Evolution of (British) RCP

Philip Ferguson plf13 at SPAMit.canterbury.ac.nz
Mon Mar 19 15:24:17 MST 2001

Paul Flewers wrote:

>[ bounced html format from "Paul Flewers" <hatchet.job at virgin.net> ]
>Lou ProyectÝcited Gary MacLennan: < The central problem with the LM
>comrades is their refusal to make a distinction between capitalist and
>non-capitalist modernity.Ý They embrace the analysis of modernity in
>the Manifesto and turn it into a hymn of joy. > and then said: < I
>don't think it makes sense to speak of them as comrades. If you look
>at their new website, you can't even find archives for back issues of
>LM magazine that have references to Marx or socialism, after a
>fashion. I believe that their transmogrification is complete, from
>Marxists fetishizing certain formulations in the CM to libertarians on
>a crusade for higher level educational standards, the right to hunt
>foxes and all the rest of what my grandma called mishegoyim. Talk
>about a butterfly turning into a catepillar. >

They were certainly a butterfly.  A bright and attractive one but, like any
butterfly, a very short life-span.

I think they would be most embarrassed to be caled 'comrades' these days
anyway.  It wouldn't go down well in the editorial office at the 'Times' or
'Daily Telegraph' or wherever it is Mick Hume has ended up.

>As one of probably half-a-dozen people in or (in my case) around the
>Revolutionary Communist Party and Living Marxism who have remained
>Marxists, I think that the mutation of the organisation from Marxism
>to an ill-defined libertarianism is a classic example of what happens
>when one rejects a class analysis of society whilstÝcontinuing to
>believe in progress and modernisation.

This hits the nail on the head.

Except it is quite bizarre that the RCP leadership never officially
rejected the class nature of society.  In fact, a while back I had quite a
sharp debate with an ex-RCP leader who subscribes to 'revolution' and she
dispouted vewry strongly that even Furedi had ever rejected class politics.
She argued that he - and other RCP leaders - simply pointed out that *at
present*, becasue of a unique/unprecedented historical juncture, class had
little or no impact and that, at some point in the future this might change.

This view is not entirely without merit.  There has been a massive downturn
in class struggle, although this is more the case in the First World than
the Third World (or even the Second World).  The old labour movement in
Britain, and some other advanced capitalist countries, has declined
massively and, in some cases, may be unsalvageable.  However, the RCP, as
it always had a tendency to do, took these insights to an extreme position.
Everything, they declared, had changed - at least for the indefinite
future.  Of course, this kind of thinking has a logic of its own.  Whereas
the original idea seems to have been that this new situation was
*temporary*, they, almost overnight, began treating it as *permanent*.

I think one of the keys to understanding how/why this was the case was the
incredibly unfavourable social composition of the RCP.  I have also found
RCP leaders incredibly touchy on this issue.

But, basically, whereas the early RCT (1977-81) and then, when it became
the RCP had a very strong orientation to the working class, and to *actual
workers* on the ground, including in working class estates - eg the work
they pioneered in east London - this changed after the miners' strike.  In
fact, there was an internal struggle which is probably little known by
subsequent RCP members, and which maybe had little impact within the RCP at
the time, which is very interesting.  Tony Allen (the main theoretician
besides Furedi) and Judith Hirsch (the national organiser) and a number of
others made a quite scathing critique of the performance of the
organisation during the miners' strike and of what they perceived as a move
away from the working class after it became clear, in the first few months,
that the strike was going to be beaten.

I had a bit of contact with one of the main organisers of this dissident
tendency a year or two back, someone who had been in the FI in Spain during
the anti-Franco struggle and then the IMG, but shifted over to the RCP due
to the IMG's auto-Labourism.  He mentioned that in the early 1980s, the RCP
did a lot of industrial work and the central leadership thought they were
going to make a big breakthrough, eg at struggles like Gardiners
engineering in Manchester.  However, they found that fights in small
factories, which they had opted to orient towards, were a helluva lot more
difficult than they ever expected.  Then along came the miners' strike and,
although I think the RCP had a generally correct position (including their
demand for a ballot), and they recruited a few miners, they did not make
the expected breakthrough - nobody on the left did - and the majority of
the leadership opted to turn away from industrial workers and just
concentrate on students, bohemians and liberal middle class circles.

A friend of mine who lived in Liverpool in the 1980s and was breifly
interested in the RCP - but never joined or got involved with them - told
me recently that the RCP for a while in the 80s had a cadre-exchange
programme with Lutte Ouvriere.  LO is at the opposite extreme, being very
workerist, so this French working class cadre from LO was sent to Liverpool
and was horrified by the RCP's petty-bourgeois membership and, apparently,
ended up spending most of his time with Militant and the SWP.

By the late 80s, the students with  pink hair and rings-through-the nose
brigade appear to have been the chief source of recruitment.  The
leadership were getting into their late 30s and early 40s and, bewing very
bright people, were advancing nicely in their careers.  This, of course,
distanced them more and more from the working class, which ceased to be the
active subject of history with which the RCP leadership engaged, and
instead just be an object.  Moreover, an object of disappointment.

Although I am no Cannonist, I do find James P. Cannon's analysis of the SWP
minority of 1939-40, in terms of how a petty-bourgeois composition leads to
a political degeneration, rather apposite in looking at the RCP case.
(Before Louis rushes in here, I must add that I find Cannon's attempt to
paint the 'Cochranites' with the same brush daft.)

