Same procedure as every year

Of course, there’s one thing you absolutely can’t miss out for New Year’s Eve…

Should I not be back by midnight, a happy new year to everyone.

Nepal: the mass movement mounts

It’s been quiet here of late, due to the festive season and the by now traditional festive illness (annoying but not serious), plus a couple of time-consuming projects, work-related and otherwise. But fear not, there is blogging material prepped and some new stuff will be going up once the editing is done. In the meantime, because I know you’re all interested in those cheeky Nepalese Maoists, here’s a useful bit of background from the PSL.

On Dec. 22, well over 100 thousand people in Nepal’s capital, Katmandu, attended the closing rally of a three-day general strike called by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The strike shut down virtually all business, schools and public transportation.

This event was the capstone of the latest round of mass protests called by the communists in their campaign against the attempted seizure of the government in May by the allied forces of the Nepal Army and the country’s elite.

In May, the UCPN-M  resigned from the government. It led the government as a result of a landside electoral victory. The walkout came in response to the Nepal Army’s disavowal of peace agreements and illegal defiance of the coalition government led by the UCPN-M.

Since May, the UCPN-M has blockaded and shut down parliament in response to attempts by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Nepali Congress to run the government. Both parties have sided with the Nepal Army in the current struggle. The Nepal Army is notoriously reactionary and bloody. The NA is loyal to the country’s tiny elite and guilty of widespread brutality and torture.

The struggle of the Nepalese people is long and heroic. From 1768 until May 28, 2008, Nepal was a Hindu Kingdom ruled by the Shah and Rana dynasties. The current period of upheaval can be traced back to 1996, when revolutionary forces led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) established the People’s Liberation Army and launched a guerilla war against the government.

The People’s War gradually gained momentum and enjoyed a broad base of support in rural areas. By 2006, discontent had reached a boiling point, and what became known as People’s Movement 2 (the first People’s Movement occurred in 1990) was launched. The monarchy was overthrown and after several postponements, an election for the Constituent Assembly, the legislative body tasked with drafting a republican constitution, was held on April 10, 2008.

The Maoists won by far the greatest number of seats (over 38 percent) and formed a coalition with the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), a social democratic party, and the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum.

The Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre, Prachanda, became Prime Minister. A few months into his tenure Prachanda sought to have the insubordinate leader of the traditionally royalist Nepal Army, Rookmangud Katawal, replaced for violating the terms of the U.N. brokered peace treaty between the PLA and the Nepal Army. In a gross violation of the interim constitution, President Ram Baran Yadav, from the capitalist Nepali Congress Party, instructed Katawal to remain in his position.

In response to this act of military subversion of the elected government, UCPN-M  (“unified” was added to the name after a merger in January) withdrew from the government. A new administration led by the CPN (UML) with the support of the NCP was formed amidst a series of actions called by the Maoists to re-establish civilian supremacy.

After a long period of political deadlock the UCPN-M decided to initiate an umbrella organization of revolutionary, nationalist, and republican forces called the United National People’s Movement to launch a two week-long second phase of protests.

Beginning Nov. 2, municipal and regional government offices were shut down on designated days by communist-led forces throughout the country. A general strike was then called in Katmandu, and the campaign climaxed with a two-day encirclement of Singha Durbar, the complex that houses all main state institutions.

After the government ignored the Nov. 20 deadline to rectify Yadav’s move, the UNPM announced third phase protests, the centerpiece of which would be a general strike from Dec. 20 through 22.

Sixteen days before the beginning of the strike, landless farmers organized by the Maoists that had been occupying parts of the Dudejhari jungle in the Kailali district of Nepal were violently evicted. When the dust cleared, at least four squatters had been killed and hundreds of others wounded by security forces. A highly successful nationwide strike was called in outraged response two days later.

Despite threats and maneuvering by the U.S. and Indian governments, the general strike began as scheduled, bringing the country to a complete commercial standstill. A significant amount of violence broke out as police attempted to repress the demonstrations and protesters defended themselves. Scores were arrested or injured, and the deputy superintendent of police, Dilip Chaudhary, was nearly killed.

Their very existence threatened, elements of the Nepalese elite have grown more militant. Sukhdev Shah, ex-ambassador to the United States and an American citizen, recently wrote, without a hint of sarcasm, “Another big uncertainty is if Nepal has the good fortune of some strongmen rising to the occasion—the likes of Korea’s Park Chung-He, Chile’s Pinochet, Indonesia’s Suharto—to take up the challenge of suppressing dissent. …” (, Dec. 20). All three of the leaders mentioned were brutal dictators responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of people.

The struggle for the future of Nepal continues. The communists have led the struggle to defend the interests of the Nepalese masses in the fight against the combined forces of the Nepalese elite, India and U.S. imperialism. The unfolding revolutionary struggle in Nepal requires our attention and solidarity.

Elsewhere on the blogs, I loved this Slugger story on Senegal, this from Ben – a rare sports-loving communist – on Alfie Thomas, and a lovely quote on Ulster-Scots planters in Massachusetts.

December will be magic again

Just stopping by to wish all readers Nollaig shona. Normal posting will resume in a few days, unless I find myself at a loose end, but in the meantime here’s a musical interlude. Let us go back thirty years and see how we got by in the years before X Factor. Take it away, Kate…

Naxals seize Kathmandu, declare autonomous state

From the Economic Times:

KATHMANDU: Maoists on Wednesday announced the seizure of the Nepalese capital Kathmandu declaring it an autonomous region, after storming into heavily guarded Durbar Square, in a development that could trigger a new political confrontation.Waving red flags, 5000 militant cadres forced their way into the Durbar Square city centre where their chief Prachanda declared Kathmandu valley as the Newa Autonomous State. The Maoists, who have already announced formation of parallel governments in nine districts and paid little heed to warnings by the Nepali Congress, to desist from such tactics as it may lead to “biggest political and social confrontation”.

