Matgamna on Livingstone, Labour and anti-semitism

May 5, 2016 at 10:26 pm (anti-semitism, AWL, history, israel, labour party, Livingstone, palestine, stalinism, zionism)

Above: the LBC interview that started it all

This article also appears in the present issue of Solidarity and the Workers Liberty website.
By Sean Matgamna

On one level the sudden media outcry about Ken Livingstone’s anti-semitism is being used and fed by the Labour right, especially the stupid part of the right — and, of course, the Tories — to sabotage the Labour Party in the London mayoral and other local government elections and to discredit Jeremy Corbyn.

Livingstone has been what he is now for decades. He was the same Livingstone when the Blairite right took him back into the Labour Party, in 2004, after his 2000-4 term as London mayor. The bigger truth, however, is that, whatever their motives, those who cry out against Livingstone’s vicious nonsense about Hitler supporting Zionism and wanting to send Jews to Israel in 1932 (he said Israel, not Palestine) are right to do so. If the enemies of the Labour Party and of the left have found a soft target, it is a legitimate target. A big part of the pseudo-left believe or assert that “Zionists” (that is, for practical purposes, most Jews) are historically tainted by Nazism. That “the Zionists” “collaborated” with the Nazis in making the Holocaust and share responsibility for it; that “the Zionists” manipulated even the Nazis during World War 2 and especially share responsibility for the Nazi murder of one million Hungarian Jews in 1944-5. That in their “racism” — that is, in first their wanting a Jewish state and then in their Israeli nationalism — they run parallel to Nazism. That Israel, in that sense, is a continuation of Nazism.

This bizarre “story” originates in the Stalinist anti-semitic campaign against “Zionism” of the late 1940s and the first half of the 1950s. The fact that it is a tissue of contrived and vicious nonsense does not discredit it: one reason why it survives is that it is rarely expressed as a coherent story, as it is here. It is the thesis of the play ‘Perdition’, written by Jim Allen and produced by Ken Loach, and based on Lenni Brenner’s grossly biased and distorting book which Livingstone says he will submit to the Labour Party inquiry into his statements.

Politically inexperienced young people, justly indignant at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Gaza and moved to side with the Palestinians, are easily led into accepting some or all of these ideas. A petrol bomb, or Molotov cocktail, consists of soapy water and petrol in a bottle, and “works”, after the glass container is shattered, by way of the soapy water spreading the burning petrol. Righteous indignation at the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is the soapy water here, spreading a lethal anti-semitism disguised as “anti-Zionism” — what someone called “absolute anti-Zionism”. It has been spread on anti-war demonstrations, for example, by way of placards and chants equating Israeli prime ministers with Hitler, identifying Zionism and Nazism, coupling the Star of David and the swastika, and proclamations of the need to destroy (in real-world terms, conquer) Israel. Young people indignant at Israeli government policies and actions against the Palestinians are miseducated to believe that support for the Palestinians against Israel demands not an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel, but the destruction of Israel.

Least of all does this vicious claptrap help the Palestinians. Even leaving aside the question of the national rights of the Hebrew nation in Palestine, this attitude implies indefinite postponement of a settlement, until Israel can be conquered. It rules out emancipation for the Palestinians in any foreseeable future. Its devotees actively campaign against the only real solution: an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel.

They “use” the plight of the Palestinians to float Arab-chauvinist, Islamic-chauvinist, “anti-imperialist” hostility to Israel. They are functionally indifferent to the living Palestinian people. The terrible truth is that the pseudo-left, and most so the “revolutionary” pseudo-left”, is a cesspool of an “absolute anti-Zionism” which is anti-semitism because it condemns — as “Zionists”, as criminals, as racists — Jews who refuse to agree that Israel should be abolished.

In the not-so-distant past, student Jewish societies have been banned for refusing to support this. Livingstone’s comments were only a small and half-sanitised version of that politics, that attitude, and that mindset. It is a historical fact that some anti-semites — for instance, Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein — did say they found Zionism acceptable. It would if successful remove the Jews they hated to a distant land. For decades such facts as the talks between Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and the minister of the anti-semitic Tsarist government, von Plehve, or the “Transfer Agreement” made by the Jewish Agency in Palestine with Hitler’s government in August 1933, allowing Jews who fled Germany to Palestine to keep some of their property, were setpieces in Stalinist anti-Zionist agitation. But Livingstone wasn’t just referring to such things in the past and “construing” them. It is plain from the way he spoke that he was jeering, baiting, just as he did in 2005 when he called a Jewish journalist “like a concentration camp guard”.

