WeeklyWorker

07.03.2019
August Bebel: not a fool

Their next move

Jack Conrad warns that the Labour right is looking to considerably extend the scope of the witch-hunt. Their big idea is to net socialism and even anti-capitalism

Writing in the Financial Times, John McTernan outlines what is probably the Labour right’s next move in the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt.1 He recommends massively extending its reach: go beyond suppressing, closing down, outlawing attacks on Israel as a Zionist state and its ongoing colonial project of dispossessing the native Palestinian population.

McTernan proposes a bold ploy: categorise denunciations of greedy bankers, complaints about economic inequality, the very idea of socialism as anti-Semitic. In short, he wants to equate anti-capitalism with anti-Semitism. Given the last few years, only the determinedly naive would discount the possibility of such an idea finding its ghastly reality.2

Blair’s man

Who is John McTernan? Born in 1959, raised in Edinburgh, he now works as senior vice-president at PSB - a ‘blue chip’ political campaigning and advisory organisation (HQ: Washington DC).

In fact, McTernan is a typical product of the professionalisation of the Labour Party under Tony Blair: to a considerable extent institutionally embedded by (Baroness) Margaret McDonagh - general secretary 1997-2001. She is quoted by protégés as insisting on “autonomy and initiative, urging them to think of themselves as ‘entrepreneurs’, free to exercise their imaginations even at the risk of making mistakes”.3 What mattered was getting votes and good headlines. Not members or democratic accountability. Part and parcel of New Labour’s attempt to create a “partyless society”.4

As for McTernan, he served as Blair’s political secretary/director of political operations between 2005 and 2007. During that time, he was questioned twice under caution by the metropolitan police with regard to the ‘cash for honours’ scandal. In the event, no charges were brought against him … or anyone else, for that matter.

After his stint at No10 McTernan found himself seconded to the Scottish Labour Party. He ran its campaign for the May 2007 Scottish parliamentary elections. Following that, he then worked for two of Gordon Brown’s cabinet ministers: first Des Browne, then Jim Murphy. After a brief stint writing a column in The Scotsman, he was off to Australia. From September 2011 to June 2013, he was employed as director of communications for Julia Gillard, the country’s Labor prime minister. Next, he was back working for Jim Murphy, the 2014-15 leader of the Scottish Labour Party. McTernan clearly did a brilliant job as his chief of staff. Labour lost all but one seat in Scotland in the 2015 general election.5

Understandably, given his background, McTernan was horrified by the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015: a “strange, psychological, emotional spasm”. Echoing forces in the deep state, McTernan revealingly said this: “I can’t see any case for letting him have two minutes in office, let alone two years in office, because I think the damage that will be done to the Labour Party in that period makes it incredibly hard to recover.”6 In that belligerent spirit he declared “war” on the Corbyn movement. Meanwhile, showing his enduring identification with ‘entrepreneurs’, following the 2016 revelations about David Cameron, his father and offshore earnings … and Corbyn’s call for an investigation, McTernan declared tax avoidance to be an “expression of basic British freedoms”.7

Naturally, when it was formed, McTernan expressed his contempt for the “idiots in Momentum”. However, eloquently testifying to the changes wrought by Jon Lansman’s anti-democratic coup d’état, he joined Momentum in August 2017. He liked the “energy”.8

For the record

McTernan begins his FT article by recounting a conversation with a “young Labour Party member”. I take this as being entirely apocryphal. Anyway, this “young Labour Party member” asks the wise old sage: “How bad was the anti-Semitism in your day?” McTernan feels compelled to say that the “current problems were new to the party”. He is prepared to admit that the labour movement “has always had a strand of nativism that could rapidly edge over into xenophobia”. He cites London dockers marching to support Enoch Powell in 1968 and Gordon Brown’s “infamous promise” of British jobs for British workers. But anti-Semitism? McTernan insists that this is “a recent phenomenon”, which entirely “coincides with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader”.9

McTernan is a much sought-after political strategist. One can only imagine the huge sums he gets in ‘compensation’. Despite that, he makes a very poor historian.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, anti-Semitism was common throughout British society and inside the labour movement too. In 1892, 1894 and 1895 the TUC passed resolutions - by no means unanimously - demanding that the government put a stop to landings by “pauper aliens”.10

Though no specific mention was made of Jews, there can be no doubt that they were the intended target. Between 1880 and 1905 large numbers of Ashkenazi Jews - maybe 200,000 of them - fled here from the tsarist-sponsored pogroms that swept the Russian empire.

