Anti-Semitism Is A Series of "Mistakes"

Many people will wish to face up to the existence of Left anti-semitism. However, they will be confronted by an argument based on a crude empiricism, which claims that instances of Left anti-semitism, though undoubtedly reactionary, are simply 'mistakes' or are 'merely' manifestations of false consciousness. In this scenario, socialist practice has generally been exemplary towards Jews, and on the question of anti-semitism, and all that has to be done is to lop away the reactionary ideas that 'occasionally' still crop up. After all—it will be claimed—even socialists are not perfect. This last claim, which is undoubtedly correct, is really based on the assumption that what is required is simply more 'vigilance'.

Now it is, fortunately, true that there does exist an alternative socialist tradition which has consciously refrained from anti-semitic positions or even opposed anti-semitism and which, in some instances, has even taken a positive attitude towards Jewish culture.

Engels in his famous Anti-Dühring attacked Dühring for, amongst other matters, his rabid Judeophobia—as witnessed by Dühring's statement that "socialism is the only power which can oppose population conditions with a strong Jewish admixture". Similarly Lenin, in spite of his reactionary advocacy of Jewish assimilation, took a totally principled position against pogroms of any sort. For instance, in a decree of July 1918 signed by Lenin it was stated that

"The Council of People's Commissars instructs all Soviet Deputies to take uncompromising measures to tear the anti-semitic movement out by the roots. Pogromists and pogrom agitators are to be placed outside the law" (quoted by Hyman Lumer—Lenin on the Jewish Question).

Again the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S.A. campaigned in the late 1930s against the immigration quota imposed on Jewish refugees from Europe by the U.S. government (Socialist Appeal 29.10.38)—though the Fourth International, to which it was affiliated was in favour of total control of Jews going into Palestine. Trotsky himself seems to have developed an extremely enlightened attitude towards Jews—indeed an attitude which was extraordinary, when compared with that of other revolutionary Marxists. In an interview he gave in 1937 to a Jewish paper in Mexico, he effectively attacked crude assimilationism by stating that:

"The Jews of different countries have created their press and developed the Yiddish language as an instrument adapted to modern culture. One must therefore reckon with the fact that the Jewish nation will maintain itself for an entire epoch to come".

In an article—Thermidor and Anti-Semitism—published in 1941, he acknowledged that a revolution does not immediately or inevitably dissolve anti-semitism and that it can even provoke it as:

"History has never yet seen an example where the reaction following the revolutionary upsurge was not accompanied by the most unbridled chauvinistic passions, anti-semitism amongst them".

Interestingly, this led him, a confirmed anti-zionist, into envisaging the need for a Jewish state after a world revolution! (all quotations from Trotsky's writings On The Jewish Question by Pathfinder Press).

There has also been in this country at least one socialist organisation which took a principled position on everything Jewish—from opposing anti-semitism to refusing to define Jews negatively and only in terms of anti-semitism. This was the Socialist League in the last century. The League, as has been mentioned, through its activities and through its journal Commonweal consistently opposed the agitation for Jewish immigration control. At the same time, it explicitly denounced all anti-semitic imagery of Jews, opposed chauvinistic notions that Jewish workers were in competition with British workers, and preached unity and internationalism. The League regularly publicised, and actively involved itself in, the emergent Jewish labour movement in London, Leeds and Manchester. The League had particularly good relations with the important Jewish anarchist movement in London's East End—with whom Peter Kropotkin also identified and worked. On top of all this it is important to remember that countless socialists fought before and during the war, not simply against fascism but also with a consciousness of a struggle against anti-semitism.

All the above instances are worth recording. However, the following has to be said to put them into perspective:-

Struggling against anti-semitism is the bare minimum requirement for a correct socialist practice in relation to Jewish people—but this is just the negative side. What is also necessary is a recognition of the positive aspects of Jewish culture, tradition, history and aspirations.

Moreover, even when the Left has organised against anti-semitism, this has often been in spite of itself and because of the pressures put on it by its Jewish members. Examples of this have already been seen in relation to the Aliens Act. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of the pressure of Jewish socialists on their own organisations concerns the 'battle of Cable Street' in October 1936, when the Mosleyites were physically prevented from marching through London's East End. The Communist Party has, in its own mythology, always taken credit for this as an almost single-handed operation. However, as Joe Jacobs, a Party activist at that time, shows in his autobiography, Out of the Ghetto, the Party at first argued against going to Cable Street. It was only pressure by its, mainly Jewish, Stepney Branch and by the militant Jewish People's Council which forced the Party to mobilise against the fascists, thus compelling them to make a complete volte-face two days before the march.

