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.

Sisterhood, solidarity, silence

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A review of Sheila Rowbotham, Daring to Hope (Verso, 2021)

The publication of a new volume of Sheila Rowbotham’s memoirs is an occasion to celebrate. The period covered by the book from 1970-9 comprises all the most moments of second-wave feminism in the UK: the first Ruskin women’s liberation conference with its four demands of equal pay, equal access to education and work, free contraception and abortion, and free nurseries; the protests against Miss World, the successful struggle (joined by the trade unions) to defeat anti-abortion laws.

Rowbotham’s perspective, then and now, was a rank-and-file one. Having written some of the defining books of the emerging movement – Women, Resistance and Revolution; Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World; and Hidden from History – she had sketched out one of the tenets of the new movement, the belief that by drawing out a continuous tradition of women’s efforts to change the world, activists could understand themselves, know the shoulders on which they stood, and change the world.

Much of Daring to Hope takes the form of brief studies of pioneering feminists – the women that Rowbotham met at significant movement events, so Rowbotham meets Sally Alexander a fellow historian and organiser of the Miss World protests, and reports to her friends how men seem incapable of distinguishing the two of them. She meets Barbara Winslow, later the biographer of Sylvia Pankhurst. In the United States, Rosalyn Baxandall is researching a book on the IWW leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Rowbotham meets Baxandall when the latter reviews her own books, then stays with her in New York. Expecting to meet someone “frighteningly intellectual and serious”, Rowbotham is astonished to find her host tall, blonde and very funny.

One early friend and rival is Germaine Greer, whose name had been made through lurid pieces for Oz magazine. (Rowbotham’s friends at the latter magazine included its editor Richard Neville, Marsha Rowe and David Widgery). Rowbotham reviews The Female Eunuch favourably for Oz, while writing into her review a coded warning that Greer’s vision of the free woman seemed to be rather too open, like Greer herself, to a cult of the celebrity. Women’s Liberation, Rowbotham insists, was a militantly egalitarian movement – hostile to any notion of leaders, always emphasising the collective.

Beyond speaking, researching and writing, Rowbotham’s main organising involvement is a several-year attempt to unionise the women who cleaned the offices in the City. At times, she and her friends secure victories. At times, they are pushed back. One of the few moments when the campaign really does seem to be winning occurs in 1971, when Bernadette Devlin MP agrees to meet the cleaners. “Devlin sat on a table in a mini skirt, crossed her legs, flicked back her hair and got straight into speaking with knowledge and fervour about women’s working conditions”. What better symbol could you have of the radical 70s than this event – which brought together in one occasion, each of the demands for women’s liberation, for Irish freedom and revolutionary socialism?

Although Rowbotham was a pioneering feminist, she alludes to the love and intellectual support she received from certain leftwing men. For almost all of this decade Rowbotham was in a relationship with the socialist doctor and anti-fascist Dave Widgery.

Further, Rowbotham alludes to letters sent to her by Dorothy and Edward Thompson, the latter appearing in the text as a continuous, brooding but silent presence – disatsfied with progress, warning of dangers. On reading the first draft of Women, Resistance and Revolution, Rowbotham notes, the two historians sent her an “extremely critical” letter – accusing her of recreating a teleological account of women’s appearance in history, which operated on its own “hidden momentum” and failed to account for the subtle shifts of women’s consciousness whether during periods of ascent or backlash. The letter is summarised but not quoted – which, for this reader anyway, was a significant loss.

Throughout her book, Rowbotham’s style is to quote as sparingly as possible, and to tone done the rifts within the movement in favour of a narrative of shared unity towards a single goal. These choices are not accidental; form is message. Today, as fifty years ago, Rowbotham wants us to see not the splits, nor to get stuck on the discordant voices, but to focus on a an agrument spreading stage by stage from birth to rise to triumph. I can understand why she writes like that – Rowbotham is a movement-builder – just as the socialists of the 1880s and 1890s were movement-builders, and sometimes you do indeed need a story in which the rise is continuous and ultimate victory guaranteed.

