A radical life
Frank Furedi talks to Tom Slater about Stalinist Hungary, Sixties radicalism, revolutionary communism and Brexit.
Sociologist and social commentator
‘Everything seemed to come alive and everything seemed possible. It was a very defining experience in the sense that it made me feel that there is always an alternative.’ So says Frank Furedi, prolific author, commentator, academic, frequent contributor to these pages, and lifelong radical. He’s talking about the Hungarian Revolution, the populist uprising against Communist rule in 1956, which he, at the tender age of nine, found himself in the middle of. ‘My sister, I think she was around 19 or 20, felt really thwarted’, he tells me. ‘She finished school with very good grades, but they wouldn’t let her go to university because my parents were anti-Communists. And so she got involved with a bunch of university students who were publishing an underground newspaper in the months leading up to the revolution… We lived about 100 metres from the radio station where the shooting began.’
The revolution, initially led by students like Furedi’s sister, quickly inspired ordinary people across the country. It toppled the Moscow-backed Hungarian People’s Republic on the 23 October 1956, until it was crushed by the Soviets a few weeks later. But Furedi’s enduring memory is not of the defeat, but of what the revolution represented: the potential of ordinary people to strike out for freedom and change the course of history. ‘The thing that I remember about that moment was the sheer optimism, the sense of power expressed by people who were normally extremely passive and fatalistic’, he says. ‘These are people who in a different month or different year just would have been sitting at home, and it would have been unthinkable for them to think of themselves as political actors.’ Going to meetings with his sister and father, who was on the workers’ council in the fifth district in Budapest, those two Earth-moving weeks gave him a crash course in politics like no other.
That nine-year-old would go on to become a student radical in Canada, a Trotskyist in London, where he founded the Revolutionary Communist Party, and a renowned sociologist at the University of Kent, writing dozens of books which, though broad in their subject matter, share an aversion to lazy thinking and authoritarianism. Born to Jewish anti-Communist parents, who had survived the Holocaust, he developed a deep distrust of the state, and a rebellious spirit, at a young age. He recalls his dad taking him to an underground bookshop, hidden in a flat. ‘There were rows and rows of books and a paraffin heater. And I always remember the smell of the paraffin heater, because it was so overwhelmingly unpleasant in an otherwise incredibly enchanted environment… Because of the barriers that were placed in front of being able to read freely, I really learned to love reading. It was such a challenging, rebellious activity.’
What he also developed at a young age was a deep sense of injustice. ‘The first time I ever did anything remotely political was at the age of seven’, he tells me. ‘We would all go to school together, in line. There’d be one person who was in charge, a kind of teacher-spy. One day we were walking past a playground, and there was an old gypsy lady selling carpets. And suddenly all the boys started throwing stuff at her and yelling and swearing. I don’t know why, but I got really angry. I tried to protect the old lady, and I got into a fight with some of my classmates. The next day, I got expelled from school for the week. My mother was called in, and I remember the teacher giving my mother a lecture, and my mother just looking at her shoelaces, completely indifferent. After we left, she said to me “Well, now we’re going to go to the pastry shop, and because I’m so proud of you you can have as many pastries as you want”.’
After the revolution was crushed, the Furedis fled Hungary for Canada. ‘We thought my dad would be arrested because of his activity – we heard afterwards that the police came a few days after we left – and my sister wanted to go to university. So we had a big family debate about this whole business, and we decided in the end that our future lay in going somewhere else. At that time we had many choices – staying in Europe or going to the United States or Canada. We figured Canada was a good compromise between America and Europe’, he laughs. ‘For us it was about taking matters into our own hands, and as a family we had this incredible hope, even if we had this slightly unrealistic image of what the West was like… I still remember walking around Liverpool, where we stopped on the way, and being shocked as to how dour and how grey it was. It seemed like a Western version of Budapest.’
