Arise, Lady Fox
The Revolutionary Communist Party has gone on an odd journey, writes Eddie Ford. After emerging from the SWP, it has travelled from the Red Front to the Brexit Party - and now the House of Lords
Last week Boris Johnson announced 36 new peerages in an already over-full House of Lords. There were the usual cronies and friends of the prime minister, like the Russian-born billionaire newspaper proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev, and a host of Tory grandees and well-known Brexiteers, including former England cricketer, Sir Ian Botham - not to mention ex-chancellors Philip Hammond and Kenneth Clarke. But one name stood out from the crowd - Claire Fox.
Upon hearing that name, the ears of many Weekly Worker readers will prick up. Nowadays she might be more well known generally as the Brexit Party MEP for North West England from 2019-20 and a longstanding panellist on the insufferable The moral maze BBC radio programme. But Fox - or rather Lady Fox - was for many years a doyen of the Revolutionary Communist Party, led by the not particularly charismatic sociology professor, Frank Furedi (aka Frank Richards). Two other former RCP comrades of hers also stood as Brexit Party MEP candidates, James Heartfield and Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, but failed to get elected.
A common and accurate description of the RCP is ‘contrarian’ - the same going for its successors: Spiked Online, Institute of Ideas/Academy of Ideas, the Manifesto Club, etc. All part of the multi-tentacled “LM network”, consisting of former RCP members and named after its glossy Living Marxism journal, which was originally launched in 1988 and rebranded four years later as the Delphic-sounding LM. The latter was closed down in March 2000 following a ruinous libel lawsuit brought by ITN against the publication for its notorious article, ‘The picture that fooled the world’, which argued that the TV company had “deliberately misrepresented” the Bosnian war in its coverage in 1992. Apparently, the Trnopolje detention camp for Bosnian Muslims was “a collection centre for refugees, many of whom went there seeking safety and could leave again if they wished” - not a prison or concentration camp.
But clearly there was more to the RCP than simply being contrarian. Like so many others on the far left, the organisation had its origins as a dissident faction within the Socialist Workers Party (or International Socialists, as it was known then) - calling itself the ‘Revolutionary Opposition’, but quickly dubbed the ‘Right Opposition’ by its IS opponents. They were flung out of the host body in 1972-73 by an increasingly intolerant Tony Cliff and formed the Revolutionary Communist Group, its most prominent members being Furedi and David Yaffe. Almost inevitably, the RCG split in 1976 with the wing led by Furedi forming the Revolutionary Communist Tendency in 1978 - publishing a quite interesting, but fairly short-lived, theoretical journal, Revolutionary Communist Papers.
The cause of the split was the RCG’s increasing turn under Yaffe towards the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain - or prostration, as the oppositionists saw it, who demanded that the leadership publicly criticise the African National Congress. At this point it is worth pointing out that both sides of the dispute were gung-ho for the ‘falling rate of profit’ theory - which was precisely why they opposed Cliffite ideas, such as the permanent arms economy and so on.
The difference is that the Yaffe tendency said it was going to be the ‘third world’ and its various leaders who were going to be the revolutionary agency – sub-Maoism in some respects. For the Yaffeites, breaking with orthodox Marxism, the British working class had no revolutionary role to play - it was just a matter of offering up solidarity with the ‘third world’, the anti-apartheid movement acting as an illustration. The Richards/Furedi faction did not totally dismiss the working class, as it formed East London Workers Against Racism in the late 1970s. ELWAR garnered some publicity, provoking Conservative MP Nicholas Winterton to demand of the home secretary “if he will seek to proscribe” ELWAR on the grounds that it is a “vigilante group”.
As so often happens, the RCT became giddy with success after actually recruiting a lot of students - changing its name to the grander sounding RCP in 1981. Another possible factor in its name change was that the RCT itself quickly splintered, with the creation by several dissenting members of a group calling itself the Committee for a Communist Programme - therefore Furedi and his supporters might have felt that a clean break was needed. They began publishing The Next Step, which was determined to be iconoclastic, no matter what, followed by the journal Confrontation - initially on some sort of leftist kick, which was doubtlessly attractive to radically minded students.
But from the miners’ 1984-85 Great Strike onwards, the RCP steadily moved to the right - evidenced by its campaigning call for a national ballot from the very beginning of the strike until right to the end. Then during the anti-poll tax resistance the group stupidly compared people who refused to pay it to those not paying their TV licence - dismissing the entire movement as irrelevant. Doubly stupid, when you consider that the poll tax, along with Europe, was what brought Margaret Thatcher crashing down. Nor should we ever forget the RCP’s Red Front ‘electoral coalition’ in 1987 that only attracted the support of Steve Freeman’s tiny Revolutionary Democratic Group (an ‘external faction’ of the SWP) and the squadist Red Action group. From the propaganda they distributed at the time, you might almost have thought that the RCP were going to replace the Labour Party as the main left opposition force in British politics. In the end though, RF candidates only gained 3,177 votes in total. The RF was quickly abandoned and the RCP itself was dissolved in 1997, its membership not having a say in the matter.
