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The socialism of fools: anti-semitism in the Labour Party?

With a 2,000-year history, anti-semitism has made its way into all parts of society – including the left. We should do all we can to deal with it, not stigmatise those who raise concerns, write MARY DAVIS and PHIL KATZ

IS THE charge of anti-semitism in the Labour Party a fiction manufactured by a conspiratorial alliance between the Israeli government and anti-socialist forces seeking to discredit Jeremy Corbyn, thereby undermining the prospect of a left-led Labour government? 

Many writers in the Morning Star and many pro-Corbyn left activists accept this view. They argue that anti-semitism has been “weaponised” and thus vehemently deny all anti-semitic indictments as politically motivated and mendacious.

However, we have a problem. The fact is that the leadership of the Labour Party itself has acknowledged that there is an anti-semitic element within its ranks. 

This is why the Chakrabarti inquiry was established in 2016 and why several Labour members have since been disciplined and in some case expelled. It is why the party adopted, in 2018, a Code of Conduct on anti-semitism. 

It is why left-wing leaders of the party like John McDonnell have recognised that anti-semitism is “clearly” a problem. 

In March 2019, he said that while the number of anti-semites in Labour’s ranks was small, anti-semitism was a real issue and that he did not want “one anti-semite in our party… [nor] …one piece of evidence of someone being anti-semitic.”

He went on to say: “We have got to eradicate it from our party because our party has got to be in the lead with others in eradicating it from our society.”

This leaves us with a predicament. Is there a contradiction in asserting that anti-semitism has been weaponised while at the same time acknowledging, as the Labour Party itself has done, that it is clearly a problem? 

The argument offered here is that these two statements are not mutually incompatible. 

Far from acknowledging that, as the Labour leadership does, that anti-semitism might exist in its ranks, the dominant narrative is to target those who seek to expose it as part of a duplicitous, right-wing conspiracy in league with the Israeli government. 

Clearly the ruling class of this country will do all in its power to discredit and undermine the socialist project. 

Why would they choose anti-semitism as their preferred weapon? Jews in this country are not important electorally, there are only a quarter of a million of us. 

So, perhaps the strategy of the right is to sow maximum ideological confusion among the left. 

If we understand that anti-semitism is not only a practice, but also a millennia-old ideology, then perhaps we can get to the root of the seeming contradiction between the “weaponisation” of anti-semitism and its existing phenomenal form.

Anti-semitism as an ideology arose with the birth of Christianity. It thus pre-dated racist ideology, but in common with the latter, both have had ample opportunity to penetrate deeply into dominant popular discourse. 

The left is not exempt from absorbing the divisive ideologies of race hatred and Jew hatred. 

The 19th and early 20th centuries are replete with examples of anti-semitism and racism in the British labour movement. 

This is perhaps unsurprising. The last quarter of the 19th century witnessed a great expansion, formally and informally of the ideological apparatus of the state which was both prompted and facilitated by the rise in literacy. 

The significance of this expanded mass culture (via the popular press, Empire Day pageants and so on) was that it coincided with the new mass ideology of racist jingoistic imperialism. 

The empire, and its supposed benefits in the form of social imperialism, powerfully articulated the new nationalistic racism as an antidote to the emerging socialist consciousness of the 1880s which inspired the growth of New Unionism. 

This period also witnessed a wave of mass Jewish migration to Britain. Penniless Jews fleeing from anti-semitic pogroms in the Russian empire settled in London’s East End and other large cities. 

Far from receiving a welcome from the labour movement, the TUC and prominent trade unionists, like Ben Tillett, saw migrant Jewish workers as aliens, and associated them with unsanitary living conditions and “sweated labour.” 

This helped legitimise demands for controlling Jewish immigration and led to the 1905 Aliens Act which was specifically aimed to control the Jewish “eugenically polluted” influx. 

In tailoring and bakeries, Jews resorted to forming their own unions, which were only integrated into the mainstream after WWI. 

But, strangely, at the same time, Jewish migrants, despite their impoverished condition, were also seen by some on the left as anti-working-class. 

This inconsistency is explained by the utterly illogical dual representation of the Jew on the one hand, as penniless racially impure vermin, and on the other, his depiction as a blood-sucking capitalist financier. 

This trope, later employed by the nazis, was popular in Britain at least half a century before Hitler. 