Though the Maoist takeover was more of a symbolic nature, their choice of the capital city sent shock-waves in the ruling CPN-UML-led 22-party alliance. Prachanda lit a traditional lamp to declare Kathmandu as Newa Autonomous State by flying a banner that read “Newa Autonomous State” as hundreds of balloons were let off.

A gun salute was also given and the city declared an autonomous state amidst performance of traditional music.

“Our move is not intended to disrupt the peace process or block the constitution making task,” Prachanda proclaimed adding it was to “make people aware about federalism and strengthen the republican system”. The Maoist supremo claimed that “regressive forces were hatching a conspiracy against the republican system and trying to reverse the change”.

Other Maoist leader who spoke on the occasion defended their move to declare various areas as autonomous regions rejected the claim that it would derail the peace process and lead to disintegration of the nation. The party is planning to declare altogether 13 autonomous states in the country by December 18.

For an understanding of the importance of federalism in the strategy of the UCPN[M], see the three posts on Understanding Federalism Part I, Part II and Part III.


A bit of local Kremlinology

Well, that was a nice little musical interlude, but of course what many of you come here for is the sectariana. “Since you’re on the ground in Belfast,” the broad masses cry, “why don’t you tell us what’s going on with the local Swips?”

The first thing I’d say to that is, there’s still quite a bit we don’t know for certain, as the official SWP is taking the “nothing to see here guv” line, while the dissidents have been maintaining radio silence. What we do know is that it isn’t just the three musketeers who find themselves outwith the organisation. Others are being mentioned, including younger people who had joined in recent years, and long-term sleepers – which is to say, people who are basically inactive but retain a loyalty to the organisation and would turn out for a big event. I have heard talk of there being both expulsions and resignations, but given the party’s disdain for formal procedures that will probably be a matter of perception. As for the official org, that’s supposedly down to a small circle around the putative candidate – and I’m not actually sure that young Seán is even in town at the moment, it’s been ages since I saw him about – but what’s certain is that organiser Dónal, having been imported from Dublin, is running around like a blue-arsed fly putting up posters for public meetings with high-profile speakers. One senses a big push on from the centre to rebuild the branch.

There’s a political aspect to this too that may not be immediately apparent, but first I’ll go on a bit of a digression about republicanism.

You see, there is an interesting coalescence in what might loosely be termed non-Provisional republicanism. The dividing line doesn’t break down in terms of left and right, but in terms of your attitude to armed struggle. There is, and there probably always will be while partition lasts, a smallish constituency for physical force republicanism. Of this the most cohesive exponents are the Contos, who can offer you the Provisionalism of 1971 only on a much smaller scale; there are the Real Republicans if you like your militarism more or less neat, with only a little dash of politics to taste; and we don’t even want to get into small groups of yahoos like the “ÓNH”, who don’t even pretend to have a political aspect and are really just armed Celtic supporters. Not to say that the physical force constituency is totally insignificant – it may be small, but it repays attention – but it’s very much a minority pursuit, and there’s nobody there really rallying much support.

What’s probably more interesting is the significantly larger constituency, what we might term soft republican, which is critical of the peace process but unwilling to countenance a return to war. This constituency hasn’t asserted itself till now, but it is there, there’s a potential for some tendency to gain traction there, and it could easily grow. There’s éirígí in the first instance, who may be a mess of contradictions but who are growing and seem to have a little momentum behind them. The interesting thing is that the people in Dublin who set up éirígí are relatively straightforward – their politics is essentially Dublin PSF of five or six ardfheiseanna ago, and their main criticism of Gerry was that he was insufficiently socialist. But as they’ve expanded into the north, they’ve brought on board people who have more traditional republican concerns. Breandán Mac Cionnaith is a case in point, and I was struck when Cllr Louise Minihan of Dublin defected that her statement stressed the republican aspect more than the socialist one.

Be that as it may, it’s the case that éirígí, as a wholly political group with no armed wing, has a definite appeal to that segment of the Provo base that’s disgruntled but is not attracted by the idea of rerunning the Troubles. Certainly in Belfast, the PSF hierarchy seem more worried by them than the armed groups, because they have at least in theory the potential to get a populist bandwagon going. And I’m sure that a similar consideration came into play for the IRSP, and their announcement of the standing down of the armed wing and commitment to a totally political path – messy as it was – had to do with detoxifying the IRSP brand in order to make a play for some popular support. Upcoming elections to the new Derry-Strabane supercouncil will figure here.

That’s also, I suppose, the reasoning behind the IRSP’s unity offensive of the moment. On paper, an IRSP-éirígí lash-up would seem to be the most logical outcome – both groups have a liking for populist agitprop, in particular – but that’s not going to fly in the foreseeable future. (Some IRSP members at least regard éirígí as a nest of Provos, and it seems the suspicion is mutual.) However, a number of discreet meetings have been taking place involving an interesting cast of characters from varied socialist and republican backgrounds – more I cannot say at the moment – and it is not impossible that some sort of alignment might emerge.

Which leads me circuitously back to the Swips. It has been said that the disagreement here was about the minor tactical issue of who to run in the elections and where, and that this manifested itself in a division between the west and the south of the city. There’s more to it than that, but in an untheorised way – by which I mean that there are underlying political issues beneath what looks like a minor tactical issue, but those are largely unstated, almost certainly haven’t been discussed systematically, and the protagonists may not be fully conscious of them.

First we have to consider that the SWP is not a programmatic party. The Socialist Party has a programme, and a fairly rigid perspective – which can sometimes be a disability, but from the SP’s point of view keeps it on the straight and narrow. The SWP is different in that it doesn’t work to a programme, it works to a regularly shifting perspective. From the outside this can look like breathtaking opportunism, from the inside it’s perceived as an ability to be flexible and creative while being firm in your core beliefs. Sometimes it works well, sometimes the results are not so good. But there are two elements here, inherited mainly from Cliff, which I think are often unhelpful. One is the tendency to be distracted from long-term work by the glimpse of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The other is the theory of corrective exaggeration or “stick-bending”, allegedly derived from Lenin although Katy seems to have it sussed. It may be that the British group, in dealing with the Füredite voluntarism of the Left Platform, could get a grip on these tendencies, but they’re very much part of the organisation’s culture.

