The news in July 2020 that Claire Fox, formerly a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (UK 1978 vintage; it was originally known as the Revolutionary Communist Tendency), was to ascend to the House of Lords proved to be the cause of an outpouring of inconsequential froth by British lefties. This, so we were told, was proof-positive as to the uniquely awful characteristics of the old RCP, its magazine, Living Marxism (latterly LM), and its mediocre successor, the Spiked website. Unfortunately for the protagonists of such ideas, former RCP members rather like this notion that they are unique as it feeds very nicely into their own hubristic narrative of being ‘elitist’ and ‘special’.
Actually, we need to undercut some of the narcissism that ‘left-wing critics’ (I use this designation in the loosest possible sense) continually feed by pointing out that figures such as Fox, Mick Hume and Frank Furedi (i.e. those that were previously incarcerated inside the RCP) are traitorous anti-communist turncoats but that does not mean the RCP as it manifested itself before its dissolution in 1997 was uniquely awful. When one looks closely at the RCP, the main thing that stands out is how much the organisation shared with the wider ‘Leninist’ left of the 1970s and 1980s.
It is nothing new for ‘Marxists’ to start espousing bourgeois ideas (although the ex-RCP is a novelty in the current period in that a clearly defined section of its old leadership has gone anti-communist). Indeed, what strikes one is that some of the most enthusiastic (and, often, ill-informed) electronic tub-thumpers against the old RCP – wittering on ad infinitum about the unique dastardly deeds of Furedi and so on – are those that have clearly absorbed the bourgeois politics of the working class. These are the strike-chasers; the habitual protestors and cheerleaders of the next demo; the ones who like to run around after ‘fascists’ (like Popular Frontist ‘hamsters on a wheel’, as Mike Macnair has characterised them); the protagonists of ‘good causes’; and the enthusiastic Corbynistas. When these people have to take a more formal political stand on an issue such as Brexit, they grope for the most amenable bourgeois idea: British nationalism or pretending the EU is a timeless arbiter of social progress. We now begin to see the main function of the notion that the RCP was uniquely awful. It acts as a cover-up for leftists who have also travelled to their political right over recent decades. By focusing on the most extreme form of political collapse they subconsciously hope this will cover their own retreat.
Former leaders of the RCP such as Michael Fitzpatrick agree with the contemporary left that the organisation was very special. He wrote an entirely forgettable chapter in a recent book on the British left that merely re-hashed the RCP’s own past rationalisations and myths about itself.[i] (Reading it made for a bemusing illusion of understanding rather less about the RCP than I knew before.)
So, for example, we are told by Fitzpatrick: “The dialectical interaction of human subject and objective forces lies at the heart of the Marxist conception of historical development. As human consciousness grows through active intervention in the world it becomes a factor in the transformation of social reality. From its emergence in the 1970s to its demise in the 1990s, the [RCP]… emphasised the active, subjective aspect of this relationship.”[ii]
If the RCP had been the only organisation on the British left during its existence to emphasise this point then it would indeed have been very special. Unfortunately, this rendering of Georg Lukács’s History and class consciousness was relatively commonplace on the post-1968 left and it became influential in the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers Party [SWP]). If one replaced the word ‘RCP’ with ‘SWP’, the above quote from Fitzpatrick could have come from any SWP mediocrity from the past 40 years. But, of course, as Fitzpatrick does admit, the roots of the RCP were in a dispute inside the International Socialists in 1973.[iii] Like all other revolutionary organisations, the RCP was the result of another unremarkable left-wing split, so little wonder that it emoted ideas gleaned from Tony Cliff’s bedraggled mothership.
Other nonsense in Fitzpatrick’s desperate attempt to make the RCP sound different is the quaint notion that “in contrast with the spirit of amenable coexistence that prevailed among other factions, the RCP maintained a high level of polemical engagement with the left”.[iv] Now, many things have been said about The Leninist newspaper in the 1980s but I’m sure its editors would have been somewhat amused if they had been told they were animated by a “spirit of amenable coexistence” with the left given that the paper was full of polemic with other groups (including the RCP). Plenty of other papers from the period (Workers Power, Red Action et al) had major polemics with opposing factions. I can also tell Fitzpatrick that after I stopped being a supporter of the RCP and became, briefly, a supporter of Workers Power, it didn’t make any change to the irrational firewall of sectarian hostility that you generally encountered from larger sects such as Militant and the SWP.
Although I don’t agree with how he frames his analysis, ex-RCP branch organiser Don Milligan partially offers up a welcome antidote to the hubris of Fitzpatrick. Milligan had been a member of the Young Communist League and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as well as two smaller Trotskyist sects: the International Socialists and Workers’ Fight (I’m guessing the latter was the organisation led by Sean Matgamna), and so has no problem locating the loyalty and activism that the RCP gained from its members beyond “psychology or personality traits of the RCP’s leaders or those of the members”. Milligan adds: “The so-called ‘sect-like’ behaviour of the RCP was an integral part of the communist experience represented by Stalinist, Maoist and Trotskyist traditions. It was an intrinsically authoritarian tradition in which the society’s interests were represented by the working class, the party represented the working class’s interests, and the party’s political committee represented the party’s interests.”[v] Locating the RCP in a shared experience of ‘Leninism’ (essentially a bowdlerised and militarised perversion of pre-1917 Bolshevism) is the correct manner of approaching the question.
