He who pays the piper
Why are the billionaire Koch brothers funding Spiked, whose origins lie in the Revolutionary Communist Party? Eddie Ford looks at a strange journey from far left to alt-right
Some of our readers will be familiar to one degree or another with Charles and David Koch. They are the multi-billionaire sons of Fred C Koch, an American chemical engineer and capitalist buccaneer who in 1927 developed a more efficient thermal cracking process for turning crude oil into petrol, which allowed smaller players in the industry to better compete with the oil majors - they promptly filed 44 different lawsuits against Koch.
Frustrated by the near endless litigation that nearly strangled his business in the US, Koch went to the Soviet Union and between 1929 and 1932 helped the Stalin regime set up 15 oil refineries. Afterwards, never one to wrest on his laurels, Koch was involved in the building of the third-largest oil refinery serving the Third Reich. Then in 1940 he helped create the Wood River Oil and Refining Company, which later became known as Koch Industries - under the helmsmanship of his sons it became the second-largest privately held company in the entire US. The combined fortune of Charles and David comes to $120 billion, which puts them amongst the 10 richest people on the planet.
But for our purposes the most notable thing about Koch senior was his political views. Even for a man of his position and class at the time, his anti-communism was especially virulent - perhaps ungratefully, seeing how much the USSR had helped him climb the ladder. In short, he was totally paranoid about a communist “takeover” of the US, constantly warning about “infiltration of high offices of government and political parties”. “Big government” was a threat, as were the unions. In 1958, Koch played a central role in making Kansas a so-called ‘right-to-work’ state - ie, a state that essentially prohibits certain agreements between employers and trade unions.
Like father, like sons. David recalls his father “constantly speaking to us children about what was wrong with government and government policy” - he provided a “fundamental point of view that big government was bad, and impositions of government controls on our lives and economic fortunes was not good”. In a 1978 essay, The business community: resisting regulation, Charles Koch outlined how “our movement must destroy the prevalent statist paradigm”.1 To this end, the Koch brothers tirelessly championed lower taxes and looser regulations and over the years practised what they preached. Hence Koch Industries has regularly forked out massive fines for oil spills, illegal benzene emissions and ammonia pollution - with a jury in 1999 finding that they had “knowingly used” a corroded pipeline to carry butane, which caused an explosion in which two people died.
Needless to say, the Koch brothers have made significant financial contributions to libertarian and conservative think-tanks - donating primarily to Republican Party candidates running for office (though it is worth noting that they fell out with Donald Trump over his Muslim travel ban suggestion and his imposition of trade tariffs on imports from the EU, Canada and Mexico). By 2010, they had donated more than $100 million to dozens of pro-‘free market’ organisations. What is particularly relevant to the story which follows is that the Koch brothers have been extremely generous when it comes to those who promote climate-change denial and generally have an anti-environmentalist agenda.
Returning to present UK politics, journalist George Monbiot, who regularly writes for The Guardian, noticed something odd in a form submitted last year by the Charles Koch Foundation to the Internal Revenue Service.2
There had been a transfer to a company that seemed to be the US funding arm of a UK organisation - based around what Monbiot calls an “obscure” online magazine, “run by former members of a tiny Trotskyite splinter group”, some of whose “core contributors still describe themselves as Marxists or Bolsheviks”. Yes, the name of the magazine, or group, is Spiked - three payments were made to Spiked US Inc over the past two years totalling $170,000.
When asked by Monbiot what the money was actually for, and whether there had been any other payments, Viv Regan, Spiked’s managing editor, replied that the Charles Koch Foundation has so far given Spiked US Inc a total of $300,000 - in order “to produce public debates in the US about free speech, as part of its charitable activities”. She also said the foundation supports projects “on both the left and the right” - how open-minded - and is keen to promote “a free speech-oriented programme of public debates”. Regan also declared that “we’re very proud of our work on free speech and tolerance” and proud to be part of the Koch-sponsored programme.
