the borough of Castlereagh would be renamed Robinson City. Maybe there would be a proposal to erect a 30-metre statue of Peter Robinson on the hill behind the Dundonald Ice Bowl. Maybe, just to annoy nationalists, Pootsie would finance a translation of Remembrance of Times Past into Ulster Scots. But no, the final list turned out to be pedestrian stuff.

I was however struck, on turning on Hearts and Minds last night, halfway through as usual, to hear Sir Reg Empey declaiming that he wasn’t proposing to set up a Stalinist party. This had me scratching my head. Were the Official Unionists dabbling in Marxism-Leninism? Was this a subtle dig at Senator Harris? What could be the meaning of this?

It transpired that Reggie was talking about his plans to modernise the OUP’s structures, making it a bit more like a real political party and a bit less like a nineteenth-century political club. And you can’t help feeling a little sympathy for the man. The baroque structures of the Unionist Party are one of the weirdest parts of our local landscape, and the antiquarian in me says it’ll be a pity to lose them.

In some ways, the OUP resembles the British Tories before William Hague (remember him?) went on a “modernisation” spree some years ago. There is no central membership list. The party executive is top-heavy with worthies holding honorary positions, and has no real power. The annual conference makes no policy decisions. The eighteen constituency associations are pretty much independent bodies, and guard their independence jealously.

But I know of no analogue in politics to the Ulster Unionist Council. This bizarre setup is often described by lazy journos as the party’s policy-making body, but it’s far too unwieldy (there used to be well over a thousand delegates) to play that role. The delegates, who tend to be elderly and maybe not entirely representative, come en bloc from the constituency parties, the Orange Order and various federated entities. They don’t even have to be party members – in fact, there is notoriously no proper credentials check and it’s an open secret that DUP members used to get themselves delegated to the UUC by their Orange districts, just to make mischief. It all makes Tower Hamlets Respect look like a model of professional organisation.

And yet, this club of grumpy old men operates as the sovereign body of the Unionist Party, and it is the UUC that Reggie will have to win over, with a two-thirds majority required to change party structures. I don’t envy him. I used to hear republican comrades saying that they wished they had something like the UUC to hold their leaders to account, but the UUC’s version of death by a thousand cuts has been the despair of more than one party leader. Believe it or not, David Trimble used to be quite the jolly larrikin. After a couple of hairy UUCs, he had turned into King Lear.

I hope for his sake that Reggie knows what he’s doing. Trying to talk the UUC into modernisation is the political equivalent of an extreme sport. And Reggie may be a smart guy, but the UUC delegates weren’t born yesterday. Some of them weren’t even born last century. A Stalinist party? If you could revive Uncle Joe, he might be just the man for the job.

The Swiss Toni school of international relations

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One of the most minor and unremarked aspects of this whole Respect debacle has been the document sent to the SWP Party Council by the burger-flippers in the Emerald Isle. I can’t write much about it because I haven’t yet had sight of it, but I can confidently guess at its contents. That is, the Irish branch office will have pledged up-front support for whatever it is the Brits decide to do.

It’s not really surprising that Swiss Toni and his acolytes have chosen to stick their oar in, nor that they would give the Brits a blank cheque. Go back to the excommunication of the American ISO some years ago and you’ll recall that Swiss sent an unsolicited letter of support to Prof Callinicos, without however bothering to tell his own members for some considerable time afterwards. This sort of cretinous display is par for the course in the SWP’s Pomintern.

I suppose you can’t really blame Kieran. He owes his position, after all, to Sasanach patronage. Having distinguished himself at a young age by his prominent role in shafting the so-called Opposition Group (now the Workers Power guys in Galway) he was thereafter favoured with the sunny side of Cliff’s countenance. That really marked the beginning of his rise to power in his little kingdom, although he would need to wait almost a decade, till people of stature like Trench and Kerrigan had dropped out, before attaining his present monarchical position.

It is a bit embarrassing though, or would be if the guy wasn’t so shameless. Gorgeous George has visited these shores two or three times in the last year, and the local SWP made a huge fuss of him on each occasion. Indeed, the party is currently building something called the People Before Profit Alliance, which could best be described as Respect without Galloway or the Muslims. (I do hear, though, that Meehan and Des Res have joined, which just goes to show that some folks never learn.) As if the PBPA wasn’t enough of a sectarian abomination in the first place, one would think that the collapse in Scotland and the big bust-up in England may be causing a few comrades to ponder. If they are, they’re keeping very quiet for the time being, although you do hear the odd murmur from the ranks if you keep your ear to the ground.

But this will be interesting to watch. Historically, ructions in the Brit SWP tend to have a ripple effect in the Irish franchise, with Workers Power being an object example. Blowback, you might call it. It’s unlikely in the extreme that there will be a split over here – the Brits, remember, have draconian restrictions on factions, but the Irish simply don’t allow them at all. And there can’t be all that much more attrition with numbers having fallen as low as they have. But there’s always the possibility that someone will stick his head above the parapet. And, what with critical mass and all that, Kieran can’t really afford to lose anybody else.

