Out September 15th: “Syriza – Inside the Labyrinth”

syriza_ovendenBy Pluto Press (200 pages | 5 x 7 3/4 | © 2015).

With a Foreword by Paul Mason.

In January 2015, Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, became the largest party in the Hellenic Parliament, winning 149 out of 300 seats and badly defeating the then-ruling conservative New Democracy party. In Syriza, Kevin Ovenden presents an in-depth analysis of the political events leading up to this seemingly sudden reversal of political power in Greece, exploring the origins of the turbulent Greek political climate, from the beginnings of the Communist Party of Greece and the Greek workers’ movement following the First World War, to the brutal civil war that shook the country in the aftermath of the Second World War; the rise and fall of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement and the growth of radical politics in the 1970s; and finally the crushing austerity demands following the debt crisis of the 2010s.

Ovenden also examines the far-right movements in Greece as well, focusing in particular on the negative impact that the xenophobic and nationalistic Golden Dawn party has had and continues to have to this day.

Syriza’s victory in Greece is a central event of the twenty-first century, whose ramifications are sure to be felt for decades.

Go to Pluto Press to order your copy.

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Wagenknecht’s line: not just about adapting to racism – but also liquidating the radical left


A quarter of a million marched in Berlin against racism and the fascist AfD in October – how does the left build from that?

German socialists of the anti-fascist movement have highlighted this report of a meeting of left politician Sahra Wagenknecht’s Aufstehen (Get Up!) formation in Rostock, east Germany. It’s a city the fascist right has sought to build in since unification in the early 1990s.

Aufstehen has “deliberately decided not to participate in the counter demonstrations against the AFD rallies in Rostock” because, according to one participant, “We must not exclude the people who demonstrate with the [fascist] AfD. Just because someone has a different opinion from me does not mean it has to be wrong straight away.”

This is the line of Wagenknecht. It was overwhelmingly rejected at the last conference of her radical left Die Linke party in Leipzig, where it committed both to direct campaigning against the fascist AfD and to anti-racist struggle in support of Muslims, migrants and refugees. It was strongly opposed by among others the party in the state of Hesse. It has just had its best ever result with a modest but solid increase in vote.

Many will be very clear about what is wrong with the Aufstehen approach: that it is not in fact possible to win people for the left on “social issues” if the racism at the heart of the AfD and the fascist party itself are not confronted.

It’s important to look at where this line is coming from and going to. As the report of the Rostock meeting shows, it is not only about accommodating to racist sentiment. It’s part of something else that would be extremely damaging for the left in Germany and Europe.

First, part of the motivation is simply old-style social democratic adaptation to racist sentiment for electoral reasons. Oskar Lafontaine, Wagenknecht’s husband and former darling of the SPD left in the 1990s, epitomises this. His semi-autobiographical book was titled: “My Heart Beats On The Left”.

But he argued hard for the shift by the right of the party in the early 1990s to abandon the constitutional provision guaranteeing Germany as a safe haven for refugees. Mistakenly, he believes to this day – despite the electoral evidence – that this was instrumental in the SPD winning the general election in 1998. In fact, it was much more a big swing against a CDU government presiding over four million unemployed and was part of a pattern of elections across Europe that voted out old centre-right parties and leaders who had dominated the previous period.

Second is a false theory that migration directly lowers wages and that racism is a simple and algebraic product of immigration plus economic distress or social change. It leaves out both the conscious agency of employers and governments in cutting wages and the social wage, no matter the level of migration. That was the policy of the SPD in government shortly after 1998 and has proved critical to the model of German capitalist expansion, well before recent large inwards migration.

It also misses out conscious political mechanisms promoting racism – the AfD and mainstream politicians, and the functioning of the state. Racism is not some spontaneous and inevitable popular outgrowth from social circumstance alone. Mass unemployment plus large numbers of post-war immigrants and their children in Britain in the early 1980s produced multiracial, anti-state inner-city riots and a growth of the anti-racist feeling that had been organised in the successful battles against a fascist surge a couple of years earlier.

The arrival of large numbers of refugees in crisis-ravaged Greece in 2015 prompted popular solidarity and anti-racist initiatives, not the growth of the Nazi Golden Dawn.

Third, and most importantly, the abandonment of militant anti-racism in favour of an at best specious “non-racism” is totemic of Wagenknecht’s and Aufstehen’s fundamental strategy of trying to construct a national popular force beyond left and right. For the radical left is anti-racist.

Anti-political sentiment and populist political strategy 

Not the strategy, but the sentiment it appeals to is spelled out well in comments by participants at the Rostock meeting.

“Many people are interested in what is happening in our city and in our country. But they no longer feel right about the parties, CDU, SPD, Left, Greens, AfD, FDP – all the parties are too dogmatic on certain ideas, and on specific goals. They are focused on their own ideas instead of the interests of the citizens.”

Or: “Henning Schüßler (27), one of the youngest participants in the movement, speaks of ‘positive change’. Democracy should again become a true democracy – in which power emanates from the people.”

The group plans working parties to look at a range of issues, freed from “ideological” preconception, to “make Rostock a better place”.

You can see the attraction. It is tapping into a deep sense of the democratic deficit and of the gulf between people and politicians, even some politicians of the Left, especially where they are in office as in parts of east Germany.

It expresses a vague notion of “people power” and a commonsense that we should not be divided by the old conventional politics. And it talks the language of popular, civic campaigning addressing single or a concrete set of everyday issues.

If that was all that was going on, then there wouldn’t be that much of a problem. The campaign against fracking in Lancashire, England, brings together essentially an angry “citizenry” across a wide spectrum of political affiliation. Most of us have been part of campaigns, from cuts to a local hospital to opposing a luxury development in favour of social housing, in which such sentiments indeed have a positive dimension: us against them. Even the massive movements against the Iraq war or austerity, while led by the left, were effective because they could go well beyond the political left to draw in vast numbers.

But that is not all that is going on. Just as racist politics and parties of the far right are not a simple reflection of mass social conditions, nor are the politics of the leadership of Aufstehen just an expression of popular, plebeian feeling against the “political class”. There is a strategy at work, an ideology, a theory – a politics of its own.

It is a strategy and politics from above, not arising from actual social struggles taking place in Germany. Those are not only the big anti-racist and anti-fascist mobilisations, such as a quarter of a million demonstrating in Berlin, against which Wagenknecht and friends have increasingly defined themselves. There are other struggles. They range from opposing soaring rents and a housing crisis through strikes by, for example, the Ryanair workers to fights by hospital workers over health care for all to a campaign for a referendum in the conservative state of Bavaria over social care for the elderly and infirm.

