Words as weapons
CPGB members discussed the Middle East, the IHRA, and possible amendments to our Draft programme. Daniel Harvey reports
Members of the CPGB and Labour Party Marxists held a joint aggregate on October 3 to discuss the diplomatic changes occurring in the Middle East in light of the US-brokered ‘Abrahamic Accords’ between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the impact of the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism by the Labour Party, and potential revisions to the CPGB’s Draft programme.
Guest speaker Moshé Machover began by saying that he was really giving two separate talks, the first on the Middle East and the second on the IHRA. Starting with the Middle East, he said that while the Abrahamic Accords were being presented as a big deal, they were in fact mostly “for show”, and stem from the need to boost Israel’s international reputation in the light of domestic problems.
For example, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is currently mired in a corruption trial for taking bribes. At the same time, US president Donald Trump, through his son-in-law Jared Kushner, has offered the so-called “deal of the century” to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. This deal was widely seen by all parties as an agreement which gave Palestinians nothing and was therefore a non-starter.
Netanyahu took this as a pretext to propose launching annexation of parts of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley from July. This went down like a “lead balloon” due to pressure behind the scenes from France, Germany, the UK, etc. This was particularly based on the fear that it would explode the illusion in a two-state solution. All this has piled additional problems on Netanyahu, as he tries to keep Israeli public opinion onside.
Comrade Machover further stated that it was surprising that the western media paid so little attention to the protests that have been taking place in Israel, which have been growing steadily. This has also been compounded by an economic deterioration in Israel, which has translated into discontent within the Israeli working class.
At the same time, whilst Israel had initially seemed to be coping well with the Covid crisis, the number of infections have been growing recently. This has been driven by concessions made to Netanyahu’s rightwing religious allies, which have allowed congregations to gather and become a locus for new infections. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has banned demonstrations purportedly because of the Covid emergency. This has only had the result of making demonstrators angrier, and them finding new and inventive ways to protest against him.
So Netanyahu is in serious need of a boost, and the accords are presented as a major breakthrough in diplomatic relations. However, due to the hatred of Israel among the Arab masses, such an agreement could not be achieved without some kind of “bait”. In this case the UAE has been promised access to the F-35 fighter jet. Comrade Machover saw all this as part of a longer-term strategy to build an anti-Iranian coalition in the region.
He also pointed out that Saudi Arabia has adopted a more conservative position. The aged monarch, Salman bin Abdulaziz, has refrained from commenting on the agreement publicly, whilst crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has been much more favourable towards the Trump administration and Jared Kushner in particular. Conversely, Jordan with its big Palestinian population could end up becoming the “fall guy” for the accords.
A number of issues and clarifications were made in the discussion. James Harvey suggested that the more conservative position of Saudi Arabia may be tied to its greater potential for political instability, and that maintaining its stability was the prime focus for the regime. He also recalled that there were protests in Bahrain from the predominantly Shia section of the population, which led to Saudi intervention. Bahrain therefore surely required permission from the Saudis to make its agreements with Israel. Mike Macnair questioned whether western powers other than the United States could really be a restraining influence on Israel in relation to the annexations on the West Bank. He thought it unlikely the UK would behave in such a way, given its suppression of anti-Zionism through the fake ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign, which is aimed at keeping criticism of Israel to a minimum.
Yassamine Mather pointed to the switch in alliances between Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, and also to the situation in Kuwait, which has been more aggressively pro-Palestinian recently. Jack Conrad emphasised the point about the instability of Saudi Arabia, but said that the more important issue was the coming prospect following the current US elections.
The aggregate then moved onto the second topic, which was very much linked to the first: the adoption of the IHRA ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism, in particular by the Labour Party. Comrade Machover began by saying that he thought that the adoption of the IHRA by Labour had actually had very little material consequence in all the high-profile cases of suspensions and expulsions from the party, as it had not in fact been deployed directly. The ‘definition’, along with its 11 examples (seven of which relate to the state of Israel), only allows the mildest criticism of the Israeli state or its policies.
Comrade Machover noted that, in the first major case, Ken Livingstone was driven out of the party for making the (imprecise) claim that Hitler supported Zionism. Hitler never did, but the Nazi regime did. The collaboration between Nazi Germany and Zionism is a historical fact. But the case of Ken Livingstone did not actually involve the IHRA ‘definition’. Tony Greenstein was expelled for “rudeness” around what he had said about Israel, while with Jackie Walker it was about “bringing the party into disrepute”. Marc Wadsworth was expelled for his “hand in glove” statement after he saw Labour MP Ruth Smeeth in cahoots with a journalist from The Daily Telegraph. The IHRA was not used in any of these three cases either.
What was particularly noteworthy, comrade Machover continued, was that one of the most ‘serious’ transgressions one can commit in the Labour Party is to criticise the Jewish Labour Movement. There have been two cases, he said, which are particularly significant in this respect. The first was that of George Wilmers, who was accused in an anonymous letter from Labour’s governance and legal unit of calling the JLM an Israeli front group in a Labour branch meeting back in March 2019. This was said to be a breach of rule 2.I.8 on making racist remarks! He wrote a scathing reply and the case was dropped.
