Late last year, I presented a paper at the online Historical Materialism conference on the RCP, Spiked and their shifting concept of the state. I had previously posted the text of my paper on my Patreon, but thought I’d post it here now as interest in the history of the RCP/LM/Spiked network has risen again with Munira Mirza’s resignation from Downing Street. I had previously written about Mirza, Spiked and the Tories’ culture war for The Guardian here. This is part of a wider project on the history of the RCP, so any feedback is most welcome.
Although it remained a tiny group during the 1980s, the Revolutionary Communist Party has become infamous for the number of ventures that grew out of the far left group and the prominent role that many of the party’s former leading members occupy in the British media and political landscape nowadays. The RCP formally dissolved in 1996, but became infamous after its journal, Living Marxism, was sued for libel by ITN regarding claims made about the news company’s coverage of aspects of the Balkan Wars. After losing the case and the winding up of LM, the magazine’s former editors, alongside other leading RCP members, formed the website, Spiked Online.
In the last twenty years, Spiked has become an increasingly vocal and visible actor in Britain’s culture wars, combining libertarianism and right-wing populism with a penchant for contrarianism. A number of its editorial team and contributors have made headway in the mainstream media, such as Frank Furedi, Joanna Williams, Mick Hume, Brendan O’Neill and Tom Slater. At the same time, Claire Fox was an MEP for the Brexit Party (and now a Baroness in the House of Lords) and Munira Mirza is a chief political advisor for Boris Johnson. As Spiked appears to have gained access to the corridors of power and scaled the heights of the media as British politics lurches to the right, this paper will discuss how the RCP transformed from a small Trotskyist party in the 1980s into the notorious website that Spiked is today, developing what critics have referred to as the RCP/LM/Spiked network.
Although the trajectory from the far left to the right is not an uncommon phenomenon, the shift en masse from the RCP to Spiked via Living Marxism, which kept much of the same leading personnel intact and with few openly breaking with the party/network, is more unique. As Chris Gilligan, a former RCP member, has noted, this network seems to be quite a conscious decision made in the late 1990s, citing Dolan Cummings writing for the Spiked Review of Booksin 2007:
I never left the RCP: the organisation folded in the mid-Nineties, but few of us actually ‘recanted’ our ideas. Instead we resolved to support one another more informally as we pursued our political tradition as individuals, or launched new projects with more general aims that have also engaged people from different traditions, or none. These include spiked and the Institute of Ideas, where I now work.
Over the years, former RCP members who had made the initial transition into LM and Spiked have fallen away or become less involved, even though their public criticisms of their ex-comrades is muted.
Looking at the RCP through the lens of its successors, there has been a debate about whether the RCP was part of the left. For example, Andy Beckett wrote in The Guardian:
Despite its name, most of its stances were not communist or revolutionary but contrarian: it supported free speech for racists, and nuclear power; it attacked environmentalism and the NHS. Its most consistent impulse was to invoke an idealised working class, and claim it was actually being harmed by the supposed elites of the liberal left.
On the other hand, left historian Lawrence Parker has suggested that the RCP was ‘really nothing special’ and similar to other groups on the British left, such as The Leninist faction within the Communist Party of Great Britain. This paper seeks a path between these two poles. In the 1980s, the RCP still situated itself within the political landscape of the British far left, but its line on a number of issues was very different from those of other groups and often in stark contradiction to them. The approach to the RCP to other left groups was also fairly hostile, seeking to build a revolutionary Leninist organisation that acted independently to the various far left parties and the wider labour movement. In my book, I described them as the self-identified Robinson Crusoes of the British left. But it was only from 1990 onwards that the RCP started to disassociate itself from organised socialist politics on the whole and promoting the notion that the class struggle was over, instead emphasising the ‘battle of ideas’.
Charting the trajectory from the RCP to LM and then to Spiked, it is important to highlight the continuities and the discontinuities. There are significant discontinuities and contradictions between the positions held by the RCP in the 1980s and those promoted by Spiked nowadays, but there are also some continuities, not only in personnel, but also in the approach to issues. One of the continuities that can be seen in the politics of the RCP/LM/Spiked network is a suspicion of state intervention and an underlying anti-statism. In the 1980s, this was a radical left stance that attracted some fellow travellers from anarchists and other left libertarians and in more recent times, has attracted more support from the right, but also used as a point of distinction with others on the conservative and populist right (an example of this are the discussions about Tory legislation about protest and freedom of speech within Spiked). This paper will look at three distinct eras of the RCP/LM/Spiked network – the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s-10s – and examine the continuities and the discontinuities in the approach to the state and state intervention.
During the 1980s, the line of the RCP towards the state and state intervention was one of opposition, which was shared, more or less in theory, by most of the British radical left at the time. In the 1984 edition of the RCP manifesto, Preparing for Power, the party stated, ‘[t]he state is the employers’ main weapon for enforcing the domination of capital’ and thus, ‘[t]he precondition for the liberation for the liberation of society is the destruction of the capitalist state’ (p. 40). For the RCP, this meant recognising the oppressive nature of the state and overcoming the illusion that certain parts of the bourgeois state could be used to the left’s advantage (p. 41).
