Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked Magaizne, speaks to Brian Graham for Conatus News about the origins of Spiked, Brexit, Marxism, perceptions of Russia in the West and more.
This is part 1 of a 3-part interview. An audio version of this text is available at the end of the article.
Brian Graham: I thought it might be interesting to start out with a question about the contrast between Spiked and Living Marxism – or LM as it became known. The world is a very different place from the one we inhabited in 1988, but I thought it would be interesting to ask you how you feel that the personnel have changed in terms of the politics of the personnel.
Brendan O’Neill.: That’s a very interesting question. Well, they are two different magazines, but Spiked comes from Living Marxism, and we’ve always said that we’ve always been open about that, and we’re in fact very proud of that. In terms of the personnel, the thing or the person who binds the two publications together is probably me, to be honest, because I started my journalistic career on Living Marxism towards the tail end of it, shortly before the infamous libel trial in which ITN effectively shut us down through suing us for libel. So I was involved in the magazine then. And then I went on to be one of the founding editorial staff members of Spiked, so I am the only person on Spiked‘s staff who was involved in that. So I’m the link between the two things. But regarding our personnel, we have people around us now – working and writing for us – who were born in the mid-1990s. (The very idea that someone could be born in the mid-1990s makes me feel nervous.) So, for them, LM is ancient history. LM is photographed in the history books. So personnel-wise, there’s just been the generational shift.
Politics-wise, I think there has been a shift, too, mainly in response to – as you say – the fact the world around us has changed quite a lot. And I think, the first thing is this: Would you call yourself a Marxist today? Now, I sometimes call myself a Marxist Libertarian. I think it’s an interesting phrase. I think it combines different traditional leftist ideas and an interest in liberty, which I think is incredibly important today. So I sometimes use the term Marxist Libertarian, but I recognise it doesn’t mean a great deal to people, and it confuses a lot of people. In fact, I sometimes the reason I use it is that I know it’s confusing and I want to refuse to be pigeon-holed in any of the easier categories, so I guess there’s an element of that to it. But the bigger question is: Does Marxism mean anything today? Does it survive? Is it still relevant? Is it still an ideology that is useful for guiding one’s way through the political world, and my answer to that would actually be no. So I think the great difference between Living Marxism and Spiked is that the word ‘Marxism’, either means something completely different now than it did 30 years ago, or it is a word that I just think does not play any useful role for understanding where politics is at.
B.G.: Yes. And, of course, Living Marxism was the magazine of the Revolutionary Communist Party. And so the word ‘revolution’ is also quite interesting because I would imagine you don’t feel that Spiked is the magazine of a revolutionary movement.
B.O: No, sadly not. I’m all in favour of revolutions. The comforts and the freedoms and nice lives we enjoy are in large part down to the revolutionary activities, confidence, daring and offensiveness of earlier generations. This goes right back to the English Revolution, the English Civil War of the 1640s, right through to the French Revolution and of course the American Revolution – those two revolutions that delivered the bourgeois with all its liberties to many of us. Those were great moments in human history. Without them, our lives probably wouldn’t be quite what they are today. So I’m not anti-revolution. But you’re right. Spiked is not the magazine of a revolutionary movement. There is no revolutionary movement in contemporary society.
There are flashes of revolutionary sentiment, and I would argue that Brexit was one of them. And Spiked is very much pro-Brexit and pro- what Brexit represented, which was an attempt by ordinary people to reassert their authority over public and politic life. [To call it a] revolution is ridiculous because ‘revolution’ signifies the transformation from one political system to another. It’s a huge thing, not just a revolt or a rebellion. So Brexit was not a revolution, but it was full of revolutionary arrogance, willingness to disturb and a kind of cockiness. All those elements that do often make up a revolution were there in Brexit at some level. So Spiked is very pro-Brexit, but you are right that we are not a magazine of a revolutionary movement and certainly not of a revolutionary party. There is no party around Spiked.
The Revolutionary Communist Party stopped existing in 1996, which is an awfully long time ago. So things have moved on enormously but at the same time (and I make this clear all the time when I talk about Spiked and our history and where we come from) we’re perfectly happy about the fact that we came from Living Marxism and that some of us have that experience (I think I’m the only person on the Spiked staff who was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party). It was a very interesting, dynamic and fun experience – but it is history. It’s over, and I’m actually okay with it being over.
B.G: I wanted to ask you a question about Russia today in relation to these considerations. One of the interesting things about Spiked for my money is that it gives left-wing people pause for thought when it comes to criticising Israel. But it also gives left-wing people pause for thought when it comes to criticising Russia. Is there a connection between how loath you are to criticise Russia and the fact that Spiked is the resurrected form of Living Marxism, which was the magazine of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
B.O: No. There is no link between those two things whatsoever. And the reason I can say that is because Living Marxism was the most anti-Soviet Union left-wing magazine in Britain. It devoted an inordinate amount of time, space and energy to criticising the Soviet Union and Stalinism and to absolutely picking apart its phoney claims, its authoritarianism, its misanthropy, its claim to be Marxist when in fact it was enforcing a kind of horrible state socialism onto people who largely didn’t want it. So Living Marxism was incredibly critical of the Soviet Union. I guess you could call it a Trotskyist magazine in the sense that it came from that Trotskyist tradition of almost defining yourself and your political worldview through your opposition to the Soviet Union as much as – if not more than – your opposition to Western capitalism. So LM was completely at the forefront of that.
