Who Are They?

Jenny Turner reports from the Battle of Ideas

The fifth annual Battle of Ideas was held over a weekend last October at the Royal College of Art in West London. There was a route you could do, a circuit, up the stairs at one end of the windowless basement and down them again at the other, and I did it many times, bag dragging at my back. Each day was divided into five time-slots, each slot into ‘strands’: the Battle for Energy, Battle for Work, Battle for Reproductive Choice; or Breakfast Banter, Café Controversies, Bookshop Barnie. The talks themselves had titles like ‘Working for the State: Public Service or Gravy Train?’, ‘India’s Future: Slumdogs or Millionaires?’ So much stuff, so much Horrible Histories alliteration, so many dispiritingly either-or questions: out of 74 talks, I spotted just one whose take-home message I couldn’t immediately guess. It was on ‘football, greed and the recession’, it was called ‘Who Ate All the Pies?’, and I’m afraid I don’t know the answer, because I went to ‘Rethinking Freedom in an Illiberal Age: Securing Rights or Celebrating Liberty?’ instead.

I’d bought a two-day ticket at £80, for which I got a red plastic bracelet. I had to keep it on overnight, the man told me; it would be fine in the bath or shower. Not many other people had red bracelets, I couldn’t help but notice. A lot had red ribbons round their necks with ID cards hanging from them – they were Contributors. Others had yellow ribbons, denoting Volunteers. Some Contributors were also Partners, and got their logos in the programme: the Economic and Social Research Council, Shell, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the British Library. I counted 55 Partners, Champions and Supporters in eight categories. You could feel a mind at work here, collecting, collating, naming, laying things out. It was very neat, this mind, good at networking and sorting; more talks, more sponsors, more slots on the grid. And a Reception with chamber music at the beginning and a Party with cheap beer at the end, and Satellite meetings in other cities before and after; once this mind gets going on its plan for world domination, it seems to find it hard to stop.

The Battle of Ideas has been held annually since 2005 by the Institute of Ideas, an organisation that from the outside looks pretty much like a standard right-wing public policy think tank – much talk about ‘free speech, not me speech’ and ‘the crisis in authority’, much condemnation of ‘greenthink’ and ‘meddling policymakers’ – but which also functions as some sort of platform and refuge for people who used to be in the Revolutionary Communist Party, a British Trotskyist sect that had its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s. The RCP formally disbanded in 1997, but a loose bunch of former members still hang out together, producing the webzine Spiked, setting up media training for teens (Debating Matters, Young Journalists’ Academy, a ‘programme for London state-school pupils who have the passion and the guts, but not “the right contacts”’) and a confusing cloud of other organisations: the Manifesto Club, WorldWrite, Audacity.org, the Modern Movement, Parents with Attitude … Back in the day, members of Trot groups would ‘enter’ – join and manipulate – bigger organisations in order to gear up their influence, on the way, they hoped, to world revolution. These days, though, it isn’t clear what the Continuity RCP is after, except that someone, somewhere, really likes setting things up.

Between talks, I wandered round the stalls in the Ideas Marketplace, which is what the Battle of Ideas calls the strip of basement next to the coffee bar by the stairs. There was the Manifesto Club (‘For Freedom in Everyday Life’): ‘We organise picnics in public places,’ the very nice girl told me, ‘and we smoke and drink at them.’ There was WorldWrite (‘Ferraris for All’): ‘We’re against the notion of pity,’ a boy explained, while trying to flog me a DVD called Flush It!, about how the West foists poor-quality toilets on ‘our global peers’.

The website Lobbywatch, which is run by anti-GM-food-industry activists, sees all these organisations as nodal points on what it calls ‘the LM network’, after Living Marxism, which was the RCP’s magazine in the 1990s. Is Lobbywatch correct to believe there is such a thing as an ‘LM network’? That depends. Yes, in the sense that there is a loose, informal group of people, some of whom have known each other a long time, some of whom have become involved more recently; some of whom share memories of passionate commitment to a tiny democratic-centralist organisation, some of whom don’t; all of whom seem roughly to agree with each other on a rather shallow and repetitive libertarian agenda, and to display varying degrees of left-liberal-baiting enthusiasm for all the big, scary corporate technologies, especially those involving genetic manipulation, petrochemicals, non-sustainable power generation, human cells. It probably does make sense to talk about an ‘LM network’, in the way it’s possible to talk about Oxbridge or Scottish or London literary mafias, or Guardianistas, or YBAs. Right now, when I look at Spiked, out of 12 ‘selected authors’ listed on the front page, I immediately recognise six as having been Living Marxism regulars. One story attacks ‘the tyranny of the anti-junk-food crusade’, another attacks public smoking bans, and of three pieces pegged to the BP disaster, one blames the ‘rituals of risk aversion’, one is headlined, ‘Addicted to oil? What a dumb idea’, and one urges ‘the world’s big energy companies … to realise that producing oil efficiently is moral purpose enough’. There seems to be substantial ideological agreement here.