Aufstehen has had only an old social democratic relationship to these. That is, it has voiced support but not been an organic part of them nor thrown itself into the practical tasks of building social solidarity and a wider movement around them (at leadership level – some who have clicked support are active). The same cannot be said of the strands of the radical left in and outside Die Linke who strongly oppose the Aufstehen strategy.

So in Bavaria, for example, Die Linke activists played a big role in getting the signatures for the referendum despite also fighting a state parliamentary election at the same time. Aufstehen mentioned the social care crisis propagandistically but not the campaign for the referendum, which you’d think would fit very much with the kind of participatory democratic sentiment voiced at the Rostock meeting described above.

There is a contrast here with the emergence of the left national-popular Podemos in the Spanish state. Though it provides much inspiration for the leaders of Aufstehen and mines the same seam of “left populism” theorised by post-Marxists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe over three decades ago, the material difference is that Podemos was a political expression of an enormous social movement in Spain in 2011.

It was that movement (with the participation of perhaps one in five of the population) against austerity and the massive feeling of being betrayed by a Casta or caste of politicians that cracked open Spanish politics. As in Germany, the centre left was widely perceived to be as out of touch and as much of a problem as the centre right.

That antipathy extended to those bureaucratised trade unions and leaderships, which, through their corrupting relationship to the Blairised centre left, were seen to be just another sectional, remote interest. The radical left also was seen to be highly conventional and consumed by the game of electoral pacts and participation in local government to no discernible benefit for ordinary citizens.

Those were the circumstances for the creation of Podemos with a carefully calibrated strategy from on high of proclaiming to be beyond left and right (though it hailed from people on the left and everyone knew it) and recasting the political antagonism as the national-popular interest against the elites.

This is not the place to go through the limitations of that. Suffice to say: it was not long before three things happened. There was the emergence of another formation, hailing from the right but also presenting as an anti-systemic popular force, Ciudadanos. It now out polls Podemos and has used the kudos of being “non-ideological” (ie of the old political left/right divide) to move in a hard right direction. Second, the big political questions – most obviously over Spain’s national minorities and relationship to the EU – returned sharply and could not be answered by Podemos. Third, the seemingly dying centre left was able modestly to refresh and to achieve a new gasp of life in the resulting circumstances.

Spanish developments aside, the big issue is that the Aufstehen project does not arise from anything like the huge M15 social struggle in the Spanish state in 2011. It does not even emerge organically from the social struggles that do exist in Germany. It is purely from the political sphere – a mistaken effort to solve the political dilemmas for the radical left over how to advance electorally and as a social force.

Its initiators are also wholly of that domain – of the committee room, the party Congress, the TV studio or the academic symposium. Not from the social struggle. Not from the street. And it is being touted at a time when something much worse than Ciudadanos is already established in Germany: the AfD posing as anti-systemic but having long since adopted a fascisising strategy to bind popular anger to the reactionary right.

There is another difference. Die Linke has all sorts of strands and contradictory strategic orientations. In the east it tends to be more conventional and often approximates a similar national-popular or plebeian politics to Wagenknecht’s. It has suffered loses there. In the west it is often more insurgent and anti-capitalist, and involved in actually existing social struggles. It has grown there. Those are broad, perhaps crude, generalisations from a complex picture. But the main point is that a radical left with many anti-capitalist activists exists in a way and with an involvement that simply was not so in Spain in 2011.

What this means is that the promulgation of the Aufstehen project – not arising from social struggles – must entail a fierce political attack on the left that does exist and a trajectory of rupturing with it.

Germany imagines what exists in France (again)

Wagenknecht and Aufstehen also claim affinity and inspiration from Jean-Luc Melenchon in France. There are parallels. He too emerged out of the left that rejected the Blair era neoliberal turn of social democracy. Having hegemonised a radical left electoral space, eclipsing the revolutionary left, he embarked on a more explicit left national-sovereigntist turn.

Part of that was a confrontation with the Communist Party of France. It was contradictory. On the one hand it signalled a rupture with the old electoral game and subordination of the radical left to the centre-left Socialist Party, which was a characteristic of France’s political system since 1978. On the other, it was an attempt to show that having scooped up the radical left voters he could now become a national figure above left and right. A potential president of the Fifth Republic while calling for a political, civic revolution to create a Sixth.

There are differences. Melenchon was never bound by a functioning, relatively large party of the radical left. Die Linke is that. It had a conference and Wagenknecht lost. Also, he and La France Insoumise have been much more adept in relating directly to those strikes and social struggles that are taking place, even if sometimes in an ultimatist fashion, than Wagenknecht and Aufstehen. Those are differences of degree. But when you factor in also the contrast between an ailing, but still traditional, party system in Germany and the earthquake of Emmanuel Macron winning the French presidency on a new political vehicle, then the negative meaning and impact of Aufstehen’s pick-and-mix version of national-popular politics becomes even clearer.

The meaning of the Wagenknecht line is the liquidation of the existing German radical left, cashing it in, turning it into a political currency in circulation to try to buy something “post-left”. That is why her media interventions in the name of a popular citizens movement jab at the left so often and not the right. It is again a secondary contrast to Melenchon who, whatever his great weaknesses on the politics of race and migration, was the French politician Marine Le Pen unsuccessfully sued for naming her a fascist.

The anti-capitalist left, however, cannot content itself with stating this critique or with literary polemic. Nor is this just a German question. Wagenknecht’s is a (particularly influential) example of a family of similar interventions on the international left: from occasional labour movement figures in Britain, to debates on the rising US left to some post-Syriza-debacle leftists in Greece and beyond.

They proffer a bad answer to real political and strategic dilemmas facing the left and movements of the working class and the oppressed. Germany shows those dilemmas sharply: how to break above a certain level of electoral support; how to connect beyond urban heartlands to town and countryside; how to galvanise for the left the popular anger over the lack of democracy; and what strategy for change if, as is the case in everywhere outside of Britain, the prospect of a left government is not immediate and we face in any case the disaster of that road in Greece?

I offer here only some points towards addressing rather than comprehensively answering those questions.

The first is the centrality of anti-racism. It is not a moral question. Though it should be noted: Wagenknecht and similar figures systematically underestimate the moral force so many feel at racism to the extent it can lead them into militant political action quite outside the usual bounds. She hears so well the confused and demoralised German worker regurgitating false ideas about migrants and Muslims. She is deaf to the Bavarian care worker who linked arms with her Syrian neighbour to block the AfD.

Written out too is the history of the explosive struggles of oppressed racial and national minorities which show a deep tendency to generalise, embrace militant collective forms of action and often launch an insurgent confrontation with the state.

