Left antisemitism – preliminary remarks

August 6, 2018

The debate over antisemitism within Labour and the broader UK left has often been pretty unedifying, but I thought this twitter thread by Edmund Griffiths was valuable. I’ll quote it in full, then make some remarks of my own:

One point I don’t think gets made often enough in the antisemitism conversation is that the things antisemites say aren’t true. The Rothschilds don’t run the central banks; British & US foreign policy isn’t made by a Jewish lobby; Jews don’t control the media; the Holocaust did happen. Maybe it seems too self-evident to bother saying. But if you’re newly politicized, & you’re angry with the way things are, & you’re looking—especially online—for answers, then it’s pretty easy to come across those untrue claims & perhaps it is not going to be self-evident to you that they’re wrong. You’ll see antisemitic arguments made on explicitly far-right sites, but you may well see them being put forward in left spaces too; & you won’t always see them being robustly countered by the left. And, on top of that, leftists sometimes choose to express themselves in ambiguous language (“global elites”) that can be understood in antisemitic terms even if that isn’t the intention. And, to the extent that antisemitic propaganda gains any traction, it does great harm: it encourages people to direct their anger against a minority who are not really to blame, and it lets the capitalist class & its institutions off the hook. As a movement, we need to do much much better at producing propaganda & educational materials—especially online—to expose antisemitic scapegoating as lies & misdirection. We need to ensure that anybody who is looking for political answers encounters clear, convincing rebuttals of antisemitic ideas. Obviously convinced antisemites are unlikely to be persuaded, & need to be fought; but the people who are exposed to their propaganda do need to be persuaded. And I think the form of our rebuttals should be less “You mustn’t say that because it’s antisemitic” than “That is untrue, & it scapegoats a minority, & it shields the actual ruling class from criticism, & therefore it is profoundly anti-socialist”. The Labour Party & Momentum both have the resources to do this on a large scale, & I hope they will; but there’s nothing stopping other organizations & even individuals doing it to, & I mean to do it more energetically myself. The main objective isn’t to prevent antisemitism generating bad headlines for the Labour Party—it’s to reduce the actual prevalence of antisemitic ideas, in society as a whole but particularly in spaces where the left can get a hearing.

I think this is right, and although I don’t myself feel very comfortable producing propaganda and educational materials (in general, who am I to propagandise and educate?) I do feel comfortable writing about ideas.

Left, political antisemitism functions not just as a prejudice but also as an explanatory system.  Stigmatising antisemitism as prejudice is unlikely to be persuasively effective if its explanatory components still seem compelling – and so the rebuttal of left antisemitism requires not just the exclusion of antisemites from the left (if that’s even possible), or the emphasis on the political undesirability of prejudice (of course prejudice is bad, but people who hold prejudiced attitudes often don’t regard them as prejudiced – they regard them as true), but also the explanation of why antisemitism is (as Griffiths says) wrong – and not just factually wrong, but also explanatorily wrong: wrong as a way to understand the world.

One of the obstacles to doing this, I think, is an inadequate ‘map’ of left antisemitism as a system of ideas.  In particular, a lot of the analysis I’ve read of left antisemitism writes as if it is a single thing, rather than a set of quite distinct commitments which can be bundled in all kinds of different ways.  Moreover it is common, I think, to write as if antisemitism is intrinsically associated with political commitments with which it is in fact only contingently – and yet non-accidentally – associated.

Thus for example two recent pieces in the New Statesman suggest that left antisemitism is in some sense an intrinsic feature of Corbynism’s current political project.  Writing in March, Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts argued that:

the anti-semitic tropes which pervade the Corbyn-supporting “alt-media” and activist base, as well as Corbyn’s own dubious brand of “anti-Zionism” and “anti-imperialism”, are not mere contingencies, but the logical outcome of the movement’s morally-charged, personalised critique of capitalism as conspiracy.

More recently, in July, David Bennum argued that, for the anti-imperalist left:

the West is always bad, no matter what its civic virtues; anybody opposed to it, no matter how awful, is better, or certainly no worse. Capitalism becomes part of a grand, overarching, unified conspiracy, to which Jews invariably prove to be integral. Anti-Semitism is thus not some random blight that affects all sectors of society and opinion roughly evenly. It is utterly enmeshed in far-left thought, just as it is in that of the equally conspiratorially-minded far-right.