Some people, however, believe the ‘LM network’ is more organised than this allows; apart from anything else, such a belief generates more exciting copy. Nick Cohen, the Observer columnist and author of What’s Left: How the Left Lost Its Way (2007), has called them ‘a vicious movement’ and ‘the smallest and nastiest of the Trotskyist sects’ (the latter in a piece from 2002 that prophetically notes how ‘former lefties can make a good living in the media by attacking their ex-comrades – I’d do it myself if the price was right.’) George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist and anti-capitalist campaigner, started looking at the group closely in 1997, after some of them contributed to Against Nature, the notorious anti-Green television documentary; over the years he has called them ‘industry lobbyists’, ‘a bizarre and cultish network’, ‘an obscure and cranky sect’. ‘Invasion of the Entryists’, originally published in the Guardian in 2003 but better read in the extensively footnoted version on Monbiot.com, contains a nicely compressed digest of the author’s main objections to Living Marxism, the magazine: campaigns against gun control, against banning tobacco advertising and child porn; campaigns in favour of global warming and freedom for corporations. Monbiot also follows Jonathan Matthews of Lobbywatch in reporting curious clusters of former LM contributors now working in public science education. For example, according to Monbiot the educational charity Sense about Science – a prominent supporter of Simon Singh in his recent dispute with the British Chiropractic Association – has a former LMer for a managing director, and another one as her deputy; the director of the Science Media Centre is Fiona Fox, a former LM contributor and younger sister of Claire Fox, the IoI’s head honcho. (‘Various people have brought allegations about my past involvement in politics to the attention of my current and former employers,’ FF said when I asked her about this. ‘At every stage my employers have robustly defended me and my right to be judged on my ability to perform my job now rather than either my past or my family associations.’)

Both Cohen and Monbiot – and others besides – talk about the LM network’s habit of supporting freedom of expression for all sorts of horrible people: BNPers and child pornographers and atrocity deniers. Of course it’s only the right to speak that is supported, not what is said: members of the LM network are always careful to stress that they’re no less opposed to racism, sexual exploitation and mass murder than everybody else, it’s just that they think unpleasant opinions should be not banned but ‘battled’ with, in open debate. For example, the Battle of Ideas I attended took place the week after Nick Griffin’s turn on Question Time, so there was lots of talk about ‘the right to be offensive’ and ‘illiberal liberalism’, while at the same time it was made clear that the principle of free speech was being defended, not the views of the BNP. The pairing became a given – free speech, see kiddie porn and Nazis; Nazis, see kiddie porn and free speech.

I’ve been watching these people off and on for years now, since I was a student in the 1980s and they called themselves the Revolutionary Communist Party. I find them fascinating, peculiar, entertaining, a real-life soap: who are these people, what on earth do they think they’re up to? Everybody knows Claire Fox, if only as a panellist, the strident Northern one, on Radio 4’s intolerable Moral Maze. Some may remember Mick Hume, once the editor of Living Marxism, now editor-at-large for Spiked and a contributor to the Times on topics such as Delia Smith, stopping smoking, and the holiday cottage in Broadstairs he and his wife bought to let for £150,000 in 2006. There’s also the kittenish, aubergine-haired Tiffany Jenkins, whose research, she says, concerns ‘contested authority in the cultural sector and the shifting purpose of the museum’, and who pops up sometimes on Newsnight; and Josie Appleton, seen on Panorama a couple of months ago talking about ‘vetting’ teachers (she’s against it). A former supporter told me that the young women the RCP recruited always resembled ‘pushy head girls from all girls’ schools’, even when they weren’t.

In the 1980s, RCP members were often dishy and well turned-out, in that DMs and MA1 jacket, ambient-fury-of-the-Thatcher-era street-fighting way. This, I’m sorry to say, had a lot to do with why I used to buy their paper and once went to a meeting of their women’s chapter in Edinburgh, at which we were told that condoms were Thatcherite and we ought to celebrate scientific achievement by going on the Pill. The meeting was horrendous, bossy and full of buzzwords, run by people pretending they didn’t know each other. These days, IoI bods look like delegates at a Unison conference, or the seekers who gather at Landmark seminars and the Alpha Course. The ones who make the speeches are mostly white and in their thirties and forties (the volunteers on the cameras and boom-mikes are younger and more diverse). They’re more relaxed than they used to be, less aggressive and overtly controlling, but they still have a habit of sitting on panels together, pretending they don’t already know each other, and they still dominate meetings with tedious, well-rehearsed spontaneous interventions. This is one of the things that made the Battle of Ideas so deadly boring, and one reason so many people call the IoI ‘a weird cult’.

The Battle of Ideas was opened by Claire Fox, gallus, Manchester-inflected – though she’s Welsh – and wearing her special speaking outfit: scarlet A-line jacket, slinky zebra top, bikerish white silk scarf. She paid ‘particular tribute’ to the sponsors: ‘In an atmosphere where big business is given a bad name, it’s fantastic to work with a global corporation that’s interested in what’s happening in the world,’ she says of the brewing conglomerate SABMiller. About the Times, a frequent IoI outlet, she said: ‘We don’t work with the marketing department, we work with the editorial team,’ and promised a weekend of ‘real journalists, not just celebrity columnists’. The Battle had its big names too: Paul Mason from Newsnight, Suzanne Moore from the Mail on Sunday, the novelist Philip Hensher. Some people refuse to stand on an IoI platform, considering them clandestine and creepy. Others are a bit doubtful, but take part in the events in the interests of free debate. Others again want the exposure and don’t care about the IoI’s reputation.

