Antisemitism and Our Duties as Anti-Imperialists

Antisemitism exists within the left, including among supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. There must be no place for it, it must be condemned without equivocation.

Antisemitism exists within the left, including among supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. Antisemitism is rooted in some of the wider, limiting and reactionary aspects of the beliefs and culture of Corbynism. There must be no place for it, it must be condemned without equivocation. Whilst this is, sadly, necessary to say, it is also relatively easy. We also need to bring some analytical clarity and to find a way out and, crucially, find an absolute break with antisemitism that does not abandon our duty to the people of Palestine.

One regrettable aspect of discussions around antisemitism has been the notion that the fight against antisemitism and solidarity with Palestine are in conflict. On the one hand this has long been a typical argument of those who would identify any solidarity with Palestine with antisemitism; on the other, there have been Corbyn supporters who have claimed that any acknowledgement of antisemitism existing on the left is a betrayal of Palestine. Moreover—and in some ways requiring most critique because of the obvious wrongness of the two positions above—a more sophisticated section of what might be described as the “soft left” have spoken of the need to “balance” solidarity with Palestine with the fight against antisemitism, or have been reluctant to speak or act in solidarity with Palestine for fear of aiding antisemitism. The notion—sometimes explicit, sometimes unclarified and implicit—that solidarity with Palestine and the struggle against antisemitism are somehow opposed, that antisemitism or what is described as antisemitism necessarily exists in the same space as Palestine solidarity, must absolutely be challenged.

This is not to say, however, that there is no relation between antisemitism and pro-Palestinian sentiments; the latter can be a vector for the former. It is also worth noting that, at least anecdotally, antisemitism seems significantly more prevalent within the Labour left than within directly pro-Palestinian campaigns and organisations. It is necessary to insist on an absolute, unconditional rejection of antisemitism and simultaneously an absolute, unconditional solidarity with Palestine. Both these positions are foundational for a meaningful and useful left politics, and present the further tasks of working through a theory and a practice against antisemitism that is useless for the betrayal of Palestine and the working through of a theory and practice of Palestinian solidarity that is useless for antisemitism. We would also assert that this working through will advance both the struggle against antisemitism and the cause of Palestinian solidarity.

The slow burn of accounts of antisemitism on the left of Labour, particularly on social media, reached a crisis point with the coming to light of Corbyn’s sympathising with street artist Mear One over the removal of his antisemitic mural in East London in 2012. In the past week, we have also seen Christine Shawcroft opposing the suspension of Alan Bull, a council candidate who had posted material denying the Holocaust on Facebook (Shawcroft subsequently, and rightly, resigned from the NEC). At the base of the movement, a letter written in defence of Corbyn that, at the very least, made use of antisemitic tropes of Jews as a powerful interest group opposed to democracy, was received positively by many.

In the face of all this, and, especially in the face of the response from parts of the movement, we need a critique from within: one that maintains its loyalty to the potentiality of Corbynism while also recognising that antisemitism is a limit on achieving that potential. It is an internal critique that has the possibility of unifying a theoretical criticism with practice to go beyond a mere verbal denunciation. Such a critique may be painful, but it is a necessary part of taking responsibility for what is done in our name. Hilary Wainwright has argued for the necessity of “creating democratic relationships, here and now, in the organisations for which we were in some way responsible”1; the fight against antisemitism within our organisations is part of this assumption of responsibility for the creation of democratic relationships. The assumption of this responsibility, moreover, renders moot the question of whether other parts of Labour, or other political parties or movements have bigger problems with antisemitism or with racism more generally. They may well, but our movement is our responsibility.

The rejection of antisemitism is not only a moral but also a political necessity. Of course opponents of left politics, particularly of Palestinian solidarity, will not only exploit allegations of antisemitism but will seek to identify as antisemitic positions that have, in themselves, nothing to do with antisemitism. However, we must recognise that the power of allegations of antisemitism to draw away those who may otherwise be open to left politics rests on these claims being rendered plausible by the existence of antisemitism on the left. The consequences of the reality of antisemitism on the left are, of course, particularly experienced by Jews, and in a differentiated but harmful way: they may discourage Jews from voting Labour; they may, whether for reasons of moral objection or discomfort at expressions of antisemitism at meetings, make Jews less likely to join Labour or, in particular, the Labour left. Equally, however, the exploitation, often by non-Jews, including Labour MPs, of antisemitism—particularly as seen in the grotesque hounding of Jewdas, drawing on the intrusive actions of fascist-adjacent (at the most generous) smear merchant “Guido Fawkes”—has served to attempt to create a situation where left, and particularly pro-Palestinian, politics is presented as incompatible with Judaism. These efforts, as well as the becoming respectable of Paul Staines and his hangers on, must be resisted.

