Another post for lefty trainspotters…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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