Blog post

Antisemitism and Oppression: a Leftist Polemic

After the BBC's Panorama documentary, the cries against the Labour Party of antisemitism have reached a new pitch. Yet to understand how the "crisis of antisemitism" has been manufactured, we need to look beyond the particular accusations themselves, and to how the left conceives of oppression. 

Eydl Kneydl15 July 2019

Antisemitism and Oppression: a Leftist Polemic

The past year has seen the cries of antisemitism against the Labour Party increase in pitch. In order to understand how such a “crisis of antisemitism” in the Labour Party has been manufactured we cannot look to the accusations alone. Instead, we must look to the changing history of how we think about oppression, and how this informs the politics of the left. Many of the accusations of antisemitism in the Labour Party have their roots in the dogma that oppressed people have a sovereign right to define the oppression they experience and to fight against it however they choose. But the case of the antisemitism scandals demonstrates how this dogma is something the left needs to criticise. Many of Britain’s Jews believe that anti-Zionism is in itself antisemitic, believe that the demonisation of the Labour leadership for its sympathy to Palestinian liberation is part of an anti-racist struggle, and believe that their views on these matters are sacrosanct because they speak as an oppressed group. The left cannot be afraid of confronting these positions.

When I look at my family (although thankfully not my immediate family) I meet all sorts of racists who hate Arabs, and people who espouse all sorts of Islamophobic opinions. But more than this, they believe that this racism is their sovereign right as oppressed people. When I look at Jews in the UK more broadly, a very great proportion of them will rally behind the Israeli State. And while the majority will claim to be “moderate” Zionists (whatever that might mean), and while they might find Netanyahu uncouth and unsavoury, they still defend a state that will not let Palestinians return, and which treats Arabs and other non-Jews with disdain. While they might not be open proponents of apartheid, the material reality of the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state currently involves the annexation of the West Bank, the perpetual torture of Palestinians in Gaza, and the recent Nation State Law, which explicitly designates non-Jewish Israelis as second-class citizens. All of this is ultimately justified as part of a politics of rescuing Jews from antisemitism globally. But we cannot forget that people sometimes do the most barbarous things in the name of fighting oppression. The claim of some, that they are oppressed by my saying that state of Israel is racist, founded on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and maintained by open warfare against Palestinians, is the thin end of a great wedge; the thick end is the silencing of Palestinians and the withdrawal of support for their liberation! As a conscious left we must speak out against nationalism, separatism, and brutality committed in the name of liberation.

The argument for the autonomy of liberation struggles itself has a history within the left: its backdrop is the history of the stultification of communist parties, where liberation struggles once flourished, and their betrayal of the people. It is the context of refrains of “after the revolution” directed at anyone who founded their politics on anything but the most abstract and general class antagonism. Against this, decades of social movements argued for anti-racist liberation movements led by the those who suffered immediately from racist oppression, women’s liberation movements led by women, and that the autonomy of these struggles ought to be integral to left organising for freedom. Only this could bring material detail into a social movement that had become increasingly monolithic and bureaucratic.

The ferocity of these arguments, which began to flourish in the desolation of stale state communisms and traditional parties, was aimed not only at ending particular forms of oppression in society and at sharpenning the revolutionary impulses against that which crushes people in their everyday lives. They also took aim against forms of organisation that were failing to support liberation, in which the leadership was invariably male, white, urban, and educated, to the detriment of freedom struggles for everyone else. None of this is to say that these criticisms are no longer valid (in fact, these arguments still need to be made ever more forcefully in the context of a left that has consistently failed to learn.) But if these movements had a victory, it was to invalidate many traditional notions of the party, and to convince people that the place for social change was more broadly in society. The historical irony of this success was that it would ultimately undermine the ground on which those arguments operated: no longer was it clear that a demand was made of a party committed to human liberation and the transformation of the world. Removed from a polemical context, against a certain type of leader and a certain type of intelligentsia, elements of these arguments could become dogmatic. Relieved of their context within a partisan left which separated itself from society as a whole, these arguments could start to resemble precisely what they were designed to combat. The old thesis that the immiseration of the proletariat would lead directly to the overcoming of class society simply shattered into many more immiseration theses, ever more partial, ever more individual, but ultimately no different. And such a view of immiseration provides the ground for the dogma that those who are oppressed always know best about how to combat their oppression. Yet the demand for autonomy - however righteous - ought always to be tempered by relativity. The brutality of Zionism teaches us the danger of what can happen when it becomes absolute. And when it becomes absolute, this claim to autonomy also stifles disagreement about strategy and organisation within oppressed groups. Increasingly, within oppressed communities, the defence of autonomy means that leadership is returned to their most conservative and traditional elements.

The collapse of the party as a mode of organisation on the left, and the migration of left struggles into mainstream society, leaves us in murky territory. This is no bad thing - the left does better politics in mud and cloud - but it has its own peculiar dangers and tensions. For example, contemporary right-wing thought often positions itself not so much in opposition to the left, but as a “corrective” to it. The internet is full of violent racists and transphobes offering unwelcome lectures on the immorality of left authoritarianism, while misogynistic “men’s rights” movements and reactionary nationalists pose themselves as just more liberation struggles. For all of its benefits, this cloudy political landscape leaves the left prone to new forms of attack, whether they are red-brown formations, or liberal attacks on the far left made by people who have no commitment to freedom beyond bourgeois constitutionalism.

This is why we need a social account of oppression. And today that means having a view that avoids the pitfalls of seeing oppression as subjectively situated, and of drawing political legitimacy from its mere existence. It has become essential to highlight its objective moment too. We ought not to indulge any kind of essentialism of the oppressed, which can ultimately lead to handing power back to our political foes. While we should struggle always with the oppressed against their oppressors, we have to remain dialectical in our vision. This is to say, we cannot afford to forget that the position of the oppressor is also a dehumanising one. Meanwhile, unconditional support for the oppressed should not translated directly into uncritical agreement on questions of tactics. And although it is probably not the best use of our time to spend our lives arguing for the best ways to humanise oppressors, it remains important to criticise positions that flatly ignore the dehumanisation of oppressors. Acknowledging this provides a significant guard against the consequences of those positions that think oppression is something that just happens people, without necessarily recognising it as a social relation; it is a vision that maintains our commitment to the transformation of society, against those who would prefer simply to lament it. As Blanqui once said, “Jeremiads are the fashion. Jeremiah poses in all the attitudes, he cries, whips, he dogmatizes, he dominates, he thunders, the plague of all plagues. Let us leave these elegizers, these grave-diggers of freedom! The duty of a revolutionist is the fight.”

This is what I have learnt as an anti-Zionist Jew. Not even the Holocaust, the utter depths of European barbarism, sanctions what is done in the name of the victims and survivors of Nazism to Palestinians by the Israeli State. But in the current context it’s no surprise that liberals have pilfered this argument once made by radical left made against its dreadful leaders as a stick to beat the whole of the left. Yes, there are cases of antisemitism in the Labour Party, and from what I can tell, the leadership - as well as people throughout the party membership - are doing their best to combat it. But there are also today many people who have decided criticising Israel is antisemitism, and who believe that a defence of Israel against its left critics is a legitimate form of anti-racism. The Jewish “Community Leaders” and the wider right-wing forces that have embraced them who pose as opponents of antisemitism, are almost entirely Zionist, nationalist, and politically hostile to the far left. They are often racists and Islamophobes too. While the cause of the autonomy of liberation struggles is, in itself, venerable, now is the time that the left must stand up to them.

Filed under: antisemitism, labour-party, racism