Long Read: Antisemitism, cosmopolitanism and the politics of Labour’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ right-wings
By Jeremy Gilbert – OpenDemocracy: The determination of the Labour Right to focus on ‘left antisemitism’ reveals as much about the Labour Right’s divisions, history and current existential crises, as it does about the left.
There is no more antisemitism in the Labour Party than in the rest of society, but there should be much less. There has been a lot of excellent commentary published over the past few weeks discussing this issue, as well as the broader socio-political relationships between the Labour Left, different sections of the Jewish community, and the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian lobbies. So I’m not going to rehearse those discussions again here.
However, very little attention has been paid so far to the specific question of why the Labour Right has been so vocal on this issue in particular. This is a crucial issue and thinking about it carefully can shed considerable light on the current state of Labour Party politics.
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So why has antisemitism become the issue around which the anti-Corbyn elements of Labour have converged so determinedly? The initial thing to understand is that the Labour right is composed of two distinct traditions, whose main organisers are currently committed to co-operating with each other, but who actually have very little in common. These two groups – the ‘Blairites’ and the traditional Labour right rooted in the Labour bureaucracy – have their own distinctive reasons for wanting to promote the idea that the radical left is inherently anti-Semitic.
The notorious Blairites, organised mainly by Progress, have a negligible organisational base in the party membership or the unions, and are not even particularly strong within the Parliamentary Labour Party. But they have the closest links to the media of any faction (especially the BBC and Guardian Media Group). They also include the MPs from the 2010 intake who received the most positive press coverage during the period 2010-5, and who therefore believed themselves to be in contention for the party leadership once the Corbyn project collapsed. They confidently expected this collapse to occur immediately after the 2017 election. It didn’t. So unless something very unexpected indeed happens, none of them is now ever likely to become Prime Minister.
This fact has been apparent for less than a year. It is therefore unsurprising that most of these MPs and their immediate hangers-on – including their friends in the press – have not come to terms with it, or with the extent to which the political world now looks very different from how they always assumed that it was always going to look. It is also true that the most rational response to their situation would probably be to try to form a new party. Such a party would never form a government, but it would at least not force the Blairites to accept the leadership of the radical Labour left, whom they detest more than they do almost any other political tendency (in any party).
We all know the systemic obstacles to such a new party having any success under our electoral system, and there is no reason for thinking that such a party could take any seats from Labour at a general election. But if the Tories implode over Brexit, might such a party be able to pick up a few Conservative-held seats in affluent, pro-Remain areas: enough to provide a life-raft for the 20 or so most anti-Corbynite Labour MPs, as well as Tory allies like Anna Soubry? As tricky as it could be, there’s some psephological evidence that it might, and no shortage of offers of funding.
But the Blairites have a more fundamental problem than their lack of support among the public or the weakness of their political position. It is in fact an existential problem: what are they for? Why do they exist at all?
Before July 2017, they all seemed to firmly believe that it was simply not possible for a Labour Party led from the left to do well at an election. They therefore never really needed to ask themselves what their politics actually were, whose interests they actually served, or why they did what they did. They believed that the difference between them and even the most radical left-winger was not really one of ideology – we all want to change the world, after all – but one of pragmatism and political competence.
The Blairites were the people, or so they seemed to think, who understood the limits of achievable reform in our epoch, who understood that what the left calls ‘neoliberalism’ was simply the way the world works in the 21st century. They were the unencumbered by nostalgia for the 1945 welfare-state settlement. So they were able to propose types of social reform that might actually have a chance of winning elections, and of not alienating business interests, and therefore of actually being implemented. Immediately to their left in the Labour Party, the members of ‘soft left’ tradition represented by Ed Miliband more or less agreed with this assessment, although they always suspected that Blair and his followers had gone further than strictly necessary in embracing a neoliberal agenda, and that an embrace of it was regrettable, if largely unavoidable.
The June 2017 election result has scuppered this idea. So a significant section of the soft left, among the membership and the parliamentary party, have now abandoned the Blairites and more-or-less enthusiastically embraced Corbyn’s leadership (including many who supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge in 2016). This leaves the Blairites isolated, and forced to ask themselves what exactly they do stand for; if it is not, after all, true that their agenda is the most left-wing one that ever had a hope of being implemented.
