Those who expected newly minted PM Boris Johnson to combine little Englander Brexitism with small government austerity and Thatcherite moralising, were surprised when the blond unexploded bombshell announced a commitment to the Northern Powerhouse — a PR idea about investing in the north, which included a fast-train linking major northern cities, making them one unit.
Some commentators, such as global Labour omnishambles John McTernan, saw in this Boris’ adoption of a Gaullist nationalism. I and others saw in it the hand of Munira Mirza, Johnson’s director of policy here and in the mayoralty. And we thought yet again, you’ve got to hand it to the RCP. The RCP? The Revolutionary Communist Party (1981-1997), a UK ultra-leftist party whose members went on to found LM magazine, Spiked, the Institute of Ideas, and many more groups*. Many, many more.
Those who find themselves suddenly in alliance with them — the IPA for example — assume that they are repentant Marxists who have seen the folly of their ways and are now simply libertarian hyper-capitalists. So they’re unsurprised when Mirza — now a Conservative Party member, whose RCP association was a couple of years at Oxford — pops up next to Boris, or Clare Fox, the party’s “face” in the ’80s, is suddenly deputy leader of Farage’s Brexit Party, or Brendan O’Neill, Spiked editor, is everywhere, everywhere (I expect to see him next to the Cash Cow on Sunrise any day now). I find it hilarious. It’s like Zelig, directed by Eisenstein.
As the UK slides towards a genuine institutional crisis, there’s an RCPer everywhere you look. What the hell’s going on? Well, that depends who you ask. Their sudden ubiquity marks either the triumph of a praxis pursued with immense hard work or the sort of existential opportunism Solzhenitsyn suggested — in Lenin in Zürich — had, by 1917, become the whole of Bolshevism, a willingness to throw away any and all prior beliefs to get on board the locomotive of history.
The RCP was founded by Frank Furedi, for decades a sociologist at Kent University. Of Hungarian parents who escaped in the ’56 crisis, Furedi, in his 20s, was part of a group who left the UK Socialist Workers Party (SWP) — most people’s idea of “the Trots” — in the mid-1970s. The split was ostensibly over different interpretations of the falling rate of profit; really it was over – yes, I’ll be brief, though I would really love to spend pages on this — whether the UK, riven by strikes, was in a pre-revolutionary period (official SWP view), or a fair long way from it (the RCP “tendency” view), which demanded a different approach. Departing/expelled, the group went through various combinations, before solidifying as the RCP in 1981. In that period, Furedi formulated an approach that would eventually become post-Marxist.
Applying post-Parsonsian neo-functionalist sociology (don’t ask) to Marxist categories, Furedi argued that the social fabric that class collectivism required had become so atomised that a revolutionary class politics was no longer possible in the west. Decades of defeat since October 1917 had put us at a prior stage. A double game must be played. Radical organising of a professional revolutionary party continued – an 80s training document was called “Preparing for Power” — while a longer war against fear, limits and the controlling state was mounted. Hence a departure from ‘the Left’ as it started on the road to the green-statist-control device it has now wholly become.
By the 1990s, their Living Marxism magazine had become LM, and even vestigial notions of Marxist stageism were gone. Capitalism was the current engine of human transformation and as Furedi’s essay in LM‘s standalone issue “Last Magazine” noted (the RCP dissolved itself in 1997) the task was to “regroup those who thought humanity should play for high stakes” (LM closed in 1999, after it couldn’t fight a libel suit launched by ITV over accusations that ITV had tailored its Yugoslav war coverage, to anti-Serb, pro-Western imperatives. Spiked was launched immediately after. Furedi’s essay appears to have disappeared from the internet).
“Regroup the forces” meant mostly the right. The post-RCP groups came along at just the time for the right who were pretty much out of ideas, and incapable of social analysis of any depth. The Thatcher-Reagan flame had burnt out. Though in power in some parts, the right was an opportunist mess. The post-RCP message began to spread through the UK right-wing press, The Times and Telegraph. Boris perhaps first encountered it through Bruno Waterfield, an RCPer and Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph, when Boris arrived. Something, in those years, made a failing wastrel like Boris into a man with a plan. The combo of bootstrap optimism and techno-society — the public/private split irrelevant — has the RCP brio all over it.
Mirza mentions her young, foolish years in the RCP, but tends to leave out the sociology PhD in class and multiculturalism in east London she researched and wrote at, erm, Kent University, and which is deeply “Furedite”. The group’s approach — to find core politics in everything from sunscreen warnings to breastfeeding advocacy — had a dialectical sway that was quite beyond the powers of a classical liberal right that was as washed up as, over the other side, trad Marxists were. Thus empty vessels like Nick Cater and Andrew Bolt chime with whatever frequency Spiked hit an issue with weeks earlier.
There have been missteps. They flirted for too long with explicit climate change denialism, which had them cheek by jowl with folks like Lord Monckton, and also garbled their simple pro-science message. Their appearance in the Brexit Party saw the RCP’s ’80s support for “physical force Irish republicanism” — i.e. the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign — re-aired. Sadly, they have eliminated the comment strings on Spiked articles, for it was fun to read their libertarian US readers’ utter confusion at their support for anti-imperialism, Nepalese Maoism, or wildcat strikes in British Airways catering.
I wrote articles for them for a couple of years, in London, because I was horrified by the social authoritarianism of the Blair govt (by 2007, one-time future PM Ed Balls was proposing that CCTVs be mounted in the homes of troubled families on welfare, to reshape their behaviour) and Spiked had the only critique that was something more than bleating about the “nanny state”. The Cameron “nudge” era continued it, to the point where the UK police now warn art galleries — art galleries! — that people have the right not to be offended and remove stuff from the walls. It would be still worse had there not been a fightback, with some heft to it, and I think Spiked supplied a wider group of critical agents with a way of talking about it that could never have emerged from the liberal tradition.
But the overlap was always limited because I think technological acceleration is inherently nihilistic and tilted towards human annihilation — I was never a great Marxist — and is the cause of the very atomisation the “Furedites” identify as undermining left-right politics, while they are, strategically at least, ardent technophiles (a one-time leader of their east London anti-fascist squad WAR — Workers Against Racism — later invented the groovy internet cafe, and became a Silicon Valley guru). As they turned towards pitched contrarianism, common ground fell away, for me and others.
Still, I’m watching the latest episodes keenly. For years they have drilled their cadres in low expectations, the idea that they would spend a life working in a “non-revolutionary” period. And now, my God, the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has brought the country to the brink of insoluble constitutional crisis, a split between parliamentary and popular will, Labour threatening to call in the Queen, the Greens demanding an all-woman emergency cabinet, the Scots and Irish champing at the bit to dismantle the nation that acts as one pillar of the Atlantic alliance and inherited imperialist dominance.
If the RCP manages to pick up power like a feather in the street, out of all this chaos, I hope they will be kind to their useful idiots in the IPA. Still, I won’t be surprised to see skinned chinos hanging from the Menzies Research Centre sometime soon, and Nick Cater sobbing into a radio microphone that he has been a Di Natalite-Albaneseist wrecker for decades. The RCP — locomotive of history, or the little party that could? We’ll find out. Vperyod!
*There’s half a dozen groups round the world using the RCP label, most prominently a completely different US Maoist cult grouped around Parisian exile and epochal genius Bob Avakian; to be fair to that RCP, they do a huge amount of anti-racist organising, and Black Lives Matter would not have risen without them.