The Revolutionary Communist Party, Living Marxism and the road to free speech absolutism

Some of the most infamous free speech warriors today are those associated with Spiked Online and its predecessors, the Living Marxism network and the Revolutionary Communist Party. The RCP and the Living Marxism network are currently in the news because a number of those involved with them are now involved in the Brexit Party. As Spiked Online has been leading the charge for many years against ‘no platform’ policies on campuses in Britain and elsewhere, this post looks at the pre-history of Spiked and how the RCP’s opposition to ‘no platform’ developed since the late 1970s. It is based on research that I am doing for a book on the history of ‘no platform’ and free speech at British universities since the 1950s.

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With a concern over the growth of the BNP in the early 1990s and the BNP’s Derek Beackon winning a local council seat in East London in September 1993, anti-racists and anti-fascists started to organise again against the fascist threat. One action undertaken was by the National Union of Students (NUS), in conjunction with the Union of Jewish Students and the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. Thiswas the Campus Watch initiative. In December 1994, the three organisations came together over concern that a ‘small but growing number of BNP and other fascist activists [were] now operating on campuses over much of the country’ and established Campus Watch, ‘a hotline to monitor racial attacks’.[1]  The 24/7 hotline ran throughout 1995-96 and was described by NUS President Douglas Trainer as a ‘massively important project’.[2]

One of the predominant critics of the Campus Watch and of the NUS’ approach towards the BNP was the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). The RCP had long been considered a disruptive influence on campus through its student wing, Revolutionary Communist Students (RCS), and since the mid-1980s, the RCS had been opposed to any formal ‘no platform’ policies. In the RCP’s magazine Living Marxism, Jennie Bristow complained that the Campus Watch initiative was established ‘to combat the (virtually non-existent) activity of the BNP on campus.’[3] The previous year, Juliet Connor objected to the focused anti-fascist response (what she called ‘the “No Platform” lobby’) to the BNP, arguing that the BNP was ‘a small organisation of a couple of hundred people, a combination of social misfits and skinheads, concentrated in a handful of places’.[4] For Connor, the BNP had ‘no platform in any real sense’ and it was the anti-fascists that were giving them publicity.[5]Instead of enforcing the NUS’ ‘no platform’ policy, Bristow suggested that student unions should have allowed the BNP to speak on campus, writing:

If there is a conflict of ideas, and if we accept that some ideas are right and others are wrong, there are two possible ways of dealing with this situation. One way is to attempt to stifle the opinions which you believe to be wrong, by imposing bans and censorship. The other is to challenge the ideas you believe to be wrong in open argument.[6]

At this time, those writing for Living Marxism seemed to be suggesting that the BNP needed to be debated, rather than demonstrated against, moving away from the confrontational protest tactics used by the RCP in the 1980s, but maintaining the stance of opposing ‘no platform’. This was part of a wider trajectory of the RCP (and its successors) from ultra-left Trotskyism to libertarian contrarianism.

Originally a splinter group called the Revolutionary Communist Tendency (until 1981), the Revolutionary Communist Party gained a reputation on the British left in the 1980s as sectarian and controversialist, with some arguing that the RCP indulged in cult-like behaviour.[7] The RCT had originally broken away from the Revolutionary Communist Group(RCG) in the late 1970s, particularly over their approach to South Africa and the role of the African National Congress/South African Communist Party, although wider disagreements emerged.[8] The RCG was itself a split from the International Socialists in the mid-1970s, before the IS became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977. The RCT/RCP formed several front groups around single issues during the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the most prominent being the Irish Freedom Movementand Workers Against Racism (WAR).

