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.

25 Comments

  1. Andy Newman said,

    October 24, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    Good post

    I also think that Jim Higgin’s point was true, that it was surley no coincidence that Gerry Healy’s organisation developed an arrogant swagger and thuggery, Tony Cliff’s organisation developed superficial charm and rapid changes of direction based upon instant enthusiams, and Ted Grant’s organisation are insightful but mind-numbingly dull.

  2. Cian said,

    October 24, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    For me a bad good film is one which is deeply middlebrow, but excellent (if conventional) cinematography, acting, etc.

  3. Mark P said,

    October 24, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    I tend to agree with you that the SWP’s response will make little sense to non-SWP Respect members.

    It doesn’t mount any argument against the political case put forward by Salma Yaqoob or George Galloway, but instead simply attaches the predictable labels (“moving to the right”…). It doesn’t engage with the argument in Respect at all. Instead it’s all about shoring up the troops. This was predictable to people who are familiar with the SWP, but probably comes as something of a surprise to others.

  4. Phil said,

    October 24, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    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

    Go on, give it a go. We (well, I) might learn something.

  5. ejh said,

    October 24, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    I think Trostskyism as a rule tends to rely very much on “the line” much more than on any given structure. Party members (of any given party) wil ltellyou that this isn’t so and it’s not entirely so, but it’s true that the actual terms of agreement and disasgreement tend to ideological, and that ideology tends to involve a long string of positions all arrived at by applying logic to a given set of premises.

    Now this is far from being a worthless way of proceeding and it does have the virtue of being prepared to clarify, or try to clarify, what others prefer to ignore or elide. Indeed it can be enormously impressive on the intellectual level and it probably explains why theoreticians are so highly regarded within their own organisations. Given the choice I’d rather have somebody who overdid it on the theory than somebody who was philistine about it.

    Nevertheless it does tend to obscure the possibility of doubt and to promote the idea that failures to follow the given logic are errors that lead to defeat. And to fail to accept that we’re talking about blurred lines and uncertain realities – and the longer you take a chain of logic, the more likely it is that you’ll come up with an an answer that’s not only dogmatic but seriously mistaken.

    Our host may take a comparison from the appreciation of cinema but I take mine from chess, and particularly the great Danish grandmaster bent Larsen who used to say ,when discussing analysis, “long variation, wrong variation”. The longer the chain of moves that somebody presented as best play, the more likely it was to have a very serious hole in it.

    Me, these days I have too much of a preference for doubt.

  6. ejh said,

    October 24, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    For me a bad good film is one which is deeply middlebrow, but excellent (if conventional) cinematography, acting, etc.

    Isn’t that “good bad” rather than “bad good”?

  7. ejh said,

    October 24, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    Incidentally I think Andy’s point (or a similar one) is also made here.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 24, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    the great Danish grandmaster bent Larsen who used to say ,when discussing analysis, “long variation, wrong variation”.

    Quite so. You’ve just reminded me that somewhere I have a half-written post on Susan Polgar. I’ll get around to it by and by.

  9. Mark P said,

    October 24, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    1) On the Swedish example given, I wouldn’t find it all that surprising that the USFI group (Socialist Party) and the neo-Stalinists (the KPMLR, now renamed as the Communist Party) work more closely together than either do with the CWI group (Justice Party Socialists). While the USFI group and the CP have very different historical baggage and different views on what we might call “high theory”, they are genuinely quite close on some other issues. In particular both have adopted a softer, fluffier political vision and moved away from their previous emphasis on building a revolutionary party. As a not particularly relevant aside: the Justice Party Socialists are the only relatively sizeable far left outfit I know of with more women members than men.

    2) I think I get what Cian means by bad good film – most things with Tom Hanks or Russel Crowe in it for starters. You know the kind of thing, well shot, competently acted, probably Oscar winning, but also very safe, predictable and slightly dull.

    3) On the original posts point about structural differences between the SP and SWP, I think I know what he means.

    I was in the SSP and the English Socialist Alliance during the periods when both organisations were involved and I knew some SWP members socially. Even when there wasn’t any particular political issue at stake and nobody on either side was trying to pull a fast one, I regularly got complaints from SWP members in the pub about how inflexible some (SP affiliated) branch chair was or the like. They seemed to get the impression that my lot were rigid and bordered on the bureaucratic, while my lot got the impression that SWP members had little ability to stick to democratic structures and paid no heed to accountability.

  10. Ken MacLeod said,

    October 24, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    So it was Jim Higgins who made the observation I lazily attributed to John Sullivan? Oh, well, I’ll correct it sometime.

  11. Daniel said,

    October 24, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    WOW, splinteredsunrise – I think the same! 🙂

  12. Ryan said,

    October 24, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    “Many years ago, a comrade used to call me Ebert.”

    A backhanded accusation of reformism, perhaps?

  13. Darren said,

    October 24, 2007 at 10:52 pm

    Damn,

    Ryan beat me to the punchline. 😉

    There is already a “leftist Roger Ebert”. His name is Roger Ebert. Christ, he even gave a good review to the risible ‘Carla’s Song’.