“Hitler supported Zionism”. He wanted Jews to go “to Israel”. The Holocaust was not a logical development in war conditions of Nazi policies, but a matter of Hitler, previously a Zionist, “going mad and killing millions of Jews”. Slight pauses in his speech indicated that Livingstone was being careful with his words. He reaffirmed his statements in three separate interviews on 28 April, and has refused to retract them since. With Livingstone, the cesspool of pseudo-left “absolute anti-Zionism”, that is anti-semitism, overflowed into mainstream politics. It gave the right and the Tories an easy target and an opportunity to bring the scandal out into the open. It needs to be out in the open. It needs to be discussed. It needs to be purged politically — and the labour movement needs to purge itself of the unteachables like Livingstone.

The immediate suspension of Livingstone from the Labour Party and the setting-up of an investigation into his statements overlaps with the distinct and separate question of the rights of Labour Party members and the continuing waves of expulsions of leftists. “Progress” and other Labour right-wingers are campaigning to make expulsions even easier, and for anyone adjudged by a Labour Party official as guilty of “anti-semitism, racism, or Islamophobia” to be summarily banned from membership for life. Livingstone and his supporters try to present Livingstone’s suspension as one more unjustified reprisal against the left. They try to amalgamate the issues. Serious socialists should not let them do that.

Livingstone is not a typical victim of Labour’s expulsion-freaks. There is a mystery here. What does Livingstone think he is doing? He is a calculating man. He is a Livingstone-serving opportunist, not a principled politician who will stand by his version of the truth, irrespective of consequences. His saying what he said and refusing to retreat from it is uncharacteristic behaviour. He knows perfectly well that he is helping the Labour right and the Tories, sabotaging Labour’s election campaign. He wants to do that? Why?

The explanation may lie in Livingstone’s dual character. Inside this supremely self-centred, manipulative politician Dr Jekyll-Livingstone there is imprisoned a contrary, irrational, egotist, Mr Hyde-Livingstone, who sometimes takes over.

The Labour right offensive targets not only Livingstone but Corbyn. Prominent has been John Mann MP. Mann is something of a rent-a-gob, an MP in a symbiotic partnership with busy journalists who need an immediate response, a comment, a quote. That gives the MP a spurious prominence and the journalists usable copy. In his rent-a-gob role, when it became plain in the middle of the 2015 Labour leadership contest that Corbyn would win, Mann made the preposterous proposal that the election be called off, thus branding himself as not only a right-winger but also as a notable dimwit. But Mann has for long been an open opponent of “left-wing” anti-semitism. He is entitled to have a go at Livingstone, even though, characteristically, he did it with wild hyperbole. Whatever the motives of those attacking Livingstone, the issue of pseudo-left anti-semitism must be tackled on its merits.

For the serious left to ally with Livingstone, and to let opposition to the expulsions regime in the Labour Party prejudice us in favour of Livingstone, pushing aside the political question in this case, would be a suicidal mistake. “Left” anti-semitism is no small thing. The future of the labour movement depends on it being opposed, combated, and uprooted. The Labour leadership had a right to suspend Livingstone and open an investigation, and they were right to exercise it. The alternative would have been to show themselves numb, indifferent, or collusive to anti-semitism and the anti-semites. Livingstone will have the chance to argue at the investigation all his claims to have been unfairly or unjustly treated.

