Contrarian Right

The Story of Spiked

Spiked is the home of professional contrarians who live to cause outrage at liberal middle-class dinner parties. The magazine’s name is a reference to ‘spike’ in journalese.

Spiked 2023: Nostalgic conservatives.

To spike an article is to withdraw the copy from publication for editorial, commercial or even political reasons.

Apparently, the use of the word comes from some Fleet Street editors impaling articles on spikes on their desks to discard the content. So it’s a convenient play on words and history that gives a clear sense of the publication’s sense of self.

Spiked is a magazine that believes in its own special place in UK media. It publishes the alleged unpublishable, and its writers say the accordingly unsayable.

This presupposes a kind of blanket of ‘soft’ censorship backed up by much worse forms of repression.

Somehow this scepticism of authoritarianism has allowed Spiked to swerve violently all over the political boulevard (or at least to its right lane), decrying everything from climate activism to humanitarian intervention.

You might think Spiked is just another right-wing windbag organisation, but the full picture is complex.

You can’t understand how this magazine came to be unless you have some grasp of where the people behind Spiked came from. And so, here we are.

This is the story of how a small group of heterodox Trotskyists became radical libertarians and how their contrarianism became a marketing vehicle for a different kind of conservatism.

Journey to the Right

Spiked was founded in 2001 after the demise of its precursor LM. Its predecessor had lost an expensive, two-year libel case with ITN over the latter’s coverage of the Trnopolje camp during the Bosnian war.

After the case ended, then-editor Mick Hume pledged a defiant return. He would soon be editing Spiked and most of the same writers would join the new project. It was one of the first online magazines in the UK.

LM was the flagship publication of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Its initialism refers to its original title Living Marxism, founded in 1988 to run alongside the party newspaper The Next Step.

Although the RCP would later become the loose network behind Spiked, the party was not so different from most of the other Trotskyist groups of the day.

The Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG) was formed in 1974 after breaking away from the SWP, but it would face its own split in 1976: the Revolutionary Communist Tendency was formed by 1978. It would rebrand as the RCP in 1981.

SWP mandarin Alex Callinicos described the pre-RCG faction as “paleo-Marxists” because David Yaffe and Furedi were more concerned with fidelity to the letter of Marxist classics rather than practical action.

He claims that the faction pivoted to orthodox Trotskyist positions – in contrast with the Luxemburgist and Trotskyist mixture that the IS represented. They were critical of the industrial struggles of the 1970s.

As Lawrence Parker notes, the RCP was more representative of British Trotskyist sects than many of its rivals want to admit. The party’s organisation, tactics and internal culture said more about Trotskyism than some people want to believe.

The RCP had a top-down, centralised structure with an intellectual guru (sociologist Frank Furedi) surrounded by a small coterie of central committee members. The central committee spoke with one voice and no internal factions were publicly recognised.

Much like other Trotskyist sects, the RCP targeted students and worked hard to build 45 university branches. The party also ran front organisations (as all of its rivals did and continue to do) such as Workers Against Racism.

It’s a truism that most Trotskyist groups are structurally alike, but each group needs a unique selling point and often this comes down to positions defined in response to rivals. The need to stand out from the crowd of crowds is important.

In the case of the RCP, the party responded to the NUM Miners’ Strike in 1984 by campaigning for the union to hold a ballot on the strike. Furedi was reportedly punched by a miner for making this case.

Likewise, the RCP was antifascist and antiracist but opposed the no-platforming tactic on the grounds that a political struggle was necessary. This was the beginning of the turn towards free speech absolutism.

Though RCP students disrupted a 1985 speech by pro-life speaker Victoria Gillick at the University of Manchester, the party was actively calling for debate with anti-abortionists just two years later.

On apartheid, like every other left-wing organisation, the RCP was opposed, except it saw sanctions on South Africa as the incorrect tactic. Instead, the party argued for workers to take direct action to stop South African imports.

When it came to Northern Ireland, the RCP pledged unconditional support for a united Ireland and backed IRA campaigns. However, this would leave the RCP in an awkward spot once Sinn Fein was engaged in a peace process with Westminster.