In fact, the RCP was thoroughly recognisable as a ‘Leninist’ sect, sharing the following facets with other groups:
- A ‘cult of non-personality’ around one, usually male, leading member, with a small coterie of central committee ‘lieutenants’. Usually, this group was involved in the production of keynote articles in group publications. The RCP’s leader was Frank Furedi (writing under the pseudonym ‘Frank Richards’), while Fitzpatrick (writing under the name of ‘Mike Freeman’) was one of the leading lieutenants.
- A vertical, top-down, system of authority/decision-making, based on ‘democratic centralism’ that was actually bureaucratic centralism. Milligan refers to this in the RCP as “the arcane procedure where a dictatorial clique at the head of an organisation routinely orchestrate[s] the election of themselves and a shifting constellation of leading comrades”.[vi] The submission to this system by the wider party was usually voluntary. I only have the limited experience of being part of an RCP supporters’ group (more or less a collection of active sympathisers who made financial contributions to the group) in 1989-90. Meetings of the group were generally constructed around fully fledged members instructing supporters on the RCP’s line and giving out tasks; the gatherings were often interesting but never collegiate.
- The public gagging of minorities. In line with other ‘Leninist’ organisations, the RCP gagged its minorities in public and the central committee spoke with one voice, hiding its differences to a wider membership and supporters. The RCP’s publications were, in the main, well-produced and well-written but arguments between RCP members on fundamental issues did not appear. Rather, newspapers such as The next step followed the deathly dull template used by Militant and Socialist Worker, whereby letters sent in tended to be from RCP supporters anecdotally confirming this or that facet of the group’s line. However, unlike its larger sectarian rivals, The next step did occasionally publish hostile or questioning letters, but only from outside the RCP.
- Building front organisations. The RCP used this well-worn left-wing tactic, building fronts out of facets of its political line in order to have a broader sea of potential recruits in which to swim, hopefully without any attendant rivals on the revolutionary left. RCP fronts included Workers Against Racism, the Irish Freedom Movement and the Campaign Against Militarism.
- Unique selling point/USP. Groups such as the RCP adapted to the fact that there was a gaggle of similar organisations ‘building the revolutionary party’ along ‘Leninist’ lines, by over-emphasising this or that political tactic or line in order to differentiate themselves from the buggers on the other side of the road. The RCP became particularly addicted to this tactic, which appeared to morph into the contrarianism that still manifests itself in Spiked. In the early 1980s, the RCP had its own strapline to reinforce its USP, calling itself ‘the party of the future’. (The ‘future’ wasn’t a particularly long time, in this instance.)
Just to reiterate, all of these factors were shared to a greater or lesser degree by the RCP’s sect rivals and there was nothing particularly unique in its dynamic in relation to ‘Leninist’ party-building routines.
The destruction of reason
Even the collapse of the RCP into stressing increasingly amorphous and cross-class themes around Enlightenment notions of human progress and reason (which is why Spiked will feature contrarian, reactionary figures if it thinks their views can be squared off with some residual shred of human reason) can actually be traced back to a very specific sect twitch.
In 1992, Furedi wrote his last interesting (and, perhaps, last Marxist) work entitled Mythical past, elusive future, which discussed the manner in which an authoritarian use of ‘history’ and the past was being pitched as a counterweight to the idea that humans shape their own history. Furedi’s book appeared (confirmed when one burrowed into the footnotes) to be based on Georg Lukács’s The destruction of reason (1952), which explored a previous collapse of bourgeois reason in Germany, leading to the irrational trends that preceded the rise of Hitler. Furedi argues of Lukács’s “otherwise excellent study”: “In line with the Popular Front tradition on this subject, the relation he draws between irrationalist trends in Germany and the subsequent emergence of fascism is too unmediated.”[vii] Actually, Lukács does bring out the contradictory aspects of theorists such as Heidegger rather well but, leaving this point of interpretation aside, Furedi’s emphasis on mediation is an interesting one. Sects don’t like to be encumbered with mediations from the outside world other than their own sect ideology and rationalisation. The classic example was the SWP’s half-addled ‘downturn theory’ of the 1980s, where it made the state of the class struggle fit alongside the fact that its organisation was experiencing difficulties. Similar issues lay behind the RCP’s ‘midnight in the century’ thesis of 1990, in which it was suggested that Marxism itself was in crisis.[viii] Fitzpatrick partly lets the cat out of the bag in this regard, admitting that the supposed end of the labour movement, and thus the ditching of all traditional left-wing activity, was related to the RCP’s own problems in building “a revolutionary party… [in] a mounting tide of reaction”.[ix] The RCP then proceeded to steadily ditch all its previous mediations (class, labour movement, party) in favour of a neutralised theory of a universal decline of human reason that no longer had any practical consequences. Thenceforth it was all just a word game and a route back to irrationality through a denial of the reality of class society. But it’s important to realise this reflected the RCP’s ‘Leninist’ sect inheritance of having to ditch uncomfortable realities in the more prosaic cause of self-preservation.
