Sunday, November 28, 2004

A Socialist of Another Country is a Fellow Patriot

The slogan a friend of mine once had above his marital bed, along with a mural of Lenin and Connolly, and which leads me nicely to a germane autobiographical anecdote.

Back in the early 80s I was a very sweet and ridiculously dogmatic Marxist, thanks to one year's A level sociology (grade A) and a childhood spent in Solihull surrounded by rich bastards who looked down on anyone, like my mom and dad, who were factory workers. By the time I got to the LSE, I was strident, naive, and horny, a dangerous combination, all the moreso in a student on a grant in the big city for the first time in his life.

It was on a march against health service redundancies that I met members of the WRP, expressed an interest in Leninism, and was gradually, over the next few months, brought into their sphere of influence, selling Young Socialist and The Newsline around the Chalk Hill housing estate in Wembley, attending conferences on Tebbit's employment bill, and so on. Fortunately, the attraction didn't last very long, but I hung around with them and attended enough rallies, protests, marches, and conferences to discover that each of the leftist parties attracts a specific character type: the SWP recruited students, I suppose on the supposition that they might be a vanguard one day; the RCP recruited social climbers who wanted as little as possible to do with the working class; and the WRP recruited, well, let me just recommend that you read Harvey M. Cleckley's book on psychopaths, The Mask of Sanity, available as a free download here. It offers a very close and scary approximation of the sorts of people I encountered.

Over the next year or so I drifted away from Marxism, met members of Solidarity, developed my enduring interest in Castoriadis and the non-Marxist left, and began to call myself an anarchist. But the WRP hadn't finished fucking with my head yet.

On a protest march against the Falklands War I found myself in the immediate location of a WRP contingent, one of whom I recognized straight away from picket lines because of his parka (parkas in those days were the uniform of the WRP; thermos flask was an option) and his appalling haircut that would have seen him drummed out of the RCP automatically. He was engaged in an argument with a fellow protester who was having difficulty getting his head round his disputant's attitude to the war. Most marchers, I think it is fair to assume, objected to the idea of war, but my erstwhile comrade was stating, in a principled way but also, I could tell, with some pride, that he wanted to see as many British soldiers killed as possible. His reasoning was simple: "The British army is not a workers' army." It is there to defend the interests of the bourgeoisie.

It was my first encounter with revolutionary defeatism. He went on to argue that the more British soldiers there were killed, the greater the likelihood was of a crisis in confidence in the British state and the closer we might get to a revolution in the U.K., which could trigger off comparable upheavals on the Continent. It thus made sense to hope for a defeat of the British state in the Falklands.

The chap arguing with him was horrified by the suggestion, as was I, but in reflection what struck me, for the first time, was the stakes we were playing for. These people were serious revolutionaries (not that they NOT psychopaths in the way Cleckley means, since they clearly were), not innocent working-class kids with a chip on their shoulder. They meant business.

It was the defining experience for me of the revolutionary left. Of course, I understood that a revolution isn't a game of tennis. That revolutions have always involved a vicious struggle for power, involving violence, betrayals, torture. But it did make me wonder whether I was really up for that, whether the means could justify the ends and whether I was capable of killing or withstanding torture. No to both, I'm afraid.

But it also made me think: "Do I want to live in a society run by these people? Joyless, humourless, ruthless." It brought to mind Emma Goldman's declaration, "I won't be a part of your revolution if I can't dance." Given the choice between hedonism and violence, give me the former every time (and for the next five years, when I went to work in a diecasting factory, I'm afraid to say, hedonism became the norm, when really I should have been spreading revolution).

But with greater reflection, it also made me wonder this. Were there socialists in Argentina like our man here, arguing that the best thing that could happen was a defeat for the British because of the revolution it could precipitate in Europe? Well, of course not. Argentinean socialists were hoping for a defeat of the fascist junta. They were hoping it would precipitate not revolution but democracy.

You can see the problem with revolutionary defeatism right there. Had there been a consistent, international socialist position, according to which we should support defeat in the most "advanced" countries in the hope of bringing the revolution forward, (leaving aside for the time being whether or not a war is defensive or aggressive), it would have meant socialists in Argentina calling for victory for the fascist generals and the defeat of the British state. Unpalatable, I think; imagine if the roles had been reversed and you, as a revolutionary socialist, were being asked to support Thatcher and to contribute to her war effort.

Anyway, all this is by way of an introduction to this stunning set of extracts from the memoir of Aghis Stinas, Memoirs — Sixty Years under the Flag of Socialist Revolution.

