Revolutionary Communist Party (UK, 1978)
|Revolutionary Communist Party|
|Split from||Revolutionary Communist Group|
|Politics of Britain
The Revolutionary Communist Party, known as the Revolutionary Communist Tendency until 1981, was a Trotskyist organisation formed in 1978. After 1991, the party metamorphosed into a libertarian rather than a Trotskyist group. It was disbanded in 1997, although a number of former members maintain a loose political network to promote its ideas.
The party originated as a tendency in the Revolutionary Communist Group, which had split from the International Socialists in the 1970s. This group had concluded that there was no living Marxist tradition in the left, and Marxism would have to be re-established. Disagreements about the course the Revolutionary Communist Group should take in relation to support for the Anti-Apartheid Movement led Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent (better known then by his cadre name Frank Richards), to break off and form his own group. The Revolutionary Communist Tendency hoped to draw together those militant working class leaders who were disappointed by the limitations of reformism to help to build a new working class leadership and develop an independent working class programme.
Taking a strong line which it considered to be inspired by Vladimir Lenin's work on the relationship between imperialism and reformism, the early ideas of the RCP had it that the "only hope of securing any decent sort of life - or even guaranteeing survival - lies in the working class taking control over society". It argued that traditional Stalinist and social-democratic appeals to the bourgeois state undermined working-class independence. Instead an independent vanguard party should be organized to campaign for a distinctly working-class politics. In 1978, for example, when the left was strong within the Labour Party, the RCP argued that "Labour is the party which attempts to resolve the crisis by integrating militant working class resistance into the capitalist system". This position included a rejection of support for the Labour Party and one that questioned the allegiances of the trade union movement. A consequence of this belief was a growing distrust of traditional statist left-wing struggles as 'reformist'. According to some, the RCP took a view that reformism consolidated bourgeois ideology in the potential leadership layers of the working class.
The RCP took a number of positions coined to distinguish independent working-class politics from statist reformism. These included
- The rejection of all controls on immigration.
- Opposition to any national economic recovery strategies, such as import controls, which aimed to pit British workers against those overseas.
- Free abortion and contraception on demand.
- Decriminalisation of homosexuality. and complete equality under the law.
- Unconditional support for the struggle against British imperialism in northern Ireland, on the grounds that "British workers cannot ignore the cause of Irish liberation without renouncing their own class interests".
- A claim that the police occupied Brixton: "We have to organise on the streets and housing estates to keep the police out."
- The party's campaign Workers Against Racism aimed to organise physical defence against racist attacks.
The RCP's programme can be traced through the publications "Our Tasks and Methods" (a reprint of the Revolutionary Communist Group's founding document), the 1983 general election manifesto Preparing for Power and the article "The Road to Power" in the theoretical journal Confrontation (1986).
Workers Against Racism
Begun as East London Workers Against Racism (ELWAR), before it was launched as a national campaign, Workers Against Racism campaigned against state racism. Protests were organised against deportations, and passport checks at hospitals and unemployment benefit offices. ELWAR also organised patrols and vigils to defend immigrants against racist attacks. In Parliament, Tory MP Nicholas Winterton demanded of the Home Secretary: 'if he will seek to proscribe the East London Workers against Racism vigilante group' Workers Against Racism was criticised in the press for its activities during the 1981 Brixton Riots. An internal Home Office report to the Prime Minister claimed
the Revolutionary Communist Party set up a Lambeth Unemployed Workers’ Group shortly before the Riots, and has since formed a South London Workers Against Racism group, similar to the East London Workers Against Racism which attracted some notoriety for organising vigilante patrols.
The RCP's 'Workers Against Racism' campaign fought many deportation threats, like George Roucou's, on the grounds that British immigration law was racist. Roucou was a shop steward in the building workers' union UCATT in Manchester. Workers Against Racism helped to organise a campaign culminating in a one-day strike and demonstration by his fellow council workers on 6 February 1987. On 13 March 1987, with 500 protesting outside, the Home Office appeal panel reversed Roucou's deportation order. On 11 June 1985 Metso Moncrieffe was arrested and held by police pending a deportation order. Workers Against Racism campaigners raised the case - disrupting a test match at the Edgbaston cricket ground in July 1985 with a 'Metso Must Stay' banner - and helping to build a 1,000-strong march for him in December 1986. In September 1987, Moncrieffe's deportation order was overturned.