Being known by other left groups as promoting an ultra-left agenda, the RCP stood out from the rest of the left at this stage, even amongst the other Trotskyist and Leninist groups that were around during the 1980s. As well as disagreeing with several groups over the Falklands War and balloting during the Miners’ Strike, the RCP also argued that the Labour no longer represented the British working class and admonished the rest of the British far left for calling for a vote for Labour in general elections.  While some of their ultra-left policies may have resonated with the rest of the far left, there were others that demonstrated the significant differences between the RCP and its rivals. This was particularly the case with regards to their views on social and equality issues (for example, their attitude towards AIDS awareness),[9] which became more pronounced in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1987, the RCP attempted to build an alliance called The Red Front, which cynically called for working class unity towards an electoral alternative to Labour under the manifesto, The Red Front: A Platform for Working Class Unity.[10] After the rest of the British left (besides Red Action and the Revolutionary Democratic Group) rejected these overtures from the RCP, they increasingly sought to differentiate themselves from the other left parties and traditional left politics – a trajectory that eventually led to the RCP disbanding in 1996. By the early 1990s, the party had eschewed the other left-wing parties at the time and amplified its self-identification as the contrarian Robinson Crusoes of the British left.  In his account of the life of the RCP, leading member Michael Fitzpatrick says that during the first half of the 1990s, the RCP argued that ‘the working class had disappeared as a political force’ and deeming that the revolutionary party was redundant, emphasised a shift ‘towards advancing an intellectual rather than a practical alternative’.[11]

This shift upended its anti-racist outlook, which had previously been highly militant, but its attitude towards the far right (often minimising the threat that it posed) had existed for much longer. WAR had originally proposed that the ‘most effective response to racism is the formation of workers’ defence groups’ and the mobilisation of workers against the racism of the state, portrayed as the opposite to the left’s ‘staple diet of petitions, lobbies and paper campaigns.’[12] This position meant that the RCP and WAR always looked to emphasise the fight against state racism, which sometimes undermined any anti-fascist actions as the NF and BNP were seen as the smaller threat. For the WAR, anti-fascism against the NF was ‘a convenient diversion’ from the anti-racist struggle.[13] As the militancy of the RCP dwindled from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, WAR’s street-based anti-racism faded and underestimation of the threat of the far right remained. But while it had previously argued that ‘[t]he fight against racism cannot be restricted to a campaign against racist ideas’ and that ‘[r]acism cannot be fought with “facts”’,[14] the RCP in the pages of Living Marxism now privileged debate over other forms of anti-racist activism. This fed into the party’s approach to ‘no platform’, which had evolved over the 1980s towards free speech absolutism and a rejection of the anti-fascist consensus that had been built over the last two decades.

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The RCP’s opposition to ‘no platform’ stemmed from the group’s opposition to calls to the state to fight racism and fascism. After a number of bans on demonstrations under the Public Order Act in the first half of 1981, the RCP condemned those on the left who seemed to condone bans of fascist demonstrations, declaring:=

Whether or not they are justified as measures aimed against fascists, allstate restrictions of the freedom of speech, assembly and press are ultimately directed against the working class.[15]

During the demonstrations against Patrick Harrington at the Polytechnic of North London, the RCP saw the call for Harrington to be excluded from the campus as a similar call for the authorities to intervene under the guise of anti-racism. Kirk Williams wrote:

instead of simply beating Harrington off the campus, the campaign asked the college authorities to expel him and argued its case in the courts. The left’s reliance on the law rather than direct action to deal with Harrington only encouraged other college authorities to introduce new powers of suspension, aimed at anybody expressing ‘radical views’.[16]

It was actually Harrington that brought the case before the courts and the students were the defendants, but for the RCP, the broader demand for Harrington to be expelled was one of the primary problems with the campaign. Again Williams argued that Harrington was ‘a soft target for the liberal left casting around for an issue on which to prove its anti-racist credentials’ and instead ‘[a]nti-racist student should have been campaigning against state attacks on overseas students’.[17]

By 1985, the RCP’s argument against ‘no platform’ was starting to solidify and in reply to a letter about the ‘no platforming’ on the Jewish Society at the Sunderland Polytechnic, The Next Step editors stated, ‘bureaucratic bans can never be an effective substitute for political struggle against racists or anybody else’.[18] The following month, the editorial in The Next Step wavered between the argument put forward by WAR that racism needed to be forcefully and physically confronted on one hand and on the other proposing that ‘physical measures are no substitute for a political struggle against the influence of nationalist and racist ideas within the working class movement.’[19] The RCP still retreated from arguing that fascists should be debated, but suggested that other chauvinist ideas needed to be challenged in a non-physical manner.[20]

