Saturday, July 27, 2019

The RCP's long march from anti-imperialist outsiders to the doors of Downing Street

This week it was announced that Munira Mirza would be joining new prime minister Boris Johnson's team as head of Number 10’s policy unit. Mirza, mis-identifed by the Independent as "an academic at King’s College London" (her actual job there is running their "cultural strategy"), was Johnson's Deputy Mayor for Culture and Education during his City Hall tenure. Last month, the new crop of Brexit Party MEPs taking up their well-paid if "stupid" jobs in Brussels included Claire Fox, professional BBC talking head with a reputation as a contrarian libertarian.


Regular readers will know what Mirza and Fox have in common: they are both long-term members of the network that emerged out of the Revolutionary Communist Party and its magazine Living Marxism (LM). I've written before about the LM/RCP network, best known today for its web magazine Spiked, and this post draws together some of that material given the party's importance in our current, Brexit political moment.

Radical "anti-imperialism"

The RCP was founded by Frank Furedi, an academic, once a member of Tony Cliff’s unorthodox Trotskyist party, the International Socialists (IS, fore-runners of today’s Socialist Workers Party). Furedi left the IS “in 1975 on issues that remain obscure to all concerned”, along with fellow academic David Yaffe (the leader of the tiny "Revolutionary Opposition" in the IS), as the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG), which became the ne plus ultra of mad anti-imperialism. Furedi was expelled in late 1976 and formed the Revolutionary Communist Tendency RCT), renamed Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in 1981.

Claire Fox joined in the early 1980s while a student at Warwick University. In 1988, its magazine Living Marxism was formed, with Mick Hume as the founding editor.

Fox (as Foster), 1986
Five features marked the RCP out as distinct in the crowded market of Trot micro-parties in the 1980s. First, it was particularly hostile to Labour, attacking other left parties who saw Labour as having any relationship with the working class and denouncing slogans like the SWP's "vote Labour without illusions" as right-wing. 

It stood candidates in its own name at various elections between 1983 and 1992 and,. for a while in the 1980s, it launched the Red Front electoral vehicle to stand candidates against Labour. One of its candidates was a young Claire Fox, under the name Claire Foster.
Second, like the RCG, the RCP pursued a particularly hardcore form of "anti-imperialist" politics. The "anti-imperialism" they promoted was a vulgar version, descending from the analysis Lenin drew from the racist social liberal thinker J.A. Hobson, but refracted through a Cold War "second campist" mentality that prioritised geopolitical struggle against the Western imperialist camp and de-prioritised working class liberation in the colonial and postcolonial world. Other Trotskyists, including the IMG and Gerry Healey's WRP, had charted this direction, but the RCG and RCP took it as far as possible. This meant supporting every authoritarian and totalitarian Third World movement that claimed to stand in the camp opposing the imperialist West, from Robert Mugabe to Gaddafi.

As John Rogan documents, “We back Gadaffi” was on the front page of the RCP's magazine next step in April 1986.
On page 12 of the same issue it states 'The Revolutionary Communist Party unreservedly condemns the US/British assault on Libya and gives its full support to Libyan resistance whatever form it takes'... Thirteen days before this issue came out, on 5 April 1986, Libyan intelligence planted a bomb in a disco in West Germany. As this report in the New York Times (14 Nov 2001) on the conviction of those responsible states — 'The explosion killed Sgt. Kenneth T. Ford, 21; Sgt. James E. Goins, 25; and Nermin Hannay, 29. Of the 229 wounded, many lost limbs'.
...Under her pen-name of “Claire Foster”, 26 year old Claire Fox featured in the “We back Gadaffi” issue of the next step (18 April 1986) as she was an RCP candidate in local council elections that year.
Third, following this hardcore "anti-imperialism", the RCP (and its front organisation the Irish Freedom Movement, IFM) positioned itself as one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the most militant actions of the Provisional IRA, the Provos (the only left group to outclass them in this was Red Action, which was not Trotskyist). In 1980, the RCP said they would refuse to “criticise or condemn the Birmingham bombings”. After the Brighton bombing of 1984, the RCP declared: “We support unconditionally the right of the Irish people to carry out their struggle for national liberation in whatever way they choose”, while an RCP pamphlet by Mick Hume, now a Times columnist, scorned the ruling class panic about the IRA's "war on imperialism" and suggested that the UK state "the real terrorist".