Fox introduced the first event in the Keynote Controversies slot: ‘Rethinking Education: The New Crisis of Adult Authority in the Classroom’, based on the book by Frank Furedi, out that same weekend.[1] ‘We’, apparently, were ‘very excited’ when ‘we’ realised Furedi’s book was being launched at the same time as the Battle of Ideas; Furedi is ‘one of the UK’s, indeed Europe’s, indeed the world’s leading public intellectuals’, Fox told us, besides which she’d read the book already, and was glad to say it ‘doesn’t disappoint’. Which is just as well, given that Furedi, it is said, has been for the past 40 years or so the RCP’s leader and theoretical guru.

Furedi himself was an anticlimax. He’s short, slight, Mekonish, in his early sixties, wearing a white shirt with a navy tanktop and brown cords. He began by saying that he never wanted to write a book on education in the first place, but people kept saying to him: ‘You know, Frank, you are the man.’ The content of what children are learning is ‘pretty sordid’, he thinks: there is far too much ‘soft social engineering’ – by which he means healthy-eating propaganda, eco-spying, anti-bullying and so on – and nowhere near enough ‘intellectually oriented classical and theoretical knowledge’, by which he means ‘Greek philosophy, Renaissance poetry, the novels of George Eliot’. The problem, he argued, is the ‘fetishisation of change’, an issue that transcends ‘the left-right divide’. He seemed proud of quotes he’d found that made Michael Oakeshott echo Hannah Arendt – ‘whose work has really influenced my work’ – and Matthew Arnold agree with Lenin, though ‘you couldn’t be further apart than Lenin and Arnold on most things.’

It’s difficult to give a fair account of his argument. It’s not so much that he said anything obviously disagreeable, because he didn’t: he’s against meddling control freaks, ignorant teachers, the craven obsession with health and safety, and lots of other stuff that you would happily agree with, if only you could stop yourself suspecting that none of these issues is as straightforward as he makes out. The way he presented his argument was brain-shrinkingly vague. The focus was mainly on UK schooling, and yet Furedi hardly engaged at all with what actually happens inside British schools. There were instead grand-looking historical generalisations – ‘in the 21st century, conservation of the past is a radical act’ – and a lot of anecdotes of the sort that make people start going on about political correctness gone mad: ‘They’re even expelling two-to-four-year-olds in nurseries for racism, for homophobia, for inappropriate sexual behaviour.’ It’s significant that Furedi uses the word ‘expelling’ – no one who works in education has used this word for decades. They always use the word ‘excluded’, which is both more neutral and more exact.

The book is in the same vein. I was intrigued by a mention of a report entitled Young Children and Racial Justice, published by the National Children’s Bureau in 2008, the goal of which, according to Furedi, ‘is to change the outlook of toddlers, by sensitising nursery workers to “clues” that serve as markers for racist attitudes. One example of such a clue is when a toddler yells “Yuck” and reacts negatively to a “culinary tradition other than their own”.’ I looked up this passage in the report itself. It’s possible, the report goes on, that ‘Yuck!’ indicates racism; it’s also possible that it doesn’t, which means that ‘care is always needed … to differentiate very clearly between a child’s natural apprehension and racial prejudice.’ This calls for ‘tact, particular interpersonal skills and working within a no-blame framework’: all of which sounds good to me. Furedi, though, may not know how good the report is, because his endnotes suggest that he never looked at it. The only source he lists is a news story from the BBC website, one of eight in that one chapter: ‘Schools told to close gender gaps’; ‘Pupils “must learn about nappies”’; ‘Schools “must tackle homophobia”’ etc.

As well as the gnomic bits, the dinner-party tittle-tattle, the status quotes from famous thinkers hanging like hardware off an It bag, Furedi’s talk has another odd rhetorical habit, which I noticed was copied by other speakers at the Battle of Ideas. ‘You and I as grown-ups’, ‘not just as biologically mature grown-ups’, ‘the experience of grown-ups has become pretty irrelevant’: the IoI adores grown-ups, and being grown-up, and talks all the time about how important it is to treat each other ‘as grown-ups’. The effect is paradoxical, but predictable. If you talk constantly about ‘grown-ups’ it makes you sound like a child.

Frank Furedi was born in 1947 in Budapest, and emigrated to Canada with his family after the anti-Soviet uprising of 1956. He studied political science at McGill University in Montreal and has worked at the University of Kent since 1975, in development studies to begin with – his PhD was about the Mau Mau – and since the early 1990s in the rather more media-friendly sociology of selfhood. He publishes a book every couple of years and is good at picking up on scents as they begin to waft across the ether: Paranoid Parenting (2001) is the famous example, but there’s also Therapy Culture (2003), Politics of Fear (2005), Culture of Fear Revisited (2006) and Invitation to Terror (2007). Kent made him a full professor in 2001; in 2004 the British Sociological Association named him ‘the most prolific of UK sociologists’. You can hire him as an after-dinner speaker (£2.5-£5k level) via his agent, JLA.

