A death in the ‘Leninist’ family: an internal RCP debate from 1995

A comrade recently found a Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) internal bulletin from August/September 1995 and has been kind enough to send it to me. It is rather clumsily titled ‘Our tasks and methods discussion’ and appears to be part of a set, with reference made to a previous edition in June 1995. RCP internal bulletins are thought to be scarce because the leadership carefully controlled their distribution, sinking its internal life under the Atlantis of an all-pervasive ‘security concern’. This hard-copy bulletin seems to have been circulated to supporters, as well as members, so this perhaps explains why it escaped the net.

In the RCP, the ‘supporter’ category was composed of people who were not full members. They didn’t have voting rights on RCP policy, had restricted access to the group’s internal life and wouldn’t have paid full dues. However, this needs to be qualified. Many supporters, in terms of their financial contribution, level of activity and expectations placed on them would have easily been above the level of ‘members’ in other sects such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), where, technically, a corpse could be a member given that an inability to pay dues, attend events or breathe wouldn’t necessarily count against you.

It would be foolish to construct too grand a narrative from one bulletin but, nevertheless, this document furnishes ample evidence of an argument that I have made previously: the RCP was not special or unique. It was an absolutely bog-standard ‘bureaucratic centralist’, ‘Leninist’ sect that had many undemocratic and obnoxious features in common with the rest of the British revolutionary left.[i] The RCP’s current iteration, Spiked, was not the product of an uber-confident leadership boldly seeking out new intellectual avenues; it was rather the result of an ignominious collapse all too familiar in the historical itinerary of the British and international left (which doesn’t of course mean that Spiked need have turned out as awfully as it has done). Even in its last flickers of life before dissolution in 1996 there were still obviously supporters and members of the RCP who were thinking as Marxists: diagnosing the failures of its then leadership and attempting to extrapolate lessons for the future.

The document began with an ‘Editorial’ from Pam Lawrence (some of these names will have been pseudonyms). Lawrence contextualised discussions that RCP members and supporters had been having over summer 1995 around the organisation’s understanding of the period of reaction that had been ushered in by the early 1990s, and first dealt with by Frank Richards (Furedi) in his ‘Midnight in the century’ piece in November 1990.[ii] Lawrence summed this up as: “What are the tasks for revolutionaries in the current period? How should we engage with an audience [that] more and more visualises all problems faced in society as resulting from humans themselves rather than the social system? The end of left and right, the suspension of class struggle, the individuation of people’s outlook, throws up many questions that we need to answer.” (All quotes from above-mentioned document unless otherwise specified.) The idea then was to update the organisation’s founding document, ‘Our tasks and methods’ (originally issued in 1975, when the leaders of what was to become the RCP were a part of the Revolutionary Communist Group), for the mid-1990s.

Wham, bam, thank you, Pam
Lawrence recommended two bland contributions: one from leader Furedi and another (a crushingly dull book review that merely elaborated ‘false critiques’ then fashionable) by James Heartfield. Lawrence then started to wag her finger at RCP comrades. After suggesting that discussion was needed on gaps in the group’s revolutionary theory, she said: “Contributions are most useful when they represent a synthesis of the author’s experiences.” Those of us familiar with this type of thing will recognise this as a call for anecdotes. The old CPGB used to fill weekly magazines such as World News and Comment with indifferent observations and comment on local activity. The reason such sect leaderships love anecdotes is because they essentially reproduce the reality of an atomised membership as against the centre. Anecdotalism in left-wing circles rarely questions the wisdom of a group’s overall strategy; rather it dwells on the successes and failures of applying a certain political line. Indeed, one of the RCP’s internal critics featured in this document, Gavin Collins of Camden, London, suggested that: “The party has not collectivised experience – in fact it has intensified individualism, often countering political problems with some shining example of a successful activity.” Lawrence’s call for a “synthesis of the author’s experiences” was thus slanted against the membership and internal critics.