In the other case the individual concerned, who should remain anonymous, comrade Machover said, is accused of saying in a private email he wrote that the JLM had been put into “top gear” to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and Labour more generally. Again he got an anonymous letter saying he was in breach of rule 2.I.8, but there is no accusation of anti-Semitism. So, he said, you have to defend yourself from a vague accusation, and being critical of the JLM is enough of a pretext.
Comrade Machover rounded off by speaking about what a Marxist approach to the IHRA should be. He used example 7, which states that calling Israel a “racist endeavour” is a form of anti-Semitism. Of course, he said. Israel is an ongoing project of colonisation, which includes racism towards Palestinians. Another example he mentioned was drawing comparisons between Israeli policies and those of the Nazis. He said that Marxists would do better to compare them to other forms of colonisation. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians stands somewhere between how the British behaved towards the Tasmanian and New Zealand natives.
In the discussion, Peter Manson and Mike Macnair agreed that the IHRA ‘definition’ was largely symbolic. Comrade Macnair went further in saying that the target for the witch-hunt was the entire mainstream anti-war and pro-Palestinian movement as part of a “roll-back” operation similar to what was done to social democracy in the late 70s and early 80s. He asked, why has it not been used in expulsions? The answer was that the one thing those pushing it could not afford was for the definition to actually be tested in court. If it was, and the targets were given free rein to argue against it, that could ultimately undermine the entire witch-hunting project.
Another factor that was raised was the extent to which anti-racism was being used as a wedge to attack anti-capitalism, or rather, to designate anti-capitalism itself as a form of racism. Jim Nelson brought up the example of changes in the curriculum in schools, where “black history” might be used as cover for the suppression of anti-capitalism. However, Sarah Stewart challenged this by stating from her own experience as a teacher she had found that discussing black history made it possible to question elements of the national mythology on things like Winston Churchill and imperialism.
Jack Conrad posed the problem of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report, which was due to come out soon, and could become a new driver for extending the witch-hunt in Labour. He questioned how far this could be taken. Would it mean going after prominent trade union leaders like Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union, or even Len McCluskey of Unite? If it did, it would entail a wholesale de-Labourisation of the party - “the end of Labour as we know it”. James Harvey spoke of the way in which the national myth, particularly around World War II, could be used against the left, such as the myth of Britain fighting the war to end the holocaust.
Jack Conrad opened the final session of the aggregate on suggested revisions to the CPGB Draft programme. He began by emphasising the need for communists to take their programme seriously and the tradition of this in the Marxist movement. In the case of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, he noted that it retained the same programme from 1903 until after the Russian Revolution.
Comrade Conrad then turned to the important principles that have been established by Marxists, including that it was not legitimate for communists to join forces with the capitalist class in government - although they could help it to bring about a democratic revolution that led to a capitalist government. He went on to say that, while Owenism and Proudhonism were dead as traditions, we do see the continuation of Bakuninism in the rejection of mass parties and permanent organisations. This is not because of the influence of anarchism, which is marginal, but actually because of the evolution of various strands of Trotskyism.
The transitional ‘method’ has been pared down to the minimalism of Eduard Bernstein and merged with the ‘action is everything’ of Mikhail Bakunin. The result is the worship of strikes and demonstrations, and the dishonest approach of hiding one’s ‘real’ politics and objectives - your maximum programme, or indeed any programme at all in the case of the Socialist Workers Party. In contrast, the history of the CPGB project can be seen as the fight for a programme. Whilst our programme is only a draft, because we are not the party, as some sects like to believe about themselves, it is a serious attempt to equip the working class with the politics and strategy it needs to take power.
Unlike the programme of the ‘official’ communists, our programme is designed to last. But, of course, there have been important political changes that we need to take account of. Most importantly, of course, is the change with respect to the European Union. While Brexit has meant that some aspects of our programme are now outdated, it cannot mean removing our commitment to a united Europe - the working class in Europe still holds a strategic importance on a global scale, so we must continue to support a revolutionary party of the European working class. And the section on Ireland, where the situation has changed a great deal since 1995 when the programme was first written, needs to be amended, not least in view of Ireland’s continued membership of the EU despite Brexit.
He also suggested that we should at least consider including a section on the Labour Party and the need to transform it into a permanent united front. But he was against including such a section, given the distinct possibility of the Pasokification of the Labour Party. Then there is the central issue of the environment - the programme now needs to stress that we are facing a real danger of runaway climate change. This necessitates a close relationship between minimum and maximum demands - socialism is a matter of the utmost urgency.
In the discussion, comrade Macnair warned that we should be very careful about what we add to the programme. He thought that adding a section on Labour might make us a hostage to fortune if the right in the party attempted to resolve the contradiction of a bourgeois workers’ party in a similar way to social democratic parties on the continent. At the same time, he accepted that the sections on Europe, Ireland, the national question, and the environment needed to be updated.
Jim Nelson thought we could improve the section on housing in light of the amount of empty property in the country, while Gaby Rubin said that she thought some parts on sexual freedom needed to be changed, particularly that relating to prostitution. Comrade Harvey agreed that changes needed to be made in the Irish section as a result of Brexit.
The final item of business was a change to the composition of the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee. Comrade Conrad proposed that James Harvey should be elected to the PCC as a candidate member, with speaking, but not voting, rights at this time. This was unanimously agreed.