It’s not only that, nor even that there is a lot of racism. It’s that on both sides of the Atlantic racism is being used consciously, intentionally and politically by mainstream politicians and the far right as the biggest weapon they have to maintain the capitalist order and to disorganise precisely the popular, democratic upsurge that Aufstehen, for example, says it is for.

That political understanding ran through the massive Berlin anti-fascist demonstration and other recent mobilisations, though they were not called or built on a narrow left basis. Wagenknecht did not march. Some others voiced the argument, which you hear elsewhere, that such marches are just liberal feel-good events. What about the millions who don’t march (and are presumed to be more racist than they usually are)?

It’s disparaging. Such mobilisations boost the confidence and potential organisation of the left way beyond the numbers taking part as well as helping to shift the middle ground. But there is a challenge posed, nevertheless. Even the largest demonstration or social movement raises political questions about the direction of society beyond the immediacy of the movement itself and beyond those actively taking part (who in even mass movements are always a minority of society).

Aufstehen’s answer is to trash the existing movements in favour of a bigger, national one determined politically from above, but which does not exist. It’s a starting point, but not enough, to respond by saying we must build the social struggles and movements of the left.

The question we have to address is what politics of and for those movements can enable people to be active beyond the immediacy and to win people among the millions who in all but the most exceptional circumstances are far less politically engaged. Is there a way to cut through the dilemma of “anti-politics and sectional” movementism of a minority and opportunist electoral reformism hiding behind a presumed majority?

This is what anti-capitalists in Germany and elsewhere, including Britain and the US, are grappling with.

It’s not a new dilemma. It goes back over a century and particularly to the debates in the socialist, anarchist and workers movements following the First World War. It’s noteworthy that there seem to be many events in Germany commemorating the centenary next week of the German Revolution of 1918 that brought that war to an end.

And there is strong participation from those radical left activists who have thrown themselves into the anti-racist and social movements, as well as the political and electoral campaigns in order to find a way forward to answering these questions – from below. It’s from here that good answers are more likely to come than from Wagenknecht’s pseudo-movement summoned from above.

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Storybook revolutionaries

This gallery contains 6 photos.

Originally posted on Lost Lesbian:
I filled in this survey the other day. It’s a research project looking into the idea of the abolition of legal gender. The questions are awkward – there’s a lot of confusion and conflation of…

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What’s a ‘deep state’ – and does Britain have one?


It’s not paranoia, but good sense for the left to understand the workings of Britain’s old, sophisticated and no less ruthless state

“When asked what he would do if the ‘deep state’ tried to block Mr Corbyn’s foreign policy aims, Mr Murray said: ‘We would rely on the mobilisation of the mass of people as we did in 2003.'”

That’s how the BBC in an uncharacteristically accurate piece reported the comments of Andrew Murray of the Unite union at a packed fringe meeting of the Stop the War Coalition at the Labour Party conference last month.

Andrew did not use it, but the term “deep state” is beginning to get some circulation in Britain. That is in the important context of discussion at all levels of the left over how a Corbyn-led government could get its programme through in the face of manifold Establishment resistance.

For the likes of Labour deputy leader Tom Watson – himself spinning a liberal-conspiracy and evidence-free yarn that Theresa May is secretly blocking investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 referendum – these discussions are evidence of the radical left embracing the paranoia of the Trumpist right and conjuring up a secret “deep state” cabal.

Donald Trump and his supporters have indeed used the term to claim that the CIA, FBI and other agencies are part of a Clintonite plot to defeat him. We’ll return to that. But the term “deep state” did not originate on the transatlantic far right.

Nor is it simply a synonym for the permanent state bureaucracy – though that is how it is often used in recent outings.

The phrase does have its uses. It originates in trying to understand the particular permanent state mechanisms in a number of countries where there was formal liberal democracy but a highly energetic and organised operation across the state bureaucracies. That was especially in the military and security apparatuses to prevent governments or parties from straying beyond a rigid and narrow set of ruling class interests.

These were countries wracked by volatility and with parliamentary parties which, unlike in Britain or the US, were too unreliable or underdeveloped to incorporate opposition into the status quo. They were weak at winning popular support to bind people into the political system. They also failed the bourgeois task of resolving differences within the ruling order in a controlled way. They are often countries where agencies such as the CIA and MI6 have made major interventions as part of a bigger Western policy of “countering subversion”.

Hence a nexus centred on the repressive arms of the state taking a more than “normal” political role in fixing ruling class policy and organising beyond itself to prevent challenges to it. The classic examples are Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Algeria, Indonesia, Pakistan… I looked at this in my book on Syriza (pp106-108):

“It [deep or para-state] refers to particular networks buried within the state and traversing its components, which do more than simply preserve that structure and its interests. Their political leanings are more tightly defined than just an inherent sympathy for the class from which they are largely drawn. They have a propensity to intervene directly into politics in a way which bursts the constitutional limits that are meant to bind them to do so only in extremis, against military threat from without or an insurgent revolutionary one within…

“Perhaps the most vivid illustration of what the deep state means comes from Turkey… In November 1996 a car crash took place… As firefighters snipped the victims from the wreckage they uncovered the twisted body of a deep state nexus…. the bodies of the deputy chief of the Istanbul police, a [mafia] contract killer for the fascist MHP… and a Kurdish quisling warlord who had thrown in his lot with the army in the dirty war against the Kurdish national movement.”

All in a car crash in the town of Susurluk. In 1996 during a peak in the Turkish army’s grisly war against the Kurds and as the generals with this para-state mechanism were moving to oust the short-lived, reforming Islamist government of Necmettin Erbakan – which they did, without resort to tanks on the streets.

Another illustration is captured beautifully in Costa Gavras’ film Z about the murder of Greek left MP Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963 and the subsequent investigation into it. It reveals a conspiracy of the generals and police chiefs, the Cold War monarchist right and the fascistic formations hailing from the time of the occupation and the pre-war Metaxas dictatorship.

It was not a loose association but a tight mechanism forged during the anti-left 1946-49 Greek civil war. And “conspiracy” is not a paranoid description – for that is exactly what the investigation into the murder and the subsequent trial revealed.

Whether it is Greece or Egypt, Turkey or Indonesia, there are common elements to the historic deployment of the term “deep state”.

There is the overweening role of the military in conditions of a weak party system and of acute political and social volatility. Greece had a civil war. So, in effect, did Indonesia with the slaughter of the left and coup against the radical left-nationalist government in 1965-66. Modern Egypt was born through an independence struggle in which a revolt by the lower levels of the army led by Gamal Abdel Nasser played a pivotal role.

