Monthly Archives: May 2021

Read, Antifascist!


A review of Shane Burley, Why we Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance and Surviving the Apocalypse

Over the last four years, while the right has been growing in America, I have tried to keep up with that small group of antifascist writers who seem best informed about what’s been happening, the likes of Mark Bray, Talia Lavin, Alexander Reid Ross and Natasha Lennard. That doesn’t mean I’ve agreed with each of them on everything, just that they’re the ones who’ve spotted trends earliest and done the best job of explaining them. Within this group, the writer who I’ve followed the closest is Shane Burley.

Three years ago, when most British anti-fascists still believed that Richard Spencer and the Charlottesville strategy represented something real and growing, Burley was already talking of Spencer’s “extreme decline”, and crediting anti-fascists with that victory.

A year and a half ago, he spotted the first signs of deplatforming, and suggested it might prove a “death sentence” for the right. That was then, and his point has become even more compelling since, now that the people subject to that attack aren’t merely the likes of Nazi cosplayers Andrew Anglin or Mike Enoch, but the likes of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump.

For all those reasons, you won’t be surprised that I am an enthusiast for this collection of Shane Burley’s journalism, which brings together in one place seventeen of his articles, showing how the right has changed over the past half-decade, and how anti-fascists have developed to fight it.

Here are some of the passages which interested me. Early in the introduction, Burley justifies his use of the term “Apocalypse,” to describe not merely the millenarianism on which fascism thrives, but the world beyond that conflict, in which the planet is warming, species dying, etc. “We all agree on this,” he writes, “we all know that Covid is merely the first of what are going to be an increasing number of crises on the same scale.” He goes on to argue that million of people have been given an “ideological training” in how to deal with the catastrophe by the myths of the distant past. And fascism, as a form of crisis politics, is given particular opportunities to grow.

That is not to say that Burley regards all ideological influence as equally suspect. He writes about his own intellectual debts, and the impact on him of his ancestors’ Judaism, with its sense that we are living on the verge of end times. For several pages of his book, Burley tells that story. I just want to say how interesting, and how bold I thought that move was. For, of course, many of the famous writers who composed the major anti-fascist works were Jewish. (How could that fail to be, when fascists have been so unremittingly hostile to Jews?) But whether we are talking about the activists of the 20s and 30s, or any more recent activist, that Jewishness has always been coded and secularised. I can’t think of another anti-fascist book which has been so open in saying; here is where I’m coming from. This is what the people who came before me believed; they help to shape me.

Burley writes about the way in which a certain kind of far-right politics (the “alt-right”) was elbowed out of the way, realtively early in the Trump presidency so that what came to dominate was not a Klan or Nazi-stle politics, but a right deeply rooted in the Republican Party.

Another chapter looks at Turning Point USA, and the way that campaign uses its demands of “free speech” to call for the dismissal of left-wing lecturers, the deportation of undocumented students, etc. We have seen in Britain, of course, how keen the Conservatives have been on creating the conditions for a similar movement to emerge here.

Burley considers the violence used by James Alex Fields, in driving his Dodge Challenger into a crowd at Charlottesville and killing Heather Heyer. The media, Burley writes “want a long gunman”, because that fits with the story they like to tell in which the far right is always a movement of political innocents whose lapses can be excused as a series of inexplicable, individual, acts. “Fields is guilty,” Burley writes, “They are all guilty.”

Burley writes about the “revolutionary lives” that are appropriate to an era of climate and social catastrophe. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please…” Marx once wrote. Burley, whose book has more references to the IWW than it does to Leon Trotsky, finds his own road to a similar conclusion, “We cannot determine the whole of our future, but we can choose what we run towards.”

Another chapter talks about the myth of usury, and how that has become an idea central to the far-right, which has its own myth of the “demonic capitalist”, and its obverse a healthy ruling-class with the Jews purged from it, ready to play their part in restoring capitalism to what it should be.

Often when you read collections of journalism, they suffer from the defects that key moments are missed, or big ideas are repeated from piece to piece. The whole is less than the parts.

Unusually, Burley’s book is stronger than the individual pieces. He has plainly spent many hours choosing which pieces to select and rewriting them, making sure that they fit together. They range so widely, they cover such a large ground of strategic thinking – both on their side and ours – that what emerges is an important, clear and coherent account of America as the tear gas blew, a Ten Days That Shook The World for a new generation of anti-fascists.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my own next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

Antisemitism: can we agree on anything?


A review of Jo Glanville, Looking for an Enemy: 8 Essays on Antisemitism

I imagine everyone reading this blog would share some basic points about antisemitism. First, that there is more antisemitism (or at least more noticeable antisemitic speech) in the world than at any time in decades. The number and ferocity of physical attacks on Jews are at postwar highs. Antisemitism has been mainstreamed in several countries’ national discourse.

Second, it’s also the case that at the same time, the political far-right whether in its cultural, electoral, or street forms is more popular and successful than at any time since 1945.

From that point onwards, however, it’s likely that any consensus will break down. There must be a correlation between the two trends I’ve just outlined but it’s not obvious which dynamic causes the first. If you listen to Jewish writers: people who identify with the left tend to argue that it’s the growth of the far right which is causing the anti-Jewish racism. But other Jews, who support the political centre or right disagree. How could the far right explain what we saw among parts of the Corbyn Labour Party? Or in France?

This collection, edited by Jo Glanville of the Jewish Quarterly, aims to shed light on the debate by bringing together a range of Jewish contributors. Mikolaj Grynberg describes how in Poland state laws criminalising the discussion of Polish complicity in the Holocaust have reinforced a hostile popular fascination with Jews. Glanville herself writes on the myth of child sacrifice, arguing that it continues to inform more widespread discourses of Jewish conspiracy and cruelty. A broad-brush piece by Philip Spencer manages to write as badly about the Labour Party as it is possible to do: by simultaneously arguing that all Corbyn supporters were racist (all? Even those of us who repeatedly challenged anti-Jewish racism?), and by refusing to cite any actual instances of antisemitic speech with the result that no one reading his piece would think – that happened, that’s very bad, it needs to stop now. Jill Jacobs addresses the familiar reality that Donald Trump both supported Israeli and encouraged racism against Jews. Tom Segev writes about the use of the Holocaust within Israel, criticising Netanyahu but doing so with extreme caution.

The three most interesting chapters, it seemed to me, were those written by Dan Trilling on the right in Britain, Natasha Lehrer on the crisis in France, Olga Grjasnowa on Germany.

