How The Left Does Not Fight Anti-Semitism
There is one particular response from the Left, when presented with accusations of its own anti-semitism, that is almost liturgical in its repetition. This is the vanity which leads not merely to protestations that the socialist movement has actually opposed anti-semitism, but to the claim that it has consistently been in the vanguard of all such opposition. For instance, John Nolan (letters Socialist Challenge 1.1.81) made the modest claim that “in the struggle against all forms of oppression, including anti-semitism, the I.M.G. and Socialist Challenge have proved themselves to be amongst the best of working class fighters”. The Stalinists have made a similar claim about their own organisations. Hyman Lumer in his preface to Lenin On the Jewish Question states that the official Communist Parties “have been the most resolute fighters against all national and racial discrimination and oppression”. The sect may change, but the catechism remains the same!
Enough has already been presented to reveal the misplaced arrogance of this. How could a socialist practice which has internalised so much anti-semitism be in the forefront of resistance to it? However, it is relevant to go beyond this and to criticise much Left practice even on those occasions when it is apparently opposing anti-semitism. The point is that this opposition often, at its best, severely underestimates anti-semitism and, at its worst, is complicit in it by accepting its terms. Either way, it ultimately rests on a refusal to see anti-semitism as an ideology.
Complicity in Anti-Semitism
There have been periods in this country, as elsewhere, when sections of the Left, far from fighting anti-semitism have threatened to unleash pogroms against Jews. An article in Justice claimed that socialists
“have no feelings against Jews as Jews, but as nefarious capitalists and poisoners of the wells of public information we denounce them. It would be easy enough to get up a capitalist Jew-bait here in London if we wished to do so” (21.1.1893).
It is, incidentally, not insignificant that the medieval accusation of Jews poisoning the water wells reappears under a different guise in imperialist England. Moreover the S.D.F, like many other ‘socialists’ believed that pogroms were a prelude to an anti-capitalist revolution. Thus Hyndman applauded popular attacks on Jews in Austria on the grounds that:
“The attack upon Jews is a convenient cover for a more direct attack upon the great landlords and Christian capitalists” (The Historical Basis of Socialism, 1883).
However, the reality is that even where the Left has purported to struggle against anti-semitism it has frequently compromised itself with anti-Jewish feelings.
For instance the most classic form of compromise is to appeal to anti-semites to fight fascism! If Hyndman could call upon anti-semites to destroy capitalism (as represented by Jews), then it is equally ‘logical’ to call upon anti-semites to fight fascism as a manifestation of capitalism. In 1937 the Left Book Club published a book by G. Sacks entitled The Jewish Question. This proclaimed:
“Hate the Jew if you must but do not allow your hatred to make you the victim of the fascist who, on the plea that he also hates the Jew, makes you his accomplice in worse crimes”.
Sacks then went on to point out that what was wrong with fascism was not its attacks on the Jews but that these attacks were no guarantee of a better society, thus:
“If fascism really meant the end of the class struggle, then the humiliation and destruction of sixteen million Jews would be worthwhile, for the ultimate benefit to humanity would transcend that of a small minority of people who would scarcely be missed”.
In other words the ‘explanation’ we have previously examined, that anti-semitism is just a series of ‘mistakes’, appears here in its ultimate form—namely as a total concession to anti-semitic ideology.
It would be wrong to see this form of complicity as being confined to the Stalinist and social democratic tradition around the Left Book Club. Thus the Big Flame editorial of September 1982 actually stated that as a socialist response to the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon “it would be a serious error to participate in or help incite the emergence of a new wave of anti-semitism”. The use of the word ‘error’ implies that the question of unleashing pogroms is merely one of tactics. The perverse logic of this is that if anti-semitism acted as a break on the Israeli government then it would in some way be legitimate.
Even amongst those on the contemporary Left fighting fascism, there is occasionally a residual belief that Jews are somehow legitimate targets for popular hatred. For instance Ed Rosen in an article in Peace News (21.3.80) wrote that the Nazis used anti-semitism in order “to break the power of a privileged Jewish economic community”. In other words, German Jews were supposedly rich and powerful—so what else could they expect? They asked for it. Indeed, we have already seen that advocating assimilation, as an answer to anti-semitism, itself rests on the assumption that there exists something actual and tangible in Jewish behaviour to which the anti-semite is merely responding.