The army in Egypt today is itself a major economic actor and owner of capitalist enterprises. In Turkey the army has been the central institution supposedly embodying national unity against sectional-communal interests since the modern state emerged under Ataturk. The result is not only generals who are violently opposed to the left and working class movement, but ones who have had a major role in settling disputes within the capitalist class itself – usurping part of the usual function of capitalist politicians, routinely and with three coups.

So what’s deep about the British state?

Critics of the radical left, be they liberal or conservative, on both sides of the Atlantic have fallen over themselves to highlight the differences between the state structures described above and the administration of government in London or in Washington. The left is deluded, they say, in not recognising that we don’t have coups or direct military-security intervention into politics as in, say, Egypt.

Not only them. The Labour left writer Paul Mason has said that the “rule of law” and separation of powers in liberal democratic states such as Britain means that the threat of a “Very British Coup” is far-fetched.

From the opposite end, generations of liberal modernising reformers in countries such as Greece and Turkey have argued that what they see as the anti-democratic deformations of the society may be solved by adopting fully the rule of law, a “de-politicised” civil service, constitutional checks and balances and other features held to characterise mature liberal democracies.

The argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that similar intellectuals have long argued that Britain’s state – the oldest capitalist entity in the world – also suffers anti-democratic anomalies and that it should be more like the American or French.

That points to a deeper truth than the polarised dichotomy between “proper” developed states, and structures which have a “deep state” mechanism. All of them are capitalist states. The differences are ones of degree, not of kind.

So the British state in Northern Ireland, for example, constructed a para-state mechanism through collusion with Loyalist death squads which bears close comparison with the Greek deep state’s operations against the left in the 1960s culminating in the coup of 1967.

Equally, the military and security apparatuses in Greece were wooed by Syriza in 2015. It was not they who brought down the government, with tanks. It was much more so the very modern bureaucracies of the central bank, the mandarins of the finance ministry and other parts of the lawful permanent state acting with capitalist interests in and outside of Greece.

Yanis Varoufakis describes it well in his memoir. It is subtitled “my battle with Europe’s deep Establishment”.

The extent of the anti-systemic challenge posed by Syriza proved to be exaggerated, given its performance in government. Its strategy led to capitulation. Tsipras did not fall like Chile’s Salvador Allende in the premier’s palace. That did not stop great exertions by the permanent state structure to undermine the government.

That was especially so because the usual political mechanism – the two-party electoral game with both centre left and centre right sharing a tight consensus – was broken in 2015. The ruling class lacked a reliable political instrument. It fell back on mechanisms of the state, normally operating across a narrow bipartisan spectrum, and – crucially – the EU and European institutions interwoven with Greece through membership, the euro and the austerity memorandums.

In a very different way the Trump administration has partially disrupted the political system. Partially. He was elected as a Republican, not as an insurgent outsider. The Republican party had incubated the forces which produced him, but then proved incapable of stopping him and selecting a figure of the Washington consensus instead.

Such figures, Democrat or Republican, may have in the past clashed with various interests: President Eisenhower, a general, warned of the military-industrial complex. But those spats have been within a state apparatus that is famously balanced between the two parties, their think tanks, lobbyists and largely shared outlook.

Greg Grandin wrote a useful piece examining the talking point of “Trump v The Deep State” in the US last year. He also surveyed the literature on the “deep state” and on the US military-industrial complex, government administration, security apparatus and formation of policy.

He wrote, “In 1956, C. Wright Mills wrote that ‘the conception of the power elite and of its unity rests upon the corresponding developments and the coincidence of interests among economic, political, and military organisations.’ If nothing else, the ‘Trump v Deep State’ framings show that unity is long gone.”

Of course there are always anti-democratic manoeuvres by state bureaucracies – the BBC’s Yes Minister comedy series illustrated that.

But the term deep state is helpful for these egregious developments that grow as the party political system cannot be relied upon to preserve the status quo or resolve disputes in the Establishment. And that is one good description of British politics today.

The closer a Corbyn government appears, the more this outgrowth is likely to develop – even beyond the already undemocratic role state officials are allotted in “normal” times.

The former director of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, has today breached the constitutional niceties which are meant to constrain such a high state figure, at least in public, and made a blatantly political intervention against the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn prime ministership.

That would not be necessary if at least one of two conditions obtained. Either that Labour was firmly in the hands of Blair-Brown era politicians or that the conventional political assault against the left had succeeded in reducing Labour to the position it was in under Michael Foot in 1983 after the launch of the SDP.

But the British state and establishment are heading into a period of acute political crisis without those habitual methods having produced much leeway. Hence these kinds of reactions. The “deep state” is not some alien concept to the British system. It is just what happens in circumstances where the normal interference of the permanent state bureaucracies and pro-capitalist political forces proves insufficient.

There is a reason why the heads of Whitehall departments are called “permanent secretaries”. As for paranoia – it was not from the left in the 1970s, which seem to be becoming a reference point again. It was from the right, as evidenced in the revelations by Peter Wright and assorted Tory/state figures over the threat they perceived from an insurgent working class movement and the Harold Wilson government elected in 1974.

In fact, and attested to in different ways in both the Tony Benn and earlier Richard Crossman diaries, the first limit on Labour in office proved to be the cautious strategy pursued and then the considerable influence of “sound” statal figures such as Roy Jenkins, Jim Callaghan and Denis Healy within the cabinet even when the leader had come broadly from the left of the party: Wilson.

The term “deep state”, then, may be useful for the left provided we bear this in mind:

It is not some xenomorph as in the film Alien attaching itself and parasitically invading an otherwise healthy body. It is, rather, what capitalist states do and what they approximate when usual methods of control break down. Varoufakis describes how mundane but effective such daily methods can be – deliberately missing a deadline to submit paperwork to the EU so that the Greek finance minister could be portrayed as an incompetent.

Those downplaying the extent to which the permanent state apparatus is prepared to go to frustrate even a modestly reforming government are mistaken. But before that limit is reached, it is important to understand that we face already the less obvious or outlandish operations of what we might call “a very British deep state”.

It has had a continuous existence for 200 years. Don’t underestimate it.

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Amnesty International and the Gender Recognition Act consultation

The kind of evidence upon which rational discussion and policymaking should be taking place

Karen Ingala Smith

Amnesty International are peddling distortions about trans homicides to push a trans activist agenda regarding the Gender Recognition Act consultation. They said:

“Trans women are suffering violence and abuse because they are trans. Over a quarter of trans people experience domestic violence and two women a week are killed by a partner in England and Wales.

So let’s look at homicide and sex differences, and homicide and trans people:

In the year ending March 2017 there were 613 recorded homicide victims and 617 recorded homicide suspects. The numbers aren’t exactly the same because sometimes there is more than one suspect and sometimes there are none.

  • There were 433 male homicide victims and and 469 male suspects. That means
    • 71% of victims were male
    • 76 % of perpetrators were male
    • There were 8% more male perpetrators than victims
  • There were 180 female victims and 148 female perpetrators
    • 29%…

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The left has no need to be defensive over anti-semitism – a response to Rachel Shabi and why Marxism helps


Ugandan Asians arriving in Britain after being expelled by Idi Amin. The Marxist tradition has more to say about racism than just “divide and rule” of the poor and workers

Rachel Shabi is a strong supporter of the “Corbyn project” and makes many interventions defending it from right wing critics. But I found this well intentioned piece aiming to do that unnecessarily defensive, mistaken and detached from the social reality on both sides of the Atlantic.

That is of anti-Muslim racism being both most prevalent and the leading edge of other racist ideologies and practices, including anti-semitism, driven as it is primarily from the far right.

It runs with an idea, popularised on parts of the left by the Canadian critic Moishe Postone among others, that anti-semitism has a uniqueness as a form of racism in that it is directed at those (falsely) assumed to be powerful as opposed to the inferior “black” targets of other racisms.

Thus, says Shabi, the left has a blindspot to this kind of racism compared with other forms directed “downwards” at the supposedly powerless, less civilised and in wont of guidance or, possibly, racialised exclusion. The kind of racism often directed at Black or Asian immigrants.

This is an old line of argument going back decades. It has its origins in zionist ideologues claiming that anti-semitism is not only trivially unique – in the sense that all racisms (all phenomena) are literally unique – but that it is radically unique, an “ancient hatred” (Shabi) or “the longest hatred” (see titles of many books and articles over the last 50 years).

There are several problems with this.

First, it effaces the actual radical difference between the modern, racialised anti-semitism that was forged in the 19th century using the pseudo-science of race – arising out of that foundational event of modern capitalism, the transatlantic slave trade – with earlier, medieval reactionary ideas and superstition.

Of course, one drew on the other and ideas morphed in the early modern period up to the birth of industrial capitalism proper. But there was a decisive transformation into a modern racist ideology and not an “ancient” religious superstition. Modern anti-semitism required the ideological apparatus of modern racism.

And that arose from the confluence of capitalism and the enslavement of Black African people, and then the massive expansion of European colonialism, just at the point where pre-modern bans on Jewish participation in public life were being removed in western Europe.

Second, it does not pay attention to the other side of anti-semitic ideology in addition to the conspiracy about a powerful and hidden elite manipulating the modern world of finance on a global scale. And that side is simple, dehumanising, animalistic imagery that has also been (and remains) directed at racialised immigrants or poor people per se.

Michael Rosen recently drew attention on Twitter to the most notoriously anti-semitic poem in the English language – Thackery’s “The White Squall” in the early Victorian period. Hold your stomach, here’s a stanza:

“Strange company we harbored,
We’d a hundred Jews to larboard,
Unwashed, uncombed, unbarbered—
Jews black, and brown, and gray;
With terror it would seize ye,
And make your souls uneasy,
To see those Rabbis greasy,
Who did naught but scratch and pray:
Their dirty children puking—
Their dirty saucepans cooking—
Their dirty fingers hooking
Their swarming fleas away.”

These kinds of images played large in the Nazi imaginarium in the 1920s against the “Ostjuden” immigrants from the poor villages of the Pale of Settlement alongside bilge about established German, assimilated Jews being secret manipulators of the nation’s finances, its labour movement and its woes.

Third, it is not true that anti-semitism is the only form of racism or ethnic prejudice that has involved claims that the target is actually powerful, not primarily less civilised and inferior (though all racism logically entails some projection of inferiority on the victim).

The racism experienced by Chinese diaspora communities in parts of east Asia, including pogroms (a part of the counter revolutionary terror in Indonesia in 1965-66, for example), held the Chinese as both filthy parasites and as a hidden power. That was via the role of many Chinese families as long distance merchants and therefore money exchangers and the assumption that they, not economic forces, moved events.

The same was true of anti-Asian racism in Malawi, Uganda and Kenya. The South Asian minorities in those countries, where they formed a disproportionate number of traders and petty money lenders, were viciously targeted by those post-independence leaders such as Idi Amin who failed to confront the actual power of the post-colonial imperialist order so lashed out at the Asian minority instead.

They were accused of being essentially “white” and collaborators of the old colonial white master against the Black African. Many East African Asians had to flee. This was a serious racism.

Or take the Mediterranean Greek diaspora in pre-1950s Egypt and the Middle East. They had a high proportion of merchants (of course most were not) and the characteristic of being a local expression of a presumably compact and auto-loyal, “clannish” transnational, transstate “people”.

The Nasser regime in newly independent Egypt turned away from a path of truly radical economic and social transformation to a state-led, capitalist development in alliance with rich and powerful Egyptian families. So it scapegoated the Greek and Jewish minority bourgeois and communities as a whole in an effort at nationalist, sectarian cover. Greek families left Alexandria accused not of being a primitive race but of being a hidden, powerful plot against the Egyptian Arab nation.

There are other examples, such as forms of racialised prejudice and violent eruptions in parts of West Africa by a “Black” majority against a “Black” minority. There is an extensive literature looking at specific examples and, less frequently, making useful comparison.

Whether or not they reference him, many theorists owe a debt to the Belgian Jewish Marxist Abram Leon, who perished in Auschwitz at the age of 36. His The Jewish Question – a marxist interpretation remains pathbreaking in its method and introduction of universal concepts that may account for the particularities of European anti-semitism while also providing a tool for understanding the range of other racisms alluded to above.

Leon uses the concept of a “people-class” to look at how a particular ethnic or religious group might, by dint of a disproportionate role in the pores or interfaces or interstices of a society, come to be racialised through being held to be responsible for the ills of that society, particularly at moments of crisis or in periods of rapid, destabilising change.

There is a broad similarity in the position of the East Asian Chinese, the Middle Eastern Greek, the East African Asian and the European Jew – at different dates and with the anti-semitic construction of “Jews” in Europe being the paradigm, but explicable by universal concepts and the emergence of modern society, capitalism, nonetheless.

We need not take every word of Leon as scripture. There has been lots of research since – though a remarkable amount either confirms or is compatible with his basic scheme.

What is important, I’d say, is to bring these traditions of Marxism, or of serious work that engages with it (even if not acknowledged) to bear in the political and ideological debates today.

Shabi chides the left with having a blind spot over the particular character of anti-semitism. That may be true of either simplistic “divide and rule”, essentially social democratic theories of racism, or of their twin, “privilege theories” of racism. But it is not true of historical materialism or of Marxism.