In my own opinion both of these pieces significantly overstate the extent to which antisemitism is a core or necessary feature of the kind of political project pursued by Corbyn and ‘Corbynism’.  At the same time, though, these pieces are correct that left antisemitism can’t or shouldn’t be understood simply in terms of prejudice, but also as part of a broader ideological perspective or political explanatory system.

Carefully differentiating the non-antisemitic dimensions of radical left political positions and projects from their antisemitic variants is therefore I think important for two reasons.  First, it makes it harder for (for example) anti-imperialist politics in general to be written off as antisemitic – which is important if you (like me) regard anti-imperialist politics as valuable.  Second, and probably more importantly, it means that people who are interested in (say) anti-imperialist politics are less likely to be persuaded by antisemitic variants of these political positions.

One of the things I’d like to do, then, over the coming… however long, is write a bit about the common left explanatory frameworks associated with left antisemitism, and why they’re not good as explanatory frameworks. For reasons articulated by Griffiths’ twitter thread, the primary argument here is not that they’re not good because they’re antisemitic, but rather that they’re not good because they fail as explanatory frameworks.  This failure of the explanatory framework then carries through to the inadequacy of any political antisemitism grounded in it, in addition to the fact that such perspectives are also bigoted.

I think there’s a pretty high chance that this will be one of my many projects that never goes beyond its preliminary remarks, but in the spirit of hope I’ll make a few comments here and sketch what I might want to write about next.

First – obviously in this approach I won’t be dealing with left antisemitism as a whole, but rather with its explanatory dimensions. There are some thorny metatheoretical issues that I don’t want to get into in this preliminary post, and which render the remarks in this post a little over-simplistic – but I intend to largely ignore the issue of whether any given explanation is itself antisemitic, and just focus on the issue of whether it’s any good as explanation. This usefully lets me sidestep issues of intention and affect, which are always a nightmare regardless.

Second – I’ll attempt here a preliminary broad schematisation of left antisemitisms. I think you can broadly speaking see antisemitic variants of the following positions, on the left:

– Conspiracism (that is, conspiratorial explanations for political-economic events);
– Anti-imperialism;
– Anti-capitalism;
– Critiques of Israel.

None of these categories of political stance are intrinsically antisemitic, I would argue, but all of them have antisemitic variants that are sufficiently common that some care needs to be taken when discussing these issues.

I myself don’t feel qualified to discuss the politics of Israel and Palestine, so I expect to mostly leave that aside altogether in this (possible) series of posts (which is unfortunate, because this is the most central issue in current debates within and about the UK left – but I see no point in moving far outside my areas of competence.) Still, I think I have something to say on poor explanatory approaches to anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and the discussion of conspiracies, and it’s these that I’ll focus on.

My plan, for what it’s worth, is to start with anti-imperialism – and specifically to start with two texts that express rather different explanatory frameworks that give disproportionate explanatory weight to Jewish actions: Mearsheimer and Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, and Hobson’s Imperialism. Then (if I ever get that done) maybe I’ll move on to anti-capitalism and conspiracism. My ultimate goal is to assemble a collection of quite short posts that together form a potentially useful ‘ideological map’ of the different explanatory frameworks often associated with contemporary left antisemitism.

As I say, I don’t rate particularly highly my chances of getting far with this project – but one can’t get anywhere at all if one doesn’t make a start, so, here’s a start.

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3 Responses to “Left antisemitism – preliminary remarks”

  1. Byela Mar Says:

    This looks very promising. Would some kind of tip jar deal (e.g. Patreon) help you to guilt-trip yourself into taking it as far as you hope, rather than expect? I’d kick in a couple of quid a month.

  2. duncan Says:

    That’s very kind and thank you! but my constraints here are time, energy and competence rather than financing, so I’d feel absurd setting up a Patreon to be honest. I’ll try to self-guilt-trip instead if that helps.

  3. duncan Says:

    Just to note here in comments that – as is obvious from later posts on the blog – I’ve decided against pursuing this project. I think this is the right decision. These are obviously very important issues, but I don’t think I’m the person to write on them.


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