Digging our own hole
The left itself must take some responsibility for the Ken Livingstone debacle, argues Paul Demarty
One of the most distinctive aspects of the Ken Livingstone case is the leftwing response, and how cagey it has been.
Momentum - and its proprietor, Jon Lansman - has led the way in calling not for Livingstone’s exoneration, but his head. For Lansman as an individual, this may be a hold-over from his long-standing left-Zionist history (many on the Labour left, in former times, were supporters of Israel, although most abandoned it after 1967 saw it turn decisively towards being a regional enforcer for American imperialism). It is nonetheless remarkable that he can carry so many along with him, as he joins a Blairite witch-hunt against the left.
Owen Jones, motoring through apostasies with the zeal of the convert, was an early participant in all this, and is still banging away at it. He told the Jewish Chronicle recently that there was a
collective failure, not just of the leadership, but all of us on the left, to deal with anti-Semitism ... The test for me is to ask, ‘Do [Jews] feel the left it is a welcoming place for them?’ And until the answer is yes, it is a failure.1
The Morning Star, in an editorial no doubt penned under the watchful eyes of the Communist Party of Britain’s political leadership, condemns Livingstone’s suspension, correctly noting that the purpose of the whole scandal is “to undermine solidarity with the Palestinian people ... [and] to discredit Corbyn”. Yet the Star does not want to be too closely associated with Livingstone, whose
behaviour since the investigation began has not made things easier either for himself or for the Labour Party. His determination to prove he was merely stating historical fact ignores the real offence caused when the Nazis ... are compared to or associated with their victims. To acknowledge that there was a phase of Nazi policy which considered expelling Jewish people to Palestine is a very different thing from claiming that this amounted to ‘supporting Zionism’, a nationalist movement aimed at empowering rather than deporting Jews. Livingstone should have acknowledged this and apologised.2
Even the Socialist Workers Party’s national secretary, Charlie Kimber, insists on reminding readers of an older article on the subject by John Rose, who lamented last year that Livingstone had fallen into the “trap” of highlighting “Zionist collaboration with the Nazis” - an argument “rightly ignored by solidarity activists with Palestine.”3 All this effort in the interests of suppressing a straightforward historical fact - as if Zionist collaboration with the Hitler regime should embarrass not today’s Zionists, but rather today’s anti-Zionists. Why?
To understand, we must go back half a century, to the growing-pains of the ‘new left’ (a period which, most fortuitously, coincides with the decisive shift in the history of Israel and the Palestine question that followed the six-day war and subsequent de facto annexations).
The cold war had a peculiar effect on society in post-war western Europe, and - more distantly - in the United States as well. ‘Front line’ states saw enormous aid from the USA to rebuild their economies after the destruction of the war, and even further afield vast concessions were yielded to the workers’ movement in the form of social welfare programmes. The price of this was what would now be called ‘social conservatism’: the promotion of chauvinism - of both national and male varieties; and protection of the sectional rights of white people against the non-white migrants, who began to arrive from the current and former colonies.
The state regime in Britain in the 1950s and at least until the first Harold Wilson government was explicitly racist, at least so far as its restrictions on ‘coloured immigration’ went, and racist policing and popular attitudes went a lot further. In vast swathes of America, segregation and lynch mobs were the norm. In France, state-racist outrages were common, most notoriously the 1961 massacre of Algerian demonstrators in Paris. In all cases, this was a fragile consensus - the victims certainly had little interest in being messed about so egregiously, and the white population was increasingly divided.
With the political tumult of 1968, then, the issue of racial discrimination presented itself as a matter of great moral urgency to the newly radicalised. More than that, however, it appeared as a great opportunity. For here was a significant fault line in the fragile political structure of post-war Keynesian capitalism. The very thing that had promised stability to such societies was now a source of upheaval. For the left, between the moral and the instrumental factors it was a no-brainer.
Trotskyist groups in Britain threw themselves into counter-mobilisations against fascist groups, backers of apartheid and Enoch Powell supporters. The Maoist-leaning organisations of the American New Communist Movement (NCM) threw themselves into the radical wing of the civil rights movement and its offshoots, rediscovering ideas such as the prevalent theory of 1930s communists that African Americans represented a distinct nation which should have self-determination in the ‘black belt’ states of the south. The gamble in both cases was that the race question was a particular form of appearance of the colonial question - the form in which it interposed in the metropolitan countries. It was potentially a revolutionary fault line in society.