But, for the leader of such a movement optimism comes at a price. When people behave selfishly or destructive, you have to keep your silence. The longer you spend criticising those whose only relationship to the movement is to take from it, the greater the danger that the movement as a whole will seem less, for their participation in it. Until there are important things you cannot say at all.

In one instance, Rowbotham does speak candidly about a destructive voice: Selma James of the Wages for Housework collective, and her allies, who Rowbotham describes as having treated the early women’s liberation movement to an old-style raiding exercise – creating friends and enemies according to a single measure, would they, or would they not, encourage the spread of James’s ideas?

The one debate which came closest to splitting the movement in two was that between socialist feminists, of which Rowbotham was an exemplary figure and the radical feminists, led by the likes of Sheila Jeffreys. From 1977 onwards the two wings of the movement were hurtling apart over a series of controversies which included: was all of human history a single period of women’s subjugation leading up to the present (Rowbotham’s essay The Trouble with Patriarchy was the clearest statement published in rejection of that view), was all heterosexual sex tainted by male selfishness and violence (the sex positive/sex negative controversy), and (if it was the case that pornography etc) were the highest forms of male violence, what should be said or done about women prostitutes (so that by the end of the decade you had the pedecessors of today’s “SWERF” and “TERF” politics).

The existence of those splits place a question mark beneath the narrative of Rowbotham’s account. She wants everyone in the women’s movement to be united, just as everyone seemingly had been between about 1970 and 1976, or between about 2010 and 2015.

Such are the splits of today that while pro-trans feminism can find any number of parents in the socialist feminist camp (to this reader, anyway, there is a pretty clear line between the anti-essentialism of Lynne Segal’s Is the future female? and today’s revolutionary and social reproduction-oriented feminism); it is also the case that an important part of the anti-trans bloc justifies itself using a a language of class versus identity that can be traced back to the Women’s Charter and parts of the socialist feminist coalition, and to meetings which Rowbotham describes herself as dutifully attending.

The approach of Daring to Hope is, in relation to these developments at the end of the decade – just not to see or comment on them. Two hundred women are named in Rowbotham’s index, but there are no entries for Sheila Jeffreys nor for radical nor revolutionary feminism.

There was never a proper reckoning between these two strands of the femnist movement; or if there was, it was acheived through a silent backtow of opinion, in which the Rowbotham generation – having exposed the faults of the Leninist sects in Beyond the Fragments (the final section of this volume), then fell victim to an unspoken policy of exclusion at the hands of the new radical majority, becoming in the words of Melissa Benn ‘ghost[s] at the feast of the politics [they] helped create’.

Those of us who live through our own 1980s – with the right secure in power, and social movements isolated and inwardly-looking as befits a generation suffering defeat – may regret that there was no open reckoning in the 1970s between these two trends. Or, more accurately, that the left of 1970s feminism never acknowledged what they were, i.e. pioneers constantly having to re-persuade those closest to them. Their eyes were always set on hope but sometimes (and fatefully) they lost the argument.

Apple sauce with your Arendt: the Eichmann Show

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The Eichmann Show is on BBC iplayer just now, with Martin Freeman and Anthony LaPaglia playing two Jewish TV producers who travel from the US to Jerusalem to film the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1962.

It’s definitely worth watching. LaPaglia is believable as a US victim of the blacklist, trying to make sense of Eichmann and the country in which he finds himself. There are other moments too: a scene with a cameraman forced to confront his own memories, which I thought was nicely done. As I’ll try to show, the filmmakers were engaging with big ideas. When people do that, you always want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Overall, it doesn’t quite succeed though as a conventional drama – Freeman feels like he’s trying too hard not to be Bilbo Baggins, quite a lot of the plot (especially the first 15 minutes) comes over as utter contrivance, and at any moment when people doubt what they’re doing there is a survivor just super-conveniently on hand to convince the cast of their own righteousness.