Finally, the citing of relatively favourable attitudes on the Left towards Jews only touches on one particular issue. This is the relative weight of the anti-semitic tradition within the Left. It does not explain the existence of that tradition. Instead, it assumes that Left anti-semitism can be viewed in some vulgar pragmatic way as a series of 'mistakes'. This is an expiricism which denies the persistence of anti-semitism on the Left and does nothing to explain its cause. It starts with the 'imperfection' of individual socialists who have been corrupted in some way by bourgeois ideology and ends up simply by calling for 'greater vigilance'. In fact, it does nothing at all to resolve the essential question of methodology. The obsessive insistence on highlighting examples of good socialist practice in relation to Jews, is an attempt to avoid bringing out into the daylight the distinct pattern which lies behind Left anti-semitism—namely the theory of the world Jewish conspiracy.

Of course, in an important sense, it is true that the existence of this pattern, this methodology, represents the penetration of the working class movement and its socialist ideologues, not only by bourgeois but also by feudal and pre-feudal ideology. It is a question of false consciousness. However, it is simply insufficient to state this without defining precisely what 'consciousness' it is that is false. This consciousness is the theory of world Jewish domination.

Avoiding looking at how the conspiracy theory has entered the Left means either denying the existence of Left anti-semitism, or viewing it as a series of unrelated and unexplained examples. It is absurd to regard the illustrations presented in this pamphlet—for instance the notion peddled by the S.D.F. that 'Jew moneylenders now control every foreign office in Europe'—as being simply 'mistakes' by 'psychologically imperfect individuals'. Rather we are dealing here with the reactionary politics of mass psychology which does not just exist as an individual phenomenon. The Left also shares this mass psychology.

Inevitably this empirical approach to (mis)understanding Left anti-semitism is the exact mirror image of the empiricism with which bourgeois historians treat the whole of anti-semitism. According to much bourgeois historiography, anti-semitism is simply a string of 'false accusations'—Jews ritually kill Christian children, Jews poison wells, Jews desecrate the host, Jews are usurers, etc. etc. Such an analysis again totally avoids the question of how such 'false accusations' arose in the first place and how they fit within the context of the conspiracy theory. It does not attempt to locate the underlying ideology which unites them and which gave rise to their existence. Like all empirical philosophy, it is concerned with appearance-the use of particular anti-semitic imagery-rather than with essence.

Moreover by seeing anti-semitism as nothing more than a series of 'mistakes' which need to be 'corrected' by rational argument, this empiricism also reveals a compartmentalised and over-rational approach to consciousness. It believes that anti-semitism can be overcome by pin-pointing certain 'mistaken ideas'—e.g. Jews ritually kill Christian children—held by particular individuals and then by explaining the 'truth'—e.g. Jews don't ritually kill Christian children. Such transparent nonsense totally fails to understand the theory of a world conspiracy that underlies and sustains all anti-semitism, the history of this theory (which stretches back to the early days of the Christian church), and the mass psychology which gives it its political strength.

None of this can be overcome by a process of individual re-education, as it is not simply an individual problem. Nor can it be overcome by a rational presentation of facts—as the last thing anti-semitism is about is rationality. This emphasis on individualism and rationalism is the hallmark of liberalism. Unfortunately it has a dangerous pedigree as far as an attempt to resist anti-semitism is concerned. In the 1930s, the Jewish Board of Deputies argued against confrontation with the fascists, and instead employed researchers to investigate and publicise the 'real' contribution that Jewish people had made to humanity. Indeed this is still the position of the Deputies today. Moreover, in the 1930s it was also the official stance of the Labour Party to invoke an appeal to 'facts' to refute fascist assertions about Jews (see essay by Caroline Knowles in Racism edited by Robert Miles). This belief that a liberal rationalism can somehow defeat a negative irrationalism, somewhat in the manner of the collapse of the walls of Jericho, avoids facing up to the need for a political struggle against anti-semitism. Such a struggle will inevitably have to take place on the level of emotionality as well as intellectuality. It will have to defeat the mass psychology of fascism and anti-semitism.

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© 1984 Steve Cohen, edited and produced by Libby Lawson and Erica Bunnan.
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