Trilling in a short, well-argued contribution, insists that antisemitism operates to the “fasces” (the fascist symbol of authority, a bunch of sticks held together), like the leather strap, the “binding agent” which ties together what would otherwise be a disparate and incompatible set of ideas, its rejection of both capitalism and communism. Open antisemitism may have diminished to some extent on the right, but it is replaced a by a conspiracism within which old Nazi slogans (such as “cultural Marxism”) are easily revived.

France meanwhile is the clearest case for those who want to argue that antisemitism is emerging at all points on the political spectrum, and that the equation “anti-Jewish racism is a far-right phenomenon” is hopelessly glib. Lehrer describes the mobbing of the Jewish controversialist Alain Finkielraut, by a crowd of Gilets Jaunes supporters chanting, “Filthy Zionist bastard”, “France belongs to us,” and “We are the people.”

The politics of this scene are complex: the GJs were a broad, populist, movement with roots in both the French left and right. Most people I know, I guess, would have blamed this scene on neo-Nazi infiltrators within that group. Yet, while undoubtedly the GJs were subject to such raiding, I doubt most French Jews read the situation like that. For the message the French media gives is that Israel protects French Jews, and that story is amplified both by Finkiekraut himself and by the largest far-right party the Front National. If the French press was to be believed, and some people do believe it, the further right you go in politics the more pro-Jewish people are.

Or think of some of the other examples cited by Lehrer: Jewish schoolchildren shot in Toulouse in 2012, the murders at the Hypercacher supermarket in 2015, the killing of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in 2018. (These three attacks were antisemitic and none can plausibly be blamed on the right). French Jews, Lehrer writes, constitute less than 1 percent of the population, and suffer more than 50 percent of racist attacks. This racism comes, Lehrer argues, predominantly from black people and Muslims.

It is extraordinary to go from Lehrer’s account of France to Olga Grjasnowa’s Germany. There, she argues, Jews are taught to live in fear of racism, which they are told is solely and uniquely the preserve of outsiders – the same blacks and Muslims. But look at the figures for antisemitic hate crimes recorded in 2019: 1,898 including 62 acts of violence were carried out supporters of the far right; 24 (3 of them violent) by Muslim antisemites. The press, she argues, has invested huge time and energy in persuading Jewish people to fear the wrong people, not the far right who are a real threat but Muslims, who in most of Europe aren’t any threat at all.

Several of the pieces in this book are interesting; for people unfamiliar with the widespread sense of anxiety among Jewish Europeans, this is a good place to understand it. Reading this collection as a whole, the question is really whether it coheres. The individual contributions have the feel of voices taking past one another. It is as if the editor had hosted an academic event, allowed each contributor to speak for 40 minutes each, but insisted on strict rules that none of the participants were permitted to comment on each other’s paper.

What might Natasha Lehrer say to Olga Grjasnowa, or Grjasnowa to Lehrer, if each was told to hash out their discussion over beigels? I like to think that quite quickly, they might have got beyond the point of each telling the other, “I’m sorry, you’ve just completely misunderstood what’s going on”. It is exactly that missing discussion between participants that would have been most interesting.

What do the far right want when they demand to speak?


All across the United States and Europe, we are seeing the spread of a certain idea of free speech. Unlike the great free speech battles of most of the last 200 years, this is a war being waged by the right. In a typical “free speech” battle, a speaker representing politics somewhere to the right of old-style conservatism is demanding that some other organisation (a university, a broadcaster, an online space) provide a platform to him. The centre-right supports this demand, judging that in backing its outliers, its own base will grow.

What I explore in this piece is what this notion of free speech offers the far right. Bluntly, what is the speech that supporters of the far-right would make, if they were permitted? Many of my examples are from Britain, but the dynamics I describe are just as visible in the US, in France, in India, and everywhere else where the right is growing.

i) The far right must speak because it is under attack

The far right derives its entitlement to speak from the idea that its people are facing some overwhelming threat, and the threat posed to them dictates that they must be heard. The threat does not have to be real, it is all the most effective if it is plainly a nonsensical lie. Think for example of the Great Replacement myth that a secret association of Jews are somehow conspiring to change the “white” countries of the world into majority black and Asian states. This story provides its believers with an organising. It tells them that any black presence in any historically white country is a challenge, the first threat to their own genocide.

Sometimes, the threat can be petty; all the far-right needs is an argument which places it on the defensive, in order to counter-attack. A decade ago, the sociologist Joel Busher noticed that one of the most common claims made by supporters of the English Defence League (EDL) was the claim that they were being criticised for putting up English flags. Almost all of his interviewees would tell a story in which Muslims or left-wingers would ask them to take their flags down. The flag-holder would then exult in the way they humiliated their opponent, swearing at them, threatening violence, or actually carrying out. The point of the story wasn’t that any of this happened, too many people were claiming at once to be the one person that this had happened to, or even that the threat was particularly worrying: the Muslims and left-wingers in this story weren’t rude or violent, just annoying.

What the story offered was a narrative of how right-wing activists could change from being part of a beleaguered political minority to become articulate and confident activists. The threat leads to speech, and then to further speeches of the same sort.

ii) The far right must speak out because no one else will speak for it

In the far-right narrative of free speech, its activists must talk because the state and the political centre (including the centre-right) are unreliable allies. Supporters of the far right complain that liberals, socialists, blacks, Muslims and feminists all have access to well-respected public bodies. The authorities and the state all support the left.

When the EDL interviewees were quizzed about this, they had a narrative in which high-profile, well-funded and respected campaigns (Amnesty, Liberty…) were all willing to speak up on behalf of Muslims and the left. While they, alone, were defencless.

iii) The alternative to speech is silence, and silence is a form of agony

I remember sitting in court in July 2018, at the time of former EDL leader Tommy Robinson’s appeal against his conviction for contempt of court. Robinson was able to follow the proceedings only remotely, relying on a video link from prison. “Can you see your barrister?” the usher asked. “Yeah.” “Can you see the judges?” “Yeah. Are they supposed to be that small?” Bored, ignored by the lawyers in court, Robinson was all “please” and “thank you”. “I’m not nervous before a court case,” he said, “not usually.” Soon enough the sound was switched, off, leaving Robinson picking distractedly at his shirt.