However, Monbiot and others - including this writer - have been unable to find any public acknowledgement of this funding in any of the material produced by Spiked: merely a brief nod to a fairly mysterious organisation called the Institute for Humane Studies.3 Something to be ashamed of, comrades? According to the Sourcewatch website, the IHS is a “non-profit” grouping that “acts as a libertarian recruitment firm” - in the words of its mission statement it seeks to identify, develop and support “talented students, scholars, and other intellectuals who share an interest in liberty and in advancing the principles and practice of freedom”, and has awarded more than $1,000,000 in scholarships around the world.4 Naturally, the IHS has “close ties” to Charles Koch, who has funded the institute since the late 1960s.
Here the story gets rather strange, and a bit sad - giving us a salutary lesson in how not to conduct political struggle or build a party. As some Weekly Worker readers might know, Spiked’s convoluted origins lie in the Revolutionary Communist Party - which in turn owed its existence to the ‘big bang’ within the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers Party) in the mid-1970s, like so many of the sects that clutter the left today. The proto-RCPers were kicked out by an exasperated Tony Cliff who came round to the view that ideological or theoretical heresy could no longer be tolerated in his group - state capitalism, deflected permanent revolution, the permanent arms economy, etc were shibboleths to be protected at all costs.
According to the account supplied by leading SWPer Alex Callinicos, this faction (then known as the ‘Revolutionary Opposition’, but dubbed the ‘Right Opposition’ by its IS opponents) was “highly critical of mere involvement in the practical struggles of the day” and “argued that priority should be accorded to the formulation of the correct Marxist programme”.5 Then there was an internal debate “notable for its abstruseness,” remarks Callinicos, where one of the main issues “rested on the interpretation of Capital Volume 3”. This led to a situation where the IS bulletin “was for a time full of simultaneous equations”. Or, as Monbiot puts it, the ‘Revolutionary Opposition’ and IS split “after a dispute over arithmetic”. Post-IS, the RO evolved into the Revolutionary Communist Group.
Due to the nature of the split, it would be churlish to deny that the RCG started life as a relatively orthodox Trotskyist grouping - but one characterised by an approach to theory that broke from some of the staler ideas and dogmas that had bedevilled Trotskyism almost from day one (in particular, David Yaffe’s economic work in this period deserves mention - especially his understanding that the boom days were well and truly over), and it also produced decent critiques of the various groupings and factions in the so-called Fourth International. Alas, nothing lasts forever and in 1976 the RCG split - with one wing going on to form the Revolutionary Communist Tendency, led by Frank Furedi. The cause of the split was the RCG’s increasing prostration before the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain and the Anti-Apartheid Movement - the leadership was outraged by the opposition’s demand that the RCG publicly attack the African National Congress. Then in 1981 the RCT changed its name to the Revolutionary Communist Party, going on to publish its short-lived theoretical journal, Revolutionary Communist Papers, the weekly The Next Step and in 1988 Living Marxism (a WH Smith-stocked rival to the Eurocommunist’s Marxism Today).
So far this does not sound like the sort of organisation to attract the attention, let alone funding, of US billionaire capitalists. But, even though the RCP seemed dynamic, even exciting, when compared to the rest of the dozy left, the reality was somewhat different - I was a member briefly in 1987-88. The organisation steadily morphed to the right, dumping class politics bit by bit - as evinced by the abrupt closure of the weekly The Next Step, which was deemed too militant and pro-working class.
This process culminated in the formal liquidation of the RCP in 1996 and the transformation of Living Marxism into the desperately iconoclastic LM, which was eventually closed down in 2000 after losing a libel case for claiming that ITN had “fabricated” evidence of Serb atrocities against Bosnian Muslims. But, as soon as the magazine folded, an extensive network of new groups with the same cast of characters (Furedi, Claire Fox, Mick Hume, Brendan O’Neill, James Heartfield, Michael Fitzpatrick, etc) sprang up to replace it. Among these many organisations were the Institute of Ideas, the Academy of Ideas, the Manifesto Club and, of course, Spiked - which had the same editor as LM (Mick Hume) and most of the same contributors. Claire Fox is a regular panellist on the BBC’s turgid Moral maze radio show.