I take slight issue with the idea that we are loath to criticise Russia, but I know what you are getting at, which is that we are sceptical of anti-Russian sentiment at the moment – which I’ll explain why.
The first thing I would say is that it has no relationship whatsoever with Living Marxism and what that magazine did because that magazine was ruthlessly critical of the Soviet Union, Stalinism and the domination of Eastern Europe by these authoritarians. It’s really about recognising that there are many people in the West who want to go back to a Cold War situation, who long to wrap themselves in the comfort blanket of the Cold War, and who would like to go back to that rather morally binary world in which there was a West that was ‘good’ and an East that was ‘bad’, and in which things were fairly black and white. And I think there are a lot of people in the West – on both the right and left – who miss that period in history when it was, in their view, actually straight-forward that you were either on this side or that side.
And so there is a constant effort to try and resurrect the Cold War and to try and create this new conflict between West and East, America and Russia, Britain and Russia, and so on. I think it’s a rather desperate attempt to create a new moral narrative that will benefit us. I think it creates tensions around the world. I think it creates international conflict and not just cold wars but also hot wars. Look at what is happening in Syria, which has now largely become a proxy conflict between the West and Russia in their various interventions and has caused horrifying devastation, or Ukraine even more explicitly, which was in large part a conflict between the European Union on one side, which wanted to push the pro-Western side in the conflict, and Russia on the other side, which annexed Crimea and wanted to push the pro-Eastern side.
What you have there is a physical, violent, bloody manifestation which killed thousands of people (and we forget this) in Europe in very, very recent memory. That was a physical, violent manifestation of this attempt to resurrect a simple international binary divide. So Spiked‘s criticism of the current anti-Russian sentiment has nothing to do with being pro-Russia and particularly nothing to do with being pro-Putin at all. It has nothing to do with anything we might have said in the past, which was if anything far more critical of Russia than we are now. It is simply because we recognise there is a desperate and possibly destructive dynamic behind the desire to turn Russia into public enemy number one.
B.G: I’m very appreciative of the way in which Spiked urges its readers to think twice about a lot of the anti-Russian conclusions which are propagated by the media. I think, however, that the strongest critique of Putin’s Russia which I’ve come across recently is tied in with the publication of a new book called The Internationalists by two American scholars, Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro. What they do in this book is analyse what has happened to the idea of conquest from the 1949 period onwards. What they document is that it’s actually disappearing. The age of conquest would seem to be over. They have a phrase – ‘sticky conquest’ – which refers to conquests which stick. And they’re struck by the fact that since 1949 sticky conquests seem to be extremely rare. One of their conclusions is that there has to be resolute pushback against Russia in relation to Crimea because of the fact that it really is an instance of something which seems to belong to a different era. What was the Spiked line on that?
B.O: Our line on that was that we’re opposed to Russia’s intervention in Crimea, but we also wanted to expand the discussion to look at the West’s role in the Ukrainian conflict. Because a lot of moral energy is being put into this creation of a new Cold War culture or the demonisation of modern Russia as the great evil, anyone who raises criticism of any aspect of it can be shut down as a Putin apologist. So it doesn’t matter how much we say ‘I’m opposed to Putin, his style of governance, authoritarianism and so on’, people will still say that you’re a Putin apologist. And we experience that in relation to the Ukraine conflict. And our argument was simply that if you look at this reasonably – and Spiked is very pro-reason – as well as chronologically, you will see that what happened is that a group of largely pro-Western Ukrainians began to protest against the fairly-elected and largely pro-Russia government. When they started protesting against it, some in the West – including elements within the European Union, Angela Merkel and John Kerry at the time – involved themselves in that pro-Western agitation in Ukraine to the extent of visiting Ukraine, speaking with the protesters or encouraging them in other forms by suggesting their campaign was legitimate, good and interesting. And some of us, including on Spiked, said this is a dangerous game because you are internationalising a tense but internal crash over who should rule Ukraine. That was our concern.
We’re not pacifists at Spiked, but we don’t like unnecessary conflict. And we were concerned that this would give rise to unnecessary conflict, and subsequently you have this push; the protests intensify, the government is eventually swept aside in essence, Russia intervenes because it is worried about what has happened close to its borders, and annexes Crimea and does all these various other things that are deeply problematic. Conflict emerges and people die. So what we are saying is that whenever international bodies or governments involve themselves in local, regional or national conflicts, it’s really important for those of us who believe in reason, progress and the importance of human life to step back and ask ‘is this going to benefit these people or make life worse for them?’ And that was 100 percent Spiked‘s motivation. We are against Western intervention. We were against the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, we opposed the bombing of Kosovo in Yugoslavia in 1999 and the intervention in Libya in 2011, not because we were pro-Milošević, pro-Putin, pro-Gaddafi or pro-Saddam. Why would we be? These are authoritarian ruthless regimes, and our whole rallying cry is ‘Freedom’. But because we think – and we think we’ve been proven right – that the internationalisation of domestic tensions always makes them worse, and I think Ukraine proves that.
Listen to the audio here: