Far Left or Far Right?

Living Marxism’s interesting allegiances

By George Monbiot. Published in Prospect Magazine, November 1998

There’s no question that Britain’s libel laws are unfair. Intended to protect the individual, they are routinely used by large corporations to discourage their critics. Confronted with almost limitless resources, the best QCs money can buy and the prospect of ruinous costs and damages, the defendants almost always back down, whether or not they believe their cause to be just. The result is that a significant arena of public life has been, in large part, placed beyond the bounds of free speech.

A few courageous souls with little to lose and a point to prove have withstood the corporate assault, and allowed the case to proceed to court. Today the undisputed heroes of free speech are the “McLibel Two”, the unemployed people who defended themselves against McDonalds and won a famous partial victory. But they could soon be joined by another plucky crusader for human freedom, a small but tenacious magazine called Living Marxism, or LM.

In 1997, LM published an article claiming that the broadcasting company ITN had fabricated its dramatic discovery in 1992 of prisoners held by the Bosnian Serbs. “The picture that fooled the world” argued that ITN’s footage, in which emaciated Bosnian Muslim men clung to barbed wire, showed not a detention centre, as ITN maintained, but a safe haven for refugees. The Bosnian Serb soldiers at the camp were not detaining the Muslims but defending them.

ITN instituted proceedings for libel. The corporation insisted that it had no choice but to defend its journalists’ reputations. LM argued that ITN had plenty of opportunities to defend itself, without resorting to the courts. Some of the world’s leading liberals leapt to the magazine’s defence: Harold Evans, Doris Lessing, Paul Theroux, Fay Weldon and many others condemned ITN’s “deplorable attack on press freedom”. The Institute of Contemporary Arts, bulwark of progressive liberalism, enhanced LM’s heroic profile by co-hosting a three-day conference with the magazine, called “Free Speech Wars”. With the blessing of the liberal world, this puny iconoclastic David will go to war with the clanking orthodoxies of the multinational Goliath.

This, at least, is how LM would like its struggle to be seen. But there is more to this David than first meets the eye. His may be less of the great liberal cause that his supporters would like to believe. For the closer one looks at LM, the weaker its link to the oppressed appears, and the stronger its links to the oppressor. It has, in other words, less in common with the left than with the fanatical right.

The magazine was launched in 1988 as an outlet for the Revolutionary Communist Party, a bizarre controversialist sect which split from the “International Socialists” in the 1970s. Soon the RCP was collapsed into Living Marxism, which, hovering between three different parent companies, later changed its name to LM. Its mission, the editors announced, was to promote human freedom based on a “confident individualism”. There should be no limits to human action, least of all those imposed by “official and semi-official agencies … from the police and the courts to social services, counsellors and censors.”

LM would not hesitate to present uncomfortable truths to power, whatever the cost might be. In this spirit, or so it would have us believe, in February 1997 it recruited the fearless investigative journalist Thomas Deichmann to tell the real story behind the Bosnian enclosures. Only it wasn’t quite like that. Deichmann was an engineer by training, not a journalist. His writing was largely confined to an obscure German magazine called Novo, which he used repeatedly to defend the Bosnian Serb leadership against charges of murder, torture, rape and ethnic cleansing. He presented himself as a witness for the defence at the trial of the Serbian war criminal Dusko Tadic.

LM’s contributers do seem to have the most extraordinary contacts. Late last year, Channel 4 devoted its Sunday night peak slot to a three-hour series called Against Nature. By seeking to impose limits on progress, the series alleged, environmentalists are the true heirs of the Nazis.

The assistant producer of Against Nature, Eve Kaye, was one of the principal coordinators of the RCP/LM. The director, Martin Durkin, describes himself as a Marxist, denies any link with LM, but precisely follows its line in argument. The series starred Frank Furedi, previously known as Frank Richards, LM’s regular columnist and most influential thinker, and John Gillott, LM’s science correspondent, both billed as independent experts. Line by line, point by point, Against Nature followed the agenda laid down by LM: that greens are not radicals, but doom-mongering imperialists; that global warming is nothing to worry about; that “sustainable development” is a conspiracy against people; while germline gene therapy and human cloning will liberate humanity from nature. The Independent Television Commission, reviewing Against Nature in response to hundreds of complaints, handed down one of the most damning rulings it has ever made: the programme makers “distorted by selective editing” the views of the environmentalists they interviewed and “misled” them about the “content and purpose of the programmes when they agreed to take part.” Channel 4 was forced to make a humiliating prime time apology.

