The arrest, last month, of three former Labour Party members over alleged incitement to racial hatred is the latest episode in the party’s long-running controversy over antisemitism. Much of the argument on the left has focused on the leadership’s firm stance on the rights of Palestinians, and whether – and to what extent – opposition to atrocities carried out by the Israeli state crosses the line into antisemitism, or whether such a framing plays into the hands of right-wing Zionism. Defenders of Jeremy Corbyn point to his long record as an anti-racist campaigner. But arguments based on an individual’s purity of heart (‘I don’t have a racist bone in my body’) are insufficient in addressing structural or societal problems. It is worth taking the claims seriously, on their own merits. What is the relationship between the Labour Party and British antisemitism, and if there is a problem, what has caused it?
The controversy flared up on the eve of the Labour Party’s 2015 leadership contest, in which Corbyn – then a relatively obscure backbencher on the party’s hard left – achieved a dramatic victory over uninspiring candidates from the party’s centrist and soft-left factions. After New Labour’s embrace of a Thatcherite programme of privatisation and the war in Iraq led by a neoconservative American administration, much of Corbyn’s appeal to the party members who elected him derived from his consistency as a campaigner against war, racism and oppression. Yet as he emerged as the leading candidate in the contest, the Jewish Chronicle ran a front-page article challenging him for his associations with a number of allegedly antisemitic figures and organisations.
The row has simmered ever since, periodically boiling over in a series of incidents: the suspension of the ex-mayor of London Ken Livingstone over his bizarre claim that Adolf Hitler had ‘supported Zionism’, followed by protests outside Parliament by Jewish community members and others against the Labour Party’s alleged toleration of antisemitism. Among the MPs that addressed protesters was Luciana Berger, a former member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet who had joined the mass resignations in 2016 that tried and failed to dislodge Corbyn from the leadership, and later, after sustained criticism from members of her constituency party and antisemitic attacks on social media, quit the Labour Party altogether to join the ‘Independent Group’ of MPs drawn from the anti-Brexit factions of the Labour and Tory parties.
Commentary on the issue has generated more heat than light. A paper for the academic journal International Relations and Diplomacy argued that the Labour Party tolerates ‘left-wing antisemitism in the form of antisemitic anti-Zionism’; in an op-ed for the New York Times, the novelist Howard Jacobson has suggested that the Labour Party’s slogan ‘for the many, not the few’ carries the subtext of ‘for the many, not the Jew’. And Labour MP and former minister Margaret Hodge directly accused Corbyn of being an ‘anti-Semitic racist’. Defenders of the Labour leadership point out the relatively small number of incidents within the party relative to its size (Labour has more members than all its rivals put together) and the disproportionate amount of media coverage compared to other parties, arguing that charges of antisemitism are being used as a proxy to suppress criticism of the Israeli government, and cynically, selectively and in bad faith by Corbyn’s opponents within Labour: an attempt by ‘Blairite saboteurs’ to reverse the party’s leftward turn without making an open argument for a return to New Labour neoliberal economics that are deeply unpopular with the party’s activists.
Each of these rebuttals has some merit. It is true that the Tory Party has formal links with racist and antisemitic parties through its membership of the Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament, an unsavoury grab-bag of eurosceptics set up by David Cameron to placate the right wing of the party, that Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech drew on antisemitic tropes, and that the Tory Party is rife with Islamophobia. It is also true that the ways the media reports on the Conservative and Labour parties are absurdly biased (Richard Seymour has claimed in the pages of Overland that this shows ‘how openly interventionist the majority of the media becomes when official opposition threatens to become a force for more radical change.’) Besides, to tar all criticism of Israel with the brush of antisemitism is a much more harmful smear than any squabbles within the Labour Party will ever be, since it puts beyond the pale meaningful advocacy on behalf of the Palestinian people, who have suffered displacement, oppression, disenfranchisement and ethnic cleansing since the process of their dispossession was begun by British imperial fiat.
However, none of these rejoinders are sufficient to answer the central questions, posed (but not answered) in an article by the Guardian columnist John Harris:
Why do people with antisemitic views think today’s Labour party is the right place for them? And why are so many people on the left still averting their eyes?
One might contest the framing of these questions, but it is not sufficient to retort that antisemitism is much more widespread on the right of politics. A party that, as Jeremy Corbyn said, puts anti-racism at its very core, ought to hold itself to a higher standard.
A sensible place to begin thinking about the problem is to consider the nature of contemporary antisemitism and the ways it differs from other types of racism and xenophobia, as well as from older forms of antisemitism – and therefore might not be adequately addressed by generic condemnations of ‘all forms of racism’.
Racist ideologies provided an intellectual cover for the depredations of European colonialism and the slave trade; as such, they presented the racialised Other as inferior, subhuman, irrational, irresponsible, incorrigibly violent and therefore in need of subjugation and oppression. Antisemitism, on the other hand imagines ‘the Jews’ not as inferior but as a global cabal of master manipulators whose power and influence is hidden yet all-pervasive. One need only search YouTube for ‘Rothschild’ or ‘Soros’ to see the continued prevalence of these notions.