One aspect of unprogrammatic interventions coupled with a taste for stick-bending is that you often adapt to the milieu you’re working in. (Sometimes the leadership will think you’ve over-adapted and then bend the stick back. Eventually your stick may look more like a Curly Wurly, but such is the price to be paid for bold and decisive leadership.) To put it less uncharitably, if you decide you’re going to work in milieu X rather than milieu Y, that implies a different set of tasks. This applies in spades to whether you’re going to stand in West Belfast or South Belfast.

It will have impressed the Dublin leadership, who as noted have a de facto strategy of building around prominent individuals, that Seán Mitchell won over 700 votes at the Assembly election in West Belfast and did so at a canter, leaving open the opportunity of building on that base. They will also have noted that the SWP has stood previously in South Belfast and got a low vote, as indeed has the SP. Therefore, running Mitchell in West Belfast would seem to be a no-brainer.

And yet, and yet. There are certain reasons why your candidate might do better in West Belfast, notably because it has an unusual concentration of the flotsam and jetsam of northern republicanism and Marxism. Let’s say for the sake of argument that there are a hundred or so éirígí supporters in the area – and they’ve got close to that number on demos – who are they going to vote for? There may be a similar number of IRSP supporters. There may still be forty or fifty old-time Peoples Democracy types who don’t have anything they can support. There are a few CPI people; even a few ORM people, who I imagine would not be falling over themselves to vote Workers Party. There are always disgruntled ex-Provos knocking about, and there may at any given time be some restive Ógra kids willing to lend a preference.

Maybe none of these constituencies adds up to much on its own. But any of them might be in the market for a candidature that’s a bit socialist and a bit anti-imperialist. You wouldn’t even have to mobilise any of these guys – and, given their mutual contradictions, that might be as well – but if you avoided actively alienating any of them… you might be talking about 400 or 500 votes as a par score in the West Belfast constituency, and that’s before you get onto whatever positive appeal the candidature might have. Having a fresh banner (People Before Profit) without alienating historical baggage; a fresh, young and articulate candidate; a campaign with a bit of energy; and a leaflet that says as little as possible about the peace process – none of these things hurt. We may also note that the wee lad attracted strong transfers from Republican Sinn Féin and from the tallies would also have done from the Workers Party had they been eliminated earlier – which indicates to me that a general anti-establishment vote (or to some extent anti-Gerry vote) is at least as likely as 700 west Belfast people suddenly becoming convinced that the Soviet Union was state capitalist.

For the Dublin leadership, they might not be aware of these nuances. Even if they were, they might not give a crap. The thing to consider, from where they’re sitting, will be the possibility of 200 here or 700+ there.

The people who would give a crap would be located in Belfast. Even so, if it was just a pragmatic tactical issue, longstanding party diehards would be expected to go along with the decision from the centre. It comes to the implications for what you want to do, and what you’re comfortable doing.

An election run in South Belfast, probably with Barbara Muldoon as the candidate, would distinguish itself as progressive, cross-community, anti-racist, multicultural, maybe environmental. It would be competing for votes, effectively, with Anna Lo. A Mitchell campaign in West Belfast would be trying to take votes off Gerry Adams, and even if you didn’t call it left republican – a description the SWP would never accept for itself – it would need to be fought on left republican territory.

Perhaps more to the point, an attempt to build a base in West Belfast would be a bit of a reversion to what the SWM was doing pre about 1990, when the activity and the meetings were concentrated in that area and the perspective was to cannibalise the PSF base. Thereafter there was a shift – spearheaded by a couple of people who recently departed – to move to city centre activism, perhaps some thought about building in mixed areas, and promoting a cross-community (definitely not republican) profile. If that’s been your consistent background for years – augmented by movementist and NGO-type politics – to move back into the Wild West and try to appeal to nationalist youths in Andytown must seem like a regression. Doubly so when you consider the unwillingness of west Belfast people to leave west Belfast – Andytown localism is of a whole different order to the local politics the proponents of Save Our Seafront would be familiar with. Anything that looks like a greening of the organisation would face some resistance – and, although the McCann vote in Derry is distinct, it may not be coincidental that the big northern meeting at this year’s Marxism was Eamonn speaking (disingenuously IMO) on the SWP’s anti-Agreement credentials. Maybe that vote for Mrs O’Hara concentrated some minds.

Of course, there’s quite a bit of educated guesswork in the foregoing, and some of it may be wrong. But I would be surprised if these underlying local factors were completely absent. We also haven’t heard anything from the dissidents, who are keeping very quiet. This probably indicates they are discussing what to do next, which itself presents a problem or two. One is that, while tactical differences and problems with the regime are enough to get you kicked out of the SWP, they aren’t sufficient to justify a separate organisation. Another is that, even if you have enough members to give you some critical mass, being cut off from the material base in terms of money, equipment, speakers and so on is bound to cramp your style. And of course there’s a recalibration of perspectives, which may be something the Reesites in Britain have to face in due course – a perspective of being hyperactive in the movements may work if you have several thousand SWP members to play with, but you can’t do it with forty or fifty people, so other options would need to be looked at. The Belfast dissidents find themselves in that position now, on a micro scale. On the other hand, if John Rees fancies acquiring an Irish section at a knock-down price…

This weekend I’ll mostly be listening to… Girlschool

It’s been a while, I know, since we’ve had a music post around here. (Enormous cheers from broad masses.) But, what with the fascinating discussion around the SWP’s perspectives debate and faction fight, traffic on this blog has been ridiculously brisk. And the ideal remedy for that is a music post, especially one relating to a band that was last in the charts before some of you were born.