But it doesn’t make much sense to look at Furedi as a single unitary author, scribbling away on his own. For as long as he has been working, his intellectual identity has been corporate, formed by and formative of friends and comrades met through the RCP. In itself, there’s nothing unusual about someone being left wing when young and becoming more right wing as they get older. What’s strange about the RCP, though, is the way the group seems to have moved together, ‘as a disciplined unit’, in the words of Nick Cohen.

The best introduction to the history of British Trotskyism is a pamphlet by John Sullivan, a former member of the International Socialists, called Go Fourth and Multiply/When this Pub Closes – that’s ‘fourth’ as in Fourth International.[2] Sullivan, who died in 2003, wrote these notes in the 1980s as an affectionate but critical insider. Like everybody else, he writes, people in left politics have a muddle of motives; they really do want to end oppression, but they’re also in it for the social life and the ready-furnished sense of purpose and belief. Successful leaders, of Trot groups as of any others, understand their followers’ needs and work hard to meet them. Sometimes struggles are embarked on for political reasons, because the world-historical conjuncture demands it. Sometimes they are a way of attracting ‘custom in an already overcrowded market’, ‘cynical attempts to keep the troops happy’.

According to Sullivan, Furedi – who at that time went by the nom de guerre of ‘Frank Richards’ – joined the International Socialists (later to become the Socialist Workers Party) in the early 1970s, but was expelled in 1973 for running a ‘secret faction’ with David Yaffe, then and now the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Group. Then Furedi fell out with Yaffe too and started another group, called the Revolutionary Communist Tendency to begin with, then the Revolutionary Communist Party. A friend of mine who formerly supported the RCP first came across them in the late 1970s, when the party had ‘about 30 members at most’, in London and in Canterbury, round Furedi’s base at the university; by the mid 1980s, this had grown to ‘some 400 members and perhaps 500 supporters’ in most of the bigger UK cities, making it, he says, ‘the last left-wing group in Britain to go through a serious advance from a tiny group to a substantial organisation’ (though not exactly enormous, and still much smaller than the SWP). This is another strange thing about it: the RCP continued to grow at a time when other left groups were mostly stuck at 1970s peak-radicalism levels, or had already tipped into decline.

So what was the RCP’s secret? People associated with the online archive Marxists.org tell me that, as a young man, Furedi was a serious scholar of Soviet political economy, and that the early RCP attracted others like him. Sullivan, however, held that Furedi’s work was just ‘student theory’, an ‘eclectic mishmash’. The RCP, in Sullivan’s view, had one great USP, and that was ‘style’. They were, in his formulation, ‘the SWP with hairgel’. And the stylishness wasn’t just on the level of personal posing. I remember being impressed with the next step, the party’s weekly newspaper, with its lower-case masthead, neo-constructivist graphics and daring use of ink in colours other than the-people’s-flag-is-deepest-red. tns was also unTrotskyistically frugal in its use of hortatory exclamations (especially when compared with its nearest rival, the RCG’s Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!), carried fewer boring stories about trade unions, and wasn’t forever nagging and guilt-tripping about this group of oppressed persons or that.

The RCP wasn’t really interested in working-class struggle, or Third World liberation struggles, or any other wretched-of-the-earth-type struggle at all. ‘Although I only became aware of this much later,’ one 1980s RCPer wrote recently, ‘young RCP comrades … were by and large simply not socialists.’ Don Milligan, an academic and gay activist, ran an RCP branch in the 1980s. He doesn’t think the party leadership were ‘socialists either’ but ‘Leninists of the purist kind’, ‘driven mad by the glamour of the October Revolution’, a tiny, supercool vanguard, ‘seizing the bridle of the Revolution and riding it into power’.

And so the early RCP struck out in bold new directions; it was particularly interested in science, medicine, reproductive health. The NHS was described in a pamphlet published in 1983 as ‘a system that has always provided third-rate services on the cheap for working-class people’. Nuclear power was ‘potentially safer and less environmentally damaging than existing methods of electricity generation’; ‘green concerns’ were ‘the politics of evasion’. In 1984, the party withheld its support from the striking National Union of Mineworkers, arguing that without a national ballot, the strike was doomed to failure: a position that alienated it from the last great moment of the British labour movement. In 1987, the party published its notorious pamphlet The Truth about the Aids Panic, which argued that HIV would never spread in rich countries beyond needle-sharers and practitioners of casual anal sex, and that Aids charities were just pretending it would because they liked interfering with people’s private lives. Time has shown the RCP’s arguments to have been sort of right: Scargill didn’t win, Aids didn’t spread as originally predicted, even George Monbiot now supports the case for nuclear power, faute de mieux. But the victories are the sort that come not from rigour but rigidity – the mechanical rightness, twice daily, of the stopped clock.[3]

