A shameful retreat

It is time the Labour leadership realise that no amount of grovelling will spare them nightmares like the ‘anti-Semitism’ smear scandal, argues Paul Demarty

Labour's nightmare

The first thing that needs to be said - and repeated, as often as necessary - is that the present anti-Semitism crisis in the Labour Party is characterised by an exceptionally high degree of artificiality.

Most of the claims levelled about the supposed plague of Jew-hatred ripping through the party are straightforwardly false. Of those that are not false, most are unverified. Of those that are actually true, almost all are insignificant, proving only that among the 400,000 members of the Labour Party, there are a few anti-Semites to be found, which is presumably true of almost any sample of the general population of equivalent size. Strictly in epistemological terms, it is equivalent to conspiracy theories about 9/11, or - alas! - Jewish domination of finance: a pile of lies, atop a mound of speculation, with a mushy foundation of misleadingly deployed truths.

Lies, unlike the truth, must necessarily have an instrumental purpose - to justify the risk and expense of making things up. What is the purpose here? Sure, we meet some old friends: supporters of Israel, whose primary political objective for the last 50 years has been to expand the world’s working definition of anti-Semitism to include any and all criticism of that state. Yet these people, though loud and in some cases important (Israeli ambassador Mark Regev, for example), are basically peripheral to the affair. Discussing the rights and wrongs of Zionist colonialism is rarely a bad idea, but it has to be said that in this case it is missing the point.

What we are witnessing is the latest, and most serious yet, attempt to mount a coup against Jeremy Corbyn. The scalp of Ken Livingstone is, from the plotters’ point of view, quite the prize: Livingstone has seemed over the last six months to act as an unofficial attack dog, prepared to make much more robust attacks on the Labour right than Corbyn and McDonnell deem politic. More than that, he is the Labour left’s most significant power-broker in the party apparatus. The saboteurs will be glad to be rid of him - even if their relief turns out to be temporary.

Exemplary here is the odious MP, John Mann, for whom this is merely the latest of a continuous stream of sabotage actions he has undertaken since the moment Corbyn made it onto the ballot paper. (He previously threatened to embroil Corbyn in a child-abuse scandal, which mysteriously never came to pass.) Almost admirably, he has not resorted to the kind of two-faced rhetoric about inclusivity and openness common to many on the Labour hard right. For him, Corbyn has to be crushed, even at the risk of making himself look a little deranged (by screaming accusations of Nazism at Livingstone, for example). It is fundamentally the John Mann types who are leading the charge - abetted and amplified as usual by friends in the capitalist media. If it was not Palestine, it would be something else.

Since it is Palestine, of course, it is worth pointing out that the Parliamentary Labour Party’s saboteurs have overwhelmingly been supportive of British compliance with the needs of the American state department, including its strategic alliance with Israel. These are people who have voted for war after catastrophic war, and smear all opponents of the dispossession of the Palestinians as racists. The idea that even the worst of Labour’s ‘anti-Semites’ are guilty of anything remotely as bad is risible. Promoting a stupid conspiracy theory is not the same as actually getting people killed.

What these MPs want - along with their friends in the yellow press - is a Labour Party as it was and has almost always been: tied by a thousand threads to imperialism. Their aims are deplorable; their methods underhand. What begs explanation, then, is the fact that they are winning, that the elementary case has not been made that we should sooner entrust our children’s safety to a Burmese python than hand the Labour Party back to such moral pygmies. Instead, what has happened is an ignominious collapse. It seems there is no demand that John McDonnell or Jeremy Corbyn are unable to grovel before. When somebody with enough spine to stand up to the onslaught pops up - Ken Livingstone - they wash their hands of him. Why?

At root, this is a consequence of the strategy chosen by Corbyn, McDonnell and their allies - which is to focus all efforts on winning the 2020 general election.

They aim to do this by focusing almost exclusively on ‘bread and butter’ issues - the spiralling economic inequality of capitalist society 40 years after the post-war settlement was rammed into reverse; the perverse scarcity of housing; the NHS; the railways. Other issues have fallen by the wayside: the monarchy, the constitution and so on (Trident renewal being the exception). Even the core issue of austerity must be treated in a ‘respectable’ way: Thomas Piketty and Mariana Mazzucatto are in, Marx and Engels definitely not.

