Chris Bunting kicks off our special on academic freedom with a look at a group of rightwing ex-Reds infiltrating the media - or so the theory goes
Everyone loves a conspiracy, and the tale of Frank Furedi and his gang of "Trotskyists-turned-media-friendly Tory extremists" is one of the best. Over the past seven years, a group of journalists and researchers, working mainly for The Guardian and The Observer , the New Statesman and websites such as Disinfopedia, have uncovered a world of intrigue and subterfuge surrounding the University of Kent professor of sociology.
It seems that the apparently mild-mannered Furedi led a previous existence as Frank Richards, the ideologue of the famously weird Revolutionary Communist Party, an organisation despised even on the far Left for its oddball policies and aggressive tactics during its Eighties heyday, including trying to disrupt the miners' strike and violent assaults on members of opposing factions.
The organisation wound up in the late Nineties, but what alarmed Guardian columnist George Monbiot and other writers was evidence that members of its former leadership had since disguised themselves as respectable academic and media commentators and "taken on key roles in the formal infrastructure of public communication".
Starting with the setting-up of Living Marxism magazine in the late Eighties, followed by its successor LM (closed due to a libel action by ITN against its reporting of the Bosnian conflict) and finally with the online magazine Spiked and its sister thinktank the Institute of Ideas, the former RCP had wormed its way into polite debate, the theory went.
Its politics, according to Monbiot, had undergone an extraordinary transformation from "the most distant fringes of the Left to the extremities of the pro-corporate libertarian Right". Its members championed genetically modified foods, global warming and freedom for multinationals.
There was also worrying evidence that it had retained its fondness for conspiratorial politics.
Monbiot and other RCP watchers traced a "cultish" network of Furedi acolytes occupying influential positions in the establishment. Phil Mullan, a former RCP activist, was, said Monbiot, the director of publishing house Global Futures, which shared a telephone number with the respectable Association for Sense about Science. Both the director and assistant director of SAS, Tracey Brown and Ellen Raphael, had studied under Furedi at Kent and had worked at the same PR firm, where they represented some big corporations. Brown had written for LM and published a booklet with the Institute of Ideas.
The list went on. Organisations blacklisted by Monbiot as having employed LM-Spiked contributors in senior positions included the Science Media Centre, the Genetic Interest Group and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, run by Furedi's partner, Ann. More worrying, RCP members seemed to have had astonishing success in the mainstream media: Mick Hume had a column in The Times , Claire Fox was a regular on Radio 4's The Moral Maze , and, since Monbiot's article, Furedi has become a columnist for The Times Higher .
Was this all a coincidence or was there some design to it, Monbiot asked. Despite writing about Furedi's "sect" over seven years, Monbiot has never given Furedi a chance to respond to his accusations. This has led to what Furedi claims are a number of inaccuracies and the impression of a scheming group of individuals devoted to concealing their Trotskyist history while infiltrating polite society. It is disconcerting, then, to find Furedi talking energetically about his RCP past barely five minutes into an interview with him at his home in Faversham, Kent. It is difficult to get him off the subject. Claire Fox, head of the Institute of Ideas, says, when organising an interview: "First, we'll go through the whole RCP thing, my supposedly sordid past, but hopefully we'll get on to what I'm doing now."
Furedi says he has been dogged by last year's Monbiot article in particular: "Copies of this article have been sent to my vice-chancellor.
Letters are sent questioning why they are employing such a person. Last summer I was doing a lecture tour in the US. All of a sudden people in Phoenix, Arizona, were coming up to me with copies of Monbiot's article asking me what I was up to.
"It is so fascistic. It is McCarthyism: writing to people trying to get you fired from your job because of some plot you are supposed to be involved in. It is completely fair to call me a schmuck, but these people are not debating. They are saying I should not be listened to because I am a conspirator... That kind of conspiracy theory, historically, used to be an argument of the Right. It was characteristic of the Right to talk about masonic conspiracy, about Jewish plots, but now we are seeing parts of the Left being obsessed with this kind of stuff," Furedi says.
The standards of proof used by some former RCP watchers to establish a conspiracy appear to be low. Fox argues that almost any organisation could be convicted on a similar charge. "What they are saying is that if you have had any connection with the RCP and you have since got on with your life, then whoever you work for now is a front organisation for the RCP, which doesn't even exist. Certainly, there is a network of like-minded people.
Some people do come from an RCP background, because we have a long intellectual history together, and we do work together sometimes, but it is just wrong to imagine that there is some revolutionary cell."
So why, asks Laurie Taylor, Times Higher columnist and visiting professor of politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, London, do all these former Trotskyists agree in detail on what appears to be in essence a right-wing platform and how can they call themselves academics if they appear to deny independent thought? You might have expected them to travel in a variety of directions after the collapse of their revolutionary dream in the Nineties, but many peddle similar lines.
This is often characterised by the group as "a defence of enlightenment values". In practice, it means intolerance of what it sees as a lack of faith in science and has led to strident campaigns in favour of GM experimentation and human cloning. A second libertarian theme confirms the impression of a radical right-wing agenda, justifying defence of fox hunting and attacks on gun control. How could a group of Trots travel such a distance ideologically without some organisation?
For the answer, says David Webb, a former RCP supporter who has grown estranged from its politics, we must understand the nature of party in its heyday. "The RCP always discussed everything into the ground. If you wanted to become a supporter, you were expected to study certain books - they were your 'Part One'. There were seminars with only three or four people and you had to read the books. The questions asked in the seminar were such that if you hadn't read them you would be at sea.
"Outsiders often talk about it being cultish, but it wasn't cultish at all.
You were allowed to disagree with what the line was. They were just so confident in their theoretical knowledge that they were confident that they could convince you," he says.
Many of the positions taken by the RCP in the Eighties and Nineties, Webb says, are consistent with the positions now taken by Furedi and his friends. He says the party was "against political correctness from the start" and there was always a strong belief in the progressive power of science. The Institute of Ideas' interest in inviting influential people from across the political spectrum to its debates, seen by some as an attempt to infiltrate the establishment, is interpreted by Webb as a continuation of the RCP's often derided commitment to free public debate and expression. Monbiot, for example, accuses the RCP of trying to undermine the miners' strike on the basis of the party's insistence that the miners be balloted.
Furedi certainly doesn't play the role of Marxist conspirator any more.
Asked if he still considers himself a revolutionary, he sighs, saying that before he felt he knew where society was going, but now he is not so sure.
"I pick up the stimulus for some of my best ideas from all kinds of schools of thought at the moment. I often regret that there were certain books I didn't read earlier because I was narrow - Hannah Arendt, Christopher Lasch, Kant. I am struggling in the dark, but I do know we need debate."