Monthly Archives: January 2022

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the cool kids are reading


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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