The Marxist cell in Number 10
Adam LeBor investigates the former communist cult that has found common cause with the prime minister and the Brexiteer Conservative right
This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Back in the early 1980s, when I was studying politics at Leeds University, I had a lengthy reading list of dense, important books. But my favourite work, at best tangentially related to my course, was a tattered pamphlet called “Go Fourth and Multiply”. The pun was a reference to the Fourth International, the international revolutionary socialist movement formed by supporters of Leon Trotsky in 1938 in opposition to the Third International, aka the Comintern, the official pro-Moscow communist organisation. After Trotsky’s murder in 1940, the organisation eventually split — spawning a myriad of factions, groupings and positions, one strand of which eventually morphed into Britain’s Revolutionary Communist Party.
Written by John Sullivan, a veteran left-wing activist, “Go Fourth” is a deeply knowledgeable and often hilarious satire on Britain’s would-be revolutionaries. I was not a Trotskyist, but I was firmly on the left. My years at Jewish schools, studying religious texts and the nuances of Talmudic interpretation, gave me an unexpected affinity for doctrinal disputes over how many cadre members could protest on the head of a pin.
My favourite grouping was the Revolutionary Workers Party, a tiny bunch of Labour Party entryists (not to be confused with the Workers Revolutionary Party). One of the RWP’s demands, that the Soviet Union should not be distracted by pacifist deviations but must launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the capitalist West, was, noted Sullivan, “generally played down when canvassing”.
Amid the Life of Brian knockabout, “Go Fourth” was also astonishingly prescient about the rise of lifestyle and gender politics now tearing the left apart. For all its factionalism, there was a time when the Trotskyist movement and its thinkers represented a serious alternative to Stalinism and domination by Moscow — which is why the Soviet secret police killed so many Trotskyists during the Spanish civil war, and ultimately Trotsky himself. But by the 1970s British Trotskyism was a long way from the battlegrounds of Spain. Writing about the International Socialists (IS), the precursor of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), O’Sullivan observed:
The IS group had always been sceptical about middle-class lifestyle fads, but it was clear that if the middle-class members were not to lead the revolution, they would have to be allowed to indulge their personal fetishes; so Gay Lib, Ecology and Life-Stylism were authorised as politically relevant.
The RCP and its successor organisations have achieved a success of which its rivals could only dream
After this lurch Guardianwards, a Marxist hard core split off from the IS to form the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG). The RCG was staunchly anti-imperialist and gave unconditional support to national liberation movements. Its newspaper was (still is) called Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!. RCG members, noted Sullivan, made “a great point of declaring loudly that that they maintain secrecy about where they live and work” and insisted on using aliases even in surroundings where they were well-known.
Naturally, the RCG itself soon split. A group of inner critics were expelled in 1976 and formed the Revolutionary Communist Tendency, which then became the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Many of the factions and parties listed by Sullivan have faded away or have been absorbed into Momentum, the leftist entryists who have taken over part of the Labour Party, although IS — now the SWP — remains influential on the far left. The original RCG also staggers on. But the RCP no longer exists, dissolving itself in the late 1990s. Its publications — the Next Step newspaper, the magazines Living Marxism and LM — have all ceased publication.
Yet the RCP and its successor organisations have achieved a success of which its rivals could only dream. Left-wing entryists once sought to embed themselves in the Labour Party and turn a democratic socialist party into a revolutionary one. The RCP’s alumni may no longer be described, or even describe themselves, as left-wing, but they are now deeply embedded into a power structure they once sought to destroy. Like Antonio Gramsci, they believed in a long march through the institutions, and they have realised their odyssey.
This willingness to engage made the party unique on the left, says Frank Furedi
Boris Johnson counts one ally of the post-RCP network as one of the five women he admires the most, a sentiment shared by many of his colleagues. A leading ex-member with a high media profile has recently been raised to the peerage. Former party members write for national newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and Spectator and frequently appear on national radio and television. High-profile writers, academics and politicians appear with RCP alumni at public events. As old ideas about class and economics are replaced by wokeist struggles over gender and identity, there is a growing gap in the marketplace of ideas. Former RCP members are filling it, influencing the national discourse on issues including race relations, Brexit, lockdown, feminism, women’s rights, personal freedoms and autonomy. So how did a fringe group of former leftist revolutionaries become so influential?