Furedi came of age in the late Sixties, going to McGill university in Montreal to study international relations. ‘It felt like everything was possible. It was an extremely relaxed, fluid atmosphere, I guess because of the relative degree of prosperity. Even as a university student, just by having a couple of jobs, I could have my own apartment. It gave you the impulse to experiment and try things out.’ And this was a formative time for his politics, too. ‘My immediate reaction going to Canada from Hungary was to be intensely anti-Communist… I had a natural desire to move in that kind of conservative direction’, he says. But at university he read, shopped around, and became a student radical. In 1968, he got involved in the Political Science Association, a group of students demanding change to what was then a very staid and conformist curriculum. ‘We organised a strike which closed the university down. It was the first time I got involved in public speaking, public debate and arguments.’
When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, following the Prague Spring, he went on his first demonstration. ‘I felt the invasion of Czechoslovakia was very similar to the invasion of Hungary. I remember going there and getting emotionally riled up. It’s at that point that I started to become really interested in radical politics.’ Nevertheless, he still rankled at labelling himself. ‘I began to think of myself as having moved to the left, but I didn’t know exactly what the left meant… I was always very strongly anti-Stalinist, and where I was a little bit different from other people was that I always had an extremely libertarian attitude towards the state. That was almost a visceral reaction to my relationship with the state when we were young back in Hungary’, he says. ‘I got into a lot of arguments with Trotskyists and student radicals and various other movements that used to be around. But until I came to England, I was extremely reluctant to find a label with which to define myself.’
He came to England almost by accident. ‘I wasn’t going to come to England at all. But because of my radical student activities I got blacklisted from all the universities in Canada that I applied to to do graduate work. And I got accepted into all the European places that I applied for’, he says. He started an MA in African politics at SOAS in London in 1969, and happened upon a left-wing scene that seems a distant memory today. ‘Unlike in many other parts of Europe, the Communist Party in Britain wasn’t the only alternative to the social-democratic movement. You had Trotskyists and anarchists and other kinds of movements. If you walked around London you would find large communities of squatters who made housing their political issue. And you had what would be called liberation movements – women’s liberation movements, gay liberation movements. This was pre-identity politics, so they were much more open-minded, much more radical… There was a new culture that was percolating through the political ghettos that existed beforehand.’
In the early Seventies, Furedi got involved in different socialist societies at SOAS and set up a community group in Islington. In 1972, he returned from Kenya, where he’d been researching his PhD on the Mau Mau uprising, to find his then girlfriend had joined the Trotskyist International Socialists (IS). ‘She was hassling me to come along’, he says. ‘They seemed at the time to be the least doctrinaire, and they seemed to have a way of talking to ordinary people. So I thought I’d get involved. But I didn’t last very long.’ He was kicked out, along with the rest of the Revolutionary Communist Group, a group within IS, six months later. The RCG didn’t last long, either. ‘Some of the people in the RCG got really interested in politics that I saw as being very similar to Stalinism, particular the ANC in South Africa.’ So he then founded the Revolutionary Communist Tendency, which became the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1981.
What might sound like a classic tale of Trotskyist infighting and fragmentation in fact underlines an enduring commitment to constant debate and self-interrogation, to new thinking, to Karl Marx’s dictum, question everything. ‘At the time, I felt that the left had become a bit of a shadow of itself that was continually reiterating ideas from the past. The left would say “what would Marx have said?”, or “what would Trotsky have said?”. It was if there was this body of political knowledge that you could apply to new circumstances. I felt that it really wasn’t the way forward’, he says. ‘The one thing that we learned, certainly I learned, very, very fast, was that if you simply act on the basis of received wisdom you’re going to get things wrong about the world… The RCP became an organisation unlike any other organisation for the very simple reason that a lot of the ideas that it put forward were not seen as left-wing by people on the left, purely because they hadn’t existed before.’
Sure enough, the RCP quickly made a reputation for itself for taking heretical positions. One of the most central was on the question of the state. ‘One of the defining features of the left was that they really were state socialists – they always saw the state as the medium through which all the positive things that they wanted could be realised. What they were arguing for was greater state expansion, more nationalisation of industry, more welfare measures of various sorts… Whereas we saw the state not as a medium of liberation but as a medium of oppression, as something that limited the possibility for more radical change.’ Then there was the question of the Labour Party. For all the radical agitation of that era, the British left routinely fell behind Labour at General Elections. ‘We argued that the Labour Party was, if anything, an even bigger problem than the Tories’, he says, in that it offered false promises and solutions.