Raymond Williams argues that “the creation of an alternative hegemony” involves “the practical connection of many different forms of struggle”2. A politics from below that aims to become hegemonic is about making connections, but it can also be about disarticulating connections for the sake of building a broader bloc. The cutting loose of antisemites—as well as being sound in principle, and an essential part of building the democratic, egalitarian relationships that will be the vehicle for the right organisation of future society—will advance us politically. Moreover, by making the left safe for Jewish comrades, it will open up a wider range of experiences to contribute to building our politics. This prefigurative conception of the need to build democratic relationships, coupled with an absolute moral rejection of antisemitism, should clarify that to argue an opposition to antisemitism for the sake of political advance is not to take a cynical opportunistic line but to bring strategy and ethics together.

On Left Antisemitism: The Limits of Bolton and Pitts

A major aspect of how we consider antisemitism on the left is the question of whether it is correct to talk about a specifically “left” antisemitism. By a left antisemitism we mean an antisemitism that, rather than being the expression within left-wing organisations and spaces of a wider societal antisemitism, draws on and is reproduced through specifically left ideas and practices. To speak of a left antisemitism would not be to deem the left necessarily antisemitic, but to attempt to properly locate antisemitism with a view to challenging it.

A recent analysis by Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, drawing on (and gesturing at an authority from) Marxist thought, has had a great deal of purchase. The text, however, is in many ways flawed, attempting to fit reality to a theory that is inappropriate to the reality it aims to organise. That theory, moreover, and unsurprisingly, is precisely the kind of off-the-shelf Marxist theory to sustain an article for The New Statesman. That in itself should establish the need to reckon with antisemitism on our terms, from within Corbynism in such a way that its conjunction with the movement can make the critique practical. The externality of Pitts and Bolton’s critique to the movement, its sense that even the “smarter” of Corbyn’s supporters are ultimately implicated in antisemitism, deprives it of any vehicle to become practical and distorts it analytically.

Bolton and Pitts do, however, have a broadly correct, if poorly unfolded, sense that the roots of left antisemitism can be found in inadequate and insufficiently radical critique of capitalism:

The roots of such “personalised critiques” of capitalism can be traced back to vulgar understandings of Marx’s so-called “labour theory of value” – understandings which it was Postone’s life’s work to overturn. They do not necessarily have to lead to anti-semitism, but it does not take much for the search for those “rigging the system” to alight on the “rootless ‘cosmopolitan” Jew, forever holding the productive community to ransom though his control of the financial system.

This certainly does correspond with the antisemitism of the mural. However, beyond the mural, the limits of this critique when it comes to the specifics of the UK and to Corbynism quite rapidly become clear. Firstly, this presumes far too great a transfer between limited critique and antisemitism, using theory to generalise at the expense of exploring historical specificity. Secondly, the conception of what and who within Labour have been a vehicle for antisemitism is derived from a domineering application of theory rather than any serious consideration of concrete facts.

In the UK, particularly on the left, the personalised critique of capitalism has certainly been analytically limited and politically limiting. However, it has not tended to result in antisemitism. The productivist critique, rather than stopping at the figure of the Jewish banker, tends to stop at pre-modern, feudal survivals. As Perry Anderson argued of Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” rhetoric, and his denouncements of “not only incompetent and amateur sectors of industry, but speculative and parasitical ones as well”, that

the panorama of English capitalism today swarms with both these phenomena. An attack on them can thus momentarily seem like an attack on capitalism itself. The appearance is deceptive. Wilson is, in fact, attacking pre-capitalist or para-capitalist activities both of which are marginal to the main structure of capitalism today… Wilson achieves a certain mirage effect when he talks of socialism, no less than when he attacks capitalism. In both cases, he bases himself on real and important issues; but in each case they also serve to deflect attention from the nub of social tensions and contradictions today.

Indeed, this modernising critique, in making the amateurism and bigotries of a ruling class who would have been dispatched in other countries, has the potential, given the consistent antisemitism of the aristocratic section of Britain’s ruling class, to be useful in a break with antisemitism. Anderson writes of the contrast between “the flaccid administrators of the 20th century” and the efficiency and dynamism of “enterprises which were either started by foreigners (refugees etc) since 1940, controlled by minorities (Quakers, Jews), or branches of international corporations”. This is not to say the British version of the incomplete critique of capitalism can be retained; the risk of its persistence, even in aspects of McDonnell’s positioning (the most radically anti-capitalist tendency within the leadership), is considerable. However, the reasons for the necessity of this break and the deepening of our critique of capitalism are not, for the most part at least, because this tendency is useful to antisemitism within Labour.