She then followed with two highly revealing points about the RCP’s awful internal culture. Lawrence complained about some critical contributions from the group’s supporters, stating that they were  “… speculating with a subject – internal party life – of which the author has no experience. Just as I could not write convincingly about the kind of work a postman or a doctor does, so supporters are not in a position to write about matters relating to the internal mechanism of the party…” (As an aside, presumably Postman Pat would only then be valid if we were absolutely sure that the writer had the requisite Royal Mail experience.) In other words, the usual ‘Leninist’ submission to higher authority was desired and supporters had no business poking their noses into the actions of the leadership. Lawrence thus confirmed, and moronically paraded as a positive, the centralised, top-down undemocratic culture remarked upon by other RCP members and supporters in the bulletin.

Dennis H referred to issues bought up by supporters at a recent London aggregate where they “expressed the feeling that they did not know what was going on”. Billy O’Boyle from Camden argued that the RCP’s “structures, and in particular the reliance of much of the membership upon the leadership for their world view, has left us unable even to collectively grapple with current problems in anything other than a rhetorical fashion”. Gavin Collins talked of a “growing gap between the knowledge of [Living Marxism] writers and the ordinary member”. Ben Brack worked a similar awareness into a more comprehensive critique of the group’s internal culture, familiar to anyone who has been in a ‘Leninist’ organisation: “… the same core group of people maintain control of the party and show little real accountability; criticism is treated as hostility to the organisation; internal debates are uncritical… so-called ‘security’ concerns are used to insulate the real debates within the party and political and theoretical documents are treated as ‘top-secret’ dossiers for the chosen few…” 

Lawrence replied: “If Ben Brack is really serious about his criticisms of the party, then it seems strange that he continues to remain a supporter of the organisation.” Bugger off, in other words. Readers will be more than familiar with this ‘Leninist’ trait of treating serious internal critics: elaboration and application of groupthink is acceptable; questioners of strategy need to be hustled towards the exit. Other RCP activists stressed the amateur psychology used to treat those with political differences. Gavin Collins argued: “If you have a political problem about strategy, [comrades] will often not respond politically but ask you if you are ‘depressed’ or ‘pessimistic’, like market researchers quizzing consumers in the high street about their latest spending plans.” This, then, is the pulsating intellectual ferment that existed inside the RCP in 1995.

Preparing for purgatory
Looking at the contribution from Furedi (‘Richards’), one is struck by its political paucity given that this was supposed to be a fundamental reappraisal of the RCP’s methods. Furedi was seeking a process of “theoretical clarification” in what had clearly been a bruising period for his organisation: “The central lesson [that the RCP Political Committee] has drawn from its experience since the last conference, is that it is not possible to make any significant gains without a more elaborated theoretical synthesis of our perspectives. Due to a combination of factors – external pressure, lack of clarity about direction, a reluctance to experiment – the organisation has not been effective in seeing through its conference perspectives.” He added: “At present there is a philistine tendency to discuss without preparation and reflection. Most discussions are too reactive and too tactical.” Now, of course, this was and is true of the revolutionary left in its Trotskyist and Stalinist guises because revolutionary consciousness is seen to emanate from strikes, demonstrations and the like; hence most lefties feel guilty about theoretical reflection. With the growth of the internet, there is even more of a tendency to explode into breezily ramshackle and ignorant polemics around complex matters of theory and historical interpretation.

However, it is difficult not to see this as a defensive manoeuvre on behalf of Furedi. Leaders of revolutionary groups always tend to emphasise theoretical discussions (often in a one-sided and crude manner) when organisational and practical issues become controversial, as this is where such leaderships perceive they have more political capital. This happened recently in the CPGB-PCC over the group’s activism (or lack of it) and in the SWP during the ‘Comrade Delta’ imbroglio of 2013, which eventually got boiled down into a foam-flecked internal debate on ‘Leninism’.

