Monthly Archives: December 2021

Another post for lefty trainspotters…


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


(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


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.