Socialist Fight’s split
Gerry Downing has dropped his support for Ian Donovan’s anti-Semitic theories about a pan-national Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie. But, asks Tony Greenstein, what took him so long?
As Jesus is alleged to have remarked, “There is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over 99 others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!
We should welcome the fact that Gerry Downing (GD) has repented of his association with Ian Donovan (ID), together with his anti-Semitic theories. However, repentance, at least for socialists, is not enough. GD needs to come to terms with why he maintained an alliance with ID for at least five years.
In a letter to the Weekly Worker (February 27), GD announced the expulsion of ID and the Trotskyist Faction (TF) from Socialist Fight (SF). The following week ID denied that he has been expelled, since it is his comrades who are in the majority, he said (Letters, March 5). The expulsion is therefore “dead in the water”.
Where the truth lies is irrelevant, since, with or without ID, SF is politically dead. GD’s letter says that for the past five years SF had harboured within it a key individual - Ian Donovan himself - who is “in lockstep” with Gilad Atzmon, whom he describes as a “left Mussolini-Strasserite fascist”. What kind of Trotskyist or Marxist organisation is it which harboured within it a neo-Nazi and one whom, until very recently, GD himself gave uncritical support to?
ID’s ‘defence’, if that is the right word, is that GD has become a Zionist because he does not support expelling all Zionists from the Labour Party. Neither do I. I am in favour of disaffiliating or proscribing Zionist organisations, such as Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement, not individuals per se - although clearly Zionist apparatchiks and propagandists should be shown the door.
ID’s letter also constitutes an appalling apologia for Atzmon’s anti-Semitism, including his comments questioning the holocaust. What is important, however, are the political issues that this falling out between ID and GD involves and not who expelled whom.
When Labour Against the Witchhunt was formed at the end of 2017, in order to fight the Zionists’ fake anti-Semitism smear campaign and the ensuing suspensions and expulsions, it faced an immediate problem. Two of those present at the inaugural meetings - ID and GD - were espousing anti-Semitic politics. Unsurprisingly LAW’s officers decided that they had no alternative but to exclude supporters of SF. We were called witch-hunters and were accused of hypocrisy, since we were set up to protest the expulsion of Labour Party members on so-called ‘anti-Semitism’ charges and yet here were we expelling SF for the very same thing!
The difference, of course, was that the target of the ‘anti-Semitism’ allegations in the Labour Party were innocent - their real ‘crime’ was being anti-Zionist. On the other hand, SF was guilty. The bourgeois and Zionist press, however, were not interested in such nuances. The Independent’s headline read: “Group set up to protest against Labour’s expulsion of members accused of anti-Semitism expels members for alleged anti-Semitism.”1 It reported that “Gerry Downing, who was excluded from Labour Against the Witchhunt (LAW), has accused the group of conducting its own witch-hunt against him.”
In the lead-up to the LAW meeting on January 6 2018, SF appealed to its supporters to come along, as the question of their exclusion would be decided. They wrote: “No-one can point to a single act or political stance that is in any way racist or anti-Semitic, except in the minds of those who want to appease the Labour Party bureaucracy of Ian McNicol.”2 Our actions were compared to a “throwback to the Great Purges in the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s”. Gerry went even further, arguing: “Today, he [Tony Greenstein] and his bedmate, Jack Conrad, are in a bloc with the same Iain McNicol who is framing him up for anti-Semitism. This is class treachery at its most pathetic.”3
You can imagine my surprise when GD’s letter appeared in the Weekly Worker informing us that “Socialist Fight has expelled Ian Donovan and his ‘Trotskyist Faction’ by a unanimous vote.” This is to be welcomed, but clearly it is not enough. You cannot wipe away the past five years through bureaucratic means. It is incumbent on Gerry to admit that we were right to exclude SF from LAW and to accept that we were not ‘witch-hunters’, but anti-racists.