Denying The Significance Of The Material Consequences Of Anti-Semitism
Anti-semitism is essentially a view of the world, an ideology, yet of course it does have material and atrocious consequences for Jews—witness the ‘final solution’. However the Left has systematically under-estimated these material consequences as can be seen in the following examples.
The holocaust is seen as unique and without any historical precedent. Thus Nigel Ward has stated that anti-semitism did not exist in Eastern Europe until the penetration of capital in the last century (Socialist Challenge 2.10.82). He ignores centuries of pogroms, often sanctioned by the Orthodox churches, not the least of which were the atrocities perpetrated by Chmielnicki in 1648, when an estimated one million Jews were killed—only those accepting baptism being spared. Chmielnicki is still regarded in the Ukraine as a national hero. Similarly, Ward claims that the economic position of Jews in Western Europe was “threatened by the development of early capitalism” after the eleventh century. Quite apart from the historical error of an assumed Jewish economic position—the word ‘threatened’ suggests some minor material decline. The reality was the constant attacks on Jewish communities throughout the Crusades. These in fact were repeated shortly afterwards, during the period of the Black Death (1348-9) when Jews were blamed in popular mythology for the plague. In Germany alone, over 200 communities were exterminated whilst attacks took place on a smaller scale in Poland, Catalonia and in the north of Italy.
The other side to the perverse view that the holocaust was without precedent, is the equally perverse notion that anti-semitism disappeared with the holocaust. Big Flame criticised those whom it claims “hark back constantly to the history of anti-semitism” (October 1982). In other words anti-semitism exists only in ‘history’—though Big Flame does have the grace to admit that the ‘tiniest elements’ might still be around today. This is not simply reactionary. It is ahistorical and seems to be based on the liberal and social democratic myth that anti-semitism was defeated by the bourgeoisie in World War Two … as though this were somehow seen by the Allies as a war against anti-semitism. The same politics occurred in the propaganda slogan of the Anti-Nazi League in the middle of the 1970s—“Yesterday it was the Jews, today it is the blacks”, This imagined that somehow anti-black racism didn’t exist at the time of pre-war fascism and that anti-semitism disappeared after, and as a result of, imperialist war.
There is another particularly insidious aspect to this constant under-estimation of anti-semitism. This is the appalling attitude by the Left that Jews will have to have one foot in the grave before it will respond. By this time, of course, it will be too late anyway. Thus Uri Davies (Peace News 26.1.79) was anxious to stress that
“Given the current social and political circumstances prevalent in Britain, anti-semitism does not feature as a prominent element in British racism … Jews in Britain are not the first nor the worst victims of racism. There is no denial that in future, given certain social and political developments, racism directed against Jews could figure more prominently in British society. But this is a contingent possibility and not a present development nor a likely development in the near future”.
It is not claimed that Jews are either the ‘first’ or the ‘worst’ victims of racism—and such was certainly not claimed in the article to which this was a reply. However, it is remarkable that any attempt to draw attention to the existence of anti-semitism can result in such slanderous assertions. The message appears to be that there is a queue or hierarchy of victims, and Jews will have to wait till they get to the front before anyone will take any serious political notice. Uri Davies seems to have a touching faith in the present social order. He should remember the misassessment of August Bebel who, in spite of his active opposition to anti-semitism, said in 1906 that “It is comforting that in Germany it will never have a chance to assert a decisive influence on the life of state or society” (quoted by Silberner in an article on German Social Democracy, Historia Judaica 1953).
Paradoxically, although the reality of Jewish oppression is often denied, the Left still persists in defining the Jew as a victim, but in a purely abstract way. However, this status is a surrogate one to play us off against different groups. A coarse example was the statement by Ken Livingstone, the Labour leader of the Greater London Council, that the suffering of the Irish at the hands of the English was worse that the Nazi holocaust of European Jewry. Who are statements like this supposed to help? Certainly not the Irish, who have an autonomous existence, and don’t require their oppression to be validated by a league table with other groups. Neither do they help the Jewish people who are in any event being constantly told that their oppression is near the bottom of any league table.
Even when certain socialists claim that the Left has constantly fought anti-semitism, they have a totally restricted meaning of what anti-semitism is. They ignore and leave unopposed the anti-semitism of daily life on which fascism is ultimately built. For the Left, anti-semitism only seems to exist, if at all, when matters get to the stage of organised violence on a mass scale. There is absolutely no recognition of the profoundly anti-semitic culture which underlies these physical manifestations. It is as though major physical violence against Jews is an aberration which springs out of nowhere. There is a reverse side to all this. This is that anti-semitism without physical violence is deemed simply not to exist. Cultural imperialism is just ignored. As has been emphasised, the Left actively advocates assimilationism.
