28 December 2003


I've been meaning to link to Attila Hoare on the British far left and Bosnia for ages, but haven't. But here it is in all its brilliance.


A University of Kent alumnus from the 1980s writes:

The activities of the Revolutinary Communist Tendency were one of the weirdest aspects of student politics at Kent.

Anti-nuclear meetings were routinely packed with RCT members who would denounce CND and call for the invention and immediate use of what was referred to as "the worker's bomb" which would wipe out in one stroke the entire world's bourgeoisie.

The group had all the hallmarks of a cult. The RCT had a particularly strange attitude towards sexual relations among its members. Sex between members was regulated by the group's central committee. Recruitment to the group was undertaken by means of what is known among religious cult watchers as "flirty fishing".

The RCT appeared to follow the line of Bolshevik commissar of social welfare Alexandra Kollontai who peddled a materialist view of sex as a physical impulse: "You make love just as you drink a glass of water."

Though this is ancient history it is possible to trace the present day concerns of the Insitute of Ideas crowd, Furedi et al, especially as regarding childhood, the family, abortion, cloning, genetic experiments with their previous crude materalism and anti-humanism.


I hear via the grapevine that the historian Walter Kendall has died. As reviews editor of Tribune in the 1980s and early 1990s I commissioned him to write whenever he could because I was in awe of his history of the left in the early years of the last century, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21: The Origins of British Communism, published in 1969. It still stands as the most comprehensive and politically nuanced account of the debilitating effect of the Bolshevik revolution on the British left, and I'm still in awe. RIP.

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 cafĂ© 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.


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, December 12 2003

I'm not sure whether, in the current climate, this will get me fired as a Tribune columnist — but in the past couple of weeks I’ve been coming round to the idea that top-up fees are not such a bad thing.

My main job, these days, is as a lecturer in City University’s journalism department, and I know from personal experience that higher education needs more money and needs it at once.

My department deservedly has a very good reputation. Most of its graduates get decent jobs when they qualify, and the majority go on to pursue successful careers in journalism — a tribute both to the quality of our students and to the expertise, commitment and hard work of my colleagues.

But, despite its success and reputation, journalism at City is seriously short of cash. The space we occupy is cramped, overcrowded and decrepit; we don’t have enough computers and other equipment; and the salaries of lecturers have been falling behind those of journalists on newspapers and magazines and in the broadcasting media (from among whom we necessarily recruit our teaching staff) for years.

I’m sure the department can survive for some time yet making up for lack of resources with enthusiasm and hard work. But eventually it will reach breaking point — most likely, I reckon, when it becomes impossible to recruit lecturers to replace those that leave or retire or impossible to afford industry-standard technology.

The picture in other university departments is much, much bleaker. After more than a decade of relentless expansion of student numbers with little or no increase in funding, they are at breaking point already. Unless they get an influx of cash, and quick, they will not be able to continue to function.

So what should be done to relieve the university funding crisis? The Tories reckon that the answer is not to find any more money but to slash the number of students in higher education — a position echoed in last week’s Tribune by Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham who is a prominent top-up fees rebel, with his contention that on current trends, “a serious over-supply of graduates ... will be competing for a limited supply of graduate jobs”.

I’m sceptical about this line of argument for two reasons. First, I hold the old-fashioned socialist view that a university education is a good thing in itself, and that a civilised society should aspire to make one available to everyone capable of benefiting from one — which in my opinion means at very least the 50 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds the government wants in higher education. And second, it’s plain nonsense to think that we are anwhere near the limit of the economy’s ability to provide employment for graduates. There will always, of course, be a demand for plumbers and brickies and cleaners and so forth — but Britain’s only hope for prosperity in the globalised economy is an increasingly educated and skilled workforce.

So the universities need more cash. Where should it come from? General taxation is an option, and the Liberal Democrats have a coherent plan for bailing out higher education with a new top rate of income tax. One problem here, of course, is that overtly raising general taxation is anathema to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown: it just won’t happen. Another is that a simple increase in general taxation would not guarantee a continuing income stream to the universities: it would have to be hypothecated to prevent the Treasury diverting it elsewhere at some point in the future when university funding is not the flavour of the month.

