When Claire Fox (media commentator and former member of the Revolutionary Community Party, and former MEP for the Brexit Party) was campaigning in favour of Brexit, she spent numerous occasions citing historical working-class campaigns and Left ‘leaders’, including Tony Benn, as justification for her stance on Brexit. This week she did not invoke any of them as she went in the opposite direction to Tony Benn, (who renounced his peerage to become a commoner), as she swore her oath of allegiance to the Crown and became Baroness Fox of Buckley.
Her appointment has divided opinion. One of the themes in the discussion, ever since her appointment was announced, is whether or not it is hypocritical for a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), who has had a long-standing ‘Abolish the House of Lords’ position, to accept a peerage. As someone who used to be a member of the RCP, who knows Claire and who used to take part in some of the RCP’s successor activities (writing for Spiked, speaking at Institute of Ideas events, acting as a judge for the Debating Matters competitions), I am not a disinterested observer of these discussions. My focus in this post, however, is not primarily on Claire’s decision itself. What interests me is the insights that the response to this decision provide into the former RCP’s political trajectory, since we voted the organisation out of existence, in the 1990s.
Baroness Fox and the post-RCP posse
Claire’s decision could be a personal matter, a one-off, idiosyncratic, uncharacteristic decision or, in some other way, unrepresentative of any broader post-RCP trend. The response to her decision, however, cannot be understood through any of those categories. The response, (both by: 1) people who were involved in the RCP and have been aligned with one or more of its successor institutions, and by; 2) people who have become involved with RCP successor institutions), displays some commonly shared features. These shared features suggest a worldview, or shared understanding, that is held by a body of people.
The worldview shared by RCP successor institutions, and their supporters, is in many respects unrecognisable from the one shared by members of the RCP, when the RCP was still in existence. This worldview, however, did not appear from nowhere, it has emerged and developed out of the RCP. It is a post-RCP worldview, in the double sense that it comes after the folding of the RCP as an organisation (the post part), but also takes forward many ideas and assumptions from the RCP (the RCP part). So, although the RCP no longer exists as a Party, the post-RCP posse exist as the crew and fellow travellers of a flotilla of organisations bobbing around in the choppy waters of the present. The post-RCP posse are guided by a shared philosophical compass, that helps them to steer a course together, in the unchartered waters of the future.
The idea that there is a post-RCP posse is not a conspiracy theory. It is an idea that some members of the post-RCP posse openly express. As Dolan Cummings put it, back in 2007:
I never left the RCP: the organisation folded in the mid-Nineties, but few of us actually ‘recanted’ our ideas. Instead we resolved to support one another more informally as we pursued our political tradition as individuals, or launched new projects with more general aims that have also engaged people from different traditions, or none. These include spiked and the Institute of Ideas, where I now work.
Amongst the post-RCP posse, there have been two opposed responses to Claire’s decision, (to accept invitation from Boris Johnson’s Conservative government), to become Baroness Fox. The two camps are those who support the decision, (which, if my FB feeds are anything to go by, appears to be the majority response), and those who condemn it. The former set of people view the appointment as another step forward in the post-RCP political project. The latter view it as a betrayal of democratic principle.
Congratulations mu’ Lady: Support for the Right Honourable Baroness Fox
Amongst the supporters of Claire’s decision, much of the comment is apolitical (e.g. ‘congratulations’ or ‘well done’ or ‘I trust Claire’). Some, however, have attempted to defend the decision on political grounds. The two main justifications that I have seen put forward are that Claire: a) is a ‘rabble-rouser’ who will ‘shake things up’ and/or be a ‘thorn in the side of the Establishment’, and; b) has a track record of involvement in institutions that she disagrees with (the European Parliament), and which she has worked to undermine, or to remove the UK from. The first of these justifications seems very politically naïve, the second an obfuscation.