John Rogan writes:
The journal of the RCP’s Irish Freedom Movement (Summer 1993) carried a similar response of defending “whatever measures necessary”. Not only that, but the RCP/IFM decided to heckle and disrupt a peace commemoration in Hyde Park held the month after two young boys were killed [in the Warrington bombings]. Further on (page 18), Claire Fox (under her pen name “Claire Foster”) wrote that the peace movement spawned by the Warrington attacks was all built up by the media. 
Brendan O'Neill, now a writer for the Spectator and Telegraph, was a frequent spokesperson for the IFM. In the 1990s, as the Provos turned away from armed struggle in the steps that led to the Good Friday Agreement, O'Neill and the IFM became entangled with the dissident Republicans who opposed peace. In 1994, they wrote that “Anti-imperialists in Britain have the duty of exposing the peace process as a dangerous sham. The peace process is designed to stabilise imperialist interests in Ireland by pressurising Irish people to give up entirely on the pursuit of freedom.”

Fourth, the RCP took an anti-anti-fascist position. Historian Evan Smith, as part of a broader project on the history of the "No Platform" tactic on the UK left has recently traced this history. To compete with the Anti-Nazi League and other Trot fronts, the RCP launched Workers Against Racism (WAR), which initially argued that state racism was the real problem and anti-fascism less important, but increasingly came to see anti-fascism itself as a middle class distraction. 
For the WAR, anti-fascism against the NF was ‘a convenient diversion’ from the anti-racist struggle. As the militancy of the RCP dwindled from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, WAR’s street-based anti-racism faded and underestimation of the threat of the far right remained. But while it had previously argued that ‘[t]he fight against racism cannot be restricted to a campaign against racist ideas’ and that ‘[r]acism cannot be fought with “facts”’, the RCP in the pages of Living Marxism now privileged debate over other forms of anti-racist activism. This fed into the party’s approach to ‘no platform’, which had evolved over the 1980s towards free speech absolutism and a rejection of the anti-fascist consensus that had been built over the last two decades.
In 1981, they were building the foundations of a free speech fundamentalist position, declaring that, "Whether or not they are justified as measures aimed against fascists, all state restrictions of the freedom of speech, assembly and press are ultimately directed against the working class." Quite early on, you can see the seeds of a contempt for anti-fascism that found Spiked making common cause with the far right in recent years. In 1984, they described fascist Patrick Harrington as "‘a soft target for the liberal left casting around for an issue on which to prove its anti-racist credentials’ and instead ‘[a]nti-racist student should have been campaigning against state attacks on overseas students’." The said the no Platform strategy was "an impulsive outburst of liberal moralism which seeks to sweep away distasteful views, rather than confront them politically", and dismissed fascists as "idiots...with virtually no influence."

And the fifth feature? Leather jackets and hair gel. As John Sullivan put it in As Soon As This Pub Closes, his classic late 1980s tour through left sectariana:
"The answer is style. The group is part of the harder aggressive, post-punk move away from peace and love, and the average RCPer looks very different from the grotty SWPers. They have been described as ‘the SWP with hair gel’, and many a parent, pleased at the improvement in their child’s appearance, have welcomed the move from one to another. Alas! The mind remains just as untidy."
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, while people were dying of the disease. By this time, the ultra-leftist positions of the early 1980s seemed to be morphing into provocation for its own sake. In 1996, the logic of this turn (they called it the "turn to the suburbs") was pursued with the RCP formally closed as a party (though continuing as a tightly knit and highly disciplined network) and Living Marxism rebranded as LM, with Fox as co-publisher.

