Labour, the left, and the “Jewish problem”

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The co-chairman of the Oxford University Labour club resigns after claiming “a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews."; two Labour councillors suspended for antisemitic posts on social media: one of them, Salim Mulla, the mayor of Blackburn, tweeted that Israel was behind recent Islamic State atrocities in Europe; further up in the party hierarchy,  Labour MP Naz Shah has to apologise in the House of Commons for suggesting on Facebook that the solution to the Israel-Palestine problem is to transport the entire population of Israel to the USA; and to top it all, Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, denies that Naz Shah has said anything antisemitic and refuses to apologise for claiming that “Hitler supported Zionism in 1932 before going mad and killing six million Jews”. Under pressure from the press and parts of his own party, Jeremy Corbyn announces the formation of a commission of inquiry into antisemitism in the party, headed by civil liberties campaigner Shami Chakrabarti.

So, do Labour and the left have a “Jewish problem”?

Leaving aside the way Labour’s scandals have been used to the hilt by the Tories, the right wing press, and parts of the Labour party itself, to discredit the Corbyn leadership; leaving aside the habitual refrain of the right wing Zionists that any criticism of the Israeli state is by definition antisemitic – the answer is still yes.

Personalising capital

Antisemitism is deeply embedded in capitalism, even if its historic roots go much further back. And Labour and the left are part of capitalism. Like capitalism’s right wing, its left wing also sees social reality not from the standpoint of the exploited class, but from the standpoint of the dominant world system.

Neither right or left are able to understand capital for what it is: a social relation between classes. For them capital must be personified to make it more understandable; but in doing so, they obscure its essentially impersonal nature. As Marx once put it: individual capitalists are increasingly becoming mere functionaries of capital.

The classic embodiment of antisemitism is the form developed by the right wing, by fascism and its various antecedents and offspring. Their anti-Jewish propaganda had a powerful impact in the wake of the First World War and above all in the great capitalist crisis of the 1930s. Millions were thrown into poverty and unemployment by the decline of the capitalist system, but this is a mode of production which appears to operate in a mysterious way, through the working out of economic “laws” which present themselves almost as laws of nature. And yet these are laws that are set in motion by the activity of human beings.  A contradiction which is certainly difficult to grasp! Far easier to understand the calamities brought about by the laws of commodity exchange as the malign product of identifiable human groups.

The “anti-capitalism” of the Nazis was thus able to point the finger of blame at the hooked-nosed, money-lending profiteers from “debt-slavery”, at “unpatriotic” Jewish financiers and at the equally unpatriotic “Judaeo-Bolsheviks” who had stabbed Germany in the back and caused it to lose the war in 1918. The “stab in the back” was, in reality, the proletarian revolution in Germany which had compelled the ruling class to halt the war, but which had been defeated through the combined efforts of the left of capital – the “social traitors” of the German Labour party – and the rightist precursors of the Nazi party. The purveyors of the myth of a Jewish conspiracy against the Fatherland were, in these conditions, largely successful in diverting the defeated and disoriented masses from going any further towards understanding the real origins of their impoverishment.

But the personalisation of capital is not limited to the right. The left also has its sinister caricatures: the top-hatted Fat Cat, the poshos of the Tory party, the bonus-guzzling bankers. In the discourse which dominated much of the Occupy movement in 2011, the bankers in particular were singled out as the very people who had caused the financial crash through their insatiable greed. And this anger at the bankers could easily slide into whispers about the power of the Rothschilds and the “Zionist lobby” in the US, or into the full-blown mythology of the Illuminati, which in turn reiterates the old theme of a world Jewish cabal.

This left-wing personalisation is also at the basis of the essential programme of the left: not the abolition of the capitalist social relation, which means the revolutionary suppression of wage labour and commodity production, but the statifying of that very same social relation – another motif they share with the fascists.  In this world-view, if capital is taken over by the state, it ceases to benefit the private few and can be made to work for the many.

Nationalism, Zionism and anti-Zionism

This traditional state capitalist programme of the left is, significantly, defined by them as a programme of “nationalisations”, with or without the sweetener of “workers’ control”. This is another indicator of the capitalist nature of the left, whether Labourite, Stalinist or Trotskyist. Nationalisation means “national” ownership – the attempt to unify the national capital. The starting point of the left is thus the starting point of all factions of capital – the interests of the nation, that fabulous community which transcends all class divisions.

In the days of Marx and Engels, the workers’ movement supported certain national movements because it saw them as progressive in relation to the still-surviving forms of feudal domination. They understood that they were capitalist and insisted that if workers took part in them they must at all times guard their organisational and political independence.

