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July 2, 2010 5:40 AM   Subscribe

Who are they? Jenny Turner looks inside the Institute of Ideas, one of Britain's strangest think tanks, composed largely of entryist Trotskyites turned radical libertarians.
posted by WPW (40 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting sidenote: Those of you who have read Turner's superb 2007 novel The Brainstorm will recognise a plot point. This has clearly been on Turner's mind for a while ...

Those of you who have not read The Brainstorm really should. It is a brilliant book.
posted by WPW at 5:53 AM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

(Totally read that last bit as radical librarians.)
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 6:19 AM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

They're a strange crowd. I see Spiked Online is still going, and anyone expressing an opinion they don't like is still "hysterical" or "shrill".

I think the creepiness only gets apparent with the repetition. It's a bit like when you overhear a guy chatting up a woman at a party with apparent casual good-humour; but using exactly the same lines, the same words and the same intonation that he used with a different woman half an hour earlier.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:23 AM on July 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Must confess to having downloaded Easterhouse's first album again recently - got a couple of very decent tracks on it; unlike the parent organisation they had a bit of substance to go with the form.
posted by Abiezer at 6:43 AM on July 2, 2010

Having just googled Easterhouse, I'm amazed to discover that their guitarist was that guy who was second guitar in the Smiths for a while. From Johnny Marr to Frank Furedi in one easy move - who knew?
posted by Mocata at 7:14 AM on July 2, 2010

This is a very strange article, it seems to be more about slagging people off with a creative turn of phrase than informing us of anything in particular. I fully believe Turner when she says:

Looking through old copies of Living Marxism at the British Library, I found myself getting bored, annoyed, depressed, just as I’d expected.

I find it difficult to respond to this article in any more enthusiastic manner.
posted by honest knave at 7:39 AM on July 2, 2010

I dunno, it seemed to me a pretty sensible take on this bunch of weirdos - not a fiery denunciation, but not giving them an easy ride either. The LM group is quite a strange thing when you look at it, especially in the way right wing outlets - the Times, Arts and Letters Daily etc - seem to give them a lot of space without quite understanding what they're getting. (A bit like the way John Gray's Oakeshotte-inspired conservative pessimism gets given space in toney left wing outlets - NYRB, LRB etc.) It's a bit like Fox News giving Terry Eagleton a slot on the grounds that he has it in for liberals, except that in LM's case they really do seem to agree with their incongruous hosts.
posted by Mocata at 7:48 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

It is a fascinating piece. I had no idea of the connections between the Institute Of Ideas, Living Marxism and Spiked and then it all gets more and more twisted as the article goes on.
posted by ninebelow at 7:50 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree that this is a very odd piece: when covering a group to prides itself on its esotericism, it behooves you to resist the esoteric urge.

I know people who think that the fallout from the Trnopolje photograph was a horrible disaster. I can't say I agree. Then again, I never fully penetrated the various taxonomies of marxism, so I didn't realize that the Revolutionary Communist Party was populated by "entryist Trots." It's impossible to keep track when everybody's constantly changing their name and glorying in the narcissism of small differences.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:59 AM on July 2, 2010

The real life ministry of silly walks!
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:04 AM on July 2, 2010

I never realized my beloved Arts and Letters Daily was a "right wing group"... they don't link to the patent trolling on Spike, only the rare good article.
posted by shii at 8:04 AM on July 2, 2010

Believe it or not, diversity of opinion is as beneficial for society as other types of diversity. Someone should tell Ms. Turner that she doesn't need to panic every time she runs into ideas that are different from her own.
posted by Faze at 8:20 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

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.

So I take it what people in the USA might refer to as "First Amendment fundamentalism" is considered a bit wacky in the UK?

posted by jtron at 8:25 AM on July 2, 2010

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.