Furedi had saddled the RCP with a doom-laden theory of the post-Soviet world that stressed the decimation of the working class as a historical actor, the decline of collective action and a subsequent destruction of human reason. While this enshrined certain truths about a period of reaction, the angular, one-sided and sect-like nature of these theoretical responses seemingly choked off any real collective or organisational aspirations the RCP once had. As Ben Brack wrote: “Instead of taking a positive, experimental, approach to engaging with the positive aspirations and critical capacities of working-class people… the party has reacted to the present period with a mixture of sullen unwillingness to countenance the possibility of change and (increasingly) desperate attempts to simply adapt to the prevailing social mood. ‘Midnight in the century’… has become the justification for an increasingly passive and desperate approach to society.” Hilary Salt from Manchester talked of her “uneasiness with the [internal RCP] idea that we need ‘an organisational form of working [that] is individual in form but collective in content’”. She draws a parallel with then prevalent bourgeois ideas that dismissed collective solutions to social problems. So, with the terrain of collective activism apparently lost and the RCP looking mightily vulnerable as a ‘Leninist’ player, it is unsurprising that Furedi wanted to drag the discussion back to a more speculative mode, which only compounded the RCP’s crisis as an organisation of activists.

The ‘No More Hiroshimas’ debacle
Many of the contributions in the ‘Our tasks and methods discussion’ bulletin note the failure of the RCP’s ‘No More Hiroshimas’ (NMH) effort of 1994-95, run under the aegis of its Campaign Against Militarism front, set up in 1993 in order to contest the ‘new imperialism’ of ‘humanitarian’ intervention. Bureaucratic left-wing leaderships who set up their groups with political lines that are sharply opposed to the world around them begin to worry that such radical dissension will carry over into their own mummified organisations. The usual wheeze is to pose some opportunist short-term gambit that will propel the group into the big time and thus blur the lines between it and society at large. This then makes it more acceptable for an internal closing of ranks inside the sect to match the opportunist project being enacted ‘outside’. NMH fails firmly into this camp of rancid endeavour, representing a definite weakening of anti-militarism into mere objections to the most abhorrent form of militarism i.e. nuclear weapons.

NMH was most forensically analysed in 1995 by Gavin Collins, who noted that the wellsprings of the idea that the RCP could gain for itself a wider audience had actually emerged in July 1993, when The Next Step (still appearing as an occasional tabloid newspaper or A4 sheet at that time) had communicated that the RCP’s leadership saw a break in the clouds that had been seen to be smothering it since 1990: “… the opportunities that could now open up for the party are much greater than in past years.” This, according to Collins, had led the group into what he saw as the failures of the NMH campaign of 1994-95 in the Camden, London branch of the RCP, which “far from reaching a wider audience, has had a deeply damaging effect in Camden. Virtually every member and supporter who was closely involved in the running of the NMH meetings in Camden this time last year has left the party.” He added: “At the [unspecified RCP] supporters conference [Frank Furedi] asserted that we must be ‘hard politically’ through the NMH campaign. When it was pointed out to him that we had just spent six months being ‘fluffy’, this was brushed aside with the remark that revolutionaries ‘can both have their cake and eat it’. Unfortunately, this year, with the NMH campaign we have managed neither to have our cake, nor to eat it.” Billy O’Boyle characterised NMH as an attempt to appeal to the “liberal concerns of middle-class youth… that has failed to produce results” and that the wider anti-imperialist politics of the RCP were restricted by “squeezing them all into a perceived liberal concern”. Ben Brack said of NMH: “Opportunism was married to a millenarian faith that the campaign would ‘snowball’ or ‘build itself’, and the sale of expensive yellow plastic folders (entirely devoid of political content) would lead to the formation of a network of activist groups and sympathisers.” This acted to “further divorce the party’s wider project and its propaganda from its day-to-day activity”. Dave P from Leeds argued that the RCP was consistently failing to broaden the outlook of its audience in campaigns such as NMH, “even when our audience has begun to ask the bigger questions”. The NMH debacle was one of the last nails in the RCP coffin.

Some of our shit tomorrows
Several contributors seem to presage some of the dross inherent in what would become the Institute/Academy of Ideas/Spiked. Thus, in one of the few positive references to the NMH campaign, Jenny Davey from Leeds boasted about how the RCP had managed to get on local radio during the VJ Day anniversary coverage to put an alternative slant across. Even if it had failed as a revolutionary organisation some of the RCP were beginning to learn that they could percolate their ideas across the mainstream media, particularly if those ideas were perceived not to be intrinsically linked to a viable revolutionary collective. This was summed up rather well by James Heartfield: “In many ways, the more radical the criticism – granting that the criticism is detached from a revolutionary project – the more reactionary its conclusions will be.” But it was this lesson that those around Furedi who broke up the RCP in 1996 seemed most disinclined to regard and, as for Heartfield, we do wonder if he mused over these lines at all when he initially chose to stand for the Brexit Party in the 2019 European parliamentary elections.