Judgements of that tradition may be right or wrong and must certainly be held up to intellectual, practical and political scrutiny. But that tradition has taken these matters very seriously. And it has looked at those racisms that serve as a false worldview of the impersonal movement of economic and social forces and as racialisation of people other than the poorest sections of the working class.

For those reasons, the Marxist left can help those trying to defend the Corbyn project by providing stronger arguments, a better theory and, on that basis, being far less defensive.

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All together for the Unity March against racism and fascim




The Anti Nazi League/Rock Against Racism demonstration to the carnival in Victoria Park, East London, in 1978 

Well done to all those involved in pulling together the call for a massive national demonstration in London on 17 November against racism and the fascist threat.

It already seems to be generating enthusiasm and it’s clear that the potential number of organisations, campaigns and affinity groups that may throw themselves into it is huge.

I think it’s a crucial initiative, but also a challenge to turn it into an event that can have a decisive political impact.

Why is the demonstration so important?

There has since the shockingly large and violent turnout of the far right in central London in June been a gathering and unifying chorus across the labour movement to build upon the already strong anti-racist efforts in order to produce an even more massive response.

Incidentally, the far right are not abstractly mulling whether “demonstrations matter”. They got a huge boost from that historically large (for them) demonstration and they hope to replicate that with pro-Robinson demonstrations up and down the country.

They saw the interrelationship between a big national event and myriad efforts to build support locally, in different areas, various workplaces and communities. All then drawn back together to have national political effect.

The left has long understood this in Britain. It was one of the mechanisms that underpinned the mass movements against fascism in the 1970s and 1990s, for example.

There was a direct interplay in the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism between setting in advance what became known during the anti-capitalist movement at the start of this century as national “convergence points” and a flowering of local initiatives.

Those included the establishment of a mass, democratic cordon sanitaire around the fascists and racist right – opposing them marching, meeting, being treated as normal politicians in the media, having access to working class organisation such as union meetings and tenants groups…

This interplay – or dialectic, if you prefer – is well summed up by Red Saunders, one of the founders of Rock Against Racism.

It was launched via a letter from socialists in the music scene to the NME in 1976. Red describes getting huge numbers of letters back to the PO Box address in support.

One was typical. A school student from a small town asking if there was a RAR group nearby. Red explains:

“We sent him back a thank you note, a load of stickers and badges and said, ‘You are now the official RAR in your area. Here’s some material to get going. Let us know what you get up to so others can hear about it.’ That was it. That was crucially how RAR grew.”

The late Darcus Howe described how the big, national movement against the fascist threat of the National Front and against the most easily understood and violent racism helped “clear the ground”.

In that space, the Black and Asian revolutionary and radical movements of the 1970s also flourished and the more difficult issues of institutionalised racism and false or xenophobic ideas about immigration could be challenged.

A result was that the riots of 1981 under Thatcher were not “race riots” but multiracial urban uprisings, led by young Black working class people, against police racism and mass unemployment.

The same dynamic was apparent with the last “Unity Demonstration” against the fascist British National Party in October 1993.

It was called after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in April that year, building upon considerable and varied anti-fascist campaigning up to that point.

In between, in early September, the BNP managed to win a council by-election on the Isle of Dogs in East London. It sent a shockwave. That powered a massive turnout for the unity demonstration to close down the BNP headquarters in Welling, south east London.

That, in turn, fed back into systematic campaigning in East London and across the country. It also prompted a hitherto passive TUC to call – and to build – a demonstration in Tower Hamlets in March of 1994 which played a big role in focusing the successful efforts to defeat the BNP at the elections in May.

At the time, I lived in Manor Park in neighbouring Newham and was active in building the anti-fascist movement just up the road in Ilford and Redbridge, and supporting efforts in Romford and Havering.

We took four coaches to Welling and others made their own way down. One aspect of that has some relevance today, given the summer of smears.

Redbridge has a significant Jewish community. The rise of the BNP had a contradictory impact. Many Jewish people were obviously alarmed and wanted to do something.

But then as now (and as in the 1930s) the official, often Tory-aligned communal leaderships counselled passivity and certainly avoiding the left.

So there were debates and arguments. But large numbers of young (and not so young) Jewish people rallied to an active campaign against fascism and racism, alongside the left, Muslim, Asian, Black and other groups. We were greatly assisted by the late Leon Greenman, a Holocaust survivor who lived in the area and put a potent, unifying message. He gave the same speech to Jewish youth groups as to Muslim congregants.

A similar process drove the extraordinary growth of the Stop the War movement a decade later: big national focuses (including the largest demonstration in British history) flowing out of and feeding back into creative and diverse campaigning in all areas.

By “all areas” I mean the small towns and often villages, and not just in the city centres of the big conurbations in Britain. I mean the tube or direct works depot, and not just the officers of the union representing those workers. I mean the local football ground, and not just the local mosque – though the mobilisation of Britain’s immigrant communities has been central to both the anti-racist and anti-war movements. It means the local pub on that “sink estate” and not just the trendy, LGBT-friendly bar in the city centre.

It seems to me that this is the common feature that the actor Christopher Eccleston, RMT union leader Mick Cash, Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell, the ANL and RAR founders, Stand Up To Racism, Unite Against Fascism, Stop the War, much of the left media, figures in Momentum and many others have in mind as they refer to reproducing that kind of experience, in contemporary conditions, to crush the nascent fascist threat today.

Restating the line of division

This is a big step forward. In responding to it, the call for the demonstration on 17 November raises the stakes. For it poses the challenge of moving beyond the idea of a mass, militant movement to making it a practical reality. It is only in the effort to do that that the strategies for how to do so may be put to the test and made real.

The timing of the initiative could scarcely be better. It provides a clear focus in advance for the left, which has had for much of the summer only reactive (if very good) events in a period since the anti-Trump protests in which the right in all sorts of ways has been able to set the agenda – at least in the media.

Matters are volatile and no one knows the precise course of events over the next 12 weeks. There will be things to respond to. But we do know that this big focus for the movement is happening and will take place right in the middle of the most incendiary rows in the Tory government, the Tory party and parliament over the Brexit question.

We know further that parts of the Tory right – most obviously Boris Johnson – and the far right will seek to deploy racism in order to address and build out of that crisis. The most racist elements of Leave.EU have joined the Tory party and are encouraging others to in order to support Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg. And it is plainly obvious that the Establishment as a whole is prepared to trivialise that because its concern is to turn the turmoil into a crisis of the left-led Labour Party.

The 17 November is part of the antidote to that. Racism or opposition to the far right threat is not a Leave/Remain question. Most people, including most of those who voted Leave, are for full rights of EU nationals in Britain.