Specifically, they would join an organization, pack its membership with Trots who didn't really care about the stated goals of the organization or the desires of its legitimate members, use meetings not to accomplish organizational goals but to preach Trotskyism to the members and expel anybody who wouldn't go along with their program. Once their control over the organization was cemented, they would use its budget and as many actual members as they could get to go along with them as an extension of their core organization (i.e. the one the Trots came from and actually cared about). This absolutely infuriated pretty much every other member of the organized left, who watched their relatively open organizational policies used as weapons against them.

These days you mostly see entryism as an accompaniment to vanguardism, since the same kind of narcissistic arrogance that makes entryism seem okay makes vanguardism seem perfectly reasonable. As such, most of the entryism these days is carried out by Maoists or Stalinists.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:51 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if this is clear to everyone, but the whole problem with Institute of Ideas is that they allegedly don't really mean it. They're crypto-communists, trying to accelerate the contradictions within capitalism so that the true revolution will come:

‘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.

Of course, it's equally possible that they're simply cashing in. But the staging at their events suggests otherwise.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:54 AM on July 2, 2010

Hello up there, PG.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:55 AM on July 2, 2010

That's not the implication of that bit I don't think anotherpanacea - as she points out earlier they were by and large never socialists/communists, just arch proponents of the Leninist party form - i.e. Frank's dark schemings are not likely to be of a communist nature (probably just more sinecures for himself and chums as water carriers in chief to whoever will sponsor them).
posted by Abiezer at 9:12 AM on July 2, 2010

Believe it or not, diversity of opinion is as beneficial for society as other types of diversity. Someone should tell Ms. Turner that she doesn't need to panic every time she runs into ideas that are different from her own.
posted by Faze at 8:20 AM on July 2 [+] [!]

For anyone considering actually reading the article who might be put off by Faze's comment - don't be. It's actually quite a balanced, complex and self-reflective piece.

The kind of bullish and patronizing reductiveness that Faze displays here is the sort of thing she is reacting to and criticizing.
posted by lucien_reeve at 9:21 AM on July 2, 2010

Abiezer, I'm not sure I see the difference.... :-) (Kidding!)

Seriously, though, are you suggesting that Living Marxism was always just a money-grab? I'm just not sure I can believe that, especially because of the points Turner makes about them believably losing money from the endeavor. The stuff about Kosovo and Serbia always struck me as genuine, underneath the lying, of course: they really did think the intervention was imperialist, and so they misled their readers (and I always imagined, themselves) about the circumstances on the ground. This was at a moment in US/UK politics where many former marxists were being authentically converted to neo-conservative interventionism, especially in Somalia/Rwanda, so it seemed like a credible position for some leftists to oppose their former brethren.

If I'm reading you right, you're suggesting that the anti-imperialism under the propaganda was *also* a lie, and that they were playing a deeper game of self-aggrandizement? This is hindsight, obviously, but it never had a chance of working out that way and in the UK the libel laws make it a serious risk! Plus, crypto-marxists as crypto-egoists seems like an awful lot of convolution for a goal that could be much more easily achieved using honest methods, and now they'd be in the odd position of an exoteric libertarianism that covers an esoteric Leninism that itself covers an esoteric libertarianism! Their secret and their disguise are the same!
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:33 AM on July 2, 2010

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?’,

There goes Wiley! He ate all the pies
posted by fuq at 9:40 AM on July 2, 2010

All the weird pro-Serbia stuff on the outer left (most notably the WWP) is really scary. How the fuck do you defend Milosevic and concentration camps and have anything even resembling a soul?
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 10:09 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh weird. In the US the Revolutionary Communist Party is a near-personality cult revolving around fugitive Bob Avakian. I once went on a date with a girl who invited me to a two hour lecture of his held at the Magic Johnson Theater in Crenshaw. I thought the dude was full of shit, especially since he's probably living in hiding in the south of France in some cushy resort town. But after the lecture so many people came up to me with this glazed look on their face, cooing "Doesn't it all just make so much sense?"

