How to unmake a fascist: the life of Ray Hill

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The news of the death of Ray Hill (1939-2022), one time-fascist, later Searchlight mole, has left me thinking about ex-fascists, and how few see the journey through.

Among the failures, we can include Ewald Althans, one of the leaders of the Rostock riots in 1992, who was interviewed for television a documentary in 1993, supposedly to prove his determination to leave fascism behind, but in fact used the platform to deny the Holocaust, as a result of which he was convicted and jailed; Tommy Robinson, who quit the EDL in 2013, and briefly worker with the anti-extremism campaign Quilliam, only to re-join the far right and organise in 2018 the largest right-wing street protests Britain has ever seen; or Matthew Heimbach one of the organisers of the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville in 2017, who claimed in spring 2021 to have renounced fascism, only to boast weeks later that he was proposing to relaunch his Traditionalist Workers Party.

But, in the case of Ray Hill, we find someone who had been a a leading fascist – only to admit he was wrong, and to see through the journey of undoing the harm he’d caused

A young man living in Leicester in the early 1960s, Hill was attracted to anti-immigration politics. He joined first the Racial Preservation Society, and then the British Movement. Between 1969 and 1979, Hill lived in South Africa, where he found himself slowly antagonised by the dominant values of apartheid and its radical insistence on the separation of black and white. A South African National Front had been founded and Hill was one of its leaders, but started passing information about it to local Jewish groups. He returned to England, met with researchers from the anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, and agreed with their backing to join the British Movement. There, he encouraged a faction fight against the party leader Michael McLaughlin. Posing as a more serious Nazi than McLaughlin, the latter responded by expelling him. Hill then sued for readmission. McLaughlin tried to defeat him by pre-emptively closing down the organisation. Ray Hill waited 6 months before outing himself as an infiltrator.

The reason that Hill provides an interesting study in forgiveness is that he had not just been a mere rank-and-file follower of fascism, but an active National Socialist, election agent for Colin Jordan when he stood for Parliament in 1969 and won 4 percent of the vote, and Chairman of the National Front in South Africa, before rejecting its politics.

In 1988, Hill published a memoir, The Other Face of Terror. By far the most important anti-fascist voice mentioned in the text is Searchlight, who are mentioned on 50 of the book’s 315 pages. That magazine was founded in 1975, by two socialists Maurice Ludmer and Gerry Gable. Ludmer was the President of Birmingham Trades Council, of Jewish heritage and a former Communist, who in 1961 who had helped to found the Co-ordinating Committee Against Racial Discrimination (CCARD) which worked together with the Indian Workers; Association in opposing immigration controls and far right activity. Later, Ludmer was a member of the steering committee of the Anti-Nazi League. Gable was also Jewish, and had also been in the Young Communist League. In 1962 he became intelligence director of the Jewish and anti-fascist campaign, the 62 group, after which his politics best reflect that campaign itself, in which former Communists, people whose main political attachment was to Zionism, and pure anti-fascists mingled on equal terms.

Hill’s decision to leave England for South Africa was occasioned by an incident when he and other supporters of the British Movement had been in a Leicester café where they were spotted by anti-fascist students. A row broke out and the proprietor took the side of the students. Hill punched him on the nose, and was charged with assault and actual bodily harm. He and his wife then fled the country. Later, when he returned to England, he negotiated a deal under which the more serious charge was dropped, he pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence. At a time of his life (i.e. 1980) when he was trying to reintegrate himself into far-right circles, his friends in nationalist circles assumed that the café owner must have been Jewish and that this was yet another instance of bad Jews harassing innocent racists. Hill played up to their fantasies, until the rumour became one in which he had launched a vicious, unprompted attack on a Jewish bystander, a story which did him no harm in posing as the incorrigible Nazi his new career as a mole required him to be.

In South Africa in 1979, at the height of his career as chairman of that country’s National Front, Hill watched with growing unease as his comrades leafleted the mixed district of Hillbrow in Johannesburg. Under apartheid, this had been classified a white suburb, but few whites actually wanted to live there, and a growing number of Indian families had moved in. The Front repeatedly leafleted the district, blaming “money-grabbing Zionist landlords” for the change. After one leafleting campaign, the apartheid police felt a need to take action, and began evicting Indian residents from their homes. Hill saw a family, thrown out of a house, their few possession tied up in baskets. He wanted to speak to them and apologise but could not. Ashamed by what he and his comrades had done, Hill approached “a couple of Jewish chaps,” who he had met previously at the Alberton races. They introduced on to “a leading figure in the Jewish community in Johannesburg”, to whom he passed lists of NF members, and plans for rallies, paving the way for his subsequent work as a mole in England.

In England, Hill’s contacts were initially with a man “Derek” working in Searchlight’s Birmingham office, with whom Hill shared a drink. By early 1981, Gable had replaced Derek as Hill’s main Searchlight contact. Witnessing racist attacks, Hill passed on the details of the perpetrators to the police, leaked to the press plans for a bomb attack on the Notting Hill Carnival, and gathered intelligence on secret Nazi gatherings.

His memoir is presented strictly through Hill’s eyes. We get only a relatively vague sense of how he seemed to those anti-fascists who were tasked with monitoring him. For Derek, we are told, the focus was on what Hill could do to help anti-fascists. Derek asked him what he thought of various fascists here, what would be the consequences of their success, how far he agreed with the Searchlight approach. Hill was promising to break all contacts with British politics; it was Derek, he explains, who encouraged him to become more active. Hill was treated not as a repentant fascist seeking redemption, but more like the sort of young friendly contact who makes an initial approach to an anti-fascist campaign. A handler was allocated to him, bit by bit he was turned into an identifier and an anti-fascist activist. There appears to have been no great awkwardness at the through of recruiting a leader of the far right; rather the question was approached practically – the act of intelligence gathering compelled anti-fascists to open up lines of dialogue to their wavering enemies.

“Think it over,” Derek said, “Why don’t you give me a call in a few days?”

Hill was being asked to submerge himself back into a milieu in which he would witness acts of violence, and should expect the threat of physical harm, whenever he was finally unmasked as an infiltrator, and yet his answer is a study in understatement: “You haven’t left me a lot of choice, have you?” Hill replied.

_______

For anyone interested in the politice of this, check out Shane Burley’s recent piece on fascist exes in the US (https://mobile.twitter.com/sha…/status/1524494474537103361); or the obit of Ray Hill now up on the Searchlight website here (http://www.searchlightmagazine.com/2022/05/rip-ray-hill/). My thanks to Graeme Atkinson for informing me about Ray’s passing.

Against the Law – out in July

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I wanted to let readers of my blog know about this book of mine which is coming out in July.