No evidence has ever turned up in support of the hypothesis, popular among 1980s lefties, that the RCP were agents provocateur, but it’s easy to see how the rumours took hold. There was something strange about them: the near mechanical discipline and efficiency; the sheaves of expensive-looking leaflets and magazines. They could also be arrogant and aggressive. Someone I spoke to remembers selling Socialist Worker in London on Saturday mornings as a 15-year-old, with women RCPers edging up to him, making loud remarks about his fanciability and the crapness of his organisation. ‘RCP members,’ he says, ‘seemed to have been briefed to systematically wind up other left groups in any way possible and at all times.’ This could go from political sniping (soft on British imperialism, racist, reformist, up Labour’s arse etc) to much more personal stuff: ‘The point was to get a rise, a violent reaction.’ I was never a member of anything, but I do remember being followed around by a pretty woman, banging on like the Duracell bunny about how ignorant I must be, because I didn’t hold myself personally responsible for ‘the Irish war’.

A factor in the uncanniness was the way they copied other left groups’ front organisations, but with a twist of added aggravation. The SWP’s Anti-Nazi League held music festivals with The Clash and Steel Pulse; the RCP’s Workers against Racism – WAR for short – was said to have vigilante groups that threatened to beat up racists. The Irish Freedom Movement copied the Troops Out Movement (at the Battle of Ideas, I overheard someone showing off about how he didn’t want his employers to know about his 1980s ‘Ireland work’). The SWP had the Redskins, the RCP had a band called Easterhouse, named after the Glasgow housing scheme, although they came from Manchester: ‘Profitability, what does that mean to me? Whether a profit or a loss, I’m just working for the boss.’

For most of the Western left, the collapse of state socialism at the end of the 1980s led to depression, soul-searching, New Labour and other forms of political despair. The RCP, too, was thrown into crisis. The Leninist model, it was becoming clear, was for the foreseeable future a complete no-hoper; what other ways might there be for a small group to go about grabbing power? the next step closed in 1988, marking an end to the SWP copycatting; with the launch of Living Marxism later that year came a shift towards the ‘designer socialism’ of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s briefly influential Marxism Today. ‘For the first time this century there is no real sense of a working-class movement with a distinctive political identity anywhere in the world,’ ‘Frank Richards’ wrote in Living Marxism in 1990. The party’s task, therefore, had been redefined as ‘challenging the myths perpetuated by the system’, a job requiring the participation of only ‘a small minority’. And just as well, because by this time the RCP was disintegrating like a civilisation in a disaster movie, from the bottom, whole branches at a time.

In 1996, the RCP published a booklet called The Point Is to Change It: A Manifesto for a World Fit for People. ‘Don’t worry, we have not changed sides,’ Mick Hume explained in a Living Marxism editorial. ‘We are as fiercely opposed as Marxists have always been to the ways in which people’s lives are degraded by a society that subordinates everything to the pursuit of profit.’ After much discussion, however, the party had come to realise that there were ‘new barriers’ standing in the way – such as the trend for ‘problem-mongering’, as Hume calls it in his preface to the booklet, a tendency to inflate ‘the dangers and difficulties which face us in every field’. People, he argues, are either ‘patronised as hapless, fragile victims’ or beset by warnings against ‘“the beast within us all” that needs to be caged or repressed’. Such ‘barriers’ could only be overcome, Hume wrote, by ‘a determined defence of the gains of humanity to date – democracy, science, reason – against the new armies of critics. And it is why our manifesto insists that much more progress is possible if only we could raise our sights to see a new horizon.’ All right then, let’s cast off those mind-forg’d manacles and take a look.

I see tractors, pennants, overalls, contoured cheekbones, sculpted fonts: a forward thinking and optimistic vision, scientific and unsentimental, and therefore pretty much identical to that familiar and deeply horrible idealisation of strength and power and technology common to many brands of modern and quasi-modernist political kitsch. One thing you can say for it, though, it certainly transcends what Furedi in his talk kept calling ‘the left-right divide’.

Looking through old copies of Living Marxism at the British Library, I found myself getting bored, annoyed, depressed, just as I’d expected. But bits of it were terrific, exercises in the theory and practice of journalistic propaganda. ‘West Eats East,’ one 1992 coverline ran. ‘As the Soviet Union ends, the colonial-style carve-up of Eastern Europe begins’ – a complicated point made with some style. And I liked a cover about health and safety paranoia: ‘BAN THESE EVIL SPOONS!’ In 1995, there was a photograph of a pretty woman with her baby: her name was Ann Furedi, and she worked for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. ‘We too have gazed in wonder at … photographs of thumb-sucking foetuses which look so much like newborn babies. But we continue to support women’s right to abortion.’ The pro-abortion mother, clear and forceful and holding her beloved baby.