There is a plain danger that the politics of the issue will be buried in the churning mud of denunciations and counter-denunciations. Typical left “absolute anti-Zionists” are not racists. They most likely share all the horror of decent people at racism. Their mental furniture includes denunciations of Hitler’s and Stalin’s anti-semitism, loathing of the Tsarist Black Hundred anti-Jewish pogromists, and so on. The central problem with the “absolute anti-Zionists” is that they don’t see the connection between the anti-semitism and the racism they loathe, and their own politics now on Israel. They see themselves only as champions of the Palestinians oppressed by Israel, and their hostility to Israel only as a just and necessary part of that. Such people are typically not racists against Jews. The dividing line is not on racism, but in the politics of the Middle East. It is not between critics of Israel and its uncritical defenders, but on the political answers subscribed to. The dividing line is between those who want to change and reform Israel, and have an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel — and those who deny Israel’s right to exist at all, who see Israel as an illegitimate political formation, a mistake, a crime of history that must be undone by the elimination of the whole Israeli polity.

Everything anti-semitic specific to the left is rooted in that divide. It is impossible to draw a line saying which degrees and kinds of criticism of Israel are to be licensed. Who should decide what is untrue or true, too severe or merely just, preconceived or a legitimate response to reality? It is a hopeless task. Such a Labour Party regime could not but be arbitrary and capricious, and, in current conditions, driven by a hysteria invoked for the occasion by the Labour right.

On the one side there will be people inclined to see any serious criticism of Israel as anti-semitism; on the other, those inclined to see any defence or justification of Israel as “Zionist apologetics”. The political dividing line, both true to the reality and serviceable in practice, is between critics of Israeli policy and action who want to improve things, and those whose often just criticism carries the demand that Israel be destroyed, that the Hebrew nation be deprived of self-determination — who back armed action by such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and by Arab or Islamic states, to put Israel out of existence.

It is important in all this not to lose sight of the Palestinians held in the stifling grasp of Israeli occupation, outmatched militarily and more or less helpless in the face of Israeli military might. The Palestinian demand for their own independent state, alongside Israel, deserves the support of every socialist and honest democrat.


  1. Mike Killingworth said,

    SM does his case no good by pretending that all Palestinians want a two-state solution.

  2. Steven Johnston said,

    Surely the two-state solution has already been tried and failed?

    • Jim Denham said,

      It wasn’t tried. The Arab ruling class blocked it, and went on to try to snuff out Israel at birth.

  3. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning) said,

    The notion that the current row is driven by the right ignores those on the left – including this very website – who have rallied against anti-Semites in the Party. Much of the actual material being used in right-wing media etc is coming from left-wing critics, as well as longstanding campaigners against antisemitism, wherever it is to be found.

    This thinking that ‘it’s all coming from the right’ also plays into the conspiracy theories which are widely circulating that somehow it has all been concocted, whether by Israel, Corbyn’s ‘Bitterite’ opponents or both working in some smoke-free bunker deep under London.

    When Matgamma refers to the horrors of ‘summarily banned from membership for life’ this idea came from John McDonnell!

    • Makhno said,

      “This thinking that ‘it’s all coming from the right’ also plays into the conspiracy theories”

      What has been driven by the right is the way that it’s been blown completely out of proportion. A handful of incidents screaming out from the front page of the papers whilst a foully racist campaign by the Tories in London was relegated to tiny footnotes on the inner pages, along with Johnson claiming that Obama hates us because he’s African. It should also be noted that the dossier of racist, including antisemitic, statements by Tories produced by Unite was similarly relegated to the inner pages by the “right of the left” Guardian, when they’d had front page headlines about “Labour antisemitism” for the best part of a week.

      In addition, almost all of the incidents happened before Corbyn was leader, yet the blame for this is somehow left at his door by the right in general and the right of the party, despite the fact he acted swiftly with suspensions and initiating an inquiry.

      It’s not a conspiracy theory to reach the conclusion that the Tories and their media have been working hand in glove to push this agenda whilst ignoring Tory racism, although attacks from right wing Labour MPs smack as opportunism by egotists rather than being party to any grand conspiracy.

      There is a need for zero tolerance of antisemitism in the party, and I welcome the suspensions and the investigation and hope Livingstone jumps down a well. There is also a problem with antisemitism dressed up as “anti-zionism” in certain sections of the far left, and this too needs to be stamped out.

      That said, to suggest that there is some kind of endemic problem with antisemitism in the Labour party, considering the small number of incidents and the vast number of party members, is simply dishonest.