Gerry informs us that ID and the TF were expelled for “anti-Semitism and support for the racist, anti-Semitic and left Mussolini-Strasserite fascist, Gilad Atzmon”. He quotes from Atzmon’s 2006 essay, ‘On anti-Semitism’: “... we must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously”. Atzmon goes on to say that whether the infamous tsarist Protocols of the elders of Zion are genuine or a forgery is irrelevant, since “American Jews do try to control the world, by proxy”. Hitler’s take on the Protocols in Mein Kampf was that they must be genuine, because they were true!
Quoting from Atzmon’s most recent book Being in time, which reads: “Fascism, I believe, more than any other ideology, deserves our attention, as it was an attempt to integrate left and right”, GD concludes that Atzmon is himself a fascist. Furthermore, since ID has “developed a full-blown ideological outlook in lockstep with Atzmon” (he cites Donovan’s defence of Atzmon’s admiration for ex-KKK neo-Nazi David Duke), he alleges that ID too is now a fascist.
It is to be welcomed that Gerry now repudiates the use of the term, ‘the world Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie’, and “the whole notion of a Jewish-Zionist imperialist vanguard” as “anti-Semitic tropes”. The idea that there is a Jewish subset of the ruling class - or even a pan-national Jewish bourgeoisie - is deeply anti-Semitic and reminiscent of Nazi world Jewish conspiracy theories. They have no place in a socialist, let alone Marxist, group.
However, Gerry Downing also has to explain why he ever went along with this nonsense. At the very least it must show some serious deficiency in his own understanding of capitalism and imperialism, and leave open the question, ‘What is Socialist Fight for?’
It is equally welcome that GD now believes it is inappropriate to refer to Jews such as Kissinger and Milton Friedman as examples of those
“overrepresented among the most strident spokespeople for capitalist reaction”, without openly recognising that they are doing so primarily as representatives of the interests of imperialist capitalism, as in the Pinochet coup in Chile against Allende in 1973, and not as any separate Jewish influence or conspiracy.
However, if this rejection of Donovan’s pretentiously titled ‘Draft theses on the Jews and modern imperialism’4 is sincere, then SF must explain why up till now he did not realise that they had an anti-Semitic cuckoo in their nest.
ID’s theses argued that what is distinctive about Israel is that, unlike other settler-colonial states, “Israel has no ‘mother country’, because it was populated by part of the Jewish population from several countries.” This is one of Atzmon’s key argument as to why Israel’s character owes nothing to its being a settler-colonial state, but to the fact that it is a Jewish state. And it is the Jewishness that most interests him.
It is, of course, a bogus argument. South Africa’s Boers had no mother country either. Nor did the American colonists, once they had rebelled. Palestine had British imperialism as its sponsor. What distinguishes settler-colonialism is not who sponsors it, but what the settlers do. It is the political economy of settler-colonialism which matters. Do the settlers depend on exploitation of indigenous labour or do they want to exclude it?
Donovan explains support for Israel by the west as resulting from “Jewish overrepresentation in the US and other ruling classes”. In other words, Jews form an ethnic lobby. Although ID does not realise it, this is what the Zionists themselves say! When arguing in support of Israel, the Zionists claim to represent the whole Jewish community (apart from a few Jews of the ‘wrong sort’). No8 of the Board of Deputies’ ‘10 commandments’, which Labour leadership candidates were expected to endorse, proclaims that “Labour must engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups, and not through fringe organisations and individuals.”5
It is Zionist advocates who argue that only Jews have the right to define what is anti-Semitic. In the words of Jonathan Freedland,
... black people are usually allowed to define what’s racism; women can define sexism; Muslims are trusted to define Islamophobia. But, when Jews call out something as anti-Semitic, leftist non-Jews feel curiously entitled to tell Jews they’re wrong.6
Freedland was talking nonsense. There is no homogenous women’s view as to what sexism is nor is there a black monopoly on the definition of racism - whereas the Zionist movement insists that everybody accept a definition of anti-Semitism whose sole purpose is the defence of Israel! And they further insist that they, and only they, represent British Jews.