In general, however, on the left, restrictions on immigration were branded “unsocialistic”.11 The Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League and the Independent Labour Party considered poor Jews - often forced to work in airless, accident-prone sweatshops - to be victims of capitalist exploitation, “although exceptions to the rule can be found”.12 Eg, the Fabian, Beatrice Potter (later Webb), Keir Hardie of the ILP and Harry Quelch, editor of the SDF’s Justice. They painted Jewish migrants as natural capitalists and possessed by a worrying drive towards mastery.

Then there were those who claimed that the Second Boer War (1899-1902) resulted from “Jewish interests” - an argument not “confined to Liberal opinion”. The leader of the building workers’ union told the 1900 TUC that the war was being fought “to secure the gold fields of South Africa for cosmopolitan Jews, most of whom had no patriotism and no country”.13 John Burns, a prominent supporter of the New Unionism, talked of the British army becoming “a janissary of the Jews”. Robert Blatchford’s The Clarion repeated John A Hobson’s claim of modern imperialism being run by “a dozen financial houses, many of them Jewish”.14 Similar sentiments were expressed by Henry Hyndman of the SDF: the Boer War was “instigated by ‘Jew financial cliques and their hangers on’”.15

When it came to the Conservative government’s Aliens Bill (1904), the newly formed Labour Party’s six MPs found themselves split down the middle: three opposed it, three abstained. But in 1905 all six of them voted against the final reading. In a powerful speech Keir Hardie damned the proposed legislation as “fraudulent, deceitful and dishonourable”.16

Not that Labour’s later record was particularly honourable: eg, “taking exception” to British assistance to Czech Jewish refugees.17 True, Emily Thornberry heroically claimed in her well crafted 2018 Liverpool conference speech - albeit at the eminently safe distance of over eight decades - that she should be counted amongst the front ranks in the battle for Cable Street. But, at the time, in 1936, Labour leaders, “both nationally and locally, acted disgracefully”.18

George Lansbury, Labour MP for Poplar and former party leader, merely called upon the Tory home secretary to reroute one of the four British Union of Fascists feeder marches through a less “congested” area. “What I want is to maintain peace and order,” Lansbury stated. He went on to advise those who were “opposed to fascism to keep away from the demonstration”. Editorially the official labour movement Daily Herald considered this “sound advice”: “Fascist meetings are in themselves dull .... The only attraction is the prospect of disturbances. Withdraw that attraction and fascist meetings would die on the organisers’ hands.” In the same craven manner the Labour mayor of Stepney told the local press: “I appeal to all East Londoners most earnestly to stay away.”19

Corbyn

McTernan claims that the conversation with his “young Labour Party member” echoed in his mind when he watched one MP - Luciana Berger, who is Jewish - resign from the party and “denounce it as institutionally anti-Semitic”; while another MP, Chris Williamson, was suspended for claiming that Labour was being “too apologetic about anti-Jewish hatred”.

Berger is a committed Zionist - before being elected in 2010 she was director of Labour Friends of Israel - and she is a true-blue Blairite to boot. Now, of course, she happily sits alongside former Tory MPs in the Independent Group.

As for Williamson, perhaps the sole principled left-Labour MP nowadays, he did not complain of Labour being “too apologetic about anti-Jewish hatred”. He complained of Labour being “too apologetic” in the face of a concerted ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt. Hardly the same thing. But what does the truth matter for the likes of McTernan? The big lie is all.

“No party can be free from members with prejudiced views,” says McTernan. I agree (who can disagree?). But it is McTernan and his ilk who constitute the core problem. Despite the Labour Party supposedly being formed to represent what are the universal interests of the working class, historically we find Labour MPs, MEPs, trade union officials, research assistants, councillors, campaign strategists and other such component parts of the labour bureaucracy, claiming that the antagonistic interests of capital and labour can be reconciled by defending the British empire, the British commonwealth, British values, British economic interests, etc.

