High politics and the left
Calls to focus on the economy and crude ‘tax the rich’ slogans actually play into the hands of UK capital, says Mike Macnair.
The ‘Labour anti-Semitism’ story has moved a little way further down the news agenda since the launch of the general election campaign, as the Tories have turned their focus to trying to win Labour ‘leave’ seats. There were only 114 hits on Google relating to this over the last week, as of November 19, as opposed to 8.74 million without date restriction. But it persists.
On November 14 a group of 24 ‘public figures’ called for no Labour vote.1 A response from 14 British Jews has so far got much less publicity.2 On November 18, Jeremy Corbyn was attacked at the Confederation of British Industry; The Daily Telegraph, which ran the story,3 used it as an opportunity to dig up video of Corbyn at a 2008 Palestine solidarity rally embracing a Hamas supporter.
This point is a sharp illustration of what we in this paper have said all along about this campaign of defamation and the Labour leadership’s response to it. Corbyn is the underlying target, and no amount of throwing allies to the wolves (starting with Ken Livingstone) will prevent it coming home to Corbyn and his role before his election to the Labour leadership in the anti-war and Palestine solidarity movements.
Back in June, Mike Pompeo told a private meeting with ‘Jewish leaders’ that the US would ‘push back’ against a possible Corbyn government.4 The leaked statement is commonly interpreted as a threat against a hypothetical Labour government which took ‘anti-Jewish’ measures (and this is how the Telegraph headlined it). But what Pompeo said, as quoted by the Telegraph, was:
“It could be that Mr Corbyn manages to run the gauntlet and get elected. It’s possible,” Mr Pompeo replied.
“You should know, we won’t wait for him to do those things to begin to push back. We will do our level best. It’s too risky and too important and too hard once it’s already happened,” he said.
In short, the US state was, as of June 2019, engaged in measures to prevent a Corbyn government happening.
It is fairly clear that the British state is also so engaged: the defamation campaign would not show the stunning degree of media unanimity it displays if it were not being steered from some arm of the state. Imagine, purely for the sake of argument, that it was true that there was extensive anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The truth of a politically controversial claim would certainly not generate media unanimity of the sort seen in this campaign.
This defamation campaign is not about actual anti-Semitism; nor is it about the casual use of ‘anti-Semitic tropes’ by the left. It is about failure to support unconditionally US policy in the Middle East. It is the kickback against the European anti-war movement in the wake of Iraq. It deploys the claim that there is an existential threat to the state of Israel to demand unconditional backing for that state in all conflicts it is involved in.
It will, in turn, be used to denounce objections to the Trump administration’s announcement on November 18 that the US no longer regards Israeli settlement activity in the territories occupied in 1967 as ‘illegitimate’.5
Failure to give this unconditional support to the ‘right of Israel to exist’ is denounced as discriminating against Jews as a nation and hence as anti-Semitic. But the ‘right of Israel to exist’ is taken to include its right to ‘secure borders’ (ie, to hold on to the Golan Heights and to maintain at least military control of the Jordan valley and the Egypt-Gaza border), and its right to be the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East - and hence the justification of war blockade operations (‘sanctions’), and threats of direct bombing, against Iran.6
The defamation campaign began in France and Germany, where the governments actually failed to back the 2003 US invasion of Iraq; for example, the German ‘Anti-Deutsch’ trend first got serious media attention over its support for that invasion.7 It was already well advanced at the time of the public proposal in 2015 of the proto-smear International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance ‘working definition of anti-Semitism’ - before Ed Miliband had lost the 2015 general election, and hence before there was even a ballot for the Labour leadership for Corbyn to get onto.8
The Labour leadership’s choice to throw allies to the wolves and avoid facing down the campaign of defamation is based on the idea that, as long as Labour sticks to economic issues, it can win election to government in spite of the media pressure on other matters.
Under Corbyn, the main media pressures of this sort have been two: the ‘anti-Semitism’ defamation campaign, and the demand that Labour ‘make up its mind’ on the Tories’ Brexit referendum stunt and all that has followed from it.