Genocide denial and libel
The hardcore "anti-imperialism" of their early days and the anti-liberal contrarianism that they had turned to in the 1990s came together in the publication that should have ended the LM network. George Monbiot tells the story:
In 1997, LM published an article claiming that the broadcasting company ITN had fabricated its dramatic discovery in 1992 of prisoners held by the Bosnian Serbs. “The picture that fooled the world” argued that ITN’s footage, in which emaciated Bosnian Muslim men clung to barbed wire, showed not a detention centre, as ITN maintained, but a safe haven for refugees. The Bosnian Serb soldiers at the camp were not detaining the Muslims but defending them...
[LM] recruited the fearless investigative journalist Thomas Deichmann to tell the real story behind the Bosnian enclosures. Only it wasn’t quite like that. Deichmann was an engineer by training, not a journalist. His writing was largely confined to an obscure German magazine called Novo, which he used repeatedly to defend the Bosnian Serb leadership against charges of murder, torture, rape and ethnic cleansing. He presented himself as a witness for the defence at the trial of the Serbian war criminal Dusko Tadic.
One of the journalists who broke the story of Trnopolje, the Serbian camp, was Ed Vulliamy, who was with the ITN team. ITN sued LM for libel, and won. Several celebrities, including Toby Young (who has kept up his association with them ever since), celebrated LM as the plucky free speech underdogs resisting the mainstream establishment. Vulliamy puts the more accurate view
"free speech" has nothing to do with what is going on. Living Marxism's attempts to re-write the history of the camps was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps and sympathised with their cause and wished to see it triumph. That was the central and - in the final hour, the only - issue. Shame, then, on those fools, supporters of the pogrom, cynics and dilettantes who supported them, gave them credence and endorsed their vile enterprise.
It is one of the grim ironies of the RCP's slow march through the institutions that now Claire Fox is a Brexit Party MEP she has been appointed to the EU Delegation to the EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee.

Corporate contrarianism
Image result for "institute of ideas"
As the ITN trial verdict was delivered, the LM network plotted its rise from the ashes. Claire Fox planned the events that would launch the Institute of Ideas - she is a director, company secretary and shareholder of the company which runs the Institute, the Academy of Ideas, and is the director of the Institute. LM's Hume launched Spiked the next year, editing it until 2007 when he passed the torch to Brendan O'Neill. 

A new generation of activists was recruited, including Munira Mirza and James Panton. Mirza was associated with the network from 1999, the year she graduated from  Mansfield College, Oxford, and wrote for Claire Fox's Culture Wars, for which she became a regular in 2001. Her first Spiked article was in 2002.

In the new century, with words like "Marxism" and "communism" deleted from the lexicon, the LM network became increasingly close to - and received considerable funding from - various corporate interests, including lobbyists for industries such as tobacco, GM food, big pharma and fossil fuels. It collaborated closely with thintanks of the free market right, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and its offshoot Civitas.

Fox has been central to this corporate embrace. Her Battle of Ideas events have been sponsored by "groups as diverse as the security company G4S, the Ayn Rand Institute and Genomics England [and had] pharmaceutical giant Bayer (now merged with Monsanto) and PR agency Pagefield as their primary “Battle Champions”." As DeSmog's Mike Small notes
Fox has frequently tweeted about her rejection of mainstream and accepted climate science, calling the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “advocacy research” and says treating the body as “high priests of The Science and final word on climate” would be a “betrayal of scientific inquiry.” Fox has also tweeted supportively of hereditary peer Matt Ridley’s climate science denial and recommended people look to the discredited arguments of economist Bjorn Lomborg. In a debate with environmental journalist George Monbiot, reported by the climate science denial blogger Ben Pile, she was asked whether she wanted people to be “free to pollute,” answering: “I want freedom.”
Perhaps the apex of LM's corporate work is their funding by the US right-wing libertarian billionaires Koch Brothers, as revealed by a DeSmog/Guardian investigation, which found that Spiked has received $300,000 from the Koch’s over the past three years, including $150,000 in 2016 — the year of Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory and the UK’s Brexit referendum.
Source: DeSmog UK


The road to Downing Street runs through City Hall
Image result for boris johnson munira mirza
Boris Johnson and advisers in 2008 - Munira Mirza, Sir Simon Milton, Kit Malthouse, Richard Barnes and Ian Clement. Evening Standard
Alongside their work for the corporate sector, the RCP slowly went about building up relationships with the Conservative Party. The thinktank Policy Exchange appears to be the nexus between the ex-RCP and the Tories. 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.

As I wrote in 2010, the Cameron project (like the New Labour project) was politically incoherent, combining elements of messy-haired libertarianism that felt appealing in the 2000s 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 made Cameroonian Conservativism an appealing project: there was something for everyone.

The libertarian edge was represented by Boris Johnson, journalist and TV personality turned Mayor of London in 2008. Johnson has surrounded himself with bright young and youngish things from Policy Exchange. During his mayoral 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, a long term critic of both multiculturalism and of state support for the arts, was able to give Boris arguments for making reactionary decisions while giving apparently progressive justifications.

