It has been a strange journey from the Revolutionary Opposition to defence of the nation state and traditional values. Paul Demarty delves into Frank Furedi’s cheery new Substack
You have to feel sorry for Frank Furedi, I suppose. It may not be fair to call his career a downward spiral - for all intents and purposes, he reached the bottom long ago and has merely been whirling around in the muck ever since. He used to have more of a distinct profile, however, let us say, rather than merely being an anti-woke ranter with pretensions after the fashion of James ‘Jimmy Concepts’ Lindsay, late of Twitter, or Douglas Murray, late of your least favourite uncle’s bookshelf.
I nearly threw Jordan Peterson in there, but at least Peterson has a serviceable theory of everything, in the form of a baroque, Jungian metaphysics. Furedi has a framing narrative of a sort, at least, for his shiny new Substack, called Roots and Wings in honour of the two things Goethe thought we must hand on to our children. What prevents us from doing so? The tendency for politicians to present their policies as direct outworkings of science; the related phenomenon of ‘cancel culture’, whereby opposing views are presented as entirely outside the pale; and so forth. This forms an “ideology without a name”, suitable for the period in which “a transition of power from the political establishment of the cold war to an anti-traditionalist cultural elite” has been completed:
Already it is evident that it is a counter-ideology, the principal aim of which is to de-legitimate existing forms of moral authority and the cultural norms that support it. Ultimately, the culture war is not simply about pronouns and the sacralisation of identity groups, but about the constitution of moral authority.
It is not clear what exactly Frank thinks should be the “constitution of moral authority”. But certainly, the way out leads through taking sides in the various political battles that threaten the moral authority of the new elite: “Providing moral clarity to society requires that we take the culture war seriously.”1
Furedi, of course, once had an overarching historical method, which might have given him an answer: Marxism. His first brush with the public square came in the 1970s, when the Revolutionary Opposition faction split from the International Socialists (now Socialist Workers Party). The Revolutionary Opposition became the Revolutionary Communist Group, and then itself threw off the Revolutionary Communist Tendency in 1978 - a small crew around Furedi (pen name ‘Frank Richards’, in those halcyon days when people took opsec at least seriously enough to have one).
In the 1980s, the RCT - later swapping ‘Tendency’ farcically for ‘Party’ - were the ones to go to if you wanted an uncompromising, angular inversion of leftist conventional wisdom, sold to you by somebody better dressed than your average tube-station Trot. They were for nuclear power. They frequently criticised the welfare state for its paternalism. They were for a ballot in the midst of the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85, for heaven’s sake! More defensibly, they were vigorous in their support of the Irish national struggle; but frequently lapsed into uncouth provocations on that front.
Despite adhering roughly to Hillel Ticktin’s theory of the Soviet Union, which saw the ‘world headquarters of socialism’ as brutal, corrupt and irremediably malfunctioning, Furedi and co took its collapse badly, and announced amongst themselves that class struggle was off the agenda for the foreseeable future. What there was, instead, was a ‘culture war’ (a term used by RCP people when it was still fresh on the lips of Pat Buchanan). The war was between a paternalistic, technocratic and deeply misanthropic elite, and the remaining forces who aspired to ever more impressive feats of human achievement.
The RCP steadily disappeared behind its proliferating front organisations; its magazine LM (née Living Marxism) quietly announced the winding up of the “party” around 1997. A libel case brought by ITN and two journalists soon killed off LM (the jury awarded a bankrupting £375,000). LM was reborn as a website, defiantly called Spiked. There, ever after, one could find weirdly unvarying p hilippics against all the old RCP targets, and a few new ones - very occasionally peppered with references to Marx and Trotsky, when it seemed appropriately provocative and scandalous. In the meantime, Furedi settled to life as a very public academic sociologist. His obsessions - health and safety culture, multiculturalism, and whatever you like - found treatment in a number of ‘popular’ books.
