Revolutionary communists are plotting a comeback

Inside a new party, and an old movement

May 10, 2024
Image: Revolutionary Communist Party
Image: Revolutionary Communist Party

The Brixton branch of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) are selling their newspaper outside Shoreditch station, and it isn’t going well. They’ve managed one in half an hour. There’s a huddle to discuss tactics—“eye contact, gesturing” are encouraged. But it’s not about the paper, they stress. It’s about getting people interested in the coming revolution.

The RCP is being launched over a long May weekend in the Atrium, an east London conference hall. The gaggle from Brixton are joining nearly 600 other communists from British and international outposts—including the US, Canada, Germany, Poland and others. They’ve all come for a long weekend of debates, socials and many, many lectures in Marxist theory. Most are young and wear the merchandise of their movement: “vote for Lenin” T-shirts, and badges emblazoned with Karl Marx’s face. A mohawked man with a red star shaved into his head tells me he did it for the conference. He already had the mohawk. 

The Revolutionary Communist Party is the new face of an old movement. It’s descended from Militant, the Trotskyist Labour group of the 1970s and 1980s which was a thorn in Neil Kinnock’s side. From 1992 until this year, it went by Socialist Appeal. In January, it renamed its newspaper the Communist, and announced that over the first May Bank Holiday the organisation itself would rebrand as the Revolutionary Communist Party. (It’s not linked to the 1970s RCP whose leaders, in a hard shift to the right, founded online libertarian magazine Spiked in 2001.) An elderly woman wearing red star earrings, who used to be a member of Militant, tells me she’s happy with the change: “socialist” felt a bit wimpy. She’s more hopeful now than she’s ever been, she says. 

The relaunch was prompted in part by a 2023 Fraser institute poll, which found that 29 per cent of Brits under 34 prefer communism to capitalism. (That poll—from a “bourgeois thinktank”!—is mentioned several times on the party’s website and at the conference.) The idea of socialism now carries a whiff of compromise and defeat—tainted by Jeremy Corbyn’s and Bernie Sanders’s failings and the collapse of the left-wing Syriza party in Greece. 

Communism, meanwhile, is gaining popularity. Outrage at Israel’s attacks on Gaza, and the west’s continued ties to Israel, have got people fired up against the establishment. Communist groups have been active at Palestine protests and the RCP is busy helping students on university encampments. A visitor from Austria says their branch, now at 300, has grown by 60 people in the last two months. Last year, the predecessor to the RCP had 700 members. Now they have 1,200. And those aren’t casual fans who pay a membership fee and attend the occasional rally, national secretary Ben Gliniecki tells me—join the Socialist Workers’ Party if you want that. “We don’t have passengers,” he emphasises. “You have to understand the history of revolutions, Marxist theory.” The RCP gets ridiculed by other leftist organisations for being “a bunch of academics,” he complains. “But you cannot have a revolution without people who understand what a revolution really is, and how it worked in the past.” About 4,000 people applied to join after the party put up posters ahead of the launch, he says—but they certainly won’t all make it in. You’ve got to show what you can do: go to a picket line, write for the Communist, start a campus demonstration at your university or unionise your workplace. Gliniecki dreams of 10,000 well-read, well-trained members. 

At the congress, everyone is certain that the revolution is close. “People passing through an historic moment are very often not conscious of the fact,” intones Alan Woods, a Trotskyist Welsh political theorist who opens the talks. “This congress will not be any congress—it will be an historic event.” Capitalism is facing an existential crisis, he says. Something is going deeply wrong. “Of course, they don’t understand the reason—very few people outside this organisation understand it,” he adds. But we are witnessing “the embryo of a latent revolutionary consciousness.”

Woods’s speech—which lasts well over an hour—covers what you might expect: disdain for the Tories and Labour, fury at Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, regret that the US is using Ukrainians as “cannon fodder” against Russia in its meaningless war. He castigates Corbyn for his attempts at “left reformism” that resulted in a capitulation to the right. Left reformism, Woods warns us, is merely the “realism of a man who wants to convince a man-eating tiger to stop eating human flesh.” He’s dismissive of accusations of antisemitism. “I’m convinced of this: that attack against Jeremy Corbyn was organised by the state of Israel and Mossad—the secret police—using the Jewish Board of Deputies, whatever they call these gangsters,” he says. There’s a faint murmur of what could be dissent in the crowd. 

The communists say that while they are united against oppressors everywhere, they reject “identity politics”. “I’m not interested if you’re black, white, pink, green,” Woods says. “It’s divisive, stupid and wrong.” Another speaker—a young woman—laments how at a recent pro-Palestine meeting, asking everyone’s pronouns took so long they didn’t get on to planning their direct action. The vital struggle, it is repeated, is the class struggle—and overthrowing the establishment. When Woods finishes speaking, the room erupts into a standing ovation. With fists in the air, they all break into socialist anthem “The Internationale”, and then, without notes and in the original Italian, “Bandiera Rossa” (red flag), an Italian workers’ song that was popularised during the Spanish Civil War. A Russian man says there’s more energy here than in the Soviet Union, where he grew up. “Such a shame it collapsed,” he says mournfully. “I was 26—it was jaw-dropping.” Seizing power is one thing—the real task is keeping it. 

One thing that isn’t made exactly clear is how—with hard-left politicians in the UK and the US firmly shut out of power, and an incoming centrist Labour government—control will be seized. When I meet Gliniecki at east London’s Olympic Park a few days after the conference, I ask for the roadmap. “The key thing to understand is the anger in society, right?” he says. Gliniecki, who first got involved with the party during the student protests against tuition fees in 2010, has been seeing that anger for years: over widening wealth inequality, austerity, and now Gaza. Anti-establishment sentiment is there, he says: look at Brexit, the election of Trump and more recently George Galloway’s byelection win. “It’s important for us to be in touch with that,” he says. “We don’t look at the surface, we look for what’s underneath. And that’s why we’re optimistic.”

It could begin accidentally, with a protest or a strike, he says. “Then that begins to become more general, because that little spark can ignite all of that combustible material—this anger that’s built up.” 

I ask if the revolution will be violent. “This ruling class sanctions violence,” he says. “They’re doing it right now in Palestine—they’re shipping the weapons, they’re supporting them unconditionally. They support violence when it’s in their class interests.” The communists aren’t looking for blood. “But we’re not pacifists, and we’re not idealists.” Violence may be—regrettably—inevitable. But on a sunny morning, as we sit on the grass, it feels unlikely.