Supporting Irish republicanism
Supporting Irish republicanism was central to the work of the RCP. In 1978 the RCT organised the Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act Campaign, and held protests outside police stations where suspects were held. The RCT organised a conference of trade unionists opposed to Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom in Coventry in 1981, and later that year, held a march to the TUC conference, the Workers March for Irish Freedom. On Saturday 6 February 1982 the Irish Freedom Movement (IFM) was founded at a meeting in Caxton House, Archway - and TUC general secretary Len Murray wrote to the 13 trades councils that sponsored the conference threatening them with disaffiliation if they attended. Mick Hume, who edited the next step recalls that the IFM were accused of complicity in the 1984 bombing of the Conservative Party conference. The IFM published a quarterly bulletin Irish Freedom and organised an annual march on the anniversary of internment. When the voices of Sinn Féin supporters were banned from the British broadcast media, Living Marxism carried a front page interview with its leader Gerry Adams, and the IFM picketed Broadcasting House.
Campaign Against Militarism
In 1993 the RCP helped launch the Campaign Against Militarism (CAM), to fight against western military intervention. CAM organised protests against the military interventions in Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq. On 10 September 1993 seventy Somalis and CAM supporters occupied the United States embassy after an alleged massacre of civilians in Mogadishu - the only time it has happened. After they were evicted by armed marines, eleven were convicted under the as yet untested 'criminal trespass' laws, but charges were dropped after lawyer Mike Fisher sought to have the case tried in the United States, arguing that the offence, if any, was committed on American soil. CAM was the only left-wing group that joined British Serbs in their demonstrations over the military strikes on Yugoslavia in 1994.
The Revolutionary Communist Party took a number of positions that were strongly criticised by others on the left:
- In The Truth About the AIDS Panic, Michael Fitzpatrick and Don Milligan wrote that there is 'no good evidence that Aids is likely to spread rapidly among heterosexuals in the West'. The pamphlet argued that the government campaign warning of a heterosexual aids epidemic was a moral panic that would worsen prejudice against gay people.
- In 1984, when British miners struck against redundancies the RCP argued that the union's refusal to hold a national ballot was a major problem: 'The only way to win the passive majority for the strike was to launch an aggressive campaign around a national ballot.'
- In the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, the RCP argued that "sanctions don't make sense", because it was wrong to call on the governments that had supported Apartheid to overthrow it. Rather, workers ought to "take direct action", like blocking South African imports at docks
After 1991, when the organisation re-thought its outlook, it adopted a number of positions that put it at odds with the "New Labour" milieu:
- In The Empire Strikes Back, Mike Freeman identified "the metamorphosis of what had long regarded itself as a peace movement into a war movement", after much of the left rallied to support the first Iraq War. Later this trend was called "humanitarian imperialism" in Living Marxism. The RCP opposed western military intervention in Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and East Timor.
- Living Marxism argued against what it called the 'new authoritarianism', the greater official interference and surveillance of ordinary people by the state. The growth in 'at-risk' registers and CCTV were examples.
- The RCP opposed the increase in judicial and other kinds of non-majoritarian overriding of parliament, and opposed the subordination of parliament to the European Convention on Human Rights.
In 1981 Alex Callinicos of the British Socialist Workers Party took issue with the RCP's argument that 'such issues as racism and Ireland form ... a vital component of revolutionary propaganda'. Callinicos claimed instead that "if most of the workers involved have reactionary views on questions such as race, the position of women, and so on" that was less important than that they were fighting over pay and conditions. Callinicos also called into question the RCP's stress on "the connection between reformism and nationalism", saying they were 'paleo-marxists'. In 1984, the Socialist Workers Party denounced the RCP for calling for a national ballot in the miners' strike.
On 30 June 1990 Simon Watney and Edward King of the group OutRage! kicked over the RCP's stall at the Gay Pride march. Watney criticised Michael Fitzpatrick and Don Milligan for giving credence to the idea that AIDS was a 'gay plague' by their insistence that there would be no epidemic amongst heterosexuals in the west. But Outrage! was divided over the attack. In the 1990s, along with Edward King, Watney back-tracked on the point at issue, arguing instead that the 'everyone is at risk' approach misdirected public attention away from gay victims of the disease, which they said, should be 're-gayed'. Agreeing with Fitzpatrick and Milligan on the epidemiology, King in particular was much more critical on the political approach, which he said amounted to 'hostility to any form of autonomous lesbian and gay self-organizing'.
Nick Cohen, Marko Attila Hoare and Oliver Kamm strongly criticised the RCP, and its former members after the dissolution, for opposing the humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. Hoare, Cohen and Kamm also rejected Noam Chomsky's defence of Living Marxism and its coverage of the Bosnian war.
In 1997, environmental journalist George Monbiot argued that the RCP had undue influence at Channel 4 in an article titled "Marxists found alive in C4", after two of its members contributed to the Against Nature television programme, whose director, Martin Durkin is also connected to the group. Elsewhere Monbiot took issue with Living Marxism for putting too much stress on freedom, as if "there should be no limits to human action, least of all those imposed by 'official and semi-official agencies … from the police and the courts to social services, counsellors and censors.'"