The editorial, written in May 1985, seemed to condemn left-wingers who ‘indulge[d] their personal distaste’ for anti-abortionists by ‘breaking up meetings or suppressing student societies’, writing that ‘[s]uch measures do nothing to combat the growing influence of these views’.[21] However this was only a short time after a group of Revolutionary Communist Students attempted to disrupt a speech by pro-life speaker Victoria Gillick at the University of Manchester. At the time, Gillick was campaigning for under-16s not be given the pill by doctors without parental consent (a final ruling was made by the House of Lords in October 1985). This came at the same time that Enoch Powell sought to push the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill through the House of Commons. In fact, Gillick had previously been part of a pro-Powell group, Powellight, in the 1970s.[22] At the University of Manchester, Gillick was taking part in a debate over the prescription of the pill to under-16s and there was planned action by various feminists to hold placards from the crowd.[23] However the RCP rejected this approach and ‘furiously heckl[ed]’ Gillick, followed by a storming of the stage.[24] The RCP saw Gillick as part of a moralist campaign by crusaders ‘whose object is to impose their particular version of Victorian values on the rest of us’.[25]

The feminists, linked to the Women’s Group and Sexual Equality Group at Manchester, wrote a letter to The Mancunion (the student paper at the university) saying that while they agreed with the RCP’s criticisms of Gillick, they objected to the protestors ‘who tried to stop her speaking by standing up and shouting “murderer” and hurling general abuse’.[26]The letter stated that they found ‘a certain incongruity in the [RCP’s] professing to be fighting for women’s rights’ and argued that the RCP protestors ‘overrode the decisions’ of the other women at the Gillick debate by ‘refusing to leave, although the majority of women there wanted you to’.[27]The letter writers added that the ‘violence’ of the RCP protestors ‘affected many of the women in the room’ and their ‘stinkbombs set fire to a chair, a potentially dangerous situation.’[28]

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Two members of the Revolutionary Communist Students group, David Chandler and Lynn Revell, replied to this letter the following week, stating that they disrupted the Gillick debate ‘not because we wanted to be kicked out, but because we wanted to initiate broader opposition to Gillick’s victorian [sic] morality’.[29] Despite the RCP’s general resistance to ‘no platform’, Chandler and Revell used it to defend their actions against Gillick, claiming:

We don’t allow fascists to speak on principle… [W]e can not fight [Gillick’s and Powell’s] attacks through debate, only by showing we are serious in defending our rights – which means giving no lee-way to them – and doing everything we can do to prevent them from speaking.[30]

Sarah Webster suggests that this disruptive protest by the RCP students ‘left student feminists determined not to work with RCP, but also deepened wider factional divides, scuppering organisational work by creating mistrust and ill feeling amongst activists and potential recruits’.[31]

The Next Step was celebrating a picket of another Gillick’s talks in Edinburgh in December 1985,[32] but by early 1987, the RCP was encouraging an opposite approach, proposing ‘[w]e should organise public debates with the anti-abortionists and put them on the spot in front if a wide audience.’[33] The reasoning put forward by Frank Richards (a pseudonym for RCP leader Frank Furedi) was a precursor of the arguments made in Living Marxism in the 1990s:

In the past left-wingers have criticised our party for taking the same platform as the anti-abortionists. But this only shows that the left lacks confidence in its arguments. We cannot afford to ignore our opponents if we are to defeat their ideas.[34]

As politicians and the media became increasingly concerned about ‘no platform’ and free speech at British universities during 1986, the RCP further denounced the tactic of ‘no platform’. Beyond its principal argument that ‘no platforming’ fascists was a distraction from the primary fight against the racism of the state, the RCP now argued that the way that ‘no platform’ was being applied at universities in the mid-1980s was ‘an impulsive outburst of liberal moralism which seeks to sweep away distasteful views, rather than confront them politically.’’[35] Another editorial in The Next Step criticised the tactic of ‘no platform’ for giving ‘exaggerated importance to a few eccentrics in idiot organisations which have virtually no influence’ and playing into the hands of the right, who were pushing a ‘free speech’ agenda to combat broader student radicalism.[36]For the RCP, ‘no platform’ was ‘an attempt to wish away a problem that must be confronted politically’ and ‘invite[d] the state to take repressive measures against the right which can easily be extended for use against the left’.[37]