In order to understand the background to GD’s letter, it is instructive to have a look at what Socialist Fight said at the time we were ‘witch-hunting’ them. ID’s article, ‘Third-Camp Stalinoids bring witch-hunt into Labour Against the Witchhunt’, spoke about “the role of Jewish bourgeois in the diaspora”. This “Jewish component within the ruling classes of western countries that exceeds by many times over the proportion of Jews in the general population” turns a “normal relationship” between states “into a servile relationship, where states like the USA give barely critical support to Israeli atrocities against Palestinians”.7
Socialist Fight accused the CPGB of having engaged in the “indulgence of Jewish sensibilities” - as if all Jews have the same sensibilities. It is a statement which could have been taken from an overtly anti-Semitic publication. SF also defended Atzmon’s belief that the Bolshevik revolution was Jewish-dominated, describing his views as “confused and paranoid” rather than calling their fascist lineage out.
ID defended Atzmon and attacked the campaign that Jewish anti-Zionists like myself waged against him, and against the Socialist Workers Party’s toleration of him.8 Ours was “a reactionary campaign, contrary to working class democracy, and in reality constituted an anti-left witch-hunt, which the SWP unfortunately capitulated to”.
Not only that, but
Atzmon manages to poke holes in key aspects of Zionist ideology, and expose some of the capitulations to Zionism and Jewish communalism of some of those on the left who claim to oppose Zionism. He is a savage critic, albeit from an idealist standpoint, of Jewish identity politics, which ... is the identity politics of an oppressor people, and thereby Atzmon’s critique, along with those of others, such as Shlomo Sand, is essential for Marxists to engage with.
In ‘Defend Marxism and labour movement democracy against capitulators to Zionism’, Donovan wrote that Jews are a “people, who, insofar as they act in a collective manner under a quasi-nationalist leadership today, act as oppressors of another people: namely Arabs”.9
Yet, during the debate on whether or not LAW should exclude SF, ID denied that they had described the Jews as an “oppressor people”, which suggests that his ‘materialist’ analysis of what he calls “the Jewish question” is defensible.
Atzmon’s ‘critique’ of Zionism includes drawing a straight line between the ‘Judaic god’ of Moses and Israel’s behaviour today. In The wandering who Atzmon writes:
The Judaic god, as portrayed by Moses ... is an evil deity, who leads his people to plunder, robbery and theft. ... Israel, the Jewish state, has been following Moses’ call. The ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people in 1948, and the constant and total abuse of the Palestinian people since then, makes Deuteronomy 6:10-12 look like a prophecy fulfilled.10
Atzmon’s states in his essay, ‘Truth, history and integrity’, that questioning the reality of Auschwitz has nothing in common with Arab or third-world holocaust denial. Yes, because Zionism uses the holocaust as a weapon, many Arabs therefore query the weapon itself rather than the use made of it. But Atzmon comes from the oppressor people. His ideas are from European neo-Nazis. He wrote:
I am left puzzled here: if the Nazis ran a death factory in Auschwitz-Birkenau, why would the Jewish prisoners join them at the end of the war? Why didn’t the Jews wait for their red liberators? I think that, 65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we must be entitled to start to ask the necessary questions. We should ask for some conclusive historical evidence and arguments rather than follow a religious narrative that is sustained by political pressure and laws.11
In reply Donovan merely says: “His sometimes-sceptical remarks about the holocaust have an Israeli origin, and are a confused reaction to the abuse of the holocaust to justify hideous Israeli crimes.” Yet the first two sentences of the above quotation are omitted from the chapter entitled ‘Truth, history and integrity’ in his book. Clearly Atzmon eventually recognised that they were problematic, even if Donovan did not!
