I recently wrote something like this: Frank Furedi and his cult have probably been more influential than any other bit of the British far left in the last decade. Although some of this influence has undoubtedly been for the good, some of it has been very malignant. They give a veneer of intellectual respectability to denialism about climate change, have acted as PR agents for the agribusiness, airline and pharmaceutical industries, aided and abetted AIDS denialism and its enormous death toll in Africa, given succour to Serb nationalism at its most aggressive, helped Boris Johnson capture London, provided ideological cover for cuts in the funding for arts, reduced the number of decent free festivals in the parks of London*, and, arguably, are the architects of David Cameron's election victory. Or am I paranoid?
Some time after I wrote it, but before I published it, I sent Jogo, Bob’s American correspondent, an article Furedi wrote about the left/liberal hysteria surrounding the Pope’s visit to the UK. Furedi’s article was brilliantly written, and accurately skewered an unsavoury tendency that elsewhere A Very Public Sociologist has aptly named atheism as the “identity politics of the liberal intelligentsia”. Jogo, understandably, was much taken by Furedi.
This post, following on from this one, is written as part of the on-going attempt, if this is not too pompous a way of putting it, to triangulate Bobism against some of the political positions abutting it. Here, I attempt to think through the way Furedi and his followers can be so correct about some things, and so harmfully wrong about others, and how this makes me think about my own politics.
For those who don't know what I’m talking about, Frank Furedi is an academic, once a member of Tony Cliff’s unorthodox Trotskyist party, the International Socialists (fore-runners of today’s Socialist Workers Party). Furedi left the IS “in 1975 on issues that remain obscure to all concerned”. His grouplet split, with his co-sectarian and fellow academic David Yaffe leading a rival groupuscule into the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG), which became the ne plus ultra of mad anti-imperialism, while Furedi eventually took the hardly original title Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). We need not be concerned here with the zigs and zags of the RCP as it sought to identify its unique selling point in the small and crowded market of the British far left.
I’ll take up the story where I first encountered the RCP: at the end of the 1980s, when they were a colourful presence in the student movement and, clipboards in hand, selling their magazine around Covent Garden, on a prime pitch now occupied by the Big Issue. The RCP were then known for the graphic pzazz of their magazine Living Marxism, by the uber-trendy hairstyles of the cadre, and by their ultra-contrarian political positions. Among the latter: AIDS is a state conspiracy to regulate the sexuality of the working class, a position I took particular offence at, as I then moved in a pretty metrosexual milieu in which people were dying of the disease. This was just before Furedi announced the party’s “turn to the suburbs”.
Moving away from student politics, I lost sight of the RCP until sometime later in the 1990s, when Living Marxism had been re-branded LM. A colleague of my girlfriend’s was a member. I remember her drunkenly engaging some well-meaning middle class liberal in a conversation at a work do. Every liberal platitude uttered was met with satisfying scorn. “Isn’t it terrible how America lets anyone have a gun?” “Actually, I think only guns give us rights.” “Oh...” A little later, something about healthy eating and the rise of obesity. “Actually, I think people should be allowed to eat whatever the fuck they like and I can’t stand moralistic snobs lecturing them about it.” “Oh...” Later, something about South Africa. “Actually, I think Nelson Mandela is a wanker.” And so on. In that moment, I was almost won over to the RCP.
However, meanwhile, the RCP had sank to one of its lowest moments: denying the existence of the horrific Serbian ethnic cleansing camps at Trnopolje. This incident is well described and analysed in a fascinating recent piece by Jenny Turner in the London Review of Books. The article frames the incident in terms of LM editor Brendan O’Neill’s personal politics of ressentiment, the hubristic overreach of LM as a magazine, and the fatal logic of “anti-imperialism”.
“That LM found itself denying that Serbian ethnic cleansing happened was, as Campbell sees it, an inadvertent consequence of their knee-jerk anti-imperialism, an ethical ‘paucity’ – shallow, canalised, one-sided – that tends to be the consequence of an ‘absolutist view’ of free speech, and their ‘historical illiteracy’. It subsequently emerged that Deichmann [the author of the libellous article] thought Trnopolje couldn’t be described as a ‘concentration camp’ because it didn’t have a gas chamber.
Turner also makes the interesting point (although she doesn’t make much of it) that the RCP were never Marxist and never socialist.
“The RCP wasn’t really interested in working-class struggle, or Third World liberation struggles, or any other wretched-of-the-earth-type struggle at all. ‘Although I only became aware of this much later,’ one 1980s RCPer wrote recently, ‘young RCP comrades … were by and large simply not socialists.’ Don Milligan, an academic and gay activist, ran an RCP branch in the 1980s. He doesn’t think the party leadership were ‘socialists either’ but ‘Leninists of the purist kind’, ‘driven mad by the glamour of the October Revolution’, a tiny, super cool vanguard, ‘seizing the bridle of the Revolution and riding it into power’."
