Corbyn, antisemitism and the politics of disengagement

With allegations that Labour has increasingly become an anti-Semitic political party now widespread in the media, Jeremy Corbyn has written to all Labour Party members arguing that anti-Semitism has no place in the Labour Party.  It is, on the surface, a powerful and emphatic statement that there will be zero tolerance within the Labour Party.

What the email lacked is any indication of what the Labour Party is going to do about it; and does not question where there is something institutional and systemic about what has very clearly been, if not an increase in anti-Semitism within the party, an increasingly confident expression of anti-Semitism among many who might, in the past, have kept their prejudice private.

It seems to me that this growing confidence is closely related to the political methods of what one might call Corbynism – of the Labour Party which has seen a huge influx of Corbyn-inspired new members since 2015 and whose political methods have become embedded in the Party’s structures since then – and has its roots in three key factors.  These are its understanding of the role of capital; its willingness to believe in conspiracy politics; and uniting these is the third factor, the way in which the party is structured and how this new membership engages with the politics and political activity.

The first issue concerns how the Left traditionally has interpreted capitalism and the Jewish role  within those power structures, and how this has produced a long tradition of anti-Semitism on the Left.  To understand this one needs to consider the writing of Moishe Postone, the recently-deceased Marxist academic who examined what he called structural antisemitism on the Left.  To put it briefly, this structural antisemitism relies on a simplistic view of Jews as part of the structures of power around capitalism; as the only minority that has been on the side of capitalist power.  The relationship between Jews and power has been a complex one, as writers like Hannah Arendt have pointed out, but in the world of simplistic Leftism that nuance has been lost; Jewish financiers are seen as part of the structure of capitalism (as it happens missing the key Marxist point that capitalism is about structures, not individuals).  Thus, attacking Jews, and Jewish institutions, becomes bound up with being an anti-capitalist. Postone described the racism of antisemitism as “pseudo-emancipatory”; it pretends to strike at power while actually reinforcing it.  It is, at heart, a symptom of crude thinking – or an absence of thinking.  And of course it becomes an easy response when the Left is engaged with the issue of Palestine and the behaviour of the state of Israel; it becomes all too easy to fall into the trap of equating “Israeli government” with “Jew”, especially when Israeli politicians find it useful to make the same generalisation to demonise their opponents.  More sophisiticated thinking is needed; and Postone himself argued that the elimination of antisemitism – and the intellectual errors that somehow see it as part of the Left’s critique of capital – was an essential task for the Left.

A second key charateristic of the antisemitism currently at work in the Labour Party is its willingness to adopt conspiracy theories.  We are taken straight to the world of Richard Hofstadter’s seminal 1964 essay On the Paranoid Style in American Politics – much-criticised in its day, but, on a re-reading in the world of Brexit, Trump and Corbyn, startlingly contemporary.  Hofstadter points to a long history of conspiracy theories, mainly on the right but argues that there is no reason why they should not feature on the Left as well.   Hofstadter writes:

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

It’s a passage that comes to mind again and again when one looks, for example, at the way in which Corbyn’s supporters express themselves on social media; and it is absolutely at one with Hofstadter’s analysis that the most heinous insult in the Corbynist’s vocabular is “Blairite” – not the party of Government to whom Corbyn’s Labour are the official opposition, but the renegade from within their own ranks, who is seen to have sacrificed purity for power.

And it is that paranoia of language and method that one sees reflected in the methods of the Corbyn faithful – because, for all the sloganising, the rallies and the energetic use of social media, it is, at its heart, a politics of disengagement.  The faithful know what they are against – it includes such reified terms as “austerity” and “neoliberalism” (although there seems to be little appetite to offer definitions of these slippery, and in the case of the latter, difficult and multifaceted things).  But what are they for?  It’s actually quite difficult to know; there are policy pronouncements, there is talk of “defending the manifesto” (although such talk appears to ignore the fact that the 2017 election manifesto was far from being a radical document, including as it did, for example, commitments to continue capping benefits at Tory levels).  There isn’t a narrative, a clear statement of values or a coherent programme for government; and the many rallies, the rousing choruses of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”, the parading of icons at Labour Conference, are no substitute for these things. Where there are specific policy commitments – on renationalising the railways, on abolishing student fees, even on abolishing car park charges at hospitals – it’s interesting and I think indicative that these iconic policies are actually about redistributing, not to the poorest in society, but to the comfortable middle; far from being for the many, they’re actually for the relatively privileged. Corbynism looks more like a matter of brand loyalty than a political movement.

And that disengagement seems to me to be central to the strategy of those closer to the centre of the Corbynist Labour Party, those who do have a clear ideological agenda – because their structural model of how the Party should function is essentially a Leninist one  in which the role of the grass-roots member is not to drive political initiatives, but to provide endorsement and political cover for them.  My own experience is that some of the most trenchant critics of the Corbynist model of party structure are ex-Militants, who saw this programme in action in the 1980s.  So, for example, the Left’s main campaigning platform in Wales is not the havoc that Brexit will wreak on the Welsh economy, or the fact that South and West Wales remain the poorest regions of Europe, but the desire to get a system of one member, one vote for the Welsh Labour leadership (for which there is currently no vacancy); it is about changing the party, not society, with a conspicuous lack of any attempt to demonstrate at an intellectual level how the former will drive the latter.  It’s the power relations within the Party that matter, and in Brexit-threatened Britain in 2018 that’s a deeply frivolous approach to politics.

So, bringing these themes together, we have a toxic combination: a crude and misplaced reading of class politics; a style of politics based on conspiracy theory; and a politics of disengagement and privilege.  And it is this combination that has led to what looks like an easy acceptance of antisemitism within the Labour Party.

But it has done far more than that: it has broken apart the coalition on which the Labour Party was founded, and which has allowed it to become the most potent engine of social change in Britain in the last century-and-a-half.  The Labour Party to which the 1918 Constitution gave expression is a party of socialists, Trade Unionists, liberal-minded progressives and, above all, people who simply want to see a better society; it’s a coalition that still, in my view, offers the best way of approaching contemporary society with all its uncertainties.

But since 2015 the Labour Party has lost the groundedness inherent in that coalition.  The current issues around antisemitism are a symptom of the political failings of Corbynism; they will only be dealt with when those political failings are addressed.



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