The answer they have come up with is more less the same as that of the Clinton Democrats. The true-believers in both camps still tell themselves that the progressive outcomes of Bill Clinton’s, New Labour’s and Obama’s terms of office counterbalanced the less progressive outcomes. But the fact is that during those periods, inequality continued to rise while the overweening power of finance capital wasn’t seriously checked at all, and everyone can see the consequences. As a result, large sections of the left-leaning public in both countries don’t share their positive assessment.
Under these circumstance, the only claim to progressiveness that these centrists can credibly make lies in their sustained commitments to social liberalism, open borders and cosmopolitan culture. They may have let the City and Wall Street run riot over the culture, trashing what remained of the post-war settlement and taking inequality back to late-nineteenth-century levels. But at least they didn’t demonise immigrants, single mothers or gay people.
Of course the problem here is that historically, if you wanted to ally yourself with forces that have been internationalist, anti-racist, pro-feminist and pro-queer, then you would be more likely to have thrown in your lot with the radical left than with the liberal ‘centre’ and its technocratic leaders. This fact must be fiercely disavowed if the belief in the progressive character of the Third Way is to be in any way sustainable. So painting the left as, contrary to all real historical experience, in some way more prone than they are to misogyny, racism, or even forms of nationalism becomes essential to the discourse of these neoliberal centrists. It is the only way that they can sustain the fantasy of their progressiveness: if only in their own minds.
The result is a narrative according to which the Blairites’ commitments to globalisation, financial deregulation and their inevitable cultural concomitants somehow makes them heirs to the progressive tradition of Martin Luther King and Sylvia Pankhurst; whereas everyone to their left is a proto-Stalinist, and probably an anti-Semite. Obviously the politics of Brexit lends all of this a new urgency. The hardcore Remainers are able to tell themselves a story according to which they are the heroes, making a last courageous stand against the ‘forces of conservatism’, defending open borders, open culture, feminism and multiculturalism before the Stalinists and Ukippers conspire to plunge the world into darkness.
If this is a story that you are trying to tell yourself, then believing that your opponents are anti-Semitic (or at least pretending that you believe it) is very convenient indeed. Antisemitism has traditionally often been couched in terms of hostility to cosmopolitanism in general. A key figure of anti-Semitic discourse at the turn of the 20th century was the ‘wandering Jew’, the ultimate ‘rootless cosmpolitan’. The basic claim of the Blairites has always been that enacting a policy agenda that turned us all into rootless cosmopolitans, whether we want to be or not – is in fact liberatory and progressive. This is exactly what the Leave vote was a protest against. So if you are a Blairite who is in total denial about the extent to which your own policy agenda helped to produce the Brexit reaction, and who thinks that Corbyn’s supporters are all reactionary populists – mindless thugs motivated by resentment and intent on some hideous revenge – then on some level you almost have to believe that they are probably also anti-Semitic (if only in some elusive, structural or institutional way).
If they’re not, then you really have a problem. Under such circumstances, you might, for example, have to accept that it was your leaders’ advocacy for the deregulation of European labour markets that helped push the English working class into voting for Brexit . Having accepted this fact, you might have to acknowledge that all critics of that policy were not mindless nationalists or ‘forces of conservatism’. And that in particular left-wing critics of that policy agenda – those who decried the Blair/Brown government’s unerring role as the mouthpiece for the “Washington Consensus” within the EU, those who pointed out the ways Blair and Brown worked to reduce protections for workers across Europe where they could, and defended UK opt-outs from measures such as the Working Time Directive when they couldn’t – might have had a point. As might those who pointed out the entirely predictable effects on the working lives of many people.
At that stage, you might even be forced to face up to the fact that your policy agenda was never actually motivated by a proud belief in cosmopolitan liberalism at all, given that its long-term effect was to undermine support for British EU membership. Having arrived at that realisation, it might become apparent that New Labour’s rhetorical embrace of openness and multiculturalism was in fact a convenient justification for a programme that was overwhelmingly determined by the interests of finance capital. And facing up to all that is the very last thing that the Blairites, or their supporters at The Observer, want to do.
