Capitulation will never be good enough for the right – so the Labour left has no interest in compromise, argues Jim Grant of Labour Party Marxists
Another week, another great torrent of spurious anti-Semitism allegations.
We would go through a few of them, but, really, why bother? There is nothing new here – just the same fetid concoction of lies, innuendo and smears, lightly seasoned (if that) with actual examples of anti-Semitism invariably culled from a few cranks on the internet. By equally valid means could the Labour Party be just as fairly accused of being a Russian mafia front, a giant paedophile ring, or – alas! – an instrument of world Jewry’s conspiracy against the white race.
We are more interested – which is to say, quite exasperated – by the refusal to fight back against such smears by wide sections of the left, including the Labour leadership and its outriders in Momentum and the like.
Even when the left fights back, it seems to capitulate. Take a piece from Jacobin by Daniel Finn, deputy editor of the New Left Review. It is vastly preferable to Richard Seymour’s spineless intervention, and is on the face of it precisely what we are after – a denunciation of the witch-hunt, an exposure of the defamers and their dishonest methods. Yet, for all that, comrade Finn is bizarrely keen to insist that there is a problem, even if it is not so crippling as all that. “There is no evidence that anti-Semitic views are more prevalent in Labour than in other parties,” he writes (emphasis added). “If the party has even a single member with anti-Semitic views, that’s a problem. Only a fool would claim that Labour has managed to eliminate every last trace of bigotry from its ranks”; and so on.
Things get weirder still when we get to the Chakrabarti report. Finn does a reasonable job of exposing the cynicism with which it is denounced as a “whitewash”, but then goes on to say:
Chakrabarti’s report contained some very sensible recommendations about language: she urged left activists to “use the term ‘Zionist’ advisedly, carefully and never euphemistically or as part of personal abuse” and to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons in debates about Israel/Palestine in particular”.
He then cites the Ken Livingstone affair as an example of how not to do things.
A famous saying, attributed to Edmund Burke, has it that for evil to triumph all that is necessary is for good people to do nothing. Yet we know that there are numerous kinds of inaction, and here we are faced by a very contemporary one. So we might rephrase the pseudo-Burke aphorism: all that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to silence themselves for fear of offending the evil-doers. The backsliding of Jeremy Corbyn and his clique is well documented in this paper, as is the timidity of Owen Jones on the question; and in last week’s edition the indefatigable Tony Greenstein dealt at length with the increasingly rudderless Richard Seymour’s platitudinous meanderings on the subject.
For what else are we to do with leftwingers who hem and haw about using the word ‘Zionist’ because it gives offence, or the admonition of our Jacobin writer that comparisons with the Nazis are out? If we were to take this offence-taking at its word, we should perhaps greet it as good news, for it would mean that Zionists – by taking fright at the use of their movement’s historic, self-chosen name – were ashamed of it. Perhaps they are finally learning! Perhaps when he described himself and the disgraced advertising mogul, Martin Sorrell, in their student days as “slightly leftwing Zionists” in the New Yorker recently, Simon Schama was launching at his younger self a vigorous piece of self-criticism.
Alas, we doubt it. What is going on is, in fact, far more mundane. When an anti-Zionist uses the word ‘Zionist’, they are by definition describing an enemy. Zionists, being possessed like all other humans with the capacity to resolve ambiguities in language, know that to the speaker the word ‘Zionist’ has negative connotations. There are only two ways to avoid using ‘Zionist’ as an insult. One is to use different words to express your criticism – but that merely shifts the problem, since no doubt being accused of ‘blood-and-soil nationalist colonialism’ is just as offensive as ‘Zionist’ when it comes down to it. The other is to not attack Zionism at all – either because one is a Zionist, or even indifferent to the question; or because one is intent on disarming oneself.
As for Nazi comparisons, what of them? If we can’t use Nazism, can we use apartheid, or the conquistadors, as points of reference? We merely end up asking our enemies for permission to criticise them. (Nobody asked any of us if it was all right to accuse us of anti-Semitism.) It is also worth noting that the Palestinian solidarity movement is not the only place where the comparison occurs to people: we commend to comrade Finn a fascinating and disturbing piece from Ha’aretz some years ago on the odd tendency for the Israeli security services themselves to throw out such comparisons: for example, a group of Israel Defence Forces soldiers, stationed in Ramallah during the first intifada, who nicknamed themselves the “Mengele squad”, out of some combination of nihilistic hatred and repressed guilt.