>Not a little of the ex-RCP's pronouncements are today'sÝmanifestation
>of 'Èpateur les bourgeois'Ý-- winding up conventional thinking, which
>these days means trying to goad and provoke liberalism. A lot of it is
>poking out one's tongue at mainstream thinkers and ideas --
>understandable for teenage punks, but not very becoming for

Very funny and very accurate.

They used to try to get the working class to act as a class, now they are
demanding that the capitalists be more aggressively capitalist.

>Anyone who knew the RCP of old will know that the group
>almost always took a contrary position, this was not always incorrect
>as the left in Britain did hold to many obsolete sacred cows and get
>things wrong,

Indeed, it was one of their strengths as the British far left was woeful.

> but it tended to get fetishised until members and
>supporters would almost involuntarily oppose anything the left said
>(this was exacerbated by the normal process of vulgarisation of
>complex positions as they passed from the Political Committee down to
>the rank and file).ÝAdd to this the way that the PC kept us clean of
>the reformist bacillus by not getting involved in joint campaigns
>(setting up our pure ones in isolation), and the chronic one-sidedness
>of the RCP's tactical and strategic approach, you can see what would
>happen when the group -- for no apparent reason, as they've never said
>anything about why they did it -- abandon Marxism.

To understand the RCP, I think you have to understand the British far left.
The RCP was a reaction against the British far left, and a necessary one in
many ways.  But, as Paul notes, it led to a one-sidedness that meant the
organisation could not cope with a lot of the problems thrown up by the
class struggle, and lack of class struggle, in the late 80s/early 90s.

>There was noÝslide
>across into reformism and liberalism like many ex-Marxists; no, it was
>a rapid shift from uncompromising (in both good and bad ways) Marxism
>into uncompromising cranky libertarianism. As far as I know not one
>leading member of the party resisted this, although I believe one or
>two have drawn back from the consequences. It was mostly on the
>fringes of the organisation where any resistance took place.

The switch was incredibly sudden.  Then again, the RCP leadership was never
a group to do things by halves.

But if you look back you can see that there was a gradual process going on.
I would say it dated from the 1984/5 fight with the Tony Allen/Judy
Hirsch/Fran Eden etc minority.  That was when the turn away from the
working class and the original goal of building a vanguard within the
working class really began.  It took a decade for the consequences of that
turn to play themselves out.  And when the leadership finally drew out  in
a conscious manner the consequences of the mid-80s shift they did what they
always did - acted immediately and sweepingly.  And dissolved the

I guess there was very little time for anyone to put up any resistance.  A
number of organised supporters had made some quite withering critiques in
internal bulletins a year or two earlier, but been effectively isolated and
pushed out.

I think the reason that the whole leadership went along with Furedi is that
they were all so alike.  It was a white middle class leadership, of a
certain age, with the serious business of careers to get on with.

A few of them have pulled back from the consequences of the Furedi
evolution.  James Heartfield is probably the most notable one.  His work on
the'new economy', cultural studies etc etc is classically Marxist.  You
would also find that someone like James Woudhuysen would still consider
himself a Marxist.

Indeed, the next issue of 'revolution' is running a substantial feature on
the world economy written by James H and James W and another prominent

What conclusions these guys are drawing, if any, from the ignominious end
of the RCP, I do not know.

The last I heard of Frank Furedi was him moaning in a University of Kent
magazione about how the new round of conflict in Israel/Palestine had
pushed off the front pages in the British press some debate about sex
education in schools.  Furedi was just about to appear on radio talking on
the subject (of sex education, that is).  Kinda funny, because he and the
RCP leadership complained (rightly) in the early 90s that trivial issues
were dominating public debate and replacing debates over big issues.  Then.
a few years later, when a big issue re-emerges, the Palestinians, he and
the old leadership have shifted so far in adapting to bourgeois pressure,
that they now whinge that the Palestinians are pushing sex debates off the
front pages.

It was rather a classic case of the doctor making a good diagnosis but
then, rapidly, falling victim to the disease.

>To return to the ex-RCP's idea of progress, if one rejects Marxism and
>its critical support for progress and adopts an undifferentiated form
>of progress, then anything that stands in the way of what's perceived
>as 'progress' has to be opposed. The ex-RCP reminds me of Victorian
>engineers who thought that technology in and of itself was the way
>forward. I feel that Marxism cuts through the Gordian knot of
>undifferentiated progress and opposition to modernisation, by looking
>at the contradictory nature of modernisation posed by a class
>society,Ýand by posing a way out through communism, in which
>modernisation and progress can really take off once the profit
>question and narrow class/caste interests are overcome. It's ironic
>that I learnt much of my Marxism from people who've now rejected it
>without giving a single reason for doing so, and whose ideas now are a
>thin but nonetheless indigestible brew.

Yes, the RCP leadership have never explained themselves.  They were always
pretty arrogant, so possibly assume that they weren't responsible to
anyone, so were not about to explain their final course.  But I would
expect various of them to crop up over the coming years on the other side
of the barricades.

>Finally, it is irony of a decidely piquant manner that the RCP's
>former leader Frank Furedi has been pushing a theory of the culture of
>low expectations. He and his groupÝare the best proof of this theory
>- -- from wanting to change the world to whining about it like a
>cut-price Julie Burchill.

Very well put.

Although I suspect that even a 'cut-price Julie Birchill' like Mick Hume is
on a nice little earner.

Philip Ferguson

More information about the Marxism mailing list