Bolton and Pitts’s characterisation of the roots in terms of the membership of Corbynite antisemitism, again, prefers a generalisation from theory to attention to the concrete. For Bolton and Pitts, the rhetoric of Occupy—where a limited, populist critique of capitalism was often antisemitic—and the transition of those involved into Labour is claimed as a major factor in emerging antisemitism (this is implied in the New Statesman piece, and was explicit in an earlier critique of Corbynism). This, in terms of crude numbers, both overestimates this transition, and makes a further quite glaring error as to the background of antisemitic Corbyn supporters. Even a cursory examination of the most high-profile disciplinary cases shows significantly older members (to which Shawcroft and even Corbyn himself could be added) whose political consciousness was certainly not formed through Occupy. Furthermore, the recent Times poll on antisemitism in Labour found that dismissals of antisemitism are significantly higher in the 40+ age group than among younger members, with 23% of members aged 18-39 compared to 35% aged 40-59 and 33% aged 60+ believing antisemitism is not a serious problem at all. This is not to make an ageist point, but to make an argument about what decades of defeat, contempt and marginalisation can do even to the highest political sentiments.

The most revealing contempt for the concrete comes in the efforts Pitts and Bolton make to extend their theory to the question of Palestine and anti-imperialism more generally. They state:

the same pattern is found on a geopolitical level when it comes to Israel. The inordinate focus on the crimes of Israel within the British left – far outweighing the attention given to the chemical slaughter currently inflicted by Bashar al-Assad for example – results from the portrayal of Israel as the evil “1 per cent” of the global community, a state whose very existence is the source of all suffering in the Middle East, if not the world.

As Phil Burton-Cartledge argues, describing this as “drivel”:

There are plenty of criticisms of Israel on the British left… Nowhere, however, do we come across any analysis claiming Israel is part of the “evil 1 per cent”. In fact no one on the left continuum operates with an analysis this superficial. All are rooted in an analysis of Israeli politics, and as we move out from the mainstream to radical arguments and embedding in a critique of political economy and the international system.

This clearly implausible argument is the clearest revelation of the political character of Bolton and Pitts’s argument. On the most obvious level, the argument merges with tendencies within Labour that aim at a complete break with anti-imperialism. They further critique Corbyn’s “dubious brand of “anti-Zionism” (there is a dishonesty in the quotation marks here to suggest Corbyn uses this term, and then the implication this should be elided with antisemitism) and “anti-imperialism”, here by arguing even minimal anti-imperialism is tainted by antisemitism, while accepting a mildly reformist domestic policy.

This must be resisted, including by the Labour leadership. This argument, moreover, is a hierarchical, intellectually and politically elitist one. On the one hand, to argue that if any Palestinian solidarity or anti-imperialism is, essentially, antisemitism, it should be abandoned—this position is, to be frank, contemptible, and serves antisemitism; on the other, if a little bit of a critique of capitalism is dangerous, then the critique of capitalism—the thought of the movement—should be given over entirely to experts in value-form theory. This tendency is reinforced both by the radical externality of theory as understood by Bolton and Pitts to the experience of the movement, and by their argument that even the “smarter” parts of Corbynism are unable to fully understand antisemitism. This characterisation, by removing the possibility of agents able to carry out such a programme, limits what political education as a remedy could be.

Bolton and Pitts’s argument, ultimately, aims to impose theory on material that it cannot fit, and in many ways is merely a recycling of hack categories of anti-leftism with a Marxist ornamentation to lend authority. This phony gesture of authority, moreover, is incompatible with a productive understanding of political education. However, part of its essential claim that there is a specifically left antisemitism that exists within Corbynism is not untrue. Instead of rejecting this because of the weaknesses of Bolton and Pitts’s argument, it is necessary to formulate a more plausible conception of what left antisemitism might be with a view to combating it without breaking with the necessary tasks of anti-imperialism.

The anti-imperialism of fools

A more rigorous, useful and essentially truer construction of the roots of left antisemitism would present it as the collision of understandable, essentially correct feelings of compassion for Palestine and disgust (though perhaps the particularity of disgust already carries risks with it) at Israel, with a left and (this tendency is particularly prevalent in parts of Corbynism) patriotic anti-politics that presumes, in the last instance at least, that Britain and its institutions are essentially benign, even if they have become corrupted. Bolton and Pitts, moreover, are idealists who see the problem residing entirely in the realm of thinking; their headline, “to combat left antisemitism, Corbynism must change the way it sees the world” encapsulates the basic argument, which concludes “if Corbyn [and, by, implication his supporters] is as serious as he says he is about militant opposition to antisemitism, his worldview as it is may not survive intact. Rather it must be radically revised and rethought”. For us, by contrast, this collision must be understood in a context where the institutions and democratic cultures and relationships of the left in general and of Corbynism in particular are lacking, having been wrecked by decades of defeat and not yet rebuilt.