All of that said, the writers had clearly read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and as this is one of the great books of the postwar world, it’s worth seeing the film through it, and thinking through how they use the medium of film to convey and simplify Arendt’s text.

Arendt had three main things to say about the trial. The first was that, as an anti-Zionist Jew, she was horrified by the nationalism of the prosecutor, Hausner, who tried to use the trial to prove that the world had been hostile to the Jews, had been continuously and consistently so, ever since the days of the Old Testament. So that what was on trial in 1962 was not Eichmann but (in Hasner’s words) “antisemitism. throughout history”. If it really was true, Arendt countered, that anti-Zewish racism had been at a continuous pitch for three thousand years, then what moral authority was there for picking our and prosecuting and executing Eichmann who was logically, just another antisemite, among millions, in a continuous history of equal and unbroken horror?

The film turns this critique into art by the device of just making Hasner’s opening speech very slow and boring, so that the film-makers suffer the prospect of their world-historic spectacle turning into a dud with its own audience. Now, this idea has compelling for an instant. Imagine: a Hollywood film about no-one watching Hollywood films… But the writers only hold this idea for a few seconds or so before rushing to the answer: that what rescued the trial, as a TV spectacle, was the compelling nature of the survivors’ testimony.

Reading Arendt today it is striking how radically unimpressed she was by the survivors’ testimony. She certainly gave examples of people who she thought spoke well and plainly and to the point. Of survivors who described the help they had received from non-jews. Of instances of rebellion. But what she describes is (as so often with memory) of people crowding around trauma to make themselves central. Of people abstracting from their circumstances. She is especially critical of one famous writer who, given a chance to address the world on what he experienced, instead speechified at inordinate length, then, when the judge begged him to answer the prosecutor’s questions, fainted and collapsed. The makers of the Eichmann show take this same incident, elevate it, make the witness appear heroic, then berate one of their own central characters for missing his fall, and wrongly – broodingly – focussing on the mute witness Eichmann.

Arendt’s book was subtitled The Banality of Evil, by which she was trying to convey, I suppose, several specific things: first that (on her reading of his evidence, which she accepted) Eichmann was not an ideological Nazi but someone who had joined the NSDAP late and been swept up by it, that he was a “normal person” (in her words) “neither feeble-minded nor indocrinated”, that knowing he would be responsible for Jewish affairs, he had picked up some Hebrew, learned to read Yiddish, read Zionist literature, and that the key quotes used by the prosecution to justify his execution were instances of him “bragging” and exaggerating the part he had played, which had not been to make the policy of killing, but to administer the movement of people for it.

The film takes this superficially simple idea “banality” and does to it exactly, I suppose, what Arendt complained the survivor’s testimony did wrong – ie. abstract it, ie. separate it from its strict historical context and treat it as some general concept, and misunderstand it.

In the film, Eichmann’s banality is mute: he neither speaks, not gestures, nor even really moves. He sits still and silent while LaPaglia yells at him to do something. His banality is turned into film as an inability to speak whereas, as I hope I’ve just shown, he was in the real-life trial, loqacious, determined to justify himself, speaking readily, even as he in fact taught his listeners nothing.

Finally, why was Arendt so insistent on Eichmann’s banality? As I’ve indicated, the only heroism she could imagine was the rejection of those putting themselves in the way of history, whether that meant the victims refused to be herded to their death, or the non-Jewish people in Poland helping them to escape. She had a very similar sense of refusal in relation to the state of Israel and the national myths on which that country was founding itself: antisemitism had not been a continuous feature of world history, Eichmann could not play the part the regime reserved to him, of the planner and instituter of the Holocaust. The introduction to the Penguin edition of her book is titled, ‘The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt’, to reflect the very considerable hostility with which it was received in the mainstream Jewish press. Her book was, in its awkwardness, an act of bravery.

Compared to this original, the Eichmann show means well – but falls someway short of the original.

Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis: reviews

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Reviews of my book have started appearing. They include Liz Davies in Socialist Lawyer. Hers concludes: “…Renton also calls for a kinder, more appropriate complaints and disciplinary process. The factionalism which pervades Labour’s complaints system has been well documented, most noticeably in the infamous “leaked report”. Renton makes the point that a calmer atmosphere surrounding the complaints process would distinguish between antisemitic statements that cannot be tolerated, and a more nuanced approach to other more ambiguous statements, asking whether the maker had understood its offensiveness, would be prepared to withdraw it etc. Such a distinction is impossible, Renton says, when there are thousands of people staring at the disciplinary process, loudly declaring their own moral righteousness and their contempt for anyone who disagreed with them. Renton’s book speaks truth to the left. That is not an easy thing to do, or to read, but, for any principled socialist, it is absolutely necessary”.

The socialist magician Ian Saville also has kind words for the book at Labour Hub: “Renton singles out some individuals on the left who have made statements which clearly contain elements of antisemitism, and he demolishes the arguments they present with clarity and precision. But the bigger and most important charge is about many of us on the left who failed to challenge such arguments. It seems we were blinded by the transparent attempt by the right to use the issue to attack and destabilise the left. By ‘rallying round’ our friends in these circumstances, doubling down on supporting an ahistorical account of the Holocaust from Ken Livingstone, or of Jewish involvement in the slave trade from Jackie Walker, we gave ammunition to the right, further alienating many who could have been our allies.”

Keith Kahn-Harris, who had of course published his own superb book on the subject (Strange Hate) has reviewed mine for the Times Literary Supplement and Jewthink. In the latter, he calls my book “elegiac” and says, “I hope that David Renton’s book encourages open self-criticism on the Labour left regarding antisemitism.”

One of the most unexpected notes of welcome came from Philip Mendes at the Australia-Israel Labor-Dialog site. He sets out the many places at which he and I dsagree, while saying that mine is far better than those which have preceded it from other anti-Zionist sources,” and ends his piece with two question for me, and the anti-Zionist left more generally.

Jeremy Green’s review for his own website was reprinted by Socialist Against Antisemitism. Again, he’s very positive, concluding, “I’ve never met David Renton, though I’ve enjoyed reading his blog posts. We’ve exchanged a few messages via Facebook, mainly me telling him that I’ve appreciated something he’s written. But I wish I’d known him during the period that his book covers; it might have made it easier to live through the misery.”

At Philosophy Football, Mark Perryman has been perhaps the kindest of all reviewers, calling my book, “the definitive work for me on this most vexatious of subjects … Definitive in scope, politics and writing style this is a hugely impressive piece of writing and puts the Keir Starmer era Labour Party’s own pitiful efforts at antisemitism training to shame. Sadly the same Labour regime in all likelihood will ban David from speaking at Labour meetings on the subject because he doesn’t appear on some approved list to do so.  In the face of all that David’s book demands the widest possible platforms and readership, what a disappointment then it has come out from an academic publisher with their usual unimaginative cover and high price. No criticism of Routledge intended, well done for publishing it, but this book’s audience stretches way beyond academia, hopefully a more attractively packaged and reasonably priced second edition will be on its way soonest, in the meantime readers should grab a copy soon as they can.”

I will surprise no-one by mentioning that the good folks at Jewish Voice for Labour has also reviewed the book. At the centre of their review is a plea to the left that we must not give up on the idea that Labour’s difficulties were solely caused by the “Israel lobby”. Yes, the people who could see no evil in anything Chris Williamson, Ken Livingstone or Jackie Walker said have at last found something that offends them. I imagine that other reviews of a similar character will follow theirs.