Flashback to Leeds university in the early 1980s. I am standing in front of a table in the student union, piled high with copies of the Next Step, and pamphlets about national liberation struggles. The activist on the other side is friendly and approachable. We talk about left-wing politics. I soon sense there is something different about him and his comrades. Unlike the activists of the SWP, or, even worse the Militant Tendency (surely the left’s dreariest sect ever) he seems interested in debate, not just spouting party dogma. And unlike the SWP, the RCP did not try to close down the Jewish Society because of its support for Israel. In fact they did not want to no-platform anyone, even members of the British National Party. We don’t agree on much, but it’s an interesting discussion.
This willingness to engage made the party unique on the left, says Frank Furedi. Now emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, Furedi was the chairman of the RCP’s political committee and its main theoretician, writing under the name Frank Richards. “We tried to transcend the left-right divide. Lots of left-wingers said we were not really left-wing because we did not speak their language. We wanted to have an experimental approach and not repeat the problems of the past.”
Maybe, I reply, but the party did have the words “Revolutionary” and “Communist” in its name.
“We struggled to find the right name. I never liked its connotations of the Soviet Union and China.” Did RCP members really believe that a Marxist revolution was imminent in 1980s Britain? Furedi dodges the question. “The challenge we faced was to create the political foundation for something more serious. We emphasised that we needed to develop our intellectual resources. We did not want yes people. We kept them out. The idea was to develop ideas. Our biggest failure was that we only went so far. We were too isolated, too small to develop sophisticated ideas for a complex world that was evolving.”
Compared to many of its rivals on the left, the RCP ran a sophisticated operation. Its publications such as the Next Step and Living Marxism, were slickly designed and produced. Like every good Leninist group, the party set up front organisations to broaden its appeal and bring in new supporters. The Irish Freedom Movement supported the Republican cause. Workers Against Racism protested against deportations. The party organised conferences grandiosely called “Preparing for Power”.
Former members can now be found across the white-collar sector. Oscar, now in his early fifties and working in the media, spent several years in the RCP in London during his late teens. “At first I was interested because RCP members were better-dressed and better-looking than the SWP. They had a sharp style: black bomber jackets, greasy Doc Martens. There were lots of good-looking girls as well. Then I went to a few meetings and they were interesting and thought-provoking.”
Living Marxism’s determined contrarianism would lead it down some strange and ultimately fatal paths
Unlike many of his fellow party members, who were university students or graduates, Oscar (not his real name) left school at 16. At the RCP, he began to learn to think, to analyse and question orthodoxies, even left-wing ones. He was not patronised, but was taken seriously. He has fond memories of his time in the party. “I used to sell the Next Step outside the Tube station in east London with a very tall skinhead. We used to talk about everything. He was always very kind to me. We were encouraged to read a lot and to talk about what we read. There was always a party line, but we discussed everything. A lot of my thinking now, about Brexit, the failure of the mainstream left, nuclear power, the erosion of women’s rights, dates back to that time.”
The RCP may have been more nimble than other far-left groupings, but it had several immutable party lines. The Irish Freedom Movement gave unconditional support to the Irish people in their struggle against British rule. After the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984, killing five people and seriously wounding many more, an editorial in the Next Step declared:
We support unconditionally the right of the Irish people to carry out their struggle for national liberation in whatever way they choose. We neither support nor condemn any particular tactic the republican movement pursues, whether it is an electoral campaign or a bombing campaign.
Like all self-respecting revolutionaries, the RCP also had a theoretical journal, Living Marxism, later rebranded as LM. The magazine’s founding principles were to oppose censorship, bans and no-platforms, and to stand up for scientific rigour and for personal autonomy. Articles examined biotechnology, nuclear power and also critiqued environmentalism. An editorial opined: “Ours is an age of low expectations, when we are always being told what is bad for us, and life seems limited on all sides by restrictions, guidelines and regulations.”
Fine ideals, but the magazine’s determined contrarianism would lead it down some strange and ultimately fatal paths. Reading its coverage of foreign affairs, it often seemed the real villains were not the perpetrators of hideous human rights abuses and war crimes, but anyone in the West who wanted to stop such killings happening. Writing under the name “Fiona Foster”, a Living Marxism contributor visited Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, when 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were massacred, often by hand, over three months while the world did nothing.