The aforementioned Times poll’s headlined figures on Labor members’ views on antisemitism were dubiously reported (though the fact that 30% of members and 40% of Corbyn supporters in 2016 thought antisemitism in Labour “is not a serious problem at all” is concerning to say the least). However, more revealing for the roots of left antisemitism in sentimental patriotism, are other questions around whether specific countries are “a force for good in the world”. The countries that are most significant for the analysis here are the UK, Israel and Saudi Arabia. 50% of members thought the UK a force for good, compared to 26% who though it a force for bad, and among Corbyn supporters from 2016 the figure was 44% good, 31% bad; for Israel, among members, 10% good, 65% bad, with the Corbyn supporters figure, 7% good, 70% bad; for Saudi Arabia, among party members 3% thought it a force for good compared to 86% thinking it a force for bad, with the figures being 3% and 87% among Corbyn supporters.

It is useful to include the figures for Saudi Arabia in our analysis because parts of the broad operation are similar, with the “Israel lobby” or the “Saudi lobby” playing a corrupting role—in the way in which Britain’s essential goodness can be reconciled with its behaviour globally. There are a number of aspects underpinning this. The first is a general patriotic sense that is a fundamental part of labourism, and fuses genuine sentiment with political opportunism and extends to much of the Labour left. Wainwright writes of a tendency towards “moral imperialism”, which can be part of a left, putatively anti-imperialist outlook, with Britain as a “world leader” for good, “in the early years of CND (1957-63)”, and the Labour left presumed Britain’s apparent “greatness could be deployed ‘by example’ to bring about world peace. It is a stance which is not only an arrogant fantasy but is also, in the end, self-imploding” 3. Labour’s patriotic framing embraces foreign policy and domestic concerns, both traditionally “right” and “left”. Within a national articulation of Corbynism, it is probably most apparent in the way a generalised opposition to public sector cuts embraces both commitments to increased NHS and increased police spending. The commitment to increased police spending, one praised extensively by the network of broadly uncritical Corbyn supporting blogs and tweeters with substantial followings, aims to outflank the Tories on patriotism and present Labour as a common sense party of the national interest whilst the Conservatives represent partial interests.

It is necessary to be clear here that while these blogs, in general, are rarely directly antisemitic, their political conceptions (social patriotism, vulgar economism) and their logic as publishers (clickbait often rooted in exposing corruption) are useful for enabling antisemitism. Criticism could also be levelled at these sites and tweeters for their failure to condemn the antisemitic ways their material may be used—a particularly offensive example of this is in the Skwawkbox’s indifference to the antisemitic uses made of their promoting Jennie Formby at the expense of Jon Lansman for General Secretary, an indifference which can be contrasted with the attitude of Formby herself. It is also sadly necessary to note Steve Topple writing regularly for The Canary despite a long history of antisemitic tweets, and the continued promotion of the antisemite Scott Nelson, including by Chris Williamson.

The clearest and possibly most influential expression of labourist patriotism can be found in imperial policeman and antisemite George Orwell’s wartime social patriotism, particularly his image of England as a family in which “most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still it is family. It has a private language and its common memories and at the approach of of an enemy it closes its ranks.” For Raymond Williams discussing Orwell,

If I had to say which writings have done the most damage, it would be what you call the social patriotism—the dreadful stuff from the beginning of the war about England as a family with the wrong members in charge, the shuffling old aunts and uncles whom we could fairly painlessly get rid of. Many of the political arguments of the kind of labourism that is usually associated with the tradition of Durbin or Gaitskell can be traced to these essays.4

Williams’s reference to Gaitskell here should also clarify a significant point that this tradition is not the same in any significant part as the deeper, economically grounded critique of Wilson at his most, but still imperfectly, radical. The power of the aunts and uncles in this labourist tradition is essentially political or cultural, even if it is an anti-modern, as Orwell says, “stuffy” power.