Anyway, the story of the RCP is not a unique tale - although some on the left will find something terribly sinister about its evolution, even detecting the hand of the secret services. All you can say to that is that the spooks would have gone about things in a much smarter way. When it started, the RCG/RCT was a relatively typical sect - nothing especially weird.
Having said all that, it is true to say that it is not common to flip from a leftist position as a collective - rather than an individual - to the polar opposite in the shape of the Brexit Party and then to the House of Lords. Almost operatic in its quality (or perhaps tragicomedy). As for Claire Fox herself, born in 1960 into an Irish Catholic family from Wales, she joined the RCP on “the rebound” from the Tories, when she was a student at Warwick University - so it is unlikely that she was ever part of the RCT.
For a number of years the RCP had a sort of ‘Red Base’ at Warwick in the shape of the Revolutionary Communist Students Society - to which I belonged, whilst at that university in 1987-88. The main activity of the RCSS was fierce bun fights with the SWP in student union debates and such-like, scoring quite a few successes, it has to be said. But now Lady Fox will sit as a non-affiliated peer on the benches of the ‘other place’, maybe not quite what she had in mind when she first joined the RCP all those years back.
Naturally, Fox’s elevation has attracted the attention of professional RCP/LM watchers in the bourgeois media - some of which is borderline obsessional. Journalists like Andy Beckett and Nick Cohen in The Guardian, like those on the left, believe that the presence of the RCP diaspora in and around governmental circles has a sinister significance.
In his article, ‘Why Boris Johnson’s Tories fell for a tiny sect of libertarian provocateurs’, Beckett writes that “the combative contrarian rhetoric of the defunct RCP has long been all over the media” - but “now it’s in No10 as well” (August 1).1 Indeed, for him, today’s Tory government “has adopted some of the style, rhetoric and preoccupations” of the RCP - arguing that during the 90s and 2000s programmes such as Question time and The moral maze “came to depend” on Fox in particular and noting that other RCP veterans, such as Frank Furedi, Mick Hume and Brendan O’Neill, are “fixtures” in the Tory press and journals such as the Spectator.
Similarly, about a month earlier, Cohen - a frothing anti-communist - commented about “the far-left origins of No10’s desperate attack on all things ‘woke’” and warned that “former communists are helping the Tories to heap contempt on their enemies” (June 20).2 For Cohen - never one to miss a trick - “the presence of the ex-revolutionaries in a rightwing debate shows the distance from asinine far leftism to paranoid conservatism is nowhere near as great as the innocent imagine”. Rather, says Cohen, “the modern right is closer to Bolshevism than Burke” and “today’s rightwing contempt is familiar to anyone who looks at the history of the far left”.
He then proceeds to make a strange equivalence between how Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov adopted the nom de guerre of ‘Lenin’, as he “led the Bolshevik revolution of 1917”, while Joseph Dzhugashvili called himself ‘Stalin’, as “he presided over one of the worst tyrannies in history” and, “to match them”, Frank Furedi, named himself ‘Frank Richards’ - he taught sociology students at Kent University, whose number included Munira Mirza.
She is, of course, the director of the No10 Policy Unit since her appointment by Boris Johnson in July last year and previously worked under him as deputy mayor for education and culture when he was in charge of London’s City Hall. Johnson has described Mirza as “extraordinary”, “ruthless”, and one of “the five women who have shaped my life”. She is also another member of the RCP diaspora, it seems. The Economist claimed last year that she was an “enthusiastic contributor” to Living Marxism, while Wikipedia too claims that she “contributed” to the magazine. Nick Cohen presents her as urging the Johnson government to “go for the libtards, the PC, the leftists and the bleeding hearts” and “use tiny threats to Winston Churchill’s statues to whip up your supporters’ cultural fear” - as part of a plan to “divert their attention from a country ravaged by disease and descending into a slump”.
However, given that Munira Mirza was born in 1978 and Living Marxism folded in 1992, she must have been an extraordinarily young and precious “enthusiastic contributor” - penning articles between the ages of 10 and 14. Very impressive if true, of course. My suspicion is that she was recruited directly to Spiked Online, or perhaps LM in its latter years. Either way, she has had no direct contact or relationship with the revolutionary left - almost the opposite, if anything. A suspicion that appears to be confirmed by a 2014 interview for the Total Politics website.3 When asked about the RCP and whether she is “still a revolutionary communist at heart”, she replied: “I don’t know what that means” - which is a bit of an odd statement. Elsewhere, she says she knew a lot of people who used to be in the RCP, like Claire Fox - “I’m still friendly with them” and “Claire would still describe herself as leftwing”. But what Mirza really liked about the RCPers is their “strong liberal-libertarian instincts about things and quite strong views about education and culture” - not anti-imperialism or class warfare. She does not sound remotely like a Marxist or communist of any sort, former or present.
All this proves that, when it comes to scare stories about the vast scope and reach of the LM network, or the long march of the RCP through British institutions, it pays to be sceptical.