When they spoke, his lawyers made every effort to present Robinson as a champion of good relations between different communities. Tommy Robinson was a delicate man, his lawyer explained, the victim of self-doubt. When in prison, he suffered anxiety, butterflies to the stomach. The street-fighter changed himself into an object of pity.

iv) Far-right speech is an act of solidarity…

When activists on the far-right assert their entitlement to speak, they claim to be speaking on behalf of others. Think, for example, of the QAnon conspiracy theory and the way it insists that the world is being secretly controlled a small group of Satan-worshiping paedophiles (including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and George Soros). The victims of this fantasy are, its believers claim, children who are being trafficked in huge numbers. Or you could think alternatively of the movements that have grown up in Britain and in Europe promising to put an end to an imagined wave of Islamic rapes.

v) … But not a very generous act of solidarity

But while supports of the far right insist they must speak up for other people, these others are not to liberated but kept mute. The right believes it is protecting white women and children from Muslim rapists. And this is not a dynamic of giving women or children a platform, but rather of permitting white men to speak for them. As socialist feminist Kate Bradley observes, “Placing women on a pedestal soon turns to violence and aggression if they prove insubordinate or unhappy with their passive position.” From the Proud Boys, with their ideal of the “Veneration of the Housewife”, it is a short step to attacks on women, such as Lauren Southern who was abused for not sleeping with white racist men, or Richard Spencer’s wife Nina Kouprianova. A fellow white nationalist, at one point he brought her into his interviews. Weeks later, he was shouting at her that she should kill herself.

The far right’s protection of white women sits alongside a misogynistic language of hatred for the weak (“cucks”) and the left (“snowflakes”). In both its protective and its denunciatory faces, the most basic belief of the far right in relation to women is that they are not full human beings and require someone else to speak for them.

vi) Because the far right it has spoken up for these victims, it is excused if it then acts aggressively toward them

The protective urge liberates the far right to prey on the very people it claims to speak for. More than 40 supporters of the British far right have been jailed for sexual offences against children since 1999. Other prominent fascists have been prone to the same vice: Frank Collin’s career as leader of the National Socialist Party of America, and tormentor of Skokie, ended in 1980 when he was convicted of eight counts of taking indecent liberties with children aged between ten and fifteen, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Tommy Robinson is an example of the sane phenomenon. How could anyone criticise him, his supporters argue, when has pledged himself to support vulnerable white women? But “I’ve always been comfortable,” Tommy Robinson writes in his memoir, “in a bloke-oriented environment,” and it is a feature of his memoir that very few women are mentioned: his mother, his wife (good), his probation officer (bad). He recalls “having a bit of a domestic” when walking outside his home with his wife – by which he means attacking and beating her.

Participants in far-right politics tell themselves that they are the champion of “women and children”; but there is no real-life category of women and children. Rather the difference between women and children is that women are adults and entitled to speak for themselves, while children are less than adults and still obliged to depend on others to speak for them. To speak of the rights of women and children as a single group is to assume that women have no entitlement to speak and can be heard only if men speak for them.

vii) Far right speech is never much more than an excuse for violent acts

Supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory have been arrested after attacking restaurants wrongly rumoured to have held children captive, assembling bomb-making materials, attacking Roman Catholic churches, derailing trains, stalking politicians, and attacking the buildings where politicians live. If a child has been punished (and a child is the most powerless person imaginable) then there is principle no action which goes too far in the task of recusing them. Someone who attacks a child can be beaten; they can be killed, and their killers will have a moral justification. For in order to prevent cruelty to children, any act is legitimate. To invoke the suffering of non-existent children is to legitimise violence without limit against those who reject the conspiracy theories on which the far right thrives.

The invocation of the rights of children in the face of imagined liberal conspiracy serves the purpose of persuading the supporters of the far right that they are the victim of history, and the only people capable of avenging an enormous historical wrong. The threat faced by the far-right is so terrible, so violent, so overwhelming – that any degree of violence is legitimised.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

Censorship by algorithm


Two months ago, I was contacted by a man who sells books online at Amazon. He complained that the retailer had removed from its database any number of legitimate titles that of his – books written by me, and other writers. The censored texts all had one thing in common – they were books about fascism. Some hinted at lurid contents (“A history of Nazi involvement with the Occult”). Others sounded like respectable works of academic history (“The Cautious Crusade: Franklin D. Roosevelt, American Public Opinion and the War Against Nazi Germany”)

The seller wanted me to take sides in a dispute with Amazon – although how he or I could fight the platform was from clear. The books had simply been removed from Amazon’s selling list – no one had asked him for his reaction, there was no person for him to complain at.

Here’s the page he sent me. If you can’t see the text it reads: “We are writing to let you know that the following detail pages have been removed from our catalog …. Title: When We Touched the Sky…

My book When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League 1977-1981 is a piece of anti-fascist history. Yes it takes sides – against racism. It has been positively reviewed by dozens of papers and magazines, including the Independent on Sunday. Surely, if the origins of the rule was to prevent hate speech, there was something grotesque about it being used to censor a history of a mass movement against fascism.

Why had the books been taken down? For years, anti-racist and anti-fascists have complained about the role played by all the major internet companies in making life easy for the far right. The far right’s biggest publishers have an open door on Amazon, swastikas and other Nazi-style jewelry can be bought freely on the site. Even Mein Kampf is on sale there. People have complained, and continue to complain, that Amazon gives real help to fascists.

Plainly, what Amazon has done has been to pre-empt such public criticisms by agreeing to remove some of the most extreme material – and by passing on the task of checking for offensive material from people to an algorithm, which would catch such material and remove it early. Maybe it sounds like a good idea, but judging by the story of When we touched the sky, it seems that non- and anti-fascist books have been more effectively censored than fascist ones.

I’m annoyed but I’m sanguine. The book in question When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League is 15 years old, the publisher defunct. Nothing I can do will ever get it reprinted. Five years ago, the book was published in a new edition, with a new title, by Routledge. The new edition sells perfectly well, even on Amazon – it’s not going anywhere any time soon.

The removal of my book is a petty annoyance – not the career-ending blow it might be to a first-time writer. And yet the decision still annoys me.

It just seems wrong, even offensive, that a program can make the decision and I have effectively no means to challenge it. What if, next time, they do this to one of my books the very day it is published?

If I was to draw any longer-term conclusions from the whole affair they would be as follows. Amazon, like all the big internet companies is lazy. It is uninterested in the content sold on its website, blithe as to whether the books it produces do good or evil. It doesn’t want to look bad, nor does it care enough to do this properly.