This is necessarily a viewpoint which goes hand in hand with covert or overt racism, arrogant colonial condescension, a pro-Nato, pro-Trident, pro-war subordination to US superimperialism and, sad to say, nowadays a Jeremy Corbyn-John McDonnell version of a “fair to everybody” capitalism.20 That there are those on the ‘Trotskyite’ left who promote the For the many, not the few nonsense as a “socialist” manifesto testifies to political degeneration.

McTernan blames the so-called anti-Semitic contagion on what he calls the “fallacy of the ‘popular front’” - or, more precisely, the “myopia” that leads some in Labour to believe that there are “no enemies to the left”. Tony Benn supposedly “made this mistake”, when he opposed the expulsion of the Militant Tendency in the 1980s. “Good fences make good neighbours and strong boundaries make strong political parties,” says McTernan.

In other words, historically he places himself in the camp of those who have sought to make the Labour Party safe for capitalism by proscribing and driving out the left in general and the CPGB in particular. It is worth saying, of course, that when it was formed in 1900 the Labour Party consisted not just of affiliated trade unions and co-ops. There were affiliated parties too: the Fabian Society, the ILP and the SDF. Though the SDF was quick to disaffiliate, in 1916 its successor organisation, the British Socialist Party, affiliated (in 1920 the BSP provided the bulk of members and cadre for the newly formed CPGB).

McTernan’s thesis is that the “tide of enthusiasm” that swept Corbyn to the party leadership brought with it people and beliefs that had been driven out under Neil Kinnock or who had left in disgust with Tony Blair and the Iraq war. There is a truth here. The mass influx into the Labour Party had two big cohorts: the under-25s and the over-60s. But the idea that the ‘children of 1968’ brought anti-Semitism into the Labour Party is total baloney. A foul calumny. In fact, the right decided to fight the left using the weapon of ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’. A weapon forged by Israel’s ministry of strategic affairs and wielded against the growing boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement - in particular in the US, UK and EU. Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right government has reportedly allocated “hundreds of millions of dollars” to fight the BDS movement.21

The Labour right can get away with its ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign because (1) it is fully backed by the UK establishment, Zionist organisations, Theresa May, the BBC, ITV, Sky, the press, etc; and (2) because, tied as it is to securing the ‘next Labour government’, team Corbyn readily capitulates before the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ ideological offensive. Corbyn, McDonnell and Formby dread more defections to the Independent Group or Tom Watson establishing a separate organisation in parliament, which seizes the bulk of Labour’s £7.8 million Short money.22

And, once Corbyn, McDonnell and Formby admit that Labour has a genuine anti-Semitism problem - ie, that anti-Semitism is not confined to a few sad, isolated, often mentally unstable individuals; people who need help as much as they need education - but runs amok in university Labour societies, ward branches and CLPs, there is an open goal. Appeasement fuels the witch-hunt.

Clearly, the likes of McTernan want a purge that will dwarf anything seen before. Expulsions will be carried out in the name of showing anti-Semitism zero tolerance. Necessarily, though, the logic is tortuous: by way of anti-Zionism he arrives at anti-Semitism. Nonsense on stilts. But here it is in McTernan’s article:

“[B]eing pro-Palestinian bleeds into anti-Zionism,” he writes. The argument then goes that “anti-capitalism masks and normalises anti-Semitism”. Protestations that one is an anti-racist fall on deaf ears. To pass the McTernan test you have to be pro-Israel, pro-US wars, pro-capitalist and pro-witch hunt.

True, not all the left are at “fault here”. He praises Jon Lansman, Momentum’s owner, who “has a long record of opposing anti-Semitism”. His organisation “produced a video message for supporters deconstructing the Rothschild conspiracy theories popular on both far left and far right”.

We all know about the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories peddled by Russia’s tsars, the Catholic church, Adolf Hitler and Oswald Mosley. Nowadays, there is the KKK in America, serving ministers in Poland, Austria and Italy, the alt-right and the red-brown Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

But the far left in Britain? What anti-Semitic conspiracy theories does the organised far left peddle? I do not know enough about Occupy - courted by the Church of England, the City and establishment politicians alike. I never took it seriously. But from what I do know it hardly counted as the far left. Indeed it prided itself on having no coherent viewpoint. Nor does David Icke count as the far left. Nor do Islamic sects and ideologues. There is the little crop of contemporary anarchists, but once again I do not know enough. Those who I have met strike me as decent types. In point of fact, in terms of the organised far left, the only example I can think of is the tiny Socialist Fight group (expelled from Labour Against the Witchhunt after a brief political struggle).

