17 December 2003


I’m late on this one, but what the hell. George Monbiot had an almost-fascinating column in the Guardian last week (for which click here) on the strange phenomenon formerly known as the Revolutionary Communist Party, which transmuted into Living Marxism magazine (later plain LM), which in turn spawned (inter alia) the Spiked! website (click here) and the Institute of Ideas think-tank (click here).

There are several very weird things about the former-RCP. The most obvious is its ideological trajectory. The RCP had its origins in an ultra-orthodox-Leninist faction inside the International Socialists, the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, in the early 1970s, which became the Revolutionary Communist Group. To cut a long story short, the RCG expelled a group that became the Revolutionary Communist Tendency, later the Revolutionary Communist Party, which established itself by the early 1980s as an independent Leninist revolutionary sect. It was a lot more cerebral and fashion-conscious than the SWP – for its internal culture click here and here -- but otherwise unremarkable, though in a moment of lucidity it did call for a ballot during the 1984-85 miners' strike. The RCT/RCP had a well-produced agitational paper, the next step. Otherwise, it was notable mainly for its quixotic front organisations, in particular East London Workers Against Racism (ELWAR), a squaddist fight-the-fash outfit, and, notoriously, the Red Front, a disastrously ineffective general election intervention in 1987.

But in 1988, the RCP turned the next step into a monthly magazine, Living Marxism. And in the next few years, its leading lights – particularly Frank Furedi (party name Frank Richards), the chief ideologist of the sect, and Mick Hume, the editor of the next step and subsequently Living Marxism – started to delight in taking political positions at odds with leftist orthodoxy. The RCP was formally dissolved in 1996, Living Marxism became LM, and it ruffled feathers by coming out against censorship of pornography, against moral panics on child sexual abuse, against environmentalist doom-mongering and so on.

Controversialism can make for zippy journalism, and some of this was a welcome (though hardly original) assault on a lot of leftist cant of the day. But some was taking unpopular positions for the sake of it, and some was vile nonsense – most notoriously the “stand” taken by LM (as Living Marxism had become) against reports of Serb atrocities in Bosnia, the result of which was a (wholly justified) libel action by journalists it had traduced that resulted in its closure in 2000 and the creation of Spiked! (on this, click here)

Whatever, by the time Spiked took over from LM, the former-RCP had apparently ditched just about all the leftist baggage it once carried. The output of Spiked and the Institute of Ideas has been superficially indistinguishable from the free-market libertarian right in the political positions it has taken up – and as Monbiot shows, the former-RCP has not been averse to getting into bed with people that no self-respecting RCPer in the 1980s would have touched with a barge-pole.

But the ideological journey is not the whole story. One thing that makes it particularly remarkable is that the core of the group has remained together throughout – and that its members have been almost incredibly successful in terms both of their own careers and in establishing credibility for their front organisations: they’re in there with most broadsheet newspapers, the Institute for Contemporary Arts, the Royal Society and all the rest.

How have they done it? Well, money has had a lot to do with it. The RCP in the 1980s was never very large, but it was big enough to produce the next step by exacting a tithe on its members, the standard Leninist practice. With Living Marxism /LM, however, the show went up a notch just at the time that the RCP became invisible on the activist left: colour printing, WH Smith distribution et cetera. Rumours started doing the rounds about mysterious funders – and given Living Marxism /LM’s editorial line, pro-Serb and anti-environmentalist, quite a lot of the rumours were about dodgy cash from Slobodan Milosevic, corporations desperate to buy some left credibility or even the spooks. Monbiot’s piece in the Guardian is just the latest to insinuate that the former-RCP is in receipt of money from the forces of darkness.

My intelligence suggests a different explanation of the group’s affluence: the success of some of its key members as entrepreneurs, in particular one Keith Teare (party name Keith Tompson, website here), onetime sociologist at the University of Kent with Frank Furedi, founder of Easynet and the Cyberia internet café chain and now a Silicon Valley guru, who has made a multi-million-dollar packet in the past 10 years. Even now, Cyberia’s CEO is Phil Mullan, former RCP, Living Marxism and LM stalwart . . . Well, it beats running a general print shop as every other leftist outfit does.

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