Stinas was a Communist Party member in Greece between the wars who became a Trotskyist without knowing what Trotskyism really was and, when he and his group found out that Trotsky's position on the Second World War was defence of the Soviet Union, which meant taking sides in an imperialist war, they were horrified and stopped calling themselves Trotskyists.

I called these memoirs stunning principally because they are a reminder that, in some circles, the Second World War is definitely not regarded as "the good war," or "the just war" that all good socialists could participate in with an easy conscience because it was "the war against fascism." Here are some extracts below, to give you a flavour of the book. These are my favourite quotations, helping to demonstrate (1) the incredible commitment Stinas had to ideological consistency and (2) how delusional an individual can become when political philosophies are taken to their logical conclusion. But more, this book also reveals, I think, the attraction of radical ideologies to the psychopathic personality, or rather, why it is that psychopaths can comfortably espouse radical ideologies that might call for appalling violence and massive social upheaval, in a way that most normal people would recoil at: Psychopaths have an emotional detachment from the world and from the consequences of their actions and statements that render the possibility of carnage nothing more to them than, well, a game of tennis. My WRP comrades fitted that pattern impeccably.

"There is no 'particular problem of a tactical nature' for the working class of a country which may be allied to the USSR, and the call for 'Defence of the USSR' loses all its practical value in a world war, and can only create confusion. Those comrades who maintain to the contrary must quote us some concrete 'particular problems.' If they cannot, they give us the right to say that they are deliberately trying to smuggle the idea of an 'anti-fascist war' into the party. The duty of a 'workers' state,' whose destiny will be determined in a decisive fashion by the ability of the world working class to put an end to this frightful war by a revolution, is to help the world working class accomplish this task, to denounce the aims of the brigands of war from both sides, and to call upon the workers of the belligerent peoples to join hands against their executioners and to proclaim that their army serves to toughen, encourage, and to give hope to the revolutionary working class."

"Two days later, with a typewriter and a duplicator which we had managed to get hold of, Tamtakos and I worked all night on printing the first publication of the group, in a hovel in Aigaleo. This was without exaggeration the first clear and limpid voice of socialist revolution in the nightmarish conditions of the second imperialist war, perhaps not only in Greece but in the whole world."

"In the place of the slogans of nationalist hatred were those immortal slogans of fraternisation between peoples, of the transformation of the fratricidal war between peoples into a war of peoples against their exploiters. The workers read the wall slogans and the tracts with an undeniable sympathy: "It is capitalism in its entirety which is responsible for the carnage, devastation and chaos, and not just one of the two sides!"; "Fraternisation of peoples and soldiers against the executioners who are killing the peoples!"; "Fraternisation of Greek workers and Italian and German soldiers in the common struggle for socialism!"; "National unity is nothing but the submission of the workers to their exploiters!"; "Only the overthrow of capitalism will save world peace!"; "Long live the world socialist revolution!"

"Today we know that no other group in the world defended the principles of revolutionary defeatism with such clarity, courage and intransigence during the nightmare of the second imperialist carnage. Without doubt no other group had displayed an activity similar to, or on the same scale as, ours in conditions where death dogged our every step. We had been the only political group in the whole world who, in conditions infinitely more difficult and more dangerous than in 1914-1918, had continued the heroic tradition of Luxemburg and Liebknecht."

and lest I leave you with the impression that he was completely off his head:

"Trotsky was the most incompetent and the most incapable theoretician of socialist revolution. He was one of the principal leaders who, by their words and deeds, by 'dialectic' and machine guns, barred the way to revolution and placed the workers under the yoke once again."

Great stuff.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Great Welsh Things #2

Omitted from 100 Welsh Heroes. Martin Ace.

...and the list goes on.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Our New Home

You'll notice that we have moved to this new location from our old address (see left "Previous Incarnation"). This is not a sign of any change in policy or personnel. We shall continue to endeavour to bring you the best in irreverentia and irrelevantia. And neologia.

Film Review of the Decade

I just had to share this one with you. It's a review by Nathan Lee and appears in Film Comment magazine:

Anatomy of Hell
Catherine Breillat, France, 2004

"At its worst, which is fairly awful, Catherine Breillat's sex-shock cinema highlights the pat in epater le bourgeoisie. Her latest, Anatomy of Hell, doesn't so much straddle the fine line between art and porn as balance, bleeding, on the knife's edge between trenchant and pretentious. Let's start with the film's patronizing disclaimer: "A film is an illusion, not reality-fiction or a happening: it is a true work of fiction." Didn't James Cameron already make True Lies? "For the actress's most intimate scenes, a body double was used. It's not her body; it's an extension of a fictional character." Okay, I get it. The private parts we're about to confront in massive close-up don't actually belong to Amira Casar ("the Woman") but to her body double, Pauline Hunt, whom I hereby nominate for best supporting vagina of the year.