What is crucial to understand is the ideological transformation the RCP went through in the early 1990s and beyond, when it consciously rejected working class politics and any sort of Marxist programme. The real contradiction or conflict, they now told us, was not between classes, but those who believed in the increased human domination of nature and those who did not.
The RCP’s depressing new vision - which sought to champion ‘progress’ by sweeping away all restrictions on science, technology (especially biotechnology) and business, removing all forms of democratic social control - began to bear a striking resemblance to the ideas promulgated by the libertarian right. Inevitably, the RCP became increasingly hostile to the environmental movement. Indeed, expressing ecological concerns about the state of the planet was now labelled “scaremongering” by the ‘new’ RCP - you were deemed to be undermining ‘progress’ and the emergence of a confident individualism, unafraid of risk and experimentation. The RCPers became obsessed by ‘victim culture’ and the ‘culture of safety’, which was responsible for the pernicious rise of ‘risk-aversion’ and ‘moral panics’ - themes that they still bang on about today.
Perfectly encapsulating their thinking, in 1997 the RCP/LM pulled off a spectacular coup in the form of Channel Four’s deeply anti-green programme, Against nature - with Frank Furedi the unlikely star. The show absurdly presented environmentalists as “the new enemy of science” comparable to the Nazis, who were responsible for the deprivation and death of millions in the third world. Against nature provided a platform not only for regular LM columnists, but for a whole host of contributors from the right. Correspondingly, fanatical advocates of free-market capitalism increasingly appeared in LM - for instance, publishing a piece by the executive vice-president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, Ron Arnold, who wrote: “This is a war zone. Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement.”6
This virulent anti-environmentalism has remained a constant feature of the ‘LM network’, as it is known. As Monbiot pointed out in his original Guardian article, it rails against “climate scaremongering”, calls for fracking and coal production to be ramped up, blames the Grenfell Tower disaster on “the moral fervour of the climate change campaign” - and mocks the idea that air pollution is dangerous: “We need to conquer nature, not bow to it.” Perhaps perversely, or maybe not, in an article from three years ago Spiked’s current editor, Brendan O’Neill, quotes from Leon Trotsky’s 1938 work, Their morals and ours, to justify the LM network’s anti-ecological stance. He approves of Trotsky’s comments about “increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man” - which he says is the “core belief” of Spiked too. That is, O’Neill argues, “we should fight for greater human dominion over the natural world in order that we might tame its furies and exploit its resources to create more things and comfort for human beings” (my emphasis).7 It is hard to imagine an argument more antipathetic to Marx’s profoundly ecological communism that sought to heal, or reverse, the metabolic rift that arises under capitalist production with the growing division between town and country, and so on.
It is not hard to understand why the Koch brothers have decided to fund the former ‘communists’ of the RCP. They are, after all, useful idiots who share the Kochs’ libertarian hatred of environmentalism and anything that impedes production for production’s sake. We shall see if it is money well spent.
More broadly, everybody on the left should take a long, hard look at the RCP/LM/Spiked - and learn the lessons. Revolutionaries and communists must steel themselves in open-ended theory rooted in the working class, committed to the democratic-centralist principles of public criticism and unity in action - not subordinate themselves to the whims and cheap publicity of a closed circle of self-appointed leaders like Frank Furedi and Mick Hume. Any communist organisation worthy of the name is by definition a permanent ‘institute of ideas’ - of competing and contending views and opinions, openly and sharply expressed. Not something, now I come to think of it, you ever found in The Next Step, Living Marxism or LM - or, for that matter, Spiked l
5. International Socialism winter 1981.
6. R Arnold Ecology wars New York 1988.