Foster correctly noted that the newly-liberated country was sliding into a dangerous authoritarianism, where opponents of the new government disappeared, a trend that has greatly accelerated since. She also wrote: “The lesson that I would draw from my visit is that we must reject the term ‘genocide’ in Rwanda. It has been used inside and outside Rwanda to criminalise the majority of ordinary Rwandan people, to justify outside interference in the country’s affairs, and to lend legitimacy to a minority military government imposed on Rwanda by western powers.” Rwanda’s problem in 1994 was not too much “outside interference” but the lack of it to stop the slaughter.
By the late 1990s the RCP had dissolved itself. Class war was over, and the new battleground was over ideas. “We marked out new ground, developing ideas that were important and instrumental,” says Furedi. “A lot of the things we were arguing about were taken up by people who would now be surprised to know where they came from: about moral panics, risk, a commitment to personal autonomy and choice.” But the RCP’s reflexive opposition to Western intervention in foreign conflicts, reaching back to its roots in the Revolutionary Communist Group, still shaped its thinking — and continues to do so. Here there was no room for nuance.
In 1997 LM published an article by a German journalist called Thomas Deichmann, criticising western media coverage of the war in Bosnia. Under the headline “The picture that fooled the world”, Deichmann claimed that one of the best-known images of the conflict, footage of Fikret Alic, an emaciated Bosnian Muslim man behind barbed wire at the Serb-run Trnpolje concentration camp, had been misrepresented by ITN and other journalists. Deichmann also claimed that Trnopolje was not even a prison, but a “collection centre” for refugees who were free to come and go. Both claims were false but in line with the RCP/LM line that the Serbs, and the Milosevic regime, had been unfairly victimised during the Balkan wars. Alic later counted more than 100 scars from stabs, cuts and burns. He lost all his teeth, his nose and six ribs were broken and his skull was fractured by the guards.
The network of concentration camps set up by the Bosnian Serbs and the horrors that unfolded inside have been thoroughly documented by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The testimony of former inmates is freely available. See, for example, the account of Dr Idriz Merdzanic, who testified that at least 200 people were killed at Trnopolje and many others died because of lack of medication. I wrote a biography of Slobodan Milosevic and a study of the UN’s failures in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, Complicity with Evil. The evidence is overwhelming that the Yugoslav wars were primarily directed by the Serbian political and military leadership under Milosevic.
Their chosen tools were ethnic cleansing, the deployment of murderous paramilitaries, the sustained destruction of Bosnia’s Ottoman cultural heritage and massacres of civilians. This reached its crescendo at the 1995 Srebrenica genocide of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys. (Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian leader, and his militias were also responsible for war crimes, but he always played second fiddle to the Serbian leader.)
Unusually, ITN, its reporter Penny Marshall, and Ian Williams of Channel 4 sued LM for libel. They won. LM was bankrupted and closed down in 2000. But the battle for ideas continued on new fronts and in new arenas: Spiked, an online magazine, and the Academy of Ideas, which held events and festivals, where a faint echo of the RCP’s “Preparing for Power” conferences could be heard. LM luminaries such as Mick Hume and Brendan O’Neill began to be picked up by the national media. Hume became a columnist for The Times. O’Neill, Spiked’s editor, is a prolific contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator and is also a frequent guest on broadcast media, railing against Spiked bugbears such as lockdown and critical race theory. Deichmann has also contributed to Spiked.
Claire Fox, the founder of the Academy of Ideas, went on to become a frequent panellist on The Moral Maze on Radio 4, an MEP for the Brexit Party, and most recently a member of the House of Lords. “The RCP was an interesting party that had a lot of intellectual integrity,” she says. “I thought it was unique on the radical left, being able to look at an issue on its terms, in its historical specificity, not just left or right. That kind of thinking left its mark, and influenced the things I have done since. I emerged from it as someone who respected being open-minded, interested in reading and thinking.”
For Fox, the Academy is a continuation of her former profession of teacher, but taking debate and education into the public space. “I thought we needed a more enlivened public square. Back then nobody was doing live debates. Politics was becoming drab and technocratic.” Each year the Academy hosts the Battle of Ideas, bringing together hundreds of speakers to discuss and debate science, technology, arts, economic and society. This year’s festival was postponed because of Covid. Last year’s headline events included: “Woke corporations: responsible capitalism or virtue signalling?”, “From [Jordan] Peterson to incels: is there a generation of lost boys?” and “Gross-out feminism: is the political too personal?” The Academy’s high-profile speakers have included Lord Adonis, Mary Kaldor, Lord Glasman, Deborah Lipstadt, Katharine Birbalsingh and Elif Shafak.