Understanding the main political projects of our times, and their plans to expand or shrink the law, is the first step towards achieving greater equality and averting climate disaster. Since 2016, Britain has been ruled by populists, who promise to expand democracy and shrink the law by taking back power from the European Union. Yet what these populists have actually done in power is institute a vast increase in new laws, made by ministers and not Parliament, regulating every aspect of our lives. This move of promising less law while actually expanding it, has been characteristic of our lives for forty years, ever since the neoliberal counter-revolution. Every year, new criminal offences are created; new regulations are introduced.

Renton’s book dares us to imagine a world in which workers are winning, and ecocide treated with the urgency that it deserves. These changes can only come about, he argues, if the movements of the oppressed choose to disengage from the law.

Owen Hatherley: “Renton is one of the most consistently interesting and imaginative political writers in Britain today, and this eloquent attack on the repressive legalism common to populists and neoliberals alike is one of his best yet.”

Liz Davies: “Renton’s experience as a barrister and historian shines through in a learned, and eminently readable, account of the structure of law and the daily business of the Courts.”

Grietje Baars: “Meticulously researched and convincingly argued, Renton urges us to quit seeking liberation through legislation, instead wield our collective power for change.”

Paul O’Connell: “A cogent, compelling argument that the pursuit of justice requires breaking with the hegemony of law.”

Shanice McBean: “All police and prison abolitionists should read this book… it is a timely and sharp intervention, reminding us that laws are not only oppressively enforced but are themselves be a tool of control.”

Copies can be ordered from Amazon, Hive, or from the publishers.

If readers would like a taster, I’ve published pieces reflecting the themes of the book with Open Democracy, the Ecologist and Labour Hub – with more to follow

If you’d like me to speak at your tenants’ union or union branch, just ask.

The Detoxification of French fascism

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In advance of the French election on Sunday I thought I’d share again, an extract from my 2019 book, The New Authoritarians, in which I do my best to explain this moment we’re living through and the consistent electoral success of people and parties which position themselves in a space between fascism and Conservatism. After Sunday, we will be told that le Pen represents something different and new and this explains the willingness of millions of people to vote for her. Whereas, what I’m trying to show is that her seeming moderation is just the latest stage of a process of repackaging which has been going on for nearly 60 years.

To make sense of today’s Rassemblement National, it is necessary to recall that it emerged from a far-right milieu, part of which was fascist. It began through a process of partial and managed detoxification, which long precedes its current leadership.

A key text was Dominique Venner’s pamphlet Pour une critique positive, written in 1963 by a former French soldier who had taken part in various activities of the French far right, including a 1956 attack on headquarters of the French Communist Party and had been a member of the group Jeune Nation, which was banned in 1958 for involvement in terrorist acts. JN merged with a successor group, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète, which too was banned and Venner was prosecuted and jailed. Writing from prison, Venner attempted to reorient the far right away from clandestine activities towards possible growth, during what was most likely to be a long period in which the ideas of nationalism were doomed to remain marginal. To grow again, Venner argued, fascism would need to ‘educate its supporters’. The far right, he complained, lived in a permanent atmosphere of dreams, with its supporters reading spy novels, memoirs from participants in the war years or the secret services. He insisted that nationalists needed to maintain their vision of the complete reconstruction of society but argued that this required a lengthy period of preparation. A fascist seizure of power, he insisted, would face numerous obstacles, including that fact that the inhabitants of Europe were much richer than they had ever been and disinclined to accept military rule. What the far right needed, Venner argued, were ‘a hierarchical body of cadres’ working in the tradition of National Socialism. These cadres should see their role as persuasive. Venner urged his supporters to join farmers’ federations and students’ unions, recruit teachers and engineers. The far right faced a long battle of battles, he argued a conflict ‘without glory or panache’.

Dominque Venner’s pamphlet was taken up by others on the right, including François Duprat, the Toulouse organiser of Jeune Nation, and later a member of the fascist party Ordre Nouveau. It was Duprat who persuaded ON to set up the Front National in 1972 after which he was, in effect, the FN’s deputy leader under Le Pen until Duprat’s death in 1978. He praised Venner, likening his pamphlet to Lenin’s What is to be Done? in terms of its influence on his generation of nationalists.

The idea of a Front National was proposed by Duprat at the June 1972 congress of Ordre Nouveau. ‘The final goal of the organisation remains the capture of power by revolutionary action,’ Duprat argued, ‘however this moment has not yet come’. Drawing on Hitler’s National Socialists as well as the recent success of the Italian MSI, Duprat insisted that it was possible to be both electoral and revolutionary. The turn towards electoralism was based on a gamble that the political situation was not going to remain as unfavourably to the right forever; in five national elections from 1967 to 1978, no far right candidate won more than one percent of the vote.

The formation of the Front National was itself a detoxification measure, aimed at uniting the non-fascist right behind Ordre Nouveau. Various well-known figures on the right were invited to join, notably Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was a member of ON but was associated in the public mind with ‘patriotic’ far-right politics rather than with fascism. Above all Le Pen was known for the 1965 campaign for the Presidency by Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, which Le Pen had organised, and whose central demand had been the maintenance of Algeria as a French colony.

That said, detoxification was never supposed to go too far. Initial recruits to the Front included Victor Barthélémy, who became the FN’s Administrative Secretary and was a former General Secretary of Jacques Doriot’s fascist Parti Populaire Français. Barthélémy had recruited a French unit of the Wehrmacht and later worked for the PPF in Mussolini’s Salò Republic. The formation of the FN was not intended to be more than a temporary moderation; Dominque Venner continued to call for the murder of racial enemies while Duprat published Holocaust Denial literature including British fascist Richard Verrall’s Did Six Million Really Die?

Jean-Marie Le Pen’s role within the FN was to popularise ideas developed by others and to win publicity for the group. At times, his method was a right-wing contrarianism, saying something unspeakable so that the FN would be attacked and he could accuse his opponents of hypocrisy. All he was saying out loud, he argued, is what ordinary people were thinking in secret. One example of this approach came in 1984, between the breakthrough at Dreux and the European election results, when Le Pen told a broadcaster that France was not a brothel for six million immigrants.

 At other times, Jean-Marie Le Pen defended Vichy or fascism in Germany. In these cases, his role appears to have been to remind FN supporters that their party was not interested in just being popular, it was loyal to the fascist tradition. These comments, including his promise in 1983 to ‘bring together the fasces of our national forces so that the voice of France is heard,’ his 1988 reference to the Socialists’ (Jewish) minister of the public service Michel Durafour as ‘Durafour-crématoire,’ or Le Pen’s frequent use of the term ‘six million’ in multiple contexts seemingly unrelated to the Holocaust, make most sense if they are seen not as the needling of his opponents but instead the continuation of an old idea of the Front going back to the days of Venner and Duprat. They were an insistence that the FN was still a party of revolutionary nationalists. They were intended to radicalise the supporters of the Front, training them in a fascist world-view and converting them from voters into cadres.

