There are journalists and commentators whose views I don’t agree with (and in some cases, hate), who are nonetheless interesting, intelligent and worth reading. John Harris of the Guardian is not one of them.
I first came across Mr Harris in 2001 or early 2002, when he first started writing for The Guardian. He was, then (like many other Guardian coumnists), an uncritical supporter of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC), and keen to defend it against any suggestion that it was led, or politically dominated by the SWP.
This was shortly after the STWC’s first conference in October 2001, when the SWP and its allies like George Galloway and Andrew Murray had ensured the defeat of calls to reject ‘Muslim fundamentalism’ as well as US imperialism. The slogan “No to fundamentalism” indicated that opposition to war did not mean support for the 9/11 attacks or the Taliban reactionaries: but the SWP, Murray, Galloway & co were determined not to alienate Islamists and cared nothing for the anti-fundamentalist views of Iranian and Afghani socialists in Britain, or the only Iraqi socialist organisation (the WCPI) active in Britain, all of whom were horrified by STWC’s alliance with Islamists.
In fact the leading members of the STWC were, and remain, soft on political Islam. This is clear from a footnote in Andrew Murray’s history of the STWC which says: “Political Islam… has expressed, in however warped a fashion, some of the anti-imperialist demands which were once the preserve of Communist and nationalist movements of the region.”
Harris wrote a column in the Guardian at the time defending STWC and denying that the SWP, etc, ran the campaign. I sent a comment to CiF calling Harris a “useful idiot” which apparently upset him at the time. Unfortunately, Harris’s 2001 (or 2002 ?) column does not seem to be available anywhere on the web, but this 2008 article gives a taste: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2008/feb/15/iraq
Since then, I haven’t spent much time reading the banal outpourings of this rather stupid ex-New Musical Express journalist, but I have noted that he claims to have been in the Labour Party Young Socialists in the 1980’s, before being driven “to despair” by the Militant Tendency and subsequently leaving the Labour Party for fifteen years.
Now, it’s a matter of record and straight fact, that those of us around in the 1970s and ’80s, can vouch for, that the Militant Tendency were a bunch of thugs, bullies, homophobes and sexists. But they’ve been out of the Labour Party since 1991 when they abandoned entryism and decided to establish themselves as a separate party. Ted Grant, the group’s founder and leading theoretician, was expelled, and his breakaway minority, now known as Socialist Appeal, continued in the Labour Party. The majority changed its name to Militant Labour, and then in 1997 to the Socialist Party. Their leader, Peter Taafe, is now making ridiculous noises to the bourgeois media, suggesting that his group now expects to be readmitted to Labour – having spent more than twenty years denouncing the Party as irreformable and the past eleven months trying to stop his members leaving to join Labour.
The idea that the hundreds of thousands of new (and, in some cases, re-joining) members of the Labour Party who’ve signed up since Corbyn’s victory last year, are doing so under the influence of the Socialist Party, the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), or any other ‘Trotskyist’ organisation, is a preposterous conspiracy theory put about by Tom Watson in a desperate attempt to undermine Corbyn and boost the hapless nonentity Owen Smith. But the wretched Harris asks Guardian readers to believe this nonsense in a truly ridiculous article entitled If Trotsky is back at the centre of things, there’s chaos ahead. This idiot’s ignorance and stupidity knows no bounds: and while there’s no requirement upon Guardian columnists to have any knowledge of (let alone sympathy with) Trotskyism, someone writing about it might be expected to have at least an elementary grasp: Harris clearly hasn’t.
To give one simple example, Harris describes Trotskyist transitional demands thus:
The practice of Trotskyist politics has long been built around the idea of the “transitional demand”, a rather cynical manoeuvre whereby you encourage people to agitate for this or that – a hugely increased minimum wage, perhaps, or the end of all immigration controls – knowing full well it is unattainable within the current order of things, but that when the impossibility becomes apparent, the workers will belatedly wake up. In other words, the herd gets whipped up into a frenzy about something you know it won’t get, while you smugly sit things out, hoping that if everything aligns correctly, another crack will appear in the great bourgeois edifice.
The reality (as explained by the AWL) is this:
These are not catchpenny demands designed to capture or mirror back an existing “mood”. In some cases, such as open borders, they are ideas that are positively marginal and currently rejected by most working-class people. Others, such as the demand for a democratic federal republic (rather than secession for Scotland and Wales), or opposition to withdrawal from the EU, are marginal even on the far-left.
But we cannot hope to popularise them or make them less marginal except by raising them consistently, within the context of a programme which starts from the logic of our current struggles. The boldness required is the difference between attempting to create a political “space”, through the hard work of agitation and education in our workplaces and communities, and cynical attempts to manoeuvre into some existing space where people are already imagined to be by mirroring back to them slightly more radical versions of the ideas we presume them to already hold.
These wouldn’t be demands that we’d orient towards the state, necessarily, as if we expect a Tory government to implement them. They are demands that make up part of our own political narrative, our own plan for remaking society, just as the Tory policies of cuts and privatisation make up theirs.
Capital make concessions to labour either when we are strong enough to simply overwhelm it and impose ourselves, or when it is too scared of the consequences of not making concessions. For either condition, a conscious programme – a working-class socialist alternative to austerity – is necessary.