The greatest issues facing society now are the assault on freedom and the loss of faith in people’s agency, says Fox. Radical leftists say that giving people freedom means the freedom to take the wrong decisions, a view shared by technocrats and managerialists, she argues. Fox’s time as a Brexit Party MEP brought her into the heart of the Brussels machine. “They would say, ‘We understand the best way to do things. We know what’s best for people.’ They don’t understand, they are too easily influenced by misinformation or demagogues.”
Such arguments can frequently be found at Spiked. The online magazine has evolved over the years into an eclectic showcase. Yet for all its commitment to free speech, the post-RCP/LM network’s pre-programmed contrarianism can also be intellectually limiting. It has consistently attacked environmentalism, describing it as “an ugly experiment”, a “racist ideology” and perhaps worst of all, a “capitalist experiment”. The West, its writers still often argue — in a throwback to LM’s position on Rwanda and Bosnia, itself rooted in the RCG — must not intervene anywhere.
If a cabal of right-wing billionaires are covertly funding Spiked’s operation, they are not doing a very good job
Tara McCormack, an academic at Leicester University and a panellist at the Battle of Ideas, is a frequent contributor, writing about the Middle East. McCormack is also a member of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, a fringe cluster of academics devoutly opposed to Western intervention in Syria. The group even claims there are “strong prima facie grounds” to believe that the White Helmets rescue organisation — whose members dig the dead and wounded out of the rubble after the Assad regime’s airstrikes, and many of whom have been killed — is part of a “US/UK information operation designed to underpin regime change in Syria as other independent journalists have argued”.
McCormack goes further. She tweeted in February 2018: “It is also an established fact that a) the White Helmets are basically Al Q [Al Qaeda] they provide most of the reporting from Jihadi held areas and b) that hospitals are used as bases by these groups.”
Spiked also provoked outrage on the left by accepting $470,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation for its US operation to fund events and debates around free speech. Koch is a billionaire and one of the richest men in the world, and is also a libertarian and arch free-marketeer. But Koch, like Spiked, also defies the conventional left-right divide.
In 2015 Charles and his late brother David worked with President Obama in a bipartisan effort to reform the US criminal justice system, especially the decades-long sentences doled out for minor drug offences, often to black men. If a cabal of right-wing billionaires are covertly funding Spiked’s operation, they are not doing a very good job. The 2019 accounts show the publishing company’s net assets at £9,761.
Among spiked’s regular contributors during its early years was a young woman called Munira Mirza. Born in 1978 to Pakistani immigrants, Mirza grew up in Oldham, where she attended a comprehensive school, and then studied at Oxford University, where she became influenced by RCP/LM ideas. After Oxford she studied for a PhD in sociology at the University of Kent, under Furedi. He remembers her as “very focused” and “independent-minded”.
Mirza’s numerous articles for Spiked, which are available online, take the familiar RCP/LM starting position, especially on race, ethnicity and integration, to a new and deeper level, one shaped by her own experience as a young woman of Pakistani descent, growing up in an often rough Northern city. The headlines give a good sense of her thoughts: “We’re creating a hierarchy of victimhood” and “Britain’s homegrown identity crisis”. In “Making Muslims into a race apart”, published in August 2006, Mirza noted, “With regards to freedom of speech, the growth of race relations, speech guideline and diversity training are all institutional reminders of the greatest moral commandment of our time: Thou shalt not cause offence.”
A decade on from her Spiked articles, Mirza’s concerns about multiculturalist pieties had only strengthened
That same year Mirza started work as development director at Policy Exchange (PX), a new conservative think-tank that aimed to modernise and remodel the party along Cameron-Gove reformist lines. Her 2007 paper, “Living Apart Together”, co-authored with Abi Senthilkumaran and Zein Ja’far, drew on her thinking in her Spiked articles and developed them further. It argued that multiculturalism had divided citizens by culture, religion and ethnicity instead of fostering an inclusive national identity.
“Islamism is only one expression of a wider cultural problem of self-loathing and confusion in the West. One way to tackle this is to bring to an end the institutional attacks on national identity — the counterproductive cancellation of Christmas festivities, the neurotic bans on displays of national symbols and the sometimes crude anti-Western bias of history lessons — which can create feelings of defensiveness and resentment.”