EDITED to add (1.11.21). More reviews coming in; including Jonah ben Avraham for New Politics. He’s probably the first reviewer to have spotted that my book isn’t only about antisemitism, but is shaped by wider experiences of having to deal with selfish and destructive behaviour by people on the left. Ben Avraham concludes: “Renton’s book doesn’t have all the answers. His at times rosy optimism that what Labourites like Livingstone and Walker needed was a comrade in their ear, and not a boot out the door, is more a philosophy of changing hearts and minds than a strategy. Still, it is a philosophy that is despairingly rare on a left that has responded to repeated calls for accountability, from #MeToo to efforts addressing racial harm in left-wing spaces, first and foremost with the same kind of legalism and defensiveness at play in the antisemitism crisis. Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis points activists in a new, transformative direction for the next struggle.”

Fascism and anti-fascism in Britain – ten novels

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With Ridley Road now on the BBC iplayer, I thought I’d post a list here of what I reckon are the ten best novels written about fascism and anti-fascism in Britain:

(10) Farrukh Dhondy, East End At Your Feet

More a short story collection than a novel; in the fifth story “KBW” [Keep Britain White] a neighbouring family is attacked by a gang of 20 racists.

(9) Patrick McGrath, The Wardrobe Mistress

On the death of veteran actor Charles Grice in 1947, his wife Joan learns that he was a fascist and a street-corner antisemite. Will she take revenge on the movement that corrupted him?

(8) Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Girls fall madly in love with glamorous and manipulative teacher. But it’s 1933 and the teacher has a crush on Mussolini and Hitler.

(7) Cressida Connolly, After the Party

Glamorous socialite Phyllis Forrester returns to England. She follows her sister Nina into a world of fascist summer camps, and wartime internment

(6) Tariq Mehmood, While There is Light

England and back. An account of the events leading up to the rest of the Bradford 12 in 1981: rude, funny, full of righteous fire.

(5) Anthony Cartwright, Heartland

Cartwright, the novelist-historian of work, Thatcherism and the East Midlands, returns to home territory for a story of the World Cup, local elections and a Sunday-league football game pitting two Tipton teams together, one of them a stooge for the BNP.

(4) Max Schaefer, Children of the Sun

In 2003, gay left-wing screenwriter James becomes obsessed 1980s-ers neo-Nazi Nicky Crane, following his career and friends through the archives and in real life. Perhaps the only ever book to have been praised by both China Mieville and Nick Griffin.

(3) Jonathan Coe, The Rotters Club

It’s Birmingham in 1976, with glam rock, the IRA and teenage Nazi Harding is doing his best A. K. Chesterton impersonation in the school elections. Ben Trotter and his friends meanwhile are exploring sex, London, and Rock Against Racism.

(2) Frank Griffin, October Day

The events of 4 October 1936 – Cable Street – shown Dos-Passos-style through such characters as the winnable but anti-political worker Joe, the policeman Harold Thurgood and a wealthy fascist with who he carries on an affair, Lady Stroud.

(1) Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Because we’ve all got a little part of Stevens in us, whether we like it or not – that loyalty to the present, to things as they are, which stops us from changing them.

With honourable mentions for the following: Alan Gibbons, Street of Tall People, PH Wodehouse, Code of the Woosters, Richmal Compton, William the Dictator, the screenplay of Young Soul Rebels (which is published as a book), Anders Lustgarten’s play A Day at the Racists (ditto), and (yes) Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road.

Ridley Road and the real Vivien Epstein

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I’ve been fascinated by the BBC series, Ridley Road, and the way in which it uses the history of anti-fascism. I haven’t read the novel behind the series, by Jo Bloom, but if there is any consistency at all between the two versions of the story then plainly she was trying to do something interesting with the history, something a historian could never do. Here I’ll try to explain what.

The starting point is that there is, essentially, no good history of the 62 Group. There were a series of interviews written up by Steve Silver (here). There is an account of the same period seen through the eyes of the NSM in Paul Jackson’s biography of Colin Jordan (here). And you can pick up bits from Nigel Copsey and Dave Hann’s histories of anti-fascism in Britain.

