On April 17th, 2018, after much discussion within the Labour Party on the subject, a debate was had in the House of Commons around the topic of anti-Semitism in British politics. And while it was officially about that, it was really about anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. There were several poignant speeches from Labour MPs about their experiences with an anti-Semitism that had emanated from their own party’s activists. Luciana Berger in particular spoke of some of the abuse she had received from members of her own CLP, including being told to “go back to Israel”. For this speech, she was applauded in the House, by convention not allowed but in this instance the deputy speaker turned a blind eye. One MP not clapping was Jeremy Corbyn, who instead decided to mark the end of Berger’s speech by leaving the chamber.
When the leader of the opposition was in the House during the debate, he sat silent and looked like a giant bruise. He clearly felt like he had to be there – that his absence would be seen as too much – but he suffered through the whole thing very obviously. I thought at the time “Why can’t he just fake some sympathy and be done with it?” It got worse for the Labour frontbench as well. After several grisly speeches from Labour MPs, detailing the anti-Semitism they had faced within Labour, Diane Abbott was called upon to respond. She began clumsily talking about her constituency. A couple of MPs, one Tory and one Labour, made a point of order about the whole affair, only to be told that in strict terms, the shadow Home Secretary did not need to actually discuss the matter at hand.
Anti-Semitism on the Left hasn’t arisen from nowhere. In fact, it is an inevitable result of the type of socialism practiced by the British Left in 2018.
Some pundits have pointed out that anti-Semitism is in the DNA of socialism via Marx. Fingers are particularly pointed at Marx’s On the Jewish Question, an essay written in 1843. Critics of Marxism point to this essay as an objective illustration of Marx’s anti-Semitism, but there are reasons to be cautious here. The charge of anti-Semitism in On the Jewish Question mostly boils down to one sentence in the second part of the essay, which reads:
“What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.”
Taken out of context, that does look bad – but context here counts. The essay is based upon a critique and at times almost a sort of dialogue with Bruno Bauer, a German intellectual of the period whose fame in the 21st century is nowhere near the same league as Marx’s. The essay takes several things to their supposed nth degree in a search for the role of religion in lives of people in the middle of the eighteenth century. One can accuse Marx of being a bit overblown and precocious – but anti-Semitism is a stretch. Not least because Marx technically was Jewish (although his parents had become Lutheran when he was a child and he was raised as such). As a result, some have tried to hang Marx on the “self-loathing Jew” cross which has almost become a parody in leftist circles (more on that in a moment), but again, this doesn’t feel genuine.
No, when I look at the anti-Semitism that is endemic within the Left, in its current form there is a much more obvious and less foggy culprit. Anti-Semitism on the modern Left comes from two forces in parallel: the idea of “white privilege” that arises from identity politics, and the Manichean nature of the socialist worldview.
The basis of “white privilege” is straightforward: white people were the ones who kept slavery going for centuries, all while they were conquering the world. As a result of this, white people have unfair advantages and thus “privilege”. Furthermore, this needs to be corrected. Now, there is obviously a hint of truth in all this – the reason the average white person in America is richer than the average black person in America, for instance, is undeniably due to the fact that most white people’s ancestors were free to come to America and do as well as the market dictated, while black American’s ancestors were very often slaves, and following slavery faced massive institutionalised racial discrimination for at least a century. However, the theory of white privilege brings with it some difficult baggage, regardless of how much one can sympathise with its basic underpinnings. For a start, there are a lot of poor white people in the world, just as there are also many ethnic minority individuals who grew up wealthy. For a socialist, this presents a bigger problem than they care to realise. If good and evil is based on the poor being good versus the rich being bad in addition to the racial component, then how do poor whites and wealthy minorities fit into that equation? The Left usually deals with this by dismissing any minority who doesn’t fit in the schema as not a real minority somehow. A good example was during the Windrush scandal, when Channel 4 news had the grime artist Marci Phonix up against Tory MP Kwasi Kwartang. Phonix was understandably upset about the threat or in some cases, actual deportation of people who had every right to be in the UK, and Kwartang had clearly been wheeled out by the Tories to have a BME representative repeat and defend the government line. Still, what was interesting was how Phonix attacked Kwarteng on the grounds of identity:
“You are not coming from the same place I’m coming from. You don’t represent the same people I represent.”
