In his new film, director Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished – a radical narration about race in America, using the writer’s original words. He draws upon James Baldwin’s notes on the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to explore and bring a fresh and radical perspective to the current racial narrative in America.
“One of the best movies you are likely to see this year.”
– Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
Above: Young Radford/Darcus (left) and in later years (right)
The death, yesterday, of Darcus Howe, reminds us of just what an important figure he was. He was a follower of the Caribbean intellectual and Marxist CLR James (to whom he was in fact related), and also a British advocate of the Black Panther movement. Later, of course, he gained fame as an affable but still sharp and highly political TV presenter (‘The Devil’s Advocate’, etc), who memorably and with great humour once took on Bernard Manning (!) … and ended up befriending him.
But now seems like the right time to remember one of Darcus’s early battles, the campaign and eventual Old Bailey trial of the Mangrove Nine.
The trial of the nine arguably represents a high point of the Black Panther movement in the UK, showing the power of black activism and the institutionalised police prejudice. But what prompted the backlash of black British people against the police, leading to a virtual show trial at the Old Bailey?
The Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill opened in March 1968, and quickly become a centre for the black community, attracting intellectuals, creatives and campaigners.
The restaurant was repeatedly raided by police. Although the raids were carried out on the basis of drug possession, drugs were never found and Mangrove owner Crichlow’s anti-drugs stance was well known.
In response the black community and allies took to the streets to protest on 9 August 1970. The demonstration was organised by a small group from The Action Committee for the Defence of the Mangrove and the (British) Black Panthers. This included Frank Crichlow, Darcus (aka Radford) Howe and barrister Anthony Mohipp, secretary of the Black Improvement Organisation.
The protesters were met with a disproportionate police response: There were 150 demonstrators at the beginning of the march accompanied by 200 police.
The police claimed in court that the Black Power movement was implicated in planning and inciting a riot.
Later a Home Office commissioned report from the Community Relations Commission concluded that contrary to the police reports, the violence was not initiated by the marchers but by the police themselves.
Flyer distributed outside the court and in Notting Hill, 1971. Darcus was then known as Radford
The Trial of the Mangrove Nine by Constance Lever, Workers Fight (forunner of Workers Liberty), January 1972
The Old Bailey trial of the Mangrove Nine in 1971 took the fight of Notting Hill’s black community against police harassment right into the nerve-centre of the British legal system.
With the unexpected help of a mainly white, working class jury, the Nine won a partial victory: they were cleared of 25 out of 31 charges — including the serious ones of riot and causing grievous bodily harm. 5 were acquitted and 4 got suspended sentences.
In June and July 1970 the Mangrove Restaurant was raided nine times by the police, supposedly looking for drugs, which they never found. Its licence to stay open after 11pm was revoked when the police lodged an objection. Thereafter, those who ran it were repeatedly dragged into court and accused of serving food after hours.
On 9 August 1970 local black people marched in protest at this police harassment.. Without “provocation” police baton-charged the march. Naturally the marchers fought back. The charges — which were later insisted upon by higher police authorities — arose from this battle.
The harassment by the police bully boys is not accidental. The police must protect the private property system of the wealthy against its victims. To forestall trouble they tend to pick most on those who stand out, who have the rawest deal, and try to terrorise them into submission.
The Mangrove was a community restaurant, one of a network of community organisations. The restaurant and its clientele were harassed so as to stamp out a centre of black consciousness.
The trial itself was not quite what the police had bargained for. The accused turned the trial into an indictment of the police and the system. Three of them, Darcus Howe, Rhodan Gordon and Althea Lecointe, conducted their own defence. They all refused to shut up when told to and rejected the judge’s rulings that statements about police brutality in Notting Hill were irrelevant.
The Mangrove Nine refused to behave as individuals charged with crimes, unsure and apologetic, but acted instead as representatives of a militant black community challenging police and court intimidation. And their community backed them up: every day of the 49-day trial they packed the public gallery to give solidarity.
With these tactics they broke through the hidebound ritual of court procedure and managed to actually talk about their lives and experiences and about their conflict with the police, to the ordinary men and women of the jury.
A majority of the Mangrove jury were workers, and only two of the 11 were black. It is known that the jury divided along class lines, with the middle class members inclined to believe the police and favouring conviction. It seems that some of the workers knew better and simply decided the police were liars. Eventually they compromised on the basis of agreement on acquittal on the most serious charges.
And when the trial ended, 7 jurors joined the Nine to spend 3 hours chatting and drinking like old friends long kept apart.
But only partial victories can be won in the courts. The police and the state retaliate. Within 24 hours of hism acquittal, Rhodan Gordon was rearrested on charges of obstructing and assaulting the police.
What is needed is a drive to mobilise the active support of the labour movement for the struggles of black people. It would be pointless and stupid to deny the widespread racialist attitudes in the labour movement. It is the job of socialists to fight to break this down — not to pretend working class racism doesn’t exist.
George Szirtes was born in Hungary and emigrated to England with his parents—survivors of concentration and labor camps after the 1956 Budapest uprising.
George’s address to the recent symposium at Southampton University, ‘The legacy of Brexit and citizenship in times of uncertainty’ is posted here with his permission:
I must confess I have no qualification for speaking on this subject and am keenly aware of speaking to those who do. I can only speak in my character as an unwitting child refugee to these shores, a poet and translator, and as an occasional writer of articles in the press, on, among other things, the issue of Brexit: about the campaign itself, the impact of the campaign and its likely future impact.
On that last, of course, I can only speculate. We are not out yet, we don’t know anything about the terms of disengagement, and we have no clear idea of how this or that set of terms may impact our lives.
I did in fact campaign for Remain but my role and experience was very minor. In asking Leavers why they intended to vote as they did the two answers I repeatedly got were: ‘So they won’t tell us what to do any more,’ and, ‘Things were better before’. These words will be familiar to most people here and seemed to me to be perfectly rational responses to the two major arguments of the Leave campaign regarding sovereignty and free movement of people. The way those arguments were presented elicited precisely these responses.
As I have already said I am not qualified to address those questions because I am not an expert in any of the relevant areas and because I am, by birth, parti pris on one side of the question, in that I am a foreigner and therefore one of those factors in things somehow being better before my arrival.
I don’t want to caricature the Leave campaign. I don’t want to call those who voted differently from me stupid, or simple, or racist. Life is far more complicated and I did have some intelligent conversations with people who wanted to leave the EU, particularly those on the Chomskyite left of the political spectrum, whose arguments centred on globalisation, capitalism and high finance as expressed, occasionally, in terms of sovereignty.
I don’t want to caricature the Leave campaign but the day after the referendum there was an incident in Norwich, a city that had voted to remain in a region that had voted to leave, in which a small Romanian supermarket was firebombed. Students at the university from which I had retired immediately set up an appeal to raise £500. By the next morning it had raised over £20, 000, so the field was not altogether lost. Despite what we are continually told about the clear will of ‘the people’ there were enough people willing to raise money for a minor indirectly demonised enterprise.
I don’t think demonisation is too harsh a word, in that Leave rhetoric called forth certain demons, or rather that it quite consciously opened the trapdoors where such demons were hiding. It legitimised them. It called forth the firebombers. It called forth those who immediately set upon elderly widows of French and German birth who had lived in the country for decades and taunted them by asking when they were going home. It called forth the teenagers on the Manchester tram who demanded a black American get off it. It called forth the murderer of Jo Cox.
By the time that happened a certain madness had set in. All the Leavers rushed to distance themselves from the murder, of course. This was nothing to do with them. None of those xenophobic incidents, and there have been and continue to be plenty of others, had anything to do with them. It was nothing to do with their presentation of sinister foreigners in Brussels, and sinister gangs of Albanians hanging round Dover and Boston, or with the sinister cheap labour of mushroom pickers and chicken packers who were taking much-coveted jobs from true Brits. No! they protested. That was not what they meant. They had nothing to do with encouraging the taxi driver we met who had moved from Kings Lynn because there were too many Lithuanians and Poles there, foreigners whose rather marvellous supermarket down a side street was, as he put it, ‘taking the place over’.
Perhaps I could go back in time and take a more personal line in order to think about what it is that might make one properly British or, more problematically, a foreigner.
My family of four, along with some 200,000 others, that is one-fiftieth of the population, left Hungary in the months following the defeat of the 1956 Revolution. I am not entirely sure why we left. My parents had taken no part in the fighting and were unlikely to be arrested in its repercussions. My father, as the leader of a department within the Ministry of Building, would have been exposed in the revolution itself, as much as a Jew as a member of the apparatus, but I think he would have stayed. It was my mother who insisted we leave.