While horribly high, the figures for anti-Muslim racism in Britain are lower than in most of Europe. Xenophobic attitudes over immigration have fallen over the last two years. Yet Trump at the same time gives a massive boost to those agitating for racist politics. And the support from the US and European far right for the fascists in Britain is not just in morale. It includes considerable material assistance.

So there is a potential active anti-racist majority, but also a very serious threat from the far right – which is lifted by every smear against Corbyn and the left. It also has breathing space every time the left is hesitant, absent from mass politics, not agitating on the streets or in the communities and workplaces, or in other ways passively waiting for the “government in waiting” to come to office.

In such circumstances, 17 November offers an alternative to the liberal counsel of despair that would have anti-racism an expression of just a part of 48 percent of the population who voted Remain in 2016. A permanent minority.

On the contrary, this has to be a majority movement. And for that reason – echoed by all sorts of people on the left – such a movement cannot be divided by the Brexit question. The line of division is the far and racist right, including in the Tories, and those who want to oppose them actively – with a battle to win those in between everywhere.

The anti-racist and anti-fascist coalition Merseyside Together this summer took en masse a message to football fans. It did not restrict in advance who it would engage with according to what “tribe”, political or otherwise, they belonged to. It handed out thousands of leaflets and had hundreds of conversations at both Anfield and Goodison Park.

There is a further reason, for those of us on the anti-capitalist left, why 17 November has such significance. It is best explained in this reflection by the late Marxist critic and theorist John Berger in 1968. It is powerful precisely because he addresses in the autumn of that year of revolutionary upheaval the hard question. What does a demonstration achieve? Isn’t it, by definition, just a gesture – an act of showing, or demonstrating, opposition, but not really changing anything?

Instead of retreating to a pragmatic argument about just “doing something” he explains how the mass demonstration plays its part in the “rehearsal” of revolutionary awareness, a link in the chain of moving beyond a temporary mobilisation and fleeting feeling of power to forms of struggle that do not merely demonstrate but take on and exercise real power.

You ought to read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:

“The demonstration, an irregular event created by the demonstrators, nevertheless takes place near the city centre, intended for very different uses. The demonstrators interrupt the regular life of the streets they march through or of the open spaces they fill. They cut off these areas, and, not yet having the power to occupy them permanently, they transform them into a temporary stage on which they dramatise the power they still lack.

“The demonstrators’ view of the city surrounding their stage also changes. By demonstrating, they manifest a greater freedom and independence – a greater creativity, even although the product is only symbolic – than they can ever achieve individually or collectively when pursuing their regular lives. In their regular pursuits they only modify circumstances; by demonstrating they symbolically oppose their very existence to circumstances.

“This creativity may be desperate in origin, and the price to be paid for it high, but it temporarily changes their outlook. They become corporately aware that it is they or those whom they represent who have built the city and who maintain it. They see it through different eyes. They see it as their product, confirming their potential instead of reducing it.”

Such an understanding is not a prerequisite for taking part in or building 17 November. All that’s required for that is to want to take a stand against racism and the far right threat. And that sentiment – we should be aware – can be as strong in a Methodist church group as it is at a Marxist discussion meeting.

But it is a very useful understanding for anti-capitalists who in driving forward this big initiative see it as a strategic part of a process of militant struggle leading to a truly radical transformation of Britain.

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Defend Corbyn and the left – no retreats before the slander


Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the 80th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Cable Street in East London in 1936 that stopped Oswald Mosley’s fascists marching through the area

The demand that Labour adopt a contested definition of anti-semitism is not about some choice of words or about fighting racism. It is about breaking the left and progressive movements as a political force in Britain. This legal opinion by Hugh Tomlinson QC explains much of what is wrong with the IHRA “working definition” of anti-semitism.

There is also this excellent piece in the London Review of Books last year by former Court of Appeal judge Stephen Sedley. When we see what is seriously wrong with this definition and document the Labour leadership is under pressure to adopt, the wider purpose of the attacks and slurs becomes clear.

Among other points Sedley highlights this from the IHRA definition:

“Manifestations [of anti-semitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.

“Applying double standards by requiring of [the state of Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

“Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour.”

He explains the serious problems with all that:

“The first and second of these examples assume that Israel, apart from being a Jewish state, is a country like any other and so open only to criticism resembling such criticism as can be made of other states, placing the historical, political, military and humanitarian uniqueness of Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestine beyond permissible criticism.

“The third example bristles with contentious assumptions about the racial identity of Jews, assumptions contested by many diaspora Jews but on which both Zionism and anti-Semitism fasten, and about Israel as the embodiment of a collective right of Jews to self-determination.”

It’s worth expanding on those points. Do all claims at all times by any group to nationhood and “self-determination” have to be accepted? Is it racist to deny any such claim? And should it be against the law or rules of, say, the Labour Party?

Clearly, that cannot be the case. All but hardened racists deny the “right to self-determination” of white supremacists claiming a “right” to a separate white state in South Africa.

Is it racist to deny a claimed “right” of the Loyalist minority in Ireland as a whole to a partitioned statelet in the north that means a sectarian set up that continues to this day?

The whole point is that Israel’s actualisation of a claim to self-determination is based upon the dispossession and exclusion of the Palestinians. There is a clash of rights claims, at the very least. But what this definition does is deny the validity, indeed to declare as racist, the central Palestinian claim to name the source and process of their dispossession.

Palestinian self-determination must surely mean the right to have their story told and heard – that the creation of the state of Israel and its continuation as a Zionist endeavour means the oppression of the Palestinians and their racial exclusion.

That brings us to two softening up arguments doing the rounds this weekend to smooth the path to getting the Labour leadership to capitulate on this question.

Unison union leader Dave Prentis gave legs to the first in an article yesterday claiming that the IHRA definition does not stop criticism of Israel or supporting Palestinian rights.

There is a sleight of hand here. Of course it does not stop all criticism of Israel. Even US president George Bush “criticised” the expansion of settlement building on the West Bank.

But it polices that criticism so that any fundamental opposition to Israel as a colonial-settler state based, therefore, on a necessarily racist exclusion of the Palestinians and a particular form of apartheid is not only illegitimate, but racist.

So you may criticise “excesses” but not the underlying reason for them. An entire political position shared by most Palestinians, Jewish opponents of the political doctrine of Zionism, and much of the left is banned. You may have all sorts of criticisms, so long as they all accept the central claims of the Zionist ideology at the heart of the state of Israel and that its structures cannot be questioned to the point of denying their “right to exist”. It is, of course, state structures that are being given this right – not people. You may criticise, but not oppose.

There is a self-serving contradiction in the IHRA text. You may criticise Israel as you would any other state, but defined as “a democratic nation”. That means you cannot criticise it as not being a democratic nation and say why it is necessarily undemocratic.