      To suggest this is specific to the Labour party is also dishonest, they’re just the only party that has been targeted in this manner, and indeed are doing anything about it. In addition to the antisemitic Tories in the Unite dossier, Jenny Tonge and David Ward still enjoy membership of the Lib Dems, and still sit in the House of Lords.

      • Paul Canning (@pauloCanning) said,

        The entire problem with this is that is either ignores or is unaware of the ground war against antisemitism in the LP. It assumes that this has arisen out of nowhere, or a conspiracy. This is the central myth on which these people have built their fort.

        There are numerous people who have been countering this, way before Guido et al got involved. If you don’t know that I can’t help you. Off you go into a Alex Jones style palisade.

        To argue there is no problem when we have countless – countless – people defending Livingstone online is Three Monkeys. Have you seen Twitter lately?

        I am assuming another deflect in your response.

      • Makhno said,

        “It assumes that this has arisen out of nowhere, or a conspiracy.”

        I haven’t made either of those assumptions. Antisemitism has been part of British society for centuries, and needs to be rooted out and challenged wherever it rears its foul head, including in the Labour party. This is why I fully support the suspensions and investigation, as well as any further suspensions that arise.

        It’s not only denialists on the left, but the Labour right, the Tories and the media that have been insinuating that this has arisen out of nowhere, in under a year since Corbyn took control of the Labour party. We should remember that Galloway was in the Labour party under Blair for the best part of a decade before something was actually done about him. If one needed to, you could go back Mosley or HG Wells and some of the early Fabians to identify anti-semitism in the party. These were always fringe elements, however, and there is no evidence whatsoever that we’ve seen a sudden increase in recent months.

        “To argue there is no problem”

        I’m not arguing that there’s no problem. Any anti-semitism is a problem, one incident is too many. What I am arguing is that this is not a problem especially specific to the Labour party, or particularly endemic within it. For the party leadership to face the barrage that they have from the Tories, the media and the right of the party smacks of a massive double-standard, made even more so by this hogging the headlines whilst the Conservative party were conducting a nakedly racist campaign in London.

        Antisemitism is a societal problem, and it is impossible to state that the membership of one party is any more antisemitic than that of another without resorting to hearsay.

        The Conservatives, on the other hand, are the only party who have, in recent years, sought to weaponise antisemitism for electoral gain through their dog-whistle campaign against Miliband, which was cheered on and enabled by their media cronies whilst generally ignored by the likes of the Guardian.

        To use a recent comparison, those leading the charge against Labour on this from the right are as hypocritical as the insanely corrupt members of the Brazilian congress who voted to impeach Rousseff.

        If we are serious in tackling antisemitism in this country, the selective outrage focused on Labour is not the way to do it. This is as bad as the idiot left chuntering on about a “Nazifascist NATO coup” in Ukraine, whilst ignoring the fascistic nature of the rebels in the East and the instrumental role of Russia.

        Labour has suspended those members identified and has initiated an investigation. One wonders what else it can be expected to do at this stage.

      • Paul Canning (@pauloCanning) said,

        Well we do know which party’s *supporters are most antisemitic, from polling. I’m sure everyone will be shocked to discover it’s UKIP’s. However do you recall when the media was uncovering stories about s**t UKIP *members and councillors had said anything antisemitic?

        ‘there is no evidence whatsoever that we’ve seen a sudden increase in recent months’

        As I told you, there are people who have been documenting this at ground level and there has been an increase. See @soupyone for example. And as I also noted you should check out who is defending Livingstone and HOW they are defending him.

      • Makhno said,

        “Well we do know which party’s *supporters are most antisemitic, from polling. I’m sure everyone will be shocked to discover it’s UKIP’s.”

        Well, I certainly wouldn’t be shocked, but I don’t remember this poll. The YouGov poll last year didn’t have a political breakdown, as far as I recall. Have you got a link?

        “As I told you, there are people who have been documenting this at ground level and there has been an increase.”

        No information on this as far as I can see, and “@soupyone” has about 4 hits on google, none of which are relevant, so I can’t comment on this without anything to back it up. I’d be interested in seeing the methodology, however, as it seems somewhat impossible to quantify without factoring a huge number of outlying pieces of information, as well as interviewing a large cross-section of CLPs.