Why did she do so? I don’t think it was for ideological reasons. Neither my mother nor my father hoped to feel more comfortable among free-market liberal capitalists than in a restored post-Stalinist state. They were both of the left, my middle-class mother further to the left than my working-class father who actually worked in a ministry. Ideology would, if anything, have kept them at home. They lived quite well in the given context and weren’t economic migrants.
The truth is that my mother was afraid, not so much for herself as for us, her children. She had survived two concentration camps, my father had survived forced labour. They had history gnawing at their nerves. Neither of them could have demonstrated that their lives were in immediate danger. Instead they took the dangerous impromptu risk of walking out of the country at night in wholly arbitrary party of a dozen or so, across the Austrian border, arriving there with one suitcase of clothes and nothing more. At that stage I had just three words of English — A A Milne’s AND, BUT, SO as read in my bilingual copy of Now We Are Six. We also had a bilingual edition of Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. In this poem based on the memory of crossing the Hungarian-Austrian border by night, Milne’s characters — the owl and the ass in the hundred-acre wood — serve as forms of familiarity.
My father carries me across a field
My father carries me across a field.
It’s night and there are trenches filled with snow.
Thick mud. We’re careful to remain concealed
From something frightening I don’t yet know.
And then I walk and there is space between
The four of us. We go where we have to go.
Did I dream it all, this ghostly scene,
The hundred-acre wood where the owl blinked
And the ass spoke? Where I am cosy and clean
In bed, but we are floating, our arms linked
Over the landscape? My father moves ahead
Of me, like some strange, almost extinct
Species, and I follow him in dread
Across the field towards my own extinction.
Spirits everywhere are drifting over blasted
Terrain. The winter cold makes no distinction
Between them and us. My father looks round
And smiles then turns away. We have no function
In this place but keep moving, without sound,
Lost figures who leave only a blank page
Behind them, and the dark and frozen ground
They pass across as they might cross a stage.
We might well have been moving into extinction. My parents would never again be what they had been and what they might have become. Once in Austria the process of unbecoming became relatively easy. Refugee services were waiting for us, both in Austria and, a few days later in Britain, after we had been offered a flight there. Reception was efficient and kindly. We were regarded as victim-heroes of a failed but heroic Uprising against the Cold War enemy. Sentiment was with us.
So was our historical baggage. In Metro, the longest poem of my career, there are a couple of verses in which I try to sum up what we had left behind in Budapest. The physical city described in it stands in for history: the empire of the living becomes the empire of the dead.
[Metro 2 2/3]
The empire underground: the tunnelling
Begins. The earth gives up her worms and shards,
Old coins, components, ordnance, bone and glass,
Nails, muscle, hair, flesh, shrivelled bits of string,
Shoe leather, buttons, jewels, instruments.
And out of these come voices, words,
Stenches and scents,
And finally desire, pulled like a tooth.
It’s that or constancy that leads us down
To find a history which feels like truth.
That baggage of old coins, components, bits of lace and so forth is the kind of thing any refugee brings with them. It is an emblem of the real baggage of those who leave without much deliberation or calculation simply because of what appears as a pressing necessity. The children and teenagers in the jungle at Calais carry something similar. They bring their foreignness with them to squat in the mud of an alien port.
England was not our intended destination. That was Australia where my father had a cousin: we had no one in England. But Australia rejected us because of my mother’s health so we had to remain. Altogether some 28,000 Hungarians chose to remain in the UK.
What did we offer our kindly hosts?
My father had some English before we came. The rest of us — my mother, brother and I — had none. The English my father possessed made him useful in helping to process other refugees, which is what he did while we spent four months along with those others in various off-season boarding houses in or near Margate, attending English classes. My father interpreted for fellow refugees who were sent off to jobs in Wolverhampton or Luton or wherever their skill and experience would come in handy. My father’s particular skill lay in plumbing, heating and ventilation at managerial level so they found him a first job in London and, remarkably enough, enabled us to put down a deposit on a first house there. Starting from zero that was nothing short of a miracle, a remarkable act of generosity that was enough to make life-long anglophiles of us all. Meanwhile my mother, a press photographer, found work in a photographer’s studio and shop in Oxford Street.
Having settled in we set about assimilating. First of all we were to speak English, not Hungarian at home. We would never go back, very few people in the world spoke Hungarian so the language would be redundant and only slow down the rate at which we, the children, learned English and made a go of school. Budapest was no longer home. My father anglicised the pronunciation of his name to Surtees, as in the racing driver, even altering the spelling for strictly work purposes when visiting building sites to make life easier for foremen and site managers. His face and accent did not accord with the adopted name of course, and the accent was thick.
But it was a reasonable, relaxed ambience. By the time we began our English school careers there were other immigrant issues to think about. The Notting Hill Riots of 1958 for example and, ten years later, Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Then, just four years after that, in the wake of Idi Amin, came the Ugandan Asians. We might have been foreign but at least we were white.
And because we were white and less conspicuous we did not experience the resentment that met West Indians or Asians. We took the mild if diffident benevolence of England for granted. We had melted in hadn’t we? And the country into which we had melted was a stable, powerful force in the world, a safe place, ever less powerful now perhaps, ever less imperial, but still safe.
In 1984 I returned to Hungary for the first time as an adult. And kept returning. In 1989 my family and I spent almost the whole year there watching the state fall apart. Ten years later, after several books I changed publishers for the second time and my work to that date was sorted into two distinct volumes: The Budapest File (2000) dealing with work that had a Hungarian interest (by which time I had written a good deal on that) and one titled An English Apocalypse (2001), that dealt with settling in England and simply being here. In this way my work — and self — was neatly divided for public consumption.
An English Apocalypse was chiefly written in Ireland while I was a fellow at TCD, Dublin, and contained many memories of the seventies but also registered what I sensed was a mounting crisis in English identity and self-confidence. There were five apocalypses at the end of the sequence. This is one of them.
Death by Deluge
I have seen roads come to a full stop in mid-
sentence as if their meaning had fallen off
the world. And this is what happened, what meaning did
that day in August. The North Sea had been rough
and rising and the bells of Dunwich rang
through all of Suffolk. One wipe of its cuff
down cliffs and in they went, leaving birds to hang
puzzled in the air, their nests gone. Enormous
tides ran from Southend to Cromer. They swung
north and south at once, as if with a clear purpose,
thrusting through Lincolnshire, and at a rush
drowning Sleaford, Newark, leaving no house
uncovered. Nothing remained of The Wash
but water. Peterborough, Ely, March, and Cambridge
were followed by Royston, Stevenage, the lush
grass of Shaw’s Corner. Not a single ridge
remained. The Thames Valley filled to the brim
and London Clay swallowed Wapping and Greenwich.
Then west, roaring and boiling. A rapid skim
of Hampshire and Dorset, then the peninsula:
Paignton, Plymouth, Lyme, Land’s End. A slim
line of high hills held out but all was water-colour,
the pure English medium, intended for sky, cloud, and sea.
Less earth than you could shift with a spatula.
Something important began in the seventies that more-or-less coincided with the time of Britain’s EU entry: a process that involved the fuel crisis, the three-day week, the winter of discontent, and the rise of Margaret Thatcher which was followed by the destruction of old mass industries that had sustained stable communities and provided social cohesion. Britain had become the sick man of Europe. And despite an economic recovery through the later eighties and nineties, the cohesion had vanished. The economic body was no longer sick, but the social soul was.
Somebody had to be blamed for all this and the EU was the easiest scapegoat. If Britain was falling apart by 2001 in the way An English Apocalypse suggested that can’t have been Britain’s fault, can it? Who took away our pounds and ounces, our twelve pence to the shilling and our pride? Our image of sinister, faceless foreign bureaucrats — so beloved by the right wing press — conjured our own long resentful demons. The foreigners kept coming. They were after our jobs, after our benefits, after our houses, changing our ways of life, the ground of our very being. These foreigners were not all the result of the EU’s free movement policy, more to do with globalisation beyond Europe, with the disasters of wars or famine, with Britain’s own colonial history.
The concerns associated with large numbers of immigrants were masked by what people — and increasingly the popular press — called ‘political correctness’ (Political Correctness Gone Mad) by which they meant the control of language and manners, and in some cases of law, of the means of even beginning to address the concerns. That was seen as repression and, in some ways, for the best of reasons, so it was.
What I am suggesting is that that which was successfully suppressed after Notting Hill in 1958 was inarticulate and still struggling for manoeuvre in 2016 when it finally found an outlet in the referendum campaign. The end of empire had found its cry. Hence the fury. Hence the demons.