Andy Rowell, and Jonathan Matthews of the Norfolk Genetic Information Network criticised the RCP for championing genetic engineering. Andy Rowell and Bob Burton along with Jonathan Matthews of the Norfolk Genetic Information Network charged Living Marxism with a history of attacking the environmental movement.
Life and closure
At the end of the 1980s, the RCP had moved away from its roots as a Trotskyist organisation, leading some critics to argue that they had abandoned the notion of the class struggle. In 1988, its weekly tabloid newspaper the next step carried an article arguing that "the disintegration of the official labour movement, and the apparent lack of a left-wing alternative, has consolidated an overwhelmingly defensive mood in the working class".
In the 1987 General Election, RCP members stood as part of the Red Front, arguing that working people needed to break with the Labour Party, but no Red Front candidate retained their election deposit.
In 1988, the RCP made the next step into a bulletin for its supporters. Later, a monthly magazine called Living Marxism was set up which was intended for a wider readership. Despite its beginnings as a far-left outlet, the politics espoused by the magazine developed a pronounced libertarianism. In December 1990, Living Marxism ran an article which argued that the corrosive effect of the collapse of both Stalinism and Reformism on the working class meant that "for the time being at least, the working class has no political existence". In 1997, the point was put more forcefully:
In today's circumstances class politics cannot be reinvented, rebuilt, reinvigorated or rescued. Why? Because any dynamic political outlook needs to exist in an interaction with existing individual consciousness. And contemporary forms of consciousness in our atomised societies cannot be used as the foundation for a more developed politics of solidarity.
Between 1990 and 1997 the RCP developed the view that, more than capitalism itself, the danger facing humanity was the absence of a force for social change (in philosophical language, a "subject" of history), and the culture of low expectations that suppressed it. Prefacing a 1996 Living Marxism manifesto, Mick Hume argued that:
Of course ... we could have produced a familiar list of left-wing slogans complaining about problems like unemployment, exploitation and poverty which continue to scar our society. But that would be to ignore the transformation which has taken place in the political climate ... At different times, different issues matter most. Each era has thrown up its own great questions which define which side you are on ... [A]t Living Marxism, we see our job today as doing much more than criticising capitalism. That is the easy bit. There is a more pressing need to criticise the fatalistic critics, to counter the doom-mongers and put a positive case for human action in pursuit of social liberation. ... [D]ealing with ... unconventional questions, and puncturing the anti-human prejudices which surround them, is the precondition for making political action possible in our time.
In February 1997, shortly after the party disbanded, Living Marxism re-branded as LM, possibly to further distance itself from its leftist origins. Articles in LM argued
- against support for Tony Blair's New Labour project in 1997
- against "humanitarian interventions" in the Balkans, East Timor and Iraq.
- for freedom of speech and the "right to be offensive"
- against what they called the "new authoritarianism" of CCTV cameras, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, and anti-Harassment Laws.
- against the demonisation of the white working class
This magazine ran at least two articles in which the authors argued that the mass murder carried out in Rwanda in 1994 should not be described as genocide. In December 1995, LM carried a report from an aid worker in Rwanda which argued:
The lesson I would draw from my visit is that we must reject the term 'genocide' in Rwanda. It has been used inside and outside Rwanda to criminalise the majority of ordinary Rwandan people, to justify outside interference in the country's affairs, and to lend legitimacy to a minority military government imposed on Rwanda by Western powers.
LM continued to create controversy on a variety of issues - most notably on the British Independent Television News' (ITN) coverage of the Balkan conflict in the 1990s. The controversy centred on LM featuring an article by Thomas Deichmann which alleged that the ITN coverage of a refugee detention centre in Trnopolje during the conflict gave the false impression that the Bosnian Muslims were being held against their will in Serbian concentration camps. The ensuing libel award and costs, brought in legal action by ITN against LM, was estimated to be around £1 million. It bankrupted the magazine and its publishers.
RCP and later organisations
Many former members of the RCP and some of the people who contributed to LM magazine continue to be politically active, most notably in the Institute of Ideas (a think tank), led by Claire Fox, the online magazine Spiked magazine, initially edited by Mick Hume and later by Brendan O'Neill, and the Manifesto Club, in which a leading figure is Munira Mirza, recently appointed by Boris Johnson as London's Director of Policy for culture, the arts and creative industries. These organisations continue, in their different ways, the adversarial politics of LM magazine and the RCP. Some commentators, such as George Monbiot, have pointed to apparent entryist tactics used by former RCP members designed to influence mainstream public opinion.
One party member from the 1990s explained in an article in sp!ked:
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. It must be said that this development annoyed our political opponents immensely, and a cursory Google search (try 'LM network' if you have time to kill) will return a plethora of exposés purporting to show that former members of the RCP are involved in various sinister conspiracies. ... [T]he impossibility of simply doing away with a school of thought that is no longer attached to an organisation is perhaps what annoys our opponents most of all.
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