The Socialism of Fools

To struggle as a Jewish socialist it is a distinct advantage to have been born with three hands—at least three hands. On the one hand it is necessary to struggle against the anti-semitism of daily life both in its casual and its organised forms. On the other hand, it is necessary to struggle against the reactionary Jewish communal leadership which simultaneously advocates zionism in Israel and a form of assimilation in the diaspora as the fulfilment of Jewish identity. On the third hand, it is necessary to resist the anti-semitism that has permeated much of the socialist tradition and which was described by August Bebel, German Social Democrat leader, as the "socialism of fools".

This book is about Left anti-semitism and is written as a contribution to the anti-racist struggle. Contemporary socialist practice is self-critical enough, albeit to a limited and inadequate extent, to acknowledge that an examination of its own anti-black racism is a legitimate exercise. At the very least, socialists will be prepared to admit that national chauvinism may be present in their own groups. Whatever commitment there is to this, self-criticism has only come about through the existence and pressure of autonomous black organisations and black resistance. However, any attempt to raise even a discussion about the anti-semitic nature of much socialist practice is almost invariably met with apoplexy and vilification. It is virtually a taboo subject.

The reasons why it is essential to study Left anti-semitism are self-evident. Firstly, just as we look to reject the reactionary elements within the Jewish heritage and seek to build only on what is positive, so likewise we have to disregard all reactionary elements that have entered socialism. This is particularly the case with socialism, as it is a movement aimed at changing the entire world and claims to be based on theories of consciousness: hence lack of consciousness of anti-semitism within socialist practice opens up major questions about that practice. Secondly, the Left has often found itself complicit in anti-semitism, and this has had a profound effect on Jewish identity: it has driven many Jews away from socialism, despite the fact that Jewish people played an important role in the development of the socialist movement from its inception. The Jewish masses were active from the Bund (the revolutionary union of Jewish workers) of Russia and Poland to the major movements of Jewish anarchists and communists in this country. These movements were also of significance within the Jewish community itself and were often able to challenge the Jewish establishment. Today this has all but disappeared. Socialists who have an awareness of their Jewishness are isolated inside the Left and have almost no base within the Jewish community.

There are many reasons for this—not least the triumphant anti-communism of the communal leadership. However, one other particular reason is that socialism has appeared to offer no answers to Jewish people and has been seen as tainted with anti-semitism. This is highly significant within the Stalinist tradition because of the generations of Jews who joined or identified with the Communist Parties of the Third International, only to be disillusioned. The socialism of fools, though, also appears both with the reformism of social democracy and with the revolutionary groupings that have dissociated themselves from both reformism and Stalinism. It is not surprising therefore, that so many Jews have turned away from socialism.

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