You can petition the companies to remove hateful material, and sometimes that is a right and necessary thing to do. But, in every case, making that demand is to give the companies more power. I don’t trust Amazon to get these decisions right any more than I trust Twitter or Facebook.

I have no problem with great public campaigns removing symbols or artefacts of racism. I trust crowds of people and the causes (trade unions, anti-racism, etc) which sustain them. But these all rely on a vision of popular power which is capable of democratic challenge. By contrast, the likes of Amazon or the social media companies are big monopolies unaccountable to their shareholders or still the public.

Sure, its right to make demands of them sometimes. But political wisdom means making those demands rarely and in the clearest cases, and retaining a continuing scepticism about the wisdom of their censorship machines.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here.

Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

Trolls, shit-posters… you have nothing to lose but your self-made chains


Friends who only know me from me from my books about fascism sometimes ask whether I’ve ended up on far-right hitlists. Not really. There was a death threat I was sent when I was at university – more a chain letter with some pornographic cartoons than anything more serious. There was a time in Sunderland when the organisers of the BNP branch read a letter of mine in the local paper, and tried to knock on every door of the street I lived until they found me. (The street ran to number 800 and, as far as I can tell, they never got anywhere near the flat where I was staying).

Years ago, in Liverpool, a former BNP member who’d been on trial for attempted murder got hold of my email address, and that only. But, to be honest, he was more looking for someone -anyone – to read his turgid memoirs than to do any harm to me.

In the last decade, most of the hatemail has come from other socialists. Like the person in the SWP who wrote to me, “Fuck off back to Eton you filthy rich tosser … you snivelling piece of shit.” When I pointed out that he’d sent what he plainly thought was an anonymous message from his private work computer, and therefore that I could identify him, the comrade had the good sense to respond, “I was completely wrong to say the things I did and I would like to offer my apologies.”

Then there was the fellow antizionist who wrote to me last year, “I suspect that the only thing you have fought for is a good seat at a restaurant … I won’t congratulate you on becoming a class traitor, not least because you were always of the wrong class anyway”. Which was at least better-written, and me laugh, even if the rest of the letter was annoying, stupid and rude.

What intrigues me is why people send this “red-on-red” fire? Obviously, there’s the narcissism of small differences, the way in which when you’re stuck at a point on the political spectrum it can feel as if people with a similar politics to you are operating as gatekeepers, keeping your voice from getting the attention it deserves.

But I think there’s something more than that, to do with the long-term consequences of the relocation of life from off- to online. Some readers will recall a time when online discussion was minimal, when it was something which took place in universities and through an electronic infrastructure which excluded the vast majority of people, and when other means of international communication was prohibitively expensive. (Don’t you remember having saying to people: I need to make a call, it’s international – I’ll pay you?)

If you had said to anyone 30 years ago that we were on the verge of a transformation in people’s ability to speak, opening up interpersonal communication to billions of people, the prospect would have filled every one of us with delight.

Plainly, social media is not only a negative phenomenon. Billions of people devote their creativity and ingenuity to the effort to make that experience as pleasant as possible. A shared experience on this scale could not simply be unpleasant, any more than all “food” or all “water” could be bad. Yet the fact that speech is mediated – i.e. communication controlled by huge businesses – has replaced the prospect of liberation with something less.

We spend hours of our lives, dozens of them a week, hundreds a month, thousands a year – doing what, exactly? We want to be liked; we want our posts to be read. We know that the most effective means of obtaining a like – a follow, a friendship request – is by “taking down” something we disagree with. This behaviour isn’t an attraction to someone else. It is alluring to you, dear reader. It is alluring to me.

There are a thousand fine gradations between making a well-deserved point, puncturing someone else’s nonsense, and mocking them openly, harassing, calling for them to be dismissed. And yet these are all fine distinctions within one total set of behaviour: lines drawn on the same piece of cloth.

Anyonymous posting, commenting beneath the line – they change the people who do them.

The free speech battles of our time thrive on fume. Both sides present the enemy as capable of dealing to them a fatal defeat from which they could never recover. Typically, one side makes this claim with greater truthfulness than the other. But, typically, that justice claim gets lost, shrouded in the claims of mutual victimhood.

Somehow, we have to detach ourselves from the social media companies. The last time I looked, the wealth of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was $80 billion, almost all of it contained in the share price of his company. He was the world’s fourth richest person. Since 2012, Facebook’s share price has been growing at the rate of roughly $50 billion a year, earning Zuckerberg an effective income of about $8 billion a year.

We need to stop feeding their personal wealth; we also need to stop behaving in the ways that their products encourage.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here or here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

Israel and the global far right


Following on from my recent piece describing how the Israeli centre- and far-right ally, what I wanted to explain here is how the Israeli right seeks to place itself at the centre of global far-right organising.

There are lots of examples of this at the “far” far-right of politics. In Britain, you might think of the English Defence League, riven as it was by competing pro-Israel factions (supported by Tommy Robinson), and another large group of members wondering why they needed to have any position on Israel at all. Or you might think in America of the Israeli flags seen in the crowd during Trump’s attempted coup in January.

But I also want readers to think of “near” far-right: the close alliance between the likes of Bolsonaro in Brazil and the Netanyahu government in Israel. This alliance has been most sigificant in Eastern Europe. In 2018 and 2019, Israel was the patrons of a “Visegrád” group of European governments: Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, meeting their leaders, and seeking to lessen global criticism of them – particularly over antisemitism.

Israel’s patronage has been a particular boon in Hungary. At the end of 2017, the governing Fidesz party began campaigning for fresh elections, with the message that there were millions of Muslim migrants willing to enter the country from Africa and that they would bring terror to Hungary. This was accompanied by attacks on the “political empire” of George Soros the octogenarian banker who had donated some $4 million to pro-democracy NGOs in that country. Fidesz promised to introduce an anti-Soros law, allowing the government to ban organisations which campaigned for the free movement of people. During the election, giant posters were put up all over the country insisting “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh!” Making explicit what the official campaign was happy to leave implied, thousands of these posters were then covered in graffiti denouncing Soros as a Jew.

In 2017, the European Commission initiated an “Article 7” procedure, first against Poland, and then against Hungary. This power allows disciplinary sanctions to take taken against members of the European Union where they have failed to comply with the common values of the EU, including upholding the rule of law. In August 2020, Germany’s Europe Minister Michael Roth argued that one of the reasons why Article 7 had been needed was the willingness of the Fidesz government in Hungary to employ antisemitism against its opponents. Part of the Hungarian response to these criticisms was to insist on the closeness of its ties to Israel: Prime Minister Netanyahu had visited Hungary in 2017, the first Israeli leader to do so in three decades. He had termed Orbán, a “true friend of Israel”. How then, Hungary’s defenders argued, could the Fidesz leader be an antisemite?

