(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.