Yet this story also shows that LM was already riddled with the cracks which would cause its collapse. Ann Furedi, for starters, is also Mrs Frank Furedi; she is also ‘Ann Bradley’, the author of another piece in the same issue, and many others before and since. LM had no money to pay its contributors, which meant that a tiny pool of the willing and able wrote far too much, on far too narrow a set of hobby-horses, with far too much recourse to pseudonymous filler. Responding, in 1999, to perennial rumours of sinister financial backers, Hume said: ‘We have no links with any party or government. This rumour that we get financed by a white South African millionaire is just fantasy. We’ve got no bloody money. Nobody gets paid for contributions. We have a shortfall of £5000 per issue. We’ve got a lot of medium-sized benefactors.’ I see no reason to disbelieve him. The magazine united people – as magazines, romantically, often do – so everybody did loads of work for nothing. Party members tithed 10 per cent of their income, and people like the Furedis, with their huge emotional investment and steady professional jobs, probably tipped in more. My RCP-supporter friend remembers ‘Frank emptying his wallet of tenners and twenties’. ‘He tended,’ my friend added, ‘to treat the organisation as his own personal property, like a small-minded sweetshop owner.’ This behaviour was par for the course among left-wing leaders, in his experience, though I don’t think there’s anything especially leftist about it. It happens in mosques and churches and cubs and brownies and parent-teacher associations. It’s just characteristic of social behaviour in closed and committed voluntary groups.

What sank LM in the end was anti-imperialism. Philosophically, the magazine was in no doubt about what was happening across the world in the 1990s: ‘humanitarian intervention’, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, was just a ruse the West used to make itself look good, monstering the local opposition while pursuing the usual colonial goals. The problem, though, was journalistic. How could LM report on this when it had no money to send anyone anywhere at all? The problem was further complicated by the fashion for what Hume called, in a 1997 pamphlet, the ‘journalism of attachment’ – confessional accounts, by Western correspondents, of atrocities witnessed. Hume argued that such reporting ‘can allow no room for the scepticism, nuance or critical questioning that are the working tools of good journalism’, and becomes, instead, ‘a twisted sort of therapy’, which ‘ultimately dehumanises all those involved and degrades journalism into know-nothing sentimentality’. It’s an impressive argument, but it raises one important further question: how, then, are you going to go about reporting from places where terrible things happen?

A 1995 piece by a writer called ‘Fiona Foster’ – ‘just back’, as the standfirst breezily put it, ‘from a visit to Rwanda’ – epitomises the problem. Foster took an unusual line on the massacres of 1994: she downplayed the genocidal aspect in favour of ‘the role played by outside powers’, and accused ‘aid agencies’ of ‘building prisons’ instead of bringing in food and medical help. Aid agencies, unsurprisingly, objected; Alex de Waal, an expert on Sudan, did some digging and discovered that Foster is really Fiona Fox. Her ‘visit to Rwanda’ took place while she was working in the media relations department for Cafod, the Catholic relief agency.

Shortly after this episode, it was another attempt to cover anti-imperialism on a shoestring that got LM sued for libel, closed down and pulped, and the magazine and everyone associated with it portrayed as atrocity-deniers. The subject of the piece was the war in Bosnia, specifically a news film made there in the spring and summer of 1992, although the LM story, ‘The Picture That Fooled the World’ by Thomas Deichmann, wasn’t published until nearly five years later. The ‘picture’ in question was of Fikret Alic, an emaciated Bosnian Muslim man who had been photographed behind barbed wire at the Bosnian-Serb-run prison camp of Trnopolje. Originally shot and broadcast by ITN, the still image was then run on the following day’s newspaper front pages, with headlines such as ‘Belsen 92: Horror of the New Holocaust’ (Daily Mirror), ‘The Proof’ (Daily Mail). The image was taken by most people as evidence that the Serbs had been running a genocidal operation in northern Bosnia, but Living Marxism disagreed.

There was no barbed-wire fence surrounding Trnopolje camp. It was not a prison, and certainly not a ‘concentration camp’, but a collection centre for refugees … The barbed wire in the picture is not around the Bosnian Muslims; it is around the cameraman and the journalists … The British news team filmed from inside this compound, shooting pictures of the refugees and the camp through the compound fence.

The article seemed to accuse ITN of having fabricated the image. ITN sued, in spite of the unwritten law that journalists never sue their colleagues, and when the case came to court three years later, won.

The most detailed overview of the case is by David Campbell of Durham University, whose 25,000-word essay was published in the Journal of Human Rights in 2002. Campbell wonders why neither Deichmann nor LM seemed able to see beyond their barbed-wire fence to the many well-documented accounts of rape and murder to have come out of the Trnopolje camp. It was important to them to underplay the latter, he argues, because ‘what matters to LM is severing any potential link between the Holocaust and the war in Bosnia’ in order to weaken the case for military intervention. That LM found itself denying that Serbian ethnic cleansing happened was, as Campbell sees it, an inadvertent consequence of their knee-jerk anti-imperialism, an ethical ‘paucity’ – shallow, canalised, one-sided – that tends to be the consequence of an ‘absolutist view’ of free speech, and their ‘historical illiteracy’. It subsequently emerged that Deichmann thought Trnopolje couldn’t be described as a ‘concentration camp’ because it didn’t have a gas chamber.