The RCP-Spiked political outlook was, in the end, a species of what has since become known as ‘accelerationism’. This eclectic melange of perspectives takes as its starting point the elementary proposition of Marxist theory that capitalism, by developing the productive forces, lays the groundwork for an abundant, communist future, at the same time as its contradictions sharpen. For ‘accelerationists’, this has the consequence that the primary political duty is to drive this process onwards, all the better (as conservatives used to bemoan) to immanentise the eschaton. From this perspective, partial struggles against capital are ipso facto reactionary, even where they are in defence of what might, in more sensitive times, have been considered basic human dignity.
Over time, the RCP-Spiked commitment to such a Marxisant grand narrative has rotted away. Its thorough, and in some ways salutary, commitment to freedom of speech - basically its last remaining virtue - has itself withered, with the adoption (without citation) of Moishe Postone’s mendacious theory of leftwing anti-Semitism and, consequently, collusion in the witch-hunt of pro-Palestinian leftists in the Labour Party. RCP fronts have never been shy about accepting money from vast corporate concerns - a visit to the ‘Battle of Ideas’ festival it puts on every year usually comes plastered with the logos of oil companies, ‘big four’ beancounters and all the rest. Spiked has banked at least $300,000 from Charles Koch. At this point, it is difficult to determine whether it is the money that drives the ideology or vice versa; we can be certain merely that the whole thing stinks, and its occasional callbacks to its leftwing origins are phonier even than those of the antideutsche. Spiked is, more or less, a boring British Breitbart.
Since its whole political purpose is to take the side of the right in culture war battles, it came as no surprise to find a clutch of former RCPers standing as Brexit Party candidates in 2019’s Euro elections (Claire Fox, now Baroness Fox of Buckley, was successful). That charge to the right is even clearer in Furedi’s new writings, of course, since he now openly frames his interventions as a defence of ‘tradition’ against postmodern, woke vandalism.
There is a certain irony to how this has all panned out. After all, flirtations between people of broadly leftwing backgrounds and those of esoteric rightist backgrounds are hardly new (in honour of Italy’s new prime minister, we need only mention il Duce himself … ), and there is something of a wave of such initiatives at the moment, though it is rather hard to work out how much real social weight this has. At the height of the first intersectionality wars - when Mark Fisher was being denounced for ‘Exiting the vampire castle’ and the International Socialist Network was undergoing an acrimonious split on the question of whether a sculpture could be both racist and sexy - it occurred to me that the ‘brocialism’ denounced so frequently did not exist, but that soon it would if things carried on as they were. The appalling immorality of that witch-hunting atmosphere, the barefaced lies and spurious character assassinations, would produce a backlash sooner or later.
Original and worst
So it has proven, even if it has (ironically) not turned out to be terribly male. The most prominent ‘post-leftists’ are minor internet celebrities like Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova of the podcast Red Scare; the intellectual heft, such as it is, is provided by online magazines of various sorts - the key recent example being Compact, founded by two Catholic conservatives and a Marxist (though the latter, Edwin Aponte, seemed to get cold feet when the supreme court overturned Roe v Wade). Compact provides a venue for anti-neoliberal, largely anti-war social conservatives to appear alongside heterodox socialists whose political judgements put them outside the pale - gender-critical feminism, lockdown scepticism or whatever else (Furedi has contributed an article himself2).
Furedi and his RCP, and later Spiked, were the first instance of this modern wave of ‘post-leftists’. In a discourse now dominated by contrarian ‘takes’, Furedi gets the title of original ‘takester’. He and his crew invented this stuff - indeed, they managed to do so even before the internet made it trivially easy to enrage people with trollish idiocies. Yet their output has - for as long as I remember anyway - always been utterly dire. The RCP were nicknamed ‘the SWP with hair gel’, and - for all its odes to classical liberalism and free speech - the total political uniformity of Spiked is very SWP-esque. Its repetitive critiques of opponents are one-note and rarely based on anything other than nut-picking, strawmanning and vulgar caricature. (Compact’s output, while bogged down in shallow takes, is at least a little more ideologically varied and frequently diverting.) The RCP-Spiked drones were the first, but also the worst, at this sort of thing.