The RCP’s claim that ‘no platform’ was ‘an evasion of the real problem of racism’ and a token gesture against the far right seemed to suggest that ‘no platform’ was the only anti-fascist and anti-racist strategy being pursued by the student left in the 1980s.[38] While the left was in retreat during the 1980s (including on the anti-racist front), anti-racist and anti-fascist activism was still pursued by students and the left in a number of areas, including anti-deportation campaigns, campaigns against police racism and street campaigns against the National Front and the BNP. The RCP liked to portray itself as the only real anti-racist force in Britain and this often meant depicting the rest of the left as failing to take racism seriously. By focusing on ‘no platform’ at the expense of all other anti-racist and anti-fascist activism being conducted in the 1980s, the RCP could attempt to distinguish itself as the only group involved in the ‘real struggle against racism in the workplace and on the estates’.[39]

The RCP also condemned ‘no platform’ for ‘leav[ing] it up to the authorities, courts and the police to judge who should be censored’,[40] but this overlooked the fact that most of the ‘no platform’ actions by students during the 1980s was in the face of pressure from the universities and student union leadership to allow controversial speakers to be heard. Even when student unions were involved in ‘no platform’ actions (such as the protest against homophobic Tory councillor Richard Lewis at the University College Swansea in 1987), there were little appeals to the university administration or the police, instead using the student union as an organising force for grassroots student activism.

This was also partly a suspicion of the student unions by the RCP in the mid-to-late 1980s. Between 1988 and 1990, as the student unions came under a renewed attack by the Thatcher government, the RCP argued that the student unions were ‘appendages of the institutions of higher education, not independent organisations of students’ and therefore allegedly unwilling to adequately confront (in the eyes of the RCP) the universities and the government.[41] For the RCP, the NUS in particular was ‘ill-placed to lead a student fightback because it [was] part of the system’ that was attacking students.[42]

The formalisation of the RCP’s opposition to ‘no platform’ during the late 1980s and early 1990s came also at a time when the RCP was increasingly concerned about censorship, defending Salman Rushdie, as well as fighting the broadcast ban of Irish Republicans and the ‘Christian morality’ of the Conservatives and the religious right.[43] However by lumping ‘no platform’ together with these other forms of censorship, the RCP made no distinction between the censorship conducted by the state and by the media, and the denial of a platform by student groups. These student groups, in almost all instances, did not appeal to university authorities to ban certain speakers, but through the student union (or other student organisations) making a public (and often physical) demonstration that certain speakers were not welcome.

For the RCP, there was no difference. This was made clear by Juliet Connor when discussing the anti-fascist campaign in the early 1990s calling for the media to refuse to provide a platform for the BNP:

Many might think that it’s all right to call for censorship of racists so long as the government is not invited to do the banning. Anti-fascists argue that it’s up to ordinary people to demand ‘No platform’ for fascists in colleges, in the press and in their workplaces. But it makes no difference who does it. Whether the appeal for censorship is addressed to the government, media barons or trade unions, calling for a ban on the BNP can only reinforce an already censorious climate.[44]

The RCP steadfastly conflated calls for the state (through legislation, the police or discrete government bodies) with campaigns for the media to deny a platform to fascists and for student unions to refuse to allow racists or fascists to speak. The distinction between calls for a top down approach and a bottom up approach was non-existent. And as the militancy of the RCP faded and the ‘marketplace of ideas’ was increasingly fetishized by those centred around Living Marxism, debate became the primary battleground for the remnants of the party. Despite arguing ten years earlier that direct action against racism was needed and that arguments could not adequately fight racism, the RCP in its later days now argued the opposite – which would echo through its successor projects.

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[1]‘Campus Watch’, Searchlight (January 1995) p. 5.

[2]Cited in, British Muslims Monthly Survey, 4/8 (August 1996),

http://artsweb.bham.ac.uk/bmms/1996/08August96.html (accessed 17 May, 2019).

[3]Jennie Bristow, ‘Free Speech on Campus’, Living Marxism, 83 (October 1995) http://web.archive.org/web/19991103220041/http://www.informinc.co.uk/LM/LM83/LM83_Speech.html (accessed 8 March, 2018).