And so, in a blatant steal from WorldbyStorm’s regular weekend feature, I invite you to cast your minds back to 1982 or thereabouts, and reacquaint yourselves with Girlschool. I must admit, I still greatly enjoy Girlschool. It’s not just that they knock most of today’s bands into a cocked hat. They were a breath of fresh air at the time, a group of young women who played their own instruments, wrote most of their own material, who weren’t just a bunch of pin-ups but who just flat out rocked. Here’s a representative performance from the early 1980s:

Of course, many of you will remember Girlschool, if at all, via their frequent collaborations with Motörhead, mostly as a support act on the road – something they still do – but also on the St Valentine’s Day Massacre EP. The highlight of this was a joint cover of the old Johnny Kidd and the Pirates standard “Please Don’t Touch”, which you can see below:

Not, I hasten to add, that they were simply a distaff version of Lemmy and the gang. Going back to their roots as Painted Lady in the 1970s, they had a strong glam rock influence and proved to be dab hands at glam covers. Here’s a take on T Rex:

And a somewhat later interpretation of the Sweet:

An entertaining live act, too. Here’s a performance from 1984:

And a more recent one, with the current lineup:

And, to finish things off, here’s the classic lineup, featuring the late Kelly Johnson, playing one of their old favourites, the Gun classic “Race With The Devil”. A guaranteed crowd-pleaser for nearly thirty years.

No sex please, I’m the commissioning editor for drama

A while ago – well, it would be a wheen of months ago now I suppose – Greg Dyke was on the telly asking why British TV can’t make dramas like the Americans do. Greg argued, and I think he was correct in this, that the Brits do love their formulaic hospital dramas, police dramas and soaps, with the occasional costume drama thrown in. This is true – not that there’s anything wrong with TV stations producing this bread-and-butter stuff, but the real question is why the reluctance to produce things other than hospital or police dramas. It’s a good question.

Greg’s star exhibit on the other hand was the US cable outlet HBO. You may not know HBO, but you’ve surely watched some of its product, which spans The Wire, The Sopranos, Sex And The City, The Larry Sanders Show, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm, amongst many others. I know the law of imports applies here – that the best American product is imported and there are oceans of crap on the TV over there that we don’t get to see, but even so, it’s an impressive hit rate. And the thing is that what HBO is known for in the States is that, being a subscription service and not reliant on advertising, it can fill its schedules with nudiness and cuss words that the networks can’t get away with (I will return to this presently), but if you look at the programmes listed, you’re also talking about generally intelligent adult-oriented drama of the sort that has provoked the networks into raising their dramatic game.

Greg was interested to know why the BBC, with far greater resources, couldn’t produce that sort of material on a regular basis. I would guess that it has something to do with the BBC’s funding base, and its requirement to provide something for everyone, which exists in tension with the Reithian idea of giving the public what they don’t yet know they want. You get bits of this in the documentary strands on BBC4, but it’s sobering to think that Beeb bosses think of their more intelligent programming as the expendable bit. On the other hand, if the Tories get in and allow broadcasting to degenerate to the levels of Italy, we may look back on this as a golden age.

But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about the nudiness and cuss words, well, specifically the former.

Apropos of HBO, I’ve lately been enjoying its new series Hung, which you may want to catch if you haven’t already. The show revolves around Ray Drecker (Tom Jane, of The Punisher fame), who works as a high school basketball coach in Detroit. Ray, when we meet him, is a man down on his luck. His wife has left him. His kids have gone to live with his wife. His house has burnt down, and he’s living in a tent. He hates his life, and he has no money. Ray realises that he does have one marketable asset, and it lives in his trousers. So he decides to put his generous male organ to work and goes into business as – let’s not beat around the bush here – a male prostitute.

This is where the show could easily devolve into Deuce Bigalow territory, but really it doesn’t. What it is, is a decent if near-the-knuckle comedy-drama very much like Californication, or that old HBO classic Dream On. The humour is ribald without being crass, and the scripting is surprisingly subtle. The important point is that Ray’s knob is really just a maguffin to hang the story on – the impressive thing about Hung is how character-driven it is. Thanks not least to Tom Jane’s nicely nuanced performance in the lead, we come to care about Ray and his various problems, emotional issues and dilemmas – his self-loathing and hankering after his failed marriage in the first instance. There’s a certain amount of flesh of course, though not as much as might be expected, and if you took the flesh out – which is always a good test – you’d still have a pretty good drama.

This leads me to ponder a question somewhat at a tangent to Greg Dyke’s, which is to ask why British TV drama, with rare exceptions, can’t do sex. I’m not talking about sexual explicitness here, nor about the physical staging[1] but about the portrayal of sex in a dramatic sense. With the notable exception of the late Dennis Potter, it’s hard to think of good examples of sex being integrated into drama in an interesting or intelligent way. And although I’m cautious of cultural essentialist arguments, I have the feeling that this has something to do with inherited Puritan attitudes and particularly the close association of sex and guilt. You don’t get this in French or Italian or Spanish cinema. That old sexist reprobate Tinto Brass doesn’t do guilt, and his films are all the better for it – if they were guilt-ridden, they would be unbearable. Maybe it’s a Mediterranean thing. (In the context of Puritanism, it’s interesting that northern European culture – see Babette’s Feast for example – tends to stereotype Catholic cultures as voluptuous and sensual. I suppose this again shows how Irish Catholicism, with its strong Jansenist influence, is deeply weird in European terms.)

Another thing that doesn’t help is this tendency in British – or rather English – culture to put on a distanced, ironic, even supercilious air, and to distrust anything done with passion. To digress a little, as bad as Kate Thornton was hosting X Factor, the more accomplished Dermot O’Leary is far worse, because la Thornton was always willing to give it some welly. O’Leary tries to be as hip as he was on BBLB, but just comes across as Mr Insincerity, which is a terrible fit for the pachyderm bombast of X Factor. The lesson is that there are certain things you can’t do in a distanced way – if you’re going to do them at all, you have to do them with commitment.