In the social patriotism tradition that marks even aspects of Corbynism and anti-imperialism and which is a major part of the ground of left antisemitism, Britain’s political institutions are still imagined to be essentially decent. The aunts’ and uncles’ power is not structural; they can be removed, as Williams notes, “painlessly”. It is on this terrain that the role of lobbies (in foreign policy, these are most often “Israel” or “Saudi”) operates in the collision between compassion for Palestine (or Yemen) with social patriotism—it is something seen as inessential to Britain’s institutions and global relations that implicates us. This is further sustained within Corbynism by a tendency towards clickbaity, “gotcha” journalism in prominent blogs, instead of an effort to grasp the totality of relations of appropriation, violence and exploitation in imperialism and the UK’s place within it. “Revelations” and “exposés” of corruption, combined with a vulgar, non-Marxist economism, always have a potentially antisemitic tendency.

Gramsci writes of a tendency in historical economism to fail to make the connection between the economy and foreign policy. Instead, there is a temptation to treat economic fact as

The self-interest of an individual or small group, in an immediate and “dirty-Jewish” sense. In other words it does not take economic class formations into account, with all their inherent relations, but is content to assume motives of mean and usurious self-interest, especially when it takes forms that the law defines as criminal. […] critical activity is reduced to the exposure of swindles, to creating scandals.5

On the surface, this argument may appear to be close to Bolton and Pitts’, but there are important differences – including that the connections here are not internal to the economy, but around the corruption of politics by the economic. This line of antisemitic critique assumes a profoundly different character to the truncated critique of capitalism, and to oppose it is much more a question of developing arguments and connections around Britain’s institutions within the critique of capitalism rather than completing a critique of capitalism. Or, to put it another way, the point is not an inadequate grasping of the labour theory of value but a truncated analysis of how Britain’s state and related institutions sit in capitalism, particularly in imperialism. It is telling here that Bolton and Pitts collapse the Telegraph’s George Soros conspiracies with the truncated critique of capitalism, when again the question here is a failure to articulate connections between economics and politics that do not rely on the notion of corruption, or, as in the letter endorsed by parts of the Corbyn base, of marginal Jewish interests aiming to prevail over the majority.

At the heart of left antisemitism is a deep sentimentality about Britain and its institutions. The country that played a leading role in the Iraq War and the destruction of Libya, that has a coordinating role in genocidal actions in Yemen, that (with the Conservatives, the Labour Right and parts of the Trade Union leadership treating arms as a or even the leading sector of the economy) exports over £100 million worth of arms to Israel annually and whose banks and financial institutions hold over £10 billion in shares in companies that sell weapons, military technology and equipment to Israel used to oppress Palestinians, is presented as being complicit in the oppression of Palestine simply due to the nefarious influence of Jews. While dominant ideas of antisemitism argue that antisemitism is a result of too much solidarity with Palestine in order to condemn Palestine solidarity, on parts of the left this is inverted rather than broken with as antisemitism is excused as, again, an excessive expression of solidarity. This is not the case. Left antisemitism is in fact derived from an insufficient solidarity with Palestine, with an effort to rescue Britain and its institutions from their complicity in Palestine’s situation.

Political Education: Democratic Culture Beyond Loneliness

To merely analyse left antisemitism from within the realm of the bad ideas that enable it would be to remain trapped within idealism and limit any practical consequences to the argument, particularly in terms of political education. A further aspect of left antisemitism is the collision between compassion for Palestine and social patriotism in the context of the experience of defeat, being held in contempt and loneliness, alongside the peculiar fusion of defensiveness and euphoria that is a central emotion within Corbynism.

The temptation when we encounter bad ideas is to presume that the solution is political education, which will enable us to replace bad ideas with good ideas. Often, as in Bolton and Pitts, there is very little thought of how precisely this is to be done, or even if this essentially idealist and domineering conception of pedagogy is desirable. This idealist, domineering and basically useless implied conception of political education is amplified in Bolton and Pitts by their characterisation of even the “smarter” members of the left of Labour as complicit in antisemitism because of a failure to understand it, often motivated by a desire to excuse. Why this (false) claim is practically damaging is because it removes any possibility of a dispersed, grassroots set of subjects able to carry out a democratic programme of political education. We are left with something that is little more than a demand to read some effing Postone.

In a recent article, “The cure to ‘left-wing’ anti-Semitism is political education”, Owen Jones offers a superior, more humane idea of political education, but one which remains underworked and broadly trapped in a top-down idealism. Whilst Jones does mention Momentum as a potential vehicle for political education (and Momentum’s new pledge for a political education programme that will “move people away from conspiratorial thinking and towards a systematic understanding of society and capitalism works” is encouraging), Jones’ main means of political education is still top-down. For Jones, “the party should set up an institution…[which] would train up political education officers for Constituency Labour Parties”. This proposal is not without its merits, and the symbolism of the leadership emphasising such a scheme would have considerable pedagogical value itself in the fight against antisemitism. Statements from the leadership, including Corbyn’s letter and McDonnell’s very sharp criticism of the members’ Facebook letter, “describing Jewish people as a ‘very powerful special interest group’ is an antisemitic stereotype that undermines not supports Jeremy”, have further important pedagogical value in both persuading and showing antisemites in Labour that the leadership is not on their side.