In December 1891, Keir Hardie’s paper, the Labour Leader, printed: “Wherever there is trouble in Europe, wherever rumours of war circulate and men’s minds are distraught with fear of change and calamity, you may be sure that a hooked-nosed Rothschild is at his games…” 

Hardie was not a Marxist, but this classic anti-semitic sentiment gained currency even on the “Marxist” left — notably the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), led by HM Hyndman.

The SDF paper Justice regularly represented the “Jewish financier” as the archetypal “international capitalist.” 

This then justified the SDF’s pro-Boer sentiment during the Boer war 1899-1902, based, as it was, on their dislike of “Rand capitalists” who were frequently referred to as “financial Jews.” 

Eleanor Marx, proud to call herself a Jewess, was vehemently opposed to racism and anti-semitism. She broke with the SDF and with William Morris formed the Socialist League in 1885, an organisation which embraced the principle of internationalism; a principle central to Karl Marx’s class analysis.

So, does this historical background throw any light on the current crisis? 

First, it is hardly surprising that anti-semitism, over its 2,000-year history, has penetrated deeply into mainstream thinking. 

Second, labour history shows, anti-semitism, like racism, has also permeated and been an uneasy bedfellow within socialist thought. 

But does this mean that this divisive false consciousness is still prevalent within the labour movement today? 

After all, most socialists avow that they are anti-racists and that this stance precludes the possibility of anti-semitism. 

Additionally, the argument runs, that in comparison to overt displays of anti-semitism in many European countries, Britain is remarkably free of Jew-hatred. 

Yet attacks on Jews continue to rise and anti-semitism is headline news for the first time since the 1930s. 

Anti-Muslim racism is the main focus of groups on the far right. While it is true that anti-semitism in this country does not generally present itself in its most extreme physical form, its covert ideological expression still remains an issue even on the left. 

It is this ideology, (excluding for the now the contested relationship between anti-zionism and anti-semitism), that we must unpick. 

HM Hyndman claimed to be a Marxist. Like many would-be Marxists today, his understanding of capitalism was flawed. 

Today, while most socialists accept the labour theory of value, many fail to understand that as a mode of production, capitalism cannot be analysed simply in terms of the actions of rapacious individuals whose greed is also seen as the root of imperialism. 

Such a voluntarist, in contrast to a materialist, conception of capitalism can then easily lead to the interpretation of capitalism as synonymous with a coterie of very rich individual financiers, some of whom can be identified as Jews. 

Thus Jews, by sleight of hand, can be associated with capitalism, and because the left is, quite rightly, anti-capitalist, it’s easy to see how suspicion of Jews can be confused with capitalist conspiracy. 

The Labour Party’s code of conduct on anti-semitism recognised that this was a problem. It condemns “stereotypical and negative physical depictions/descriptions or character traits, such as references to wealth or avarice and — in the political arena — equating Jews with capitalists or the ruling class.” 

There are some examples of Labour members having been disciplined for breaching just this. Anyone who has been on the internet recently will have no difficulty recognising such stereotyping.

Rather than condemn those who wish to apply the code, or vilify those who have spoken out, the Labour Party should show it’s not afraid to use its own procedures swiftly and without fear or favour. 

Stalling on its own rules simply plays into the hands of those who wish to weaponise anti-semitism. Socialists can only counter this with action that shows they both understand and recognise the specific nature of anti-semitism as a religio/ethnic form of racism. 

It is obvious there are those who seek to hold back the advances in the Labour Party in recent years. Labour is an arena of struggle between progressive and reactionary ideas much as anywhere is in capitalist society, including unions. 

Those who have chosen anti-semitism as their weapon must not be allowed to deflect us from the fact that it exists and is real. 

And that hesitation in combatting it is then played out as resistance to dealing with it. 

This hesitation explains the reaction of many in the Jewish community. However, Labour’s recently launched education programme designed to counter anti-semitism (mstar.link/LabourAntisemitism) is an important step forward. 

Can anti-semitism be defeated in the labour movement? We argue it can, but it requires recognition of the issue, not stigmatising those who raise it. 

Action needs to be firm and consistent. But above all combatting anti-semitism has to be part of the battle of ideas, where wrong thinking, if not corrected, serves the interests of the rulers and not the ruled.

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