As I’ve noted above, the street British far right has long contained pro-and anti-Israel factions. The latter has been in the ascendant for the last decade, and has been amply rewarded. The pro-Israel campaigner Robert Shillman for example sits on the board of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. In 2017, Shillman funded a series of “Shillman Fellowships” at the far-right media channel, Rebel Media. Among the beneficiaries of his generosity was Tommy Robinson who was paid a stipend of £100,000 per year. The highest profile funder of this sort is the Middle East Forum (MEF), which in the US sustains the Campus Watch website to spy on campaigning by Palestinians and leftists. In 2018, when anti-Islamic activist Tommy Robinson was jailed for contempt for court, the MEF donated £47,000 to the cost of his legal fees. As a result, in both 2017 and 2018, the highest-recorded donations to the British far right came from US-based pro-Israel activists.

Another story of entanglement between the far-right and the Netanyahu government lies behind the myth of George Soros, the individual who incarnates better than anyone else today’s antisemitic fantasies of Jewish control. That myth originated within Israel itself. In 2012, the right-wing website Latma produced a music video “Jews united against Israel” mocking left-wing Jews who did not support the occupation. Its main targets were President of the New Israel Fund Naomi Chazan, and George Soros. “When Soros handed out cash by the truck,” the video begins, “to funds, associations, to every schmuck … We [Soros and his allies] hate Israel every one of us”.

A year later political consultant George Birnbaum, who had served for eighteen months as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, was commissioned by Viktor Orbán to draw up an election strategy for Fidesz. In Birnbaum’s words, “There was no real political enemy … there was no one to have a fight with.” From there came the idea of a puppet master, who could be accused (despite his age and long absence from Hungary) of manifesting a secret control over all the forces in Hungarian society who were matched against Orbán. Soon Soros was accused of supporting non-governmental organisation, and environmental campaigners, and campaigning for Hungary to be flooded with refugees. He was said to control the mafia.

The Soros myth was then amplified again from within Israel, in 2017, when Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair published a cartoon showing Soros as the puppet master controlling first shape-shifting lizards, then Illuminati, and then finally a triad of anti-corruption activists, journalists and left-wing politicians.

In July 2019, when Israel’s ambassador to Hungary made the mistake of siding with that country Jewish organisations in criticising Orbán’s anti-Soros campaign as antisemitic, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly criticised his own ambassador. The Israeli foreign ministry issued a statement saying that Soros “continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected government” by funding organizations “that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”

In September 2019, Netanyahu senior raised the stakes even higher, accusing Soros of conspiring with Israel’s nuclear rival Iran.

Since 2016, the image of Soros as an all-powerful malevolent force has spread from Israel and Hungary across the world, and become a recurring antisemitic myth. The journalist Hannes Grassegger who has done more than anyone to document its spread. He writes: “In 2017, Italians started talking about Soros-financed immigrant boats arriving on the shores. In the US, some people suspected Soros was behind the migrant caravan entering from Central America. A Polish member of parliament called Soros the ‘most dangerous man in the world’.” And you could carry this list on, through dozens of countries, any number of centre-right politicians not least in Britain.

The myth of Soros’s secret power is simultaneously the most important single weapon in the global arsenal of contemporary antisemitism and a product of Israel’s unrestrainedly-partisan political culture, in which insults are ubiquitous and the left routinely denounced as traitors.

Israel has of course not been alone in acting as a global patron to far-right causes: Russia played a similar role after 2005, so too did the United States under Trump’s presidency. (I write about both these dynamics in my book, The New Authoritarians).

But the perceptions of Israel on the world stage remain different from those of Russia or the United States. The latter are widely understood as bullies, “imperialists”, rightly condemned for such actions as the war in Iraq from 2003 or Russia’s war in Syria.

The difference with Israel is that the country is able to use the legacy of the Holocaust and the fate of the six million dead, as a constant method of stripping away Israel’s, and its allies’, culpability for increasing racism. Western guilty is displaced from those who actually died, not merely to the state which claims to operate in their name, but to any other nation in any short- or long-term alliance with it.

In this way, the insistence on making sure that Jews are never unsafe again ends up shielding not just racists in general but – more particularly – some of the most aggressively anti-Jewish politicians in the world

On supporting Palestine


This is one of those times when lots of people are talking about Israel and Palestine, and expressing their support for Palestinians. I want people to speak out against bombings, against ethnic cleansing, against the removal of families from homes in which they have lived for more than 50 years. I do not want there to be any state in the world which excludes people from citizenship along ethnic lines. Still less do I want there to be a state which dispossesses people while claiming to speak for the world’s Jews. But, for the Palestinians to win, they will need to have the backing of huge numbers of people. That means that for everyone giving their support to Palestine, it matters how we talk.

It is possible – in fact it’s quite easy – to express support for Palestinians in ways which are pointlessly grating to ordinary Jewish people, whether or not those words are antisemitic.*

Here are some tips of my own to help people in the UK to get it right, by helping a righteous cause without being idiots:

1. (The easy bit). Just don’t say things which are plainly and clearly antisemitic. Eg one socialist group I’m in last week included a comment asking where a Jewish person who supports Israel’s gets her money from. Which plays old fantasies that all Jews either have money or conspire together and can call on people who do.

2. Don’t blame British Jews for the actions of the state of Israel. This is why the racist cavalcade was so incredibly stupid: the people driving the cars went to a perceived Jewish area in order to upset British Jews. Such behaviour isn’t just offensive it’s also counterproductive – it turns people against the majority of folks who supporting Palestinian rights and aren’t idiots.

3. Don’t demand that British Jews take a stance. If you find someone disagrees with you, don’t ask “Are you Jewish?” If you put something on your facebook wall and people say they don’t like it, don’t say “the Jews are disagreeing with me”.

4. Criticise Israel – Israeli tanks, Israeli ministers, Israeli actions – try not to say “Zionists” as a shorthand not “the Zionists” unless you’ve thought carefully about the point you’re making, and you’re being really, *really* precise.

5. Don’t post anything in haste or in anger. If someone annoys you, put a timer on your phone and just don’t say anything for 10 minutes. There is a real chance that what they’ve said is badly written or even wholly inoffensive, and that your response will significantly increase the tension in the room.