My friend the former RCP supporter says that in the early 1990s, LM felt itself to be up against ‘the very one-sided, anti-Serb stance’ of ‘the liberal media in Britain and elsewhere’. He would have liked the party to do ‘some serious theoretical work’ on this difficult topic, but instead, LM countered crudity with crudity: ‘Trying to create a splash and get noticed.’ In a way it worked. At the time, many of the great and the good saw the affair as the story of a mean old television Goliath bullying a helpless little lefty David. The resulting goodwill was skilfully used to support the Institute of Ideas, which sprang from LM’s ashes. Others found in this miserable story an opportunity to let rip. ‘RCP members were the first to imitate neo-Nazis and deny the existence of a Serb concentration camp in Bosnia,’ Nick Cohen wrote in 2006. Neo-Nazis? Really? ‘Living Marxism’s attempts to rewrite the history of the camps,’ Ed Vulliamy wrote in 2000, ‘was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps.’ How could he possibly know that?

I saw lots of 1980s RCP bigshots sitting at the back and along the aisle at the Battle of Ideas. In one session, a smiley Frank Furedi sat next to me, blocking the route I’d been hoping to use to escape when it got too dull. Furedi apart, though, public business seems to get taken care of by the next generation down. Claire Fox, for example, was born in 1960 into an Irish Catholic family in Wales, and joined the RCP when she was a student at Warwick University, on the rebound, it is said, from the Tories. She went on to train as a social worker and a teacher, and the success of the IoI is unimaginable without her Nurse Jackie-ish tough-loving warmth: ‘She’s lovely, and extremely efficient and well organised,’ one completely non-RCP person told me. ‘Claire Fox is very good,’ as the former comrade stiffly put it, ‘at presenting to the general public whatever Spiked or any of its related organisations have to say on any particular subject at any particular juncture.’ A brilliant pub speechifier, would be another way of putting it.

Mick Hume, another prominent figure in this generation, was born in 1959, went to grammar school in Woking, and joined the RCP when he was a student at Manchester University – a friend of mine remembers him from those days, wearing a buttoned-up black shirt. He still does, but not like a Nazi, more like an ageing 1980s NME-reading trendy lefty, with that Moddish fixation on looking ‘sharp’. He calls himself ‘a grumpy old Marxist’, in a Paul Mertonish, estuarine boot-boy-wiv-a-heart-of-gold way. What was stylish and dynamic about LM must have been largely his work – I can’t imagine it being Furedi’s. Which means that the magazine’s downfall was largely Hume’s responsibility as well.

Glancing over Hume’s ‘journalism of attachment’ pamphlet, a couple of latent themes jump out. One is a passion for journalism done as he thinks it should be done, and the other is that he seems to feel a lot of resentment towards those who get it wrong. ‘The degree to which the media industry can be obsessed with itself in the middle of somebody else’s war sometimes borders on self-parody,’ he harrumphs: here are these ‘big swinging dick’ foreign corrs, living it up in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn; here’s Mick, stuck in London without even a Pret sandwich on expenses. Imagine you were him and you landed Deichmann’s story. Wouldn’t you be tempted to oversell it? Would you feel like negotiating when ITN made its complaint? In his pamphlet, Hume says that journalists in Bosnia used ‘other people’s life-and-death conflicts to work out their own existential angst’, and he’s right, but surely he was doing much the same thing in LM.

The magazine’s Bosnia coverage had a very odd tone, cold and flippant and a bit sarcastic. The July 1992 edition had Serbia on the cover, described as the ‘WHITE NIGGERS’ of the New World Order. ‘The world’s media have invented a veritable Holocaust in Bosnia,’ Furedi wrote, under his own name, a couple of months later. ‘It is surely only a matter of time before gas chambers are discovered in the car park of the Agriculture Ministry in Belgrade.’ LM was perhaps trying to counteract the ‘very one-sided, anti-Serb’ gushiness it objected to in ‘the liberal media’ but the effect is not cool, disciplined, objective – it’s just mean.

Put it another way. Suppose you were accused of denying that a prison camp known to be a place where people were brutalised and murdered was really as bad as all that. You probably wouldn’t set up a libel defence campaign and advertise it with a picture of the barbed wire that caused all the trouble in the first place. You probably wouldn’t call it ‘Off the Fence’.

It’s Sunday lunchtime back at the Battle of Ideas, and there’s a Lunchtime Debate called ‘Should Teachers Be Role Models?’ To which the answer, I suspect, will turn out to be no. There’s a man on the panel called Kevin Rooney, who teaches social science at a school in Hertfordshire and according to the Sunday Times is Fiona Fox’s husband, though when I asked her to confirm this, she refused. When the discussion, yet again, sags tediously back to Nick Griffin on Question Time, the right to be offensive and so on, Rooney says he would defend to the death, ‘as Voltaire said’ (although he didn’t), the right of a teacher to be a member of the BNP – the only responsibility a teacher has is to ‘know his subject’.