The following year Mirza moved to City Hall, to work for Boris Johnson, then mayor of London, as his cultural adviser. Johnson promoted her to deputy mayor for education and culture and she became one of his most valued aides. There she did useful work: helping to set up the £24 million London Schools Excellence Fund; launching a scheme for families to donate musical instruments to the less well-off; bringing fizz to the city’s urban fabric by promoting pop-ups, buskers and skateboarders.
In a 2018 interview with the Triggernometry podcast, hosted by Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster, Mirza said she had “always been suspicious of consensus and norms and wanted to question what I see as orthodoxies around certain things”. A decade on from her Spiked articles, her concerns about multiculturalist pieties had only strengthened. An ideology that was “meant to be about equity and fairness and liberating people from oppression” had become “quite rigid and oppressive . . . whatever was progressive and positive about multiculturalism, a large part of that has evolved into something which I think is holding people back. I’ve always thought that was very counter-productive for ethnic minorities.”
Mirza is now director of the Number 10 Policy Unit, which provides advice directly to the prime minister. “Dr Mirza” as Boris Johnson likes to call her, is, he says, one of the five women in his life that he admires the most, together with his grandmother and Boudicca. Last June he charged Mirza with setting up the new government commission on racial inequalities, provoking further outrage on the left and among race relations professionals. (It is a dark irony that Mirza’s libertarian credentials have brought her into the heart of Britain’s most authoritarian government in modern history, stripping away centuries-worth of basic freedoms and civil liberties, while a docile parliament accedes to its whims.)
The success of the RCP/LM network in embedding itself into the establishment, and shaping the national debate has provoked anger, doubtless fuelled by envy, among much of the mainstream left. Mirza’s appointment in particular has triggered a special anger, one reserved for women of colour who show independence of thinking. (See also: Priti Patel and Kemi Badenoch, minister for equalities.) Spiked has “become an influential force in shifting the Overton window to the right in the UK”, lamented Evan Smith in the Guardian.
If the old left is retreating, the RCP/LM network is ready for battle
Perhaps Spiked’s real sin is to move the Overton Window, the space in which ideas and policies are considered “acceptable” to the mainstream, away from the Guardian and its bien-pensant allies. A quick glance at Spiked’s content in early November 2020 shows articles on, for example, how lockdown is hitting the poor hardest; the way the American mainstream media sat on the Biden laptop story; a call for solidarity with France over the terror attacks; a punchy critique of how women are now being erased linguistically; and the media’s addiction to spreading Covid terror. None of these themes are inherently right-wing. Labelling them as such says more about the poverty of supposedly left-wing current thought than anything else.
For now the class struggle has been replaced by a culture war around race and identity. Class-based politics are, or rather were, fought in the workplace and the boardroom. Identity politics’ culture war is unfolding in our schools, universities, media, public sector and, increasingly, corporations. Wokeism is capitalism’s greatest ally, the gift that keeps on giving. Why bother with paying your workforce a decent wage and giving them paid holidays when you can hire and fire workers on zero-hour contracts, keep them in a permanent state of poverty and insecurity but drape a rainbow flag on the company Twitter account?
Its reflexive, even manic, aversion to international intervention aside, the post-RCP/LM network overlaps with Blue Labour, the social-democratic, communitarian and patriotic wing of the Labour Party. Maurice Glasman, the Labour peer, academic and one of the founders of Blue Labour, spoke at the 2019 Battle of Ideas. Glasman has also given a lengthy interview to Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked, about Brexit, Blue Labour and the demonisation of the working class.
But Blue Labour’s openness to debate and radical thinking make it an outlier in today’s Labour Party. Any hopes that the party under Keir Starmer might pivot towards a nuanced patriotism, class-based politics and support for feminism have not been realised. Outspoken female MPs such as Rosie Duffield are not supported by the woke left. Instead, they are assailed by it, while being abandoned by the leadership.
The culture war is the new front line, says Furedi. If the old left is retreating, the RCP/LM network is ready for battle. “There is a sense of detachment from the past, from the community, from the nation, from any kind of commitment. Old-school Labourites tried here and there to stop it. Otherwise, every major political party and a section of the political establishment bought into this.” The legacy of Western civilisation is being called into question, says Furedi. “The unravelling of conservatism has allowed the woke warriors to walk through the doors of business, universities and the public sector. The people around Spiked, the former RCP, can defend conservative values better than the conservatives themselves.”
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