You cannot challenge a central propaganda claim by defenders of the state of Israel that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East”. You may not question its democratic status, mounting the argument that as no democracy can be based upon the expansionist racial exclusion of people from their homes and land, Israel is not a democracy just like any other.

Thus you may not compare it with apartheid South Africa, now nearly universally deplored: because few would say that apartheid South Africa was a “state like any other” and Israel may only be considered a state like any other. In reality, you cannot properly criticise the fundamental character of the state itself.

You may say that Israel should not put Palestinian children in prison through military courts. You may not say that the Palestinian children are right to say – as increasing numbers do – that the Oslo process is dead and their future depends on dismantling the Zionist structure of the Israeli state and its replacement with a single and truly democratic state for Muslim, Christian and Jew living in this part of the world or exercising their rights as refugees to return.

And if, like Barack Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry, you say that Israel can either be a Jewish state or a democratic state, but not both, then on this definition you could be accused of anti-semitism for “denying the right of Jews to self-determination”.

A hindrance to fighting real anti-semitism

The second softening up argument is that none of those accusations will be made if we just get on with accepting, for “tactical reasons”, this flawed and politicised definition. Or, if they are made, then people genuinely not anti-semitic can prove their innocence.

That is a shocking reversal of the burden of proof. The vague wording of the definition allows for such false accusations – and we are seeing them all the time – but the remedy is then to “prove your innocence”.

It is difficult to think of a greater inhibition on free speech or chilling effect – and that is precisely how this is being used. It is impossible to outlaw all criticism of Israel. The aim of this conflation of anti-semitism with anti-zionism is to limit such criticism to within the bounds that might be found on a good day from some progressive Democrat in the US Congress. That is someone who feels she really ought this time to call for “restraint” by Israeli forces using live sniper rounds against Palestinian civilians, and adds immediately that the Palestinians must “stop their attacks” also.

The target is the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party and also the whole left. That is not arising out of some groundswell support for the state of Israel or its policies. The opposite has been happening for years. A BBC poll earlier this year found 66 percent of people in Britain critical or “very critical” of Israel. The new head of the Jewish Agency, a pro-Israel organisation, Isaac Herzog, warned this week:

“… I’m very aware of the growing feeling that Diaspora Jews are drifting away from Israel. I will do everything in my power to act against this trend that’s increasingly dividing us.”

And for well over a decade survey after survey on both sides of the Atlantic has recorded declining support for Israel and a loosening affinity with it among Jewish communities. It is this that the right wing political offensive in Britain is designed to put a stop to by squeezing it out of the official political space. In so doing, of course, it provides a weapon to try to undermine and, they hope, oust the Labour leadership.

That hope rests not upon a swing in social attitudes but on some serious weaknesses on parts of the left that have set a course of capitulation on this question – the two arguments considered above being the latest staging posts to ignominious collapse.

As I argued in this Facebook post, it is naive in the extreme to imagine that if the Labour leadership does a U-turn and caves in this September, then there will be peace and goodwill in the Labour Party:

“On the contrary. Not only will they press on to oust the Labour leadership, it will have given them an arsenal to do so.

“For it will instantly mean that every single speech, article and intervention over decades by left wingers and supporters of the Palestinians in the Labour Party – at all levels – will be scrutinised to identify where they breach the new definition.

“And large numbers of them will – for people have been criticising Israel fundamentally and entirely legitimately for decades.”

Tomlinson points to how already under the IHRA definition the following positions have been charged with being anti-semitic:

  • Describing Israel as a state enacting policies of apartheid.
  • Describing Israel as a state practising settler colonialism.
  • Describing the establishment of the State of Israel and the actions associated with its establishment, as illegal or illegitimate.
  • Campaigning for policies of boycott divestment or sanctions against Israel, Israeli companies or international companies complicit in violation of Palestinian human rights (unless the campaigner was also calling for similar actions against other states).
  • Stating that the State of Israel and its defenders “use” the Holocaust to chill debate on Israel’s own behaviour towards Palestinians.

Nor does the adoption of this definition help the fight against genuine anti-semitism. It has been embraced by the governments of Austria, Poland and Hungary – all of them hard racist right and, in the case of Hungary, headed by the most anti-semitic prime minister in Europe, Viktor Orban. He is also a firm ally and friend of Binyamin Netanyahu and professes wholehearted support for Israel.

Here, the false and widely disputed notion in the IHRA definition that Israel embodies some kind of “collective Jew” is revealed in fact to be permissive of anti-semitism. Orban says he cannot possibly be anti-semitic because he loves Israel, the “Jewish state”. But his recent election campaign and his authoritarian pronouncements are permeated with classical and vile  racism against Jewish people. He singles out individuals such as the financier George Soros as representative of “the Jew” conspiring to bring down the Hungarian and European nations. Three weeks before election day in April this year, he said in a speech:

“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world,”

Orban’s government has signed up to the IHRA definition that Corbyn’s Labour is held to be shameful in not adopting in full because of its “examples” that conflate opposition to Israel with anti-semitism.

There’s a further problem. The definition is itself inadequate in identifying real anti-semitism. It starts: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” That is an extraordinarily vague and ill-formed definition. Anti-semitism “is a certain perception of Jews” (as opposed to what, a nebulous conception of Jews) that “may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” – may? So it may not. It may not be hatred toward Jews, or it may not be expressed? What is it then?

Tomlinson says that, at the very least, that would have to be reformulated as: “Antisemitism is a particular attitude towards Jews, which is expressed as hatred toward Jews”. But he continues:

“Even in these amended terms the definition is unsatisfactory. The apparent confining of antisemitism to an attitude which is ‘expressed’ as a hatred of Jews seems too narrow and not to capture conduct which, though not expressed as hatred of Jews is clearly a manifestation of antisemitism. It does not, for example, include discriminatory social and institutional practices.”

For any anti-racist, a failure to understand how a type of racism takes institutional and socially discriminatory forms is a major omission and a retreat from decades of gains by the anti-racist movements in Britain.

So it is not only the rights of the Palestinians, free speech and the socialist left that would be the victims of the capitulation to this dodgy definition that some labour movement voices are demanding. It would also be the fight against genuine anti-semitism and our understanding of racism as a whole as something structured into society and not just individual prejudices.

It’s past time to stop the retreat on this. A huge amount is at stake – on every progressive front. This meeting in London in ten days time is a good, broad effort building on lots that has gone before, to rally forces to do just that.

The risk is not that the right is advancing like a juggernaut. It’s that the left retreats and surrenders in complete disarray. That’s what can open the door to the right – both the establishment and far right. That cannot be allowed to happen. A big lie is being told – and all on the left should stand up to it.

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