Floppy-haired ex-pop music journalist Harris is, indeed, an idiot (whether “useful” or not): first on behalf of Galloway and the SWP; now on behalf of Tom Watson and Labour witch-hunters.
Moishe Postone, a Marxist writer based at the University of Chicago and author of Time, Labour, and Social Domination, and Critique du fétiche-capital: Le capitalisme, l’antisémitisme et la gauche, was in London in May, and spoke to Martin Thomas from Solidarity about anti-semitism on the left and reactionary anti-capitalism.
I don’t feel as if I know the ins and outs of the situation in the Labour Party, so part of what I say may not be completely accurate. First of all, there is an extremely unfortunate polarisation with regard to the relationship of anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. It is a polarisation which makes political discourse very difficult. On the one hand, you have the Israeli Right, as, let’s say, exemplified by Netanyahu, who treat any criticism of Israel as being anti-Semitic. As far as I’m concerned, this is completely illegitimate.
Not all forms of anti-Zionism are anti-Semitic. There are too many people on the left, and I think it’s increasing, who argue that no form of anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic: that anti-Zionism is anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism is something else. In the world of the metropolitan left, it is really quite remarkable that the left has almost nothing to say about Syria, had nothing to say about Saddam, has nothing to say about the fact that we are witnessing a complete crisis of the Arabic-speaking world. That crisis cannot simply be blamed on imperialism. There needs to be at least an attempt at serious analysis of why every single post-colonial Arab country is characterised by the secret police, and a secret police that would do the Stasi proud. Some of them were trained by the Stasi and the KGB, in fact.
The left seems to be unable to say anything about these issues. In a sense, and this is extremely hypothetical on my part, I think the more helpless the left feels conceptually on dealing with the world, the more it zeroes in on Israel-Palestine, because that seems to be clear: the last anti-colonial struggle.
There are some leftists who will not be happy for me to say this, but retrospectively one could say that the rise of the New Left globally implied a tacit recognition that the proletariat was not the revolutionary subject. I think that there was a move away from working-class politics. The new leftists had not only separated themselves from Communist Parties and social-democratic parties; even though they sympathised with the plight of workers, I think they were tacitly casting about for a new revolutionary subject. The colonised peoples fighting for freedom became the new revolutionary subject. I think that along with that there was a curious fusion, in part because of Vietnam, of the anti-colonial struggle and anti-Americanism.
One of the differences between the massive demonstrations against the American war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the massive demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq, is that for many — not all, but many — of those who fought against the Americans, in the 1960s, there was the idea of supporting a progressive revolution. The Americans, as the world’s imperial, but also conservative force, were hindering a positive historical development. So the demonstrations weren’t only against the Americans. They were also for the Vietnamese revolution — however one retrospectively evaluates that thinking as justified or not, and whether or not one thinks there should have been further criticism of the Vietnamese Communist Party. None of that existed in the massive demonstrations against the American invasion in Iraq. There were very few people who could on any level have regarded the Ba’ath regime under Saddam Hussein as representing anything progressive, and nobody talked that way. Anti-Americanism became coded as progressive. In a funny way, it is a remnant of the Cold War, spread among people who were actually not Cold Warriors.
Israel has become fused with America in the minds of many of these anti-imperialist leftists. An enormous amount of power is attributed to Israel which it actually doesn’t have. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who are colleagues of mine at the University of Chicago, claim that the American invasion of Iraq was against American interests, but pushed by the Israelis. Of course, they never state what Israeli interests were. Really, as both those writers had connections to Washington, their book was a brief that the State Department should listen to them more than to the neo-cons that they did listen to. Israel is, in a sense, the manipulator, and Washington is sometimes just a stupid dolt which is manipulated by these incredibly clever Jews. And at that point the picture of Zionism is anti-semitic. Zionism There were leftwing critiques of Zionism from the very beginning, frequently by communist Jews. Zionism was criticised by the communists as a form of bourgeois nationalism.
That’s something completely different from the criticisms today. Trotsky, early in his life — I think he changed his views later on — referred to the Bundists as “sea-sick Zionists”. That critique had nothing to do with Palestine or the Palestinian people. It simply has to do with nationalism. The change may have happened in the 1930s, but one marker of it was the trial in Czechoslovakia in 1952, where the Stalinists tried the entire Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party. It was 14 people. Eleven were Jewish. These were old Communists. Many had fought in Spain. They were accused of being Zionists. If you read what “Zionists” meant, it was exactly what the fascists called “Jews” — a shadowy conspiracy, inimical to the health of the Volk, and working to undermine the government which was for the people. The Stalinists couldn’t use the word “Jewish” — this was only seven years after the war — so they used the word “Zionist”. That was one of the origins of a deeply anti-Semitic form of anti-Zionism. It exploded after 1967. The USSR was furious that Israel had defeated its two major client states, and it began to suport the Palestinian movement. The anti-Semitic cartoons and statements coming out of the Soviet Union were pretty appalling. That’s where you got the idea that Zionism is Nazism — generated by the Soviet Union. And unfortunately, that Arab nationalists picked up on it is not surprising.