Which is a roundabout way of coming to the way British drama deals with matters sexual. There is of course the vacillation between the censorious and the gratuitous – the former can be seen in something like The Vice, where those involved in the sex trade are so unremittingly grim and grotty and evil that it just sinks into this misanthropic mire. But there are also the two key dramatic paradigms. The most straightforward is the Bouquet Of Barbed Wire paradigm, which quite obviously draws on issues of guilt and concerns of respectability, and which ends with the moral lesson that the character of loose virtue (which is almost invariably to say, the promiscuous woman) must be punished for upsetting the social mores.[2]

This is why I didn’t like the BBC’s Mistresses, billed as the British Sex And The City. I don’t like SATC much either[3], but the whole point of it was surely the lack of guilt – Samantha shags her way through New York and has a ball doing so; she has her share of heartbreak, but that isn’t set up as a heavy-handed punishment for her promiscuity, and if aspects of her life are empty, then she’s learned to cope with that. On the other hand, Mistresses, although it had an excellent cast (I’ll watch Sarah Parish in just about anything), high production values and decent writing, couldn’t escape suburban moralism. You had these nice, prosperous women with their nice jobs and nice families and nice houses and nice bits on the side – and the whole story revolved around how miserable they were. Thirty seconds of a woman indulging in some illicit rumpo would be followed by twenty minutes of her sitting around with her friends, drinking red wine and moaning about how miserable she was. Maybe there was a female thing I was missing, but unless you’re Dostoyevsky there’s a limit to how much dramatic mileage you can get from people being eaten up by guilt, especially when there’s not all that much to justify the guilt. Sometimes, and by this point my attention may have been wandering, the women seemed to be wallowing in guilt over sins they hadn’t committed, which is taking the Puritanism just a teensy bit too far.

The other dramatic paradigm is of course the Carry On paradigm, which is more widespread than you might think. This isn’t, by the way, incompatible with the guilt scenario. The important thing about the Carry On films and their 1970s offspring was that coitus was permanently interruptus, and much of the humour derived from Sid and the other lecherous old blokes failing to get their leg over. Moreover, a bit of Donald McGill saucy humour can work well as a means of sidestepping (not challenging) a puritanical culture.

So there is of course the direct line of descent from Carry On through the Confessions series and other 1970s sex comedies[4]; to shows like the late lamented Eurotrash, which almost seems like nice clean fun in this age of Babestation; and indeed into modern British porn – Ben Dover’s character is basically Sid James with a camcorder, and the Omar series is essentially constructed in terms of Robin Askwith movies with real shagging[5]. But the influence of the Carry On aesthetic goes well beyond that, even into the realms of costume drama – The Tudors has more than a hint of the classic Carry On Henry about it, and the recent Desperate Romantics partook of the same approach. Even if you take the BBC’s adaptation of Fanny Hill, which had fantastic source material plus the reliable Andrew Davies on script duty, there was a pronounced undertone of Carry On Up The Brothel. ITV, on its occasional breaks from Lynda La Plante police procedurals, sometimes does a “raunchy” drama, usually starring Suranne Jones, and they invariably fall into the Carry On mode.

So, there is a huge swathe of human experience that is habitually treated as either a nail to hang moral lessons, or as an occasion for nudge-nudge wink-wink tomfoolery. This doesn’t leave much space for other interpretations. Maybe it’s me, but I find that an approach of at least moral ambivalence – the way the prostitution in Hung, like the gangsterism in The Sopranos, is not taken as the subject for a treatise but as a window onto our protagonist’s character – works better dramatically. I say this not in a prescriptive way, but in the sense that cliché is the enemy of good character-driven drama.

There are two other points that are worth flagging up. One is an aesthetic point, in that the dominant mode on TV is naturalistic, as exemplified on the soaps. Obviously this is not documentary but a faux naturalism, and is a very stylised aesthetic in itself. And it’s an aesthetic that draws a lot on the theatre, in being very dialogue-heavy and plot-heavy. You can of course get this in the cinema, but cinema is a different medium and different aesthetics work well in it, especially with a heaviness on the visual and a willingness to tolerate periods of silence. Some American TV dramas – Without A Trace comes to mind – are moving towards a more cinematic style, and the HBO phenomenon has encouraged that, but it still hasn’t really filtered across the Atlantic. And the cinema’s visual aspect means it can draw not only on the theatre, but also on the aesthetics of (say) painting, or more often photography.

As you art buffs will know, both painting and its offspring photography deal in large part with the human nude, and this is an aesthetic of form.[6] Apart from a few extreme moral puritans or radical feminists, not many people have a problem with it. But such is the theatrical influence that it still feels odd if that attitude is translated into moving pictures. The cliché is that nudity must not be gratuitous but must be justified by the plot. Let’s say you are a film director and you have Kelly Brook in your cast – how do you justify getting her naked? To stay respectable, you have to use some plot device. Actually, Kelly Brook has been naked in a few films, not very good ones, where some flimsy plot device has been found. But a film director who just said that Kelly Brook looks beautiful naked and he wanted to capture that on screen – that comes across as a bit off, even though it would be perfectly acceptable from a still photographer.

So it goes. Tinto Brass has a reputation as a sleazy old perv, and maybe he is a sleazy old perv, but is what he’s doing essentially all that different from Lucian Freud’s painting? His film Miranda is essentially an extended study of Serena Grandi’s naked form – it’s the fact that it’s in moving pictures and not stills that’s the issue. An analogous example from the Anglophone world would be Nicolas Roeg’s infamous Full Body Massage, which consists of little more than Bryan Brown and Mimi Rogers talking philosophy as Brown rubs oil into Rogers’ breasts. The camera’s lingering on Rogers’ body is an absolutely photographic aesthetic – and it’s no coincidence that Roeg is a cinematographer by background – it’s just not something we’re really used to in film, still less in TV.

Finally, there’s also the question of what you’re trying to say – or if you’re trying to say anything. If you like the commedia all’italiana of the 1960s and 1970s, you’ll know that it’s not just a matter of saucy humour – many of the directors, writers and actors were communists, and had some things they wanted to say about Italian society, bourgeois morality, corruption, religion and so on. To go downmarket, the German B-movie genre of nunsploitation relies on some sort of critique of Catholic morality and sexual repression – well, all right, it’s mostly about actresses in nuns’ habits getting their tits out, but there wouldn’t be much point if it didn’t tap into some social attitudes, if it wasn’t subversive or satirical in some way.