The first is politically naïve because it fails to ask why ‘the Establishment’, in the form of the Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, appointed Claire? In as far as anyone has stopped to ask the question, the answer that they have come up with appears to be that Boris and his allies must want to have strong Brexiteers in the House of Lords. If that was the reasoning for her appointment, however, it means that Claire’s appointment was made in order to bolster this (Brexiteer) section of ‘the Establishment’. If Brexit was not the reason, and it was in order to ‘shake things up’, then Claire’s appointment can be read as aligning with Dominic Cummings’s agenda of ‘shaking things up’ at Westminster. Either way, Claire’s appointment has been made because she is considered useful to the agenda of Boris Johnson’s government. Either way, her acceptance of the appointment means that she is fulfilling an agenda of part of ‘the Establishment’.
The ‘track record’ argument, involves obfuscation. The ‘track record’ argument is one that was advanced by Claire herself, on her Twitter feed.
For those reminding me that I’ve always argued to abolish the Lords: well spotted. I stand by that. But as with @TheGreenParty peers, I’ll argue that in #HoL while it exists. I have some recent experience as an MEP of participating in an undemocratic body, which I disagree with
[Note the side-stepping of the issue, by citing someone else’s actions – the Green Party – as justification for her own].
The ‘track record’ argument takes two shared features of both contexts – membership of a parliamentary body and Claire’s critical outspokenness – and treats these as the crucial features. It does so by highlighting these and downplaying, or totally ignoring, one crucial dissimilar feature. Claire Fox was elected to the European Parliament (EP), while she was appointed to the House of Lords. There are three relevant aspects of this difference.
- Firstly, Claire was ‘appointed’ to the EP by the people who voted for her. Her position there had democratic legitimacy. Her appointment to the House of Lords enjoys no democratic legitimacy.
- Secondly, she stood for election to the EP, and she had to make a public case for why she should be elected. So, it was clear the grounds on which she was being elected. It was, in this regard at least, a transparent process. Her appointment to the House of Lords, (by who, exactly (Boris, Cummings, the Cabinet)? By what process? And why?), was opaque.
- Thirdly, in setting out her stall, through standing for election to the EP, she was providing criteria against which her electors could judge her actions in the EP. In her role as an MEP it was clear who she was formally accountable to, and the criteria she could legitimately be held accountable against. In taking a seat in the House of Lords, who, if anyone, is she accountable to? Even if Boris Johnson comes to regret appointing her, he can’t remove her. Some of the post-RCP posse might greet this prospect with glee. Imagine the delicious feeling of schaudenfreude! Claire Fox bites the hand that feeds! What they would be implicitly endorsing, however, is the anti-democratic fact that an appointment to the House of Lords is for life, it is not subject to any kind of recall.
The attempts to provide any kind of emancipatory political justification for Claire’s elevation to the House of Lords just don’t stand up to scrutiny. Those who try to provide such a justification evade the uncomfortable truth that there is no route to human emancipation via the House of Lords. The only people who would buy such an obviously weak argument, are those who want to believe it. Accepting the argument involves wishful thinking, not critical thinking.
Oh my Lord, it’s a betrayal
Many have criticised Claire’s decision, on the grounds of the inconsistency between, on the one-hand, Claire’s forceful arguments in favour of democracy and against anti-democratic trends in society and, on the other hand, her acceptance of a seat in a chamber, the House of Lords, that is a prime symbol of the undemocratic nature of UK government. Many of those who have pointed to this contradiction have never been part of the post-RCP posse. Some left sectarians have gleefully received the news of Claire’s appointment, as further evidence of what they already knew; that the post-RCP posse, like the RCP, were always right-wingers posing as left-wingers.
Some of Claire’s critics, however, can still be considered part of the post-RCP posse. They can be understood this way because they still share in the post-RCP worldview. Amongst these critics Claire’s decision is either viewed as a tactical mistake, (the gains of having a high-profile platform are outweighed by the costs of legitimising an undemocratic political institution), or as a betrayal (Claire has ‘sold out’).