But it was debates around freedom and democracy that brought the RCP into the most direct conflict with the rest of the left. ‘For a lot of people, freedom and democracy were means to something else, to realise some other objective. Whereas, for us, freedom and democracy were seen as things that were good in and of themselves.’ This came to a head at the end of the 1970s, with the rise of the National Front. ‘There were all these demands for No Platforming them’, he says. Later, during the miners’ strike, the RCP argued that the National Union of Mineworkers should hold a national ballot. ‘We supported the miners, many of us went and lived in Yorkshire and elsewhere, and got involved in the strike. But we were arguing that democracy in the context of a trade-union struggle was no less important than in any other domain.’ RCP members were denounced as scabs, and Furedi was once punched in the face in Nottingham for his trouble.
The RCP stuck their necks on the line physically as well as intellectually. Though implacably opposed to censoring the National Front, arguing that free debate is the cure to bigotry, the RCP organised in immigrant communities to curb far-right attacks and intimidation. ‘We set up an organisation in east London called Workers Against Racism, which organised physical defence groups. On some housing estates, Asian families were often being harassed. So we provided guards and protection, we mobilised people to demonstrate’, he says. ‘We figured that the way you fight racism is both with the argument but also you did have to stand up. We decided we weren’t going to rely on the state to protect people from racism, and that we’re going to show by our own actions that this is something that we could carry out ourselves. Unlike those who were arguing for No Platform for fascists, we were actually ridding parts of east London of fascists.’
Furedi addressing an RCP ‘Preparing for Power’ conference in London
By 1990, Furedi was moved to rethink again. Assaying what he saw as the exhaustion of Marxist politics, and a mood of resignation in society more broadly, he penned an article called ‘Midnight in the Century’, for the RCP magazine Living Marxism in December 1990. It took its name from the novel by Russian revolutionary Victor Serge, which captured the malaise of the left following the Soviet showtrials of the 1930s. ‘It became clear to me that the left had really lost its way, it began to act more and more like a pressure group’, he said. Worse still, it had become ‘almost conservative’, ditching universalism for an embrace of identity politics, and a commitment to plenty via a growing attachment to environmentalism. At the same time, the working class had become, ‘fragmented, very passive. Working-class politics did not provide a very promising avenue for any kind of positive, progressive politics.’
There was a growing feeling that radical politics was dead. ‘You had the Soviet Union being destroyed, which I thought was a really good thing. But the trouble was that if there was no alternative, people would see it as being yet another confirmation that any kind of radical politics wasn’t really on. Under those circumstances, I felt that it really was important to rethink.’ And this malaise, he goes on, spread beyond the left. ‘The 1990s were for me a very horrible decade – interesting, but horrible. That’s really when I realised that an era had come to an end, not just for left-wing politics, but even for those who care about Western civilisation. So much of Western political life, particularly among the ruling classes, was built on anti-Soviet ideals’, he says. ‘The minute that the Soviet Union disappeared the cement corroded.’ After the Berlin wall fell, the West became unsure of itself, exhausted, rather than triumphant.
The RCP disbanded by a vote in 1996. ‘Everybody more or less knew that was the score’, he says. ‘It became evident to us that if you’re going have the capacity to develop intellectually and politically in the future you did have to experiment in new kinds of ways.’ RCP members went off to form new groups, organisations and publications. One of which was spiked. And Furedi continued to blaze a trail in academia and commentary, exploring issues from child-rearing to terrorism to education to populism, all with the aim of tackling a risk-averse, fearful culture. Meanwhile, he watched as the political class grew more distant and aloof. The rise of the EU in the late 1990s and 2000s, the pooling of national elites’ power in an unaccountable, supranational body, meant, he says, that the ‘crisis of the bourgeoisie acquired an absolutely tangible form’.