Possibly part of this relates to the consequences of sexual liberation. What used to be transgressive is now commonplace. In the 1970s a drama like Bouquet Of Barbed Wire, centred around extra-marital sex and illegitimacy, could be considered risqué. In times gone by, homosexuality could be used to shock, but now it’s almost totally mainstream. There aren’t many taboos left, and it’s much harder to work in a shock factor. Actually, in strict terms, that may not be a bad thing – if you can’t reach for an easy shock factor, that could create an incentive to write something imaginative. But again, it depends on programme-makers being creative rather than lazy, and on having something to say. American TV drama shows that’s possible – British TV drama is a bit dispiriting at the moment, but it’s hard to imagine that the potential isn’t out there. If only it could be put to some use.

Tangential to this, there’s an interesting discussion of porn over at AVPS.

[1] There is the perennial problem, experienced by everyone from novelists to pornographers, of how to actually present a sex scene that isn’t hackneyed. As gonzo porn auteur Ben Dover says, at this point in his life he can’t tell whether that last anal scene was any good, because it looks indistinguishable from any one of the last hundred he’s done.

[2] This finds expression in the iron rule of horror movies, that the girl who shows most skin dies first, and the one who keeps her top on survives at the end.

[3] My basic objection to SATC is that it’s shoehorning female characters into a gay male fantasy. But then again, millions of women love it. Go figure.

[4] At this point one recalls veteran pornographer David McGillivray quipping that he started to agree with Mary Whitehouse at that point in the 70s when you couldn’t go to the cinema without seeing Robin Askwith’s naked arse. Mind you, it’s not as if McGillivray raised the tone much himself.

[5] Omar’s faithfulness to the Askwith template is remarkable. The basic plot is that Omar finds himself in a situation, like joining a gym or becoming a door-to-door salesman; he meets a woman and engages in some saucy dialogue; he and the woman shag; immediately after the pop shot, there is a loud banging on the door from the woman’s husband/boyfriend/dad; Omar has to flee, running with his knees up in the air like he’s in a Madness video.

[6] We must emphasise here, the classic approach is to examine the whole form – not some airbrushed beauty, but a whole that incorporates the imperfections.

Crackers, cheese and pickled herring

Forgive me for indulging in a little whimsical digression, but I was just thinking there of a scene in The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood where Robin (George Segal) is running after some bad guys, and divers peasants gather round to watch. “Look,” they exclaim, “it’s Ivanhoe!” Whereupon Robin has to stop what he’s doing and patiently explain that Ivanhoe wears black, not green.

And so, by popular demand (well, at least as indicated by the site statistics), we return to the Swips. I’ve been meaning for quite some time to have a look at the Democracy Commission report, because there’s quite a bit in it that’s useful, and perhaps to proffer some constructive thoughts on the matter.

Which feeds into this running theme that on the left, it’s not only a question of what you say and what you do, but how you say and do it. How you say it brings up the importance of tone, and the dreadful frequency of hate speech on the left; there’s also the issue of how we do what we do. If I may, I was struck by something johng said over on SU about this:

The decision to wind down SA and go with Respect was I think a correct decision. The WAY it was done I think was a problem, but at the time (thankfully this is no longer the case) such criticisms would have been regarded as ‘non-political’.

This is, I think, a very important point, regardless of what you think about the proximate issue. Somehow we arrived at this position where, for instance, winning a vote in a campaign to march on this Saturday rather than that one was the “political” issue; while arguing internally about whether it was right to pack a meeting to win that vote was “non-political”. And the extraordinarily un-Leninist view that the internal conduct of the party was the most non-political thing of all. As Cannon explained, in general political questions should take precedence over organisational ones, but the question of the regime is itself a political question.

Which brings me to the DC report, and there’s plenty of meat there. It’s pleasing that the Commission members have taken their job seriously, canvassed a wide range of opinion and obviously had some serious discussions. To be honest, the backlash from the membership post the Respect split probably meant the majority leadership couldn’t have done less, while the Rees-German minority did themselves huge damage – and the party a favour – by setting their faces against democratisation. Let’s skip over the generalisms in the preamble and get stuck in, with the role of the National Committee:

The Democracy Commission believes that the party constitution should be amended [to] make the NC’s decisions binding on the CC. The political reality is that the CC could not ignore or defy NC decisions. Formally recognising this would help highlight the importance of the NC’s role.

At least here we have a recognition that some sort of leadership body is needed that is wider than the dozen or so members of the CC (or even the half-dozen or so core CC members who have been in situ for a very long time). Nor would we want a return to one of the nadirs of the Cliff years, when the NC supinely voted itself out of existence. The task, then, is to have an active and combative NC rather than a rubber stamp – the test will be whether you get an NC with independent-minded members or one full of hand-raisers. There has been sufficient experience of the latter.

What the Respect crisis brought to a head was a tendency on the part of the CC to act on its own, in isolation of the rest of the party – as a vanguard that had lost touch with the rest of the army. What is therefore necessary is a rebalancing of the relationship between the CC and the rest of the party, and, as a crucial part of this, a major strengthening of the role and functioning of the National Committee. This stronger NC should be buttressed by the systematic use of fraction organisation in united fronts as well as trade unions.

But this necessary rebalancing should not be allowed to undermine the importance of the CC as a centralised political leadership that takes the initiative in ‘the national direction of all political and organisational work’. For all the many mistakes the party and the CC have made over the years, the many successes we can be proud of derive crucially from having a strong political leadership.

Translation: the CC can’t go on having the virtually untrammelled power it has hitherto enjoyed, but we don’t want to admit we are actually reducing the power of the CC because that would undermine its authority. Some tweaking of the slate system notwithstanding, it would make sense that the CC would be the body least amenable to reform, no matter what some of its members might prefer.

