Anatomy of an embarrassment

The appearance of 'The protocols of the elders of Zion' on a Morning Star bookstall has provoked a storm of criticisms. Harley Filben wonders what all the fuss is about

Those attending the Labour Representation Committee annual general meeting on Saturday were privileged enough to witness a minor scandal unfold before their very eyes.

Early on in the proceedings, the chair read out a statement from the comrades of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. It had come to their attention that a book on their stall had “caused offence” to a person or persons unknown, and the comrades would like the meeting to know that said book was strictly available for purposes of historical research, but nonetheless it had been a mistake to bring it along. “What was the title?” a voice cried out from the floor in response to this barely comprehensible statement (the CPGB’s John Bridge, as it happens). The chair claimed to not to remember.

Of course, by then at least half the people present were quite aware of the text in question - none other than a vintage edition of The protocols of the elders of Zion,[1] notionally the records of a meeting of the Jewish elite concerning their plans to dominate the world. The Protocols were cooked up in 1903 by the Russian tsarist state to stir up pogroms, as it often liked to do, and they became a set text for all the anti-Semites in the world. “They are based on a forgery, the Frankfurter Zeitung moans and screams once every week,” Adolf Hitler famously remarked of them in his Mein Kampf: “the best proof that they are authentic.”[2]

It should be emphasised that selling a copy of such a text is no crime - not under British law (so far as I know) or indeed under the loose binding ethics of the workers’ movement. The Frankfurter Zeitung was obviously enough right about the Protocols’ lack of authenticity; but no attempt to understand the political elements of anti-Semitic reaction in the first half of this century that did not undertake to read the ‘source material’ for this set of conspiratorial myths could be called serious. The Protocols - and other texts, such as Mein Kampf - are extraordinarily important parts of the historical heritage of humanity; and all the more important in that they pertain to a part of that history that most people are keen to avoid repeating.

The crime, here, is twofold: firstly, the insistence upon the part of some on the left of making a royal hoo-ha over the fact that some CPBer donated a ‘bad’ book to their stall. The stink was (perhaps unintentionally) provoked by Dave Osler, a left blogger notable among other things for his distaste for reactionary anti-capitalism, and the left’s concessions to it. It was he who parted company with an unknown sum of money to purchase the antique 1925 edition of Protocols (it had already been taken off the stall, apparently after a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty indicated its presence), and immediately posted a picture of his prize to Twitter.[3] Before long, the scandal had made it to the avowedly pro-imperialist Harry’s Place blog[4], to a shocked intake of breath.

For the various diseased elements that hang around Harry’s Place, there can be no innocent reason to own or sell on a copy of the Protocols. The rote repetition of hysterical Zionist slanders (against all parts of the left that do not view the Muslim world in general, and Palestinian militants in particular, as a seething pit of Jew-hatred) that passes for debate on that blog is of course utterly impervious to reason.

One particularly ‘interesting’ argument to have arisen in the comment thread is that it would have been better to have Mein Kampf on the stall than the Protocols. After all, the former is the honest exposition of the views of Adolf Hitler; the latter, however, is mendaciously attributed to a band of Jewish conspirators that did not exist. The corollary of that argument gets to the nub of why the scandal is so repugnant - that is, if that is a dividing line between Mein Kampf and the Protocols, then presumably somebody (at a leftwing meeting, no less!) would be in danger of naively taking the rambling conspiratorial musings of the tsarist secret police at face value.

There is wide precedence for this kind of argument on the left, unfortunately - and not always from plain old renegades after the Harry’s Place fashion. Members of the Socialist Workers Party, motherlode (in the idiotic Eustonite narrative) of “left anti-Semitism”, have called for holocaust denial to be banned, and access to Mein Kampf restricted to “duly accredited students”. The ‘official communist’ movement, of which the CPB is the largest remaining British fragment, has been only too keen to call for state bans on fascism and racism. Indeed, Searchlight - the principal source of such calls today - was founded by Gerry Gable, who left the CPGB over its shift towards support for the Palestinian cause.

All share a fundamentally elitist conception of political development. Bad ideas, apparently, are like cancer - if you do not cut out the first tumour in sufficient time, it will spread until the body is consumed. This is a perfectly amenable perspective for the likes of the CPB, for whom the monstrous Stalinist regimes represented some form of socialism. It is equally appropriate to the Eustonites, who have given up in every meaningful sense on the ability of the masses to change anything.

For the SWP, founded on the fuzzy but admirable principle of ‘socialism from below’, there is a flat-out contradiction here - but, nonetheless, the utterly stunted level of political education typical of the organisation leads to that kind of attitude. Only accredited students can read Mein Kampf - and only activity ‘accredited’ by Alex Callinicos can be undertaken by an SWP comrade.

Which brings us to the second aspect of the crime: the CPB’s cowardly and hypocritical response. Every move possible has been made to distance the organisation from that tattered old book; firstly, the incomprehensible message from the chair at the LRC conference itself, and subsequently in contributions from CPB general secretary Robert Griffiths to the Harry’s Place comment thread.

Every cheap lawyer’s trick is mobilised - no anti-Semitic literature has ever appeared on a CPB stall; a Morning Star stall is quite a different thing from a CPB stall (the grain of truth here is that, indeed, the Morning Star is not so much the paper of the party as the CPB is the party of the paper); and anyway, the redoubtable comrade Ivan Beavis removed the offending item as soon as he was challenged over its presence.