However, there are some things to be salvaged from the wreckage. The revolutionary movement in Britain should be collectively proud that at least some of the RCP retained its sense of Marxist critique, even at the moment that Furedi and company were abandoning that critique for a long march into the bourgeois twilight. Dennis H argued: “While it is true that we can’t use the old political vocabulary we mustn’t throw out the conceptual framework given by a Marxist analysis.” Billy O’Boyle considered the RCP’s problems in anchoring its morose perspectives by following trends in bourgeois thought. “Given that the influence of these ideas over the working class is highly contradictory… it follows that the possibility of developing a critique of contemporary society, purely by reference to existing public institutions and their debates [essentially the method of Furedi and leadership drones such as James Heartfield], is remote in the extreme.” O’Boyle also looked at the RCP’s organisational structures and internal patronage, suggesting their role was merely to preserve the leadership’s current perspectives, “defending them from all [comers] and viewing all fundamental disagreements as regressive”. He added: “This problem is exacerbated by the party’s detachment from any active struggle to promote revolutionary politics amongst the working class.” Ben Brack argued: “The dual nature of capitalist society described by Marx is no longer present in our analysis. Instead, we seem to face a panorama of relativistic meltdown, where the only attempts to assert a common standard will be what [Frank Furedi] has called ‘restorationist’ – a contemporary manifestation of reactionary romanticism.”

The RCP may have been doomed by 1995 but it doesn’t dialectically follow that everybody and everything that passed through this undistinguished operation was irretrievably doomed with it.

[i] https://communistpartyofgreatbritainhistory.wordpress.com/2020/09/28/the-revolutionary-communist-party-rcp-was-really-nothing-special/

[ii] F Richards ‘Midnight in the century’ Living Marxism December 1990.



  1. I remember the Supporters’ Forum business quite well. By 1995 the RCP was seriously depleted, it was actually in a state of collapse. Members were dropping out by the dozen — in South London, where I was, five out the six members dropped out overnight without giving any reason. Many supporters, such as me, were increasingly inactive, as we felt that the party was going nowhere or, rather, going in strange directions. Supporters would look at Living Marxism and say to themselves, ‘I’m not going out flogging that.’ This wasn’t coordinated, it was what a lot us individually felt.
    These meetings were an attempt by the leadership to reactivate the hundreds of party supporters, many, if not most, of whom had become inactive. It failed, because, as can be seen from the discussions, we were effectively on our way out. Even if we didn’t know that when the meetings were called, we certainly did after attending them. Party cadres were quite taken back when supporters considered as loyal suddenly started laying into current party policies. I was one of them, and I made several sharp contributions, and party cadres were visibly shocked at my and other supporters’ comments.

    I was going to write a critique of current party policies for a follow-up to this discussion sheet, but then I felt this was pointless because the game was up: the party was finished, and I had better things to do with my time and energy. I think that most of the critical supporters felt the same. I don’t think there were any more Supporters’ Forums, I guess the leadership realised that we were more trouble than it was worth. A couple of years later, what was left of the party — not much, just the Political Committee, the editorial board, the office boys and girls, their respective other halves, and a few strays with nowhere else to go — was dissolved and — as I predicted at the time — started their slide into right-wing libertarianism.


  2. All that happened was that over time it exposed itself as a cult . Witness even now how Fox Heartfield et al never ever disagree with anything Furedi says . The about turn on immigration says it sll


    1. I don’t believe the RCP was a cult and I don’t believe that characterisation is remotely helpful to understanding the group. Groupthink is familiar to all ‘Leninist’ organisations. If the RCP was a cult then we have to apply that word to scores of other left groups… at that point ‘cult’ becomes so elastic it becomes meaniningless.


  3. Any chance of a scan? There’s a scan of (I think) Fiona Fox’s contribution and it’s fascinating. I’d love to be able to read it all!


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