By late 2010, I wrote that the RCP had probably been more influential than any other bit of the British far left in the last decade. They gave 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, were the architects of David Cameron's election victory.

Mirza drew closer to the Conservative Party in this period. She married Dougie Smith, Cameron speechwriter and co-ordinator of Tory thinktank Conservatives for Change (Cchange), on whose board sat Nick Boles, along with politicians such as Francis Maude and Theresa May - as well as once running Fever Parties, a London-based organisation that apparently hosted "five-star" orgies for swingers. (Cchange was originally closely linked to Policy Exchange, originally called Xchange, and their personnel overlaps.) Johnson promoted Mirza from advisor to deputy mayor. By 2018, the New Statesman's Stephen Bush was tipping her as a possible Tory mayoral candidate.

Going full Brexit: from Red Front to red-brown front

Boris Johnson's mayoral win in 2008 was a dress rehearsal for the Cameron parliamentary win in 2010 and key to its splintering of the New Labour electoral coalition by presenting a "progressive" Toryism. But Cameron's premiership also contained the seeds of its own destruction as its shifted the Overton window rightwards in the age of austerity, emboldening the party's europhobic hard right and Farage's national populist movement beyond the party. As Boris repositioned himself as the hero of this reactionary wing during the Leave campaign in 2016 (exposing how superficial his progressive sheen had been in his City Hall years), so too would the RCP network keep moving to the right, as well as giving pseudo-intellectual and even left-sounding cover to Britain's most right-wing political forces.

Drawing on its anti-anti-fascist tradition, Spiked portrayed racists like Stephen Yaxley-Smith (aka "Tommy Robinson") and the EDL, and later Steve Bannon and Katie Hopkins, as salt of the earth contrarians maligned by elitist liberals out of conformity and class prejudice. Furedi backed Orbán's increasingly authoritarian government in Hungary, speaking alongside Breitbart's alt-lite provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at a 2018 conference hosted by Orbán. From 2016, the arguments developed in these polemics were turned against Remainers.

One LM initiative in the post-Referendum period was "The Full Brexit", an avowedly left-wing pressure group launched in the summer of 2018 to reframe the Brexit narrative as one about "democracy" rather than just bashing immigrants. Alongside a smattering of Blue Labour social conservatives and Lexit Marxists, a good half of its 20 founding signatories are RCP network members. Academic Chris Bickerton has been a Spiked contributor since 2005, when he was a PhD student at St John’s College, Oxford. Philip Cunliffe, Furedi’s colleague at the University of Kent, is another long term Spiked activist. Pauline Hadaway, another academic, is a veteran of the Living Marxism days. James Heartfield was a paid RCP organiser. Lee Jones seems to have been recruited at Oxford around the same time as Bickerton. Tara McCormack is an RCP veteran, as is Suke Wolton. Bruno Waterfield write for Living Marxism. Other signatories aren't part of the network but have been promoted by Spiked: Paul Embery and Thomas Fazi for example (Fazi is also connected to the 5 Star Movement and recently retweeted an antisemitic tweet from someone with "Nazbol" in his user name). Many are also involved in Briefings for Brexit, which has several RCP veterans on its advisory committee, and some are involved with Civitas. This is a peculiar form of left-right crossover politics.

Image result for "claire fox" brexitThe RCP then played a key role in the creation of the Brexit Party, again providing "left" cover for a deeply right-wing project. Otto English in Byline Times documents how, in February 2019, a film-maker, Kevin Laitak, a disciple of Furedi, began turning up at local Leavers of Britain groups, telling campaigners that he was making a short film about rank-and-file Brexiters. He then recruited activists who might consider standing for the new BXP, who were then called by a woman called Lesley Katon. Katon told would-be recruits that she was the co-founder of a group called ‘Invoke Democracy Now’, whose activists, English notes, included Claire Fox, as well as Luke Gittos, the legal editor of Spiked, Brendan O’Neill, its editor, Living Marxism alumni Tessa Mayes and Munira Mirza, and Mick Hume, former editor of Living Marxism (for more on Invoke Democracy Now, see Colin Lawson). Katon herself has several LM connections, and among the candidates emerging from this process were In addition to her client Claire Fox; Katon’s colleague David Bull who spoke at a Spiked event in 2003; James Heartfield, a long-time RCP cadre; Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, a former RCP activist and Spiked contributor; and in Scotland long time Spiked writer Stuart Waiton. Of these, only Fox was placed high up enough a regional list to get sent to Brussels.