The observation, that the claim to be a resolute fighter for democracy, is inconsistent with, the acceptance of an invitation to take a seat in an undemocratic institution, is a logical one. Viewing Claire’s decision as a tactical mistake, or as a betrayal, however, allows Claire’s post-RCP posse critics to maintain their post-RCP posse worldview. This is because they view Claire’s decision as inconsistent with their own post-RCP posse worldview. Claire’s decision has shaken them, but by interpreting the decision as a deviation, their worldview remains unshaken. They never stop to ask, ‘what is it about the political trajectory of the post-RCP posse that has allowed this to happen?’. They feel betrayal because they view the decision as something that is outside of the philosophy that they adhere to, not something that arose from within it.
Leading the demos
Those who support Claire’s decision, and those who view it as a betrayal, represent two poles of a contradiction within the RCP’s, and the post-RCP posse’s, conception of democracy. This contradiction can be thought of as the difference between democracy as rule by the people and rule for the people. Another way of expressing this is the contradiction between the self-determination of the people and leadership of the people.
This contradiction was present in the thinking and activity of the RCP. On the one hand, there was the commitment to working class revolution, in which workers would overthrow the capitalist class and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. On the other hand, there was our self-conception as Leninists aiming to create a vanguard party that would act as leadership of the working-class. The contradiction is present in the post-RCP posse. On the one hand, the post-RCP posse oppose the EU, the House of Lords, NGOs, Quangos and other such bodies, that make consequential decisions for everyday people, but are unaccountable to those people. On the other hand, they support some or all of Spiked, the Academy of Ideas, the Brexit Party, Baroness Fox, and other unaccountable organisations and individuals, who act as self-appointed aspiring leaders of ‘the people’.
Claire’s acceptance of a peerage was not a betrayal. She has not been unfaithful or disloyal to the principles that she has been espousing. The decision is not a sudden break. It fits with a longer trajectory. The ‘betrayal’ began much further back in time, and all of the RCP (myself included) were complicit in it. Claire’s decision is consistent with the philosophy of the RCP, not as the RCP existed in the conditions of the 1980s or 1990s (when it would have been inconceivable), but in the way that this philosophy has unfolded, via the post-RCP leadership, in the changed conditions since then.
Transformation into opposite
The continuity between Claire the revolutionary communist activist and Claire as Baroness Fox, is not, as left sectarians imagine it to be, a continuous story of right-wingers in red camouflage. It is akin to, on a much, much smaller scale, the continuity between the Bolsheviks, who led the October Revolution in Russia with the slogans ‘Bread, land and peace’ and ‘All power to the Soviets’ (i.e. workers’ councils), and the Bolsheviks who presided over the Stalinist domination of the people of the USSR. Or, again on a much, much smaller scale, the continuity between the German Social Democrats, who built the largest mass workers’ party the world had ever seen, and the German Social Democrats who voted for, on abstained on, the vote for war credits, that enabled World War One, the largest mass slaughter of workers that the world had ever seen. In other words, the post-RCP posse represent the transformation of the RCP into its opposite, but that transformation was immanent in the RCP itself. This problem, the transformation of an organisation dedicated to human emancipation into its opposite, is, as history shows us, a recurring problem for the emancipatory left.
The idea, that the RCP were always right-wingers is a comforting one for left sectarians, because it relieves them of the burden of having to think about how a revolutionary could become a member of the House of Lords. The underlying problem, of the transformation of an emancipatory organisation and its emancipatory philosophy into its opposite, a counter-emancipatory one, is a real problem for the whole of the left. Everyone who considers themselves to be part of the struggle for human emancipation should always be alert to this problem. Denying the problem, or assuming that it only affects others, is a form of intellectual blindness. The problem is a serious one, that requires serious thought.
I don’t have the answer to the problem, of how we guard against the transformation of the struggle for emancipation into its opposite. I do think, however, that it is a problem that should not be brushed aside. It requires serious thought. It is an issue that I intend to give some serious thought to, thoughts that I aim to share in future posts.
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