The Western left started to pick up on that too. I think that was deeply unfortunate. I think anti-semitism is almost a litmus test for whether a movement is progressive or not. There are a lot of anti-capitalist movements that are not progressive. And I think that anti-Semitism is a marker. I think there is a great deal to criticise in Israeli policies, the Israeli occupation, certainly the present Israeli government. But political discussion cannot take place if the choice is between Netanyahu on the one hand, and a certain kind of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism on the other. Anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism is a world view. It is not prejudice against individual Jews. It can go with being perfectly civil, although I’ve been reading about the way some Jewish students are pilloried in terms of “you look Zionist”. Who could “look Zionist”? It means, “you look Jewish”.
I was struck by the UN Arab Human Development report of 2002, which was written by Arab scholars. It talked about the misère of the Arab-speaking world and its massive decline since the late 1970s. The decline was nearly as precipitous as that of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time other areas of what used to be called “the Third World”, have risen. It seems to me that it is not only the decline of the Arab-speaking world, but the rise of other parts, which makes an anti-Semitic form of anti-Zionism more plausible. The power of the Jews! It is the Jews who are pulling everything down. This is only a little variant on the idea that the problem is all imperialism. Well, imperialism is very important, was important, was distorting. But after all the British were in India much longer than anyone was in Syria. Or in Iraq. But I know more serious analyses of India from the left than I do of the Ba’ath. I find that politically unfortunate, and when it becomes anti-Semitic, I find it a marker of a move towards a reactionary populism. Campuses On many campuses, the hostility has spread to all Jews. It has made many young Jews very confused and they identify more with Israel than they did.
It is creating a reaction. Many of them are naïve politically, and because Israel’s very existence is being called into question, they also frequently are uncritical in terms of what is going on in Israel-Palestine. When Israel under comes such attack – because it doesn’t feel like a political attack but an existential attack – there is very little discussion. There are campaigns such as BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel], which is basically dishonest. [Norman] Finkelstein picked up on this quite a while ago. Some people are confused, and BDS tries to promote the confusion. People think it is against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza period, but it is not. Because if it were, then it would not be a boycott of all Israeli academics, most of whom are very opposed to the settlements and Netanyahu. It is significant I think, that at the height of the Vietnam War, or the Iraq invasion, or other American adventures, there never was a call for a boycott of all American academics, ever.
The West takes the model of South Africa; many Palestinian militants think the model is Algeria; and there is no analogy. I don’t mean a moral analogy, I the mean analogy falls down because of demographic and political facts. There was in South Africa, only a small minority of white South Africans. There are as many Israeli Jews as there are Palestinians. So the Algerian or South African tactics are not going to work. But you have an extremely unfortunate marriage, as it were, between the Israeli right, which is becoming further and further right, and what I regard as the Palestinian right.
For me, the signal event was when [Israeli prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated [in 1995, by an Israeli right-winger]. The right-wing campaign against Rabin was appalling and vicious, and Netanyahu was at the head of that. After Rabin was assassinated, it was assumed that Labour would be swept into power on a sympathy vote. Instead a Palestinian group began a campaign of suicide bombs. That elected the first Netanyahu government [in 1996]. The two work hand in glove. Each side thinks that ultimately, in the long run, it is going to prevail. But in the meantime, politically, they are united. It is a united rightwing front.
Shiraz (like most of the left) has been remiss in failing to mark the recent passing of the outstanding socialist graphic artist and archivist David King. Here’s an excellent interview published at Mike Dempsey’s Graphic Journey blog; the Graun obituary is here.
He identified as a Marxist and a Trotskyist and his images will be immediately recognisable to any leftwing activist who’s read books or attended demos over the past forty years.
His style is a mix of forceful sans serif typography, solid planes of vivid colour and emphatic borders; a modern reworking of the graphic language of 1920s Russian Constructivism and the collage of John Heartfield.
Below are some of the outstanding, and instantly recognisable, book covers and posters he produced over the years; but we should start with what is probably his most ubiquitous creation:
King’s 1977 poster for a march against the Official Secrets Act
Jackie Walker was suspended pending an investigation
We republish below, a new piece by Sean Matgamna, the person who has done more than any other individual to force the question of anti-Semitism onto the agenda of the British left.
As usual with Sean, it’s a balanced and well-reasoned piece that takes full account of the political context in which comments are made, and he is willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.
But I personally think he’s wrong in simply dismissing as unreasonable, concerns about Jackie Walker’s Facebook comments. I can agree that her comments should not have been dealt with by disciplinary action, but they were not unproblematic. As Sean doesn’t quote Walker’s comments, I will:
“As I’m sure you know, millions more Africans were killed in the African holocaust and their oppression continues today on a global scale in a way it doesn’t for Jews …
“Many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade which is of course why there were so many early synagogues in the Caribbean. So who are victims and what does it mean? We are victims and perpetrators to some extent through choice”
I would ask, what is the relevance of Jewish slave-traders in the 17th century to anti-semitism today? I genuinely don’t understand what point Jackie was trying to make.
That may be partly because I haven’t seen the whole conversation the comments were part of, but could someone explain what the point was? The only interpretation I can see is that the role of Jews in slavery somehow mitigates anti-semitism today. If that’s not the point, then what was it? I’d be very happy to have it explained.
Mobilise reason to fight anti-Semitism
By Sean Matgamna
Jackie Walker, a woman of mixed African-Jewish background, and vice-chair of the Labour Party’s left-wing group, Momentum, has been suspended by the Labour Party on grounds of anti-semitism. The charge of anti-semitism is based on a fragment of a Facebook conversation from some months ago. Her anti-semitism consisted in the statement that Africa too had experienced a Holocaust.
