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Libertarian Humanism or Critical Utopianism? The Demise of the Revolutionary Communist Party

Dave Walker

From New Interventions, Vol.8 No.3, 1998

WELL, it’s now official. The Revolutionary Communist Party is no more. According to the editorial in the March 1998 issue of LM (née Living Marxism), the RCP has been wound up. The reason is simple. What Marx wrote ‘is in many ways less pertinent now than at any time in the past century and a half’. Marxism is all about revolution, ‘and of what relevance is that’, we are asked, when ‘the working-class movement has been consigned to the heritage museums and the only people likely to be storming palaces are tour parties of sad little pilgrims worshipping the ground that Princess Diana walked on’.

We had been warned. Towards the end of last year, Channel Four outraged the fragile sensitivities of the Green movement with its series Against Nature, three programmes which challenged many of the fundamental tenets of Greenery, such as population growth, industrialisation, global warming and animal experimentation. Green spokesman George Monbiot went ballistic, accusing the series of being a conspiracy organised by the RCP because it featured Frank Füredi, the party’s founder and chief theoretician (Guardian, 18 December 1997). Things became interesting with Füredi’s reply in the next day’s issue. He carefully steered around his long-running central involvement with the RCP, saying that he had not been interested in party politics for the last seven years, that his last four books couldn’t be considered as Marxist, and that he considered himself a ‘libertarian humanist’. The day after that, the paper reported Martin Durkin, the Against Nature producer, saying that the RCP had been dissolved a year previously. Not known as an RCP member or supporter, it’s not clear how he was privy to such information.

Another pointer was when ITN, in its libel case against LM over what the journal considered was misleading reportage on the war in former Yugoslavia, charged it with having the ‘improper motive’ of ‘fuelling its campaign of pro-Serbian propaganda ... thereby hoping to further the cause of revolutionary communism and/or Marxist ideology’. This, said LM’s Helen Searls in the November 1997 issue, was a ‘caricature’ of the magazine’s politics, and it was not clear what annoyed her the more: that ITN was misrepresenting LM’s formally neutralist stand on the Yugoslav wars, or that LM was being associated with ‘the cause of revolutionary communism and/or Marxist ideology’.

Observers of the left-wing scene had noticed that over the last few years, the RCP, which ever since its formation in 1981 had always enjoyed a high public profile, was engaged in what can only be described as a steady drift away from any recognisable political engagement, which has ultimately led to the virtual abandonment of any concept of recognisable politics altogether. For the past year, the monthly Living Marxism has been marketed under the anonymous and meaningless title of LM, and is almost exclusively concerned with heaving brickbats at the liberal media, censorship, the intrusion of the state into people’s lives, and its latest theoretical discovery, the ‘culture of low expectations’. The occasional pieces on more obviously political issues serve as incongruous reminders of a barely-remembered past amongst the increasingly repetitive and narrowly-focused material that fills the magazine these days.

Up until the March 1998 issue, there had not been any open renunciation of Marxism, but that the initialisation of the magazine’s title was not an accident or a mere question of style was borne out by an article by Füredi in the LM for May 1997:

‘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.’

What has happened is that we have been hit with ‘the decline of subjectivity’; ‘humanity has effectively been recast in the role of object to which things happen that are beyond all control’. So what can we do? Well, not much, it seems. Such concepts as class struggle or socialism ‘are abstractions that remain external to an environment where the very belief in the human potential faces scorn and cynicism’. Politics in the accepted form are out:

‘Those of us who want to do something face a more fundamental problem: how to strengthen the conviction that we have the potential for changing our circumstances. Whether this is done through appealing to self-interest or idealism or a belief in some higher purpose than survival is neither here nor there. There is a need to regroup all those who understand that when human beings cease to play for high stakes, to explore and to take risks or try to transform their circumstances, the world becomes a sad and dangerous place.’

This is, of course, an implicit rejection of Marxism. By appealing to people on the basis of ‘self-interest or idealism or a belief in some higher purpose than survival’, and trying to round up all those interested in playing ‘for high stakes’, exploring or taking risks, Füredi is effectively negating the Marxist axiom that the working class is the universal class through which the interests of humanity as a whole can be expressed; that through the working class seizing power and leading the fight for socialism, the liberation of humanity can occur. The working class as the potential liberator of society is rejected in favour of an amorphous agglomeration of people who are in favour of trying ‘to transform their circumstances’, a vague concept which can mean anything to anyone. Accepting (as he does) that classes still exist is of no help here, as his seemingly magnanimous concession to today’s class-riven society may at first suggest. If this new strategy is not based upon a particular class, then any class is eligible to join in.

Although he’d written the introduction to the RCP’s reprint of the Communist Manifesto a couple of years back, in his editorial in the March 1998 LM, Mick Hume assures readers that he’s not writing yet another commemoration of this now obsolete work. Nevertheless, it’s well worth looking at the Manifesto, because of what Marx wrote in it about the critical-utopian socialists who appeared during the early years of capitalism. Marx said that because of the undeveloped nature of the system, they could see class antagonisms and the ‘action of the decomposing elements in the prevailing form of society’, but the proletariat ‘offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement’. He went on to say that these people, wishing to improve the lot of ‘every member of society’, appeal to society as a whole ‘without distinction of class’, and end up appealing to the ruling class: ‘For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see in it the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?’

As the twentieth century draws to a close, LM recognises that classes still exist, but the damage inflicted on the labour movement is so great that it in effect sees the proletariat as a class ‘without any historical initiative or any independent political movement’. Moreover, if we are to regroup all those who understand the need ‘to play for high stakes, to explore and to take risks or try to transform their circumstances’, then why not appeal to those who have some clout in society?