Denying The Significance Of Anti-Semitism As An Ideology
Central to the socialist compromise with anti-semitism, and the underestimation of its material consequences, is the failure to perceive anti-semitism as an ideological force existing in daily life. It has already been emphasised in the previous chapter how anti-semitism is wrongly seen as a series of ‘mistakes’ made by its proponents. There is a reverse side, though, to this analysis. Anti-semitism is viewed as a series of tactical manoeuvres by the bourgeoisie designed to mislead the workers. The conventional wisdom of the Left is that ‘pogroms’ are simply a diversionary tactic by the ruling class: for tactical considerations the ruling class spreads false propaganda about Jews in order to induce erroneous perceptions in the rest of the workers. It is often presented as openly as this. For instance, the Daily Worker, then the paper of the Communist Party, stated that anti-semitism was a vehicle “to divert the attack upon the capitalist class as a whole into an attack upon a section of that class—the Jewish section (2.3.1933). In similar vein and in the same period, A.M. Wall, the Secretary of the London Trades Council, in addressing a meeting called by the Jewish People’s Council in London’s East End, said
“Anti-semitism has always been used for the same purpose—in order to give the masses an enemy to attack so they won’t discover the real enemy” (Jewish Chronicle 16.10.36).
This analysis permeates every single part of the Left and can easily be found today. Thus Big Flame in its editorial of September 1982 explained anti-semitism by asserting that Jews are used as ‘scape-goats’ in periods of crisis. Newsline, as has already been seen, described anti-semitism as a ‘trump-card’ which the Tories have ‘up their sleeves’. In other words, anti-semitism is viewed as some form of magic trick that is kept hidden until a period of capitalist crisis, and is then used to divide the workers—who apparently have not been previously divided by it.
This is a nonsense. People are already divided by reactionary ideas of all kinds. Anti-semitism exists in daily life. It does not need a conspiracy of the bourgeoisie to convince people. Anti-semitism may be, in Marxist terms, ruling class ideology, in that it arguably serves the interests of any particular governing class. However, it has also developed a relative and extremely strong autonomy over the last two millennia. It is genuinely believed by all classes.
One of the reasons why Nazism was so successfully expansionist right through Europe and into parts of the USSR, was because there was a large measure of popular support for the anti-semitism that was explicitly central to it. For instance, Polish Jewry was under increasing attack in the years prior to the Nazi take-over, and at least one village to which Jews returned after the Nazi defeat suffered massacres in 1945. The myth that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter is parallel to the myth that the mass of the local populace throughout Europe was either ignorant or immobilised through fear. The holocaust had popular support in many places in the occupied countries. Indeed, complicity in the ‘final solution’ is now a national scandal in France today.
However, just as people like G. Sacks tried to win anti-semites to the anti-fascist cause, so today some of the Left seek to deny the popular appeal of the Nazi anti-semitism. They do this by disputing the centrality of anti-semitism to Nazi theory. Thus Ed Rosen in his article in Peace News wrote that anti-semitism was a “sideshow” with Nazism. He also stated that “both before and after Hitler came to power anti-semitism was never a mass movement in Germany” and that it occurred only “periodically” under the Nazis. The assumption is that the Nazis did not believe their own anti-semitic ideology. It was just a tactic—and not an important one—that could be turned on and off like a tap. This is almost the ‘reductio ad absurdam’ of the denial of the mass appeal of the ideology of anti-semitism as an explanation of the world. To present this ideology as a tactical ‘invention’ by fascist demagogues to divide the workers, simply misunderstands the depths of its roots.
Moreover, behind this lies a completely cynical amoralism which exists today with respect to the struggle by Left groups against anti-black racism. The suggestion is that racism of any kind is not to be opposed for its own sake, but because it divides the class. Socialist ideologues are apparently immune to it by definition. Within the class, it is simply an ‘error’. The logical conclusion of this is that Jewish people, along with everyone else, should not be fighting anti-semitism because it is anti-Jewish, but because it divides the class! Indeed, A.M. Wall actually did say that in the struggle against fascism … “It was necessary for the Jews not to talk of themselves as Jews” as this was somehow divisive. There is another logical conclusion to this: where there are no Jews, or where all Jews have been massacred and there is no longer a danger of class division, then presumably anti-semitism is permissible.