In 1950s and 1960s New York there flourished a political cult which claimed that it — and it alone — had the answer to all political, philosophical and economic questions. Its adherents, most famously Alan Greenspan, called themselves objectivists and maintained that their guru, the Russian émigré novelist Ayn Rand, was the living embodiment of reason. Those not agreeing with objectivism’s conclusions — support for unfettered capitalism, radical individualism and dogmatic atheism — were either evil or stupid, they maintained.
Today in London another political cult is thriving. It too claims to embody reason and shares some of the assumptions of the objectivists. This group too believes that reason is under attack from the uninitiated hordes and that human potential is being denigrated by hostile anti-rationalist ideologies. There are two striking differences — the latter-day cult’s origins are to be found on the Trotskyist Left not the individualist Right and its founder is not a best-selling novelist but a Marxist professor of sociology based at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Frank Furedi was born in postwar Hungary, leaving for Canada with his parents after the 1956 uprising. Unlike most Hungarian exiles, the young Furedi was drawn to hard-Left politics, especially after moving to the UK to pursue his graduate studies. He completed his doctorate on the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya. Furedi moved through various Trotskyist organisations until, finding that none quite fitted the bill, he founded his own — the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). This new group argued that its many rivals on the Marxist Left were too willing to collaborate with the hard Left of the Labour Party. Furedi, often using his nom-de-guerre Frank Richards, had no time for bourgeois politics even when represented by Tony Benn. Furedi thought other Marxists of the 1970s were much too soft on imperialism and insufficiently supportive of Irish republicanism. In its early days the RCP was a tiny organisation; indeed it is thought never to have had more than a couple of hundred members, with a nucleus centred on Frank Furedi. One of its leading lights was Furedi’s wife Ann, now chief executive of BPAS, formerly the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Britain’s leading provider of abortions outside the NHS. Support for abortion was always a central issue for the RCP. From 1988 the RCP published a monthly magazine, Living Marxism, which differed markedly from the stodge produced by other such groups. Not for Living Marxism endless dreary, badly produced accounts of strikes and the impoverishment of the working class; instead, it was attractively designed and ran provocative and readable pieces often attacking the cherished ideas of others on the Left, albeit by a tiny stable of writers with a wide variety of names. In 1997 it decided that Marxism was no longer the brand it was and renamed itself LM. It did not, however, eschew controversy. Living Marxism had taken a consistently pro-Serb line during the Yugoslav wars. The first cover story of the rebranded magazine downplayed the Srebrenica massacre, and claimed that ITN had fabricated its coverage. This led to the demise of the magazine: ITN sued for libel and won, despite a campaign backed by Harold Evans, Doris Lessing and Paul Theroux among others, claiming that this was an outrageous attack on free speech by a corporate behemoth against a small group of idealistic pamphleteers. Furedi and his RCP coterie moved rapidly on. The party metamorphosed into the web magazine Spiked Online and the events organisers became the Institute of Ideas. Public talk of Marxism was ditched — such matters were now only for consenting adults behind closed doors. Instead, Spiked Online championed causes unpopular with the Left: GM crops, nuclear power and fast food were now the highest expressions of human achievement; the obesity epidemic, the spread of heterosexual Aids and the rise in public drunkenness were moral panics propagandised by unthinking progressives.
Furedi and friends, notably Clare Fox, Mick Hume and Brendan O’Neill, embarked on the long march through the institutions.They have become newspaper columnists and TV and radio talking heads, gaining an audience out of all comparison to what a tiny faction of the sectarian Left could normally hope for.
Furedi himself has produced a surfeit of academic-lite sociology tracts on subjects ranging from paranoid parenting via therapy culture to the decline of tolerance. On occasion he makes valid points — unless we are extraordinarily unlucky our children will not be kidnapped by cyber-paedo-ghouls, nor killed by exploding tomatoes — but essentially they all bang on about the same thing: how we have lost faith in reason and humanity and become fearful of progress.
The Furedi-ites have found a novel twist to the old Trotskyist tactic of entryism: instead of trying to infiltrate the Labour Party, Furedi and his followers are now regular features of libertarian and pro-market conferences and think-tanks. Only as the evening drags on and after a few drinks will they tell you that the old Trotskyist faith, as reimagined by Frank, lives on.