The word dédiabolisation was first used at an FN summer school in 1989, by figures around Bruno Mégret, who emerged at the end of the decade as a rival to Jean-Marie Le Pen within the FN. Mégret had left the Gaullist RPR to join the Front National in 1982 and became Le Pen’s Deputy. His role within the organisation was as a bridge to centre-right voters, telling an interviewer from Le Monde in May 1998, ‘Many of the Gaullist values in 1940 at the time of the RPR and after 1962 are perennial values which, today, are embodied by the FN: the independence of France, the greatness of our country, the refusal of a regime dominated by political parties.’ Mégret’s criticism of Le Pen was that by positioning the Front as a party which was in continuity with Vichy and the German occupation rather than the Resistance, he was preventing a coalition with Gaullists, the party’s most direct route to power.

Those arguments have recurred over the past five years, with Le Pen’s daughter’s Marine much making the same arguments, but with much greater success. The success of Marine Le Pen has come in part from moderating the FN’s approach towards groups with were seen by her father as the Front’s implacable enemies, including some of France’s Jews, while at the same time adopting a more hostile message in relation to her party’s main enemies, Arabs and Muslims. Instead of proposing the repatriation of immigrants and their children, it spoke of ‘national preference’. In other words, it argues that employment, social services, housing and pensions should be reserved for French citizens who would live alongside others and be given a permanent structural advantage over them…

Obviously, the above stops at about the last Presidential election in 2017. I could have included more material from the same book in which I argue that Macron’s war on social movements (trade unions, students, any expression of moderate Islamic opinion) would pave the way for further growth on the right. It seemed obvious to me that Le Pen would stand for the Presidential elections again, and do better this time than she had in 2017. I haven’t bothered reshare that here because such analyses have been almost universal on the anglophone left. They, in turn, shape how we think about this election – with dread at the prospect of a Le Pen victory, with little more hope should Macron hold her off this time. With each liberal success, with each insistence that everyone else must come behind Macron, with no pretence that he will govern any better next time, the odds shift ever further in Le Pen’s favour.

If any readers want to read further on, you may find the following useful in terms of explaining how Le Pen’s success has come about and what risks it poses:

Ugo Palheta for Historical Materialism arguing that Le Pen’s trajectory remains fascist and that Macron is in any way preparing the way for her through the fascisation of the state

A reply by me pointing out that the classical Marxist theories of fascism saw it as a movement emerging outside the state and willing to use violence on a mass scale, and arguing that Le Pen’s rejection of violence, make it hard to see here as still (in that sense) fascist

The historian Daniel Gordon crediting Le Pen’s success to the social turn in her rhetoric, as well as the candidacy of Zemmour who made her seem moderate by comparison

Sebastian Budgen on the success of the far left candidate Mélenchon’s in winning young and urban voters in the first round

Owen Jones on Macron’s attempt to woo far-right voters and what Macron will do if he wins.

Why I don’t like Partygate

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I understand where the campaign comes from. I think back to the start of February, and the one effective speech of Keir Starmer’s leadership. “Funerals have been missed, dying relatives have been unvisited. Every family has been marred by what we have been through … By routinely breaking the rules he set, the prime minister took us all for fools. He held people’s sacrifice in contempt.”

Let alone anyone else, those words struck a chord with me. As I’ve written here before, in spring and summer 2020, my own father was dying. I accepted that to keep other people safe, I had to leave my father isolated. And then to know that, while all that was going on, Johnson and his chums were parting – that rankles.

The idea of a caste of leaders demanding sacrificies from the little people, while making no sacrifices themselves – that offends.

I get the arguments: if Johnson were to get away with this, do you think he will feel a moment’s scruple next time? For much of the past five years, it has felt like Britain was being fast-tracked to becoming one of those countries that gets referred to euphemistically as a “managed democracy”, with a tame media, purged public institutions, so that voting becomes an unwelcome public duty. If we can’t stop Johnson now, when will we?

The problem is that, in relation to the Conservatives, Labour has the power to flatten every other issue in politics to acheive its intended goal. This isn’t bad in itself, this is how democracy works – it’s how you acheive the majorities necessary for lasting change. The party speaks to the left and tells us that, in order to protect the asylum seekers, to stop cuts in universities, to create an opening for the unions, you have to vote Labour.

In that context, how you defeat your opponents matters.

Because of its privileged role as the only alternative part of government in a first-past-the-post election system, Labour creates a story for the nation. By posing the alternative to Johnson as an administration of leaders who will obey the rules, what Starmer’s Labour makes impossible is the idea that the rules themselves are wrong and need to be rewritten.

Every voter knows in their heart how a Starmer leadership would operate. In relation to the universities, if changes to the student debt system require graduates to pay £5,000 a year merely to keep their debts where they are at, then those are the rules. Labour is tellling us now, and will tell us again in government, that you cannot change them.

Betting your future as a political party on the popularity of on rule-keeping means – what we are seeing already – a pitch to that part of the electorate which wants more policemen, more police guards, more immigration officers.

To my mind, this is bad and self-defeating psephology. Labour strategists will tell you that there is a significant blue-collar constituency which loves rule-keeping. But for every voter of that sort you gain, you lose another voter whose experience of life is of petty officialdom (the bullying PE teacher, the social worker who watches your families but leaves the middle-class family alone).

A left worthy of the name has to have a space for a broader emotional repetoire. It needs to include protesters (i.e. rule-breakers). There also needs to be a space in politics for people whose attitude towards ordinary rule-breaking (here, I don’t mean Johnson but ordinary criminality) is not “lock them up and throw away the keys”, but understanding and forgiveness.

And, even if I was wrong on how this politics will shape who votes, this approach is still wrong because it is bad in principle. It means that, in relation to the Climate Crisis, Labour is going to the polls demanding more effective policing – injunctions to stop climate protesters. The world is burning and Labour is telling motorists to fill up their petrol tanks.

That’s the problem with Partygate. It weakens the Conservative’s only popular leader. But, in return, it makes a pledge to the electorate that of all the things that need to change, none will

The scheme that diminishes you and me

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The proposal that refugee applications will now be processed in Rwanda has several depths of inhumanity which I’m not sure even the critics have fully grasped.

When people apply to the Home Office they receive a wall of institutional hostility. Although I’m *not* an immigration lawyer, I have represented people in housing and employment cases, who were dealt with by the Home Office. Its letters are often marked by extreme administrative incompetence: decisions which need a few hours taking years and years, decisions which mix up facts from different cases, jokes about the lives of the people who cases are being decided, incompatible decisions so that people are told one thing on a Monday and something else on a Tuesday and have no way of knowing which decision prevails… I don’t believe there is any part of public life in Britain where cruelty and chaos live together so freely.