In the late 1980s, the RCP would publish pamphlets questioning medical advice on HIV/AIDS – particularly the projection that the epidemic could spread rapidly among heterosexuals.

Government warnings about the threat of HIV/AIDS and calls for safe sex were framed as a moral panic by the RCP. It wasn’t about sexual health but a moralistic campaign against sex itself.

During this time, the RCP was arguing in favour of using the contraceptive pill – and not condoms exclusively – because they claimed that the HIV/AIDS threat to heterosexuals was exaggerated.

This was widely received as supporting the ‘gay plague’ narrative.

Throughout the 1980s, the RCP built a reputation for taking shocking and ultra-leftist positions and undermining rival campaign groups at every turn.

None of this is particularly unusual in the schismatic world of the revolutionary left. What is unusual is what followed.

A Different Conservatism

Living Marxism was rebranded LM in 1992. Editor Mick Hume was busily perfecting what would become the Spiked style guide. It pitched itself as a stylish magazine of radical ideas with contrarian credentials.

It was pro-science and pro-progress, which meant it supported GM foods and opposed most green initiatives. LM ran articles promoting nuclear energy and genetic engineering.

The magazine caused outrage with its counter-coverage of the Yugoslav wars opposing Western intervention and promoting scepticism over claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

This kind of editorial positioning would eventually be its downfall.

It was all part of a pattern. LM similarly published articles sceptical of the Rwandan genocide – or at least sceptical that the huge massacres should be regarded as such.

“We must reject the term ‘genocide in Rwanda,” wrote Fiona Fox. “It has been used inside and outside Rwanda to criminalise the majority of ordinary Rwandan people, to justify outside interference in the country’s affairs, and to lend legitimacy to a minority military government imposed on Rwanda by Western powers.”

Around this time, LM was also running articles exploring the possibility that HIV does not cause AIDS.

One of its contributors, Stuart Derbyshire, interviewed notorious denialist Peter Duesberg, who argued the use of poppers was a possible explanation for AIDS.

At the same time, Mick Hume was writing editorials concerned about the growing fears of child abuse in British society singling out the Satanic ritual abuse allegations. He conflated the claims with the increasing scrutiny of caregivers and parents.

Spiked would return to this topic again following the Jimmy Savile scandal and Operation Yewtree. Once again, its editors were concerned about a ‘moral panic’ about paedophilia.

At its peak, LM had a circulation of 10,000 to 15,000 readers. However, this small readership was not unusual for a magazine at the time, and it was possible to have a serious ripple effect with outrageous claims.

LM counted such great minds as JG Ballard as subscribers. The strange mix of scientistic humanism and impassioned libertarianism was compelling for a certain kind of audience.

The RCP finally dissolved itself by vote in 1996. It seemed like international socialism was a dead cause. Frank Furedi had been preparing the groundwork for this as early as 1990 with his article Midnight in the Century.

During its worst phase, LM provoked outrage at every turn, but it wasn’t difficult to do so given the rise of liberal centrism to dominance in UK media and eventually UK politics in the form of Blairism.

The old RCP members behind LM felt like outsiders because they did come from a genuine outsider tradition. Dissolving the party would drop the pretence of a radical ideological agenda.

Nevertheless, LM found unexpected sympathy from some prominent liberals like Harold Evans and Fay Weldon, who were concerned about what the case could mean for a free press.

Skip forward to 2023: Spiked is very much a culture war platform, calling on its readers to cancel cancel culture, warning us of the perils of wokeness and trans ideology.

If that sounds familiar, it is. Spiked’s politics aren’t original anymore, as they could be cut and pasted from any number of right-wing UK tabloids.

Perhaps that’s because the publication’s journey to the right is complete. Unlike younger LM-style media like The Grayzone, Spiked has no halo anymore.

It doesn’t, for example, attack Britain’s support for Ukraine but defend Jeremy Corbyn for being strong on Palestine.

The only shocking thing Spiked does today is reveal the lack of consensus within the British right. That can be upsetting, but it stops at that. It’s just defensive.

That’s the limit of contrarianism

Screenshot courtesy of Spiked. All rights reserved.