  14. Phil said,

    October 24, 2007 at 11:14 pm

    “Siskel and Ebert? Noske and Ebert, more like!”

    I offer this retort to anyone who’s ever in a position to use it. I’d love to know what that position is.

    PS Yeah, I know, but ‘Ebert and Roeper’ doesn’t work as well.

  15. Mike said,

    October 25, 2007 at 12:02 am

    Andy where did Jim say that Ted Grants groups developed worthwhile insights? My recollection is that he thought Grants group deadly dull.

  16. Darren said,

    October 25, 2007 at 4:46 am

    PS

    Now that I think about it, my favourite “Good Bad” film has to be ‘Tremors’. I defy anyone not to enjoy it.

  17. ejh said,

    October 25, 2007 at 7:37 am

    Wayne’s World?

  18. Cian said,

    October 25, 2007 at 7:48 am

    Well certainly Russel Crowe, or Tom Hanks. But I’d also include Gandhi and five hour documentaries on the holocaust (except Night and Fog). Its the worthy film, where they picked a serious topic and you know its a “good” film because its a “serious” topic and “important”. Whereas the film has nothing original, or interesting, to say; or a film like 2001 (hey, Solaris every time baby). Or the film that picks something “bad” and emotional like death, and the critics go ape over it because it made them feel sad. Fuck that. I’d rather Jerry Lee Lewis’s comedy about the holocaust (never made – probably for the best) than Schindler’s fucking list.
    Whereas a good good film might not be one you want to see every day simply because they require a bit of attention and energy.

    Bad good films rock though. And Tremors is definitely one, as is Better off Dead (thanks for that Splinter) and early to mid John Carpenter. Hell, your average John Carpenter film has more insight about politics, than a million “good” hollywood films.

  19. Andy Newman said,

    October 25, 2007 at 9:53 am

    #15 – Mike I was quoting from memory and may have been to generous.

  20. the pilge said,

    October 25, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    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.

    You just let cliche do your writing for you, don’t you? Let’s see: “the comrades” (comical Pythonesque figures), “waving their arms about” (excitable students), “greatest thing since sliced bread” (etc), “anyone who raised questions about” (because that’s all were doing, asking questions), “Oceania” (the drearily inevitable Big Brother metaphor).

    It might be understandable, but the autophopic component of socialist culture that encourages leftists to use the scrap language of reactionary guttersnipes is one of its least promising aspects. Wouldn’t it be better to say what you meant, which seems to be: “A few months ago, the SWP seemed to be supportive of George Galloway MP. Now that he’s criticising them, they seem to have taken a dislike to him.” But that would make the observation redundant, would it not?

  21. Mark P said,

    October 25, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    Well yes, that would be redundant. It also wouldn’t capture the significance of the change.

    The reason for the colourful language, used by someone who was an SWP member for many years, is that it is necessary to capture the drastic and almost instantaneous change in the SWP’s attitude. It is not that they were vaguely positively disposed towards someone, and now are a little more sceptical after he raised some criticisms. It is that they were wildly over the top about his positive aspects to start with and are now wildly over the top about his supposed flaws, without ever being capable of making a balanced assessment. What’s more the change in direction has to be executed in perfect, unthinking unison by anyone who doesn’t want to join Hoveman and co in being cast in the outer darkness.

  22. ejh said,

    October 25, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    Autophopic is good, though I think it may be autophobic. It is rare I learn anything from the internet (it normally inspires a general misanthropy, not to mention self-loathing) but tonight is an exception.

  23. johng said,

    October 26, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    Alternatively people were increasingly concerned about a range of things (from BB to the nitty gritty in TH), but also concerned not to break up the coalition, but when it became apparent that George was doing this, felt they had no choice but to come out into the open (with several weeks of attacks going unanswered). This being a serious thing given the political situation and a fight they would not have chosen. At the same time, as is usually the case if your politically ambushed, there are difficulties in trying to rally the troops and at the same time mantain nuance. I suspect this would be true of any political organisation whatsoever. Its also true that most believe that it was always absolutely right to defend the most prominantly known opponent of the war against ludicrous right wing witch hunts.

    Then again perhaps we all just wave our arms around a lot and have hysterical enthusiasms which inexplicably shift on and off.

  24. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 26, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    Don’t worry about it. I too have waved my arms around. As for discussion being confined to the upper echelons and then suddenly sprung on the membership, well, that’s just what’s known as “making the turn”.

    And hey, Pilge – I like my cliches. I bear them as proudly as if they were a banner with the strange device Excelsior.

  25. johng said,

    October 26, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    I just don’t think things are as simple as that. all of us who have been involved in politics develop are resentments about individuals and organisations. however this is a poor guide to actual events. if you follow whats actually developing now (which as avid fans of this sort of thing I’m sure we all are) you’ll discover that some of whats happening is really kind of hard to explain on the sort of ‘gee aren’t those trots crazy’ kind of basis.


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