The Strange Odyssey of Britain’s Revolutionary Communist Party

The contrarian website Spiked is now at the heart of an influential right-wing network in British politics and media. But the group behind Spiked started off as an avowedly Marxist organization before turning its back on left-wing politics in the 1990s.

A Campaign Against Militarism protest in 1994. (Murray McDonald / Wikimedia Commons)

In May of this year, Professor Frank Furedi appeared on stage at the National Conservatism conference in London, an event that brought together leading figures of the populist and hard right in Britain. Furedi had recently taken up a position as executive director of the Orbánite thinktank MCC Brussels, and he has been a contributor to right-wing publications such as the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Spectator.

This all seems like a far cry from Furedi’s previous role as a leading figure of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). But several of the RCP’s former members are at the heart of an “anti-woke” network clustered around the contrarian website Spiked. RCP veterans like Mick Hume and Claire Fox, a former Brexit Party MEP and now a House of Lords peer, have become firmly part of the right-wing milieu in Britain today.

The history of the RCP is often written through the lens of Spiked, seeking to explain the trajectory from the far left from the hard right that many leading figures of the group took between the 1970s and the 2010s. But the story of the RCP, from its beginnings in 1976 to its end two decades later, is not just an origin story for a certain coterie of anti-woke figures today. It is also an interesting case study of how the British left fragmented in the 1970s and ’80s against the backdrop of Thatcherism.

Origins of the RCP

The RCP initially emerged from a series of splits within British Trotskyism in the mid-1970s. The International Socialists (IS), a Trotskyist organization which argued that the Soviet Union was “state capitalist” rather than a “degenerated workers’ state,” had grown significantly during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The IS experimented with allowing factions within the party, in contrast with the strict form of democratic centralism practiced by other Leninist parties at the time.

This grew the ranks of the IS, but soon led to divisions and the eventual resignation or ousting of several factional groups. Amongst these factions was the Revolutionary Opposition faction — referred to as the “Right Opposition” by others in the IS — which coalesced around Trotskyist veteran Roy Tearse and economist David Yaffe. This division developed over several years, seemingly over differences concerning the theory of economic crisis in the long postwar era. Ultimately, the Revolutionary Opposition was expelled.

The majority of the faction followed Yaffe to form the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG) in 1974. The RCG now criticized the IS for its “economism” and “localised trade union militancy,” accusing it of divorcing defensive trade union politics from a Marxist program of revolution.

The RCG sought instead to build a cadre group to draw workers to a revolutionary vanguard party that challenged the chauvinism and nationalism of the British working class. From this starting point, the RCG developed a particular focus on campaigns against immigration controls, against apartheid in South Africa, and solidarity with prisoners and Irish republicans.

One of the contributors to the RCG’s publications in the early years was Frank Richards, the alias of Hungarian-Canadian sociologist Frank Furedi, who emigrated to Britain in the late 1960s. But in late 1976, Richards and a small band of RCG members started to break with RCG leadership, ostensibly over its approach to working with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), which they considered “Stalinist,” in the anti-apartheid movement.

Writing in a new journal, Revolutionary Communist Papers, two comrades of Richards, Chris Davis and Judith Harrison, condemned the proposal to work with the CPGB in the Anti-Apartheid Movement as “opportunist” and a “retrograde step” for the RCG, which could in their view not be rectified within the party. The Revolutionary Communist Tendency (RCT) was born, and later became the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1981.

The RCP and Anti-Racism

Despite the split, the RCT presented a similar analysis of the British labor movement to that of the RCG. It saw the task of combating chauvinism in the working class as integral to its cause and focused on solidarity with Irish republicanism and anti-racist work. The RCT/RCP went on to form two front groups dedicated to these issues, the Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act Campaign (SPTAC) and East London Workers Against Racism (ELWAR).

Both of these front groups were intended to confront the chauvinism and reformism of the British left and the trade unions, whom the RCT/RCP believed did not take anti-racism or Irish solidarity work seriously. However, the anti-racist and Irish solidarity movements already had existing broad-based groups, namely the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) and the Troops Out Movement (TOM).

The RCT/RCP did not wish to work with these groups, seeking to rival and eventually overtake them instead. A recurrent pattern for the RCP throughout the 1980s was that it would establish front groups around certain issues with appeals to unity, while steadfastly refusing to cooperate with other organizations that were working on similar issues.

The RCP’s anti-racist front group, Workers Against Racism, started off in East London in 1981 and soon branched out into South London, Coventry, and Manchester, becoming a national organization. The RCP rejected the idea of working with the state and accused other anti-racist campaigns such as the ANL of relying too heavily on the police to ban fascist marches.

The RCP and WAR also believed that existing anti-racist campaigns focused too much on fighting the National Front and did not challenge the racism of the state as expressed through the police and the immigration-control system. WAR proposed the formation of workers’ self-defense groups that would patrol the streets to defend migrant communities from fascists and police racism alike.