Channel 4 is by no means the only mouthpiece of counter-revolutionary Capital of which LM contributers seek to make good use. Joan Phillips, who is director of LM’s sister organisation, the London International Research Exchange, and helps Deichmann to explain away Serb atrocities in the pages of LM, works under the name of Joan Hoey as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Balkans analyst. Frank Furedi has recently been offering his services to the major superstores and the Food and Drink Federation, proposing to “educate” consumers towards a “less emotive” consideration of food safety. Strange Marxists these, who offer such solace to Capital.

It’s arguable, of course, that, pending the revolution, even Marxists have to engage with global capital to make a living, but this doesn’t explain the next mystery: LM’s association with overtly rightwing organisations. The March 1998 edition ran a substantial article by Ron Arnold, claiming that the Unabomber is an environmentalist, ergo all environmentalists are terrorists. Ron Arnold is Executive Vice President of the Centre for the Defense of Free Enterprise, one of the wackiest far-right campaigns in the United States, established to promote “individual rights, free markets, private property and limited government”. Simultaneously, the CFDE used Channel 4’s publicity briefing for Against Nature as the “guest editorial” on its website.

This year, the avowedly anti-imperialist LM began running articles by Roger Bate of the Institute for Economic Affairs, which advocates, among other interesting ideas, that African countries should be sold to multinational corporations in order to bring “good government” to the continent. In the Against Nature series, LM’s contributers rubbed shoulders with Larry Craig, a far right Republican senator and fundraiser for the raving “Alliance for America”; Julian Simon, who was Ronald Reagan’s favourite economist, and Michael Gough, who, like Simon, belongs to a hard-right libertarian think-tank called the Cato Institute. All maintained an identical political position, lining up to identify the liberals and lefties of the environmental movement as covert Nazi sympathisers.

As you wade through back issues of Living Marxism, you can’t help but conclude that the magazine’s title is a poor guide to its contents. LM contains little that would be recognised by other Marxists or, for that matter, by leftists of any description. On one issue after another, there’s a staggering congruence between LM’s agenda and that of the far-right Libertarian Alliance. The two organisations take identical positions, for example, on gun control (it is a misconceived attack on human liberty), child pornography (legal restraint is simply a Trojan horse for the wider censorship of the Internet), alcohol (its dangers have been exaggerated by a new breed of “puritan”), the British National Party (it’s unfair to associate it with the murder of Stephen Lawrence; its activities and publications should not be restricted), the Anti-Nazi League (it is undemocratic and irrelevant), tribal people (celebrating their lives offends humanity’s potential to better itself; the Yanomami Indians are not to be envied but pitied) animal rights (they don’t have any), and global warming (it’s a good thing).

The two organizations share a strangely one-sided conception of freedom, celebrating and defending the “freedom to” of those with the power to act, while dismissing threats to the “freedom from” of those who might be affected. So, limiting the scope of racist publications insults our humanity, even though they might incite racists to beat up black people, while restricting car use is a fundamental assault on liberty, even though being hit by cars is now the commonest cause of death for children between the ages of one and fourteen. “It is those who have suffered the most,” LM tells us, “who should be listened to the least.”

Both organizations also appear to believe that the weak and vulnerable are best served by being allowed to fend for themselves, without interference from “do-gooders” and “puritans”. Left to their own devices, both adults and children are capable of resisting tobacco advertising, alcopops, paedophiles and pornographers, whatever the imbalance of power between perpetrator and victim may be. Indeed corporations, LM appears to suggest, should be free to do whatever they want, except sueing LM for libel.

But the similarities end with the ideology. While the Libertarian Alliance is a shabby, disaggregated outfit, LM is professional and well-organized. Glossy, well-written and cleverly edited, distributed largely for free, supported by its own research organization and an excellent website, the magazine seems to have no shortage of money, yet no obvious sources of major funding.

So who is this strangely armoured David? Where do his politics come from? Can LM’s editors really be such deranged Marxist fundamentalists that they are seeking to hasten the triumph of capitalism, the better to speed its downfall? Or are they trying to destroy alternative outlets for radical action, in the hope that the revolution, when it comes, will be untainted by heresy? Whatever the explanation may be, LM, with its extreme right-wing allies and extreme right-wing views dressed in left-wing clothes, is doing more to confuse and destabilise the left than any overtly right-wing organisation.

Had the magazine been named “Living Libertarianism” or “Living Reaganism”, one wonders how willing the liberal establishment would have been to leap to its defence. Oppressive as ITN’s suit might be, LM’s survival is no great liberal cause. For its new-found champions on the liberal left can be assured of just one thing: that of all political classes, LM hates them the most.