Everything I need to know about Leninism, I learned from midnight movies

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Many years ago, a comrade used to call me Ebert. I let him off with that, not least because I was calling him Gomez anyway. But in my case, this didn’t refer to any physical resemblance to Roger Ebert, but rather to a mildly obsessive film buffery and, flowing from that film buffery, a certain mode of locution and a certain method of analytical thinking. That analytical thinking has often stood me in good stead, which is at least some payoff for having sat through Night of the Lepus.

You may think there is little percentage in being a leftist Roger Ebert, and you’d be right on most levels, but beyond a certain point in film buffery you start to pick up a new vocabulary, an additional set of categories. This will include technical jargon, and enhanced awareness of clichés like the famous fruit cart, or the rule that in a slasher movie the actress who shows the least skin will be the sole survivor, but what’s proved useful to me is a number of different ways of looking at films.

You’ll be aware that, while your ordinary punter may talk of going to see the latest Tom Cruise or Eddie Murphy, your film buff will refer not to the star but the director. We go to see the latest Almodóvar or Kaurismäki or Coen Brothers. A variant of that to which I am prone is to see films less in terms of genre and more in terms of dramatic structure. Rather than a western, or a thriller, or a comedy, I often find it more useful to talk about wunza movies. You know what a wunza movie is – it might be “wunza cop, wunza crook” or “wunza nerd, wunza party animal” or “wunza nun, wunza hooker”. You see how this works.

Another thing I rely on a lot is going beyond simply good and bad films. Again, it’s worth expanding your mind to take in the Good Bad Film and the Bad Good Film. For the uninitiated, a Bad Good Film is a film that, while it’s undoubtedly important and superbly executed, and while you’re glad you’ve seen it, you’re in no great hurry to ever see it again. This is purely subjective of course, but for me key Bad Good Films would include Gandhi, The Killing Fields and five-hour documentaries on the Holocaust. On the other hand, a Good Bad Film is thematically trivial, often technically atrocious, but provides so much sheer fun that you keep coming back to it. Again it’s a subjective thing, but a suspicious number of my Good Bad Films feature George Hamilton or George Segal. And sometimes William Devane.

Some readers will sense the shadow of Sapir and Whorf, but others will be asking what exactly this has to do with left politics. It’s a roundabout way of saying that sometimes we need to stretch language and devise categories to better describe what’s in front of us, because sometimes the language and categories we’ve inherited obscures more than it clarifies.

I want to reference a point the late John Sullivan made in As Soon As This Pub Closes, which is that left groups insist on being judged on the grounds of high ideology, even though their formal ideology doesn’t begin to describe what these groups are like, how they behave, what they do. Sometimes they’ll consent to argue about formal organisational structures, but that doesn’t take us very far forward. What you really need is a grasp of an organisation’s history, its sociology, its internal culture – which is definitely not the same thing as its formal structure – and, yes, the personalities involved.

Take the American SWP, and its shift from ultra-orthodox Trotskyism to a sort of Castroite Stalinism. (Actually, a modified version thereof that contains all of Castroism’s less attractive elements without its redeeming features.) Alex Callinicos, in his little OU volume on Trotskyism, puts this down to being a logical outcome of a workers’ state position on the Soviet Union, but fails to explain why plenty of other workers’ statist groupings didn’t go that way. Nor does it explain why the Aussie DSP, who adopted a similar Cubist theoretical position, didn’t go develop the same sectist deformations as the US SWP. It’s safer to say that, rather than a theoretical deviation leading to the party’s degeneration, there were a number of active factors including the party’s social makeup, the rather odd internal culture it had built up and, not least, the psychology of Jack Barnes. The theory adapted to the organisation rather than vice versa.

I’ll give you another example. In Sweden there are three fairly substantial far left groups which are all of a comparable size, so none can really gain dominance over the others. This would be two Trotskyist groups, the CWI section and the United Secretariat group, and a pro-Korean neo-Stalinist group. On paper, both the CWI and USFI groups are quite close, while both have serious disagreements with the neo-Stalinists. And yet, the USFI group and the neo-Stalinists work together pretty well, while the CWI group works with nobody. This would not surprise the student of Machiavelli, or JP Cannon for that matter, but it would be incomprehensible to an idealist who thinks purely in terms of formal positions.

This is why, in looking at the Respect crisis, I’ve been stressing the aspects of the SWP that may not be apparent to the outside observer. If we talk, for instance, about the regime in the SWP, this is very different from that in, say, the Socialist Party, whose structures draw heavily on the official labour movement. Formally, the SWP has very few structures. It’s very libertarian, at least until the hammer comes down on you. Most decisions are taken informally. Its political culture in general is so strange that it’s nearly impossible to understand without extended personal experience. It’s difficult to even find the vocabulary to explain it, without going into the sort of minutiae that might even fly beneath the Weekly Worker’s radar.