Anyway, to moderate the Home Office we have a highly developed legal infrastructure – specialist lawyers, judges with expertise of dealing with immigration cases. They aren’t perfect, nothing in life is, but they go a modest way towards remedying some of the very most egregious failures of the system.

Take refugees to Rwanda for processing, and the first thing which will go will be that layer of legal protection. There will be no solicitors or barristers available to speak to the clients. There won’t be legal aid – the refugees won’t be in England.

If this change goes through, then our society will be that bit less human. You and I will each be diminished by it.

I don’t have the words to convey my anger at the politicians who are proposing this new scheme, or the journalists who have eased the path towards this horror.

(Written before the details of the scheme had been released. For a detailed commentary on it, see the account which has now been published on the Free Movement blog)

Yes, support Ukraine – but how?

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The story of these past two weeks in Britain has been the contrast between the incredible breadth of support for Ukraine, and the narrowness of our collective efforts to show solidarity with the war’s victims.

Everyone agrees that something must be done. You could be a Labour voter, you could be a middle-of-the-road Conservative, and your first instinct is to be on the same side as the suffering people of Ukrainiane. You could be a nurse, you could be a millionaire, and the only voices you will hear, the only people you will see are those trying to help, collecting food and clothes.

It really isn’t a very difficult demand, to empathise with people whose homes are being destroyed, who are being shelled or killed.

I have seen people complain about this tyranny of opinion, blame it on the press or the corporations, the sorts of businesses which are relabelling their products, emptying Russian goods off their shelves. But this is to misunderstand the direction of solidarity. Although Labour is in opposition, and Labour voters are more distrustful of the government, they are also more likely to demand action than Conservatives. If our businesses are rushing to the head of this movement, it is because they started off behind.

So what can we actually do? When people are being treated in this way, it feels as if the only meaningful acts of solidarity are those which go through the state.

Anything else inefficient by contrast – even buying and transporting goods has its downsides.

Everyone agrees that Ukrainian refugees must be welcomed here. Everyone – left and right – is ashamed that Britain has taken so few people. Good. It’s grotesque that while all this is going on the government is still consulting on the repeal of the Human Rights Act, giving as a central justification for repeal the need to prevent “illegal and irregular migration,” but what could be more “irregular” than people fleeing from a war? Perhaps, if we learn the habit of solidarity in relation to refugees from Ukraine, we will keep that reflex the next time people fleeting here come from Iran, Eritrea and Syria.

There’s a reason why fewer people have been allowed into Britain than you see at a No 10 party, while border towns in Poland have been processing tens of thousands of applications a day and it isn’t just geography (even Portugal has taken more refugees than Britain), it’s because for 25 years both the Conservatives and Labour have shared a toxic narrative in which migrant is suspect, and every foreigner a living reason to pull up our drawbridge. That must change – now and hereafter.

The single most useful thing which people in Britain could do to help Ukrainians would be to abolish the Home Office. But no politician would dare put their name to that Bill. In Keir Starmer’s new model Labour Party such a demand would probably be an expulsion offence.

The unanimity of public opinion – that sense that all of us agree in support of Ukraine – ought in theory to make it easier to formulate such demands. Yet my sense is that it doesn’t. Rather it compels us to go at the speed of Priti Patel, makes us proceed with her plans: visa for fruit-pickers maybe, but not for family members, not for people fleeing for their lives. We need more disagreement. We need the contrast between this government promises and its delivery to dominate the news.

As for sanctions: little as I’d welcome actions which would make the majority of Russians poorer, I would urge friends on the left to support those measures that would impound the homes and yacht and football clubs owned by the pro-Putin oligarchs. We are talking about people who have built their wealth hand in hand with the regime – benefitting from a concession here, returning a loan to the state there.

The French revolutionaries used to demand Peace to the Cottages, and threaten War on the Palaces. The more we create a tradition that great wealth is capable of expropriation – should it be used to support torture or war – the more that other blocs of capital, also used to prettify murderous regimes, come into question. If Abramovich’s ownership of Chelsea was an exercise in using sport to wash away murder, what do we think of the ownership of football clubs by likes of the governments of Saudia Arabia, or UAE?

The people of Ukraine are demanding military support. On the left, we remember the long history of countries destroyed by US and UK empire-building (Iraq, Afghanistan), but there’s a second history of people betrayed by a refusal to help (starting with Spain in 1936 and going on through the Kurds to Syria). The demand for assistance is going to get louder as one by one the cities fall.

The Ukrainians have seen how this war ends. They saw it in Grozny – a city still 100,000 people smaller than it was 20 years ago. They saw it in Aleppo.

Lots of friends have been asking why didn’t anyone in Britain see this invasion coming? It’s not because we weren’t told. We were. Intelligence reports were discussed in the newspaper and on TV. It did not help though that the messenger was Boris Johnson. And he sniggered as he told us the Russians were coming, and he guffawed and you could see the tension sinking out of his face (It’s not Partygate, he was thinking, he wouldn’t have to resign). No wonder nobody believed him.

Somehow, we – the people and our movements, weakened as they are – have to find a way to take back solidarity and change the assumption that it can only take the form of military aid.

The reason we have to do that it that conventional warfare is the opposite of socialist or democratic politics. By which I don’t just mean the obvious point that if there’s a nuclear war, we will all be dead. I mean that war becomes the preserve of whoever has the guns, whoever is the best set on vengeance. It creates its own dynamic in which even whispering a doubt becomes treason.

The mechanism which causes troops to mutiny is not the prospect of an equal fight, but the thought that the fight might be unequal, and they might be the perpetrators of an injustice.

If you want a different model of war and politics, think of the people putting their bodies on the lines of Russian tanks; it is their bravery, the assymetry between their hands and the guns of the occupiers, which creates war-guilt, the desire of ordinary Russians for forgiveness, and opens up the possibility of millions of Russians turning against the war.

Somehow, we in Britain have to find a way to do the things which help to make this a political struggle for justice rather than merely a war in continuation of the war.

When you see people putting their hands and hearts in the way of a moving tank, the natural response is to support them in whatever they call for. And yet any support from Britain will be partial, conditional, will focus more on our interests than those of ordinary Ukrainians – so long as our rulers remain in charge.

The allegations against Priyamvada Gopal are misconceived – here’s why

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Pieces in Friday’s Daily Mail, Times and Jewish Chronicle reported allegations of antisemitism against Priyamvada Gopal, the Professor of Postcolonial Studies at Cambridge University.

There are two main criticisms of Gopal. The first, is that she has supported the campaign to rescind her University’s decision to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which she says is contrary to free speech but which her opponents insist is essential to Jewish safety.

Gopal is not alone among staff at her University in opposing the IHRA definition. The local branch of the academics’ union UCU which has a membership in excess of 2,000, passed a motion calling on the University not to implement the definition. UCU also held an online webinar on the issue, chaired by two Jewish academics from Cambridge.