In order to net the far left, McTernan cites the US historian, Deborah Lipstadt, as an authority. She maintains that (presumably modern) “anti-Semitic tropes share three elements: money or finance is always in the mix; an acknowledged cleverness that is also seen as conniving; and, power - particularly a power to manipulate more powerful entities”.

Supposedly, all of these “feature in the criticism of Israel and the so-called Israel lobby”. Yet without doubt Israel’s anti-BDS campaign is well financed. So is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). The Guardian reports that pro-Israel donors, including Aipac, “spent over $22 million” during the US 2018 election cycle.23 The same is doubtless true in Britain.24 Not that Israel wags the US dog. No, on the contrary, US imperialism considers Israel a satrap, its most reliable ally in the Middle East. And the US certainly acts according to its own perceived interests, not the interests of Israel.

McTernan says anti-Semitism “can be easily moulded into a critique of capitalism”. It only takes one more small step to classify anti-capitalism itself as inherently anti-Semitic. Towards that end he cites rhetoric about the 1% and economic inequality as having “the same underlying theme - a small group of very rich people who cleverly manipulate others to defend their interests”.

Once again this is simply the truth. The capitalist class, a small minority, really do cleverly manipulate others to defend their interests. Paid lobbyists, the advertising-funded media, donations to political parties and campaigns, hiring PR companies, obtaining non-disclosure orders, employing professionals such as John McTernan - all this is very expensive (but for the members of the capitalist class, well worth it). But the capitalist class is not Jewish. Nor is it Protestant, Hindu or Sikh. It comes with all manner of religions and from all manner of religious backgrounds. Indeed the deity venerated and worshiped by the capitalist class is money and the use of money to make more money. Everything else is incidental.

Bebel

In the attempt to provide that extra little touch for his argument that “anti-capitalism masks and normalises anti-Semitism”, McTernan fields August Bebel (1840-1913) and his famous adage about anti-Semitism being the ‘socialism of fools’. He vaguely describes Bebel as a “German political writer”.

Probably, when it comes to the history of the German workers’ movement, the average reader of the Weekly Worker is much better informed than John McTernan and the average reader of the FT. August Bebel was no mere “German political writer”. He was, in fact, one of the key founders of Germany’s Social Democratic Party in 1875, and, along with Wilhelm Liebknecht, he counted as its foremost leader. Bebel was the chair of the SDP, while Liebknecht edited Vorwärts. Needless to say, both looked to Marx and Engels in London for political and theoretical guidance.

In the late 19th century the SDP was the world’s most important Marxist party. Others (and not only in Europe) sought to emulate its programme, mass membership, electoral success and culture of rigorous, open debate - amongst them, of course, the founders of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

Vladimir Lenin hugely admired Bebel: once the “Marx party” amounted, according to critics, to just three individuals: Karl Marx, Fredrick Engels and Wilhelm Liebknecht. But, with Bebel’s discovery of Liebknecht, and through him Marx and Engels, Bebel, previously a radical liberal, proved able to “become a model workers’ leader, representative and participant in the mass struggle of the wage-slaves of capital for a better social system”.25 Lenin, furthermore, praised Bebel for practically combining illegal with legal work, upholding internationalism, standing consistently against those tempted to flirt with Bismarckian state socialism and forthrightly opposing revisionism and opportunism.

As for the “socialism of fools”, it is no surprise that McTernan gets Bebel spectacularly wrong. What Bebel condemned was neither socialism nor anti-capitalism. No, what he condemned was the anti-Semitic anarcho-socialism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65) and Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76) and, given his time and place, the much more important anti-Semitic social Catholicism of Karl Lueger (1844-1918). The latter given generous diplomatic backing by pope Leo XIII.

If he were alive today, August Bebel would doubtless be a prime target of McTernan’s witch-hunt. Anyone who opposes Blairism - ie, promoting the interests of capital, fawning before the ultra-rich and following every twist and turn of US foreign policy - stands in the crosshairs.

Helping ‘spread the lies’

When the Independent Group split with Labour last month, John McDonnell responded by saying that the party now needed to conduct a “massive listening exercise” - to appease the right. This prompted Kevin Higgins to write what he later described as “friendly advice” to McDonnell in the form of the satirical poem reproduced below.