6. Try hard to avoid analogies with the 1930s. You might think you’ve come across a brilliant, one-liner which explains it more than anything. But all that will happen is that someone else reading your post will think – me, you’re call me a Nazi, me?

7. Don’t blame “religion”.

8. Don’t assume. The world is full of antizionist Jews; it is full of zionist Jews, and (shocking as it may seem) people who just want to be left along and get on with their life and that matters a lot more to them than your guesses about what they did/do/should think.

9. Listen to people you disagree with. This is one of the issues that involves people – and a lot of them – which means almost everyone will know at least one thing you don’t. If only you give them a chance to speak you. If you let them tell you someone you didn’t know, you will be a better activist for it.

10. Don’t be afraid to apologise.

Oh, and last of all, don’t be afraid to call *me* out. Quite a lot of these things are things that I see because *I’ve* done them wrong – and I’m not proud of them. I’m posting this as much for me as anyone else. If I’ve got things wrong, show me, and I’ll apologise and I’ll do my hardest to get it right next time.

*(It’s also just about possible to be grating on social media and to be effective, but the group of people who are sharp enough to do this are vanishingly small – it’s more or less just Jewdas – and they’ve been thinking about the cultural politics of this for years).

On the Israeli right and far right. Or, Why is war breaking out – just now?


Often, when supporters of the Palestinian cause talk about Israel, we have a tendency to focus on the Israeli far right, making it seems as if settlers, and street gangs stand at the centre of Israeli politics and public life, without explaining how they play that key role.

An example of that risk would be the footage, shared originally by Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties in Israel’s parliament, which showed supporters of the far-right Jewish supremacist movement of Rabbi Meir Kahane, dancing in the vicinity of the Al Aqsa Mosque, and singing, “O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes”:

The reason the clip was compelling was because it appeared to show a crowd of several hundred people cheering at the prospect that Palestinians would be dispersed (which could not be done without killing people), and their land giving to Israelis. It fitted in with the many other reports we have had in recent weeks of ordinary supporters of Israel beating Palestinians in improvised acts of violence originating from within society, not the state.

But how representative was that crowd? Are the Kahanists as (most commentary in Britain would like you to believe) a minority within an otherwise healthy political system?

Meir Kahane was an American-Israeli who supported terrorism in the US against Palestinians. He emigrated to Israel in 1971 where he pioneered a provocateur racism which led to him being arrested by Israeli police 62 times in a decade (the number of his arrests are a sign of the way he irritated the major Israeli parties). He served one term in the Israeli Knesset, where he attempted to introduce legislation stripping non-Jews of Israeli citizenship and demanded the violent expulsion of Palestinians. Kahane pushed at the boundaries of what was then acceptable within Israel. In response, a law was passed in 1984 banning parties which incited racism from the Knesset. He lost his seat and did not stand again.

In 1994, (four years after Kahane’s death) one of his followers Baruch Goldstein carried out a massacre at Hebron, shooting 29 Muslims as they prayed. Kahane’s party was then banned.

If in the 1980s, Israeli politics was embarrassed by the presence of figures such as Kahane, that however no longer remains the case. Indeed, the present round of violence can be attributed to the activities of Kahane supporters.

In March, Itamar Ben-Gvir (pictured), the former head of Kahane’s youth movement, and now leader of a party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), was elected to the Knesset. Ben-Gvir has a photograph of Goldstein on display in his home. This month, he briefly established an office in Sheikh Jarrah to call for the expulsion of Palestinians who live there. He then visited the Temple Mount, starting off the cycle of right-wingers harassing Palestinians.

Ben-Gvir has been widely criticised within governing circles for his role in the present clashes, with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “The person who is responsible for this intifada is Itamar Ben Gvir.”

In the 1980s, Israeli politicians united to expelled Ben-Gvir’s mentor Kahane; but in 2021, the reaction has been different. Although Ben-Gvir holds just a single seat in the Knesset, for weeks, he has been negotiating in public for a role in Netanyahu’s government. A month ago, it was reported that Likud had offered Ben-Gvir a ministerial post.

Indeed, Ben-Gvir is only the most prominent example of what is a general phenomenon of co-operation between the Israeli state (dominated as it is the Israeli centre right) and the far right (meaning those calling for the immediate killing of Palestinians).

I have referred, just above, to Sheikh Jarrah – eight Palestinian families living in this district have been involved in a longstanding legal struggle to keep hold of the homes they have occupied for more than fifty years. Despite their long possession of the land, formal ownership has been claimed by a settler campaign Nahalat Shimon International.

The politics of that campaign belong to the “centre right” not the “far right”. It exists to facilitate land transfer from Palestinians to Israeli and speed up the ethnic cleaning of Jerusalem. However, the identities of the people who fund the campaign have been kept secret, and in contrast to Ben-Gvir it prefers to operate within the bounds of the law, fighting

a 25-year legal battle to evict a relatively small number of families. (If the families are evicted, it is estimated 70 others could follow).

The state has given Nahalat Shimon its backing; so far, the appeal courts have all approved eviction. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has simultaneously welcomed the settlers’ victory and sought to depoliticise it, insisting that nothing more is going on than a landowner asserting their rights: “a real-estate dispute between private parties”.

It would not be totally wrong to see this strategy as one in which the energy comes from the extremes, arrives at the centre-ground and is partially dissipated there: a hearing of the Sheikh Jarrah case that was due to take place before the Supreme Court on 10 May was adjourned, presumably to discourage the crowds gathering on the streets.

From the perspective of the Israeli centre-right, the ideal would be a slow exhaustion of the Palestinians, in contrast to the immediate annexation desired by the likes of Ben-Gvir. But despite these differences of tactical approach, in practice, the two wings of the right have been allies. That alliance is why Ben-Gvir set up Sheikh Jarrah.

Indeed, the Kahane movement has sought to make itself central to the dispute, with Ben-Gvir abusing Palestinians demonstrating in support of the families, and radical settlers blocking roads and preventing access to the area. The alliance also explains why, for all of the criticism coming from the Netanyahu camp of Ben-Gvir, the latter remains an ally of the Prime Minister, and a candidate for a ministry in his government.