Two or three years ago I was chairing a small literary festival in the small Norfolk town where we live. In order to publicise the event we decided to read poems in the marketplace on market day. That was fun. Somebody there decided to read John Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song, that begins: ‘Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn / furnished and burnished by Aldershot sun…’, a poem that wonderfully conjures an England of the 1930s. After the event the sweetest and nicest person on the committee said to me, ‘I don’t suppose you will ever fully understand that poem, George’.
Maybe he is right. Maybe, even to the nicest of men, a foreigner can never be truly of the atavistic tribe. That wouldn’t be peculiar to the English, of course: that is, I suspect, a general truth about specific historical moments when tribes come under pressure. Maybe the English tribe is ay such a point and has decided to wash its hand of foreigners. I started out by saying that I am not, for now, directly affected by Brexit and the tide of emotion it has loosed. But the conversation with the genuinely nice man who pointed out that I could never truly understand the heart of Englishness in the Betjeman poem — and he may be right, of course — is a salutary reminder that, in subtle ways, I remain a foreigner. Maybe the door to Brexit is the door out for some of us.
I will finish with a short poem titled Port Selda. There is a much loved popular poem by the Anglo-Welsh poet, Edward Thomas, titled ‘Adlestrop’ In Thomas’s poem of 1917, it is a sunny day during the war when his train makes a brief unscheduled stop at a tiny station, Adlestrop, by an empty platform where no one gets in or out. It seems quiet there until suddenly the poet hears “all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire”. What we know, as readers, is that the poet himself was very soon to die in the war. For many people this poem this represents a sense of England at war, England as the elegiac quiet place sensed as if by accident.
My title, Port Selda is in fact the word Adlestrop spelled backwards. It is about the beauty of the country and the inevitability of rejection. Many of us are at Port Selda now.
The Immigrant at Port Selda
I got off at Port Selda and looked out for the harbour
but it was quiet, nothing smelled of the sea,
all I saw was a station by a well-kept arbour
with a notice pinned to a tree.
It said: Welcome to Port Selda, you who will never be
This article by David Aaronovitch first appeared in The Times on 15 March 2017. It’s so good that I thought – at risk of incurring the wrath of his lawyers – it aught to be released from behind Murdoch’s paywall; it’s a superb reposte to the”intellectual” relativist apologists for racism, David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann. The Socialist Party and CPGB/ Morning Star “left” Brexiteers should also read , learn and weep:
Trying to draw a distinction between ethnic self-interest and racism is a highly topical but fatally flawed argument
Let’s talk about whites. Readers of other colours are welcome to listen in, but this is really about us and our legitimate white self-interests, which are not at all the same thing as racism.
We owe this formulation to David Goodhart, head of the demography, immigration and integration unit at Policy Exchange, a think tank. An article by Mr Goodhart entitled “White self-interest is not the same thing as racism” was published on its website a fortnight ago as a curtain-raiser for a report by Eric Kaufmann of Birbeck College London called “Racial self-interest is not racism.”
Goodhart says the main aim of the report was “to distinguish between white racism and white identity politics”. Or as Professor Kaufmann put it, to create “space for ideas around ethnic interests to be more openly aired without accusations of racism”.
The contention here is an important one: that what might be called The Great Upheaval (Trump, Brexit, Wilders, Le Pen — add or subtract as you please) is partly explained by the resentment of majority white populations at the way their legitimate interests have been overlooked. The implied remedy is that their interests should now be factored into public policy, in areas such as immigration. As you might imagine, it has provoked something of an argument.
Broadly speaking, Kaufmann takes the view that liberals have got it all wrong. Wanting your neighbourhood to reflect your ethnic character, he says, is not racist. Feeling “discomfort” when your group “no longer sets the tone in a neighbourhood” may be inward-looking, Goodhard adds, but “labelling that feeling racist risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, driving white resentment”. Both men cite the work of an American Muslim academic, Shadi Hamid, who has also written about supposedly non-racist “racial self-interest.”
Kaufmann cites some revealing responses when American voters were asked whether it was racist or just “racial self-interest, which is not racist” to want an immigration policy that “maintain his or her group’s share of the population”. Nearly 73 per cent of Clinton supporters and 11 per cent of Trump supporters opted for “racist”. You may have already have spotted the flaws in this argument. The first is, how do we define “white”? To an extent, Kaufmann and Goodhard are guided by people’s own description. But if “white” is the classification, does that mean that “setting the tone” is literally the skin tone? Which, for many whites, could be expressed more honestly as “too many blacks”. Or by “white” do we mean “English-speaking”? Or “Christian”? Or “non-Muslim”?
A clue comes when, in Goodhart’s new book he talks of “white British people, especially those from lower income and educational backgrounds, [who] do still wish to retain a non-supremacist ethnic identity”. He assumes that this conveniently benign identity is threatened by the presence of others who are not regarded as sharing it. And since the top signifier is colour of skin it follows that the main threat to this group comes from non-white people.
As it happens I agree with Goodhart and Kaufmann and plenty of others that the soubriquet “racist” has been horribly overused. When a mild-mannered don is accused of racism for feeling that, on the whole, a statue of Cecil Rhodes is no great threat to humanity, then that’s an abuse of language. And it is also true that fear of being labelled racist has inhibited weak-minded public officials from doing their jobs, from the Victoria Climbié case to the British-Asian grooming gangs. Furthermore, as over the Satanic Verses, I support a robust defence of democratic values and rights — rights that have been hard won.
But when they talk about legitimate white “racial self-interest” in a society where 86 per cent of the population is white, I struggle with their argument. Kaufmann, for example, is indignant in claiming that “whites” must have their own interests if other racial groups have theirs. He cites a Zoroastrian (an ancient Persian religious group) as arguing against “marrying out” to preserve the existence of the ancient religion.
But this is an absurdity, There are nearly no Zoroastrians left. There are quite a few white people. And a similar read-across doesn’t work for minorities. Take my black nephew and my white nephew. My black nephew inhabits a society where he can witness us having an argument about whether there are too many of him. My white nephew has never encountered such a thing. My black nephew has an interest in dealing with prejudice. My white nephew doesn’t. Of course, if he were poor he would be disadvantaged and still white, but it would be the poorness that marked him out.
It is a feature of the times, of course, that a multi-millionaire aristocratic think-tanker, daughter of a 15th earl, can write to the Financial Times (as one did last week) complaining about a “liberal animus against whites” and not be thought eccentric.
White males were declared an “endangered species” in the same week that University Challenge managed a programme on which every person appearing was white and male. We are living through a moment of cultural reaction that has little to do with reality.
So let me spell it out. I find it very hard to imagine any “racial self-interest” that whites might have (in a country where they are, after all, in the majority) which wouldn’t have a negative impact on minorities. If, for example, we fashion an immigration policy that embodies the desire to “maintain” a white share of the population, then that policy will have to be racially discriminatory. Since we are never worried about white people moving into “ethnic” areas, a housing policy reflecting white self-interest could be aimed at keeping others off the list. More of my white nephew, less of my black nephew, just so that some people don’t feel “uncomfortable”.
And when Kaufmann writes, sympathetically, that “cultural conservatives hold elites responsible for enforcing antiracist norms — in the workplace, government and mainstream media — beyond the bounds of what they consider appropriate”, I reply “Didn’t they always?” Didn’t they first tell us that tribalism was natural, as was preferring your own, and that it was better to be educated separately but equally, to want your daughter to marry someone just like daddy, a human right to be able to let that spare room to someone you could identify with rather than a black or an Irish? I’m not racist. I have nothing against them. I’m just acknowledging my racial self-interest. Which is that I’m white. So give me the job.
Eric Kaufmann responds in a letter published on 19 March by The Times, here
Steve Cohen (ZT”L) died on 8th March 2009. He had been a member of the Jewish Socialists Group, the International Marxist Group, and a leading campaigner for migrants rights. An outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights, he was nevertheless concerned about the prevalence of anti-Semitism on parts of the left and pro-Palestinian movement. Steve was a prolific writer (we tried to rope him into Shiraz towards the end of his life), but by far his most important work was That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic, which can be read in full on the website devoted to Steve and his great little book, which we reproduce here in memory of a fine comrade:
An anti-racist analysis of left anti-semitism by Steve Cohen (ZT”L), edited by Libby Lawson and Erica Bunnan:
It seems to me that one of the things that is happening is that whatever the fundamental political distinction between anti Semitism and anti Zionism (a distinction I see as absolute) yet on an emotional and existential level the two have become hopelessly intertwined—and this itself is political. Something else which is happening is the confirmation as far as I’m concerned of a political analysis of anti-Semitism which in my naivety, strikes me as obvious but which I’ve never seen articulated anywhere else. This is that the Jewish Chronicle and Socialist Worker are both correct. And incorrect. Zionism is anti racist. And Zionism is racist. I cannot see how Zionism in its triumphant form (the Israeli state) is anything except essentially racist. It was founded on the dispossession of the Palestinians. And it continues on the super exploitation and humiliation of the Palestinians as the “other”. To deny this strikes me as fundamentally immoral. I also happen to think that two states, one of which by definition has to be exclusively Jewish is similarly immoral. I think majoritarianism (the legitimisation of an entity through numbers) is immoral wherever it presents itself—it leads at the very least to forced population movement and at its most extreme to ethnic cleansing and all that implies. I’ll leave open to discussion and personal judgement the point on this continuum that Israel may already guilty and at which a divided state would become guilty.