The party closed itself down in the wake of the Trnopolje incident (it formally liquidated itself in 1997), and went deep underground. Murray’s article shows how its cult-like operation (comparable to the LaRouche cult) continues despite the formal non-existence of the party. Its main outlet is the influential and highly readable Spiked website.
One thing Murray oddly doesn’t mention is the extent to which the underground ex-RCP has carried out a classic “entrist” operation in a completely new arena, the British Conservative Party. Nick Cohen has written that “conservative readers will be pleased that the former RCP now offers them what they used to find in the Tory press or hear from the lips of saloon-bar philosophers at the 19th hole.” Cohen also notes that this convergence goes back some time.
“As Monbiot noted, the RCP won support from, and published the views of, the most extreme advocates of free-market capitalism - the Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain, and the Cato Institute and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise in the United States. In the 1990s, it opposed poll tax demonstrators, the anti-apartheid movement and trade union campaigns against public spending cuts. It supported Neil Hamilton, global warming, GM foods and "heroic" fat cats. It was, to slip into Marxist jargon, "objectively" a part of the Tory party.
Cohen even suggests that their support for Serbian atrocities fits the pattern: “The black propaganda of a Major government, determined to placate Slobodan Milosevic, included many whispers that the Bosnians were massacring themselves to provoke Nato strikes against the Serbs. The Conservatives got away with it. Living Marxism, alas, wasn't so lucky.”
The thinktank Policy Exchange appear to be the nexus between the ex-RCP and the Conservative Party. Policy Exchange was set up in 2002 by Michael Gove and others, and played a major part in pulling the Tory party out of its post-Thatcher slow death. As Wikipedia puts it, it “describes itself as seeking localist, volunteer and free market solutions to public policy problem” and thus contributed to the shift in Conservative thinking towards the Big Society big idea, and the whole re-branding under Cameron of the Tories as “progressive” party.
The Cameron project (like the New Labour project) is politically incoherent, combining elements of messy-haired libertarianism that feels appealing after years of hectoring, nanny-ish Blair and Brown with the harder communitarianism of Ian Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, the vaguely liberal platitudes of Philip Blonde’s red Toryism, and the steely neoconservatism of Douglas Murray’s Centre for Social Cohesion. It is, arguably, this incoherence that makes Cameroonian Conservativism an appealing project: there’s something for everyone.
The libertarian edge, of course, is represented by the most appealing Boris Johnson, journalist and TV personality turned Mayor of London. Johnson has surrounded himself with bright young and youngish things from Policy Exchange. During the electoral campaign, Boris was aided by Dan Ritterband, former director of Policy Exchange. On election, the mayor appointed Nick Boles, the founder of Policy Exchange, as Chief of Staff. Boles was, the Observer reported, ‘asked to help the new mayor find the right staff’. Among the subsequent appointments were Anthony Browne as Policy Director and Munira Mirza as his cultural adviser.
Mirza is ex-RCP. According to David T, “Munira is not the only RCPer to have worked for the Policy Exchange. Oxford Don and RCP-er James Panton has also authored a study for them. Various RCP writers have also written for the Spectator, under Boris Johnson’s editorship.” David claims that “When I discussed [this] with Munira some time ago, she was rather droll. Munira’s line was that it was the Tory Party who were infiltrating the RCP: not the other way round.”
Like David, I am a fan of Munira Mirza. She is incredibly smart, articulate and witty. Her main interventions in public debate have been her sharp critiques of multiculturalism, which overlap with those made by fellow ex-RCPer Kenan Malik. (I am not sure whether or not Malik is still part of the RCP network.) These critiques draw on a long-standing tradition of left and anti-racist critiques of multiculturalism (associated with A Sivanandan, Walter Benn Michaels, Anne Phillips, Pragna Patel, Adolph Reed, Mike Phillips and others), but play well to the right. “Multicultural policies,” she says, “have encouraged ethnic-minority groups to believe they are in need of special recognition … paradoxically, by insisting on engaging with muslims as a separate group, the authorities make many of them feel even more excluded.” Or: “The emergence of a strong Muslim identity in Britain is, in part, a result of multicultural policies implemented since the 1980s which have emphasised difference at the expense of shared national identity and divided people along ethnic, religious and cultural lines.”
James Turley, commenting on ex-RCP Dr Michael Fitzpatrick and his support for Boris, said Spiked “views him as some kind of libertarian, and enthusiastically urges him to be more openly so... It is similar to Socialist Appeal’s approach to Chávez – you might call it ‘critical fawning’ (the problem for Socialist Appeal is that Chávez is not the future of socialism, and the problem for Spiked is that Johnson is not really a libertarian).” And, as Splintered Sunrise notes, just as SA were never more than the hired help for Ken, the RCP will never be more than that for Boris.