That was our last date.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 10:13 AM on July 2, 2010

Haha, the RCP! Just a bunch of fucking losers.

I used to like to ask them how Bob Avakian was enjoying their money.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:17 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

anotherpanacea - more like it was all always more a clever pose than anything 9stuff like the position they took on the miner's strike is telling in this regard from my pov), then when it fell apart they found the skillset morphed nicely into the UK's think tank culture of recent years.
posted by Abiezer at 10:37 AM on July 2, 2010

The kind of bullish and patronizing reductiveness that Faze displays here is the sort of thing she is reacting to and criticizing.

Maybe I missed the nut graf, but I can't find the big objective thing she opposes in the Institute of Ideas and their progenitor group. There seems to be whole range of ideas and behaviors that have gotten her goat, but I'm not sure from what point of view she is against them. Or does is she so certain that her reading audience shares her particular ideology and prejudices that she doesn't need to spell them out? The group she describes is certainly opinionated, but no more so than most mainstream political groups. And while they have this or that outlook on the Holocaust or genocide, I don't see that they're calling for Holocaust or genocide or war or any other action that would give cause for alarm. Once again, I may have missed it, but does this group have a military arm? Do they have training camps in the north of England? They're just a bunch of people with ideas that -- I think -- are not popular with some other people. Ms. Turner's long, long piece reminds me of very much of Marx and Lenin, 80 percent of whose writings and correspondence consisted of just such obsessive dissections of the ideas and writings of one or another powerless and inconsequential political group.
posted by Faze at 10:47 AM on July 2, 2010

Ms. Turner's long, long piece reminds me of very much of Marx and Lenin, 80 percent of whose writings and correspondence consisted of just such obsessive dissections of the ideas and writings of one or another powerless and inconsequential political group.

I know you were raised during the Cold War and all, but you really should, you know, read Marx and Lenin before trying to discuss the writings of Marx and Lenin. Just a suggestion.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:49 AM on July 2, 2010

That Grundrisse, it was nothing but a collection of idle tittle-tattle and old music hall jokes, I'm telling you. Great recipe for borscht on page 895, mind.
posted by Abiezer at 10:54 AM on July 2, 2010

Pope Guilty -- I speak from bitter experience of reading Marx and Lenin.
posted by Faze at 11:17 AM on July 2, 2010

it was all always more a clever pose than anything

Well, that certainly makes more sense. I definitely know folks I'd call the intellectual heirs of that posing. But it does raise the question (which is Turner's, originally) how they've managed to preserve their group cohesion and methods given how far they've strayed from the original source of their affiliation. I took that to be subtext: sellouts rarely stick together unless they haven't really sold out.

Since I've never met the people involved, I can't do anything other than wonder at the social-psychology that makes such convoluted lives possible.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:10 PM on July 2, 2010

I know Frank and you couldn't be more wrong.
posted by A189Nut at 12:31 PM on July 2, 2010

I speak from bitter experience of reading Marx and Lenin.

I haven't read much Lenin, but as a sociologist I've read quite a bit of Marx; Marx isn't just a Communist theorist, he was a social "scientist" and so maybe you should read a little more Marx, he is very interesting and unless you can address his actual theories I suggest not just dismissing him out of hand.

Unless "obsessive dissections of the ideas and writings of one or another powerless and inconsequential political group" means analyzing the way industrial capitalistic society effect factory workers and what that means for the future. Although, factory workers could hardly be called a "inconsequential political group" but their power does fluctuate.
posted by fuq at 1:26 PM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

PostIronyIsNotAMyth, Pope Guilty: the RCP you know and despise in the USA is an entirely different organization, utterly unconnected from the (vastly more successful and interesting) RCP in the UK.

I find the IoD/RCP nexus endlessly fascinating. I once asked Ken MacLeod about them over a pint of beer -- Ken is a Marxist train spotting geek -- "what are they really about?" He went silent for five whole minutes, wearing a perplexed, thoughtful frown. Finally he raised a finger: "I don't know," he admitted. Which in and of itself confirmed at once (to my mind) that there's something utterly bugfuck strange about them.