Sensing your hostility
One does need to account for the hostility generated towards the RCP from the rest of the left. While we can’t find that in any radical difference with other ‘Leninist’ groups of the period, we can locate it in the more determined way that the RCP and groups such as The Leninist/CPGB-PCC (which emerged in the same period as the RCP) organised their cadre, organisation and finances. Both the RCP and The Leninist recognised that the ‘official’ communist movement and British Trotskyism had been on a long degenerative curve and that their politics and cadre organisation had suffered.[x]
Thus, when groups such as the RCP and the CPGB-PCC appeared with professional-looking publications and with a modus operandi of determined and disciplined work, punching beyond their numerical weight (although the RCP numbered its members in the low hundreds rather than the tens of the CPGB-PCC in the late 1980s/early 1990s[xi]), this was an affront to larger sects on the far left, such as Militant, the SWP and the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), who shared some of the ‘Leninist’ theory of deploying disciplined vanguards but, in practice, were looser, disaggregated heaps of ‘dues payers’, with only the central organisation working in anything like a disciplined manner.[xii] What it meant was a partial equalisation in terms of political impact and party finance. It was a common tale in the CPGB-PCC/The Leninist that individual members of its faction were raising more finance in a year than whole districts of the old ‘official’ CPGB.
Even anti-RCP jokes, such as the one that the group was the ‘SWP with hair gel’, were coded complaints as to the perceived professionalism of the RCP. The latter had worked out the basic lesson that arriving in a town centre on Saturday morning to sell papers looking like disorientated members of the Jethro Tull road crew was unlikely to be attractive. Both the RCP and The Leninist had to endure conspiratorial jibes about their sources of funding. (I was asked what it was like to be working for MI5 a few times by other lefties while selling The next step in Oxford; I replied that I liked it but didn’t think much of the hours.) The truth: that such groups could extract high amounts of commitment from small numbers of people, was, of course, highly vexatious to the larger sects, shuffling around in a half-hearted manner. This is still a large part of the animus directed towards the former RCP.
There have always been renegades, former Marxists who have changed sides in the class struggle. The bourgeois media has always trumpeted such individuals and groups. For example, Douglas Hyde was given huge amounts of publicity when he left the CPGB in 1949 to become a Catholic. The CPGB Eurocommunists around Marxism Today were given heaps of friendly press attention when they turned the magazine into a platform for reactionary anti-communist ideas in the 1980s. Spiked is no different in that it’s always useful to trumpet ex-RCP members as a means of pointing out that ‘Marxism doesn’t work’ and the road that figures such as Furedi can travel to become an accepted part of the bourgeois furniture. Neither does pointing out that the RCP, like the SWP that spawned it, fundamentally relied on the recruitment of students, help explain the nature of its degeneration.
The old ‘official’ CPGB was mostly a proletarian organisation in its sociological make-up and, although it was always on the fringes of British politics, even up to the 1970s it contained an important section of the British working class, acting as a formidable roadblock to competitors from its left. This make-up did not stop the CPGB voicing cross-class politics in the era of the Popular Front, neither did it stop communists marching behind the union jack and scabbing on strikes during the Second World War in its support of the Soviet Union. (As an aside, neither did it stop the petty-bourgeois Eurocommunists and their Marxism Today gaining ground.) This, frankly, would have been much more shocking, considering that the CPGB had been formed in the slipstream of Russia’s democratic revolution of 1917, than some mangy Spiked article voicing the drunken opinions of a mediocre right-wing tosser. We have more dramatic and important examples of collapse in our movement to spend much time discussing the RCP on this score.
[i] M Fitzpatrick ‘The point is to change it: a short account of the Revolutionary Communist Party’ in E Smith and M Worley (eds.) Waiting for the revolution: the British far left from 1956 Manchester 2017.
[ii] Ibid p218.
[iii] Ibid p221. The expellees formed the Revolutionary Communist Group, from which Furedi’s Revolutionary Communist Tendency was expelled in 1976.
[iv] Ibid p220.
[vii] F Furedi Mythical past, elusive future: history and society in an anxious age London 1992 p290n.
[viii] F Richards ‘Midnight in the century’ Living Marxism December 1990.
[ix] Fitzpatrick op cit p226.
[x] For the CPGB-PCC see https://communistpartyofgreatbritainhistory.wordpress.com/2020/07/05/foundation-cpgb-pcc/
[xi] Fitzpatrick says that the RCP reached around 200 members by the early 1990s. Fitzpatrick op cit p220.
[xii] In the CPB’s case, it is doubtful whether its centre had been effective from when it emerged as a split from the CPGB in 1988, given the critique that emerged in the group. See L Parker ‘Understanding the formation of the Communist Party of Britain’ in Smith and Worley op cit p267.
[…] the other hand, left historian Lawrence Parker has suggested that the RCP was ‘really nothing special’ and similar to other groups on the British left, such […]