Historian and political economist Moishe Postone cautions against thinking of this phenomenon as a mere atavistic reflex: although modern antisemitism draws on long-standing Christian European prejudice against Jews as greedy money-lenders, it is a distinct ideology that arose symptomatically from the rise of capitalism. Antisemitic thought misdiagnoses the malign effects of capitalism; it does not recognise the interdependence of productive labour and capitalist social relations. Rather than grasping capitalism as a totality, it sets up a false dichotomy in which the authentic, natural and concrete is opposed to the intangible, universal and abstract:
Industrial capital then can appear as the linear descendent of ‘natural’ artisanal labor, as ‘organically rooted’, in opposition to ‘rootless’, ‘parasitic’ finance capital.
Postone further argues that this fetishised conception of capitalism offers a partial and debased critique that ‘presents a danger to the Left precisely because of its pseudo-emancipatory dimension.’
In the context of British political economy, this danger is particularly acute. The Thatcher government’s policies, combined with the general tendency of globalised trade to relocate industrial production to areas of the world with lower labour costs, dramatically shifted the centre of gravity of the UK economy towards financial and business services, devastating communities dependent on industrial activity. The Blair and Brown governments continued this trend, following the USA in a programme of deregulation that paved the way for the global financial crisis. The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition seized the opportunity provided by the crisis to pursue an ideological agenda of austerity, inflicting ‘savage cuts’ on public spending.
All three main political parties were implicated in a stitch-up with the banking system that punished the working class for a malfunction of financial capitalism. It is not surprising, then, that when opposition to this gross injustice emerged, it took the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s righteous moral indignation aimed specifically at ‘greedy bankers’ and the cosy neoliberal consensus at the top of British politics.
The problem with this moralistic approach to political economy is that it mistakes symptom for cause. Greed may well be a moral failing of a specific banker, or even of bankers in general – but to blame the effects of the system as a whole on the moral character of individuals within it (or even, as Postone points out, one aspect of the system) is miopic.
It was just such a failure of vision that led Corbyn initially to defend the ‘Freedom for Humanity’ mural painted by the street artist Mear One – a minor but nonetheless instructive incident. The mural depicts a game of Monopoly played by men in suits over the backs of huddled, wretched figures. A lurid green pyramid symbol above the men displays the ‘Eye of Providence’ symbol, and a protestor off to the side holds a banner declaring that ‘The New World Order is the enemy of humanity.’ When the mural was flagged for removal by the local borough council, Corbyn’s first response was to defend the artist. When the antisemitic nature of the image was pointed out, Corbyn apologised, explaining that he had not looked closely enough at the image. But even if Mear One’s Monopoly players were WASPs instead of hook-nosed caricatures of Jews, the mise-en-scène would nevertheless enact the same conspiracy-theory logic that underlies modern antisemitism.
I have no reason to doubt Corbyn’s sincerity in rejecting antisemitism. The problem is that the rhetorical framing of his critique in moral terms of the defence of the economic wellbeing of the nation against ravaging international capital tends, unwittingly, to resonate with noxious forms of ideology and ressentiment. As the Insipidities blog puts it:
… even though individuals of the left are personally opposed to anti-semitism, the inherited arrangement of their argumentation, the procedures, the propositions, the inferences, the deductions, is structured to find archetypical moral personifications at the heart of what it opposes, and one of these figures, perhaps the most discernible and significant, is the Jew.
It is ironic – given the feverish attempts by the right-wing British media to portray Corbyn as a Marxist – that the limitations of the Corbyn project as a response to the aftermath of the global financial crisis are inscribed in its adherence to a Bennite socialist tradition that, as Sydney Higgins famously said, ‘owes much more to the teaching of Jesus than the writing of Marx.’ Labour centrists such as the MP Siobhain McDonagh, who made the vulgar claim that anti-capitalism leads to antisemitism, have it exactly backwards. The Corbyn project is not ‘too radical.’ Whatever its sympathies with currents on the extra-parliamentary far left (some of which have opportunistically fallen in behind Momentum), the Corbyn project remains committed to struggling for emancipation within the arena of the nation-state, and to using state institutions to achieve its political ends. From these commitments flow its left-wing euroscepticism and – in combination with its staunch New-Left anti-imperialism – a willingness to overlook the brutal suppression of workers by national-liberation movements abroad, as well a failure to challenge the underlying structures of society that it depends upon.
As the blogger Ross Wolfe writes, ‘it’s easier to stick with the idea that you just have to weed out “a few bad apples” than it is to tear apart the ideological fabric of everything that surrounds you.’ To its credit, Momentum has produced a video debunking anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, it is likely that such tropes will continue to retain a purchase on the imagination even among sections of the Left, so long as we remain trapped in an economic system that generates morbid social symptoms such as antisemitism.