But who, exactly? Time and again LM has informed us that the capitalist class has lost confidence in itself and its system, and hides behind the banalities of mission statements. (Maybe, but it still knows how to attack the working class. But who wants to read about the class struggle and other boring remnants of the past?) If we are to believe what we read in LM, those with real influence in society, those who are in the vanguard of the culture of low expectations, are those whom the magazine attacks the most — the liberal media stars, the ‘politically correct’ brigade, the massed ranks of counsellors, social workers, anti-smoking campaigners, non-governmental organisations, and so on, whose misanthropic and pessimistic attitudes have corroded society as a whole.

So where can the former members and supporters of the now-defunct RCP go now? Organising events like the recent three-day conference on free speech with a wide assortment of media personalities, famous novelists, stand-up comedians, fashionable artists and computer games designers may keep it going for a bit. There’s scope for individual members or supporters in carving out a career in the academic or media world, having a book published, or getting a website put on-line, but just what sort of longer-term perspective the group can possibly have is unclear. It seems that the former RCP is operating as some kind of umbrella organisation for a slew of think-tanks on a wide range of topics, largely concerning the media, censorship and regulation. Whilst cultural issues are obviously an important area for study, you can’t maintain for long anything resembling a political organisation solely on these grounds.

As for ideological direction, the editorial of the March 1998 LM says that its agenda is ‘based on a firm belief in the much-maligned human and individual potential’. Fair enough in and of itself, it is woefully inadequate for any coherent political orientation, and, having rejected Marxism and thus losing the theoretical stability that it provides, the ex-RCP may well fragment with bits flying off in all manner of strange directions. Because the RCP eschewed the usual left-wing tactics of critical support for and entry into reformist organisations, it is unlikely that many of its adherents will end up following the course of many disillusioned Marxists into the byways of reformism.

One possible trajectory is right-wing libertarianism. As I mentioned in the last New Interventions, not a little of what appears in LM is disturbingly reminiscent of this trend, a political cul-de-sac if ever there was one, but one that could appeal as happily as liberalism or Marxism to ‘a firm belief in the ... human and individual potential’. Stripped of any concept of class-based collectivity, the reinvigoration of subjectivity and the individual called for by LM could easily in practice result in the disinterment of that classic petit-bourgeois myth, the rugged individual.

How long can the former RCP continue down its chosen road? Although small organisations, not necessarily of a political nature, can produce a magazine for years, decades even, without much evidence of means of support, LM’s very professional production doesn’t come cheap, and its recent evolution must have taken a heavy toll on its circulation figures, as there cannot be many people willing each month to read an ever-increasing number of tracts on an ever-decreasing range of topics. Assuming that the organisation remains in one piece, I can’t see LM attracting any wealthy sponsors who will help keep it going. Nor can I see any political or intellectual current in Britain adopting the former RCP as its think-tank in the way that New Labour has used the Marxism Today wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Even if the ITN court case doesn’t finish LM off, lack of direction and a declining audience could well do so.

If the ex-RCP does not fall apart, its recent development and the absence of any obvious political perspectives will almost certainly lead to many of its remaining adherents drifting away out of politics altogether. Many will feel that there is little point in working in an organisation that has no clear objectives, and will use their talents in areas that they’ll see as more personally rewarding. If the admission by former RCP leader Rob Killick in the March 1998 LM that he wishes to emulate Bill Gates in being ‘successful, rich and clever’ is typical of his colleagues, this implies that it was not particularly ‘clever’ to have spent all those years flogging papers on street corners, attending interminable meetings, seeking out contacts and paying good money after bad in dues, when one could have been involved in so many other enjoyable and perhaps more lucrative endeavours.

Of course, the RCP’s renunciation of Marxism is not the first of its type, nor, unfortunately, is it likely to be the last. It’s not unknown for the organisations that have the most accurate but pessimistic prognoses to end up junking revolutionary politics, and the RCP’s assessment of the state of the labour movement at the beginning of the 1990s was considerably more accurate than those of other groups, if also more pessimistic. Then, in a typically one-sided way, it proceeded to view the decrepit state of the labour movement as the demise of the working class as a potential revolutionary force, and came to the stunningly original conclusion that Marxism is obsolete. From opposite ends of the left, Living Marxism and Marxism Today drew the same dismal conclusion! The contrast between the RCP of yore and its fading into oblivion is a nicely ironic illustration of its theory of the ‘culture of low expectations’.

Left-wing groups that are perceived as having gone off the rails often slough off fragments claiming to act in the groups’ true tradition. Once or twice, a group’s leader has drifted off into unwelcome territory, leaving behind, as Max Shachtman did, a number of erstwhile supporters claiming fealty to the leader’s self-betrayed heritage.

Neither of these criteria applies to the RCP, even though its withdrawal from working-class politics was more rapid and thoroughgoing than anything we’ve seen in many a decade. Whilst the party has shrunk considerably, its leading and secondary cadre appear to have remained intact, suggesting that there has been remarkably little dissension over what is not a minor tactical shift or a strategic rethink, but a fundamental political and philosophical reorientation. One cannot rule out the possibility that there might have been some grumbling, perhaps amongst those not so heavily involved in the media and culture arenas, but there have been no visible signs of it in LM. Anyway, disgruntled RCP members and supporters have usually disappeared off the political scene, rather than attempt to form or join another organisation.

Never popular, to put it mildly, with other left-wingers, the RCP did do some high quality theoretical work that often earned the praise of otherwise hostile critics, and it did challenge many of the left’s sacred cows, and pointed out quite a few of its weaknesses. Although it will be tempting for people to joke about the original RCP of the 1940s being a tragedy, and the recent one being a farce, now that the latter has openly repudiated its entire political tradition, and entered upon the road to almost certain oblivion, it will be a shame if there is nobody around to keep people aware of the positive aspects of its past.