I think the simplest summary is that they're very intelligent children of the enlightenment who are certain that they know what's best. And rather than going into conventional politics they fell in love with Vanguardism and democratic centralism.
posted by cstross at 1:34 PM on July 2, 2010 [5 favorites]

Interesting piece, but I suspect it's a lot easier to understand if you've come across Claire Fox and her works, which you probably wouldn't have (lucky you!) if you don't live in the UK.

But since I do live in the UK and am a political junkie, I found it fascinating. Really filled out the reasons why I find the IoI both annoying and faintly sinister.
posted by athenian at 4:51 PM on July 2, 2010

Specifically, they would join an organization, pack its membership with Trots who didn't really care about the stated goals of the organization or the desires of its legitimate members, use meetings not to accomplish organizational goals but to preach Trotskyism to the members and expel anybody who wouldn't go along with their program.

Do you have any concrete examples of this, PG? As a Trotskyist I can tell you that this isn't how most historical attempts at entryism have gone, which are typically about going into mass organizations of the working class (socialist and labor parties) in order to win layers of it over, either short term (the French group joined the SFIO in the '30s and the Americans fused with the SP in the same period) or long term (the most famous being the orientation of Militant to the Labour Party in Britain). Maybe the Healy group in the Labour Party Young Socialists back in the '60s? Or are you talking about social movement work like the American SWP in the '60s and '70s?

As for the RCP / Living Marxism / Spiked, I don't think the Trotskyist politics were ever terrifically relevant. But I do remember stories about them having party uniforms and shite back in the day.
posted by graymouser at 6:47 PM on July 2, 2010

graymouser, I can't speak to the UK Trots; I'm simply explaining how entryism has worked in the instances I've seen of it (though I would note that the only substantial difference between my explanation and yours is that mine's less charitable). The entryism and vanguardism I'm familiar with is largely that practiced by Stalinist and Maoist groups over the last couple of decades; the RCP trying to comandeer the anti-Iraq War movement through World Can't Wait being the most egregious.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:57 PM on July 2, 2010

This is a group I've known about for a while, due to their incredibly anti-environmentalist political bent- the article mentions their "Against Nature" documentary (if "documentary" is quite the word), and they were very probably involved with another bit of anti-green propaganda called "The Great Global Warming Swindle", which got a fair amount of attention in denialist sectors. They're a nasty, nasty bunch, as far as I'm concerned- along with the anti-environmentalist stance, they also seem to have quite the affinity for genocide denial. The article discussed their denial of the existence of Serbian concentration camps and how that got them sued for libel- equally repulsive if not as widely noticed was when they thought that denying the Rwandan genocide would make for some really clever "anti-imperialist" contrarianism.

When I first found out about them, I was as baffled as anyone else by their apparent ideological transformation from Trotskyists to rightist free-market libertarians, but I've come to see it as being actually much less of a change than it might seem on the surface. Both ideologies tend to contain a heavy element of what James C. Scott calls "authoritarian high modernism". "High modernism" he defines in his book Seeing Like a State as "a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws." This, I think, is as good a description of the ideology of Furedi's group as any you could find, and I think something like Scott's definition of high modernism (which is something found on both the left and the right) has always been the essence and the core of their belief system, and it's remained unchanged from their beginnings as the Revolutionary Communist Party all the way to the Spiked Online/Institute of Ideas period now. Much about the group is explained when they're seen through that framework, I think.