A graduate tax (which would also have to be hypothecated) would be less of a problem politically. But it wouldn’t raise any money for years unless it were imposed on everyone who has ever taken a degree — a great idea in principle, though it immediately runs into the insurmountableproblem that the Inland Revenue has no way of identifying which taxpayers are graduates and which are not.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve been driven reluctantly to the conclusion that top-up fees have three serious advantages over the other options that have been floated. First, they are politically feasible: they do not offend against New Labour’s antipathy to overt increases in taxation, and there is no obvious practical obstacle to their implementation. Second, they deliver money at onceto the universities. And third, they will continue to deliver money to the universities regardless of future Treasury whims.

This is not to say that top-up fees are perfect. The government’s current plans might evolve towards allowing universities to charge what they like, which would genuinely create a two-tier higher education system in which elite institutions effectively exclude debt-averse working-class students. As the scheme now stands, however, the debts involved will be small, interest-free and repayable only when graduates are reasonably well-off. I’m sorry, but as a way of getting money into the universities, it’s rather neat.

4 December 2003


Stephen Marks, review of Regime Change by Christopher Hitchens (Penguin, £5.99) and Bush in Babylon: the recolonisation of Iraq by Tariq Ali (Verso, £13), Tribune, January 2 2004

These two appalling books have more in common than I expected. Their two authors, former comrades in arms, are now on opposite sides of the Iraq war barricades. Each has employed his own richly distinctive polemical style. Each starts from an initial one-sided but sound premise, and proceeds from there on automatic pilot, with little reference to the complex reallity of Iraq.

Hitchens’s starting point is the undeniable fact that Saddam’s tyranny was one of the most odious on the face of the earth whose disappearance must be reckoned a blessing. From this it is clear - to him at least - that the US and its ally are the “good guys” fighting for democracy against “Islamo-fascism” (the link with al Qaida being assumed as axiomatic) and that “the government and people of these United States are now at war with the forces of reaction”. Those who dissent from this Manichaean view are to be treated with the contempt appropriate for appeasers, fellow-travellers with tyranny, and apologists for fascism.

That there are a few considerations to be put in the other pan of the scale is either ignored or ridiculed away with arguments that would discredit a school debating society on a bad day. In particular, the idea that America’s determination ot go to war, UN or no UN, might fatally subvert any notion of a structure of international legality, is neatly sidestepped by debunking the notion of international legality itself with a brutal cynicism which even some hardened neo-con ideologues would hesitate to engage in unless pre-fortified with a few stiff drinks.

Eroding the key distinction between pre-emptive and preventive wars? Well, aren’t all wars preventive? Wouldn’t the world be a safer place for more preventive wars? As for the crummy old “just war” criteria - why, “one wonders how the theory of just war...ever managed to endorse the use of force”. So much, evidently, for a thousand years of western culture’s attempt to come to terms with the ethical bounds of warfare.

As for the effect of the war on Muslim and Arab opinion, and thus on the possibility of winning support for the real “war on terrorism” - why, the brave Hitch refuses to “meekly avoid the further disapproval of those who hate me enough already”.

There can be few things more irresponsible than Hitchens’s philistine dismissal of the key distinction between the terrorists themselves and the wider layers without whose passive acquiescence the terrorists could not operate. That a naked and cynical display of American power, on a patently confected excuse, might enrage a sufficient proportion of Arab and Muslim opinion actually to enlarge the layer of potential sympathisers appears either not to have occurred to him, or to have been ignored for the easier consolations of a quick debating point.

Almost all the dictatorships to have fallen since 1945 have done so without external military intervention. The alternative - which was never tried, and was actively opposed by Bush’s father in 1991 - was to help the Iraqis themselves to overthrow Saddam, or at least not to prevent them from doing so by crippling civil sanctions.

In the absence of an Iraqi civil society forged through that struggle, the occupation forces have no way of dealing with the Saddamite and fundamentalist resistance than by scorched-earth trigger-happy tactics which enrage the public and strengthen the insurgents - or by co-opting and strengthening reactionary tribal and sectarian leaders.

