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4 March: X-RCP Men: The Last Stand?

 

An interesting story at The Virtual Stoa, where Chris Brooke writes, 'Why is there quite so much interest from the x-RCP crowd in the fight over animal testing that's going on here in Oxford? ... Of the seven advertised speakers at the march last week, one was the local MP, Evan Harris, and one was my Magdalen colleague, John Stein, and a third was the 16-year old chap who founded Pro-Test. All four of the others have got some kind of link with the Extended World of Mick Hume.' 

4/8 March 2006: Living Marxism, spiked online and the RCP

The Loneliest Jukebox has responded to my memories of the Revolutionary Communist Party in Sheffield. I suggested that one-time members of the RCP had continued to organise in 'free speech for fascists' campaigns even after the group's demise. This is how Jukebox translates that argument: 'One tragedy of the British left, then as now: according to Renton and co, by the close of the last century the defence of free speech was more or less exclusively identified with the Revolutionary Communist Party.' Such comments remind me of the old RCP for their their glibness: they're like a pantomime dame shouting 'oh, you don't like me, you can't know how good that makes me feel.' It's always a bad idea to reply to provocateurs, but the following are my memories of the RCP:

At the age of 17, I was the sort of person who would stop on the streets when asked: 'What do you think of the new advertising on London Underground?', or 'Would you give us money to end third world debt?' I thought the best of people. When someone told me they stood for x, I believed them. 

One day in July 1990, I walked past a small group of people selling Socialist Worker on Malet Street. I bought a paper, and wandered on. With a few yards, I was accosted by another youth, short, slightly rotund, with glasses. Cronain was just 16. He was selling Living Marxism, the publication of the Revolutionary Communist Party. 'Would you like a copy of our magazine?' But I'd just bought a Socialist Worker. 'We're much more leftwing than them,' he told me. Knowing nothing of either group, I obliged, gave over my phone number, and was sucked in.

I would like to say that I 'joined' the Revolutionary Communist Party, because emotionally that was true: I subscribed to Living Marxism for a year, and sold it for several months. I internalised as much of the RCP's worldview as I could, I was told that the party was the fastest growing force in British politics. I learned that the causes with which I had previously identified Labour, the trade unions, George Orwell and CND were not leftwing at all, but part of a conspiracy to hoodwink the workers. I couldn't understand why the party was more concerned to sell copies of Living Marxism outside Sloane Square station than in any of the areas where working-class people lived. But such doubts were put aside: I would have joined if I'd been allowed: the only obstacle was an exam I would eventually need to pass. I had enough exams to think about already. I promised to revise hard and study, and left the exam itself for later.

Meeting Cronain set off my first induction into left-wing politics. My head burst with new ideas, about Communism, Ireland, the revolution. Drinking in North London pubs, joining Irish Freedom marches, the members of the RCP were a confident and active lot who did a good job of impersonating a left-wing party.

As a supporter, I internalised the belief that the isolation of the Revolutionary Communist Party was due to the sectarianism of other parties. But life taught me how little sense that claim made. The party had been formed as a split from a breakaway, and never shed its conviction that the explanation for the failure of the revolutionaries lay with the faint hearts of their left rivals. Iraq invaded Kuwait. I attended a London-wide planning meeting at which the RCP's attitude towards the crisis in the Middle East was worked out on the basis of a thirty minute presentation, 'what is the rest of the left not saying?'

It's hard now to convey the oddity of that experience. For the RCP then claimed some 500 members (and would peak two years later at over 1000). To calculate the errors of the entire British left meant taking into consideration not just Labour, and the larger Marxist parties (Militant and the SWP), but even the smallest of the sects (Socialist Organiser, Workers Vanguard, Workers Hammer): the views of each of these group had to be considered before an RCP line could be drawn.

I left the RCP in summer 1990, and within a few months had joined the SWP, but for the next six years, the RCP never really went away. If I was on a march, there would be someone selling Living Marxism somewhere, normally with a leaflet telling everyone else why they were wrong to be marching. Everyone else was wrong, everyone else needed to be convinced that they were wrong, the left needed to be broken: not physically, but politically. The left was full of damaged women, RCP members observed: the explanation was not gender inequality or domestic violence, but feminism, which encouraged women to see themselves as victims. By the early 1990s, the RCP was at best equivocally anti-Nazi. By 1995 and 1996, the front page of Living Marxism was given to a gloating picture of Mike Tyson, then facing charges of rape. Assertive masculinity was what the time required. 