        Either way, it strikes me as unlikely considering that almost every instance highlighted occurred prior to the leadership election. I am more than happy to be disabused of that notion with accurate data from an impartial source, however.

        Until then, I’m inclined to think that a certain amount of the righteous indignation against Corbyn with regard to this from the Labour right* has more to do with their desperation to take back control of the party and lead it into a bright shining new dawn of tacit support for austerity, abstaining on welfare bills, demonisation of trade unions and (if the recent Dan Jarvis interview in the Guardian was anything to go by) dog-whistle anti-immigration insinuations.

        The country can then continue on its merry way to be like some kind of themepark version of Putin’s Russia (albeit with some relative safeguards due to the rule of law).

        Election campaigns scaremongering about minorities, accusing the opposition of being extremists and enemies of the people and a cowed and acquiescent media happily ignoring the racism and corruption of the ruling party.

        At the same time the Labour right seem to think they can win power by being the equivalent of A Just Russia to the Conservatives United Russia.

        It’s all a bit shit, really.

        * Not forgetting the convenient collective amnesia amongst them that Naz Shah actually supported Yvette Cooper for the leadership election against Corbyn

      • Makhno said,

        “you should check out who is defending Livingstone and HOW they are defending him.”

        I would imagine the answer to that is “some idiot nobodies” and “ineptly”.

        The only one I can think of offhand is John Rees, and he fits the bill perfectly.

        The party leadership certainly hasn’t defended him, no one in my (pretty pro-Corbyn) CLP has defended him, and I certainly wouldn’t defend him if there was a pack of rabid dogs about to eat him and I was Crocodile Dundee.

      • Paul Canning (@pauloCanning) said,

        If you can’t be bothered to track @soupyone on antisemites I can’t help you. Seriously. He is nonpartisan. As you will learn if you can be bothered …

        @soupyone critique would be just hillairs on Shiraz.

        Just shocked that there are lefties who cannot believe Jews are tracking antisemitism on a nonpartisan basis FFS. Doh! Of course some will think those Jews must be working with a cabal …

      • Paul Canning (@pauloCanning) said,

        @makho Your challenge is to drag out antisemitic comments from Conservatives or even UKIP. Ones that are RT those from LP members/supporters don’t count. Go!

      • Makhno said,

        “If you can’t be bothered to track @soupyone on antisemites I can’t help you. Seriously. He is nonpartisan. As you will learn if you can be bothered …”

        As I said, I did bother, and I got 4 hits on Google, none of which were relevant. That’s why I asked if you could point me to the data and the methodology for me to take a look at. to which I get this:

        “Just shocked that there are lefties who cannot believe Jews are tracking antisemitism on a nonpartisan basis FFS. Doh! Of course some will think those Jews must be working with a cabal …”

        I’m unsure where I said this, other than literally nowhere. I just asked for you to point me to the data and the methodology. Aside from that, I have no idea of the ethnicity or religious background of whatever an “@soupyone” is. Mainly due, as I said, to it eliciting 4 google hits which included nothing of relevance.

        But thanks for responding to stuff I didn’t say and completely ignoring everything I did say.

        I should add that your insinuation that I’m an antisemite just because I ask for data sources and methodology is a bit bloody low, and I’d be tempted to get offended by it if I wasn’t just filing it in the “shit idiots say” box along with all the times neo-Stalinists have called me a “Zionist”.

        “Your challenge is to drag out antisemitic comments from Conservatives or even UKIP.”

        Is it? You were the one who said that Ukip had the most antisemitic supporters, not me.

        As it stands I don’t really need to, as mentioned above Unite have published a dossier of Tory racism, including antisemitism, which has been pretty much completely ignored by the press.

  4. Ben said,

    Israel’s “occupation” is extremely humane and liberal considering the crimes that the Arabs and their supporters have committed and continue to commit against Jews. Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza strip following the Six Day war created open borders, promoted commerce and employment, and brought about an unprecedented advancement in education, health, economic well-being and governance of the Arab areas. It also put an end to the obscene Arab-imposed anti-Jewish apartheid in those areas and restored Jewish residence and communities that had been wiped out by the ethnic cleansers and anti-Jewish racists who had made those areas Jew-free by their criminal campaigns in the period 1929-1948.