In a number of other writing projects I’ve talked about “convergence” between the centre-right and far-right in Britain, America, France, and over much of Europe anf the world since 2015. One of the core dynamics I’ve talked about is a breakdown of right-wing gatekeeping: so in the 80s, leading Republicans sought to detroy the career of David Duke, in the last five years by contrast they’ve gone along with Trump. The Tories used to try to break the likes of Mosley or even Powell; now they exert every effort to find a plave for their followers inside the tent. The shift in Israeli, between taking on Kahane in the 80s and trying to absorn Ben-Gvir today is an instance of the same process.

And, of course, that’s without getting into all the ways that even before the present crisis, the Israeli centre-right was already doing its best impression of far-right politics: the Jewish Nation-State Law, the patron role that Israell plays in relation to antisemites and far-rightists outside Israel, expanding the settlements, cooperating with Trump’s “Vision for Peace,” with its plans for population transfer, etc etc etc.

Given a choice between unleashing war on the Palestinian, killing hundreds of people, or rebuking an extremist further to his right – Netanyahu has chosen war. Where the Israeli far-right leads, the centre follows never more than a step behind.

When the Red Wall fell


A review of Mike Makin Waite, On Burnley Road: Class, Race and Politics in a Northern English Town

Makin-Waite was a council official in Burnley, when riots were followed by electoral success for the BNP (16% of the vote in Oldham West, 11% in Burnley), creating the conditions for the party’s subsequent breakthrough (3 councillors elected in Burnley in 2002, fifty council seats in Britain by the end of the decade).

A former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and teenage supporter of the Anti-Nazi League, Makin-Waite was at a meeting of council officials in 2002. The town was on the way to becoming a byword for racism, but one after the other the senior officials rose to insist there was no reason to panic, cohesion grants, project work, the situation would soon return to normal. Makin-Waite said that normal wasn’t coming back any time soon, the problems were too deep-rooted for that. The chief executive glowered at him and called him to a meeting. Rather than discipline him as he feared for speaking out of turn, she gave him the job of leading Burnley Council’s response.

This is a detailed and compelling account of how the state dealt with the challenge of political extremism, patiently isolating its key figures over a period of many years. The irony that it took a Communist to rescue the town’s two-party system is not lost on Makin-Waite.

The social crisis in Burnley had been brewing for many years. Its political expression began in the Labour Party under the leadership of Councillor Eddie Fisk, who was by the end of the 1990s one of the town’s longest-serving councillors.

From the mid-1990s onwards, Fisk had sought to shore up his support in “his” ward of Lowerhouse, by involving himself in all administrative decisions. Fisk’s main agenda, Makin-Waite explains, was to prevent “ethnic minorities” from being housed there. When the party finally, reluctantly, decided it had no choice but to investigate him, Fisk was defended by the Conservative, Liberal Democrats, and many in his own party. “Everyone knew” that if Asian people were permitted to live in a predominantly white ward, those white voters would flee, and the area become run down. Surely, by keeping Asians and Muslims out of Lowerhouse, they reasoned, Fisk was doing what any principled councillor would do.

The real cause of poverty, Makin-Waite insists, was job losses not immigration: the town’s manufacturing employment fell by 80 percent between 1950 and 2000. But councillors had no inclination to fight redundancies (Fisk himself was a former prominent “working miner” from 1984-5). It was easier to blame the town’s Asian minority than to fight for jobs.

Fisk was expelled from Labour and ran as an Independent in May 1998. He still had such influence in his ward that his allies were able to secure the nomination of Samuel Holgate to stand against him. The latter secured the nomination, then in the final days refused to campaign, claiming he was too ill to lave his home. On Fisk’s victory, Holgate (now revealed to be Fisk’s nephew) left Labour for Fisk’s Burnley Independents.

Three years before the BNP came in to Burnley, appeals to white identity were already being used to cohere an anti-Labour voting bloc. The Independents did not stand in the 2001 general election, and their audience swung to the BNP. By 2002, the latter had 1000 members in Burnley. Its candidates included a pub landlord, a civil engineer and an assembly-line worker. Its leaflets appealed to “ordinary,” “decent,” “authentic” white citizens.

BNP members tried to engineer right-wing talking-points. They ran local bakers urging their workers to stop up to the Muslim pressure (what pressure, the bakers asked) and keep on baking their “Christian” hot cross buns. The councillors demanded the names and addresses of all asylum seekers living in Burnley – the request was refused. They asked if IT support could be provided by white employees only. They asked to opt out of receiving information being sent to all councillors (if it contained news about Muslims). Their publications complained that Muslims and Asians were getting preferential access to plum council jobs (35 of the council’s 700 employees were Asian). The council sent the party a solicitor’s letters saying the BNP were not entitled to lie. Next thing, a councillor was standing at Makin-Waite’s desk asking him to check the copy of BNP leaflets for accuracy – he declined.

Labour’s default reaction to a new class of politicians relying on myths of preferential treatment for outsiders was to demand more resources from government. Makin-Waite understands and to some extent commends this reaction, while also observing that it was inadequate. It was easier talking about bread and butter than admitting that large numbers of former Labour voters felt the appeal of racism. Councillors and party members were defensive and had no “confidence” in resisting racism.

Shaped by his own previous activism on the far left, Makin-Waite is attentive to the positions taken by radical anti-fascists. He argues however that anti-fascist materials had little purchase in the town – the BNP candidates were local, and well-known, beyind a certain threshhold of success just terming them “Nazis” no longer worked.

“The party had earned the right to be understood in terms of political sociology: it could not longer be defined through assessing its leaders’ hidden motives.” The BNP’s success “expressed a distorted logic of class as race”. The ideology was pernicious and exclusionary, but it succeeded for a time in making BNP voters situation in the town and their own personal circumstances intelligible. Makin-Waite described the local working class as “damaged” and the BNP succeeding because it offered a “wounded pride”.

Slowly, the BNP were driven back – Griffin’s racism and long-term commitment to fascist politics proved, over time, the liability it was always likely to be. But the end of the story is not a happy one. Burnley’s exceptionalism slowly paled. In 2016, the town voted 2/3 for Brexit. In 2017, it was the home to UKIP’s only county councillor. In December 2019, Burnley had a Conservative MP for the first time since 1910-11.

Makin-Waite argues that there is a continuity between the BNP’s electoral breakthrough in 2001-2, and the present talk of the Red Wall. Undoubtedly, there are continuities, although as the content of right-wing populism becomes successively diluted and normalised, so too is it harder to resist. The answer, of course, is a re-energised working class and re-learning of anti-racist first principles. But that, as Makin-Waite concludes, is easier said than done.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here or here. Tickets for the booklaunch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

The Rentons and the Fergussons: or, what makes a family?