Bloom plainly raided Silver’s work as her main source, and so you get a line of dialogue in one of the episodes describing Solly (Eddie Marsan) as owning London’s largest black cab firm. Check that against the Silver manuscript, and you’ll see that (so far) Solly is based on the real life figure of Wally Levy – an ally of the 62 Group, but by no means its key player.

I suspect the idea was to mix Levy with a more important figure in the group Harry Bidney, who had been prosecuted at various times in the 1950s for being in a gaming house, dealing in black market cigarettes, receiving stolen alcohol, and for allowing a room to be used for betting, and for prostitution. There’s probably some of Cyril Paskin and Baron Moss there too.

The series doesn’t really explain why Ridley Road was such a key site for fascist (and therefore antifascist) organising; essentially it was the border line between gentile Hackney in the borough’s south and the Jewish district in the north. In 1947-8, it saw the most intense fascist organising of any district in London between 1945 and the 1970s.

There are problems with the drama – the first episode strains for contemporary resonances, and makes Jordan seems a bigger and better-connected threat than he was. The biggest weakness, for me, reflects the shift from a novel to the small screen. In the former, it makes sense for political organising to be the work of really 2-3 key people who really gras[ everything. The real life 43 and 62 groups were larger, more democtatic – and more chaotic – than that.

By far the most interesting thing Bloom does with the story is that she raids the better-known history of the 43 Group – and takes a key episode from that and makes it the centre of her drama. To recap, what everyone knows about the 43 Group is that they were a set of Jewish ex-servicemen willing to fight a physical battle with the fascists. Through intelligence, and a willing to out-violence their opponents, they knocked over fascist platforms and drove them from the streets.

Now, this narrative is mythic in certain respects – it exaggerates the group’s success rate (which was high in 46 and spring and summer 47 then tailed off, as the fascists grew). It also ignores one or two dark episodes.

The darkest of these concerned a female infiltrator Wendy Turner. She wasn’t Jewish (unlike most people in the 43 Group) but agreed to spent a year of her life passing on intelligence on key fascist leaders – getting close to the point of danger, in order to pass back information. Like “Vivien” in Ridley Road she slept with leading fascists (not Jordan but a Mosley’s lieutenant, Jeffrey Hamm).

Ultimately, Turner suffered a mental health breakdown and was hospitalised and remained there for 30 years. There, she described her life as being “penned inside a mile of corridors, surrounded by sick, twisted, deformed, insane people; doing nothing, going nowhere, only longing with every cell of my body and mind and spirit for death.”

It is incredibly hard trying to find out what happened to Turner. I remember in the 1990s when I interviewed half a dozen members of the 43 Group – few if any were willing to speak about her. But friends of theirs would tell you stories, for example that Turner was hospitalised because she had gone into the fascists, been caught there, and beaten, and the injuries had caused the decades of ill-health that followed.

Daniel Sonnabend gives a different (and even more troubling) version of who attacked her.

What Ridley Road does, it seems to me, is take that story about Turner, turn it into myth, and cure her suffering through the medium of fiction. It presents Turner as having (well – I can’t go on without spoiling the ending) but you get the point. It takes her defeat in real life and makes her heroic.

Knowing that there were real life counterparts to the Vivien character who were there, and didn’t get out – and never got out – that’s the real story.

On Ken Loach; or why the fight against antisemitism deserves better than these authoritarian expulsions

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If I was going to write about Ken Loach’s expulsion from the Labour Party here are some of the things I’d say:

These are more notes and parentheses than a finished article, but they’ll give you a sense of what’s been troubling me.

(1) That what put Ken Loach in line for expulsion was that he has spoken on the platforms of what is now a proscribed organisation, Labour Against the Witch-hunt. For the time being, Labour seems to have accepted they could not expel him for this: he spoke prior to those groups’ proscription and was never a member.

It may be that Loach’s public platform gave him a protection which other members of the party have been denied. Others have been threatened with expulsion for behaviour which was permitted and within the rules when they did it.