So we find with the CC’s latest pronunciamento, following several weeks when scarcely a word about Respect appeared in Socialist Worker, and our friend Lenny maintained a studious policy of what in bureaucratic language we sometimes call ignorage. This farrago of half-truths, circular arguments and non sequiturs probably seems bizarre to non-SWP members of Respect, but it is explicable. The paper, remember, is primarily a means for instructing members and close supporters in the line. Party Notes serves as a supplement for those cadres who need additional ammo, although the latest edition does have a definite shrill tone which indicates things aren’t quite going to plan.

Group psychology is a wonderful thing, you see. A few months ago the comrades were waving their arms about, proclaiming that George was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and that anyone who raised questions about Asian small businessmen in Tower Hamlets was an Islamophobe and a closet racist. Today, Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. The problem is that this may have been sustainable in the old, isolationist SWP, where most activity was self-generated and no serious crisis ever had to be faced, but if you’re involved with something bigger than yourself then cold hard reality has a way of elbowing itself in the door.

Shit, L Ron Hubbard would have handled this much better. The white zone is for loading and unloading only.

And, as you should all know by know, left politics rarely has much more than a tangential connection to formal stances. As Ebert says, a movie is not about what it’s about. A movie is about how it’s about it. Selah.

Fanny Hill on BBC4

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Last night BBC4 kicked off its season of eighteenth-century sauce with the first half of Andrew Davies’ adaptation of John Cleland’s classic Fanny Hill. I was rather looking forward to this, because it was a daring choice, although I suppose Davies was bound to get around to it eventually while working his way through the English literary canon.

The first instalment dealt with the relatively (and I stress relatively) plot-heavy earlier parts of the novel. In brief, orphaned Lancashire lass Fanny (engaging newcomer Rebecca Night) arrives in London to seek a career in service, only to be taken in by madam Mrs Brown (the very game Alison Steadman) who intends to flog off Fanny’s virginity to the highest bidder. After meeting her true love Charles, Fanny escapes the brothel with her virtue just about intact, and the two lovers shack up together before a penniless Charles is shipped off to the Indies by his evil father and Fanny is left down on her luck. And, well, that’s about it. There is, of course, a reasonable amount of shagging along the way.

Now this is probably the most obvious stumbling block for anyone who wants to adapt Fanny Hill. The usual Davies MO is to take a work from the canon – it may be Austen or Dickens – and spice it up. In this case, he’s had to tone things down massively. The problem is that Fanny Hill is a work of pornography – beautifully written pornography, but still pornography. The 39 separate sex scenes described in minute detail in the novel are not simply the heart of the story, they are literally the bulk of the story. To really capture Fanny Hill faithfully, you would need the production values of BBC costume drama combined with the explicitness of hardcore porn.

Obscenity laws and broadcasting regulations, of course, won’t allow that. All those loving descriptions of erect penises that litter the novel? Can’t show them. Ditto for penetration and ejaculation. The sex scenes we saw last night were plenty by normal costume drama standards – and, if my memory of the novel is correct, I expect things to get racier in the second half – but it wasn’t Tipping the Velvet. In fact, the lesbian scenes between Fanny and Phoebe were a good bit cleaner than those in the 1983 feature film. Trouble is, if you adapt Fanny Hill and tone down the sex, aren’t you just left with, well, something very like Moll Flanders?

Actually, Davies does better than this, and the adaptation isn’t by any means a flop. Rightly, Davies has figured out that Cleland’s great triumph was in the creation of Fanny’s distinctive voice, and the device of having Night pop up to give on-screen narration captures some of the archness of the original. It makes sense to concentrate on the Fanny-Charles love story, although that won’t be sustainable in the shag-heavy second half. He also deftly avoids one of the major pitfalls of period shagging, which is that it often seems too camp for words. (This was one of the big faults of Russell T Davies’ Casanova – during the French Revolution scenes, I almost expected to see Citizen Camembert and the Black Fingernail turning up.) And the casting of Rebecca Night was a great move – she doesn’t just look the part, but carries the lead with genuine charisma.

A qualified success, then. I look forward to seeing how it’s brought to climax.

Police hunt trucker, monkey

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Following on from the discussion on yesterday’s Politics Show – and there is some good discussion of this at Slugger – a few more points are worth making about the big barney at Stormont over Margaret Ritchie defunding the UDA.