This fearful, conformist mood carried into the 2000s and 2010s. Even the so-called radical movements that captured the media’s attention, from the Stop the War protests to Occupy, were, Furedi reflects, more symptoms than solutions. ‘I didn’t think they were radical. The protest movements that emerged were just that; they were protest movements. Protest movements have a certain degree of passivity, and have no transformative ambitions. Very often, a protest movement is really a demand for recognition, to be recognised – respect us, take us seriously’, he says. ‘One of the most depressing dimensions to them was their self-conscious dismissal of intellectual coherence, and their reluctance to take ideology seriously.’ They lacked what he calls an ‘intellectual radicalism’. The prospect for a break with politics seemed as bleak as ever. That is, until June last year.
‘The night of the EU referendum, I didn’t think Brexit would win’, says Furedi, a passionate supporter of Leave. ‘But I thought that whatever the outcome it would be a good result. The campaign had activated a lot of people, and it gave a hint of a possibility that there could be an alternative.’ He was ‘particularly delighted’ to wake up to a Leave result, if ‘extremely pessimistic’ about the prospect of the vote being respected. ‘I always felt that the cultural and political elites were sufficiently strong to be able to thwart it, to downsize it or to create conditions where it would be sidetracked. So I had that in my mind. But I didn’t particularly care… The shock of it to the media and political elites in itself showed that they could no longer perpetuate the status quo. To me, it really was a bit like Hungary ’56, in a kind of minor, more muted way.’
In a sense, Furedi has come full circle. Just as Brexit has been denounced as xenophobic and backward, so the Hungarian Revolution has been rewritten as either a shameful or insignificant event. He recently gave a speech in the Hungarian parliament about the revolution. ‘That was really brilliant’, he smiles. ‘Whenever I went back to Hungary in the 1970s, I wanted to talk to everyone about the revolution, but everybody was really embarrassed to talk about it’, he says. Hungarian intellectuals are increasingly convinced it achieved little, while others in eastern Europe, particularly in Russia, have taken to smearing it as a ‘right-wing, fascistic, CIA-led plot like the revolution in the Ukraine’. ‘I argued that it is very important to remember it’s very significant global impact because that’s often very rarely acknowledged.’ Though vastly different events, in their content and impact, both Hungary ’56 and Brexit ’16 inspired Furedi with the capacity of ordinary people to make history, in the face of an establishment that despises them.
Though the Brexit vote might have demonstrated the desire for an alternative, that alternative is yet to emerge. Indeed, the only so-called radical politics that’s been discussed over the past 12 months is Corbynism. ‘The main merit of Corbyn is that he attempts to articulate the sentiment that there is an alternative. But his argument for an alternative proves to be the failed alternative of the past, which is that of state socialism’, Furedi says. Going forward, he thinks we need to ‘fuse together the concepts of freedom and sovereignty, and of individual self-determination’, and to defend the nation state. ‘Our rulers have given up on the nation state’, he says, of leaders who feel more comfortable at international conferences than among their fellow citizens. ‘But it is probably the biggest context in which citizens can articulate their aspirations… It provides a commonality and a shared experience, which is actually lacking at the moment.’
Above all, Furedi says, we need to develop a new political language. ‘As long as we’re imprisoned in the old language, then we’re imprisoned in a system of meaninglessness.’ This prompts the question: what, now, does he call himself? How does he describe his politics? ‘I have that problem every morning at the breakfast table, where we argue at home about what it is that we should call ourselves’, he says. ‘At the moment I’m opting for radical democrat, though I’m open to the idea of being corrected in the future by people who are more eloquent than I am… I think being radical is very important because it means we are not resigned to the present as it is. I attach to that the significance one has to give to freedom. So, in that sense, I call myself a radical democrat. It will do for now. But what’s important today is not what you call yourself, but to give meaning to those values in the fullest possible way.’
All these years later, Furedi’s still uneasy about the labels. But his radicalism remains undimmed.
Frank Furedi’s new book, Populism and the European Culture Wars: The Conflict of Values between Hungary and the EU, will be published by Routledge on 14 August.
Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_