We then move onto a discussion of the fulltime organisers, and generous tribute is paid to these people who work very hard for very little material reward. It’s not surprising, when virtually the entire CC is made up of fulltimers, with only Lord Callinicos representing the lay membership. But this is an area where serious attention needs to be paid, and where things have been got badly wrong in the past. So we have a defence of the idea that organisers are centrally appointed by the CC, and a dismissal of the old IS practice of electing them:

If we accept that the main role of the organiser is to push through the areas of activity prioritised by the CC, then the organiser must surely be, answerable to, and replaceable by, the CC, not the local comrades.

District Organisers must be able to win respect and support in their districts, but that is not the same thing as winning a popularity contest. If a section of the cadre of a district fall into opposition the organiser should ordinarily be fighting for the agreed national position, not that of local dissidents.

Having said that, a district organiser should be alert to the mood of their district, should have respect for the comrades within it, and be able to feel free to bring concerns from the district back to the CC.

That is as may be, but comrades will be well aware of the culture that exists whereby organisers like to see themselves as the CC’s enforcers in the districts, whose job description does not involve being alert to the local mood but rather stamping on any signs of independence. Moreover, I would argue that, if you’re not going to allow local members to elect their organiser, it would be nice if there was a procedure whereby the local members could vote no confidence in their organiser and remove him. There have been far too many cases of organisers behaving destructively and being backed up by the centre as a matter of course for the comrades to be blithe about this.

Finally some representations from members have talked about organisers not treating members with respect. It is vital that organisers take seriously Cliff’s maxim that every member is gold dust. Members should be treated in a comradely manner at all times.

(Laughs hollowly…) It would also be nice if the central leadership, who are supposed to set an example, took that maxim seriously. And in fact, the comrades seem more concerned about the feelings of the fulltimers:

Having said that, this is a two way process. Comrades in Districts must afford the organiser the same level of respect and comradeship that they would expect to receive. Often the organiser will be young, dedicated, and enthusiastic but will not have the experience of some of the district cadre. However anyone using that experience to patronise, belittle, or undermine the organiser is certainly acting outside the spirit of our tradition.

Given the real balance of forces in the organisation, this is almost grotesque. I have seen, for instance, a 25-year-old organiser literally screaming in the face of a comrade twice her age who thought he had a better idea of what was happening in his own union. I have known an experienced organiser who made it his practice to arrive at meetings half an hour late, then to announce that what had been discussed up to that point could be forgotten about because he had fresh instructions from the centre. Or there are countless stories about organisers who will behave in an arrogant way towards local campaigns when they have only just arrived in an area and really don’t have a clue what is going on. Not that I want to belittle good and dedicated organisers, but this sort of thing is much too common to be put down to a few disgruntled members who don’t get on with their organisers.

Partly it’s a question of getting the right people in the right jobs. If Martin Smith asked me, for instance, I could tell him that Comrade X would make a brilliant industrial organiser but should on no account be put in charge of a party district, and if he was put in charge of a district it would soon become a hotbed of dissidence. It would also be an idea to try and avoid appointing people with severe personality disorders. Organisers should be encouraged to have some modesty and humility, to be good listeners above all, and not to regard themselves as pocket commissars sent out to whip the stage army into shape. Of course, the CC sets the tone here.

There is further discussion about CC members operating in “united fronts”, where the uncharitable might be tempted to see a reference to the factionalists at Stop the War; some sensible stuff about industrial and student fractions; and a rambling discussion about use of t’internet, which at least marks an advance on the days when Alex Callinicos was arguing that anyone working with a VDU was middle class. There is here too a belated acknowledgement that technology has vitiated some of the old practices of secrecy – all right, there is some genuinely sensitive information about finance or people’s personal details, but I’ve never seen why political arguments had to be kept secret. If your conference bulletins are going to be leaked to the Weekly Worker anyway, why not publish the bloody things? Indeed, if memory serves the party did publish its pre-conference bulletins as a supplement to Socialist Review at some point in the 1980s.

Oh, and I can’t pass by this pure piece of comedy gold, about the fraternal conduct of discussions:

We debate in order to decide and act – and (this) in no way precludes vigorous political argument, but vigorous political argument should not include personal denigration or abuse. There should also be some regard for proportionality: erring, i.e. Minority, comrades should not in general be crushed to the point of humiliation. All party meetings – branch, district, national, CC , conference – should be conducted and chaired with this in mind.

Quite. But my view is that the culture will be much more difficult to change than the formal rules, and the culture of the organisation has some deeply weird features which new members often take several years to figure out. One is that, for an organisation whose formal politics are all about spontaneity and the rank and file and socialism from below – and an organisation that doesn’t have much in the way of formal structures – the SWP is intensely conscious of status and pecking order. And this seems to have no rhyme nor reason to it.

If I may, let’s compare the Socialist Party, whose structures in some ways echo those of the official labour movement. It would be absurd to say there was no pecking order in the SP, but it’s a more or less transparent one, where status is conferred by belonging to various party bodies – national, regional or branch leadership, various specialist roles etc – and is closely linked to experience and time served. I may joke about Peter Taaffe being general secretary for 45 years and counting, but it makes sense in that Peter has been around longer than just about anyone else and has a unique breadth of experience. And people who have been in both the SWP and SP comment that in the SP, for all its more overt formality, it’s much easier to fraternise with the leadership. (This was not the case in the heyday of Militant, but that’s another story.)

No, you have quite a weird set-up where there is the formal central leadership, elected (almost always in an uncontested election) at conference, below that there are the appointed organisers who sort of function as feudal fiefs in their districts, and below that a very informal, miasmic set-up of cliques, personal relationships, informal networks and shifting in and out groups. This is why, by the way, disciplinary procedures often seem so arbitrary – if you belong to the in group you can get away with almost anything, if you belong to the out group then the slightest infraction can see you being summarily kicked out. And if you move from the in group to the out group… well, look at John Rees being pilloried for things that his latter-day opponents defended for years.