Then there’s a Café Controversy called ‘Standing Up to Supernanny’, organised by Jennie Bristow, a cheery woman with a brook-no-nonsense demeanour who used to write for LM in the 1990s and now runs an editing business called Punctuate!, which advertises on Spiked. One of the invited speakers is Zoe Williams, the cheery, no-nonsense Guardian columnist, who wheels in her baby in a trendy triwheeler buggy and talks endearingly about how annoyed she gets with the government telling people what food to give their kids. Usually, I’d be cheering her on, but by now I am fed up with listening to confident people showing off about their no-nonsense chattering-class opinions. Just for once, I think, why can’t all of us bloody intellectuals shut up with our endless posturing opinions and listen to why parents go on feeding their children quick, soft, cosy junk? Is it because, secretly, we know the answer, and just can’t bear to think about the utter pointlessness of all this blah?

I imagine Frank trying to teach a class on Middlemarch. Have you checked, Frank, to see who doesn’t speak English outside the classroom, who can’t really sit still, who gave up before they started, who lost a parent in a war? Have you planned an activity for the children who’ve already read it, who have parents who will complain if you don’t get them straight onto Daniel Deronda? Have you sorted something out for the children who are unable to understand what ‘Victorian’ means, or ‘author’? From what little I see of my son’s school, it seems to me that such problems are negotiated every day by teachers and other meddling do-gooders, sometimes stupidly but often with enormous grace. Go for it, Frank, see how you get on!

Right at the beginning of Wasted, Furedi writes about how, when his son was about to start school, he and his wife found themselves ‘bombarded’ with ‘horror stories’ from other parents. He was bewildered and appalled: ‘I grew up,’ he writes, ‘in an era where you automatically went to the school nearest to your home,’ as, he seems to be assuming, did most of his readers. So the book starts with all of us knowing just where we’re coming from.

Except that he didn’t, and we don’t. Furedi’s father and his sister were involved in the 1956 uprising. His parents were Jewish, his mother the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. Furedi has written in the Times that he has ‘never forgotten the Proustian moment’ when the Hungarian Revolution began – he was nine years old and about to tuck into ‘dripping on garlic toast’. His father, a watchmaker and ‘extremely right-wing’, had been denounced as a ‘class enemy’. His sister had been banned from studying medicine because she was a ‘class alien’. When the Soviets invaded, the family ran for it, to Austria then Canada. ‘I, obsessed by Wild West novels, was preparing to meet my first cowboy.’ Furedi comes to the topic of education as a migrant, a speaker of English as an additional language, a refugee; just like his heroine Hannah Arendt did, and as her writings on education richly acknowledge. And as Furedi’s don’t.

He did, though, write a piece in LM in 2000 about why, ‘as one whose family was virtually wiped out in Nazi concentration camps, I have mixed feelings about the Holocaust being transformed into a contemporary morality play.’ It isn’t that he doesn’t think the Holocaust needs to be remembered, but that he dislikes the way Holocaust remembrance plugs into ‘victim culture’, ‘a voyeuristic impulse to claim a stake in other people’s pain’. He says this is something he learned from his 82-year-old mother. ‘After watching a TV programme about second-generation Holocaust victims, she appeared puzzled about the terminology used … She did not see or define herself in terms of victimhood … Maybe there is something wrong with me, she said. Many professional therapists would probably agree and offer the diagnosis of a sick woman in denial.’ The one thing, perhaps, that ultimately holds the LM network together is its members’ refusal to countenance the existence of psychic conflict or confusion. People are not ‘hapless, fragile victims’; neither do they struggle to contain ‘the beast within us all’. People run fine on ‘democracy, science, reason’. We are, after all, ‘grown-ups’.

‘Political sects,’ John Sullivan wrote in the 1980s, ‘are the heart of a heartless world, and they will disappear only when that world begins to change.’ Of course, when he wrote that, he hoped the world would change in an exciting, utopian direction. Except that so far it hasn’t; and yet these groups have changed a lot. Or have they? In my samizdat edition of Sullivan’s pamphlet, a foreword by ‘Arthur Trusscott’ brings the history of Trotskyism in Britain more or less up to date. Frank Furedi, according to this, has gone from wanting to change the world to ‘whingeing about it, like a cut-price Julie Burchill’, yet the ‘inner core’ of his party survives, along with its ‘insufferable arrogance’, making for ‘an interesting twist of the dialectic, that the content of a phenomenon can change dramatically, whilst its form remains unaltered.’ ‘Frank has a plan,’ my friend remembers one of the comrades darkly saying. One day, the conditions would be right and they would be ready: public-sector cuts, rising unemployment, the collapsing Euro, a Tory government, more or less.

[1] Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating (Continuum, 256 pp., £16.99, September 2009, 978 1 84706 416 5).

[2] www.marxists.org/history/etol/critiques/sullivan

[3] A more recent vindication concerns the MMR vaccine and Andrew Wakefield’s discredited attempt to link it to regressive autism. The GP and medical writer Michael Fitzpatrick – formerly big in the RCP and in 1987 the co-author, with Don Milligan, of the Aids booklet – was one of Wakefield’s earliest and most authoritative critics.