    • Steven Johnston said,

      But I still would not like to live in the occupied territories, that maybe not be the fault of the Israelis’ but who in their right mind would want to emigrate to there?

      • Ben said,

        The liberated territories are an integral part of the Land of Israel, the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Since you are not a Jew it has no personal meaning to you, perhaps that is why you would not want to emigrate there.

        Nobody in their right mind would want to emigrate to the North of England or Scotland, yet many have, even though there is no historic connection between them and these places. Equally huge numbers of British people have emigrated from their island home to places that are completely foreign to them, but that does not diminish the attachment those remaining have to their ancestral homeland.

        You have expressed very idealistic arguments against national feeling of any kind, and your sincerity is palpable. But I think you are overly doctrinaire in this.

  5. Steven Johnston said,

    As if capitalism gives a shit what religion you are, honestly, I thought we all knew this?

  6. Rilke said,

    A small point: this article attempts to articulate a logical analysis of Livingstone’s recent conduct. By virtue of the form of analysis or framing of the question, the article then attempts a logical or coherent assessment of the problem. By definition then, the assessment must be logical or coherent. This is a persistent issue of so-called left analysis – there must be a concrete and coherent social and historical cause for the problem and therefore the answer must explain the problem and make it conform to stable social categories and pre-set poltically coherent criteria. But there are deep and abiding existential human conditions and behaviours that utterly evade this analysis. In other words, Livingstone is going soft in the head and has become petty, vindictive and stupid. No amount of ‘poltical analysis’ will explain this away or make it conform to standard left categories.
    I have seen this before. Once, in the NUM, it took comrades years to simply accept that a previously sound activist’s judgment was impaired by the fact that he had become a worthless, self-pitying and abusive alcoholic. There had to be a political ‘reason’ for his failure you see. The truth was far simpler, but at the same time apparently too complicated for simple minded left social reformers. How could a decent left winger be a shithouse? Easy. It happens all the time. Livingstone talks superficially or rubbish and has for a while now. Any semi-educated person can parrot the kind of run of the mill ‘decent people want socialism’ guff he spouts. Let the dead bury their dead. Time to move on in every sense.

  7. Joe in Australia said,

    The Palestinian demand for their own independent state, alongside Israel, deserves the support of every socialist and honest democrat.

    Wouldn’t it be more pragmatic to pressure the Palestinians into holding elections again? Otherwise there anti-democratic Palestinian junta will just have a stronger hold over Palestinian workers.

    • Steven Johnston said,

      Well that is just one the reasons workers should not support an independent Palestine. The main reason is that Palestine, like Israel is just another capitalist state, why would a socialist support that?

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      Disagree, Palestine has just been a territory of various Empires for centuries. Israel was a real Jewish State which was destroyed by the Romans. The Jews have returned inspite of genocide against them for centuries mainly by various Christian groups and muslims. They actually deserve to have a State for their tenacity and survival. The Palestinians would never accept a two State solution, they hate Jews and supported Hitler in the genocide.

      • Steven Johnston said,

        Glasgow, 2000 years ago my ancestors owned your hoose and were cruelly kicked out of it, can I have it back now?

  8. Steven Johnston said,

    Ben, I just wonder what disputes between two capitalist states have to do with socialists?

  9. Rilke said,

    Nation states properly understood, only came into existence in the early modern period. Prior to this time, statehood was not fully developed and there were kingdoms, principalities, empires, lordships, the polis and various forms of administered despotisms and religious or ethnic communities and so on. The Persian empire is credited with the first set of codified laws for those under its rule and is seen as the first beginnings of the legal and citizen based state, but this is only in embryo. Even the Greek city state is not quite the state as we have come to understand it, as it excludes those outside its walls and makes no claim to the idea of full citizenship, although it does enact ‘rights’ that are not ethnic as such and is therefore again, the beginnings of the full political state.
    The Marxist anthropologist George Thomson is very good on this in his book on the Athenian ‘state’. Then again, why let critical thinking get in the way of an endless stream of witless anecdotes from the likes of Bleep and Booster.
    Heaven help us!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: