Spiked footnotes


My post on what Boris Johnson advisor Munira Mirza and brief Brexit MEP Claire Fox have in common - a background in the formerly left-wing sect that rebranded from the Revolutionary Communist Party to Spiked - has become unexpectedly timely of late. 

Mirza - who thinks institutional racism is a myth and has described previous inquiries into inequality as "fostering a culture of grievance" - has been named as heading up a new government commission on racial inequalities. 

I track some of Mirza's recent involvements with the RCP/Spiked network in this Twitter thread. Here are some snips:

Since Mirza's appointment there have been a couple of new pieces published about the RCP that I thought worth sharing. First, Nick Cohen has (along with George Monbiot) long been one of the few mainstream journalists with his eye on the sect. Here's some extracts from his latest:
Back in the day, [Frank Furedi's] party treated liberal opinion, the Labour party, the trade unions and other far left groups who compromised by advocating voting Labour to stop the Tories with a hatred that matched the hatred directed at them by today’s right. It despised the concept of human rights. It delighted Serbian war criminals by denying that they were ethnically cleansing Muslims during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. Before anyone had thought about Putin or Trump, or read about £350m for the NHS on the side of a bus, the RCP was exploiting a post-truth world where genocide could be dismissed as fake news...

The RCP... grew to despair of a working class that never paid it a blind bit of attention. When it failed to end imperialism and capitalism, it ditched revolutionary politics but kept the absolute contempt for liberalism, labourism and human rights. It did not move to the right in the manner of people who grow more conservative with age but as a cohesive unit. Party policy now allowed its members to begin a Gramscian march through institutions that previously would have ignored them...

Over the years, I have tried to keep my temper with nominally intelligent people who say the propagators of lies about the oppression of Bosnia’s Muslims at least have the guts to tell hard truths that others duck. I hear that they stand up for freedom of speech. I reply they defend it only when it is under attack from authoritarian “liberals” but ensure that the corporate loot keeps flowing by saying nothing about big business silencing whistleblowers.
The RCP... made a name for itself for taking positions that rankled with others on the left. Among theses were enthusiastic support for the armed struggle in Northern Ireland and calling for a national ballot during the 1984-5 miners’ strike. Party members also criticised gay activists and were accused of undermining the message of safe sex during the HIV/Aids crisis.

At the end of the cold war, the RCP pronounced that class-based politics was a dead end, with ideas now being the key battleground. The party eventually dissolved in 1997, which left Living Marxism as the primary vehicle for its former cadre. It acted as a halfway house for former leftwing activists now increasingly interested in libertarianism. The journal itself was wound up in 2000 after losing a libel case against ITN over claims made about reporting during the Balkan wars in the 1990s...

The crossover of many of these individuals between the journal, the website, the thinktank and other endeavours has been referred to as the LM network. It has gained attention not just because many of its members occupy a significant media and political profile, but also for the trajectory of its cohort from the far left to the hard right... Some commentators have suggested that this is a coordinated case of entryism (although the end goal of this is unclear). But it is more likely that the politics and activities of the network have a certain appeal (and notoriety), which has seen a number of former members be willing to shift with the changing agenda, from revolutionary communism to a mixture of contrarianism and right libertarianism. In many ways, this owes something to the Leninism of the former RCP and an ideological coherence, even in the absence of the vanguard of the party.

In recent years, Spiked has been at the forefront of perpetuating the idea of the free-speech “crisis” on university campuses and elsewhere. Some at the magazine also disagree with laws against racial discrimination (particularly against racist speech) and with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, viewing both as overreach by the state into people’s lives. This approach to racism, free speech and the state are intertwined, and can be traced back to the days of the RCP.

Throughout the 1980s, some at the magazine opposed the “no platforming” of fascists and racists, stemming from an objection to state bans and censorship. Furthermore, use of racial discrimination legislation was seen as a call for state intervention in working-class and migrant communities. In reality, this meant that while the RCP (and its front, Workers Against Racism, or WAR) were involved in a number of anti-racist campaigns, it denigrated the work being done by other activist groups. One of the constant tropes of the RCP/WAR was to argue that while the rest of the left concentrated their efforts in one area, they really should be concentrating in another (which coincidentally was where the RCP dedicated their attention). This notion that everybody else is wrong and just tilting at windmills persists in the writings of Spiked today.

Actions against non-state racism in the 1990s, such as those by anti-fascists against the British National party, were often dismissed or framed as attacks on the legitimate concerns of the (white) British working class. The end point of this rhetorical stance has seen a writer in Spiked dismiss the threat of the far right, suggesting that the BNP could appear “moderate” and “level-headed” when compared with the anti-fascist left; and the magazine publish an article titled The Myth of Bigoted Britain. Simultaneously, while its predecessor had abandoned class politics in favour of ideas in the 1990s, Spiked has also criticised the rise of identity politics as pure ideology and an attempt to divide the working class.