Those days are long gone. Capitalism everywhere is a reactionary system whose very survival threatens humanity with ruin. The nation state is a crying anachronism in an age where only a world without frontiers, a global human community, can overcome the crises confronting the entire species. Over the last hundred years or so, nationalist ideology has morphed into the most hideous forms, utterly devoid of any progressive content. Again, fascism is the most obvious sign of this, but the nationalism promoted by the Stalinist regimes has been hardly less rabid (and has certainly been made ample use of antisemitism where this proved expedient for the regime, as with the so-called “Doctors’ Plot” in Russia in 1952-53[1] and the employment of dark references to Zionists and “rootless cosmopolitans” in state propaganda).  

Modern political Zionism was born at the end of the 19th century as yet another form of nationalism. It arose as a reaction against the rise of antisemitism in Europe. Despairing of any possibility of radical social change as a cure for the scapegoating of the Jews, its mainstream version elaborated by Theodor Herzl and others came up with the solution of a Jewish state in Palestine, where Jews would not only be free from persecution but would create a kind of ideal society, flowering in the allegedly uninhabited deserts of the Holy Land. 

Like all forms of nationalism, Zionism starts off by obscuring the real class differences within the “Jewish community” and claims that all Jews have the same fundamental interests, from the worker in a small clothing factory to the Baron de Rochschild himself. For that reason alone, it is an antidote to the real danger that threatens capitalism: that the workers of the world will unite, recognising that their true interests have nothing to do with nationality or religion, but spring from a shared struggle against a shared exploitation.

But more than this: like any other “national liberation movement” in the epoch of imperialism, Zionism could only survive by attaching itself to the great powers that dominated the globe. First Britain, with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, then, with the fight against the British Mandate in Palestine in the 40s, the USA. And, having established itself as a nation state, Israel provided us with further confirmation of Rosa Luxemburg’s observation that we are living in an epoch where every state, from the most powerful to the most petty, has its own imperialist appetites. The drive to conquer surrounding territories and to expel or subjugate their populations has been reflected at the ideological level by the ascendance, within Zionism, of the most reactionary notions justifying the imperialist expansion of the Israeli state – Netanyahu’s thuggish nationalism, various brands of religious fundamentalism, and even a kind of Jewish fascism, where the slogan of “kill the Arabs” raised by the admirers of “Rabbi” Meir Kahane bears a sinister resemblance to the “Judenraus” of the Nazis.

The left has no difficulty in chronicling this story of the transformation of Zionism from Herzl’s utopia of a safe haven for Jews into an increasingly militarised outpost surrounded by an ‘Anti-terrorist” wall. But their critique of Zionism is an essentially nationalist one, since they choose to oppose it by supporting another form of nationalism, supposedly a “nationalism of the oppressed”, an “anti-imperialist” struggle for national liberation. For them, Zionism is a “nationalism of the oppressor”, similar to British jingoism or German fascism, because it allied itself with imperialism and established a new colonial system in Palestine. In reality, the Jews who were drawn towards Zionist ideology in the 1930s after the failure of the proletarian revolution and with the rise of fascist persecution were also oppressed, and it was their tragedy that the escape to Palestine brought them into conflict with the oppressed Palestinian Arabs who were already living there. But whether the followers of a nationalist ideology are oppressed or not, the actual nationalist movements they espouse are unfailingly  compelled to seek imperialist backers: early Palestinian nationalism first tried it with the British (who were utterly two faced in their policy towards Jews and Arabs in Palestine), then it sought help from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany; during the Cold War it turned to Russian imperialism; when Palestinian nationalism morphed into the Islamism of Hizbollah and Hamas, they became more reliant on regional powers like Iran or Saudi Arabia. But underneath all these shifts, the reality of a dependence on imperialism remains. Palestinian nationalism is not anti-imperialist, but part of the world imperialist system.

It is well known that Corbyn has developed links with Hamas and Hizbollah, and his allies in the Trotskyist movement, after years of supporting Arafat or other factions of the PLO, have raised slogans like “we are all Hizbollah” at demonstrations against Israeli incursions into Lebanon. It is here that anti-Zionism indeed becomes indistinguishable from antisemitism. It is an irony of history that the classic motifs of European Jew-hatred - from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the Blood Libel[2]  - are now openly peddled in the Arab and Muslim world, which once had a rather different relationship with its Jewish minorities. Hamas has referred to the Protocols in its programme to prove that there is a world Zionist conspiracy. Hezbollah’s leaders have talked of “throwing the Jews into the sea”. Corbyn and the Trotskyists may disapprove of these excesses, but the essence of national liberation ideology is that you make a common front with the enemies of your enemy. In this way, the left becomes a vehicle not only of a more shamefaced antisemitism, but of its most open manifestations.