We have argued before that this is a self-defeating strategy. For one, the opposition benches can only propose left Keynesianism, whereas the treasury can deliver it. If George Osborne really were to feel under threat from his left flank, as the 2020 election looms, that ‘master strategist’ (read: shameless opportunist) will start flinging presents at the electorate. He has done it before; and a sitting chancellor can always find a few more quid down the back of the sofa for such emergencies.

Yet there is a more fundamental problem which is at issue in the present fracas. The strategy works only on the assumption that the exclusion of moderately leftwing Keynesian redistribution from the Overton window is fundamentally a matter of there not having been a party-political advocate of such action in this period; in other words, the idea that the Labour Party under Blair’s leadership chose to abandon this terrain, and might have chosen otherwise with equal or greater success. In reality, no fair contest between even timid left reformism and Thatcherism is possible, because the latter enjoys the effective support of all the pillars of bourgeois power.

Focusing entirely on winning the next election means fighting on the existing electoral terrain, and thus being ‘realistic’. To hinge one’s policy on what is respectable or realistic, however, is to implicitly accept the right of the establishment to define one’s political horizon. It means retreating whenever attacked. Even Ed Miliband was not able to retreat far enough.

There is also another political commitment of the Labour leadership - shared by the broader left - that has become a serious point of weakness, which is a naive anti-racism.

By naive, we do not mean that a more sophisticated anti-racism would acknowledge that racists ‘have some good points’ or something like that; instead the naivety consists in going no further, or little further, than asserting - with conviction! - that racism is bad, and people really ought not to be racist.

It has oddly escaped the notice of much of the far left that this is now official ruling class ideology. For an organisation like the Socialist Workers Party, anti-racism is a staple of a balanced diet of street demonstrations. It has been for decades; indeed, back to the times when there really were governments committed to restricting non-white immigration. For the SWP and many other Trotskyist groups, the point of all demonstrations (whatever their notional purpose) is the same: to get people doing activism. Thus the actual nature of racism, or strategic responses to it, will always come second to merely asserting that it is bad.

The state has, in reality, simply lifted this approach to racism wholesale and taken steps to enforce it as a matter of bureaucratic procedure. The logical end result is all the more clear in this case: racism is rewritten not as a symptom of fundamental dysfunction in society, but as a character defect. Racists are to be shunned; overt racism leads to the sort of personal vilification in the media typically reserved for the perpetrators of shocking crimes. Once the pitchforks come out, rational discussion of the issues at hand becomes impossible.

John McDonnell has provided a symptomatic example with his recent hurried advocacy of a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to anti-Semitism, which is tantamount to selling the pass. For the problem is precisely that McDonnell’s tormentors want to draw the definition of anti-Semitism as widely as possible; if he dares to point out that opposing Israeli colonialism is not anti-Semitism, then he will have the ‘zero tolerance’ quote hung over him to paint him as a hypocrite.

The most depressing thing about this whole fiasco, of course, is the painfully obvious inability of the left, and workers’ movement as a whole, to get any kind of counter-narrative to stick. It matters not that the charges are ludicrous and sometimes outright mendacious; nor that it is straightforward and well documented that Zionist leaders did collaborate with the Nazis (although this was highly controversial). The official narrative, whereby we can expect Brownshirts goose-stepping through the streets of Islington any minute now, drives ever onward.

This, ultimately, has to do with what we could be focusing on instead of trying to sneak Corbyn into No10 four years hence. We mentioned that this prospect is unlikely to succeed because, all things being equal, such a project would have to be conducted on the establishment’s terms. What we need to do is change the terrain, and build up our own strength, so that we might define our own political horizons.

There is much work to be done simply repairing the battered infrastructure of the movement - trade unions, co-ops, parties. The infusion of new blood into Labour has not yet translated into the democratisation we need, nor (unfortunately) any serious effort to change the political composition of the PLP. Momentum started with a lot of fanfare, but has made little impact so far. What we feel most acutely this week, however, is the lack of a serious workers’ media.

paul.demarty@weeklyworker.co.uk