To sum up, I think it's quite accurate to describe them as cstross does, as "children of the Enlightenment who are certain they know what's best"- I think of authoritarian high modernism as the dark side of the Enlightenment, and the inevitable outcome of that sort of certainty of knowledge. And Furedi's little cult, with their "humanism" that entails an active hostility towards the non-human world ("Against Nature", indeed), their "skepticism" that leads them to deny both genocides and global warming, and their ideal of "progress" that simply refuses to acknowledge anything (like global warming) that might stand in the way of the glorious future as they've conceived it, exemplifies that dark side.
posted by a louis wain cat at 9:14 PM on July 2, 2010 [5 favorites]

Just to be clear (since the website is not at all), does "radical libertarian" here mean anarchist? Or, like, the retarded American capital-L Libertarian?
posted by cthuljew at 10:45 PM on July 2, 2010

In this case it means corporatism, cthuljew: this is a far cry from Red Tory shopkeeper capitalism.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:31 AM on July 3, 2010

Re the dislike, I think this stems from a few things. One is the sort of cloak-and-dagger aspect that Turner identifies - people sitting on the same platform pretending not to know each other while spouting exactly the same slogans. Pseudonyms, front organisations, the alleged dissolution of the party (a couple of them were very active in UK politics newsgroups in the early nineties, and were even then pretending that the party no longer existed, in much the same way that Militant used to pretend it was simply a collection of people who happened to sell the same Marxist newspaper and liked to get together for meetings every now and then). Every now and then I see a statement from someone connected with Sense About Science or one of the other fronts, and you can still spot the same old phrases.

Second is the macho posturing and non-ideological contrarianism "a louis wain cat" identifies above - I never quite got them to apply this analysis to the Palestinians or the Irish (the two unshakeable shibboleths of the hard left), but the reaction to any other oppressed group was pretty much that they should grow up and stop being a bunch of crybabies. Bullying is always the victim's fault. This is I think part of the reason for supporting the Serbs - the Serbs were being Real Men and fighting for what they wanted, unlike all those others who were whining about being tortured and raped and murdered. What a bunch of wimps! Supporting Neil Hamilton on the grounds that a bent Tory (with neo-fascist tendencies but an amusing chap) was better than an honest journalist (who probably read the Guardian and ate muesli) was another low point.

And then there's the mindless Jeremy Clarkson techno-optimism and hatred of nature - I think the RCP line ("if the RCP existed", as the usenet representatives used to say in the days when the RCP was still holding rallies for members and had branches in university student unions) is probably that global warming can't be happening because progress can't be stopped, and even if it was happening that would be a good thing because a world with no polar bears is a world with room for more humans (to be exploited by the large corporations who are now bankrolling the "comrades", but let's gloss over that part).
posted by nja at 2:28 AM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

The real life ministry of silly walks!

No, no! The real life People's Front of Judea.

Ms Turner links to the works of John Sullivan, which have been entertaining me for the last couple of hours. Essentially an exhaustive list of all the organisations and sub-organisations of British Trotskyism.

Being young and in the liberal middle-class, I used to brush up against people from various Trotksyist organisations a lot in the 80s and early 90s, in particular the SWP, who had the entryist franchise for my art college (on commenting that, if the choice was between serving the bourgeoisie or producing art to support the workers' struggle that the former sounded like more fun, I was immediately dubbed the most right wing Art student that that organiser had met. Which suggested to me he should get out more). As far as I could tell, all they ever seemed to achieve was render theoretically functional organisations (such as the Labour Party or various student unions) useless. Which was probably the plan, but at the same time a complete pain in the arse.

My memory of the recruiting technique as I experienced it was that an individual would start off being chummy, then when they thought they'd gained your trust, become increasingly confrontational, perhaps openly aggressive. I remember one chap intoning "You're dangerous!" to me over and over again. Not sure what the effect was intended to be, but it usually came across as mental illness.

I'm in no doubt that they are structurally and functionally the same as organisations that we would normally call "cults" - Ms Turner alludes to it in the piece, but there doesn't seem to be that much difference between the Institute of Ideas and Landmark Education.

That said, their hearts are obviously in the right place, even if it's impossible to gauge exactly where their brains are.
posted by Grangousier at 8:47 AM on July 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

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