On the other hand it seems to me equally undeniable that Zionism in its inception was anti-racist. It was a reaction against, a way of dealing with, European anti-Semitism. Maybe as a revolutionary socialist writing in Prestwich in 2005 it would not be my way. However as a Jew of whatever political persuasion in Europe after the coming to power of Hitler in 1933 or the defeat of the revolution in Spain in 1939 I may well have had a different position. And if fascism ever took over here and Jews were barred entry elsewhere then I guess I might take a different position. I empathise with the “bolt hole” theory of Zionism. I appreciate the significance of the remarks by Isaac Deutscher, the Polish Marxist ex-rabbi, who wrote in later life “In this controversy (between socialism and Zionism) Zionism has scored a horrible victory, one of which it could neither wish nor expect; six million Jews had to perish in Hitler’s gas chambers in order that Israel should come to life … If instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jewry to go to Palestine, I might have saved some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers” (Israel’s Spiritual Climate). I take it as axiomatic that any revolutionary of that pre-war period would have fought for the absolute right of Jews to enter Palestine. To have argued otherwise, to have argued for immigration controls, would have meant support for the British Mandate whose army tried to prevent entry. However the tenets of revolutionary socialism (tenets to which I still hold even in these days of Blair, Bush, Sharon and … Bin Laden) would demand that entry into the then Palestine would/should have lead to an attempt to forge an alliance between Jewish workers and Palestinian workers and peasants against the Zionist leadership, the absentee Palestinian landlords and the British soldiery. Of course the task would have been enormous. But the failure of that historic task has lead to what we have today—Israel the perpetual blood bath.
It is because Zionism is both racist and anti-racist that I call myself an anti-Zionist Zionist. It is also because Zionism is racist and anti racist that there is an even more urgent need to rigorously distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism. This itself requires a rigorous definition of both—otherwise how is it rationally possible to ever distinguish the two? I do not think there is ever the question of anti-Zionism discourse “becoming” or “sliding into” anti-Semitism. If a position is anti-semitic then it is anti-semitic in its origins—it does not become so. It is nothing whatsoever to do with Zionism. So, fascistic critiques of Israel are not about Zionism. They are about Jews. And this is the point. Anti-Zionism is about solidarity with the Palestinians. Anti-Semitism is about the Jewish conspiracy. Not all critiques of Israel are based on Jewish conspiracy theories. And anti-Semitism is not going to help progress the Palestinian cause. Just as August Bebel famously described the equation of capital with Jew as the socialism of fools then the equation of Zionism with world domination with Jew is the anti-zionism of fools.
It often feels like the wisdom of Solomon is required to know how to deal politically with this grotesque foolishness. One issue is the actual (the “cleansing” of Jews from Jerusalem in 1948, the suicide bombings of today) or threatened (“drive them into the sea”) repression of Israeli Jews which fuels a fortress mentality and to which sections of the left retain an ambivalent or agnostic attitude. Another issue that should be a matter of concern is that anti-semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism drives away those who would otherwise want to give solidarity to the Palestinian cause. For myself, this is what I found unfortunate in the debate over the boycott of some or all Israeli universities. Whatever the motive of those proposing the boycott (and like Engage I’m opposed to exceptionalising Israel) there is still an imperative need to offer real, material, political support to the Palestinians. I think for myself the best way of dealing with any particular proposed boycott is to come to a decision on whether the boycott would help the Palestinians irrespective of its proposers—and organise independently against anti-Semitism. Which perhaps meaning building a movement that simultaneously is dedicated to Palestinian solidarity and opposition to anti-Semitism.
It is apparent from what I’ve said that I also disagree with what I take to be the dominant position within Engage—namely that in our contemporary world anti-Zionism must inevitably equate with anti-Semitism. Paradoxically I also disagree with Engage’s position that in the modern world the form that anti-Semitism takes is through (foolish) anti-Zionism. I think it is worse than that. Obviously this is one form that is taken by the theory of the world Jewish conspiracy. However it seems to me that this is merely concealing more classic forms—Jew as all-powerful (the “Zionist lobby” running the USA), Jew as financial manipulator (the world being supposedly run by trans-national corporations and not imperialist states), Jew as murderer (take your pick—the blitzing of Iraq comes in there somewhere through its constant equation with the repression of the Palestinians). Jew as the subject of the blood libel (ditto but add the surreal accusation that Jews are responsible for September 11th), Jew as the killer of the first born (double ditto), Jew as poisoner of the wells (the anti-urbanisation of much Green politics—with Jews being the urban people par excellence). These images, these world-views, are powerful enough to split off from any anti-zionist base. And they have begun to split off within sections of the anti-globalisation, anti-capitalist movement. It is here that the anti-Zionism of fools emerges with a vengeance but is still subservient to the classic socialism of fools and also to the pre-capitalist feudalism of fools—the real McCoy of jew hatred. This is because anti-capitalism is shared by socialists who aspire to post-capitalist formations and right-wing organisations who hark back to an earlier pre-capitalist age—which is one of many reasons why genuine socialists have to be vigilant against any equation of capital with Jew.
Anti-Semitism on the left has for too long been a taboo subject—probably since the inception of the socialist project itself. I know because in 1984 I was that taboo! I became for a short period a political pariah in sections of the socialist/communist movement (my movement) for daring to raise the subject. Actually when I began writing my book I had no intention of writing anything on anti-Semitism, left or right. I wanted to write and condemn the (latest) Israeli onslaught on Lebanon. I used the left press as source material—and became horrified by what I was reading. And what I was reading was gross stereotyping of the Jew via the stereotyping of Israel as the most powerful force in the universe. All this was redolent of all the old-time European, Christian imagery—just stopping short it seemed of accusations of desecrating the wafer. So I did some research and quickly realised that this left anti-Semitism did not spring from nowhere but unfortunately had a long and dishonourable tradition—going back at least to the successful agitation for immigration controls against Jewish refugees and the 1905 Aliens Act. As it so happened, I was at that time thinking of writing another book just on this agitation—but Pluto Press told me that “Jews don’t sell”. To which I replied that I thought this was what we’ve always been accused of doing too much of. To show Pluto they were not being true Marxists I quoted Marx’s own piece of self-hatred from his On The Jewish Question: “What is the secular cult of the Jew? Haggling”. And then bizarrely I started to come across references and allusions (illusions) in parts of the left press to the wealth and power of Jews, of Jewry, all in the service of Israel—or maybe Israel was in the service of Jews and Jewry. Who knows? It was all rubbish anyway—but extremely dangerous rubbish.
And without managing (with the support of some comrades in the Jewish Socialist Group—the JSG) to keep fixed in my head the absolute distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, I guess I could have gone schizophrenic. There were two great successive nights when I was evicted from a mosque then a shul. I’m always sorry I never made the hat-trick of our common enemy—a church. The mosque incident involved picketing (along with some Asian youth) some local anti-Jewish ayatollah. The shul incident was wonderful. It was in Liverpool. I went with other members of the JSG to picket a meeting that was being held in support of the invasion (a shul supporting a military invasion? This really was Old Testament stuff). What we didn’t know was that the guest speaker was some Israeli General—we should have recognised him by his ripped jeans and tee shirt. As we were being lifted horizontally, face downwards, out of the shul by the stewards I looked down on a face looking up at me. The face looking up said “Weren’t we at Oxford together?”. To which I replied “I think so—were you at Trinity?” That to me is a classic example of tribalism. Mea culpa. I always regret not screaming out “Let my people go!”.