This comes into play with the current faction fight. I commend the position of Comrade Harrods, and will add a few points of my own. Some comrades are arguing at this point that there are two tasks facing the SWP – the first is to defeat the Rees-German faction, the second is to get away from the practice of using disciplinary procedures to resolve political arguments. I think the two of these are distinct tasks, and at some points may be antagonistic.

The factional issue, for me, should be about politics rather than personalities. When it comes to John and Lindsey, I really don’t give a stuff if they retain their membership or not come February. But there is a strong argument that the party needs to make a break from the sort of RCP-style voluntarism they have come to represent. (Which was also present to some considerable extent under Cliff, although the CC’s need to do a Thomas à Kempis On The Imitation Of Cliff routine may stop them fully acknowledging that.) I’d be in favour of that as a precondition of a more healthy organisation, the same way as the Catholic Church in Ireland will never renew itself unless it makes a definitive break from Jansenism – though there’s a similar issue of whether you really can purge something so encoded in the DNA.

Now, on the issue of discipline. There are, as we know, formal procedures. I used to know control commission chair Pat Stack reasonably well, and can attest that Pat is a thoroughly decent comrade who will weigh each case on its merits, and in no way allow himself to be influenced by hating John Rees’ guts. Pat, I am certain, will be sure that minority supporters will get a fair trial before being hanged.

But it’s telling that we can even be flippant about such matters. There’s such a thing, you know, as the slippery slope, and in the case of IS I think it can probably be traced back to Cliff’s bright idea in 1968 to bring John O’Mahoney into the group. It is a mark of the then liberal regime in IS that it took three whole years to get rid of the Mahoneyites when Healy and Grant had taken far less time to dispense with John’s services; it is also true that the regime was much less liberal when they left. (John, of course, has long since graduated from serial expellee to expeller himself.) After that there’s a constant search for “tightening”, with the so-called Right Opposition (progenitors of the later RCG and RCP) being expelled for no reason I can recall other than being a pain in the arse; the big purges of the mid-70s; then, what should have rung serious alarm bells if nothing else had, the “squadist” purge. I say this not to defend the squads, who really were a menace, but to point out that there was no squadist faction, the ideology of “squadism” was almost entirely a straw man of Cliff’s own construction, and by their own account those who went on to form Red Action had no contact with each other until after their expulsion. Sending them expulsion letters in prison was a particular low.

So the current fight takes place in an atmosphere where the leadership hasn’t had to face a factional challenge for maybe thirty years, and where the apparat has become accustomed to expulsion as a way of ensuring political homogeneity. This is not good. Even from the cosmetic viewpoint, expulsions look bad unless there’s a very good reason for them. Expulsions are dumb politics in a faction fight. They are doubly dumb if they are done ahead of conference on vague grounds of “factionalism”, where there is a recognised faction. (I don’t know the details of Alex or Clare‘s cases, but as an outsider there’s nothing that looks compelling to me.) There may be a certain Sopranos appeal in sending a message to John and Lindsey by picking off their followers, but it still looks really bad. Nor does it cut much ice to point out that the current “Left Platform” were the people who resisted the Democracy Commission and all its works and pomps. John and Lindsey as born-again democrats may look absurd, but a leadership that manages to turn them into martyrs would be really congenitally stupid, and only serve to prove to outsiders that the shiny new regime of Democratic Martinism is more of the same.

Again, it’s not just a question of what you do, but how you do it. As Madam Miaow is fond of pointing out, Trotsky wrote a book called Their Morals And Ours, not Their Morals And We Ain’t Got None. A break from the bad habits of the past does not necessarily require John Rees’ head on a stick, though that may be an incidental bonus; more heartening would be a demonstrative break from this cod-Machiavellian attitude that says that, once the correct line is decided, all methods are righteous in pushing it through. If John wants to be a martyr, it would be dumb to give him an alibi; the smart move would be to let him immolate himself. Selah.

Soldiers of Fortune gain toehold at Stormont

Bearing in mind the torrid time Fianna Fáil are having in the polls south of the border, it must raise Biffo Cowen’s spirits a little that FF has now acquired its first representative in the northern assembly, and it’s even better that it has managed to do so without actually having to fight an election. This is Enniskillen man Gerry McHugh, a PSF veteran who resigned from his former party a couple of years back making various noises about the undemocratic regime in the Provos. Whether he will find FF more free and easy remains to be seen.

The odd thing is when you look at Gerry’s stated reasons for going independent. As a staunch peace process man for many years, he obviously wasn’t all that much of a hardline republican – there is, I know, something of an RSF subculture in Fermanagh, and those guys always regarded him as a backslider. But he did allow himself to sound slightly dissident:

At the time he said the direction Sinn Fein was taking was “more about appeasement of the British government and administrating British rule in Ireland rather than working towards the end of British occupation”.

Now, you can say those things and not be a militarist, because such a political stance doesn’t necessarily imply support for armed struggle. But it doesn’t sound very much like constitutional nationalism to me. If anything, such a position minus the physical force element would put you in the Blaney-Boland tradition which has almost died out within FF. And what is Gerry’s rationale for his latest move?

The 52-year-old, who represents the Fermanagh/South Tyrone constituency, told the BBC he believed the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland were “quite confined” in their ability to deliver a united Ireland.

In comparison he said Fianna Fail had “the strength and political ability” to create a united Ireland.

That’s assuming they even want to. It’s odd that, while Fine Gael and Labour started out as all-Ireland parties and shrank back to the Saorstát, FF was formed precisely as a 26-county party. Their recent move north is somewhat puzzling, and I still can’t quite grasp the logic. As a vote of no confidence in the long-term future of the South Down and Londonderry Party, yes. As a low-cost bone to throw whatever elements of sentimental republicanism remain within FF, possibly. As a gambit to deal with a possible electoral threat from the Provos down south, I suppose. It still looks very quixotic though, even more so than the Tory-Unionist lash-up.

But that’s just me not getting what Biffo Cowen is at. Gerry McHugh I can understand. He’s a desperate man, and has nowhere else to go (though I note he still intends to sit as an Independent MLA). But he’ll find some interesting company in his new party, what with Harvey Bicker and all…