Who collaborated with Hitler?

To return to the scandal caused by Livingstone’s claim about Hitler supporting Zionism.  Clearly “Red Ken” doesn’t have much grasp of the materialist conception of history if he thinks the Holocaust is down to Hitler all of a sudden going mad.   But the core of his claim – collaboration between the Nazi regime and the Zionist organisations – is not quite so outrageous, even if this is a subject that is mired in controversy and historical sources on the subject must be treated with caution. Given that there was a convergence of interests between the Nazis, who wanted Jews out of Germany, and Zionists who also wanted them to leave, provided that they went to Palestine, it is hardly surprising to find evidence that this convergence led to actual cooperation - as in the case of the Havaara, or Transfer, agreement which Livingstone refers to, allowing German Jews to take themselves and a good part of their wealth to Palestine, or the toleration of Zionist organisations in Germany by the Nazi regime.

The story is highly complicated: the Nazis, no less than the British, were quite capable of playing a double game in Palestine, giving support both to the Zionists in so far as they came into conflict with the British, and also to the Mufti of Jerusalem who led an often violent opposition to Jewish immigration into Palestine. And there were certainly factions of Zionism who saw an ideological connection between their version of Jewish nationalism and the Nazi racial doctrines – most notably in the case of the Lehi group, better known as the Stern Gang, which preached a kind of Hebrew racial identity and which proposed a military alliance with the Nazis against the British, seen by Lehi as enemy number one.

We don’t propose to go further into this particular question here. But there is a great deal left unsaid in all the bluster about Livingstone’s remarks, both by the right and the left. Because collaboration with the Nazis before and during the war itself was not limited to the relatively small Zionist organisations of the day. Indeed, there was considerable support for fascism and Nazism in the 1920s and 30s by the ruling classes of the main capitalist powers, still haunted by the spectre of “Bolshevism” which they continued to identify with the Stalinist regime in the USSR. They saw in fascism a rather brutal but perhaps necessary counter-weight to the threat of proletarian revolution. The Daily Mail, today among a procession of newspapers manufacturing offense about claims of cooperation between Zionism and Nazism, were themselves collaborators with fascism in the 1930s, with their infamous “hurrah for the Blackshirts”[3] headline in January 1934 and other articles expressing admiration for the Hitler regime. That great antifascist and critic of the policy of appeasement towards the Nazis, Winston Churchill, had himself, speaking in Rome on 20 January, 1927, praised Mussolini’s fascist regime: he considered that it had rendered a service to the whole world with its “triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism[4]. Up to the very eve of war, the rulers of Britain and France were not yet decided whether they should oppose Hitler or ally with him against the USSR. 

Even when Churchill (supported by the Labour party and the left) had recognised that German imperialism was the greater threat to the interests of the British Empire and taken command of the British war effort, hatred of the working class and its struggle could still lead to de facto collaboration with the Nazis – most cynically after the Italian workers’ revolt of 1943 which led to the downfall of Mussolini. It was here that Churchill came up with the policy of “letting the Italians stew in their own juice”, which meant halting the allied advanced  through the south of Italy in order to give the German army time to subdue the workers of the northern cities.

The truth is that there is nothing unnatural about one part of the ruling class cooperating with another against a common enemy – whether an imperialist rival or the exploited class, although it is only the threat from the latter which will lead all the different bourgeois gangs to bury the hatchet and concentrate on crushing the revolution, as they did in 1918, when revolution in Germany convinced both camps that it was time to end the war. This is why there was also nothing unnatural in the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 which enabled the two “totalitarian” regimes to carve up Poland and was the signal for launching the Second World War. By that time, there was nothing Soviet or socialist about the USSR, which had become a capitalist state like all the others.

Fascism and anti-fascism, Zionism and anti-Zionism: these are all varieties of bourgeois ideology which can oppose each other violently but can also make shady deals among themselves. But the most dangerous thing about them is that they aim to convince the working class to forget about its own interests and collaborate with its class enemy.

Amos 6/5/2016

[1] This totally fraudulent campaign was based on allegations that a group of mainly Jewish doctors were plotting to kill Soviet leaders

[2] The Protocols were a forgery by the Czarist secret police purporting to prove the existence of a Jewish conspiracy for world domination. The Blood Libel was the charge, often used as a pretext for pogroms in the Middle Ages, that  the Jews murdered Christian children and drained their blood as an ingredient for the Passover matzah  (unleavened bread).

[3] The British Union of Fascists led by Sir Oswald Mosley

[4] See our article ‘Churchill: the counter-revolutionary intelligence of the British bourgeoisie’