That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic did create ripples. It managed to split the JSG whose then dominant leadership thought it might offend the Socialist Workers Party. It resulted in some pretty dreadful correspondence over many weeks in journals like Searchlight and Peace News. A pamphlet was written denouncing me as a “criminal”. There was a particular review—in Searchlight—one sentence of which I will never forget. Every Jew on the left will know that terrible syndrome whereby, whatever the context and wherever one is, we will be tested by being given the question “what is your position on Zionism?” Wanna support the miners—what’s your position on Zionism? Against the bomb—what’s your position on Zionism? And want to join our march against the eradication of Baghdad, in particular the eradication of Baghdad—what’s your position on Zionism? And we all know what answer is expected in order to pass the test. It is a very strong form of anti-Semitism based on assumptions of collective responsibility. Denounce Zionism, crawl in the gutter, wear a yellow star and we’ll let you in the club. Which is one reason why I call myself an Anti-Zionist Zionist—at least that should confuse the bastards. Anyhow this particular review, noting that my book actually did attack Zionism, said “It is not enough to trot out platitudes, as he does, about being against Zionism and in support of the Palestinian struggle”. So I’m not allowed into the club even though I fulfil the entry requirements. I’m not allowed in because I recognise and oppose the existence of anti-Semitism on the Left—and this therefore renders all support for Palestinians a “platitude”. Well it ain’t me who’s here confusing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
An accusation greeting the publication of That’s Funny was that even if anti-Semitism existed, it was trivial compared to other forms of oppression—not least that being inflicted on the Palestinians. I find this argument abhorrent. The struggle for communism is not about establishing some equitable scale of oppression and exploitation. It is about smashing all such oppression and exploitation. Switch to Germany 1925—”Comrades why are you harping on about anti-Semitism? It’s trivial. If it ever became significant we will deal with it. Honest”.
But there were positives back in 1984. There were allies out there—for instance the then Manchester and Liverpool branches of the JSG. I discovered that a similar political battle was going on within the feminist magazine Spare Rib and a kind of informal alliance was formed here. I remember that a large debate was organised in the Peace Studies department at Bradford University—where I shared some dope with a member of the PLO. It was Lebanese! And then the three of us who had published the book (we called ourselves The Beyond The Pale Collective) organised a biggish conference in Manchester. And Pluto Press was wrong—we sold a lot of books. We sold enough books to publish another one—on Holocaust Denial by Gill Seidel. This had been accepted by Pluto but then pulped after it had been typeset! I guess this was part of their reality denial.
As far as I’m concerned I’m still prepared to stand behind most of what I wrote those two decades ago. However there is one issue where my position has somewhat changed. And there is a second where I think I missed the plot entirely. First I think the book was, in its critique of assimilation, far too uncritical of the concept of “Jewish culture”. In fact I think it was implicitly far too generous towards Bundism in this respect (though I still support the Bundist championing of political self-organisation). I no longer see Jewish (or any) culture as monolithic. It is fractured and determined by issues of class. I have been in too many situations where the need to fight racism (racist attacks, immigration controls, fascist mobilisations) has been counter-posed by some suggestion about having an “ethnic” evening with “ethnic” clothes and “ethnic” food. It’s got to the stage where, to paraphrase Goebbels, whenever I hear the word multiculture I want to reach for my gun. In particular I am now ruthlessly opposed to denominational schools—be they Jewish, Muslim, Catholic or Church of England. Some of this has been informed by the racist admission practices of the Jewish School in Manchester (no Jewish mother no entry). However the substantive point is that as a militant atheist I am opposed to the state subsidising the garbage of religion—any religion. And anyhow, I’m for the unity of people of all ages not their division. At the same time I’m equally opposed to the (political) drive towards assimilation—I don’t see incorporation into the norms of imperialism as a step forward for humanity. The latest example of this drive towards incorporation is the suggestion by the Home Office Minister, Hazel Blears, following the London underground bombings that ‘minorities should be described as, for example “Asian-British” rather than simply as “Asian”‘. (Times 8 August 2005). The idea of the labelling and re-labelling of human beings as a method of protecting the citizenry of London is as ludicrous as all other justifications used for restricting the free movement of the same human beings. In the past slaves were branded—literally and with fire. Under the modern market economy it is people. This commoditisation of the alien reduces her or him to a piece of capital, to a new form of enslavement – the enslavement of a forced identity within a hostile society ever ready to deport and expel.
Second I come to missing the plot. This is not about what I wrote. It is about what I did not write. In fact it was what I explicitly refrained from writing. So I said “The book says nothing about socialist or liberation movements in the third world, deliberately so, because countries in the third world have not historically been within the grip of Christianity, and thus have no tradition of conspiracy theories. For example within Islam both Jew and Christian were seen as infidels—and certainly there was no constant mythology of universal Jewish domination. If notions about Jewish power entered the third world, then that is a product of imperialistic and Christian penetration”.
Looking back on this from today’s realities it clearly is inadequate. For instance I cannot see any basis for conspiracy theories (i.e. classic anti-Semitism) within Islam historically, however badly Jews (usually alongside Christians) were sometimes mistreated. I guess for this we have to be thankful we never bumped off Mohammed as well as Jesus. However it would be a matter of interesting political investigation to see precisely how conspiracy theories have subsequently entered the Muslim world—to see how they have become the Islam of fools. Moreover whatever the significance today of Left anti-Semitism, its influence and social weight is insignificant compared to that within Muslim communities (an anti-Semitism which is possibly matched by racism within the Jewish community). So the Elders of the Protocols of Zion is a best seller in Arabic speaking countries. So I’ve read how Islamicists blame “world Jewry” for both the New York and London underground bombings. And this junk needs to be challenged. And it needs to be challenged by the Left—and it isn’t. In fact it is encouraged—if only obliquely.
It is encouraged by Israeli exceptionalism—by the constant depiction and caricaturing of Israel as somehow being the pre-eminent world imperialist power. Inasmuch as I might be for some boycott of Israeli universities then I’m equally in support of a boycott of British universities because of their collusion in the institutionalised apartheid of immigration controls—that is either collusion by their silence or by their active co-operation with the Home Office in developing controls (which appears to be the case with University College London). It is encouraged by the emergence on demonstrations against the American invasion of Iraq, of the denunciation of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank—as though there was some intrinsic connection between the two which is not shared with other imperialist interventions. It is encouraged by the sycophantic, uncritical relationship that the SWP/Respect has towards the Muslim leadership as organised, for instance, around the mosques—these Muslim machers are as right-wing and often as anti-Semitic as their Jewish macher counterparts organised around the shuls are anti-Islam. In the beginning was the Board of Deputies? Today there is the Muslim Association of Britain. Macherism, the political reliance on a self-appointed leadership (the macherites) is a political disease which needs to be challenged and destroyed—instead sections of the Left are cultivating it at its most dangerous points.
Is there any way out of this mess? Particularly is there any way out of this mess for socialists in this country trapped politically between the existential linkage of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism? Is there a wisdom of Solomon? In all humility I think so. Of course we can all have our own politics on the way forward as regards Israel/Palestine. My own vision is of a federated secular and socialist middle east. This maybe is utopic but so is socialism. So is the revolution. So is all meaningful change. However there is going to be no way forward without a recognition of the fundamental block towards any change whatsoever—namely the world wide antagonism between Jews and Muslims. The international nature of this cleavage is central. Only joint and grassroots solidarity between the players in the game can possibly open up any dialogue. In Israel/Palestine this means between the Jewish and Palestinian masses. For instance let there be a march of a hundred thousand Israeli peaceniks into the occupied territories—and let them stay until the Israeli army and the settlers march out (or co-operate with the Palestinians in the sharing of resources—including the opening up of the new townships to Palestinians). Let Engage encourage this with its co-thinkers in Israel!
In this country it means joint activity between Jews and Muslims (and socialists) with the Jewish and Muslim communities. And what this boils down to is joint activity against fascism and racism. I suggested above the necessity to start to develop a movement simultaneously based on struggle for Palestinian rights and against anti-Semitism. This is presently an abstraction. However another real movement does exist against racism which can draw the two communities together in struggle. This is the disparate movement against immigration controls—for whom the Jews were the first and Muslims the latest victims. Of course controls need to be challenged in their own right—not just as a device for unity. However the challenge can also forge a unity which presently seems a million miles away. What is more the history of the last thirty years of struggle by migrants, immigrants and refugees against controls shows something that SWP/Respect have utterly missed. This is that real, meaningful, progressive political activity within the Muslim community (and all third world communities) comes from the grassroots either by by-passing or defeating the community machers. Let Engage become involved in these struggles both because of their intrinsic political importance and as part of its commitment to challenging left anti-Semitism by building meaningful alliances!
It could begin by supporting the campaign of Samina Altaf and her two children to fight deportation. Samina’s is just one of countless stories—though I guess more immediately poignant. Having fled Pakistan to avoid repeated domestic abuse she was refused asylum here. Like all asylum seekers she is outside of the welfare state and has been forcibly dispersed into Salford by the so-called National Asylum Support Service (NASS—a wing of the Home Office). And now as a failed asylum seeker who is refusing to return “voluntarily” to the country from she fled she is being threatened by NASS with eviction onto the streets. And I forgot to mention this—Samina is disabled with rickets. And her children are crippled with rickets. Get involved with the campaign! Write a letter of support to her constituency MP—Hazel Blears that well known re-labeller of third world identity and warrior against international terrorism (address House of Commons, Westminster, London SW1). Blears happens to be a Home Office MP—so terrorise her with letters of support. And invite a speaker from the campaign to one of your meetings—whilst sending money to the campaign (address Samina Altaf Defence Campaign, c/o Bury Law Centre, 8 Banks St, Bury BL9 ODL).