Otto English notes that the RCP's Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and John Heartfield, were in the cavalcade of hopeful Brexit Party candidates paraded by Nigel Farage earlier this month as he launched his bid for the next General Election.

It gets weirder, because, Otto English reveals, Lesley Katon is an associate partner at a PR company called Pagefield, founded in 2010 by Mark Gallagher, a close associate of David Davis and John Redwood. In 2018, Pagefield recruited almost the entire staff of Bell Pottinger public relations firm which, as English puts it, was expelled from the PR trade body and went into administration in the wake of a secret campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa.

Back with Boris

The mad thing is that so far I have only scraped the surface of the LM network's dodginess. A whole other chapter could be written about their involvement in various awful educational experiments, in which they've worked with Toby Young and Michael Gove, their "Free Speech University Rankings", their promotion of Mein Kampf and  Milo Yiannopoulos. Another on their support for (and denial of the crimes of) Assad in Syria through their association with the pseudo-academic Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media and through RCP front organisation Academics for Academic Freedom. And another on Munira Mirza's extensive work laundering the dodgy race politics of her Tory friends. But I feel I've held your patience long enough, so we'll cut to the current chapter, July 2019, a new prime minister, with a long-term activist in the Living Marxism network activist as head of his policy unit. What joys await us as they roll out their agenda?

Brendan O'Neill, writing at Spiked, is certainly happy:
We often overlook how perverse it was that a nation which voted Leave was so dominated by a Remainer elite. Johnson’s new Cabinet redresses this undemocratic disparity between political-class sentiment and public sentiment and gives rise to a UK that is now run by Leavers. About bloody time... 
On top of these ministers we have Boris’s new senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, the strategic whizz behind Vote Leave, and his director of policy, Munira Mirza, friend of spiked and a committed Leaver. Downing Street is now a Leave bastion. This is progress... 
Now let’s leave. Properly, fully, with no turning back. Out, out, out.

***

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5 comments:

Anonymous said...

One particularly weird aspect of Spiked is the fondness of its guru Frank Furedi for the current leader of Hungary Viktor Orbán. Orbán is promoting the old idea of 'Christian Hungary', that reactionary ideology that was, among other things, deeply anti-Semitic, and has rehabilitated Admiral Horthy, the dictator of 'Christian Hungary' and a member of the quisling government which allowed the Nazis to deport nearly all of Hungary's Jews to their deaths in Hitler's Holocaust. Then there is Orbán's openly anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros.

Furedi thinks that Orbán is a good chappie and that his ideas for a 'Christian Hungary' are sound. Furedi is of a Hungarian Jewish background: his endorsement of Orbán is particularly grotesque. When he was a Marxist Furedi spelt his name Füredi: he seems to have lost his political marbles at much the same time as he lost his umlaut.

The Ghost of Clifton Street

Jim Denham said...

Brilliant work Bob! Can I reblog (with a link and full attribution, etc) at Shiraz?

Anonymous said...

I'm a former RCP supporter who jumped ship before the party hit the rocks. I think that there's rather a bit of reading history backwards in this article, seeing Spiked's reactionary right-wing libertarian little-England nationalism as rooted in RCP politics, rather than rooting it in the methodological mannerisms of the RCP, which is something that has stayed intact right through from 1976 to today. That, rather than the politics, is the clue to the whole RCT to Brexit Party saga. Counter-intuitive it is for a Marxist, I think that the secret can be found in the behavioural form rather than the political content.

Dr Paul

bob said...

Thanks all.

Jim, yes of course you can.

Dr Paul, I wouldn't want to be seen as over-emphasising the right-wing seeds in the old politics (anti-anti-fascism being the main one) and I think you're right to emphasise the continuity in the thinking and behaviour instead or, better, as well. My sense is both are true. If you have time to say more about these methodological mannerisms, please do!

G. M. Tamás said...

It is not only a sympathy that Frank Füredi evinces for Viktor Orbán. He has become a leading voice on the Hungarian extreme right (aka the government), published by regime-sponsored periodicals, websites, newspapers, gets star billing at official nationalist gatherings, appears on television, his books are published - in all this he goes considerably father to the right than he would dare to do in England.
G. M. Tamás