Jones’s analysis is absolutely correct in grasping that left antisemitism is, in many ways, conditioned by the marginalisation of socialism in Britain for more than a generation, and how the re-emergence of socialism as a mass movement, had and still has “an extremely weak institutional and intellectual underpinning”. However, Jones’s emphasis on the overwhelming role of the centre in political education essentially aims to work round this lack of intellectual and institutional underpinning without building the necessary institutions, relationships and cultures. A further factor missed by Jones, here sharing a tendency with Bolton and Pitts, is that the impact of this in producing antisemitism and on political consciousness more generally is not just, and perhaps not mainly on, new, young members but also on “the same old faces [who] appeared at sparsely attended conferences year on year.” This can be seen in Ken Livingstone, or in figures who still have influence, in Williamson’s indulgence of antisemites, Shawcroft, or Darren Williams’s minimising of the importance of antisemitism. We have to accept that some of those in the left in important institutional positions are not up to the job morally or practically.

A further aspect of sentimentality on the Labour left, in addition to the sentimentality of social patriotism, is a sentimentality about the old guard, a leaping to the defence of people who have worked hard for the left even if they are demonstrably not up to the roles they now fill as a result of the growth of the left. This sentimentality and defensiveness is most apparent in responses to the figure of Corbyn himself, it is a symptom partially of the (usually but not always) aggressively smeary character of attacks on him but also of the lack of the development of the movement to build its own ethical substance in democratic cultures and relationships, in the absence of this to challenge and hold leadership to account the only guarantee of the ethical character of the project is the ethical character of its leaders.

The term “crank” is an unkind term, and perhaps in some ways not the right one. However, an analysis of crankishness at least can help to give an account of the context which enables the construction of antisemitic consciousness. The point here is what decades of defeat, contempt and marginalisation can do even to the highest political sentiments (and Palestine solidarity is such a feeling). Of Job Legh’s “instinct for living creatures” in the face of the “crushing experience of industrialisation” in Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Williams writes, it “hardens, by its very contrast with its environment into a kind of crankiness.”6 “Crank Corbynism” is not a particularly agreeable term, and it is probably necessary to invent a better one, but this contrast of high and genuine feelings, in the case of the preconditions of antisemitism compassion for Palestine, hardening and becoming deformed and cranky by its contrast with a hostile, indifferent world, is something to understand even as it must be broken with both on the level of challenging antisemitic thinking and expression directly and building a labour movement that challenges isolation and alienation, the challenges the hostile world that turns true experience cranky.

Corbynism thus far, outside of the bustle of the election and two leadership campaigns, has done very little to construct a politics against loneliness and isolation, a point made in a very different context by Lucy Mercer. Burton-Cartledge also notes of the blogs and tweeters of the “alt-left”, and Corbynism more widely, that it “was made up of atomised but social media connected people”. What we have, then, in the development of antisemitic crankishness is, firstly, the feeling for Palestine, but then on the one hand its articulation within a limited, personalised, choosing-sides version of anti-imperialism without integrating that solidarity into a wider, structural analysis critique of imperialism, and a social patriotism that focuses on the corruption of Britain by a lobby imagined as simultaneously foreign and domestic (here older antisemitic stereotypes are retooled). This process happens in a context where people have been rendered bitter, hardened by defeat on the one hand and on the other where official knowledge is lacking on even acknowledging the oppression of Palestine, and collective, counter-hegemonic knowledges that can create a basis for learning and grasping organic connections, a falling back on fragmentary, often conspiratorial, often online, unofficial knowledge and the desperate, lonely, attempt to make connections, often succumbing both due to the assemblage from fragments and vulgar economism to antisemitic explanations of both Israeli oppression of Palestine and, perhaps as significantly, of the UK’s indifference or worse.