And this is not the only motivation for the Blairites embracing the Corbyn-as-anti-Semite narrative. The other is that despite their hypothetical commitment to the EU, Atlanticism has always trumped Europhilia in determining their attitudes to foreign policy. And being a good servant of the US has always meant endorsing America’s position on Israel, which means de facto accepting the Israeli nationalist justification for the occupation of the occupied territories and the treatment of the Palestinian people. It is really impossible to accept any of that without embracing the broader narrative according to which Israel is an oasis of democracy in the Middle East, to be supported at all costs against all of her enemies, and that anyone who disagrees with this view can only do so because they are secretly hostile to liberal democracy as such, or to Jews, or to both.
The old right
The other main tradition on the Labour right is the traditional, non-Blairite tendency that traces its roots back to the debates between the left and right of the parties as far back as the 1940s. Let’s call them the old right. Organised primarily by Labour First, this tendency has a more extensive network of supporters in the trade unions, the party bureaucracy, local councillor networks and the grassroots membership than do Progress and the Blairites.
It is this network that was being routinely used to try to formally exclude Corbynites from the party until just a few weeks ago, when a string of resignations of senior party bureaucrats – including General Secretary Ian McNicol – marked the effective surrender of the right at the level of the national party organisation. The old right remains organised, active, and thoroughly hostile to Corbyn and Momentum at constituency and regional level in many places. But there will be no more suspensions of party members simply because they support Corbyn and the party machinery think they can get away with suspending them. Notably, Tom Watson, the old right’s main figurehead and most powerful member, has already signalled to his own supporters that following the June 2017 election result, he regards any further attempts to undermine Corbyn’s leadership as futile for the foreseeable future.
The old right therefore find themselves in a peculiar situation. Like the Blairites, the June 2017 election result presents them with something of an existential conundrum. Also like the Blairites (well like everybody, to be fair), the old right have a distinctive theory of history. The New Labour view of history is linear – Blair and his followers still think of themselves as leading the charge into the future, sweeping before them all obstacles to progress (ie to neoliberalism and globalisation), except when ugly populists get in their way.
But the old right theory of history is cyclical. They believe that every time Labour has lost an election, it has swung to the left as its members expressed frustration with the inevitably limited nature of the reforms that the outgoing government was able to make. According to this narrative, such swings to the left inevitably lead the party into electoral oblivion, and it is always up to them, the dogged soldiers of moderation, ultimately to save the party and bring it back to power. This is what they think happened in both the 1951-64 period and 1975-9 [see]. Until the 2017 election, they were quite sure that history was repeating itself again. The fact that it obviously isn’t is more than a little disconcerting for them.
They have different explanations for what is going on. Some of them think that the Tories performed so badly in June that Labour should have won by a landslide, and Labour under Corbyn will never improve on that result. But this isn’t a very easy position to sustain if you claim to be a hard-headed realist with one eye always on the historic precedents. No party has ever achieved a swing such as would have been needed to form a Labour government in June 2017, and few oppositions have made gains on the scale that Labour did then, without then going on to form the next government.
Some of the old right have convinced themselves that in fact they supported Corbyn all along, and are merely organised in opposition to the dangerous subversives of Momentum, and to Corbyn’s cabal of unwise counsellors (Seamus Milne, Andrew Murray), etc. Many of them seem to be fixated on the mythical deselection threats to their own local MPs and the defence of said MPs from those threats: an obvious displacement activity, preventing them from having to ask themselves why they are even bothering to organise against Momentum now that Momentum has turned out to be better than they are at winning elections for Labour.
In fact what most of them are preoccupied with is defending their own jobs and positions- and those of their friends – as local councillors and party bureaucrats, rightly judging that in many cases, there are Corbyn supporters who would be willing to displace them. But the fact that their motives are so self-interested would be an uncomfortable truth for most of these people to have to admit to themselves, given that they are also, mostly – unlike most Blairites – good-hearted and dedicated servants of the Labour cause, rather than merely opportunistic careerists. So in finding an ideological justification for their continued hostility to Corbynism, most of them have taken the most obvious route open to them. They have increasingly fixated on the one point of actual ideological difference between themselves and the Corbynites: foreign policy.