Finally I think that not one iota of the above can ever be resolved through communalism, through tribalism, through uncritically supporting Jews as Jews or Muslims as Muslims. My religion right or wrong! And all due to an accident of birth. I guess I recoil when I read on the Engage website the reflection on being Jewish—”frankly I can’t get enough of it”. Jewish identity as an addiction is not much of an advert for clarity of political thought. I was shocked by a news report I read a few years ago. It is a story that deserves creative fictionalisation. It concerned a guy who was raised in a highly Zionist family (I guess High Zionism is the Jewish version of High Church). He was raised as a conscious racist towards the Palestinians. Dirty Arabs! Until he discovered he was one of them—He was an adopted son. His biological parents were, I think, Libyan. Overnight (or maybe it took a little longer) he became a vehement anti-Zionist—and Jew hater. Dirty Jews! I was struck by two very powerful televisual images during the recent eviction of the Gaza settlers by the (Orwellian entitled) Israeli Defence Force. One was that of Israeli soldiers crying. The Israeli army in tears? One of the most powerful militaries in the world! Why no tears when the Palestinians were evicted? The second image was just bizarre in its tribalism. This was that of the settlers being evicted and the soldiers evicting them temporarily desisting from their civil war and praying together on shabbos—with the evictions resuming as soon as shabbos ended. Compared to this crazy chauvinism the legendary Christmas Day football match in the trenches of World War One between German and British soldiers was a genuine act of internationalism. However there can be no genuine internationalism, no genuine international solidarity, no meaningful working together of ordinary people wherever tribalism or communalism dominates. And at the moment it is precisely these reactionary formations that dominate both Muslim and Jewish communities—and the tragedy is they are hardening. It would be good if Engage put its energy into helping soften them.
It could be any meeting — an ad hoc general assembly, an emergency gathering for immigrant defense, a planning session for an upcoming strike. The speaker is usually white, but not always — and depending on this, their tone is guilty or accusatory.
On the rare occasion that this query is accompanied by a positive proposal, it is abstract, likely no more than a call for reflection. When the speaker is white, it often functions to absolve them of the need to actually do something about it.
Sometimes, on its face, the question is reasonable. Any political collectivity in the age of Trump which consists only of white people is an example of an abject failure — a failure of outreach, at the simplest level, but also a political failure, a failure to challenge the white supremacy which is threaded through American history.
But sometimes the question reveals nothing more than sanctimonious ignorance. It would be hard for me to count how many times I have sat in a meeting, often right next to several other people of color, and watched as someone righteously declared, “Everyone here is white.”
In the moment, it makes my blood boil. As a Muslim American, I have been detained at airports and verbally abused in public places. When I heard the news of Trump’s Muslim ban, I wondered whether I would be able to see my parents again. And I am one of the lucky ones.
Given the opportunity to cool down, I have to reflect on the strange psychology of these statements. Could it be simply the racist assumption that anyone who attends a political meeting and can speak English well must necessarily be white? It is hard for me to read it otherwise, and it is disturbing to imagine the potential consequences of this white practice of speaking for others. We should hope that this does not become a self-fulfilling prophesy, alienating and driving away people of color whose presence is erased by guilty whites.
The question is itself exclusionary, in its reliance on the empty abstraction of “people of color.” In your city, wherever it is, there is likely a young white male who is addicted to Vicodin, struggles to support his children on fast-food wages, and is on the verge of eviction. Where is he during this political meeting?
Middle-class activists are adept at deluding themselves with complicated explanations. But it is not a difficult question to answer. Like many people of color and many other whites, he is doing what he can to make it to the next day.
As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, “the privileges of white skin run very thin in a country where nineteen million white people languish in poverty.” Every day in a capitalist society is a struggle for the poor. Attending a meeting called by some unknown organization — and we all know how excruciating these meetings can be — will not put food on the table for your children. It will not help you recover from long hours of monotonous, draining work. It will not compel your landlord to fix your broken toilet. It will not stop the collection agency from calling.
This is not an appeal to holding up some mythical “white working class” as the abandoned core of the American masses. It is a simple recognition of lived reality of the working class, which contains white people and people of color, people of all genders and sexualities, the employed and the unemployed — a multitude of people irreducible to any single description.
Many socialists argue that across these differences, all of these people have a common interest — a point easily skewered by the identitarian liberal who asks how the young woman seeking an abortion and the evangelical protester, the undocumented immigrant and the salaried worker, can possibly have the same interest.
But this challenge is afflicted by the same condition it claims to diagnose. It mistakes the casual description of a shared trait with a claim about identity. We all have numerous interests, which are related to our identities but also where we work and where we live. To say that these different spheres of life interact and intersect is a banal truism which neither explains how our society is structured and reproduced, nor how we might formulate a strategy to change this structure.
A meaningful common interest does not somehow exist by default. We cannot reduce any group of people and the multitudes they contain to a single common interest, as though we were reducing a fraction. A common interest is constituted by the composition of these multitudes into a group. And this is a process of political practice.
White supremacy is the phenomenon whereby the plurality of interests of a group of people is reorganized into the fiction of a white race, whose very existence is predicated on the violent and genocidal history of the oppression of people of color. The self-organized struggles of oppressed people against white supremacy managed to significantly undermine, though not eliminate, this kind of organization. The likes of Trump, Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, and Milo Yiannopoulos now attempt to restore its earlier strength.
Those of us who seek to change the world will have to fight against this effort, and this will require us to put forward an organization of resistance — one which collectively constitutes a common interest.
This common interest is beginning to take shape as the opposition to Trump. But it must be built further than that, to an opposition to the whole capitalist system. Because it is the structure of the capitalist system which prevents all people who are dispossessed of the means of production, regardless of their identities, from having control over their own lives, and thus from pursuing whatever interests they may have in all their particularity. Monsters like Trump only bring this ongoing tyranny of capital to the surface.
To merely criticize the composition of a political meeting is a defeatist practice. Yes, any anti-capitalist organization must reach out to the most disenfranchised and marginalized of our population. Yes, it is unacceptable if they are unable to speak for themselves.
But what is most important of all is that you are there, whoever you are. What is important is that in a society which steals our free time, leeches our energy, and crushes any hope for an alternative, you have decided to commit yourself to the revolutionary possibility of that alternative.
Guilt is a sad, passive emotion. Its foundation is the wish that the past was different, and the failure to recognize the possibility of acting to change the future.
It is crucial for all socialist organizations, which today find themselves experiencing rapid growth, to formulate means of incorporating the excluded, in all their forms. The current composition of many of our organizations is a result of our lack of a social base — it’s a problem that we must overcome through organizing. But this will mean going beyond guilt and constructing ways to meet the needs unfulfilled in capitalist society, and the means of asserting popular power.
You showed up. You are at a meeting. Your presence is an indication that it is possible to initiate the process of change. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated by guilt. Instead, sharpen your analysis and enhance your organization, until your ranks grow so large as to include everyone.
Amnesty International has released its 2016/17 Annual Report. Once again, I am indebted to the Morning Star for drawing my attention to a valuable publication. However (and once again) I have to note that the M Star’s coverage is – shall we say – misleading when it comes to the effects of the EU referendum campaign and result. The report notes (in the section on the UK), that “The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s official statistics in June and September showed a 57% spike in reporting of hate crime in the week immediately following the EU membership referendum, followed by a decrease in reporting to a level 14% higher than the same period the previous year. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed his concern in June. Government statistics published in October showed an increase in hate crimes of 19% over the previous year, with 79% of the incidents recorded classified as ‘race hate crimes’. In November, the CERD Committee called on the UK to take steps to address the increase in such hate crimes”.
As we’ve come to expect, the Brexit-supporting M Star makes no mention of this aspect of the report, but quotes (or is it a quote? There are no quote marks round it) Amnesty UK director Kerry Moscoguri saying that the attacks on migrants and refugees didn’t start with the Brexit campaign – a statement so banal and beside the point as to be meaningless.
Below: Amnesty’s press release summarises the report:
‘Politics of demonization’ breeding division and fear
Amnesty International releases its Annual Report for 2016 to 2017
Risk of domino effect as powerful states backtrack on human rights commitments
Salil Shetty, head of the global movement, warns that “never again” has become meaningless as states fail to react to mass atrocities
Politicians wielding a toxic, dehumanizing “us vs them” rhetoric are creating a more divided and dangerous world, warned Amnesty International today as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world.