The Labour Party now has a regime of capricious and arbitrary instant exclusions. This paper and its predecessor Socialist Organiser have argued that anti-semitism in the labour movement needs to be rooted out. But this Red-Queen-in-Alice-in-Wonderland off with their heads regime is not the way to do it.
For decades, from Israel’s June 1967 Six Day War and with renewed energy after the 1973 Yom Kippur Israeli-Egyptian war, hostility to Israel has been a major, and seemingly ever-growing, force in the labour movement and in the Labour Party. Some of that is a just hostility to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But there is more than that. There is often a blatant anti-semitism.
In June 1967 Israel occupied that part of pre-1948 Palestine which the United Nations partition plan of 1947 had designated for an independent Palestinian state, to exist side by side with Israel. That Palestinian territory had been occupied and annexed in 1948-9 by Jordan and Egypt, and a small part of it by Israel. Now all of pre-war Palestine and Gaza was under Israeli control. Various Israeli offers to vacate the newly conquered territories in return for peace and recognition by the Arab states were rejected. Israel’s occupation of that Palestinian land has so far lasted half a century. It has turned Israel into a regional imperialist power (in the sense that Marxists had called the pre-World-War-2 Czechoslovakian, Polish, and Yugoslav states imperialist: they ruled over minority peoples repressed to various degrees by the Poles, Czechs, Serbs).
Israel has been a grubby and brutal imperialist power in its treatment of the Palestinians. As with any other imperialist occupation, Marxists have demanded that the occupying power, Israel, get out of the Arab-majority territories and allow the Palestinians to have their own state there. That there were special problems was not to be denied. In 1967, no Arab state recognised Israel’s existence, or its right to continued existence. Only the PLO and a couple of states, Egypt and Jordan, do so, even today. The PLO before the June 1967 war had been controlled by Egypt and fronted by Ahmad Shukeiri, who proclaimed the PLO’s objective in the slogan: drive the Jews into the sea.
This was altogether too reminiscent of Hitler, then only twenty years dead. Any taint, approximation to, or suggestion of anti-semitism was still held to be unclean politics, far outside what was acceptable to labour-movement people. But with an enormous exception: the Stalinist movements everywhere had spent the years from 1948-9 to 1953 in a scarcely-disguised anti-semitic clamour against “the Zionists” and against Israel.
In Stalinist show trials in Russia’s satellite states in Eastern Europe, such as the Czech Slansky trial of 1952, recently-prominent Stalinists accused of all sorts of treasons were indicted above all as being Zionists. They were jailed, and some hanged. The Stalinist parties everywhere conducted large-scale propaganda against Zionism. It was then that the assertion that the Zionists were tools, and political and moral accomplices, of Hitler and the Nazis, appeared and went into circulation. In the USSR, a projected show trial of Jewish doctors who had attended the leading Stalinists was set in train. It was abandoned when Stalin died in March 1953. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin in 1956, and his anti-semitism suddenly became a matter of public record. Many Jews left the Communist Parties. Stalinist anti-Zionist anti-semitism was banked down. But not everywhere. Open anti-semitism became a force in Poland as late as 1967-8.
The orthodox Trotskyists, including the Palestinian Trotskyists, declared themselves against both sides in the Israeli war of independence in 1948. The Workers Party in the USA supported Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. Naturally, Trotskyists denounced the Stalinist anti-semitic campaigns of 1948 to 1953. In 1956 and after, its anti-semitism was part of their denunciation of Stalinism. How did those attitudes turn into fervent support for the Arab states against Israel? What were the political processes by way of which much of what had been official Stalinist doctrine in 1948-53, denounced as anti-Semitism by the orthodox Trotskyists, came to be fervently accepted and propagated by them?
The objective basis for it was the fact and the accompanying brutalities of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian-majority territories. Its subjective basis was the peculiar version of anti-imperialism which the Trotskyists adopted from the outbreak of the Korean war in 1950 onwards, an anti-imperialism coloured and sculpted by the belief that in the colonial and semi-colonial world the Stalinists were, by virtue of their militancy against the US and its allies, leading the first stage of an anti-capitalist and essentially working-class world revolution.
Thus the orthodox Trotskyists came to be impassioned defenders and advocates of one of the great imperialist blocs contending for mastery in the world. They made criticisms of Stalinism, but never allowed them to affect the basic commitment to ” defend” the USSR and its spawns and replicas. The same sort of anti-imperialism was brought to bear on the antagonisms between Israel and the Arab states. The anti-colonial movements in the Arab world were construed as part of an”Arab Revolution”, which in turn was part of the “Colonoial Revolution which was part of the world revolution. The Grant tendency (later Militant, and today the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal) even discovered in 1965 that Ba thist (non-Stalinist) Syria had in thhis historical process become a “deformed workers state”.
Israel, which after 1967, though not before, became closely allied with the USA, was part of the imperialist bloc. The Palestinians and the Arab states, such as Nasserite Egypt, opposing Israel were part of the progressive anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist bloc. And of course the Palestinians facing the superior might of Israel naturally attracted the reflex sympathy and support of socialists.