In the wake of the 1981 riots, the RCP placed much emphasis on this call and gained attention in the press for their stance. However, it was not enough to convince many people to join WAR or the RCP. Black and Asian activists, as well as others on the left, viewed WAR/RCP with suspicion even though they often shared similar concerns about combating racism.

This form of direct action proposed by WAR/RCP also jarred against the RCP’s opposition to the common left position of “no platform for fascists.” This position stemmed from the RCP’s rejection of state bans on fascist marches, but eventually became an article of faith (and mark of distinction) that fascists should not be denied a platform, especially on university campuses, and should be defeated through the battle of ideas.

The RCP refined this position over the course of the 1980s. By 1986, the RCP’s weekly newspaper, The Next Step, was deriding the no-platform position as “an impulsive outburst of liberal moralism which seeks to sweep away distasteful views, rather than confront them politically.”

Unconditional Support

Another defining feature of the RCP was its proclaimed support for militant Irish republicanism. As Jack Hepworth has written, the RCP saw Irish republicanism as a key part of the anti-imperialist struggle against Britain, believing that “unconditional support for Irish freedom functioned as a critique of the perceived reformism and statism of the Labour Party and trade union leadership.”

From the early days of the party, it sought to define its radicalism and its uniqueness by expressing solidarity with the Irish republican struggle. In 1978, its journal Revolutionary Communist Papers dedicated its second issue to Ireland, declaring:

Building an anti-imperialist movement demands showing the British working class why it must confront its own nation state in order to give full solidarity to the struggle of the Irish people against British domination. It means showing that the liberation struggle must be supported — whatever its political form.

In the same issue, Frank Richards asserted that “the fight against the political domination of Ireland by Britain is one that revolutionaries must unconditionally support.”

Surveillance files from the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, later declassified by the Undercover Policing Inquiry, show that there were questions inside the group about what “unconditional support” actually meant and how far it should go. One report of an “educational” event in February 1981 described a discussion among RCT members or supporters:

The conclusion of the discussion concerned what the giving of unconditional support to the Irish Republican Army entailed. [Redacted] raised the point of whether such support should extend to planting bombs or gunrunning for the IRA. [Redacted] thought this should not be so, as the main task of any revolutionary group was to act in the interests of the revolution in its own country, and not to conduct acts of terrorism on behalf of other countries which could counter-productive.

One of the slogans from the RCT regarding the Irish struggle at this time was “bring the war to Britain.” But this meant giving political support to Irish republicanism in Britain, particularly in the labor movement, rather than engaging in political violence.

This support came in the form of the Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act Campaign, which morphed into the Irish Freedom Movement (IFM) in 1982. The IFM organized various events throughout the 1980s and 1990s and produced a long-running journal, Irish Freedom. However, in a repeat of the group’s experience with Workers Against Racism, Irish republicans and others on the left treated the IFM apprehensively.

“Grindingly Boring”

Although the RCP was relatively small in size compared with other groups on the left — there were an estimated 200–400 members between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s — it received significant attention and notoriety in both mainstream and left-wing political circles. The 1983 annual report of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch described the RCP as follows:

Although numerically small, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), a hard-line Trotskyist group, operates through a countrywide network of small cells and dedicated members are moved according to need. Its adroit manipulation of the media has ensured that various causes, particularly in the anti-racist field, receive disproportionate coverage.

The RCP also courted the media by routinely contesting elections and disrupting campaign events by rival candidates, such as the hectoring of Labour’s Peter Tatchell during the 1983 Bermondsey by-election.

Internally, the party operated on a cadre system, with an inner circle of party members and a wider network of supporters. Intelligence reports produced by an undercover police officer who infiltrated the party in the early 1980s suggest that new recruits were required to undergo significant training if they wanted to be accepted into the party (although we cannot be certain of the veracity of police intelligence documents).

According to one file from late 1983: “The schedule for a full working day for an unemployed member can be quite daunting — a working day of 12–16 hours is generally the norm.” It went on to highlight the “grindingly boring nature” of “average RCP activity.” While the RCP emphasized its need to be connected to the labor movement, universities were a major recruiting ground for the party throughout the 1980s and ’90s, even though RCP members were often seen as a disruptive influence on campus politics by others on the student left.

By the mid-1980s, the RCP had made a name for itself. Known by other left groups for promoting an “ultra-left” agenda, the organization stood out from the rest of the Marxist left. There were significant disagreements with several groups over the Falklands War, for example: the RCP argued that the islands belonged to Argentina and supported the actions of the Argentinian government.

The 1984–85 miners’ strike was another point of contention, as the RCP called for a national ballot regarding strike action when other left groups and the leadership of the miners’ union insisted that this was unnecessary. Coverage in the publications of other groups reveal significant hostility to the RCP on the issue of a strike ballot while the strike was still in progress, solidifying negative opinions of the party that had existed for several years.