The RCP had long since given up on class, in fact working out what they still believed was something of a mystery. They supported the racist lecturer Chris Brand. I lived Sheffield continuously for a year in 1995-6. There, the RCP had two hard-working members, older, and balding. I remark on the latter only because it was unusual for the RCP: their members were usually so well-dressed, so good-looking. Most of the rest of the left were the children of the public sector middle-class, trying desperately hard to look downwardly mobile. The RCP's pitch was definitely upward mobility. You might see the RCP occasionally at Sheffield University: unlike the SWP and the Socialist Party, or even the NF and the BNP, you never saw them in Hillsborough, where I lived.

In Sheffield, the RCP's chief tactic was to show classic films to students, typically ones such as Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind, which combined technical innovation with an unmissable racist message. To potential members, the RCP was saying 'look how tough we are, we can watch racist films without being converted.' To its antagonists on the left, the RCP was saying, 'we can take impressionable young socialists, and convince them that racism is cool.' If we were riled by the provocations ... so much the better. The RCP loved playing martyr.

After summer 1996 I was living first in London and then Hackney, while commuting intermittently back to Sheffield where I completed my PhD. I saw less of the RCP then, but could hardly be unware of their claims that the Serbs had committed no atrocities in Bosnia: an insult to the victims of the atrocities, and a provocation to the rest of the left, trying to argue a more plausible anti-war line. It was the old argument from 1990: what was the rest of the left not saying?

In 1996, Jukebox claims, the RCP ceased to exist. But even Living Marxism only announced the news in March 1998. The party continued even then in the form of a website 'spiked online', and in a series of conferences. The magazine featured the former editorial staff of Living Marxism. The conferences pushed the same names: Claire Fox, Frank Furedi, and Mick Hulme. Most of the former party fronts which the RCP had run continued: although some folded quicker than others. What was the point of Workers Against Racism, when the RCP was neither pro-worker nor anti-racism? Why maintain an Irish Freedom Movement, when Ireland was an embarrassment. Why ally with businesses one day and Campaign Against Militarism the next? The Free Speech Societies continued, however, for a longer period of time. The groups outside London withered. Spiked online flourished, as did the media career of Claire Fox and Mick Hulme in particular.

The RCP's idea of free speech was always mixed up with its list of who it could work with. If the problem of the left was its insincerity or liberalism, then of course the best allies were the ones that the rest of the left would like the least. Thus the RCP was in favour of free speech for fascists and racists, and for corporate spokesmen who claimed that pollution was doing no harm to the environment, the supermarkets were a particular good, as was business in any appearance. A silenced Marxist could never expect to be supported by the RCP, nor any feminist, not any anti-racist. In fact anyone who claimed to speak up for left-wing values would be patiently informed that they didn't need free speech they had it already the people who lacked it were the right and the far-right.

Finally, all this began with my observation that Mark Collett of the BNP claims in print (and claimed at his trial) to have been recruited to far-right politics by membership of a society set up by members of the RCP. Elsewhere on this blog, I've advertised the possibility that he may have been lying, but it's curious then that Collett has repeated the story. If I was a former member of the Leeds Free Speech Society, I'd want to know that what Collett had said was untrue. Because I was briefly a supporter of the RCP, I want to know for sure that he's lying: and while either possibility remains open, I remain genuinely offended by the thought that I once campaigned for a group that has since sunk very low. 

For more on the RCP, see:

http://www.lobbywatch.org/p1temp.asp?pid=39&page=1

http://www.lobbywatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=78

http://www.monbiot.com/archives/1997/12/18/the-revolution-has-been-televised/

http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/Newint/Rcp.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,341054,00.html)

25 February: More on Mark Collett 

The Loneliest Jukebox has criticised my observation that Mark Collett of the BNP boasts of having come to far-right politics through the Leeds 'Free Speech Society', which began as a front for an ostensibly left-wing party called the RCP. Jukebox suggests that the RCP could not be blamed - it folded in 1996, 3 years before Collett arrived at uni. But when the RCP closed, it continued in Spiked online, which took over the politics of the RCP, plus most of the contributors to its former publication Living Marxism. RCP groups outside London continue to organise into the late 1990s, chiefly taking people to events organised by Spiked. Was the Free Speech society at Leeds still run by former RCPers in 1999? If it was, that would surprise me not one bit. 

On Dead Men Left, meanwhile 'Anti-Nazi' argues that Collett's account of his political awakening is made up: Collett had reached Leeds already a member of the NF. If Collett is lying: there is an interesting phenomenon at work. It was clear from the trial that he lies to himself about things he claims to have seen, stories which can be traced back to a sort of draft Turner Diaries that he wrote at university, in an attempt to explain why everyone (even most other members of the BNP) detest him so.