The Trotskyists shift from their attitude in the 1948 war and after was first a shift to a new denial that Israel was a historically legitimate state. From the end of Arab-Israeli hostilities in 1949, the Trotskyists had taken the existence of Israel as a fact. When in 1956 Israel joined France and Britain in invading Egypt (the Suez crisis), the Trotskyists properly took sides with Egypt, but did not conclude that Israel, the ally of Britain and France, had no right to continue existing. In the grip of a belief that the” Arab Revolution” was or would soon become socialist, Gerry Healy, the leader of the main British orthodox Trotskyist group, published a small pamphlet on the Suez crisis in which, astonishingly, he threatened that if the Israelis did not change to the right side in the world revolution, the side that the Arabs and their colonial revolution were on, they would soon face a bloody holocaust that would make Hitler’s massacres seem “like a tea party! The organisation that could allow Healy to publish such a thing — what could make the murder of six million Jews in Europe seem like a tea party?– was politically sick; but the same organisation, at roughly the same time, could publish a valuable expose of Stalinist anti-semitism.
The shift to a radical opposition to the existence of Israel came by way of widespread acceptance of the post-1969 PLO proposal to replace Israel with a secular democratic state in all of pre-1948 Palestine, in which Jews and Arabs could live as equals. The PLO no longer shouted “Drive the Jews into the sea”, but, with its seemingly benign proposal for Jewish-Arab equality in a common secular democratic state, it was thereby all the more effective in spreading the idea that Israel was not a legitimate state, that it should never have come into existence, and that it should be put out of existence as soon as possible. Any idea that this could ever be done by Israel agreeing to abolish itself as a state and put its citizens at the mercy of its long-time bitter enemies was ludicrous.
And it was an approach unique to the Jewish state: to no other nation state was there such an attitude. In practice the approach could only mean what Shukeiri’s “Drive the Jews into the sea” had meant: conquest of Israel, depriving the Hebrew nation of national rights, and killing as many Israeli Jews as necessary to do that. A combination of hostility to Israel’s continuing occupation of Arab-majority territories and the pseudo-benignity of the secular democratic state proposal made the formula widely acceptable to people who would never accept the same programme — that Israel was not a historically legitimate state and should go out of existence — presented as the “drive the Jews into the sea” that it was and in practice could only be. Thus the idea of Israel’s historical illegitimacy became widely accepted on the left, including the Labour Party left; and then, what followed from it, since Israel was so unreasonable as to refuse to abolish itself: support for any armed Arab (or, latterly, Islamic, i.e. Iranian) action against Israel.
Not just a proper socialist and democratic support for Palestinians attempting to drive out the Israelis from Palestinian majority territories, but support for suicide bombs against Israeli civilians and for the mouthings and actions against Israel of such as Saddam Hussein. Labour MPs held to such views, and not only honest and well-meaning political fools like the late Ron Brown MP. When in 1994 the soft-left Labour MP George Galloway, on camera, addressed Saddam Hussein, praising the butcher’s strength and in Arabic pledging support for the conquest of Jerusalem, the right-wing Labour establishment left it to the Tories and the press to protest. Galloway’s continued membership of the Labour Party was at that point never questioned, other than that Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity) said that he should be removed as an MP.
And now, under a left-wing leadership, we have a regime in the Labour Party where Jackie Walker, a woman of mixed African-Jewish background, can be summarily suspended for daring to call the long historical martyrdom of Africa, notably the slave trade, a Holocaust equivalent to the Hitlerian massacre of six million Jews. Are such glosses on history now full-blown anti-semitism? Not something maybe to disagree with or question, or denounce, but something incompatible with membership of the Labour Party? The Labour Party that for so long had George Galloway as one of its ornaments?
I repeat: anti-semitism on the left needs to be fought against and destroyed. This paper, and its predecessor Socialist Organiser, have been fighting it within the left and in the labour movement for over three decades. The main fight, however, has to take the form of debate, discussion, political education and re-education. The suspension from the Labour Party of a Ken Livingstone for pretty blatant anti-semitism on the air is just and necessary. The removal of Jackie Walker is preposterous. It is the sort of response in mirror image that the hysterical left in student unions have sometimes employed against those Jews they deem not hostile enough to Israel and thus Zionist and racist.
The Palestinians are oppressed by Israel and therefore are entitled to the support of honest socialists and consistent democrats. Is heated support for the Palestinians from now on to be incompatible with Labour Party membership? Is indignant, or exaggerated, or hysterical denunciation of specific Israeli acts to be branded racist, incompatible with membership in the new Labour Party?
We need to specify what left anti-semitism consists of, in order to debate, educate, and clarify. These, I think, are its main features.
1. The belief that Israel has no right to exist. That is the core of left anti-semitism, though it comes in more than one version and from more than one root, ranging from the skewed anti-imperialism of the orthodox Trotskyists through Arab nationalism to Islamic chauvinism.
2. The belief that Israeli Jewish nationalism, Zionism, is necessarily a form of racism. That this racism can only be expunged if Israel, Zionists, and Jews abandon Israeli nationalism and support of any kind for Israel. That Jews Jewish students, for example can only redeem themselves if they agree that the very existence of Israel is racist.