These preoccupations have proven to be well suited to a moment in which the right has reduced racism to a component of a “culture war” being waged by the “woke” left. Mirza’s previous comments on Spiked about institutional racism, diversity and multiculturalism reveal the mindset in which this new proposed commission on racial inequalities has been cast. They also reveal how the fixations of a contrarian, right-leaning, libertarian website, established by disillusioned leftists, has become part of the mainstream discourse in the UK.
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Smith argues that the ex-RCP has played a role in shifting the UK's "Overton window" rightwards in recent years. This point is made by Aaron Winter and Aurelien Mondon in a series of articles, starting with 2017's "Reading Mein Kampf, Misreading Education: The Reactionary Backlash Goes Back To School". This is one of their most recent, published on the Verso blog in May:
On the 23rd of March, as the UK finally went into lockdown, much later than its European counterparts – to the dismay of many experts and a rightly concerned population – the reactionary libertarian right was at it again, with its contrarianism and pseudo-radicalism, as if a global pandemic was nothing but another opportunity to exploit. Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked!, a website part funded by the Koch brothers, called for ‘Dissent in a time of Covid’, criticising the ‘chilling’ and ‘dangerous’ ‘witch-hunting of those who criticise the response to coronavirus’. This was no surprise and in fact before the article was even published, experts in the field were already joking about what catastrophising and self-aggrandising headline the online magazine would choose: over the past few years, Spiked! has made a name for itself by creating narratives of martyrdom and heroism on the back of real societal crises and injustices, all in the name of twisted versions of democracy and liberty, and in the interest of the powerful.

O’Neill and Spiked! are only examples of this reaction, albeit with disproportionate access to popular mainstream platforms and attention from the media and government, particularly in respect to their free speech campaigning, as part of a broader trend towards (far) right-wing politics. However, recent events, from Brexit to Trump’s election and more recently the debate over how to respond to Covid-19, really drive home that reactionary ideas have become part of mainstream politics, but this may have its limits...
until Covid-19, Spiked!’s extremely reactionary stances on questions like race, gender or transgender rights had become broadly considered as worthwhile debates in a society the right believes to be controlled by some PC elite. In ‘normal’ times, O’Neill’s use of pubs as the symbol of the true people qua white working class would have been welcome in much of the mainstream, where this racialised and paternalistic view of ‘the people’ is now taken for granted. On this occasion, it seemed to have gone too far though, with some fellow travellers, usually happy to indulge the reactionary libertarian right’s attacks on minorities, the marginalised and their allies, denouncing O’Neill’s stance as ‘irresponsible and wrong’ when he compared the closing of pubs to North Korea, no less. 
What O’Neill had done was simply push the argument to one of its logical conclusions. But that meant turning against a government which had so far been the best ally of our reactionary class, despite their alleged anti-elitism, as well as putting at risk its main constituency, found in older voters. Even though austerity and the action or inaction of the government will impact far more on those at the bottom, the merchants of inequality and injustice are also at risk, and this risk cannot be downplayed, mocked or questioned: it is beyond free speech. This may be why they finally criticised O’Neill who had, with Spiked!, until this point served the cause well, legitimising and mainstreaming reactionary and far right ideas. O’Neill was joined by other, more mainstream, figures, such as Peter Hitchens, Heather MacDonald and Toby Young, as the lockdown gave reactionaries another opportunity to rehearse well-worn arguments on the libertarian right: our society is shackled by a culture of fear and safe spaces, where elite experts are in cahoots with nanny state authoritarians, denying our most basic freedom and liberties (but really mostly that to be racist, sexist and reactionary in a free market). We can see this discourse at its most explicit in the anti-lockdown protestors emboldened by Donald Trump in the US.
Many of us might think that the COVID19 crisis has shown the limits of populist government and the need to bring expertise, evidence and data into decision-making (something eroded as part of the "war on woke" which Johnson (and Trump) have both stoked and benefited from. But the RCP/Spiked network draws the opposite conclusion. Writing in the Stalinist pro-Brexit Morning Star back in April, RCP veteran Tara McCormack and Spiked star Lee Jones argue that too much power has passed from poiticians and the executive arm of the state to expert regulatory bodies, and there is a need for autocratic decisionist actions from our rulers, who somehow innately have a sense of the will of the people:
The Brexit slogan “take back control” resonated so widely because it spoke to this sense of disempowerment and stasis. Johnson’s “get Brexit done,” likewise, promised to cut through the political and bureaucratic morass to deliver what people had demanded.
They describe their position as opposed to the "post-political" rule of technocrats, but this anti-technocratic language is the hallmark of populist post-politics, which seeks to burn away contentious, democratic politics, as represented by social movements, student politics, trade unions, etc.

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Meanwhile, McCormack has also had some media attention for her role in the fringe "Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM), with HuffPo noting how Russian state media has given her and her colleagues a platform to promote a denialism over Syrian government war crimes which echoes the RCP line about Serbian government war crimes.
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Finally, for more on the cult, check out this post by Louis Proyect from last year, and Coatesy's blog, including his latest round-up. Coatesy has in particular charted how Spiked has played a key role in creating a red-brown alliance, in particular in bringing together left and right pro-Brexit activists in its front group The Full Brexit, which links the Morning Star/Communist Party of Britain with right-wing Blue Labour. 

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