Our own petard
The question arises as to why our side is so paralysed. There is no shortage of anger about these scandalous smears; the rank-and-file of the Labour Party seems, at least since its explosion in size during and after Corbyn’s election, to be overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian. The Zionists and also opportunistically pro-Zionist rightwingers are loud, and they are nasty, and they have the media on their side, but they are numerically tiny. Yet they have a habit of outmanoeuvring our much more numerous troops, who – surely – have the potential to be far more militant than appears currently to be the case.
The explanation, so far as we can see, has two essential aspects to it. The first is that the left, including its socialist (and even revolutionary) components, has over time adopted an essentially liberal approach to overcoming oppression. In countries where Maoism was the prime beneficiary from the student movement of the 1960s, a policy of ‘alliances’ with organisations of the specially oppressed that gave the political lead to those organisations was a straightforward matter, authorised by popular frontism. In countries like Britain where Trotskyism did better, the ostensible approach was to turn discontent on the women’s, black, etc questions into militant action, in order to win leadership for the Marxists on those questions, but in reality that had the same result, where the Marxists ended up as ‘the best fighters’ (if they were lucky) on behalf of politics substantially set by the ‘self-organised’ oppressed.
As state policy turned from artificially propping up patriarchal family relations and white predominance in politics and economic life, however, the centripetal force of common struggle was overpowered by the centrifugal force of sectionalism. It became far more readily possible for oppressed groups to achieve some marginal advantage or another comfortably within the system. Whatever attraction revolutionary politics once had for people whose whole horizon was the women’s question, or the black question, was eroded. The left did not notice this change, however, and continued to trail increasingly anti-left forms of identity politics.
The result is that purely liberal identity politics has nearly uncontested ‘mindshare’ among the wider progressive and left milieus. And purely liberal identity politics has no answer to the problem of someone announcing that, as a Jew, they are very offended that leftwingers keep on going on about the crimes of Israel; to deny that this offence is legitimate is impossible without breaking with liberalism here, but by tailing liberalism we put people on our side in the impossible position of having to break with it as atomised individuals. They cannot, and do not.
From top down
Which leads us to the second problem, which is the problem of leadership.
There is a certain old-mannish tendency for grizzled left curmudgeons to complain about the state of the people who make up the hundreds of thousands who joined the Labour Party in its recent, fascinatingly turbulent period of life. The newcomers are young; they think everything is about the internet; they’re obsessed with celebrity, and just want their selfie with Jeremy; they don’t stand up straight; they should get off my lawn.
This tendency is to be rejected, as it curses us to complacency, but above all because the fact that we have a new generation at all, and have gotten some of the old generations back, is an extraordinary blessing, which we do not get often, least of all in the mostly bleak three decades to the present date.
Yet there is always a grain of truth to these things. In this case, it can hardly be denied that the political level of Corbynite Labour activists is very low, and does not seem to have risen at all in the last couple of years. No chinks have appeared in the armour of identity politics. No slogans have emerged as a stiffer alternative to ‘For the many, not the few’. Strikingly, there seems to have been no noticeable growth in the organised far left at all – not those parts of it energetically tailing Corbyn, not those taking a sectarian stand against it, nor any of the other approaches that have been tried. We starve amid plenty.
The truth is that everything depends on leadership. For somebody coming into the movement at this moment, there is a very clear candidate for the leadership – Corbyn. There is secondarily Momentum, which has made a few odd moves recently, but still enjoys the prestige inadvertently donated to it by the scurrilous attacks of the rightwing press. Both these loci of leadership tell people, first of all, to submit themselves to all the defects our grumpy old men list out above – Bonapartist hero-worship and so on. This is not some sort of cultural decline, but the result of people making the correct decision to get involved in the mass movement, and taking advice from the leaders of that movement as to what they ought to do. Those leaders are, precisely, grizzled leftwingers; they are ‘our kind of people’. It is us who are responsible for misleading those masses that a historical accident has thrown into motion, and who are trying to direct that motion.
The strategy of the movement’s leadership is to avoid as strenuously as possible conflict over issues which it does not plan to fight an election on, which in practice means issues that divide the Labour left from the centre. In practice, this means the single issue of austerity. So much the worse for the Palestinians; for the policy on Israel and fake anti-Semitism accusations is simply to give ground, again and again, to no noticeable effect. Why bother denouncing such allegations if even Ken Livingstone gets thrown to the wolves?
The abiding lesson of this fiasco, then, is a simple one: the time for Corbynite fanboyism is very much over.