One of the key components of the RCP’s programme in this period was anti-racism, primarily through the front group, Workers Against Racism (WAR). In 1985, WAR published a pamphlet called The Roots of Racism, which argued that the British state was institutionally racist and that various arms of the state, from the police to the Home Office to the Housing Department ‘sustain the racist consensus that pervades British society’ (p. 82). From this point of view, the RCP argued that state institutions could not be used for anti-racist purposes (p. 72), with a particular emphasis on opposing state bans on and co-operating with police against fascists and racists (which also underpinned their opposition to ‘no platforming’ in the 1980s). Similar to criticisms made by Paul Gilroy and the Asian Youth Movement, the RCP argued that municipal anti-racism was also ineffectual, based on ‘moralism and platitudes’ (p. 77).
Similar arguments were made in regards to women’s liberation and women’s rights. While acknowledging that ‘[w]omen have often benefited from the steady advance of the state intervention in the capitalist economy’, with reforms such as child benefits, maternity benefits, sick pay, unemployment benefits and pensions made available to women, Kate Marshall wrote in 1982 that ‘[i]n reality the state cannot rise above the laws of the capitalist system’ (Real Freedom, p. 40). Marshall’s 1987 pamphlet, Moral Panics and Victorian Values, also highlighted how the state (and the capitalist market) promoted a ‘new morality’ that targeted women, homosexuality and sex outside of marriage. The purpose of this was, in Marshall’s words, ‘the elevation of the family, parental responsibility and respect for law and order and the authority of the state’ (p. 1).
In almost all aspects of the RCP’s programme, state intervention or co-operation with state institutions was seen as problematic due to the oppressive and censorious aspects of the state (such as policing, immigration control and state censorship). Under Thatcher’s neoliberal and socially conservative government, opposition to the state was a relatively straight-forward position for the radical left, but in the 1990s, as Thatcherism shifted over the decade into Blairism and New Labour, the RCP viewed the state as acting in a different way.
The 1990s saw the RCP undergo significant change. 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’. One of the major causes for this was the end of the Cold War. Like the rest of the British left, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc between 1989 and 1991 disoriented the RCP. Writing at the end of 1990, Frank Richards argued in Living Marxismthat the situation in Britain and Eastern Europe demonstrated that both Labourism and Stalinism had failed. Yet unlike others on the Trotskyist left, which put itself forward as the revolutionary alternative to both, Richards in an article titled ‘Midnight in the Century’ claimed that there was no political vehicle left for the working class, implying that the revolutionary communist vanguard that the RCP promoted itself as during the 1980s was no longer a viable option.
Over the next half decade, the RCP reinvented itself. For the RCP, the class struggle took a back seat to the battle of ideas and Living Marxism became the de facto party. Practical organisation was increasingly seen as a dead end and in its place, the RCP argued that any political alternative needed to be developed intellectually foremost. Workers Against Racism and the anti-war campaigns, No More Hiroshimas and the Campaign Against Militarism, represented some of the final instances of activism for the party, with even the Irish Freedom Movement losing momentum as the IRA moved towards a ceasefire and eventual peace. Fewer demonstrations were organised by the RCP and there was more interest in hosting public events to debate ideas.
Part of this shift was a view that the old distinction between left and right had collapsed and that there was little difference between the authoritarianism of the Thatcher/Major governments and that of New Labour (even before Blair won power in 1997). Those writing for Living Marxism saw the impulse of the ‘nanny state’ as stretching across the Conservative/Labour divide and reflecting a new generation of middle class elites. Mick Hume, writing an editorial in November 1994, quipped that ‘the way to win support for a law-and-order crusade today would be to package it much more as a police campaign against racist attacks, domestic violence, child abuse and pornography’. Both sides of government were seen as ‘ban happy’ and as Hume wrote in 1996, attempted to reassert their authority ‘through hyped-up crusades against easy targets’. Living Marxism ran numerous stories through the 1990s of bans or state intervention around social issues, such as obesity, drugs, youth crime or single mothers.
In some ways, this overlapped with left criticism that Blair’s New Labour did not break with Thatcherism and its commitment to what Stuart Hall described in a 1998 special issue of Marxism Today as ‘remoralisation of the work ethic’, distinguishing between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. However those writing for Living Marxism seemed to flatten all forms of state intervention and did not differentiate with New Labour’s support for criminalising and restrictive social and criminal justice policies and any other form of state-based initiative established to combat inequalities, viewing all of the above as impositions of the ‘nanny state’ and top-down moralism.