This is a point about the old right that is often very poorly understood by Labour members to their left: their commitment to NATO, the nuclear deterrent and Israel is deep, heartfelt, ideological and goes back to the post-war moment. Theirs is a mentality and world-view born in the first years of the cold war. As I often like to point out, it arose at the moment when the cold war was a matter of rivalry between a United States led by the New Deal administration, and a USSR led by Stalin. This wasn’t the cold war of Gorbachev vs Thatcher that still informs the imagination of much of the radical left. From this perspective, it is easy to see how a commitment to liberal democracy and ‘western values’, even to unswerving Atlanticism, could seem to be consistent with a commitment to gradualist social democracy at home and enmity to tyrants all around the world.
This was also a historical moment when the overwhelming consensus amongst the international left was pro-Israel, and political forces allied to the left were hegemonic within Israel itself. It’s easy to see why many on the Labour right concluded that the pro-Russian, Communist-fellow-traveller left was a threat not just to liberal democracy but to enlightened socialism itself. It’s also easy to see why Israel would inspire real loyalty amongst the same constituency. What’s more of a mystery is how this mentality survived the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. But the fact is that it did, providing the rationale for that section of the left that supported the Iraq war (as a war against tyranny and against an enemy of Israel) in the early 2000s, and is still providing the rationale for those who think that attacking Corbyn for his supposed pro-Putin sympathies is somehow an urgent moral duty.
All of this produces a situation in which being pro-Israel, and being willing to believe that anyone to your left is an enemy of liberal democracy and a covert supporter of tyrants, is pretty much the only thing that the old right and the Blairites have in common. The old right have never been cosmopolitan, have included in their number a fair few Eurosceptics, and have never shown much interest in social liberalism (their last Prime Minister, James Callaghan, was a clear enemy of the ‘permissive society’). They were never that keen on the marketisation of public services or the Private Finance Initiative. In fact there is nothing in their history to suggest any good reason for them opposing any element of Corbyn’s domestic agenda. As such, one really has to wonder if the old right has much future as a political formation at all.
For those among its leaders and key organisers who are desperate to keep it alive, there is nowhere else for them to go except to keep attacking Corbyn on foreign policy. But an aggressively and explicitly pro-Israel, pro-Atlanticist policy agenda is going to be very difficult to sell to any section of the British left today, even among centrist liberals. So it is only by claiming that somehow Corbyn’s foreign policy agenda is implicated in his supposed wider sympathy for (or, at least toleration of) authoritarian and illiberal tendencies within the party, that they are likely to be able to win any support for their positions at all.
This is why I do not think that there is much that the leaderships of Momentumor Labour can do to slow down the onslaught of accusations against Corbyn and against his supporters. There may well be real antisemitism and unconscious racism in some sections of the party, and if there is then there is every reason to work against it. But that is not why the Blairites and the old right have been pushing this line. They have been pushing it because in fact it is one of the few issues on which they can authentically converge, allowing them both to claim the mantle of liberal cosmopolitan progressiveness and to paint their opponents as illiberal reactionaries, while acting in a way which is persistently calculated to attract the sympathy of the pro-Israel lobby, and the funding that it has traditionally bestowed upon politicians that it likes.
How to respond?
The question all this leaves open of course, is how the left ought to respond. One response has been to declare our commitment to rooting out antisemitism while acknowledging that the attacks on Corbyn have been opportunistic. This is fine so far as it goes. But it remains reactive in nature, addressing an immediate issue, and the tone of the response so far has been authoritarian, promising a programme of re-education to root out ‘unconscious bias’. I’m all for consciousness-raising; but assuming the authority to tell other people what’s going on in their unconscious is always a dangerous business. (Granted, much of this article has consisted of speculation as to what’s going on in the unconscious of various sections of the Labour right, so perhaps I shouldn’t push this argument too far).