The report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, delivers the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights around the world, covering 159 countries. It warns that the consequences of “us vs them” rhetoric setting the agenda in Europe, the United States and elsewhere is fuelling a global pushback against human rights and leaving the global response to mass atrocities perilously weak.
“2016 was the year when the cynical use of ‘us vs them’ narratives of blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s. Too many politicians are answering legitimate economic and security fears with a poisonous and divisive manipulation of identity politics in an attempt to win votes,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“Divisive fear-mongering has become a dangerous force in world affairs. Whether it is Trump, Orban, Erdoğan or Duterte, more and more politicians calling themselves anti-establishment are wielding a toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanizes entire groups of people.
“Today’s politics of demonization shamelessly peddles a dangerous idea that some people are less human than others, stripping away the humanity of entire groups of people. This threatens to unleash the darkest aspects of human nature.”
Politics of demonization drives global pushback on human rights
Seismic political shifts in 2016 exposed the potential of hateful rhetoric to unleash the dark side of human nature. The global trend of angrier and more divisive politics was exemplified by Donald Trump’s poisonous campaign rhetoric, but political leaders in various parts of the world also wagered their future power on narratives of fear, blame and division.
This rhetoric is having an increasingly pervasive impact on policy and action. In 2016, governments turned a blind eye to war crimes, pushed through deals that undermine the right to claim asylum, passed laws that violate free expression, incited murder of people simply because they are accused of using drugs, justified torture and mass surveillance, and extended draconian police powers.
Governments also turned on refugees and migrants; often an easy target for scapegoating. Amnesty International’s Annual Report documents how 36 countries violated international law by unlawfully sending refugees back to a country where their rights were at risk.
Most recently, President Trump put his hateful xenophobic pre-election rhetoric into action by signing an executive order in an attempt to prevent refugees from seeking resettlement in the USA; blocking people fleeing conflict and persecution from war-torn countries such as Syria from seeking safe haven in the country.
Meanwhile, Australia purposefully inflicts terrible suffering by trapping refugees on Nauru and Manus Island, the EU made an illegal and reckless deal with Turkey to send refugees back there, even though it is not safe for them, and Mexico and the USA continue to deport people fleeing rampant violence in Central America.
Elsewhere, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Thailand and Turkey carried out massive crackdowns. While other countries pursued intrusive security measures, such as prolonged emergency powers in France and unprecedented catastrophic surveillance laws in the UK. Another feature of “strongman” politics was a rise in anti-feminist and -LGBTI rhetoric, such as efforts to roll back women’s rights in Poland, which were met with massive protests.
“Instead of fighting for people’s rights, too many leaders have adopted a dehumanizing agenda for political expediency. Many are violating rights of scapegoated groups to score political points, or to distract from their own failures to ensure economic and social rights,” said Salil Shetty.
“In 2016, these most toxic forms of dehumanization became a dominant force in mainstream global politics. The limits of what is acceptable have shifted. Politicians are shamelessly and actively legitimizing all sorts of hateful rhetoric and policies based on people’s identity: misogyny, racism and homophobia.
“The first target has been refugees and, if this continues in 2017, others will be in the cross-hairs. The reverberations will lead to more attacks on the basis of race, gender, nationality and religion. When we cease to see each other as human beings with the same rights, we move closer to the abyss.”
World turns its back on mass atrocities
Amnesty International is warning that 2017 will see ongoing crises exacerbated by a debilitating absence of human rights leadership on a chaotic world stage. The politics of “us vs them” is also taking shape at the international level, replacing multilateralism with a more aggressive, confrontational world order.
“With world leaders lacking political will to put pressure on other states violating human rights, basic principles from accountability for mass atrocities to the right to asylum are at stake,” said Salil Shetty.
“Even states that once claimed to champion rights abroad are now too busy rolling back human rights at home to hold others to account. The more countries backtrack on fundamental human rights commitments, the more we risk a domino effect of leaders emboldened to knock back established human rights protections.”
The world faces a long list of crises with little political will to address them: including Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Central America, Central African Republic, Burundi, Iraq, South Sudan and Sudan. Amnesty International’s Annual Report documented war crimes committed in at least 23 countries in 2016.
Despite these challenges, international indifference to war crimes has become an entrenched normality as the UN Security Council remains paralyzed by rivalries between permanent member states.
“The beginning of 2017 finds many of the world’s most powerful states pursuing narrower national interests at the expense of international cooperation. This risks taking us towards a more chaotic, dangerous world,” said Salil Shetty.
“A new world order where human rights are portrayed as a barrier to national interests makes the ability to tackle mass atrocities dangerously low, leaving the door open to abuses reminiscent of the darkest times of human history.
“The international community has already responded with deafening silence after countless atrocities in 2016: a live stream of horror from Aleppo, thousands of people killed by the police in the Philippines’ ‘war on drugs’, use of chemical weapons and hundreds of villages burned in Darfur. The big question in 2017 will be how far the world lets atrocities go before doing something about them.”
Who is going to stand up for human rights?
Amnesty International is calling on people around the world to resist cynical efforts to roll back long-established human rights in exchange for the distant promise of prosperity and security.
The report warns that global solidarity and public mobilization will be particularly important to defend individuals who stand up to those in power and defend human rights, who are often cast by governments as a threat to economic development, security or other priorities.
Amnesty International’s annual report documents people killed for peacefully standing up for human rights in 22 countries in 2016. They include those targeted for challenging entrenched economic interests, defending minorities and small communities or opposing traditional barriers to women’s and LGBTI rights. The killing of the high-profile Indigenous leader and human rights defender Berta Cáceres in Honduras on 2 March 2016 sent a chilling message to activists but nobody was brought to justice.
“We cannot passively rely on governments to stand up for human rights, we the people have to take action. With politicians increasingly willing to demonize entire groups of people, the need for all of us to stand up for the basic values of human dignity and equality everywhere has seldom been clearer,” said Salil Shetty.
“Every person must ask their government to use whatever power and influence they have to call out human rights abusers. In dark times, individuals have made a difference when they took a stand, be they civil rights activists in the USA, anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, or women’s rights and LGBTI movements around the world. We must all rise to that challenge now.”
Amnesty International has documented grave violations of human rights in 2016 in 159 countries. Examples of the rise and impact of poisonous rhetoric, national crackdowns on activism and freedom of expression highlighted by Amnesty International in its Annual Report include, but are by no means limited, to:
Bangladesh: Instead of providing protection for or investigating the killings of activists, reporters and bloggers, authorities have pursued trials against media and the opposition for, among other things, Facebook posts.
China: Ongoing crackdown against lawyers and activists continued, including incommunicado detention, televised confessions and harassments of family members.
DRC: Pro-democracy activists subjected to arbitrary arrests and, in some cases, prolonged incommunicado detention.
Egypt: Authorities used travel bans, financial restrictions and asset freezes to undermine, smear and silence civil society groups.
Ethiopia: A government increasingly intolerant of dissenting voices used anti-terror laws and a state of emergency to crack down on journalists, human rights defenders, the political opposition and, in particular, protesters who have been met with excessive and lethal force.
France: Heavy-handed security measures under the prolonged state of emergency have included thousands of house searches, as well as travel bans and detentions.
Honduras: Berta Cáceres and seven other human rights activists were killed.
Hungary: Government rhetoric championed a divisive brand of identity politics and a dark vision of “Fortress Europe”, which translated into a policy of systematic crackdown on refugee and migrants rights.
India: Authorities used repressive laws to curb freedom of expression and silence critical voices. Human rights defenders and organizations continued to face harassment and intimidation. Oppressive laws have been used to try to silence student activists, academics, journalists and human rights defenders.
Iran: Heavy suppression of freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and religious beliefs. Peaceful critics jailed after grossly unfair trials before Revolutionary Courts, including journalists, lawyers, bloggers, students, women’s rights activists, filmmakers and even musicians.
Myanmar: Tens of thousands of Rohingya people – who remain deprived of a nationality – displaced by “clearance operations” amid reports of unlawful killings, indiscriminate firing on civilians, rape and arbitrary arrests. Meanwhile, state media published opinion articles containing alarmingly dehumanizing language.
Philippines: A wave of extrajudicial executions ensued after President Duterte promised to kill tens of thousands of people suspected of being involved in the drug trade.
Russia: At home the government noose tightened around national NGOs, with increasing propaganda labelling critics as “undesirable” or “foreign agents”, and the first prosecution of NGOs under a “foreign agents” law. Meanwhile, dozens of independent NGOs receiving foreign funding were added to the list of “foreign agents”. Abroad there was a complete disregard for international humanitarian law in Syria.