Furedi has pitched up at Substack - a blogging/newsletter platform which has gained a dodgy reputation for refusing to purge ‘problematic’ writers in the manner demanded by enraged liberals (for much the same reason, I have one myself!3). His output thus far is very ‘Substacky’ - that is, pseudo-intellectual and oracular in tone, low on detail, and over-obsessed with the deeper meaning of squabbles between deranged idiots on Twitter. He believes that the west has lost its moral courage, and should learn a thing or two from the Ukrainians, who are willing to shed their blood in defence of their land; western brinksmanship on the borders of Russia is beneath his notice. A little cowardice on the part of the US elite, which he believes irremediably crippled by fear-mongering technocrats, would be most welcome, with escalation in a steadily nuclear direction, but that will be my own cowardice speaking, I suppose.4
An article explaining why “they” hate the queen turns out to be about American liberals5; but does this really need explanation? Isn’t the more interesting phenomenon American rightists bawling their eyes out over the queen’s death - people, remember, who vote for the Republican Party? Has this man - a professor at a decent university for some decades, remember - not learned the first thing about American history? All he can see are annoying liberals, like some Daily Mail comment-thread zombie. He cites a tweet from Uju Anya (an anti-racist academic of an admittedly irritating type) - “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving, raping, genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating” - as a particularly “vile” example of the genre, but this hardened free-speech warrior failed to mention that Anya’s Twitter account was suspended as a result, which would, after all, rather undermine his case that all the commanding heights of western culture had been taken over by woke types.
According to our ‘takester’, the reason such people “hate the queen” - the same as the reason they “hate Britain” - is because they hate “traditions and ideals of the past. When they attack the legacy of Britain’s history, they are also making a statement about the historical legacy of western culture.” But for all his rabbiting on about ‘tradition’, Furedi has nothing of interest to say about it whatsoever. This wholly abstract idea merely begs the question: which tradition? The ‘legacy of western culture’ includes, at a glance, western Christianity in Catholic and (many) Protestant variants; radical and moderate versions of the Enlightenment; Marxism, positivism, existentialism, fascism, Darwinism, creationism … If Goethe’s statement has any sense, what we hand on to future generations is a knot of roots from different trees, crammed into a single orchard. (Needless to say, Furedi’s hated enemies are perfectly intelligible outgrowths and hybrid forms of all this pre-existing material.)
This is the sort of image of tradition that you would get from another ex-Marxist conservative, Alasdair Macintyre. Traditions develop endogenously, to be sure, but also through mutual interrogation; a finding he seeks to exhibit in practice by generous interpretations of the opponents of his unashamed Catholic Aristotelian outlook. That, in the end, is the thing lacking from the contrarian-takeosphere founded so ably by Furedi. He cannot imagine for a second that good-faith, honest argumentation might lead one to the conclusion that the British empire was a riot of exploitation, cruelty and carnage, even though he himself must have believed that until fairly recently. Still less can he accept that he might have something to learn from the likes of Uju Anya. So he is left ‘defending’ a phantom - the thing he imagines his opponents imagine is the ‘tradition’ of ‘the west’. A clearer illustration of Nietzsche’s aphorism about fighting monsters could hardly be invented.
As such, he offers the left - of the socialist and identitarian schools alike - nothing to think about, except that he is exactly wrong on one important point relevant to us: “Taking the culture war seriously” - in the sense of imagining its particular battle-lines to really be the decisive questions facing the human race - is the very death of moral and intellectual clarity, for left-liberal and conservative hysterics alike. Taken naively in this way, the result is merely an endless ratchet of malice without the possibility of catharsis.
We wish Mr Frank all the success he deserves.