The first is the procedural question, which is what Peter “l’état, c’est moi” Robinson has been going hard on. This wasn’t immediately apparent due to the opaque way in which Robbo has made his complaint, but the operative part of St Andrew’s is the modified majority-rule provision which means a minister can’t go on a solo run in defiance of a majority decision of the Executive. But of course, the Procrastination Committee hasn’t made a decision in respect of the CTI, and doesn’t seem in a great hurry to. Not to mention that the advice from the Chuckle Brothers to Ritchie back in July seemed to suggest that the minister was on her own here. So, what we are left with is Robbo generating a great amount of hot air based on the assertion that he understood, after Ritchie had spoken to the Executive on this matter the previous week, that she would speak to the Executive again before announcing her decision. The Official Unionists don’t seem to remember it that way, but there you go.

Again, and this may conceivably run up against the ban on devolved ministers having sight of advice given to their direct rule predecessors, it seems to me that there should be an urgent investigation of whether Hain’s original contract was legal. The minister should bat that back to the DSO or explain why not. And if the contract was indeed illegal, then most of this procedural guff is neither here nor there.

Another thing that shouldn’t really need pointing out, but evidently does, is that the CTI is not a reserved but a devolved matter, and that Stormont has legislative powers. If the rules don’t allow the UDA to be defunded, then it’s perfectly possible for our elected representatives to change the rules.

Now, let’s look at the grubby politics involved, something that has seemed to go by the board. A lot of the heat in this situation, at least on the Provos’ part, has to do with the next Westminster election. This explains a lot about their reaction, and indeed why Ritchie got to be a minister in the first place rather than her party leader Mark Durkan, two things that have had some commentators scratching their heads.

Looking at the intra-nationalist fight in the next Westminster election, both PSF and the SDLP have a huge amount riding on this. PSF, following their disappointing showing in the south, will desperately want to maintain their forward momentum towards becoming the north’s monolithic Catholic party and, while stretching their lead over the SDLP in places like East Derry or North Antrim is all very well, there’s nothing like getting an additional MP, preferably at the SDLP’s expense. Likewise, the SDLP will have to prove its future viability, whether as an independent party or as the six-county section of Fianna Fáil.

This all points towards South Down as the cockpit constituency. We may reckon that Durkan is safe enough in Foyle for the time being. McDonnell is probably a dead man walking in South Belfast, but there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of Maskey being the beneficiary. Demographic changes in North Belfast may be working in Gerry Kelly’s favour, but he’s a good decade off being within shouting distance. But in South Down, where the SDLP had a narrow lead of around 300 over PSF at the Stormont elections, there’s everything to play for.

Now, assuming the elderly Eddie McGrady finally retires, that means a hard-fought contest between Margaret Ritchie and Caitríona Ruane, which explains why the both of them are ministers. Things are also made a lot more explicable when you consider that, to tip South Down in their favour, PSF will need Ruane to conspicuously shine as a minister and Ritchie to conspicuously fail, while the SDLP will be looking for the opposite outcome. It’s the misfortune of the Stormont Shinners that defunding the UDA is an extremely popular proposition with your average nationalist voter. This is why they have to preface their procedural criticisms of Ritchie with “of course we want to defund the UDA as well”, but parliamentary procedure butters few parsnips on the doorstep, especially when you remember that they’ve been taking pot-shots at Ritchie over this for several months. Memo to Gerry: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. It may have been a smarter move to support scrapping the CTI.

But what is in this for the DUP, I’m still struggling to understand. Unless it’s just Robbo trying to establish himself as the Executive’s Sun King, which I suppose is plausible.

Update 23.10.07: I note the Executive has now come round to the idea of scrapping the CTI with the minimum possible delay. Perhaps they caught on that they were on a hiding to nothing with the public.

Search of the week

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Well, the stats counter has nearly burst into flames this past week. I’d like to think that this blog’s coverage of the Respect crisis has given traffic a boost, and indeed it seems to have done, but the big spike in the graph was very largely due to my throwaway skit on the Tower of Bono. Thanks to Crooked Timber for picking it up.

Despite all this extra traffic, however, it hasn’t been a vintage week for searches, so I’ll just flag up a few that caught my eye. Gay tracksuit photos in Japan is an obvious one, and so is Myles na gCopaleen at war. I’m also pleased to see Skibbereen Eagle turn up, as well as Wittgenstein and Chomskyan linguistics. Although I’m puzzled by why men buy boats Michelle Marsh

A punter asks, Where can I buy Gerry McGeough’s book? I didn’t know he had one, but I’ll look out for it. Another Googler simply types liúdramán – well, that’s to the point. Someone else is looking for duncher work hats – you know, I used to wear a duncher, much more regularly than I do now, but I never thought of it as a work hat.

Our bronze this week goes to apartments built over Church of Satan. Somebody alert Sarah Beeny!

Our runner-up is bone Inuit fetish. Would this be a mystical Greenlandic carving?

And this week’s winner couldn’t really be anything but Bono’s erection. I will be watching plans for the Tower of Bono with great interest.

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