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.