Indeed Gopal’s resistance to that definition is in line with a significant minority strand of Jewish opinion, which is well represented by the recent Jerusalem Declaration, signed by 200 academics from the United States, Britain and Europe.

Among the initial signatories were the historian of the German Army in the Holocaust, Omer Bartov, the philosopher Brian Klug, Tony Kushner, who has written more widely than anyone on antisemitism in postwar Britain, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, and the international human rights lawyer, Philippe Sands.

If we tell ourselves that opposition to the IHRA definition is so great an offence against Jewish opinion that anyone guilty of it must be sacked, among the first to lose will be Jewish academics, dozens of whose university posts will be at risk.

The second complaint related to a Twitter thread posted on Thursday morning. There, Gopal pointed out (as she has in the press before) the incongruity of her university holding two positions between which there is undoubtedly some tension: support for the IHRA definition and an absolutist position of free speech. She criticised lecturers at her university who claimed to combine these two beliefs, and the journalists who reported on them.

One newspaper which has become a friendlier home to the right-libertarians in recent weeks is the Cambridge student newspaper, Varsity which had recently published an interview with a retired Professor, the historian, David Abulafia. By far the most offensive allegation contained in Gopal’s thread was that she accused either the journalist or the lecturer of having manufactured quotes about her and described the interview as “made up”.

I can understand why someone would feel aggrieved if Gopal’s allegation had been false; the problem was that it was true.

The key phrase was introduced by Abulafia. In looking back on previous pieces he had written (on the Colston statue trial), and Gopal’s response to them, he claimed to be offended by a tweet from Gopal in which she had supposedly described his interventions as having a “racist overtone”. This language Abulafia described as offensive, and the journalist reported his criticisms of it verbatim, without seemingly checking whether Gopal had in fact used those words.

Abulafia, or the journalist, were quoting something that Gopal had never said. She had indeed criticised Abulafia’s language, but not as racist. She was accusing him not of insulting black writers but of giving them fulsome but insincere compliments. Elsewhere, writing for the Spectator, Abulafia has been willing to admit that distinction.

Nevertheless, this phrase “racist overtone” appeared in the interview between speech marks as if Gopal was being directly quoted. In that context, her allegation of a failure of ethical integrity was well deserved.

The Cambridge University Jewish Society then joined in, saying that Gopal made “baseless and damaging accusations against two Jewish student journalists … [and echoed] historic tropes about media control.” But Gopal has never spoken of conspiracy. It is her critics who introduced that language. Nor is the trope accurately rendered.

The Nazis accused the Jews of secretly controlling the press, banks and politicians, they did not say that Jewish journalists were insufficiently rigorous in placing quotation marks.

There is a recurring problem in the way in which the national press finds stories of Oxford or Cambridge staff or students, and uses them to fuel culture wars. In autumn 2018, for example, a Cambridge University Student Union Council meeting debated whether to broaden the commemoration of British war veterans to include all those affected by war. The then editors of the Varsity newspaper saw how a story they had created span out of control. The right-wing press “placed narrative above fact, prioritised sensationalism over student safety, and violated students’ personal privacy.”

All this has happened, once again, in Gopal’s case – the main difference is that the target is not a woman student but a woman academic.

The allegations of antisemitism against Gopal only serve to add an extra layer to what is some publications’ long-standing obsession with her. This year, even before the antisemitism allegations, she had already been criticised in the Daily Mail, the Times, and the Spectator. Last year, she was in the press after the Home Office cancelled her invitation to address its staff.

The year before, Gopal was previously accused of racism, after journalists circulated a false quotation attributing to words she had never written. That campaign resulted in her receiving dozens of rape and death threats. In that context, why anyone would want to restart this unpleasant cycle of shaming Gopal in the national press is beyond me.

It would be false to claim that universities are somehow immune to the antisemitism you find elsewhere in society. Indeed the risks are about to get worse, when the government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill passes, with its absolute duty on universities to protect free speech, even that of cranks and conspiracists. Life is likely to get harder for students and academics, and we do well to choose our targets with care.

Yet a Jewish identity should not be a card that any political activist or student journalist can pull out, as the opportunity arises, to get them off the hook of well-earned criticism. To those of us who have had to campaign against real antisemitism in the last five years, it is depressing to find instances of genuine offence equated with these thin pickings.

What the cool kids are reading

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A review of Lea Ypi, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, and David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Each of these books is trying to help us imagine a future without war, environmental degradation and racism – without capitalism, in other words. Each is trying to get there via some reckoning with the fall of the Communist states in 1989-91.

Lea Ypi’s memoir makes that project explicit in her book’s Epilogue, where she locates herself today as a professor teaching Marxism as part of the politics degree at LSE. She uses his work to illuminate social relations. “Behind the capitalist and the landlord there were my great-grandfathers; behind the workers there were the Roma who worked at the port; behind the peasants, the people with whom my grandmother was sent to work in the fields when my grandfather went to prison…” (308).

Born in 1979, Ypi lived for her first twelve years in Communist Albania. Her experiences there put her at odds with her Western Marxist friends, for whom, she observes, the Eastern bloc play no part in the story of the left: “They were seen as the deserving losers of a historical battle that the real authentic bearers of that title had yet to join.” (307). Conversely her Marxism separates Ypi from her own family. “Only once did she draw attention to a cousin’s remarks that my grandfather did not spend fifteen years locked up in prison so that I would leave Albania to defend socialism” (308).

Ypi’s book addresses these two problems – the blitheness of her comrades, and the incomprehensibility of her views to her family – by telling the story of her life, bringing out first what it was like to live in a society which had abandoned the “revisionism” of each of Stalin and Mao. And then, how helplessly the reformers of 1989-91 gave way in the face of Western-imposed privatisations which bankrupted and disillusioned millions.

Ypi’s book brings a child’s clear vision to such characters as her teacher Nora (“Do you see this hand? This hand will always be strong … It has shaken Comrade Enver’s hand”) (14), contemporaries boasting of their partisan grandparents (23), and neighbours accused by her parents of having stolen a prized (empty) Coca Cola can (62).

The Albanian Communism she describes was characterised by equality, neighbourliness, community and hope. There is suffering, but not in Ypi’s immediate family.

On the collapse of Communism, Ypi’s mother became a “liberal hopeful” (265): a leading member of the new Democratic Party, and a champion of democracy, civil society, and structural reform. Her father swapped over from being an admirer of a previous generation of red terrorists in Italy to the general director of the port at Tirana. Privatisation meant redundancies (“The hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” he complained) (249). “He would neither endorse structural reforms nor obstruct them” (247).

Her book’s message at the end is that Socialism is a theory of human freedom, in her words “of how we adopt to circumstances, but also try to rise above them” (305).