But the underlying method is not new. In 1992 the Tories did campaign on the economic issues (Labour’s alleged massive tax rises), but also on Labour’s alleged softness on immigration. In 1987, they emphasised Labour’s policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by Labour local authorities; and, in 1983, Margaret Thatcher ran a ‘khaki election’ round the South Atlantic War. In 1979, Thatcher stood on an anti-immigration platform in favour of restoring ‘traditional values’, as well as against the unions. Political scientist RW Johnson later asserted that “[Enoch] Powell had won the 1970 election for the Tories” by his infamous anti-immigration ‘rivers of blood’ speech. ‘Our traditional way of life’ also figured in the Tory 1951 election campaign … In all of these cases, Labour’s efforts to steer attention back to economic issues failed.
Labour has won elections, in contrast, on platforms which emphasised ‘modernisation’, constitutional reforms and the backwardness and class-elite character of Tory regimes, as well as economic reforms in the interest of the working class. It was thus in 1945. It was thus in 1964. And it was thus even under Tony Blair in 1997, when any hope of economic reforms was radically toned down and health and welfare improvements had to be conducted in stealth by Gordon Brown as chancellor. (Blair, of course, later regretted the constitutional reforms, and would have preferred to push further and faster to the right on privatisation …)
As for this time, we shall see. We have yet to see Labour’s manifesto, and we do not know what agendas will shape the last few weeks of the election campaign. The media and Tories have fairly clearly failed (so far) to drive Labour into third place, as they hoped to earlier on. But on the post-1945 track record, when the Tories run culture-wars campaigns and Labour sticks to ‘the economy, stupid’, we should expect the Tories to win.
It is not only the Labour left which is prone to economistic efforts to focus attention on economic issues, trying to dodge both constitutional issues and the Tories’ culture-wars themes. The far left, when it addresses elections, has been prone to the very same behaviour (even if it is happy to engage in single-issue campaigns round a variety of culture-wars topics). It tends to differentiate itself from the Labour left, not by proposing an alternative policy to shake up the constitution and transfer power to the working class, but by offering more ‘leftwing’ versions of Labour economic policies - and perhaps ‘direct actionism’ to get them implemented.
Socialist Worker (November 19) editorialises that “We must take on the rich to win real change”:
Taking on the rich has got to mean more than a minor tax increase for the most well-off in society. It also means taking hold of the social, economic and political power in order to take on the rule of the rich, not just take some of their vast fortunes.
There will be huge resistance to any attempt to challenge business as usual ... The general election campaign is only the beginning of this fight. It will take a huge battle in workplaces and communities to deliver the kind of change that Corbyn is demanding …
But what, exactly, are the constitutional implications of “taking hold of the social, economic and political power”? They remain undescribed - and the real message is: back to the streets and to strikes.
Socialist Resistance commented on the election on November 5 with an article by Alan Davies entitled ‘Labour off to remarkable start’. The content is essentially fan-clubbing for the Labour leadership and Momentum, concluding:
It is time now for the entire left to get behind the Corbyn campaign. There will never be a better chance. We have the real possibility of electing a radical Red-Green Labour government - as everyone is saying - just before Christmas!
Since that piece SR has had no further comment on the election.
Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century issued a steering group statement on November 3 under the headline, ‘Fight for a Labour government’. This was a bit more sceptical of Labour policy than SR was, but its scepticism is more from the street-street-street perspective:
We have been critical of many aspects of Corbynism in recent years, and continue to be so …
All of this has real consequences for how we engage with the Corbyn project - we intend to support the Corbyn leadership from a principled, internationalist, leftwing position, and be open about disagreements. We want to ensure that good conference policies are reflected in the manifesto ... A Corbyn government will be confronted by the class nature of the British state and we need to be ready.
The campaigning we do and the networks we build will also provide the basis for resistance if Johnson wins despite all our efforts …
For these reasons, we cannot subordinate all other activity to the electoral campaign. We will continue to support strikes ... We will focus on campaigning, where we are involving people in taking control of their future. Voting alone is not sufficient …
On November 15, RS21 featured an article by Hanna Gál on ‘Labour manifesto - what the grassroots membership demands’. This ‘does what it says on the tin’ by summarising recent Labour conference decisions, which may or may not make it into the manifesto, plus some proposals from campaigns outside Labour. This is less tailist towards the Labour leadership than SR is, but remains tailist towards Labour conference and the ‘single-issue campaigns milieu’.
