The rebels who changed their tune to be pundits

They were once proud Marxists. Today, they are media-friendly Tory extremists. Meet the Revolutionar

In the early 1990s, during a crisis that everyone is now remembering, Dave Renton attended a meeting of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). The young Marxist had been an associate member for six months and received instruction on what suits to wear, what to think and how to approach rich kids in Sloane Square and lure them and their bank accounts into the party. The hectoring he had already received had taught him not to expect open discussion. Frank Furedi, theoretician to the splinter of a splinter group, and Mick Hume, its leader, did not disappoint. They lectured their 20-odd disciples like teachers instructing gormless children. "There was no debate," Renton recalled. "The RCP didn't do debate."

Its dialectical method stayed in Renton's mind long after he had walked out of the party. Furedi and Hume didn't attempt to work out if victory for the United States would help or hinder the progressive cause in the Middle East. Instead, they meticulously went through the positions of their rivals, from the Socialist Workers Party to the left of the Labour Party. None, they established, was actually supporting Saddam Hussein and wishing him the best of luck in his forthcoming battle to the death with British troops. "Victory for Iraq!" became their slogan. It had the prime virtue of attracting attention. It also allowed the RCP to accuse its competitors of selling out.

If you had wandered into the meeting, you might have reasonably concluded that the the smallest and nastiest of the Trotskyist sects was doomed to remain in impotent obscurity. I guess that not even its politburo would have predicted that the party would be a star of the capitalist media within a few years; that its cadres would be on the air everywhere. Furedi, a sociology lecturer at the University of Kent, is now the Wackford Squeers of Broadcasting House. Whenever bullying or the protection of children is discussed, he storms the radio stations to damn mollycoddling and warn that children need to be toughened up for hard, adult life - if not world revolution. Hume is a columnist for the Murdoch press. Claire Fox, the former RC organiser in Newcastle, is a regular witterer on The Moral Maze. Her think-tank, the Institute of Ideas, organises debates with the co-operation of Tate Modern, the British Library, British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, and just about every other great cultural bureaucracy.

The sect's success demands an explanation. For many on the left, the explanation lies in its willingness to support the most brutal policies of the right. George Monbiot has detailed how RCP sympathisers used Channel 4 to propagate the party line that environmentalists were denying the world's poor the benefits of technology. In Against Nature, the Greens were compared to the Nazis. The star interviewee was Furedi. He was supported by John Gillott, the science correspondent of Living Marxism, the RCP magazine. As Monbiot noted, the RCP won support from, and published the views of, the most extreme advocates of free-market capitalism - the Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain, and the Cato Institute and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise in the United States. In the 1990s, it opposed poll tax demonstrators, the anti-apartheid movement and trade union campaigns against public spending cuts. It supported Neil Hamilton, global warming, GM foods and "heroic" fat cats. It was, to slip into Marxist jargon, "objectively" a part of the Tory party.

Living Marxism (LM) was closed by a libel action brought by journalists whom the magazine had accused of fabricating evidence of Serbian atrocities. The article was the work of a power-worshipping fruitcake, but his defence of Balkan tyranny wasn't too far from Conservative policy, either. The black propaganda of a Major government, determined to placate Slobodan Milosevic, included many whispers that the Bosnians were massacring themselves to provoke Nato strikes against the Serbs. The Conservatives got away with it. Living Marxism, alas, wasn't so lucky.

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. Furedi says the left loathes him precisely because it sees him as the hireling of reaction. "I get really hurt that my character and integrity is soiled by being called a prostitute for the Serbs or the far right," the apostle of toughness told the Guardian, with a self-pitying sob. "The level of hatred . . . I feel like Adolf Hitler or something."

Recent RCP ideology can easily be portrayed as an excuse for moving ever rightward. Just after the Gulf war, Furedi pronounced that the working class was dead as a political force and that any politics based on working-class activism would be a certain failure.

All that could be done was to challenge the consensus. The RCP thus became the first "Marxist" party to seek an exclusively middle-class membership. (Journalists and broadcasters, who could get the leadership noticed, were the greatest prize.) In 1996, it took Furedi's thesis to its logical conclusion and disbanded.

For all Furedi's clumsy theorising and the accusations of his opponents, the RCP's conversion to the values of Wall Street and Conservative Central Office was less dramatic than it appeared. The party had always opposed the struggles of the proles. All it abandoned in the 1990s was the hope for proletarian revolution.

To understand the RCP's consistency, I must take you to the lost world of the marxisant left. The RCP was originally a faction of the International Socialists. It split off in the early 1970s to form the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG). The group believed in the words of its then leader, David Yaffe, that there was no working class independent of bourgeois ideology. At best, there was "a potential vanguard" consisting of "those sections of the class that are beginning to break in a fragmented way from bourgeois ideology and are being driven by the pressure of objective events to look for alternative political solutions to the problems they face" - an alternative that the RCG would supply.

All that could stop the working class behaving as "objective events" demanded were reformists who tricked the masses into the false belief that their grievances could be remedied without a pure revolution. Thus, as early as 1978, Furedi, who then called himself Frank Richards (like Trotsky, he had a nom de guerre), was denouncing the Anti-Nazi League's campaign against the National Front as "reformist" and, bizarrely, "nationalist". In the 1980s, the RCP (which split from the RCG) picketed demonstrations by nurses and cleaners marching for better pay. Any left-wing cause was, by definition, a reformist betrayal which postponed the glorious day.

Although it did not seem so at the time, the party's loathing of all fights for justice that did not produce revolution under its leadership was a perfect training for modern punditry. The media need strident voices that can hold the audience's attention. Politicians can't provide them when there are so few differences between the mainstream parties, but practised sloganisers, who need never stand for election, can. Broadcasters are obliged by law and inclination to be balanced. If the world is condemning the Hutu massacres in Rwanda, then it is useful to have someone who will say the killings weren't so bad, as RCP supporters did. Contentious revelations based on hard investigation create all kinds of difficulties - how can a producer of a live Radio 5 programme or Question Time check a claim that a company has received a contract because of payments to politicians, to make sure that it is both true and libel-proof? Wisely, the RCP prefers assertion to fact. Complexity is as hard for broadcasters to handle. The drama of a debate disappears if everyone has to shut up and think.

The RCP understands the need for shallowness. In all the articles I have read defending "science", none tries to describe, say, the fascinating but inevitably demanding debate about the revolution in gene technology. The failure would be reprehensible in serious writers but is a virtue in a pundit. For all the talk of promoting new ideas, what the RCP does is decant the old soundbites of the right into new bottles.

Meanwhile, the contrarian appeal of the RCP to media managers should be obvious. It is dull and predictable when Jack Straw condemns anti-capitalist protesters. What else would you expect? Far better to have Claire Fox announce, as she recently did on The Moral Maze, that she was a "Marxist" who had no time for anti-capitalists "because what they reject about capitalism is the one good thing about capitalism - the association with economic growth, dynamism and development".

The best way to understand the RCP is to look at the career of H M Hyndman, the leader of the Social Democratic Federation, Britain's first Marxist party. Like the RCP, he had no time for reformist struggles for higher wages and union rights. Capitalism was bound to collapse, and when it did, his pure party would be ready to guide the workers to power. The years went by. The masses showed no interest in Hyndman. By 1900, he had had enough. "I don't mind saying," he bellowed, "that I am thoroughly disgusted with workers here in general and with our party in particular. Neither deserves to have men of our ability from the educated classes to serve them."

The working class has let down the RCP militants grievously. Who can now blame them if they turn to the infotainment moguls for compensation for the years they spent waiting for an audience?

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article appears in the 12 August 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The Wrong War