The fact is, however, the ex-RCP is right about multiculturalism. They have an uncanny sense of the prevailing winds on the liberal left – and set their sails against them. Because the liberal left is so often stupid, the ex-RCP come out of this pretty well. So, they are right about multiculturalism, right about anti-Zionism, right about Islamism, right about the MMR vaccine, partly right about parenting and schools, possibly right about smoking.** In fact, when they are wrong, it is often when they represent a more extreme view of the left’s orthodoxies, such as their apologies for Mugabe and poo-pooing of the slow motion genocide in Sudan. (James Turley: “One area where it has maintained a dubious continuity with the left is in its rather monomaniacal approach to anti-imperialism.”)
But there is more to the ex-RCP than mere contrarianism. Behind their Tory entrism is a careful calculation about contemporary history: that the proletariat and the socialist movement were so thoroughly destroyed by wave after wave of ruling class assault, that we need to hunker down in the bunker, defend the gains made by earlier cycles of struggle and keep the flame of liberty alive through dark times. ***
The fact that the RCP’s commitment to the values of the Enlightenment – social progress, freedom, and so on – have more of an appeal on the right than on the left says something terrible about the decline of the left. The big society and the small state were historically staples of the left’s vision, from John Lilburne to Thomas Paine to William Morris. The word “social” in socialism is the clue. But that tradition was eclipsed in the last century by the ascendancy of social democracy and Stalinism, the twin forms of big state/small society leftism. In the wake of the their death, the left could have recovered these traditions, but instead frittered away its energies on a succession of foolish fads: Third Worldism, identity politics, municipal multiculturalism, Islamism, anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, conspiracy theories.****
My question now is: is this our last chance to redeem our tradition, or is it too late?
I was going to give you some Easterhouse to accompany this, but here instead, via Jams, is Not the Nine O'Clock News:
Further reading: Jenny Turner: “Who are they?”; Jim Grant: “WTBLS, appendix 2: Talk to Frank”; Dave Walker: “Libertarian Humanism or Critical Utopianism? The Demise of the Revolutionary Communist Party”; Nick Cohen: “Long March to the Microphone”; James Turley: “Boris gets spiked”; George Monbiot “Invasion of the Entryists”; John Sullivan: “As Soon As This Pub Closes…”; David T: “The RCP ♥ Boris”; Graeme on the Furedi cult/on Spiked.
*Actually, although I loved the Respect/Rise festival, and was grateful to Ken for funding it, Munira Mirza’s justification for de-politicising it was very powerful. See here. On the other hand, it may have been less about different models of anti-racism, and more about the scrap between Ken’s hired help, Socialist Action (aka Operation Black Vote/National Assembly Against Racism) and Boris’ hired help.
**I am unsure of what I think about the RCP’s line on green politics, which they share with Strange Times on the left and Reason.com on the right. On the one hand, I think they are right to scorn the hair-shirted moralism and reactionary politics of much of the green movement (James Turley again: “one does not have to be a full-blooded climate change denialist like Furedi to recognise the dark underbelly of large sections of the green movement. As left groups scramble to liquidate themselves into the green movement, the Spiked project’s reminders of the reactionary nature of most variants of official greenism is timely. It is true that simply breaking up big enterprises – replacing Tesco with local greengrocers, mechanised farms with ‘old MacDonald’ operations and so on – would produce such a drastic drop in global production that literally billions would starve (as opposed to the millions at present).”); on the other hand, their enthusiasm for big industry and blitheness about ecological crisis are objectively dangerous.
***This analysis, in fact, is not a million miles away from the analysis made by people in my corner of the left, such as the sadly defunct Socialism in an Age of Waiting, who argued that, with proletarian revolution not vaguely on the cards, we need to effectively defend the bourgeois revolution against the forces of feudal reaction. A similar argument is made in Australia by the Last Superpower/Strange Times group. And the IWCA make a related argument: the left has played itself out and socialism is so discredited that we have to find a new terrain of struggle away from the left.
The IWCA, incidentally, has an odd history with the RCP. The IWCA’s predecessor, Red Action, collaborated with the RCP in the disastrous electoral adventure the Red Front in the 1987 election. I know nothing about this unlikely alliance, and if anyone who can report on it I’d welcome that. After the Red Front experiment, the RCP decided the working class had totally failed the revolutionary project, and consequently abandoned the working class – whereas Red Action took the opposite conclusion, that the left had totally failed the working class, and so abandoned the left.
****Since I wrote this, I heard a snippet of the socialist historian Tristan Hunt arguing something similar on the BBC.