These tendencies represent in many ways the worst of Corbynism, even when they do not lead into antisemitism and even though the roots of the tendencies if not always their expressions need to be understood sympathetically (and we have to recognise our own implication in some of them). A final, and particularly limiting tendency in Corbynism that further enables antisemitism is how these tendencies exist in attitudes and behaviour within the Party itself, coupled with a particular cult of sincerity that is derived from but not identical with the tendency to explain social phenomena through “corruption”. In the absence of understanding contradictions as real and grasping how these contradictions are derived from Labour’s ambiguous incorporation into the state, imperialism and capitalism, all disagreements are interpreted as factional struggles with factional struggles being between a pure left and an entirely corrupt, Blairite right. This has a number of baleful consequences, especially in the context where the democratic culture and relationships that would strengthen a critical approach, internal to the left and further the taking responsibility for ourselves is at best only patchy. The most obvious negative consequence is that any allegations of antisemitism, interpreted through this factional frame, are treated as smears, as means whereby a right-wing agenda is being advanced. The fact that this is not always untrue, moreover, strengthens this tendency.

The exclusively factional focus extends to internal contradictions within the left that need not be antagonistic and could even turn creative. This was seen in the antisemitic attacks on Jon Lansman when he put forward his candidacy for General Secretary. Instead of recognising that there were good reasons for a Lansman candidacy, even though Formby was also a strong left candidate, the response was often incomprehension followed by reaching for an explanation that Lansman’s candidacy was an Israel lobby plot to wreck the left, with Lansman accused of having more loyalty to Israel than the left, or Labour, or even, here repeating the link between social patriotism and antisemitism to Britain (as if a leftist should be loyal to Britain).

The notion of Lansman as corrupt, as dissembling (itself in some instances an antisemitic stereotype), is opposed to a political ideal of sincerity. This notion of sincerity is extremely harmful as it intersects with a generalised suspicion of persuasion on parts of the Labour left, with the sense that any effort to win people over is Blairite triangulation and insincere. Oddly, this overlaps with a notion of commonsensical social patriotism that amounts to a far more significant concession to right-wing politics than any political tact. The organised right, both within and outside Labour, will smear the left; they will weaponise issues against us, and it is unlikely we will be able to persuade these people. However, there is also a significant “intermediate” section who may be won over to either side, and a large part of the question of what are described as smears is how effectively they win over the intermediate and disorganise the left. The point is not a binary of the virtuous and corrupt. The persuasive power of the right’s weaponising of antisemitism is derived from the fact that it is rooted in something true that renders the wider, false conclusions drawn and accusations made plausible. More generally, ideological victories are very rarely won by duping people, but rather by organising genuine experience within a particular totality and set of connections. This organisation may be dishonest, but the experiences it organises and responds to need not be. The left of Labour is not necessarily antisemitic, but there is enough antisemitism that this argument can be made with a sufficient degree of plausibility to have effects.

A narrow sense of sincerity in speech at the expense of considering the need to persuade, can be confused for political commitment, especially when combined with the central part that opposition to a lobby plays in left antisemitism. True political commitment may actually involve a degree of care in expression, rather than self-indulgent lashing out. It is worth noting the centrality of speech in this tendency—a common refrain, of course, is “it is possible to criticise Israel without being antisemitic”, which is true (there is, however, also a right-wing version- “it is possible to criticise Israel without being antisemitic but in practice any individual criticism is antisemitic”). However, the consequences drawn from emphasising this claim are antisemitic, narcissistic and politically harmful. The focus is on an individual’s criticism rather than collective action. Its particular narcissism comes from the focus on lobbies, which results in the centre of the struggle not being that of the Palestinian people against oppression but instead the struggle of people in Britain to speak freely against a lobby that is both extremely powerful and oversensitive. These conceptions have more in common with the new radical right than any left conception of free speech.

If left antisemitism emerges from some of the worst tendencies in Corbynism, whether in explicit beliefs or taken-for-granted common sense and attitudes that are reproduced by institutions (and indeed the lack of them), then the task of shifting antisemitism is likely to be a long one that cannot be accomplished purely from above; it must also be part of the wider struggle for a better Labour Party. The development of democratic institutions and relationships is what is required to enable more democratic and egalitarian forms of political education. In that vein, Momentum’s re-emphasis on political education is encouraging. While this culture is still being built, however, there are steps that can be taken, and a major one is to build up commitment, confidence and knowledge for members to effectively challenge antisemitism in meetings, on demonstrations and online. There are already a number of useful guides online to help with these arguments, and one beneficial impact of the disgraceful treatment of Jewdas has been the publicity for theirs.

We ask our readers to commit to challenging antisemitism. This would represent the beginnings of an educational process from below. We do not believe that Bolton and Pitts’s characterisation, one that renders their implied notion of political education, authoritarian, characterisation of even the “smarter” of Corbyn’s supporters as unable to understand antisemitism holds, but the point is to disprove this in practice.