(2) He was actually expelled for refusing to denounce other members of that group: “I will not disown those already expelled”)

(3) This has also been the pattern in several other high-profile expulsions (eg the Israeli exile Moche Machover), that members are being suspended/expelled not for anything they themselves said but because they have attended meetings with people in the audience who Labour had previously expelled.

The Machover case is especially depressing. The Party invoked against him a clause in its Code of Conduct, which states that “Those who consistently abuse and spread hate should be shunned and not engaged with in a way that ignores this behaviour”

This sentence was treated as if it contained two potential breaches of the Labour Party Code, either a) a positive act of encouraging former members in their antisemitism, or b) an omission of failing to shun them.

Among the many fallacies here is that it makes an expulsion offence for another member of the Labour Party in good standing was to approach an expelled member, talk to them, remind them of their previous behaviour, and seek to challenge it consistently, over time, as might befit a former member whose behaviour had been at different times both comradely and objectionable. The punishment has the consequence of making antisemitism a greater offence from the perspective of the Labour Party than any crime is in the sight of the British state. For we have in our society all sorts of people whose roles are to engage with former offenders, to educate them and reintegrate them into society after their punishment has ended. Criminals are human beings, and capable of redemption. Labour deems the antisemite, by contrast, uniquely incapable of ever changing and entitled to no further contact.

(4) That what Labour’s compliance officers are doing is what lawyers call “satellite litigation”, i.e they are not disciplining people for actual online racism, rather they are looking for something else, an activity before or after that or to its side, which can be presented to a friendly press as evidence that Labour is dealing with anti-Jewish racism. Non-lawyers might call it a displacement activity.

(5) That Labour does have a problem with antisemitism, especially online

I have just written a 100,000 word book, on this issue, it excoriates some of those guilty of behaviour that either was racist or was within touching distance of racism. Those guilty of it included MPs, the Vice-Chair of Momentum, and a former Mayor of London an elected politician with the largest constituency of anyone in Britain. Unlike many people on the Labour left, I do not believe for example that the EHRC report exaggerated the scale of anti-Jewish racism, my sense is that it and other key documents tended to understate the problem.

(6) But this method of expelling people for vague associations with people with whom they have had little contact, is misconceived, to anyone watching it seems high-handed and offensive and discredits the idea of fighting racism

(7) That what the EHRC report required the party do was actually confront racism – ie explain to people which behaviour crossed the line, why it was wrong, and (in less serious cases) giving the people concerned a chance to learn and change their former behaviour and reject it.

One of the ways the EHRC did this was by saying that the party should, “Make sure that all members found to have engaged in antisemitic conduct (apart from those who are expelled) undertake an educational course on identifying and tackling antisemitism, regardless of the level of sanction applied.” That proposal makes no sense if the Party now adopts a position that all those guilty of antisemitism, or guilty of having given an interview to an organisation which went on to be proscribed, or guilty of attending a meeting an which an expelled person was present, etc, should be expelled, rather than (if they are accused of antisemitism) remain in membership and attend training.

(8) That Labour has dodged the task of educating its members on why antisemitism is wrong. Instead of which Labour has concentrated on trying to generate figures of large numbers of expulsions in order to give the impression of taking the issue seriously

(9) Rather than fighting a battle against racism, it is simply trying to push the problem elsewhere. I and other Jewish socialists are part of the online left and this is much broader than the Labour Party. When Labour expels people not for antisemitism but for tangentially-related behaviour (membership of a proscribed organisation, attending a meeting at which an expelled person was present, etc) it does not reduce the number of racists in the world by one person. All it does is turn people against the idea that antisemitism is worth fighting. It invites the left to rebuild itself around a shared myth that there was never any antisemitism in the party. It turns some people who said unpleasant things into victims. It makes other people more likely to adopt an antagonistic relationship towards me and other Jews.

(10) There is a fight to be had against anti-Jewish racism. For all the mistakes he made, Jeremy Corbyn was an ally in that battle. By contrast, Keir Starmer and his supporters have never shown the least interest in helping people like me.