Ever heard of the Maverick Club? Ostensibly, it's all about club dinners and informal debate. Someone who had been invited to speak at a club event contacted us to tell us about his experience.The people at the dinner, he said, were mainly under 35 and reasonably well off - it was a GBP40 dinner. His invitation had come from the Club's leading light, Tony Gilland .
But to his astonishment, when the dinner took place, only the opposing speaker was given the opportunity to put her point of view. As a result, the person who contacted us tried to respond from the floor, arguing against what had been said. Tony Gilland, who was chairing the event, then aided and abetted the audience into literally howling me down. Their howls when I tried to speak were astounding. A cross between a coven and a very nasty gang of teenagers.
The only comparable experience the speaker had ever had was in a debate on violent pornography at a cult film theatre. On that occasion the audience had been dressed entirely in black leather - not one person was dressed in any other colour. They too howled at me and one man raised his arm and pointed it at me like a gun and shouted, 'Freedom is the barrel of a gun!' - and was cheered.
The members of the Maverick Club were both less extraordinary in appearance and less uniform. And, on the face of it, it might seem improbable that Tony Gilland would want to deny an invited speaker the chance to express their views. He is Science and Society Director at the Institute of Ideas (IoI) which claims to be all about opening up public debate. Its declared mission is to go beyond the 'orthodoxies' that 'narrow discussion', and the impression created is one of ardent support for free speech.
A closer look at the IoI's origins, however, and the way in which it actually conducts its debates, suggests something different. The IoI was launched in the summer of 2000 by Claire Fox, who makes regular appearances as a panelist on discussion programmes on BBC radio and TV. Shortly afterwards, Helene Guldberg, who with Fox had co-published the magazine LM, helped to launch the IoI's sister organisation, the online 'magazine' Spiked. Like the IoI, Spiked claims to be all about encouraging free speech and a more open-minded approach to ideas.
The construction of IoI events normally follows a set pattern. Well-known figures, who will help to draw in audiences, are invited to take part in events designed to promote the LM agenda. Invitations to speakers are sometimes made via third parties. The news broadcaster Jon Snow, according to a Guardian article, withdrew from an event to which he had been invited by the Royal Society of Arts after realising the IoI's involvement.
Snow felt there was a lack of transparency. I didn't have a clear idea of who they were, he said. This lack of transparency is a recurring element, as the Guardian article notes, From the platforms and the floor, the LM line is assiduously promoted by the magazine's supporters and contributors - often without clear attribution of their affiliations.
The LM line clearly has great appeal to corporate sponsors. For instance, a Genes and Society Festival, organised for the IoI by Tony Gilland in London in 2003, was held 'in association with Pfizer', the pharmaceutical giant. Also thanked for its assistance was CropLife International - a global federation led by BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta. Novartis has also been mentioned as an IoI source of funding.
Such corporate support is interesting given the IoI's origins. It operates out of LM's old offices in Smithfield in London. LM, in turn, was a reincarnation of Living Marxism, the monthly review of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Both Fox and Helene Guldberg were leading members of the RCP - an organisation categorized by a strong Party-line, extreme secrecy and a cult-like devotion to its leader, the sociologist Frank Furedi.
When during an interview for an article in The Times, Claire Fox was asked about her personal views, she is said to have talked vaguely about challenging orthodoxies and promoting the idea of the active subject. These were not, as Fox doubtless wished to suggest, articulations of a personal philosophy, but simply the slogans coined by Frank Furedi for the network to which she and IoI and the Maverick Club and a whole long list of others belong.
A former LM contributor described Claire and her sister Fiona, the director of the Science Media Centre, as happy to be under the ideological shadow of Furedi (who they completely worship as one of the greatest thinkers of all time), and are his very effective foot soldiers. Hence their key roles in IoI, Science Media Centre, etc. etc., all obviously strategic initiatives for Furedi.
The cult like character of the LM network is something that is often emphasised by former members. For example, one former member told us, Disgusting anecdote about * *. It was an open secret that she was sleeping with Furedi when she was studying under him at Kent. Her boyfriend who she lived with, was also a prominent RCP member, but never had the guts to challenge Furedi over this, despite the fact that everybody seemed to know... very sect like all this.
Another former member also emphasised the sect-like character of the organisation, This is perhaps the saddest element of the RCP's history. From the start the organisation set out to destroy each recruit's individual self esteem in classic sect-like manner, and it mostly convinced those that stayed around for more than a few months, that intelligent interpretation of the world, or even meaningful existence, was impossible outside of the Party.
She also told us, Branch Organizers like Claire Fox were heard on several occasions talking of the need to 'break' new recruits and 'beat the shit out of them', in order for them to make 'good' party cadres... Unruly or critical recruits were either never allowed to join the organization fully, or were assigned endless soul destroying tasks such as stock taking or long hours selling LM on street corners to an indifferent public. The intensely incestouous social life of the Party functioned as a espionage network and a way of undermining any non-Party connections that an individual might have.
She also poses some interesting questions, such as how key RCP members now seem to be able to stroll into jobs in sensitive positions within the British establishment, despite their former association with the Irish republican organizations etc., even turning up as official advisors on terrorism.
Like the other LM-ers who contacted us, the auther asked that we guarantee her anonymity. She also commented, One word of caution. Be careful when dealing with these people - they have absolutely no ethical principles whatsoever.
These days the claim is that the RCP is dead and buried and that its core members have moved on. But the sociologist Laurie Taylor is not alone in wondering why in that case, 'all these former Trotskyists agree in detail on what appears to be in essence a right-wing platform and how can they call themselves academics if they appear to deny independent thought? You might have expected them to travel in a variety of directions after the collapse of their revolutionary dream in the Nineties, but many peddle similar lines.' In fact, the real give away is that members of Furedi's 'network' never stray beyond their own narrow orthodoxy.
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