An extreme form of the phenomenon is one which presents itself as non-economist. This is the approach of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (better called ‘Alliance for Workers’ Liberalism’). Ordinary economism consists in having commitments - say, opposed to the monarchy, or to British policy in the Middle East - and keeping stumm about them when it comes to elections. The AWL’s version is to give actual ideological support to the liberal wing of the capitalists’ foreign policy (albeit under weasel-word formulations of ‘non-opposition’) in order to (imaginedly) clear the way for the economic demands which will be ‘real socialism’.
It is through this policy that the AWL has, in fact, been a persistent supporter of the campaign of defamation round ‘anti-Semitism’ throughout this entire period. Indeed, if it were not for the fact that Israeli and US Zionists originated this approach as the concept of ‘new anti-Semitism’ in the 1970s, one might imagine that the AWL was the actual originator of the defamation campaign in Labour; it is certainly among the pioneers in this country.9
And there it is again in the ‘election special’ of the AWL’s newspaper Solidarity (November 6). The editorial, ‘Regrouping the left’, accuses the large majority of the left of “a susceptibility to conspiracy theories and an anti-Semitism”. A ‘Briefing’ on ‘Labour and anti-Semitism’ (p13) denounces the description of the Zionist settler-colonial project as a form of racism and concludes: “The Labour leadership hasn’t yet faced up to the problem of that ‘new’ form of anti-Semitism ...”
Similarly, ‘The Berlin Wall and socialism’ asserts that ‘We rejoiced at the coming-down of the Berlin Wall and the old USSR, and we still rejoice”. Workers, it argues, gained “liberty to organise, to think, to discuss and thus to learn” - even if most of them lost their jobs under ‘shock therapy’.
The point is not that the eastern bloc was a model; it is that seeing its fall as a simple triumph for the working class should by the late 1990s have been obvious rubbish, and repeating it in 2019 can only be to signal loyalty to the ‘western’ policy and to the dominant bourgeois media narratives. For what is the ground cleared by rejecting any sort of anti-imperialist or anti-war commitments, and refusing to recognise that the end of the Soviet bloc has not been an unqualified good?
Several other ‘Briefings’ do not offer positive policy, but almost entirely negative critiques only of current arrangements or policy. Such are ‘Democracy, not e-surveys’ (all about the Labour Party); ‘A national education service’ (the headline is Fabian centralism); ‘Replacing universal credit’; ‘High finance: take back control’ (demanding public ownership, but mainly on the current order); ‘Johnson’s Trump-Brexit’; ‘Why public ownership?’ (against privatisation, plus Connolly on the limits of nationalisation). Some do offer positive policy, but rather general. Thus ‘Why socialism’ (the back page).
Some are merely support for Labour Party conference policy: thus ‘Free our unions’; ‘Restore the NHS’; ‘Housing should be a right’; and ‘A socialist green new deal’ (Labour conference policy, plus nationalising the finance sector). Similarly, ‘Why not tactical voting?’ makes a useful argument, but one any traditional Labour leftwinger could have made.
What this leaves us with is two briefings. ‘The EU - remain and transform’, makes a variety of supportable demands. But it is within the 1990s-2000s ‘rights’ framework, calling for their ‘levelling up’. And, conversely, it does not call for the overthrow of the treaties and their entrenchment of ordo-liberalism, or make any mention of the Viking and Laval anti-strike decisions, which show the limits of the ‘rights’ framework.
Finally, there is ‘Why free movement’. This last makes correct points about the fact that immigration controls actually tend to depress wages and conditions by making it hard for migrant workers to organise. But it also runs with marginalist arguments for the benefits of migration on average.
The solution it offers to housing shortages, moreover, is to “tax the rich to improve social provision” - “Tax the rich” is a favoured AWL slogan. The problem with it is that it assumes that the rich will be there to tax. Leave aside the flight of capital (noticeable in the 1976 ‘IMF crisis’, in the Mitterrand government in the 1980s, for example). Radical socialisation policies (nationalisation of the banks and finance, and so on) would logically imply fewer of ‘the rich’ to tax. The question of housing and the management of this and all other resources would then require direct planning of production in natura. And this need, in turn, requires some much more serious and sophisticated response to the history of Stalinism and its fall than is offered in the ‘Berlin Wall’ briefing.