He sent this to the Morning Star, which had previously published his work, and he received an encouraging email from the Star arts editor. Cliff Cocker described Higgins’ latest offering as “timely and spot on”, promising it would be published in the March 2 edition. It did indeed make a brief appearance on the Star’s website before it was quickly removed, but on the day before it was due to feature in the print edition Kevin Higgins received another email - this time from editor Ben Chacko, who advised him:

I’m afraid I’ve pulled this poem, because things are on a knife-edge in the shadow cabinet and at the moment our friends there advise exacerbating divisions would make things worse ... publishing it in the Morning Star would in our view feed the divisions that the right are trying to exploit ... we just feel targeting John in this way now is not the right approach for us.

While Higgins states that he understands “the pressures people are under at the moment”, and says he is “in no way angry at the editors of the Morning Star”, he adds ironically: “It is great to know that my poems are being read by members of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.”

The Star’s reaction to the poem is unfortunately typical of its coverage of events in the Labour Party. While it largely opposes the witch-hunt and has sided with victims like Ken Livingstone, Marc Wadsworth and Chris Williamson against the Labour right, it has published next to nothing in the form of criticism of the leadership for its conciliationism.

And that, of course, is the whole point of Kevin Higgins’ poem.

Listening exercise

When you paint hatred on my garden wall
and front door,
I will read your words
with great interest.
When you try to burn my house down
I will listen to what the flames are saying.
Every lie you tell against me
I’ll help you spread
by earnestly, and in detail, answering your questions
about it over and over again.
When you burst through my living room door
with a chainsaw intended for me,
I’ll pour you a nice cup of tea
and say: let’s talk about this.
When the tumours come for me
I’ll know their opinion must be taken
absolutely on board.
And when the beetles and bacilli
begin to consume me,
I’ll realise I’ve long seen
their point of view.

Notes

1. J McTernan, ‘Labour’s mistake is to believe there are no enemies to the left’ Financial Times March 2-3 2019.

2. In that context we have already heard Siobhain McDonagh’s absurd claim on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “to be anti-capitalism is to be anti-Semitic” (nyebevannews.co.uk/labour-mp-siobhain-mcdonagh-to-be-anti-capitalism-is-to-be-anti-semitic).

3. P Webb and JT Fisher, ‘Political participation: the vocational motivations of Labour Party employees’ The British journal of politics and international relations Vol 5, No2, May 1 2003, p18.

4. P Mair, ‘Partyless democracy’ New Left Review March-April 2000 pp27-2‑8.

5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McTernan.

6. J McTernan, ‘How Labour can get rid of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell - in one easy step’ The Daily Telegraph October 14 2015.

7. J McTernan, ‘Tax avoidance is an expression of basic British freedoms’ The Daily Telegraph April 5 2016.

8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McTernan.

9. J McTernan, ‘Labour’s mistake is to believe there are no enemies to the left’ Financial Times March 2-3 2019.

10. C Holmes Anti-Semitism in British society: 1876-1939 London 2016, p22.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid p68.

13. Quoted in RS Wistrich From ambivalence to betrayal: the left, the Jews and Israel London 2012, p206.

14. C Holmes Anti-Semitism in British society: 1876-1939 London 2016, p68.

15. M Crick The history of the Social Democratic Federation Keele 1994, p159.

16. Quoted in P Foot, ‘Immigration and the British labour movement’ International Socialism No22, autumn 1965.

17. L London Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948 Cambridge 2003, p156.

18. R Price and M Sullivan, ‘The Battle of Cable Street: myths and realities’ Workers News March-April 1994 - see www.whatnextjournal.org.uk/Pages/History/Cable.html.

19. Quotes from R Price and M Sullivan, ‘The Battle of Cable Street: myths and realities’ op cit.

20. Labour Party For the many, not the few London 2017, p28.

21. BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti, quoted in electronicintifada.net/blogs/asa-winstanley/meet-spies-injecting-israeli-propaganda-your-news-feed.

22. researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN01663.

23. The Guardian February 15 2019.

24. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel_lobby_in_the_United_Kingdom.

25. VI Lenin CW Vol 20, Moscow 1977, pp300-01.