If we want to understand the counter-revolution of our times, then part of what we need to grasp is the disappearance of any authentic eastern European socialist tradition – and against whose rebirth Ypi’s parents’ generation continue to guard with all their strength.

David Graeber was, like Lea Ypi, a Professor at the LSE. His book, a collaboration with archaeology professor David Wengrow and now published posthumously, retells the familiar story of the transition from hunter-gathering to agricultural societies, insisting that there was no such thing as a “transition”, or not in the sense that we imagine it, as a story happening in a single region, taking up just two or three generations of human time – a counterpart in distant time to the epochal events described by Ypi.

There is a second sense in which Graeber and Wengrow’s book is a natural twin to Ypi’s in that The Dawn of Everything criticises Marxism as one, perhaps the most coherent of a series of approaches all of which err in treating hunter-gatherer societies as a mere stage of human development requiring to be transcended by the birth of agriculture.

The Dawn of Everything is a long book, rich in historical detail. At times, it seemed to me that the account emphasised the state at the expense of class, in a way that it is at odds with Graeber’s other work, which treats the two as a unity. I’m not an anthropologist or an archaeologist and if you want to read a Marxist rejection of the core argument of their book, informed by a rich knowledge of those fields, then look to Jonathan Neale and Nancy Lindisfarne who have produced their own critiques.

Personally, I prefer to welcome Graeber and Wengrow’s book. ok. What I liked about it was the wealth of detail, the sense of a wide range of societies being considered one alongside another, the idea that not all human history needs to be traced back to Europe or the territories just next to it. Whether they achieve it or not, I am certain they have created the space for other writers to explain the transition to agriculture in a way which would combine a sense of enormous change with, at the same time, the exceptions and counter-narratives with Graeber and Wengrow insist need to be part of the story. In particular, I took away the following:

They show that when anthropologists talk about hunter-gatherer societies, they have focussed on a small group of societies, treating them as the “ideal” representatives of tens of thousands of years of human history. A key group are the !Kung San, who, Graeber and Wengrow argue, became popular with anthropologists in the 1960s because they were seemingly the only foragers left (137). Based on a reading of these societies, plus a heroic assumption that all other hunter-gatherer societies were identical, some writers have even argued that until 10,000 years ago there had never been wars, violence or rape. (That argument folds together too many people living under too many different environmental conditions to be remotely plausible). As one example of a different kind of hunter-gatherer society, Graeber and Wengrow cite the World Heritage site of Poverty Point in Louisiana. Built from c1700 BC onwards, by gatherers, it covers over 150 acres, providing enough living space for hundreds of people. The vast quantity of artefacts found there – posts, pieces of copper, crystal and soapstone – suggests a commodity culture, trading with neighbours. To the same extent that the !Kung despised possessions, the people of Poverty Point hoarded them. Which group should we see as the most typical? Graeber and Wengrow observe that the people of Poverty Point were able to live under a hunter-gathering affluence because their site was located near abundant sources of fish; whereas the !Kung live in conditions of shortage. They tease other archaeologists who have argued that the !Kung must be more typical of tens of thousands of years of human history or that the foragers generally rejected ecological affluence, naturally preferring to live in locations where food was scarce (153-5).

Graeber and Wengrow observe that the transition to agriculture was, on a global scale, slow and contested. It begins between c10,000 and c8,000BC in the Fertile Crescent (226), and was still incomplete there, let alone everywhere else, three thousand years later (232-3). Usually, when historians talk about revolutions, we mean processes which take place quickly (whether the Russian Revolution of 1917, or the industrial revolution from the 1780s onwards, or the “revolution” in all our lives, associated with the dominance of personal computing). We mean, in effect, that at the same point in human history you can have people living side by side shaped by two different mental universes: one which precedes the revolution and one which postdates it, in the way that a Catholic or Royalist might live in revolutionary France still celebrating the old calendar even while their neighbour lived according to the new world of Brumaires and Fructidors. Graeber and Wengrow note that it is possible to recreate the evolution of large-seeded grasses in 200 years with determined policies of harvesting. In real history, this process took about fifteen times as long. People were not exactly rushing to develop the new wheat strains which enabled agriculture. In the conventional argument, it is the rise of farming which then encouraged the emergence of cities. Graeber and Wengrow argue plausibly that these two processes took place the other way around. That hunting and gathering, in conditions of affluence, produced city populations, and only much later did agriculture become generalised.

The authors make the point that even once major cities had been constructed, and you had all the things we associate with the combination of farming and settle residence (kings, bureaucracies, and taxes), it was possible for many people to live outside the reach of the law, by occupying informal settlements outside the city walls (445-6). This is an important insight for anyone interested in later societies: although, of course, once the cities had subjugated their hinterlands the dynamic of freedom was the opposite. In the countryside, manorial courts and relationships dominated. City air, as the medieval saying went, makes you free.

How might Graeber and Wengrow’s book contribute to our ability to imagine a post-capitalist future? They portray human beings, in that vast long stretch of human history before we had writing, as people living under conditions of affluence – giving a high premium to their personal freedom – disdaining social relationships which would imprison them, and talking, all the time talking and discussing what would work for them. You do not need to believe that mankind lost a utopia to welcome the increase of our imaginative space, and the ability to grasp that distant and incomprehensible as the past now seems to us, so will the way live now seem to future generations, who will struggle to comprehend how we put up so meekly and for so long to the limits of our present society.

Another post for lefty trainspotters…

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Another day brings another review of my Labour’s Crisis book. This time it is Dan Randall, a member of Workers’ Liberty, and once again his is an attempt to fit my book into a party’s long worked-out approach to issues of antisemitism, Labour, Palestine, etc. I’d like to respond here, not so much because the world needs another red-on-red opinion piece but rather because (as he says) I have corresponded with him, and it’s a chance to spell out some things that are in my book but maybe not explicit.

Dan chides me for having my focus on the Labour Party as a whole rather than the left-wing groups. Sorry, but that must be the right approach. In 2015-19, the left groups were “missing in action”. At its top, Corbynism was an alliance between certain left-wing institutions which captured a degree of bureaucratic power (the leader’s office, the shadow cabinet, UNITE/the Labour NEC) and some individuals from the Milbank generation (who had movement leadership roles within Momentum, Novara, etc) – on the former’s terms. On either side of that alliance, the number of prominent individuals who were acting as fellow-travellers of the left groups was a handful to none.

To a historian, what is striking is how much less important outside-Labour parties were in comparison to any of the left revivals since 1945. Even in the early 1950s, when the total membership of the British Trotskyist was less than a hundred people, they had a much greater influence over the Labour left including its MPs (through papers such as Keep Left) than today’s supposedly hundreds or thousands-strong groups.