How exactly to crack that fault line open was a matter, inevitably, of intense dispute. For the more traditionally minded comrades, there was the investment of great effort in overcoming formal and informal colour bars in the organisations of the workers’ movement, undermining the sectional appeal of white working class racism. For parts of the NCM, the conclusion was rather that whites - even from relatively impoverished, working class backgrounds - gained real material privileges from their racial categorisation such that they formed a labour aristocracy, and thus could be expected to be counterrevolutionary until a vast movement of the super-exploited and oppressed could educate them in the errors of their ways.4
It was not only a matter of dispute for the left - the ruling class and political establishment themselves were acutely aware of the dangers of their situation. And what happened in the three decades starting in 1968 was a striking reversal, whereby the establishment purged itself of overt racism (and sexism, and latterly anti-gay discrimination). The process was long and fraught, and the agents of change were not necessarily those one expects. We meet, for example, a certain Ken Livingstone, in the 1980s, running the Greater London Council as a ‘loony left’ operation. The ‘looniness’ of the GLC, in the eyes of its frothing opponents, consisted almost entirely in its enforcement of ‘political correctness’, which is to say its sometimes inelegant, but consistent, pursuit of ‘equalities’ policies, so far as (most particularly) race and gender were concerned.
Margaret Thatcher shut the GLC down, and played to reactionary and bigoted opinion in the public gallery with legislation like the anti-gay section 28, but the overall picture of the years of her government is highly contradictory; for it was in this period above all others that state multiculturalism was most aggressively expanded, truly coming into existence in a form recognisable today, and also that equal opportunities policies were first adopted widely by employers.
The left, in this period, has undergone an experience analogous to the urban myth, whereby a frog can be placed into a pot of cold water and boiled without its even noticing by slowly raising the temperature. In the British context, a key moment was the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which found that the Metropolitan police was “institutionally racist” - a charge which was at the very least recognisable to many lefts. It marked the beginning of the mop-up operation, whereby pockets of state racism still tolerated were finally purged. It also snuck in, through the back door, a semi-official definition of racism based on the perceived feeling of offence of the victim rather than any external, ‘objective’ definition.
The left did not demur from either of these things - and how could it? We had been busily engaged in decrying the inherent racism of the state, and here was the state, more or less admitting it! Yet it is precisely the Macpherson mindset that makes the current mindset more dangerous. Let us revisit our friends, earlier cited: Owen Jones wonders whether Jews feel “welcome” in the left. Who can legislate as to that point, except for the same Jews? The same sort of thinking is exhibited everywhere else that Livingstone is not robustly defended for stating the plain truth - give or take trivial errors, which do not alter the substance of matters.
Jews, of course, are as violently divided on the justice of the Israeli state regime as everyone else. So which Jews get to count as the voice of ‘the Jewish community’? A perceptive article in Ha’aretz by Jonathan Rosenhead notes that, despite the fact that opinion polling finds plenty of evidence of said violent divisions among British Jews, one could be forgiven for thinking that the “British Jewish population [is] all but united behind Israel and against Livingstone”.
The Community Security Trust, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the Holocaust Education Trust ... have indeed been jumping up and down and making a lot of noise, in unison ... It is as if the Jewish organisations which take a sceptical or downright critical view of Israel - Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Free Speech on Israel, Independent Jewish Voices, Jewish Socialist Group and others - do not exist.5
What is the difference? Merely that the former set of organisations are effectively state-supported, and the others operating in opposition to the foreign office. Yet stating things so requires breaking with the standard anti-racist doxa of the far left, for it means asserting that the self-appointed representatives of a particular ethnic group do not have the unilateral right to define their own oppression, but rather that oppression is subject to external laws observable to all. But if this is conceded in the case of Jews on the matter of Zionism, then it must also be so in the case of Afro-Caribbeans, Asians, Pacific islanders and whoever else you like.
It is this pass that the left does not want to sell; this factor that leads even the SWP to deny the substantial truth of Livingstone’s statements. Naive anti-racism is just too damn useful. It is the one part of the standard diet of left activity to enjoy state support, and thus the unanimous approbation of the right-thinking. Livingstone’s fate, and the miserable contortions of his leftwing critics, ought to be a wake-up call: confusing second-order contradictions in society with the most fundamental ones leads to disorientation when the ruling class changes tack; and commitment to subjectivist theories of politics lays us open to the most crass manipulations l
2. Morning Star April 6.
3. Kimber’s article is in Socialist Worker April 11 2017; Rose’s, Socialist Worker April 26 2016.
4. It should be stressed that this was not at all a unanimous position among the American Maoists: an article from the Revolutionary Union, the relatively sane predecessor to today’s Revolutionary Communist Party cult, carries the self-explanatory headline. ‘Carl Davidson: creature from the “White Skin Privilege” lagoon’ (www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-3/creature.htm). Nonetheless, the white privilege idea is entirely a product of Maoism, which casts its current fashion among liberal yuppies - up to the queen-bee of them all herself, Hillary Clinton - in a peculiar light.