Drawing Connections

Genuine learning and the development of a hegemonic politics does not take place solely or even mainly in theory. If, following Williams, hegemonic politics is about the making and breaking of connections between ideas, groups and struggles, part of the construction of a politics in solidarity with Palestine and against antisemitism requires its articulation within a set of struggles that is not the brooding, fragmentary integration through lobbies and corruption of essentially decent British institutions. This understanding is suggested on a theoretical and general level by Arrighi’s reworking of the concept of hegemony, and the link between world hegemonic states and the “maximisation of power vis-a-vis subjects”7. On a level more specific to Labour, it can be found in the critique of labourism in Padmore, Williams8 and Wainwright9, which suggests that incorporation into imperialism limits the possibilities of social advance at home, further requiring a sense of the porosity of the domestic and international. The notion of the Israel lobby, perhaps, represents a conspiratorial and therefore reactionary and mystified version of this porosity. These are forms of integration that need to happen in argumentation and practice.

Of course, the clearest connection is the connection of Palestinian struggle to wider struggles against imperialism and the UK’s central role within imperialism (against the view of 50% of Labour members, we do not believe that the UK is a force for good in the world). A wider but also more specific linkage can be made between the struggles against imperialism and the struggles against border regimes and their violent enforcement—this becomes a struggle within Labour too, including with the leadership. This should be abundantly clear when a Labour MP like Stella Creasy will attempt to mitigate the massacre of Palestinian March for Land protestors with claims that“nations have a right to defend borders”. Creasy’s position here is both despicable and revealing and the point is not only, as with migrant deaths in the Mediterranean or in attempts to cross into the USA, the murderousness of the Global North’s border regimes, but also the link between dispossession forcing the movement of people even as border regimes make this movement dangerous. This is most clear in the case of Palestinian land, but on a global, systemic scale applies again to other attempted migration to the Global North.

A final set of connections can be found in the links between Palestinian solidarity and the preconditions for some of Labour’s new economic strategies, highlighting the porosity of the domestic and the international. This connection may sound like a reach, but when the government is using opposition to Boycott Disinvestment and Sanctions as a lever to try to remove all ethical and wider considerations from procurement by public bodies (notably councils and universities) and the most significant and successful legal challenge to this has come from Palestinian solidarity activists, it is necessary to recognise the struggle for BDS is also the struggle for economic strategies like the Preston model that use procurement for local economic development. Another area where Palestinian struggle and Labour’s new economic strategies are linked is in the struggle against militarism, and any struggles for the conversion of arms production and, significantly investment in arms production, (and not only arms production) into socially and environmentally useful production, struggles which may have to take on the Trade Unions, are also struggles for the rights of Palestinians. These articulations, which should be useless to antisemitism, have a double character: on the one hand, these are articulations supporters of Palestinian struggle can and often do make; on the other they are articulations that activists in other areas need to make with Palestinian solidarity.

The Necessity of Disciplinary Measures

The developing of connections in theory and, crucially, in practice, as well as building a democratic, critical culture in Corbynism of which challenges to antisemitism and political education more widely is a central part is vital to overcoming antisemitism in Labour. However, it is not sufficient on its own; as well as acknowledging the existence of antisemitism of varying degrees of clarity, thought thoroughness and virulence, it is also necessary to acknowledge the presence of antisemites. This means there are and will be cases for expulsions and, particularly in the case of Ken Livingstone, we cannot let sentimental feelings that we might have for him obscure the need for this.

It would be an extremely welcome beginning to Formby’s role as General Secretary and with the left having a majority on the NEC to see a tough line taken for the expulsion of antisemites. As with the Shawcroft episode, it is clear that there have been failings by the left on the NEC to act correctly against antisemites, though given the previous General Secretary was not of the left and that the left have not had a majority on the NEC for long, failings under Corbyn to get a grip on antisemitism cannot wholly be blamed on the left. Failings in the future will be, and indeed should be. Rhea Wolfson’s comments that both acknowledge that there have been failings in processes and that these are being addressed and will continue to be addressed are extremely encouraging in suggesting that the NEC in general and the left on the NEC in particular are getting a grip on procedures to combat antisemitism.

Though we wish it hadn’t taken yet another scandal to bring this issue to the forefront, we hope the current moment of media attention can be a catalyst for positive change, by forcing the movement to stay vigilant and take responsibility to put an end to this problem for good.

  1. Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, London, Hogarth Press, 1987, p. 173 

  2. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 110-1 

  3. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 81 

  4. Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters, London, Verso, p.391 

  5. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1971, p. 163-4 

  6. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: 1780-1950, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1963, p. 100 

  7. Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money Power and the Origins of Our Times, London: Verso, 2010, pp. 30-1. 

  8. Williams, Politics and Letters, p. 367 

  9. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 80