In Sheffield as of 1987 anyone walking through the shopping precinct in the centre of town ran a gauntlet of left-wing newspaper sellers. The 14-year-old me often generally managed to avoid handing over 30p or so of my hard-earned paper round money for Socialist Worker, but on occasion I found myself buttonholed by some garrulous and well-presented young people pushing a publication called ‘The Next Step’. None of them appeared to be local, and they were, by comparison with their competitors, refreshingly unconcerned with whatever workers’ struggles were going on in South Yorkshire at the time. I didn’t get the ideological distinctions between the Revolutionary Communist Party, as they were called, and the Socialist Workers, but I suspect that the way they responded whenever I asked about such things – they were more than happy to slag off their rivals on the left – appealed to my disaffected sensibilities and inchoate contrarian instincts. I started going to meetings at which they pressed a copy of Lenin’s ‘What is to be done’ on me, and also made me shell out for a copy of a book called ‘Moral Panics’, which I did read and found splenetically entertaining if sometimes puzzling at the level of basic logical argumentation.
Although I had trouble keeping up with their sometimes contradictory-seeming political arguments, they were at least friendly, relatively unpatronising and certainly socially useful. They took me to the Leadmill to see a band who later turned out to be Deacon Blue, and got me properly drunk, all the time shouting in my ear about stuff I really didn’t know much about. I do remember that one of my new comrades, taking issue with a stranger’s St George’s badge, began shouting at him about Northern Ireland and started a dancefloor ruckus. We also took a trip to London to the gay pride carnival, or as it was at the time, demo, where I had a distinctly Life of Brian moment upon seeing a banner from the Revolutionary Communist Group. I asked the natural question, only to be told that they were ‘wankers’. Then the general election came around, and we suddenly stopped being the RCP and turned instead into something called the Red Front, under which monicker we went banging on doors in search of people to disagree with. Our campaign ended with 277 votes, which was considered a victory as at least it was more than the possibly dead bloke from some basically defunct version of the Communist Party had received. Eventually other aspects of teenagehood took over and, despite some tugging on their part (I think I still owe them £1.75 for the Lenin book, which they were keen to get hold of), I succeeded in drifting away.
From then on I kept an occasional eye on what they were up to but maintained my distance. I remember joining all my fellow delegates in turning my back as an RCP member spoke up at NUS conference, but I don’t remember why. Although I was living in Ireland at the time, I was vaguely aware that they were ubiquitous in the UK in the mid-1990s, standing on street corners looking slick and pushing subscriptions to their magazine Living Marxism. It had entertaining covers and contained articles written from a consistently libertarian standpoint, with elaborate arguments that would sort of persuade you that whatever you had thought about (to choose a not-entirely-random example) the environment was wrong, but with an uncanny feeling that you were the victim of some sort of trick or part of a game that wasn’t actually all that much fun to play. After it became clear that they were prepared to perpetrate full-on atrocity denial in order to promote their wilfully exasperating view of the world, it was very hard for anyone to take anything they said seriously. Few would have expected them to continue to deepen their influence in British life, but it seems they are far more determined and cunning than anyone might have thought.
Given their relatively rapid en masse shift away from the left, there’s been a ongoing mystery of why they do what they do, particularly since (through their website Spiked) they started selling their contrarian punditry to corporations and the right-wing media. From my own experiences and from having followed their development through articles such as this, this and this, I suspect they are a bit of a sect, but one in which the personal bonds override and yet (if we consider their commitment to the politics of self-interest) determine their collective ideological stance. The members of the core group, largely unchanged for the last thirty of so years, have managed to cave out steady careers in the media, with a shared ideological bent seemingly determined by the desire not just to provoke but to (as we now understand it) troll. Their contrarianism far surpasses anything I might have identified with as a teenager, and at times their adolescent desire to scandaliser la bourgeoisie would put even Marilyn Manson to shame.
The LRB piece linked to above refers to this teenage aspect, the way their rhetorical insistence that everyone ‘act like grown-ups’ seems to betray an adolescent mindset. (It also mentions that Frank Furedi’s dependence on newspaper articles for his source material suggests that his reputation as a serious academic is not entirely deserved.) They continue to have a fixation on the young, with their successive front projects such as the Manifesto Club, the East London Science School and WorldWrite (of which our erstwhile election candidate is now director) aimed directly at teenagers. Now that schools are up for grabs by anyone with enough cash, regardless of their ideological proclivities, they seem to be enjoying more direct access to young minds. The prominence of Brendan O’Neill as a steadfastly obnoxious commentator for my new-not-favourite newspaper The Telegraph has (re)alerted many to the dangers of their project, which now seems to dovetail with certain aspects of a hard-right agenda*, particularly outright climate denial and the abuse of the notion of ‘free speech’ to legitimate hate speech. This site has also written this week of the insidious influence they also seem to enjoy in sections of the BBC. (This excellent Tumblr blog Twitter feed is also extremely informative on such matters, with an very useful primer to countering their bullshit available here.) Of course, it’s something of a provocative exaggeration to call the Spiked/LM/RCP crowd a far-right troll cult, just as it’s completely absurd to call the #metoo phenomenon a ‘moral panic’ and a ‘modern day Salem’ or claim that misplaced hysteria over climate change caused the Grenfell fire. But from my experiences as an impressionable young person subjected to their influence, combined with the fact that their current agenda is so close to that of the global far-right as to make very little meaningful difference, this is not a group of people who should be allowed anywhere near schools.
*To the extent that he now seems to be styling himself after Mike Cernovich. O’Neill’s entire Facebook profile is well worth a chuckle. Who on earth, apart from those with an uncontrollable need to publicise themselves, keeps their Facebook account public?!