Summary: Trevor Griffiths, The Party, 1974

The Party was commissioned by the National Theatre and opened at the Old Vic in London in 1973. Lawrence Olivier played Trotskyite John Tagg in his final stage role.

The Party (1974) depicts a socialist meeting in London that coincides with the early Paris student riots. Reading it in 2020 drives home just how far the unresolved conflicts of the 1968 events continue to define political discourse. These tensions are embodied by two different understandings of twentieth century history, one articulated by middle class sociologist Andrew Ford and the other by his foil, taciturn Trotskyite Joe Tagg. Their monologue and counter-monologue comprise the play’s conceptual backbone, setting up a ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis’ between orthodox socialism (Tagg) and the theoretical innovations of the 1960s New Left (Ford) — one that dominates the play as much as it does contemporary leftism.

Andrew Ford’s arguments and social position marks him out as a representative of the emergent New Left. His speech on Marxist theory and contemporary global capitalism draws heavily on Marcuse. The mollifying effects of the culture industry on working class consciousness was unforeseen by Marx: ‘We cannot avoid taking some account of the..hegemonic mechanisms through which that …inhibition of revolutionary potential was achieved…a vastly more powerful and pervasive system of propaganda…educational institutions, art forms, newspapers, television’.[1] These new diffuse apparatuses of power call for new forms of organising: leaderless movements and European solidarity with the global peripheries.

Contra Ford, Tagg insists working class consciousness has remained central to twentieth century European history: ‘the absence of revolution is not final evidence of the elimination of revolutionary potential’. Leftists must therefore ask why it is not maturing into revolution and how this might be redressed. For Tagg, Marcuse’s analysis simply forecloses political intervention. His docile image of the European working class is an admission of defeat, a ‘final refutation of Marx’s contention that capitalist societies were class societies whose inherent tensions and contradictions necessarily result in their supersession’. If working class radicalism has been extinguished, ‘we might as well take up chess or billiards, because there will be no way in which we can effect the transition we’ve been talking about’.[2]

For Ford, the solution to the revolutionary impasse are movements in the Global South.[3] Tagg however argues that fashionable third-Worldism reflects the psychology of the bourgeois intellectual more than it does political reality. It is a projection of the intellectual’s impotence upon workers within their own borders: ‘your protest is verbal…you can’t strike and refuse to handle American cargoes. You’re outside the productive process’.[4] The new focus on Third-Worldism and sexual identity is a futile bid to find ‘some repressed minority still capable of anger’.[5] Joe Tagg’s socialist orthodoxies, class background and moral fervour clearly set him apart from his well-heeled comrades, a distance he underlines throughout his speech by addressing the guests as an othered ‘you’ rather than a collective ‘we’.[6]

This dialectic is resolved with a final ‘synthesis’ from Sloman, an alcoholic playwright represented by Joe. Sloman recalls his father, a ‘model worker’, whose sudden redundancy sparked an anger that could not have been fired by discussing the finer points of labour history. It is the mundane hardships of social reality, not theory, that continues to forge working class radicalism despite the tools of propaganda. Yet, while Sloman locates revolutionary potential in the ordinary masses, he also argues that the working class cannot decide when their revolution will succeed — this can only be decided by material conditions. Thus, while dismissing Ford’s abstractions, he equally rejects Tagg’s devotion to the party, least of all the party of the Trotskyites which ‘doesn’t bend for anything, least of all events. If reality doesn’t come up to scratch, it’s rejected’.[7] Despite being maligned by the rest of the guests except for Joe and Tagg, Sloman and his critique is lent some gravitas by his position as a malcontent or jester figure. His drunken brashness frees him from the norms that govern the others, allowing him to criticise beyond the constraints of both bourgeois civility and ideological principle.

Still, the fact that the final synthesis is voiced by a drunkard poses a sobering question: what comes after the party? This uncertainty owes to the fact that the arguments made for each ideological position are cogent and convincing. The play does not make a singular case for any one of them — our participants certainly could not decide between them. Therefore, although Tagg’s principled clarity makes him the moral centre of the play, the work’s overall tone is better captured by Joe Shawcross’s self-doubt. If Ford and Tagg represent opposite ideological poles, Joe — the apartment owner and host of the evening — is torn between them. As a socialist TV producer with working class origins, he struggles to come to terms with bourgeois success and hates himself for being unable to enact his principles. For example, despite his reticence to fund his brother’s ‘capitalist enterprise’, he ‘looks away’ when Sloman tells him to simply refuse the request for capital.

This pessimism is even apparent from the play’s introductory scene. Here, an omniscient Groucho Marx character delivers a monologue underneath flashing media images of left wing movements. This self-consciously theatrical scene eschews the work’s dominant naturalism to offer a meditation on the deceptive character of the symbolic. He quotes Marx on political language: ‘revolutionary phrase-making is a disease from which revolutionary parties suffer at times when the course of revolutionary events is marked by big, rapid zigzags. By revolutionary phrase-making we mean the repetition of revolutionary slogans irrespective of objective circumstances’.[8] Then, he recites a monologue from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens describing the alchemical quality of money, a substance that makes ‘black white; foul fair; Wrong right; base noble’.[9] Here, the symbolic realm is epitomised by language and monetary currency — those engines of the culture industry which employs most of the meeting’s guests and is unflatteringly personified by the Groucho Marx himself. This distrust of media and mediation spans the rest of the play. Early media news of the Paris student riots filters in during the evening, lending a historic aura to the debates that unfold. Although guests sense their significance, they can only obtain piecemeal information via TV and telephone. The historical perspective of the left-wing intelligentsia is bounded by the perimeters of news media, a metaphor for their self-referential insularity.

We questioned why a British play written in 1974 was so presciently pessimistic about left-wing prospects. Everything remained possible in the 1970s: Thatcher was an outsider and Labour’s Wilson was preferred by the defining liberal media voice, The Economist. Edward Heath’s Conservative government had just been ousted by the miner’s strikes. The play is perhaps a eulogy for party discipline, eclipsed by the libertarian instincts of 1968. As Tagg would point out, any bid for power is bound to fail without resilient, long-term structures for collective action. Indeed, party-adjacent social movements only became visible in recent British politics with the advent of Corbyn. However, our discussion also noted that while Tagg’s party socialism offers a clear strategy, New Left positions about class fragmentation are undoubtedly accurate despite its lack of prescriptive clarity. Attempts to bridge the divide between left universalism and particularism continue.

[1] Trevor Griffiths, The Party, Faber & Faber, London, 1974, 38

[2] Griffiths, 1974, 51

[3] Ibid., 39

[4] Ibid., 48

[5] Ibid., 48

[6] Ibid., 48

[7] Ibid., 70

[8] Ibid., 10

[9] Ibid., 10

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A reading group on political economy & working class history. Twitter: @blacklamprg / E-mail: blacklamprg@mail.com

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A reading group on political economy & working class history. Twitter: @blacklamprg / E-mail: blacklamprg@mail.com