This authoritarian tone has been typical of Labour pronouncements on social issues in recent years, with a tendency to emphasise what we are against. We are against racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and antisemitism. But what are we for?
Labour needs a positive vision. Such a vision would not only borrow from the language of liberal identity politics, promising to enforce it more rigorously than the right. It would also seek to connect Corbyn’s Labour with the history and the values of the movements that began the fight against those forms of oppression: women’s liberation, gay liberation, civil rights, black power, etc. Those movements were not just against things: they were animated by a vision of human freedom and self-organisation that exceeded the limits imposed on them by patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism.
At the moment of Brexit, it is more crucial than ever for the radical left to assert its commitments to internationalism and cosmopolitanism, while stressing the differences between our cosmopolitanism and that of the neoliberal centrists. We believe in a society in which cultural differences are neither suppressed nor imposed, but become the basis for a productive and creative expression of human potential. There can be no room for antisemitism in such a society. And nor can there can be any question of allowing finance capital to continue to organise social life to its own advantage.
Cosmopolitan class consciousness
This is a crucial point to take on, because there can be little doubt as to what the next stage of the right-wing attempt to weaponise antisemitism and claim the mantle of cosmopolitanism will be. A couple of weeks ago, I remarked to my partner that I thought the next stage would see the right-wing attempting to claim that any criticism of finance capital in general – any reference to ‘parasites’ or ‘greedy bankers’ – should be characterised as implicitly anti-Semitic. It is certainly true that anti-Semites have often tried to win support by eliding mistrust of financiers, speculators and rentiers with hatred of Jews. This doesn’t mean we should deny the fact that financiers, speculators and rentiers deliberately exert influence when they can, to maximise their own interests at the expense of others. Quite the opposite: it means that we should stress very strongly that the problem with capitalists is their complicity with capitalism, and not their religious or ethnic identity.
But at least one recent contribution to the debate has indeed already put forward the view that any form of political discourse that ‘personalises’ the analysis of capitalism is always-already complicity with anti-Semitic discourse. This analysis seems to suggest that any view of capitalism that takes account of any form of agency or interests being at work in any situation is inherently ‘conspiratorial’ in nature, and hence guilty of the crimes of both populism (assumed to be a bad thing) and implicit antisemitism.
This is a fallacious argument on two counts. On the one hand it amounts to a mere argument from resemblance: because anti-capitalist discourse and anti-Semitic discourse share some structural features, they are fundamentally the same. This type of argument has been recognised as a logical fallacy for millennia.
On the other hand this argument fundamentally misunderstands how ideology functions and what the purpose of ideology-critique is. Ideology very rarely creates a picture of the world that bears no resemblance to reality. It is far more effective when it presents a picture that is close enough to reality to resonate with the lived experience of the people that it is trying to convince, while distorting key elements of that reality to protect the interests of the powerful. Under such circumstances, the role of critical analysis is not to identify and fetishise the formal similarities between different discourses – it is to identify the differences between them, however small they may appear, in order to reveal the power relationships at work in the distortions that they produce, and to identify those that are closer to and further from the truth.
The role of critical intellectuals is not to denounce anti-capitalism because it structurally resembles antisemitism. It is to differentiate the one from the other and to help others to make the same differentiation. Our task is to unmask the fact that the fundamental purpose of antisemitism is always to cover up the truth of power relations, driving wedges between Jewish and non-Jewish communities who should be united in the assertion of their common collective interests.
In the end what this comes down to is a rather banal and predictable observation: but one that radicals will need to keep making no doubt for many years to come. It is that the best cure for antisemitism is not just re-education or disciplinary hearings. It is the positive raising of class consciousness. The more people are enabled to understand the extent to which disparities of wealth and power are what really shape political and social outcomes in the world, the more they are enabled to realise the extent to which they share material interests with millions of others around the world – irrespective of ethnicity or religion – the less susceptible they will be to antisemitism, conspiracy theory, or racism of any kind. This is the response that centrist liberalism cannot make, which is why its response to antisemitism can never be adequate to its task.