[4]Juliet Connor, ‘The Problem with “No Platform”’, Living Marxism, 72 (October 1994) http://web.archive.org/web/20010730211339/www.informinc.co.uk/LM/LM72/LM72_Platform.html(accessed 6 March, 2018).

[5]Ibid.

[6]Bristow, ‘Free Speech on Campus’.

[7]Peter Davies, ‘Lenin’s Crystal Ball’, Marxism Today (August 1990) pp. 34-35.

[8]For the RCT side of the split, see: Chris Davies & Judith Harrison, ‘ ‘A Retrograde Step for the Marxist Movement – A Reply to Cde Yaffe’, Revolutionary Communist Papers, 1 (March 1977) pp., 3-26. For the RCG side, see: RCG Executive Committee, Statement on the Expulsion of a Chauvinist Grouping in the RCG (RCG internal document, 17 November, 1976) https://bit.ly/2wcuNQK (accessed 21 May, 2019).

[9]Lucy Robinson, Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain: How the Personal Got Political (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2007) pp. 177-178.

[10]For a discussion of The Red Front, see: Evan Smith, ‘A Platform for Working Class Unity? The Revolutionary Communist Party’s Red Front and the 1987 Election’, Hatful of History(7 November, 2017) https://hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/2017/11/07/a-platform-for-working-class-unity-the-revolutionary-communist-partys-red-front-and-the-1987-election/ (accessed 20 May, 2019).

[11]Michael Fitzpatrick, ‘The Point is to Change It: A Short Account of the Revolutionary Communist Party’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017) pp. 232-233.

[12]Workers Against Racism, The Roots of Racism (London: Junius Publications, 1985) p. 83; p. 85.

[13]Ibid., p. 46.

[14]Ibid., p. 82; p. 47.

[15]‘Fighting the Bans’, The Next Step (May 1981) p. 3.

[16]Kirk Williams, ‘Fight Racism, Not Idiots’, The Next Step (October 1984) p. 6.

[17]Ibid.

[18]‘Sunderland Poly’, The Next Step (19 April, 1985) p. 10.

[19]‘No Platform?’, The Next Step (3 May, 1985) p. 2.

[20]Ibid.

[21]Ibid.

[22]Martin Durham, Sex and Politics: Family and Morality in the Thatcher Years (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1991) p. 50.

[23]Sarah Webster, ‘Protest Activity in the British Student Movement, 1945 to 2011’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Manchester, 2015, pp. 198-199.

[24]Ibid., p. 199.

[25]Kate Marshall, Moral Panics and Victorian Values: Women and the Family in Thatcher’s Britain (London: Junius Publications, 1985) p. 32.

[26]The Mancunion (6 March, 1985) p. 4.

[27]Ibid.

[28]Ibid.

[29]The Mancunion (13 March, 1985) p. 5.

[30]Ibid.

[31]Webster, ‘Protest Activity in the British Student Movement’, p. 199.

[32]‘Saying No to Victoria’s Values’, The Next Step (6 December, 1985) p. 2.

[33]Frank Richards, ‘Taking on the Moralists’, The Next Step (6 March, 1987) p. 11.

[34]Ibid.

[35]‘The Propaganda War: No Platform?’, The Next Step (21 March, 1986) p. 5.

[36]‘Stonehenge and Free Speech’, The Next Step (6 June, 1986) p. 2.

[37]Ibid.

[38]‘The Propaganda War: No Platform’, The Next Step (5 December, 1986) p. 10.

[39]Ibid.

[40]‘No Platform?’, The Next Step (31 October, 1986) p. 10.

[41]‘What Future for Student Unions?’, The Next Step (18 November, 1988) p. 7.

[42]‘They Can Be Beaten: Tories Get Tough With Students’, The Next Step (2 December, 1988) p. 12.

[43]See: ‘Satanic Flames Ignite British Racism’, The Next Step (24 February, 1989) p. 2; Kenan Malik, ‘The Culture of Censorship’, The Next Step (6 October, 1989) p. 7.

[44]Connor, ‘The Problem with “No Platform”’.

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