Robert Fine 1945-2018

Robert Fine died today.  Robert was a friend and teacher to many of us.  Robert was one of the most important social theorists of our time.

Robert was also one of the political and intellectual forces behind Engage: behind the campaign against the academic boycott of Israel, against BDS and against antisemitism.

If people don’t know Robert or his work, then they can still engage with his writing.

One of the great things about Robert’s work is that it is both absolutely serious and brilliant, but it is also accessible. He has always written to engage people with important things, never to impress precocious grad students.

His book on left antisemitism, written with Philip Spencer, is ‘Antisemitism and the left: On the return of the Jewish Question’. It is a defence of the Marxist and critical tradition against the ‘socialism of fools’ that is now, so sadly, as important as ever.

His book ‘Cosmopolitanism’ is an overview of a key concept of contemporary social theory and it distils much of what is important to his work and his view of the world into one paperback.

His book on Hegel, Marx and Arendt, ‘Political Investigations’ creates a framework for thinking about the critique of contemporary society, while keeping hold of the critique of the critique – in other words, how to think about making the world better while learning the lessons of how such projects have made it much worse. Marx claimed to be turning Hegel on his head; Fine argues that Marx was much more a follower of Hegel than he knew; that Marx’s capital should be read side by side with Hegel’s Philosophy of Right – not read as a correction to it.

Before apartheid in South Africa was defeated, Robert wrote, with Dennis Davis, ‘Beyond Apartheid – Labour and Liberation in South Africa’ – a critique of apartheid, a sociology of the anti-apartheid movement and also a critique of some of the politics of the ANC – and a specifically socialist take on the liberation movement – work some of whose warnings are even now being shown to have been important.

And before that he wrote an absolute classic, from which students are still taught about Marxist theories of law, ‘Democracy and the rule of law’ – also a critique of liberal theories and practices of law, but at the same time a critique of anti-Liberal Marxism.

I think Robert would have loved the idea that people who didn’t know his work might still start reading it, teaching it and engaging with it now.

Here are links to some of the things he wrote on contemporary antisemitism:

On Doing the Sociology of Antisemitism –

“Sociologically speaking, I have been a bit of a fly-by-night. Instead of devoting 40 years of my life to the study of One Thing, I have flown from prisons and asylums, to police and the law, to Marx and the Enlightenment, to South Africa and the nonracial unions, to Trotskyism and Stalinism, to nationalism and cosmopolitanism, and to Kant and Hegel. It keeps me busy but is perhaps not to be recommended as career trajectories go. My saving grace, if I have one, is that beneath the Many Things there is, I feel, One Thing to which I kept coming back.

This brings me to another of my ‘topics’ that I have begun to explore in recent years. It is the question of antisemitism. I have to say that of all my subject matters I have attempted to research, this has been by far the most fraught, troubled and anxiety-producing.   So I thought that rather than bottle it up in the corner of my study, I would share it with my European colleagues and ask those of you interested what you think about this particular concern.

My experience is that, with a certain proviso, it’s basically ok to speak about antisemitism in the past but it gets trickier to speak about it in the present.”

Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Anti-Semitism – Robert Fine – Engage Journal Issue 2 – May 2006  –

“I don’t want to draw any direct connection between Marx’s battles with left-wing anti-Semitism in his time and the battles with anti-Semitism which go on in our own times. … However, I would wish to draw the following loose connections. First, modern, political anti-Semitism is a creature of the left as well as the right. We should abandon any fond hope that the universalism of the left inures it to anti-Semitic temptations. Second, there is a strong tradition of anti-Semitism on the Left. Indeed, the most intelligent and radical currents of left (including Marx) have placed the battle against anti-Semitism at the centre of their political thinking. Third, the significance of anti-Semitism on the Left lies not only in what was known as the Jewish question as such, but in helping to sow the seeds of totalitarian thinking and practice in anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist circles. And finally, there is a deep and enduring connection between the reconstruction of socialism as an enlightened, cosmopolitan radicalism and the overcoming of anti-Semitism in all its shapes and forms.”

Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel – Robert Fine  –

“In the metonymic use of apartheid, Israel is not called by its own name or understood in its own right but rather through the name of something seemingly associated in meaning with it. This rhetorical device has in turn been converted through processes of slippage into the metaphoric use of ‘apartheid’ in order to designate the core being of Israel. The attempt to portray an equivalence between Israel and apartheid has been further pursued through the synecdoche in which the part – say the shooting of Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli soldiers or land seizures and attacks on ordinary Palestinian civilians by Israeli settlers – is taken for the whole and then analogised with apartheid.”

The Palestine/Israel question and racialised discourses on Jews – Robert Fine

“Hannah Arendt put the matter in a typically robust way when she wrote that to treat the behaviour of Jews as the source of antisemitism is ‘the malicious and stupid insight of antisemites, who think that this vile tenet can account for hecatombs of human sacrifice’. Arendt added that ‘the foundations of antisemitism are found in developments that have very little to do with Jews’. This does not mean that some people do not use the actual behaviour of some Jews as material for their antisemitic phantasies, just as other people use the actual behaviour of some Muslims as material for their Islamophobic phantasies. Racism is a versatile beast that grabs hold of what it can. The history of every category of people contains misdeeds that can serve as fuel for the racist imagination, although the racist imagination is not limited to such real or imagined misdeeds.”

Fighting with phantoms – a contribution to the debate on antisemitism in Europe –

“The point of departure of this paper is the polarization of ways of thinking about antisemitism in Europe, between those who see its recent resurgence and those that affirm its empirical marginalization and normative delegitimation. The historical question raised by this polarization of discourses is this: what has happened to the antisemitism that once haunted Europe? Both the current camps—’alarmists’ and ‘deniers’, as they are sometimes known, or, perhaps more accurately, new antisemitism theorists and their critics—have the strength to challenge celebratory views of European civilization. One camp sees the return to Europe of an old antisemitism in a new and mediated guise. The other sees the return to Europe of a rhetoric of antisemitism that is not only anachronistic but also delusory and deceptive. Overshadowing this debate is the memory of the Holocaust and the continuing presence of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The aim of this paper is to get inside these discourses and deconstruct the dualism that generates homogenizing and stigmatizing typifications on either side. The spirit of Hannah Arendt hovers over this work and the question of the meaning of her legacy runs through the text.”

Robert Fine debates with the boycotters at Leeds University.

Robert Fine debates the boycott of Israel in the South African context.

Robert’s contribution to “Whitewashed”, was perhaps his last work before he became ill; I think the last video of him talking.

One Response to “Robert Fine 1945-2018”

  1. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    I can’t add to David’s fine appreciation from personal knowledge, because I never met Robert other than in the online world, that is, here on Engage.
    However, I can attest to his collegiality, in a very minor way: I had managed to lose a link and reference that he had posted here, and so I emailed him via his university address, asking if he could be so kind as to remind me of it (noting that it was my own carelessness that had lost it in the first place). He very graciously (academic to academic) did so very quickly – and most useful and interesting the link was and is.
    Repeating that we never met, this was a most gracious act. And everything David has said suggests that this was a common practice on his part: a consummate human being.

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