Comrade Griffiths gets himself into yet more hot water by bringing up the criticisms apparently offered by the CPB to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation upon some anti-Semitic speech delivered by a CPRF delegate to the duma. The CPRF is an acutely reactionary nationalist organisation, with some real affinities to fascism - anti-Semitism is in its DNA, and it has been involved in physical assaults on gay pride marches and such. The CPB is happy to maintain ‘fraternal links’ with this odious organisation, and one Yuri Yemelianov has been invited to the CPB’s weekend school, called with no apparent sense of irony 21st Century Marxism.[5] The bottom line is that Griffiths has no stomach for the real argument to be had here, which is with the idea that the very presence of a ‘proscribed’ text on a general stall of second-hand literature is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

Identity politics

As well as the aforementioned elitist anti-intellectualism, this retreat is of a piece with the horrified jeremiads of the Harry’s Place regulars in another crucial respect. This is the increasing penetration of the most degraded forms of identity politics into the left. Griffiths may have been a determined, if politically moribund, opponent of Eurocommunism in the struggles in the old CPGB; but the lasting legacy of the Euros is primarily expressed in the persistence of deflected identity politics on the left, to which he here capitulates.

As such, this little flap over the Protocols was very much of a piece with the LRC event itself. It was not long underway before the likes of Susan Press began bemoaning the small number of women comrades present. She counted one woman to every five men (which seems a fair enough estimate to me): this simply wasn’t good enough, and the LRC had to work at being more ‘inclusive’. The paucity of comrades from minority-ethnic backgrounds was also bemoaned.

The issue is that the LRC has gone more or less as far along the road of ‘inclusiveness’ as is possible. The depredations of New Labour are bemoaned in every speech to the conference. Yet there is one mechanism that the LRC has, consciously or otherwise, inherited from Tony Blair and his (often ex-Eurocommunist) courtiers: the gender quota. The LRC’s national committee is divided up according to the most labyrinthine rules, a mixture of directly elected ‘executive’ posts, one ballot of affiliated organisations and another of individual members.

The latter ballot has to produce eight men and eight women. Given the effort involved to get this precise balance in place, it is unsurprising that we individual members were presented with 16 candidates for 16 posts, with no need for a ballot to take place. One’s mind boggles at the electoral mathematics that would be required to ensure a ‘balanced’ outcome in any vote on the issue.

The LRC has operated this system for years; yet, at the end of the day, it has proven unable to attract any more women to its meetings than is typical of left meetings generally. A worthy motion recognising the especially sharp consequences of attacks on living standards for women is unlikely to change much in this regard.

The LRC - and all who share this methodology - fundamentally mistake a structural problem in contemporary capitalist society for a procedural one that can be solved with intelligent group-architecture and vigorous assurances that sexism is combated within the organisation. To put it briefly: we live in a country in which women are formally equal to men, and informally unequal. The foundation of a political organisation conscious that capitalism should not be taken at its word on the women’s question is a step towards overcoming the informal means by which women are kept ‘in their place’, but it does not achieve it in itself; a shared statement of political purpose does not create a tiny ‘kingdom of freedom’ in which all the old crap is flushed away.

The ‘natural’ course of political activity in this society is for the most articulate, charismatic and confident individuals to assume authority over the rest of us. This tends to reassert the traditional informal hierarchies - it is white, middle class men who, on average, come out ahead of everyone else.

To fight against that, however, two things are necessary: firstly, general political education, which should be understood not as the rote learning of quotations and concepts, but the activation of individuals as confident political agents able to take their own intellectual and political initiative on diverse questions; and secondly, wide-ranging debates on the particular issue of women’s oppression, involving women and men. This will necessarily involve quite scathing criticisms of most extant versions of feminist theory, and ultimately a tenor and level of debate which is not at all ‘inclusive’ to the easily offended or politically naive (general political education is there in part to overcome such prejudices).

Indeed, such serious debates have happened. The post-1968 rise of the new left coincided with, and was in important respects provoked by, second-wave feminism, gay liberation and (particularly in the US) the civil rights movement and its revolutionary offshoots. The discussions that came out of this curious agglomeration reflected both the strong and the weak points of their components; some of the resultant political programmes were useful in important respects, others misleading, and others still slightly wacky.

However, the institutionalisation of identity politics and the failure of the new left to produce a lasting legacy has left us in a position today where hard political polemic on these matters has largely been subordinated to the prissiness of enraged liberalism. For the average Trotskyist group, it is now enough to add ‘feminist’, ‘anti-racist’ and so forth to ‘socialist’ in one’s self-description to resolve the issues. Yet Jews have been oppressed and exploited for hundreds of years, and women for tens of thousands; it is extremely naive to think that not being sexist and not being racist is an adequate response. Neither is the SWP’s preferred alternative, which is to borrow the work of some ephemeral trendy intellectual as and when it is politically convenient (Ariel Levy’s ‘raunch culture’ theory being a relatively recent example).

The prevailing anti-intellectualism on the left not only fails to produce a programme capable of grappling effectively with some of the most delicate and complex means of capitalist domination; it positively aids the penetration of these means into our own movement. The CPB may be mortified with embarrassment that the Protocols of the elders of Zion ended up on its bookstall - but the only real embarrassment is our collective failure on the far left to deal with the issues at all seriously.


  1. Widely available: an edition with some interesting explanatory material can be found at ddickerson.igc.org/The_Protocols_of_the_Learned_Elders_of_Zion.pdf
  2. A Hitler Mein Kampf p240 (available at www.archive.org/details/MeinKampf_483).
  3. yfrog.com/gy4nhwoj
  4. hurryupharry.org/2011/11/19/morning-star-selling-the-protocols-of-the-elders-of-zion
  5. Yemelianov himself does not have any outrageously racist statements to his name, at least in English, but his distinctive views on good old comrade Joseph Stalin are not without interest:  marxism.halkcephesi.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=70