At the same time, the state was still seen as oppressive and for example, defined by its institutional racism. But in the 1990s, this was used as a reason to criticise anti-fascist work, such as that being done by the Anti-Nazi League, because it focused on ‘consequence’ of racism (racial violence and the BNP) and not the ‘cause’ of racism (the government and state agencies), as Pat Roberts argued in 1994.
In the final year of the RCP, Living Marxism published a new manifesto titled The Point is to Change It, emphasising the politics that the magazine had pushed during the 1990s, but now jettisoning the party organisation. The debate about the use of the RCP as a revolutionary party had been on-going for a few years, but was finally announced in LM in March 1998, much to the bemusement of others on the left.
The years after the dissolution of the party were dominated by a libel case against the magazine brought against it by ITN. An issue of Living Marxism in 1997 published an article that questioned the validity of reporting by ITN on a camp in Trnopolje during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s. The RCP had long opposed Western intervention in the Balkan conflict and this article, by a German journalist, fit into a wider focus on media representations of the conflict. For the next few years, the libel case against the magazine, its editors and the company that ran it, Informinc, overshadowed the journal until the outcome in 2000. The courts found in favour on ITN and awarded damages of £75,000, which bankrupted the magazine.
With the implosion of LM in 2000, those who had been in the leadership positions within the RCP and at the helm of the magazine started the millennium with a new project, Spiked Online. This new website operated in a similar manner to Living Marxism, seemingly free from the constraint of a party line, but (un)surprisingly consistent in its approach to issues, such as the absolute defence of free speech, the criticism of government interventions in many areas as the overreach of the ‘nanny state’, the characterisation of progressive politics as moralism and a growing opposition to identity politics. As well as the party faithful from the 1980s, Spiked also featured a new generation of writers, some of whom had started contributing to LM in its final years, alongside others who were brought on since the magazine folded.
Some of the anti-statism of the RCP/LM years remained in some areas, but disappeared in others. In the early days of Spiked, there was still an acknowledgment of institutional racism, with the website publishing an article from the final days of LM on the Macpherson report in 1999. Authored by Mick Hume, it stated, ‘Of course there is racism in Britain, emanating most powerfully from the police and other state institutions’. But more recently, the writers at Spiked have become much more sceptical about the state as being institutionally racist. After the Sewell report was published earlier this year that proposed that the term ‘institutional racism’ was being ‘liberally used’ and often ‘without evidence’ (p. 34), Brendan O’Neill welcomed this as a sign that the ‘myth’ of institutional racism was collapsing. A long-read written by Luke Gittos in August 2020 for the website argued:
the fact remains that the persistence of racial prejudice is not the most significant problem facing the police today. It is strange that this even needs saying, but the vast majority of current police officers are not racists. They are civic-minded people who deserve our respect.
This is in stark contrast to how the RCP viewed the state in the 1980s (and even in the 1990s).
There has also been a re-evaluation of the attitude towards borders, with Frank Furedi recently authoring a book (promoted by Spiked) in defence of borders. This can be compared with the position of the RCP in the 1980s that border controls were inherently racist. For example, in 1985, the Workers Against Racism pamphlet The Roots of Racism stated, ‘The working class cannot root out racism unless it opposes all immigration controls’ (p. 82).
While much of Spiked’s output in recent times has chimed with the culture wars being more broadly pursued by the right, its scepticism towards the state reveals a degree of difference between those at Spiked and the traditional Tory base. An example of this is that much of the right-wing press have supported the Priti Patel’s wide-ranging Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, Spiked writers have portrayed it as it an ‘attack on freedom of assembly and protest’.
Much of Spiked’s anti-statism extends from the premise that a certain tranche of elites (often middle class and/or ‘woke’) have captured control of the state and industry and seek to clamp down on sections of society. This can be seen in the opposition of Spiked to what they call ‘censorship’ via legislation, such as Scotland’s Hate Crime Bill. It can also be seen in Spiked’s opposition to lockdown laws and other measures brought in during Covid, which have been portrayed as authoritarian and a threat to freedom. This has obviously tapped into a wider anti-lockdown sentiment which has spread across the globe in the last 18 months.
The trajectory of the RCP to Spiked over a thirty year period is an interesting story, but also an important one, as it can help explain the origins of a network has gained prominence within the British political and media landscape. Although there are many discontinuities to highlight between the RCP in the 1980s and Spiked in the present, there are also continuities. Since the days of the Revolutionary Communist Party, there has an anti-statist strain to their politics, opposing state intervention and the state’s infringement upon personal freedoms, which still appears, in different ways, in the politics of Spiked at this moment. But while the state was seen by the RCP as institutionally racist (and sexist and homophobic), this does not seem to be the case with Spiked’s notion of the state. The state, for Spiked, seems to be driven by the authoritarian and amorphous desires of the elites, often characterised as middle class and politically correct (even though the Conservatives have been in power for over a decade). In an era when the right has attempted, across the world, to capture the language of freedom, the select anti-statism of Spiked helps to shift the Overton window around this discourse.