Atzmon went on to justify the persecution of Jews under the Nazis by conflating the Jews of Europe with Israeli Jews today. In essence he was justifying the anti-Semitism that led to Auschwitz:
65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz we should be able to ask - why? Why were the Jews hated? Why did European people stand up against their neighbours? Why are the Jews hated in the Middle East?12
For anyone interested in a report of the LAW meeting of January 6 2018 - including a comprehensive analysis of how Socialist Fight adopted the politics of anti-Semitism as a means of explaining Zionism - you can find it on my blog.13
Gerry Downing has written a mea culpa of sorts, explaining that, when he formed an alliance with ID, “I did not examine too closely the politics of Ian’s ‘Draft theses on the Jews and modern imperialism’.”14 This is, to say the least, hard to take. Gerry admits that he had previously stated about Atzmon: “I do not agree he is either racist or anti-Semitic.”15
GD’s explanation in the same article for his alliance with Ian Donovan was that he had just lost two comrades. And so: “I desperate [sic] needed someone who understood the history of the Marxism-Leninism-Trotskyism, at least to a certain level, and so made that alliance with Ian, which I now recognise as opportunist.”
Opportunism is probably the least of it! The anti-Semitism inherent in what ID wrote was staring him in the face. Even if GD did not have a great grasp of the history of Zionism, he must have been acquainted with the nuts and bolts of Marxism and a class analysis.
In ‘Why Marxists must address the Jewish question concretely today’,16 ID wrote that “Zionism is a Jewish nationalist-communalist project”, which is not true. It became an ethno-nationalist movement in Palestine/Israel, but originally it was a separatist reaction to anti-Semitism. After all Poale Zion in Russia joined the Bolsheviks. ID describes the outcome of World War II as having led to “an emerging understanding that the Jewish bourgeoisie was an important reserve for the survival of capitalism itself - particularly in its ability to see beyond narrow national horizons and look out for the interests of the bourgeois class on a broader basis”. In other words, the “Jewish bourgeoisie” were the guardians of the rest of the capitalist class!
ID went on to state: “If Socialist Fight is right on Zionism’s special relationship to global finance capital, what programmatic implications does this have?” and continued: “Does it mean that we specifically target Jewish capital? Answer: not all Jewish capital. But we do want to expose that a specific part of Jewish capital has an ethnocentric interest in the dispossession of Palestinians.”
Targeting Jewish capitalists was the ‘anti-capitalism’ of the brownshirts. It was what the Nazis and anti-Semitic movements in Europe did. I find it difficult to understand how Gerry could seriously accept this garbage. ID has responded to his expulsion by saying that the Trotskyist Faction has “taken on the mantle of Socialist Fight”.17 As I have said, Gerry Downing needs to ask some serious questions, such as what is the purpose of a group that went down this road. Does it serve any purpose?
In his Weekly Worker letter, where GD describes Atzmon as a “left Mussolini-Strasserite fascist”, he implies that this applies to ID too, since he has “developed a full-blown ideological outlook in lockstep with Atzmon”.
I disagree. Fascism is a specific political movement aimed not only at destroying working class organisations and the left, but all democratic rights. It is the last resort of capitalism against the workers’ movement. Atzmon certainly flirts with fascists and anti-Semites, neo-Nazis included, but he has also flirted with the left, including the SWP. He is, if anything, politically promiscuous. He reminds me of Christopher Hitchens, a contrarian who would argue positions for the outrage they would cause.
I am sure that Gilad Atzmon, an accomplished jazz player, is well aware that in Nazi Germany jazz was considered to be Jewish-inspired “nigger music”. Listening to jazz was considered an act of rebellion by youth chafing at the boring monotone culture of the Nazis. Atzmon also works happily with Jews, converses with them and has no personal antagonism to Jews as Jews. In other words, whilst his ideas are without doubt anti-Semitic, on a personal level he is not an anti-Semite. Nor is there any reason to believe that he has given his support to, still less become a member of, a fascist organisation.
Likewise Ian Donovan is engaged in the hopeless task of proving that Marx and Trotsky would have approved of his batty notions that Jewish capital is responsible for the direction of US foreign policy today. Despite his many sins, Ian looks to the left, not the right. It would be wrong to categorise him as a fascist, even through guilt by association.
. G Atzmon The wandering who London 2011, p120.↩︎
. https://gilad.online/writings/truth-history-and-integrity-by-gilad-atzmon.html (my emphasis).↩︎
. G Atzmon The wandering who London 2011, pp175-76.↩︎