My cousin Alex Renton’s book Blood Legacy, tries an original approach to get the British to talk about the slave trade. Not through fiction or history, not through the voices of the slaves or even of their masters. Rather, he asks, what does it mean to be the descendant of a family who owned slaves?

In 1833, the British government paid £20 million to the former owners of slaves. Among the winners named in Alex’s book are John Gladstone, enriched to the tune of more than £100,000, a wealth which crowned the rise of that trader from modest beginnings (one of sixteen children to a humble Leith merchant), and enabled him to subsidise his son’s career – Eton, Oxford, Parliament. Another Scottish family, the Smiths of Jordanhill invested their £70,000 on yachts. Taxpayers were still paying off the interest on our debt to the slavers as recently as 2015.

Some 950 slaves altogether were owned by Alex’s ancestors: Emoinda, Rachel, Monimia, Sophia, Peggy, and many others besides. He conveys the cost of their acquisition: a slave child cost less than a horse, a mule or a cow.

Alex has found in the family archive the papers of two Fergussons in particular. Sir Adam Fergusson (pictured), the older brother, and James the younger brother. Each had been expensively-educated, both were advocates (or, as we might say in England, barristers). As a lawyer myself, in winced in recognition of their careers.

James was liberal-minded and naïve. He told another brother, James, that “kindness and mercy” were the ways to get the most “usage” from slaves; “a good heart is as necessary as a good head to constitute a good Planter”. An inventory of his possessions however included a “Negroe iron chain” and “Negroe iron collars”.

Sir Adam welcomed his youngest brother’s generosity of spirit, and commended him on another of his investments: a silver branding iron with which Sir Adam and James’ initials could both be burned together into a new acquisition’s skin.

James Fergusson caught an infection and died in Tobago in 1777, after a mere four year’s career as a slaver. Sir Adam, by contrast, lasted another 30 years.

My favourite sections of the book begin in 1781, when a slave August Thomson (“Caesar”), the plantation doctor, travelled to London to confront Sir Adam after an overseer Andrew Murdoch had lashed Caesar, placed him in the stocks, and stolen his possession: 3 dozen plates, a dozen wine glasses, his silver shoe buckles and his doctor’s instruments. Caesar is named in a 1780 newspaper report as a member of the gang of runaway slaves led by Three-Fingered Jack. Assuming the record is true, he must have decided soon afterwards that a petition to his owner was a wiser course than continued insurrection. Caesar was plainly an intelligent and persuasive person, to have thrived as a doctor, to have paid for his route to London, and to have convinced any number of people that he had legitimate business in England.

Sir Adam first promised Caesar his protection, and then wrote to Murdoch, permitting him to do what he liked to the new-returned slave. Alex offers two possible accounts of his fate: there was a black Caesar living in Deptford in 1786, and a Caesar “alias John Thomas” in the Kingston workhouse in 1789. I like to think of Caesar as settled permanently in London, perhaps regretting his lost silver buckle, but building a new life here.

Alex puts a case for reparations, arguing that the former slave colonies remain underdeveloped as a result of the trade and that the descendants of the slaves continue to feel the psychological legacy of their ancestors’ humiliation.

He makes concrete the link between the past and the present by seeking of his own family, naming us as members of a wider group, “people who are heirs or descendants of those who profited from slavery”. We can make reparations, by telling the story of the trade’s violence, by acknowledging and by properly apologising for what our ancestors did.

Reading Alex’s book is not, of course, the first time I have had to think about slavery. In my own books about the Congo and my biography of CLR James, the trade was a large part of the story – first for the horror of what it was like to live in a country which was exporting slaves, and then, via the Black Jacobins, for James’ narrative of the Haitian slave revolt. (It is no exaggeration to say that when Alex began telling the story of August Thomson, I thought I felt an echo of James’ master-work).

But I have never seen it argued before that my life is changed because I, as a Renton, profited from slaves. There’s no point lying – that feeling was strange to me, unwelcome, and my immediate reaction was one of doubt. Is his account fair to his own family?

The shortest and most superficial answer is that they weren’t slavers. For although Alex is my first cousin, the story he is telling is of his maternal family’s involvement in the trade. Ever slaver named in his book is a Fergusson.

Well, every slaver except one. The one paternal ancestor he has traced (and who is my ancestor as well as Alex’s) is James Graham (1789-1860), a white-whiskered Victorian who was a merchant in Liverpool. Graham appears in various works that I have written for my family. Alex has dug up the names of the two house-servants owned by Graham (Nancy and Sarah) and the compensation he received from the state: £45. He also notes that James Graham was listed on his baptism as “non-white”. It turns out that the one slaver from whom I am definitely descended was the mixed-race child of Elizabeth (“a free mulatto”) and a plantation owner William Delaroche.

What does it mean to name the Rentons as profiteers from slavery, when the one undisputed slaver we count in our direct ancestors was himself descended from slaves?

And if I felt troubled by Alex’s narrative, I know there are others around in my family whose overwhelming reaction has been one of the most convinced hostility: how dare he name the Renton as slavers?

I have said that this reaction was superficial and fleeting. And now I want to explain why. For when I think of my paternal ancestors in eighteenth century Edinburgh, I know them as clergymen, teachers, and others of the middle middle-class. The Rentons were never gentry like the Fergussons (nor still less the “aristocrats” you read about in excited reviews of Alex’s book), but nor were they mere workers.

They shared in the great Scottish boom of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Money from slavery made it into their collection boxes, paid the fees of their pupils. If the Rentons did not share the Fergusson wealth, they benefitted from it at second-hand. They belong to a much wider story – the story of Edinburgh, of Bristol, of Liverpool and of London – and of the dripping of tainted wealth into many hands.

Alex cites the great Caribbean historian and politician Eric Williams, whose book Capitalism and Slavery insists that without the fortunes made through the slave trade there could have been no industrial revolution in Britain.

What would Edinburgh have been without the wealth of slavery? Poorer, shabbier, less grand. Homes might have been built but not the street upon street of townhouses with their high ceilings and their well-dressed occupiers promenading outside.

As well as the Renton ancestor who was both slaver and slave-descendant, there are other ancestors too. Churchgoers, they spoke out against the trade. And yet, reading Alex’s book, I think I see these good ancestors anew – pious and principled and ridden with guilt.

Alex ends his book by writing: “The story of transatlantic slavery is not over: we have it in us to change its consequences.”

I agree with him.