We can take this issue further. Britain is in (enormous) trade deficit on ‘visible’ goods (food, and so on).10 The deficit is partly made up by financial services (direct or through British controlled tax havens) skimming surplus from the world. Hence, for example, the Financial Times November 19 leader headline that ‘UK politicians must set out the future for finance’, commenting that “ensuring a prosperous future for one of Britain’s world-class industries must be a priority”.
“The rich” exist to be taxed mainly because of these financial operations. These are directly at the expense of ‘third world’ countries. And they are mostly dependent on special exemptions for London in US anti-offshore and anti-money-laundering legislation. The exemptions, in turn, are in practice conditioned on British support for US policy. To demand ‘tax the rich’ as the deus ex machina to deal with resource problems is to accept implicitly that London should continue to skim resources from global transactions at the expense of rest of the world.
The briefing goes on to insist that, while the movement should support solidarity in order to fight for people not to have to migrate just to survive, solidarity “will not dispel war and poverty overnight, In the meantime we should not turn away the people trying to flee horrors.” True enough. But where are the horrors coming from?
Some, no doubt, are results of human-induced climate change. But the major immediate sources are refugees from the Middle East, fleeing the effects of US (and British) ‘sanctions’ against Iran; of Cameron’s and Sarkozy’s (and the US’s) destruction of the Libyan state; of the Saudi-sponsored Islamists in Syria and the interventions of the US and its allies at different times on both sides of the civil war; of the British and US-armed and backed Saudi invasion of Yemen; and so on.
More widely, ‘economic migrants’ are fleeing from impoverishment caused by International Monetary Fund ‘structural adjustment’, ‘austerity’ programmes and similar operations. The purpose of these programmes is to secure the repayment (or at least partial repayment) of debts owed to banks in the New York, London, and so on. Default on these debts - highly desirable - would damage chiefly “the rich” the AWL want to tax.
In short, suppose for the sake of argument that the AWL’s loyalism on international questions had cleared these off the table to allow focus on the ‘economic issues’ (in reality its line merely lends political support to the Labour right). The consequence would actually be that these issues came back to haunt people who used this approach - because the long-term decline of British industrial capital means that the economy as it presently exists is deeply involved in parasitising on the rest of the world, for which purpose being a US sidekick is essential.
The AWL, then, is even more economistic than the Labour leadership or the rest of the far left. Its loyalism sets it free to promote not socialism, but a social democratic utopia - mainly composed merely of vague claims and Labour Party conference policies - which depends on London continuing to exploit the rest of the world.
‘Labour antisemitism row: public figures say they cannot vote for party under Corbyn’ The Guardian November 14.↩︎
‘A vote for Labour is not a vote for antisemitism’ The Observer November 17.↩︎
‘Jeremy Corbyn challenged at CBI to prove Labour isn’t “for the many but not the Jew”‘.↩︎
‘Mike Pompeo pledges to “push back” if life becomes difficult for UK Jews under a Corbyn government’ The Daily Telegraph June 9.↩︎
‘US settlement move endorses “law of the jungle” - Palestinians’; BBC news of November 19 also contained discussion of the US decision and its background. ‘Illegitimate’ was already a weasel word to avoid the conclusion of the UN and most international lawyers that the settlements were illegal, under the 1949 Geneva Convention.↩︎
Defensible borders: http://jcpa.org/requirements-for-defensible-borders. Iran’s ‘existential threat’ to Israel: 656,000 hits on Google; see, for example, www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/01/24/irans-revolution-40-years-on-israels-reverse-periphery-doctrine (January 24); https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/israel-existential-challenge (September 4).↩︎
S Erlanger, ‘“The Anti-Germans” - the pro-Israel German left’ Jewish Political Studies Review No21 (2009): http://jcpa.org/article/the-anti-germans-the-pro-israel-german-left. The same source shows that witch-hunting over alleged anti-Semitism among Palestine campaigners in Die Linke was already in full spate by 2008.↩︎
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_antisemitism is on the whole favourable to the concept, but does make clear its origins. The AWL took it up in the mid-1980s.↩︎
Figures for 2018-19 available at www.ons.gov.uk/economy/nationalaccounts/balanceofpayments/bulletins/uktrade/april2019#the-total-trade-deficit-widened-in-the-12-months-to-april-2019.↩︎