As Gaspar NoĆ© taught us, the gates to hell can be found inside raunchy gay clubs. It's to one such disco inferno that the Woman goes to slit her wrists. Was it the popper fumes and the slutty Gaultier tank tops that drove her into the abyss? Nope: "Because I'm a woman"' will suffice. Luckily, a concerned Man (Rocco Siffredi) intervenes, helps bandage her up, and chaperones her on a stroll through her murky Walpurgisnacht. Woman thanks Man with a blow job and a job offer. As an "impartial" audience, she'll pay him to spend several nights at her cliffside mansion critiquing her exposed flesh. “Watch me where I'm unwatchable.” The key word here, in more ways than one, is “unwatchable.” What follows is a quasi-Sadean scenario spread—and I do mean spread—over three nights.

The first night vividly one-ups Gustave Courbet's epochal crotch-canvas, The Origin of the World, and posits a bold companion piece: Fingerbanging the Origin of the World. Night two dispenses with dialogue ("Your words are inept reproaches!") before sounding the swampy depths of the Woman's unmentionables with a garden tool-cum-tuning fork. Night three is an extended meditation on the use of bloody tampons as tea bags. We can be thankful, at least, that the Woman doesn't offer "biscuits." Meanwhile, the ocean outside is "roiling like a bitch in heat," and audiences are starting to roll their eyes.

Personally, as a member of the so-called impartial fraternity, I haven't had this much exposure to a vulva since I was born. So let me come clean: the moist, hairy spectacles of Anatomy of Hell made me say, "Ew!" Busted, homo! Breillat's honorable, if cartoonishly executed, idea here may be to deconstruct this "ew" through the Siffredi surrogate, to verbalize the suppressed thoughts of those who find girl-bits a "malevolent frivolity." And these would be what? Rapists? Psychopaths? Bisexuals? Skanky Italian porn stars? Men in general? Maybe beneath our civilized veneer all men have an urge to ring the thing in lipstick, sodomize the brown bunny, revel in the icky compulsion of the female mess. Maybe, ladies, when your gay says, "Cute skirt!" what he really means is, "You have a froglike obscenity between your legs."

Despite his archetypal credit, Siffredi's incoherent allegorical status—not to mention his line delivery—is only the most glaring deformation of this Anatomy. Cutting from a garish wooden crucifix to a slow pan down Casar's torso is a close runner-up. Breillat's one good trick is to subvert the odalisque motif: Anatomy of Hell is laughable in a movie theater, but it might work up some tawdry Dada vibes as a DVD loop hung between Ingres's Grand Odalisque and the notorious Courbet. Beyond that, her intentions beat me—over the head with the collected works of Foucault. I propose that we set up a roundtable with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jack Valenti, and the ghost of Bataille and check back next issue."

Smoke but no fire

If you've been unfortunate enough to catch the BBC2 "comedy" The Smoking Room, you'll understand what I mean by this heading. Here is a show whose only socially redeeming features seem to be depicting smokers as losers. Other than that, I suppose the fact that it's a mere 30 minutes a week of purgatory must count for something. And I mean purgatory. The Smoking Room is Sartre's Huis Clos but with fewer laughs.

I caught an episode last week, which appeared to revolve around the recitation of B-list vulgarities (such as 'beaver' and 'tits'), a few 'humourous' references to sexually transmitted diseases, and a particularly retarded security guard who seemed to bear a grudge against Ant and Dec. Well, what's so cutting edge about that? Doesn't everyone?

Most smokers I know are actually rather interesting people, but not until now did I realize, thanks to this programme, that they only function at their best in a country like Ireland, which frowns on their antisocial habit and treats them as pariahs. Smokers in my immediate circle are without exception nonconformists, with a sly, self-deprecating sense of humour and a willingness to think outside the box - and the office. I confess I enjoy their company, and it's fair to say that memories of nights out with them always linger (cue cheap smell joke).

Anyhoo, on the bright side, at least the show has given me a new slogan for BBC 3, which is apparently where this monstrous concoction originated:

BBC 3 - Home of the Easy Laugh.

You heard it here first.

Can't Argue With That

Ireland, the best place in the world to live.

That's the Wife Sorted for Christmas, then

But I bet it's a spot in the back that she can't reach herself. Typical.