3. The view that Israel alone is responsible for the conflict with the Arab states (and, now, with Islamic states). The idea that Israel alone is responsible for creating Arab refugees, and is uniquely evil in doing so. In real history about 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out in 1948. In the following years the Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab territories numbered about 600,000. Israel integrated the 600,000; the Arab states mostly refused the Palestinians citizenship or even the right to work.
4. The claim that the Palestinian have a “right of return”, that is, the right to the organised settlement in Israel of six million people, only a tiny and dying-off number of whom were born in what is now Israel, is one of the many codes for in fact demanding the self-abolition of the Jewish state and justifications for war to conquer and abolish it because it will not accept the demand. It is not the equivalent of free immigration to the UK, or even of mass migration to the UK of millions from Syria, Libya, and Africa. Its equivalent for Britain would be the organised settlement in the country of sixty million people. Socialists should be in favour of agreements between Israel and the Palestinians for compensation and for letting individual Palestinians into Israel. Support for a collective right of return is only another form of the demand to conquer and destroy Israel, if it will not surrender.
5. The idea that the forced migration of 700,000 Arabs was a *unique* evil is also extravagantly wrong. In 1945, about 13 million Germans were driven out of Eastern Europe and German East Prussia. They were driven into a Germany reduced to ruins by wartime bombing, where economic life had seized up and millions were starving. At least half a million are reckoned to have lost their lives in that ethnic cleansing. Only obscure German nationalists now propose to reverse that forced population movement and to drive out the Poles and Czechs who live where Germans once lived.
6. There is a peculiar form of Holocaust semi-denial current on the left. I have never heard of anyone on the left who denies that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis (though, in the nature of things, someone will now jump out from behind a bush wearing a “Hitler was Framed” badge, and call me a liar). What many on the left deny is that this unique fact of history had repercussions that we should at least try to understand, with some sympathy for the surviving Jews and their decendents. On the left the Holocaust is not denied, but it is relegated almost to the status of a “virtual fact”. In truth, the Holocaust discredited all Jewish-assimilationist programmes, including ours, the socialist one. It created the will for a Jewish solution to the Jewish question and for the creation of Israel. There is not to be surprised or scandalised in that. The Holocaust should be appreciated as a real fact of history, with repercussions and reverberations, and not as something outside the history we are all part of, as a sort of side-show, as a two-dimensional hologram rather than the enormously weighty, reverborating event it was and continues to be.
7. The idea that there are good peoples entitled to all rights, and bad peoples, entitled to none. That too is something I have never heard anyone voice explicitly. But it is there as an underlying implicit subtext in the idea that we are concerned with national rights only for the presently oppressed, i.e. in this case the Palestinians.
8. There is no one-state solution. Not through, as now, Israeli domination of the whole territory and Palestinians living indefinitely in a limbo of Israeli occupation, nor through a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea” incorporating Israel after its Jewish population have been killed or overpowered by Arab or Islamic states. The only just solution that can serve both Jews and Arabs is two states: a sovereign Palestinian state in contiguous territory, side by side with Israel.
It’s good to hear that Nick Blackwell has woken from the induced coma he was put into, a week after his title fight against Chris Eubank Jnr.
Blackwell was carried from the ring on a stretcher, at the SSE arena in Wembley following his defeat to Eubank Jnr on 26 March. The fight was stopped in the 10th round after a doctor decided Blackwell could not see from his swollen left eye. It’s lucky for Blackwell that his eye was visibly damaged, or the fight would have gone on, and in all likelihood he’d have suffered irreversible brain damage or worse.
The general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, Robert Smith, summed up the attitude of those who run this ‘sport’ with these words: “Nick Blackwell wanted to be a boxer. Like everyone else who wants to take part in boxing, we all know the risks. I don’t think anybody did anything wrong.”
Smith’s words are true, as far as they go. But they leave out of the equation the simple fact that professional boxing is a ‘sport’ that involves two men (usually working class and often from ethnic minorities) set up to throw punches at each others’ heads with the aim of rendering the other incapable of continuing, up to and including causing unconsciousness and permanent brain damage.
This bestial ‘sport’ should be outlawed, and at least one great socialist – the US Trotskyist pioneer James P Cannon – wrote some articles calling for just that.
The following excerpts are from Cannon’s articles “Murder in the Garden” and “A Dead Man’s Decision,” They first appeared in The Militant on September 17 and 24, 1951, respectively, and are published in Notebook of an Agitator (Pathfinder Press). The two articles have been edited and combined together, into what is published below:
Murder in the Garden … A Dead Man’s Decision
By James P. Cannon
This begins as a straight news story with the who, what, where and when right up at the front. The why and the wherefore come later, after the bare facts are set down in proper order. The who in this story is, or rather was, Georgie Flores, 20-year-old Brooklyn welterweight. He was knocked out in the semi-final bout with Roger Donoghue at Madison Square Garden August 29. He collapsed in his dressing room a few minutes after the knockout and died in the hospital five days later without ever recovering consciousness. Georgie leaves a wife, Elaine, 18 years old, who was at his bedside when he died, and a month-old baby son who hasn’t heard about it yet.
Other technical information, as reported by the experts at the ringside: The fatal blow was a sharp left hook which floored the young boxer just 46 seconds after the opening of the eighth and final round of the bout. His head hit the canvas hard and he was counted out by the referee as he lay flat. Cause of death, as reported by the medical experts at the hospital, was a brain hemorrhage resulting from a torn blood vessel. Two operations were unsuccessful. His last hours were spent in an iron lung.