I don’t want to read meaning into what Phonx said to Kwarteng where it wasn’t there, but it certainly seemed to me that he was trying to imply that because Kwarteng was a Tory MP, he wasn’t really allowed the usual minority anti-privilege. A Labour meme from the 2017 general election went “Only Labour can be trusted to unlock the talent of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic People”. Again, the unconscious idea being communicated here was simple: to be an ethnic minority and not of the left amounted to a betrayal and further, a sort of revocation of one’s minority “rights”.
So how does this come back to anti-Semitism exactly? Jews are white – or, I should more accurately say, they are accepted as being white by the modern Left. Within this group, being white is okay so long as you accept that being white is an inherently bad thing that brings with it unearned privilege. This is why it is okay to be Jewish within the socialist Left, and we come to the main point here, so long as you are self-loathing about it. This is the main reason why socialists find accusations of anti-Semitism so baffling: they are only asking of Jews what they ask of themselves, that is, to be ashamed of their own racial heritage. For instance, you can be from a wealthy background and be welcomed into the socialist circle – otherwise there would be very few socialists at all, I hasten to mention – it’s just that you need to be self-loathing about that fact in order to be part of the tribe. All you have to do is disavow the identity you were born with, which again, is what all other initiates are doing.
That brings us back to the socialist’s black and white worldview. In the modern socialist Left’s idea of right and wrong, the bad guys are, basically, the United States of America, the white race, and the western wealthy. The good guys are America’s enemies (whatever their faults), minorities and the global poor. Again, it’s okay to technically be born one of the bad guys, so long as you recognise that you started life as one of the bad guys and you are thoroughly ashamed of that fact and fully own up to being from the bad guy side of the equation. As they are a minority, you would think at first glance that Jews might have a chance of getting into the good guy group. Once upon a time, they did, certainly in the years after the Second World War. But following the 1967 War, one in which Israel scored a resounding victory and claimed land they still technically hold to this day, they became one of the bad guys. They in fact became just another group of white people who were in cahoots with America, doing down a bunch of real good guys (very poor and very minority) in the Palestinians. Within socialism, because it is quasi-religious in nature and utopian to boot, good guys deserve eternal salvation while the bad guys deserve eternal damnation. Given you can repent at any time – just becoming a self-loathing Jew who denounces Israel is all you need to do to be saved – the socialists don’t consider it racist or even prejudiced. Since anyone can be saved and thus there is a clear element of choice involved, where is the real racism involved, they think.
Some have speculated, usually people on the right-wing fringes of British politics, that the Labour Party has been infiltrated by either Muslims or people who are sympathetic towards Islam, and this accounts for the rise in anti-Semitism. One of the many leaders of UKIP said something to his effect a few months ago. Apart from being untrue (the Muslim percentage of Labour members is tiny and besides, this assumes all Muslims are anti-Semitic) this is a weirdly flippant account, one that suggests that the anti-Semitism problem within the modern Left is simply opportunistic, nothing more than a cynical gambit to corner the Muslim vote. The problem runs much deeper than that, unfortunately. It is woven into the very ideological basis upon which the modern Left operates. Getting rid of it is going to take a lot more than a few speeches about how all racism is to be deplored along side some half-arsed “initiatives”.
Paul W says
An interesting piece Nick. But I don’t think there is any risk you will be awarded the Order of Lenin for it by Comrade Corbyn and his friends.
To be fair, Paul, I think that ship might have sailed some time ago!
Paul W says
In that case, I fear a spell of political re-education awaits both of us somewhere in deepest Siberia.
In the modern socialist Left’s idea of right and wrong, the bad guys are, basically, the United States of America, the white race, and the western wealthy
paul barker says
An excellent analysis. I would add the development of The New Left in the late 1960s, particularly the thinking of The IMG.
Their argument was that Proletarian Leadership of The Revolutions seemed to be off the agenda so we have to look for other “Progressive Forces” to provide Leadership.
The IMG in particular came up with a weird list of “Forces” : Students, Hippies, Women, Gays, Rock Music, Squatters (see Piers Corbyn), Stalinist Geurillas & The 3rd World.
After 1967 Israel & by extension, anyone sympathetic to Israel became a Central enemy, being theoretically at least, the Enemy for virtually any Country in The Middle East, Northy Africa or The wider Islamic World.
Not everyone on The Far Left went along with that analysis at first but it seems to have spread since, infecting almost anyone who thinks of themselves as Left or even Liberal.