Dan acknowledges that one of the chapters of my book places Labour’s difficulties in the context of the sharp rise of antisemitism in the United States. I do, but I go much further than that. Labour’s crisis connects to points I’ve made in my recent fascism books, i.e. that the contours of world politics shifted in 2015-16 from neoliberal hegemony to a new period of ideological conflict in which the left right conflict reassembes itself around a fault line separating neoliberalism (including social neoliberalism) from populism. What is the most important antisemitic myth in our times? It’s the ideas that one rich financier George Soros is secretly bankrolling an army of left-wing Jews who go around the world championing free movement. (To which I ask, where’s my cheque please?) It’s the rebirth of right-wing populism with its state capitalist visions of an enlarged and autarkic state which has been the device through which antisemitism was able to come back as a major theme of global politics.

In the second half of Dan’s review, he notes that my book calls for a single state settlement is strongly pro-BDS. He asks whether I hold to a position of seeing the Jewish population of Israel as “settlers” in the sense of the settler-colonial analogy – i.e. that some are literally settlers on the land, and it’s their position which dominates the country’s politics and makes it impossible for that country to acknowledge the Palestinians who are in broad terms half the population already (with millions of other Palestinians in some form of forced exile). That’s easy, I do.

He asks if I’ve reread The Hijack State – I haven’t.

He asks if I would support the position of those (very few) SWSS groups and their predecessors who called for student Jewish groups to be deplatformed? No, obviously not. As a student, thirty years ago, I was an (admittedly inactive) *member* of my UJS… and no one in SWSS told me off. Because campus UJS groups recruit people on a wide base (across the religious/secular and Zionist/anti-Zionist divides), calling for their deplatforming almost obliges you to say stupid, offensive and annoying things about Jews. This is why I don’t support David Miller, for example.

Dan accuses the SWP of holding a campist approach to the Israel Palestine conflict, and invites me to distance myself from it. I think there’s aways a danger with that struggle that supporters of the former state often require you, as the price of having an opinion, to first of all set out a democratic egalitarian answer to the conflict, one at several stages away from the present day, and tell you that – unless you have a kind and generous and reflective way of solving everything, which would return the land stolen from the Palestinians, while simultaneously allow the Israeli occupiers of Palestinian homes to live on in freedom – you are not allowed to protest anything, even theft or murder. The implications of that for the Palestinians are that they have to live on indefinitely in what has already 73 years of misery, a period that is already, amongst many other things, four times as long as the the average person actually serves as a life sentence for murder.

I don’t like campism, in general, although perhaps for different reasons than Dan. For one thing, as I tried to set out in my response to Rob Ferguson the other day, I dislike what it does to the people outside the conflict. Left politics is at its best when we are participants not supporters. But in Britain, most of the time, there is very little good any of us can do for Palestinians other than to volunteer for pro-Palestinian causes (for a lawyer, that means giving time to campaigns such as the European Legal Support Centre), to give money (eg to groups such as Medical Aid for Palestinians), and to try and avoid making mistakes which make life easier for supporters of the occupation.

I distrust the British people who force themselves into the story – if the way they do it has the effect of decentering Palestinian activists. I dislike the way in which some people lose sight of their own position, tell themselves that they are bravely throwing their bodies in the lines of Israeli tanks then what they are actually doing is wandering round social media being rude to strangers.

Connected to that, there is one omission from the training I received in the SWP I regret, and a specific one. As a member of that party, I was taught to see all Israelis who live at peace with the occupation as being complicit in it. That position, I still believe, is an arguable one. Israelis are integrated into the state, and into the occupation, eg by compulsory military service. They have the benefit of citizenship rules, and a standard of living vastly better than that allowed to the Palestinians. What was implicit in the SWP’s politics but never properly argued was however that the vast majority Jews outside Israel do *not* contribute to Israel, or not in any meaningful sense so that it would be appropriate to treat them as a complicit in the same way. And that there is a risk therefore when people start saying “Zionists” when what they actually mean is not people in Israel but people who’ve taken a position of agreement with one side – that this language slips.

I’m not interested in minimising the occupation or pretending that it leaves most Palestinian a life better than detention in an open prison; what I insist on is that people should see the Jewish population of Britain and the US as in ferment, and potentially winnable to anti-occupation politics. Therefore socialists should seek a dialogue with non-Israeli Jewish opinion, rather than rage at people who hold different views from us.

(Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis can be ordered here.)

On being savaged by a dead sheep. Notes towards a reply to Rob Ferguson and the SWP

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(Be warned, this is long and a bit of a rant, but I hope it explains my book on antisemitism and how it fits into my views of the left…)

When I look back on my membership of the SWP and that party’s treatment of its Jewish members I split that time in two. In a first period, c1991-2001, the organisation did well. It taught its members anti-Zionist politics (a justice position with which huge numbers of Jewish people instinctively sympathise). When Julie Waterson had her head cracked open by the police at Welling, stood beside her were the Holocaust survivors Esther Brunstein and Leon Greenman. When Morris Beckman launched his memoir the same year, the SWP sent him speaking around Britain.

Things changed with the protests against the Afghanistan and the Iraq Wars. The SWP central committee acquired a vainglorious sense of their own abilities to provide “leadership” to the whole British working class, a potential which could only be achieved by wooing George Galloway. A belief in the equality of Jews became, along with LGBT rights, a mere “shibboleth” which members of the party were no longer expect to uphold, or at least not in relation to the leadership’s Respect project.

In 2004, the SWP started promoting Gilad Atzmon, inviting him to speak at its Marxism conference. In his speech, Atzmon explained that the left was wrong to oppose Israel when really it should oppose the Jews who were the enemy of human liberation. One member of the SWP Rob Ferguson challenged him from the floor, emphasising Jewish involvement in 1917, at Cable Street, etc. “That’s Chicken Soup and Barley”, Atzmon laughed, meaning that it was exactly the sentimental Jewish leftism that he was against.

For six years, the SWP backed Atzmon not Ferguson. The jazz musician was invited back to Marxism in 2005. The SWP put on six Atzmon gigs in 2006, he spoke alongside George Galloway and Martin Smith in Tower Hamlets, was publicised as supporting the SWP appeal in 2006, played Marxism again in 2007, and was promoted by the SWP again in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

For six years, left-wing Jews criticised the party and accusing it of being blithe to antisemitism, and for six years the SWP insisted that it knew better than them.

The SWP since its 2013 splits has done better at avoiding antisemitic controversy. The organisation has given up on its attempts to lead the left, becoming one of those parties which combines an abstract Marxist critique of capitalism with a political practice of tailing everyone else – a less exciting counterpart to Socialist Appeal.

Frankly, this is a good thing. 74 years have passed since Tony Cliff published his analyses of the class basis of the Soviet Union, was expelled from the main British Trotskyist group the RCP, and was forced to found a party. Revolutionary groups aren’t built to last for three quarters of a century.