Saudi Arabia: Critics, human rights defenders and minority rights activists have been detained and jailed on vaguely worded charges such as “insulting the state”. Coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia committed serious violations of international law, including alleged war crimes, in Yemen. Coalition forces bombed schools, hospitals, markets and mosques, killing and injuring thousands of civilians using arms supplied by the US and UK governments, including internationally banned cluster bombs.
South Sudan: Ongoing fighting continued to have devastating humanitarian consequences for civilian populations, with violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law.
Sudan: Evidence pointed strongly to the use of chemical weapons by government forces in Darfur. Elsewhere, suspected opponents and critics of the government subjected to arbitrary arrests and detentions. Excessive use of force by the authorities in dispersing gatherings led to numerous casualties.
Syria: Impunity for war crimes and gross human rights abuses continued, including indiscriminate attacks and direct attacks on civilians and lengthy sieges that trapped civilians. The human rights community has been almost completely crushed, with activists either imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, or forced to flee the country.
Thailand: Emergency powers, defamation and sedition laws used to restrict freedom of expression.
Turkey: Tens of thousands locked up after failed coup, with hundreds of NGOs suspended, a massive media crackdown, and the continuing onslaught in Kurdish areas.
UK: A spike in hate crimes followed the referendum on European Union membership. A new surveillance law granted significantly increased powers to intelligence and other agencies to invade people’s privacy on a massive scale.
USA: An election campaign marked by discriminatory, misogynist and xenophobic rhetoric raised serious concerns about the strength of future US commitments to human rights domestically and globally.
Venezuela: Backlash against outspoken human rights defenders who raised the alarm about the humanitarian crisis caused by the government’s failure to meet the economic and social rights of the population.
For more information or to request an interview please call Amnesty International’s press office in London, UK, on
2017 State of Hate A Hope Not Hate special report into extremism in Britain and Europe today
Hope Not Hates‘s report 2017 State of Hate is essential – and disturbing – reading for anyone concerned about the present resurgence of the far-right in Britain and Europe.
The report notes the rise of a new generation of far-right activists as part of the white nationalist “alt-right” scene, especially active on social media.
I am grateful to the Morning Star for drawing my attention to this important report. Today’s M Star paraphrases an opening section of the report thus:
It also said that the flames of fascism had been fanned by international events, including the election of Donald Trump, growing racist parties in western Europe and authoritarian states in central and eastern Europe.
The actual report states:
Now, with the uncertainty of the Brexit negotiations, the fall out from Trump’s presidency, increased influence of far right parties in Western Europe and the authoritarianism seen in parts of Eastern Europe, the problems emanating from Britain’s far right will be more numerous and multifaceted.
First off, let’s be fair to Jeremy: Brexit has split the Labour party’s voters 60/40 (the majority pro-Remain), and even a latter-day Harold Wilson would struggle to bridge the divide.
But Corbyn’s decision to back Theresa May’s Brexit Bill, regardless of whether any amendments were passed (none were) was simply craven, and ended up pleasing no-one. Imposing a three-line whip that was ignored even by Labour whips, made matters worse. His tweet that “the fight starts now” – after having supported May’s Brexit plan – was little more than risible.
Let us be clear, as Coatesy explains in a brilliant piece here: Brexit is, by its very nature reactionary, backward, isolationist, nativist and – ultimately – racist. Any leftist who thinks any good can possibly come of it (or that there is a “People’s Brexit”/”Lexit” or some such nonsense) is a delusional idiot.
Corbyn’s weakness, lack of passion and general incoherence during the referendum campaign and in parliament since, merely serves to confirm the suspicion that, as an unsophisticated non-Marxist Bennite surrounded by Stalinist anti-EU advisers like Milne, his heart was never really in the pro-Remain cause. Even the Economist picked up on this:
“Mr Corbyn did not make his first pro-EU intervention until mid-April, fully two months after Mr Cameron called the referendum. Since then he has been a bit player at best. When researchers at Loughborough University ranked the ten most reported-on politicians in the second half of May, he did not even make the list (partly by his own design: he had spent part of the period on holiday). By refusing to campaign alongside Tories—doing so would “discredit” the party, sniffs John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor—he has ruled himself out of every important Remain event and televised debate.
“When Mr Corbyn does bother to intervene, he is a study in reluctance. His ‘pro-EU’ speeches are litanies of complaints about the union. Voters should back Remain, he says, because the Conservatives would not negotiate the right sort of Brexit. On June 2nd he declared Treasury warnings about the consequences of leaving as ‘hysterical hype’ and ‘mythmaking’.”
The Corbyn leadership is evidently terrified of May’s and the Brexiteers’ charge that anyone who even questions a hard Brexit is defying the “will of the people” (if not an outright “enemy of the people”); in fact, of course, had the 52/48% referendum result been reflected in parliament last week, the government’s majority would have been 26, not the 372 that May achieved with Corbyn’s backing.
The idea that “the people have spoken” and the referendum result cannot, therefore, be opposed, needs to be nipped in the bud once and for all; by that logic Labour would simply give up whenever it lost an election.
The 23 June vote represents no fixed-forever “decision of the British public” which obliges Labour to give away the rights of migrant workers (and British workers and young people who want to work, study, or live in Europe) by abandoning freedom of movement. In fact, since some Leave voters wanted something like EEA status, even on 23 June there was probably a majority for keeping freedom of movement. Plebiscitary democracy — democracy via referendum snap votes, on questions shaped and timed by the established powers — is the thinnest form of democracy. Usually it just serves those already in office. This time a strong sub-section of those in office (Johnson, Gove, etc.) were able to surprise Cameron, in a public debate which was essentially Johnson-Tory plus UKIP versus Cameron-Tory, with Labour voices weak and incoherent (Corbyn) or ignored by the media (Alan Johnson, the Labour right-winger leading Labour’s Remain campaign).
That does not make it more democratic. The referendum excluded 16-17 year olds, excluded EU citizens living in the UK (though they can vote in local authority elections), was run on poor registers missing out seven million people; and such a narrow snap vote is no democratic authority to deprive millions of freedom of movement and probably impose new borders between England and Scotland and between Northern Ireland and the South.
All but the thinnest democracy includes a process of the formation, refinement, revision, and re-formation of a collective majority opinion. Without such a process, and without organised democratic political parties which collectively distill ideas and fight for them, democracy means only rule by whatever faction of the rich and well-placed can sustain itself through judiciously-chosen successive snap popular votes. It has almost no element of collective self-rule.
Labour should fight for freedom of movement, for substantive democracy and against Article 50.
The internationalist, anti-racist left may now have lost that argument, in part because of the weakness and political ignorance of Corbyn and his advisers. But there is a further battle worth having: instead of issuing a ludicrous and ineffectual “final warning” to those front-benchers who voted against May last week, Corbyn should do something about Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Graham Stringer and Gisela Stuart, Labour MPs who voted against basic rights for EU citizens. And if Corbyn won’t act, Labour members should start organising to deselect these scumbags.
“In late modernity, authoritarian movements have arisen again that seek to ideologically combine an organic and holistic natural-social order, a purified nationality, a primeval mysticism, and a belief in a superlative civilisation that was created by an ancestral community of blood.” (Bhatt, 2000: 589)
Post-9/11 sections of the British Left have championed the term ‘Islamophobia’ (fear of Islam) to describe and challenge the surge of racism against people signified as Muslim. This term, however, has limited power to explain the vilification and discrimination of Muslims in the contemporary era both since 9/11 and with Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. This prejudice and harm should be understood as anti-Muslim racism. What’s more, Islamophobia’s implied antithesis, ‘Islamophilia’ (love of Islam), is an inadequate basis for a politically progressive anti-racist politics. Much of the British Left – posed as champions against Islamophobia – through its anti-war campaigning at the height of the imperialist War on Terror, identified as allies Islamist movements to the disregard of solidarity with secular, feminist, and democratic forces who opposed both imperialism and Islamism (see Bassi, 2009). This Left not only failed to critique religious fundamentalism, but went further in silencing its critique of religion in general. Through the Stop the War Coalition, at rallies and on demonstrations, women-only areas were organised alongside propaganda stating, for example, “We are all Hezbollah”. Racism as a common sense ideology fixes and orders the world through a hierarchy of assumed and desired homogenised groups of people, whereas a socialist anti-racist politics should understand the reality, and our own desired future, of the world as driven by dynamic exchange and hybridisation of peoples. At a moment when reactionary nationalism is on the ascendancy, it is worth reasserting that we are in favour of globalisation – a globalisation by and for our class. Read the rest of this entry »