Georgie Flores didn’t die of old age or incurable illness, and there was no suspicion of suicide. He was killed. Murdered, if you want the truth unvarnished. And he was not the first to die that way. Sudden death is an occupational hazard in the prize-fight business. Six boxers have been killed in the U.S. already this year, if you count only those who died more or less immediately, as a result of blows in the ring. The score would be much higher if you include those who were badly hurt and had their life expectancy sharply cut down in this grisly business, which is sometimes described by fools or cynics as “the sport” or “the game.” This sort of thing goes on all the time. As a rule, the killing of a prize fighter doesn’t rate more than a few paragraphs in the news, a few floral offerings from the fight mob, and a small purse scraped up for the widow…
Dead men tell no tales; but sometimes, as is well known, the memory of what they did, or the way they died, exerts an authority over the living and affects their actions and decisions. The continuing influence of great men needs no argument. And once in a while, in exceptional circumstances, the lowly, too, speak from the grave. Even the lowliest of the lowly. Georgie Flores, the young boxer who was killed in the ring at Madison Square Garden just recently, cast a long shadow over the Turpin-Robinson fight for the middleweight championship at the Polo Grounds last Wednesday, and most probably determined the outcome of this million-dollar affair.
Turpin was on the ropes, but not out, when the referee stopped the fight with only eight seconds to go in the tenth round of the scheduled 15-round bout, and gave the decision to Robinson on a technical knockout. But it is highly doubtful if Robinson was the winner on actual merit. The fight was scored even up to the tenth round. Robinson was bleeding like a stuck pig from an eye cut; and Turpin, with the stamina of youth in his favor, figured to recuperate during the intermission between rounds and take charge from there on. Turpin and his manager protested the referee’s action on these grounds, and subsequent evidence seemed to bear out their contention. Turpin, according to all reports, was fresher and stronger than Robinson in the immediate aftermath of the fight….
Georgie Flores’ tragic and most untimely death was just another nine-day sensation. That’s all. It lasted just about long enough to influence the decision in the Turpin-Robinson bout. The echoes of the uproar are already fading away. The jitters have yielded to the sedative of time – it didn’t take long – and the boxing business is just about back to normal, back to business as usual. All that the hullabaloo produced, while it lasted, were a few proposals for better supervision of boxing bouts in the future; for some more elaborate rules and regulations; for what Governor Dewey, in his humane wisdom, called “precautions” which might keep boxers from getting hurt when they get hit.
It is a commentary on the times and the social environment out of which the boxing business rises like a poisonous flower from a dunghill, that nobody came forward with the simple demand to outlaw prize fighting, as it was outlawed in most of the states of this country up till the turn of the century.
Cock-fighting is illegal; it is considered inhumane to put a couple of roosters into the pit and incite them to spur each other until one of them keels over. It is also against the law to put bulldogs into the pit to fight for a side bet. But our civilization – which is on the march, to be sure -has not yet advanced to the point where law and public opinion forbid men, who have nothing against each other, to fight for money and the amusement of paying spectators. Such spectacles are a part of our highly touted way of life.
The “precautions,” advocated during the brief excitement over the killing of Georgie Flores, simmered down to a few piddling suggestions that fighters not be overmatched; that they be required to train properly and enter the ring in good condition; that the boxers’ gloves and the ring canvas be padded a little more; and that each boxer’s head be thoroughly examined by X-ray before each bout to see if he had suffered a previous brain injury. “Boxing can be made a safe sport,” said Dr. Frank R. Ferlaino to Milton Gross, sports writer for the New York Post, “if these regulations are observed.” The doctor, of course, is talking through his hat.
The precautions, which are supposed to take care of everything, in reality take care of nothing. When you get inside those ropes your head is a target for self-propelled missiles known as fists, and there is no way of making that safe. As the soldier said, when he was asked why he ran away from the front lines: “You can get hurt up there.” Blows over the head never did anybody any good. And if anybody ever got any fun out of it, he hasn’t been heard from yet. The “sport” in prize fighting is strictly for the spectators and the managers and promoters.
The incomparable Joe Louis himself testified to this in a notable statement at a newsreeled press conference when he renounced his title to turn promoter. A reporter asked: “Which do you think you like best, Joe, fighting or promoting?”
Joe, a man of few words, answered: “I like promoting.”
“Why is that, can you explain it?”
“Sure,” said Joe. “They can’t hit you when you’re promotin’.”
Those words belong in the Book of Proverbs.
Also published in the current issue of Solidarity:
Above: Shachtman (left) and Cannon, on the same side in 1934
Herman Benson was a founding member, along with Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, and others, of the Workers Party, which broke from the US Socialist Workers Party (no relation to the British group of the same name) in 1940 following a debate about how to understand the Stalinist state in Russia.
While the SWP majority maintained that the USSR remained some kind of “workers’ state”, however “deformed” or “degenerated”, a large minority, which went on to become the Workers Party, argued that it was a deeply oppressive society based on a new form of class exploitation. They developed their ideas into what became known as “third-camp” Trotskyism, arguing that the global working class must constitute itself as an independent force against both the two camps of US-led capitalism and Stalinism.
Herman was a member of the Workers Party National Committee, and labour editor of its paper, Labor Action. Later, he founded the Association for Union Democracy and was its first Executive Director. In 2012, he contributed to a Workers’ Liberty symposium of recollections and reflections from activists involved in the “third camp” tradition, which can be read here.
He spoke to Daniel Randall of Workers’ Liberty about the debates which are examined in The Fate of the Russian Revolution Volume 2: The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism, in which some of his writing from the time is included. At 100 years old, he is – almost certainly – the last surviving member of Shachtman’s Workers Party
What, for you at the time, were the primary motives for siding with the opposition in the 1939-40 battle?
In 1939, I was not an old-time Trotskyist. I had joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), the youth wing of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party (SP), in 1930, at the age of 15. By the time the Trotskyists joined the SP, the depression, the rise of Hitler, and the destruction of German Social Democratic Party turned me into a kind of Leninist, but one repelled by crazy antics of “Third Period” Stalinists and then by their popular-front turn. When the Trotskyists left the SP in 1937, I, along with many other YPSLers, went with them.
I mention this to explain why I never gave much weight to the complaints against Cannon’s bureaucratism. They [the “old-time Trotskyists”] went through unexplained factional frictions and personal combinations in the Communist League of America (CLA, the first US Trotskyist group, founded by Cannon, Max Shachtman, and Martin Abern in 1929), not me. Even now, I don’t think our disputes of that period shed any light on the question of the party.
Old-timers could vent their grudges against Cannon, but for me, and most in early opposition, the immediate issue was clear: the Russian invasion of Poland and Finland was an oppressive “imperialist” attack, to be condemned.
At that point, everybody would still be for defence of the Soviet Union if it really came under attack. It took a long period of intricate debate over complex ideological issues to free even us from notions of defending one of the most oppressive regimes in history. The “orthodox” majority said, “we’re not defending the regime, only nationalised property”. People like [Albert] Goldman and [Felix] Morrow needed more time.
Do you think The Fate of the Russian Revolution Vol. 2 accurately conveys the substance and the balance of the disputes between the two strands of Trotskyism in the 1940s?
I think the editor does a great job, although I may be prejudiced. For me, reading it at 100, it activates the juices of a 24-year old zealot. One minor quibble, though: what’s the point of the final extract from Trotsky on dialectical materialism?
Looking back, do you see any of those issues in a new light?
Of course. More than half a century has elapsed. The world refused to evolve as we hoped or expected. But that’s the big story.
The Workers Party/Independent Socialist League (WP/ISL) tradition didn’t hold up in a discrete form, but rather diffused, in different ways and in different directions, into other organisations. Do you think that was inevitable? If not, how could it have been avoided?
I do think that the demise was “inevitable”, whatever that word means. Both sides in the 1939/40 dispute counted on worldwide socialist revolutions in the post-war period. When capitalist democracies and Stalinist dictatorships emerged intact, the political-social foundation of that position was undermined. The WP splintered, and the SWP , as the book describes, was transformed into something alien.
A kind of desiccated, academic Marxism found refuge in the universities, without connection to workers’ revolution. In the United States, most nominally “socialist” currents lost any distinguishable socialist quality. Once, socialism meant concentration of industry in the hands of the state (nationalised property) and a planned economy in a democratic society. Now, each group has transmuted socialism into an amorphous dissatisfaction with the status quo plus whatever their hearts desire. The perspective of a traditional socialist society emerging from a workers’ revolution and a workers’ state has vanished and is not likely to be revived here. In that atmosphere, the WP could not survive.
Do you think the debates of 1939/40 have relevance for socialists today? If so, what is it?
I believe there is a lot to learn from the old WP/SWP dispute, not only for socialists, Marxian and others, but for all crusaders for social justice. In the broadest sense, it reminds us that when our ideology appears somehow to justify a horror or an act of oppression, maybe there’s something flawed in our ideology.
More to the point, especially for me, those discussions restore the defence of democracy in society as a central theme not only for socialists but for all who seek social justice. In that sense, reflection on those debates, for those who undertake it, is an antidote for the persisting residue of Stalinist thinking in the labour and socialist movements.
Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934
2015 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police. Workers’ Liberty has published a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna puts the record of the two sides into perspective.
The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.
The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).
We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.
To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.
French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.
Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not
James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.
I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”
Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.
The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.
This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.
A second edition of the book has just been published, and you can get a pdf of the whole of the second edition at:
Copies can be ordered here (note special offer until 19 December).
Rest in Power, Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs passed away peacefully on Monday morning aged 100. We are so grateful for the vision of justice and human connection that she gave us and feel incredibly privileged to have been able to share her story with others [writes her namesake, film-maker Grace Lee]
JD adds: In her youth, Grace Lee Boggs was a member of the ‘Shachtmanite’ Workers’ Party and a key figure in the CLR James/Raya Dunayevskaya “Johnson-Forest Tendency”, playing a pioneering role in the development of ‘Third Camp’ revolutionary politics. She remained firmly and actively on the left for the rest of her life, though she moved away from Trotskyism, towards (as I understand it) a more “Third-Worldist’ political philosophy and community activism in Detriot, where she and her auto-worker husband lived from the 1950’s. Anyone who knows more about her is welcome to comment below.
New York Times obit, here
A more detailed appreciation from Comrade Coatesy, here
H/t Daniel R