In my book telling the story of the British left and the antisemitism crisis, the SWP receives barely a mention: less either than that book’s heroes (Mourid Barghouti, Edward Said) or its villains (the Canary, Socialist Fight, Skwawkbox, etc).

Possibly the one occasion when the SWP took sides came in summer 2019, when Chris Williamson was under attack for having used his Twitter account to promote the antisemitic obsessive and pro-Assad blogger Vanessa Beeley, and Gilad Atzmon (him again). Far from being troubled by an association with antisemitism, the party invited Williamson to be the main speaking at the opening rally of its 2019 Marxism conference.

I am setting out this history because, without it, it is hard to make sense of the article which has just gone up online on the website of the SWP’s theoretical journal, International Socialism. Written by Rob Ferguson, it purports to be a review of my book on Labour’s crisis, but it barely makes a first stab at summarising my book’s argument, rather it is a shielding exercise, protecting the positions taken by his party

Although the piece is long (7,000 words – three times as long as this post, which is long enough) it makes just three main points. First, that whatever has been done by the left since 2015-19 is beside the point, since the left is under “attack”. “How a witch hunt is resisted and fought is important—but fight it we must.” The task of the left it to take sides with Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson, David Miller etc. Doing anything else would be to “abando[n] the accused”.

Second, that I am wrong to consider that antisemitism might emerge from within the left since antisemitism is a “reactionary” ideology, “a break from socialist politics”. It is always something which emerges from the right and assists the right.

Third, Ferguson acknowledges that there may have been one or two occasions when the left mis-spoke. He cites the example of Corbyn’s support for the Mear One mural; amd the way in which parts of thee left defended Corbyn by peddling conspiracy theories that the mural was correct, the Rothschilds really do run the world. Ferguson refuses to speculate on the scale of these incidents, saying they were “fleeting” and “passing” i.e. irrelevant.

In response: (1) I have rather more experience of “fighting” than Ferguson. In my job, I stand up in court and I take part in a ritualised conflict whose violence is seemingly suppressed but sometimes visible: when I lose criminal cases, I have had clients pulled from the room screaming. I hate losing.

In the whole long period of Labour’s crisis, I took to court, fought and won the most high-profile case of a left-wing Corbyn supporter accused of antisemitism: a case which ended with the vindication of my client, the clearest possible statement that he was no racist, and judicial statements warning against the shoddy mis-investigation of false online allegations of antisemitism.

One of the reasons why he won the case was because his lawyers treated it as a conflict. We minimised the material which the other side was likely to use against him, and we maximised the material we could use against them.

If the left as a whole had treated the support of Palestinian rights with the same seriousness, if rather than just waving Palestinian flags we had produced explainers to people showing how Palestinians live under occupation, if we had made them rather than middle-aged racists central, then we would not be in the trouble we are now. This would have meant arguing with people who said stupid things, explaining to them, getting them to stop, and depriving the right of its attack lines.

Ferguson seems to think that politics is a football game. In which there are two sides, and you prove your loyalty to one side by shouting loudly your support, whatever people on your side do. Fortunately, real-life football bans are better than that: when racists appear on their terraces, they organise against them.
Labour’s crisis was waged online with twitter pages and facebook groups being scoured for material which could form the basis for complaints to the Labour Party. Leftists were no long merely supporters; we were all players. Every time that someone on the left lied about racism or promoted the likes of an Atzmon or a Williamson, they were liable to be noticed; they shrank the left.

(2) It should be obvious to everyone that the historical relationship between antisemitism and the left is not the same as its relationship to the right. As I have spelled out in twenty years of writing about fascism, there are things which antisemitism does for the right – a function it supplies in terms of bolstering fascism’s self-image as a movement equally opposed to the rich above and to workers movements and social reforms below. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a left-wing movement in history in which antisemitism was equally central.

Ferguson never explains what he means by terming antisemitism as a “reactionary” movement. If he means that it returned to global politics in 2015-16 initially through the right I agree (this is a theme of one of the chapters of my book). If he means that antisemitism serves to pull people to the right from wherever they start on the political spectrum, I agree. I make the same point repeatedly.

If he means a version of the “True Scotsman” theory, i.e. that no one in the left can ever say something which is actually antisemitic, because they are on the left, and the left is incapable of antisemitism, then what was he doing standing up at Marxism all those years going and criticising Gilad Atzmon? He would done better to say what most of his comrades did say: “Yes, this sounds like anti-Jewish racism. But we are the SWP, we are by definition incapable of platforming a racist. Whatever we think we are hearing, this isn’t really happening”.

Among the many problems with this approach, beyond its blindness and deafness, its inability to persuade anyone paying attention, etc, that approach requires us to ignore and write out of history the quite large number of Jewish people who had to work to drive antisemitism out of the left in previous generations: whether that’s the nineteenth century Social Democrats warning against the Socialism of Fools, the East End Jews who organised in the SDF against their leader Hyndman, or the anti-fascists of the 1920s and 1930s who worked to isolate such renegade ex-socialists as Mosley or Mussolini. Personally, I preferred the Rob Ferguson of 2004 – a person who stood up against racism, and saw those anti-fascists as worthy of celebration.

(3) That takes me to his last point, how bad was the problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party?
Ferguson’s metaphor of a fight elides together two possible situations (i) a conflict in which your side is 99-100% in the right, maybe does one or two things which are wrong but no more. If Labour’s antisemitism had been on this scale then merely taking sides wouldn’t be a stupid response; (ii) a struggle in which your side is 60% in the right, but makes so many mistakes that any person with a sense of their own survival will spend much of their time telling their people to stop ruining their own case.

He says tiny; I say real a problem. Who’s right?

I know there will be some people reading this post who disagree with me; I also know that there is not one statistic or objective fact which can answer that discussion in and of itself. You might say for example, that only one in 50 members of the Labour Party were investigate for antisemitism and this is a minority. Or you might say that never in the whole history of British politics has any party seen as many allegations of misconduct, let alone racism, as Labour in 2016-19. Both facts are true, neither is an answer which will persuade people on the other side of the argument. I’ve written a book which asks this question repeatedly and, in the end, it has to speak for itself.

All I can say is that when the crisis first reached a meaningful level, which it did with the Livingstone affair, I thought the fault was just him. I did not expect that over the next four years, a leading member of the Labour Party would blame the slave trade on Jews, or that candidates for office would deny the Holocaust, or that one of the leaders of the Wavertree CLP would give an interview which was then put on YouTube with supporting images which would have belonged as well on a neo-Nazi podcast.

You can call this stuff “passing”, you can look away from it and pretend it didn’t happen. Fine, if that works for you. But it’s no way to build the left. To use that Ferguson metaphor again, its like going along to a boxing match, warming up by punching yourself in the face repeatedly then being surprised when you lose.

Finally, if anyone’s interested in the book itself, rather than my – or Ferguson’s – summary of it. You can read it for yourself, here.