The RCP also claimed that the Labour Party no longer represented the British working class and admonished the rest of the British far left for recommending a Labour vote in general elections. In 1987, the RCP even attempted to form an electoral alliance called the Red Front and run candidates against Labour, which proved to be unsuccessful and short-lived.

After the Fall

The 1990s saw the RCP undergo significant changes. In his account of the group’s life, former leading member Michael Fitzpatrick identifies the first half of the 1990s as a turning point. According to Fitzpatrick, the RCP now argued that “the working class had disappeared as a political force.” Deeming its role as a would-be revolutionary party to be redundant, it stressed a shift “towards advancing an intellectual rather than a practical alternative.”

One of the major causes for this shift was the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Eastern Bloc between 1989 and 1991 disoriented the RCP along with the rest of the British left. Writing at the end of 1990 in the RCP’s new magazine Living Marxism, Frank Richards argued that the situation in Britain and Eastern Europe demonstrated that both Labourism and Stalinism had failed.

That much was common coin among British Trotskyists. Yet in contrast with others on the Trotskyist left, Richards claimed that there was no political vehicle left for the working class as an alternative to these forces. This implied that the idea of a revolutionary communist vanguard, which the RCP had promoted itself as during the 1980s, was no longer viable.

Over the next half decade, the RCP reinvented itself. The class struggle now took a backseat to the battle of ideas and Living Marxism (or LM for short) became the de facto party. With practical organization increasingly seen as a dead end, the RCP argued that any political alternative needed to be developed intellectually first and foremost.

Workers Against Racism and the antiwar campaigns, No More Hiroshimas and the Campaign Against Militarism, represented some of the final instances of activism for the party. Even the Irish Freedom Movement lost momentum as the Irish Republican Army moved toward a ceasefire in the late 1990s. The RCP organized fewer demonstrations and showed more interest in hosting public events to debate ideas.

Smashing the Nanny State

RCP veterans came to argue that the old distinction between left and right had collapsed and there was now little difference between the authoritarianism of the Margaret Thatcher and John Major governments and that of New Labour (even before Tony Blair won power in 1997). Those writing for LM saw the impulse of the “nanny state” as stretching across the Conservative/Labour divide and reflecting the influence of a new generation of middle-class elites.

In an editorial from November 1994, Mick Hume suggested 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.” LM depicted both parties of government as “ban happy” forces seeking to reassert their authority through “hyped-up crusades against easy targets.” The publication ran numerous stories throughout the 1990s about state intervention around social issues, such as obesity, drugs, youth crime, or single mothers.

In the RCP’s final year of existence, LM published a new manifesto titled The Point is to Change It. It still emphasized the politics that the magazine had pushed during the 1990s, but now jettisoned the party organization. A debate about the value of the RCP as a revolutionary party had been in progress for a few years, as it was possible to wage the “battle of ideas” without party structures. LM finally announced the dissolution of the party in March 1998, much to the bemusement of others on the left.

The years after the RCP’s dissolution were dominated by a libel case that the broadcaster ITN and two journalists brought against the magazine. An issue of LM in 1997 published an article that questioned the veracity of ITN’s reporting on a camp in Trnopolje during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s. The RCP had long opposed Western intervention in the Balkan conflict, as anti-imperialism was one of the left-wing tenets that its members held onto the longest. 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 LM, its editors, and the company that ran it, Informinc, overshadowed the journal’s activity. In 2000, the courts found in favor on ITN and the journalists, awarding damages of £375,000. This bankrupted the magazine, which argued that the libel case was an issue of free speech.

Spiking Marxism

With the implosion of LM in 2000, those who had been occupied leadership positions within the RCP and at the helm of the magazine started a new project, Spiked Online. This new website operated in a similar manner to LM, seemingly free from the constraints of a party line, but it was (un)surprisingly consistent in its approach to issues, mounting a supposedly absolute defense of free speech, criticizing government interventions in many areas as the overreach of the “nanny state,” characterizing of progressive politics as moralism, and pushing 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, such as Brendan O’Neill and Joanna Williams. Their articles appeared alongside the work of others who were brought on board after the magazine folded, such as Tom Slater, Ella Whelan, and Fraser Myers.

There have been numerous cases of individuals who have made the journey from the far left to the right over the years. But the RCP–LMSpiked network is distinct, as it constitutes a shift en masse by a cohort that have remained quite ideologically consistent amongst themselves.

Having started as part of the British Trotskyist left, the RCP had moved away from explicit socialist politics by the 1990s, believing that the end of the Cold War had disrupted traditional notions of left and right. In the twenty years of Spiked’s existence, it has dropped any pretense of offering a left-wing alternative and reversed many of the positions held by the RCP in its heyday.