Of course it can be argued that Saddam’s regime was so uniquely oppressive that no internal overthrow was possible - but not by Hitchens, who believes that the regime was “on the verge of implosion” and that intervention was needed to rescue Iraq from “mere anarchy and revenge”.

At least Tariq Ali’s offering has the merit of reminding us of Iraq’s combative and militant history of resistance to foreign domination dressed up as “liberation” and to “preparation for self-government” (in the guise of the mandate system) as cover for the installation of a client regime by the superpower of the day.

He also supplies an entertaining postscript in the form of a collection of Hitchens 1991 polemics against the first Gulf war.

But that’s about it. For the rest, he cannot get beyond his initial insight that US motives were imperialist, and that Iraq is now an occupied country. From this, it appears to him to follow that all those collaborating with the occupation authority or participating in the governing council are “jackals” and “Vichyites” against whom we should support the distasteful crew of Saddamites and fundamentalists who appear to make up the “resistance”.

Since the collapse of Saddam a multitude of political parties, trade unions and workers organisations, independent newspapers and religious groups have sprung up. The great majority appear to combine relief at the fall of Saddam with intense suspicion of the occupiers. What is their view - or range of views - on the way forward? We are not told.

Most Iraqi parties - including the Communist Party and the more radical Worker Communist Party - demanded a provisional government drawn from an assembly convened by the UN, not the US. When this did not materialise, the US was compelled to concede a governing council which, though not sovereign, had more powers than the US had intended. The CP agreed to participate in it, the WCP opposed it, but both oppose the armed resistance groups, whose actions seem aimed at preventing the resumption of any sort of normal life, and therefore of any independent civil society.

Again, Ali gives us no information on any of this, no analysis or description of any of the diverse political forces inside or outside the governing council, or any idea of the range of political debate which must be raging in Iraq. Mind you, there is some glimmering of an awareness that the majority of Iraqis may not support the “resistance”: “This is not to imply that the whole country is desperate for a protracted war. If anything the opposite is the case. If the occupation succeeds in stabilising the country and if basic amenities are restored together with some semblance of normality then a Vichy-style operation staffed by local jackals could succeed, if only for a limited period...Were the Iraqi Communist Party, a section of the Kurdish organisations and the Shia to take such a plunge [ie to back armed resistance] it would become virtually impossible for the US to hold onto Iraq indefinitely.”

In other words - most Iraqis currently do not support the “resistance”, and political parties with mass support believe in working within the governing council, and are carrying their base with them in varying degrees... though why their influence should be so crucial in denying support to the “resistance” if they amount to no more than “jackals”, we are not told.

It is bizarre and not a little sad to see how some on the Left see the need to fit post-war Iraq into a mechanical "one size fits all" anti-imperialist framework and to treat all responses as equally and self-evidently collaborationist apart from armed resistance (and who has the guns from the old regime)? Imagine drafting the leaflets asking former political prisoners and trade unionists to stand arm in arm with their gaolers in support of Ali's analysis.

While Ali’s book will tell you a lot about obscure factional manoeuverings among Communist and Ba’athist party leaders 40 years ago, there is literally no more than the above about the attitudes of the Iraqi people today. Those interested in helping the Iraqi people build an alternative to American imperialism, Ba’athist totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism will have to look elsewhere.

1 December 2003


The Guardian carries a story today on the takeover of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament by a coalition of Trotskyists (Socialist Action) and Stalinists (Communist Party of Britain), for which click here. Its sole source is a document written by Jimmy Barnes, who has been the organiser of Trade Union CND since some time in the 1980s, when as I remember he was a stalwart of the Communist Party of Great Britain (not the same thing as the CPB) -- but the story is largely accurate, if a bit long in the tooth. Socialist Action (click here for a libertarian socialist take and here for a dissident Trotskyist perspective) and the CPB were pretty much the only organised political groups to take any notice of CND after it imploded as a mass organisation in the wake of the 1990-91 Gulf war, and their influence inside CND had been growing for some time before their candidates won an effective majority on CND's ruling bodies at the campaign's annual conference in September. Still, better late than never . . .