Remembering Steve Cohen

Submitted by dalcassian on 25 March, 2009 - 10:38 Author: Sean Matgamna

“Happy are they ... who walk by faith and hope; to whom the guiding star of their youth still shines from afar, and into whom the spirit of the world has not entered! They have not been "hurt by the archers", nor has the iron entered their souls. The world has no hand on them.” — William Hazlitt

Steve Cohen, who died at the age of 63 on 8th March after a prolonged, brave, terrible battle against the progressive ravages of rheumatoid arthritis, became a revolutionary socialist early in life, in the late 1960s. He remained true to the insights and commitments of his youth, and died a revolutionary socialist, over 40 years later. An Oxford-educated barrister, he devoted himself to the fight against racism. He put his professional skills at the disposal of the most vulnerable, the in-comers, the marginalized, the ghettoised. He defended the victims of narrow vested interests, chauvinism and self-righteous ignorance.

Where others who had trained as lawyers and chose to stand with the oppressed and exploited, found the trade too sordid to practice — Lenin and the Irish Republican Patrick Pearse come to mind — Steve practised law, not as the venal hunt for lucrative work representing the rich, as a means of getting rich himself, but in the service of those who could not afford good lawyers. Consequently, he died relatively poor.

Steve Cohen joined the British section of the Ernest Mandel "Fourth International", the International Marxist Group (IMG), in 1968 or thereabouts and left it in 1974. He remained identifiably a one-time IMGer. It was more than just a friendly joke when some of us, remembering the once common designation for the IMG, would tell him he was “still just an anarchist MIG". (MIGs were Russian jet fighters.)

He remained active on the revolutionary left, concerned centrally with racism. Very uncommonly on the left, he concerned himself with “left wing” anti-Semitism, in history and anti-Semitism in the contemporary left.

Steve was what Isaac Deutscher called a "non-Jewish Jew". Rejecting religion, and vehemently hostile to the leadership of the Jewish community in Britain, the Jewish “Establishment”, he nonetheless retained a strong sense of Jewish identity, an awareness of being a 20th Century Jew, a survivor by an accident of geography of the greatest deliberate mass murder in recorded history.

In the years immediately after he became a Marxist, most of the Left, responded to Israel's post June 1967 colonial mastership over the Palestinians by picking up and endorsing the anti-Semitic "anti-Zionism" which the Stalinists had created and disseminated in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Raucous hostility to Israel and to those who defended its right to exist became a central and defining characteristic of the left, and of the "Trotskyist" left in particular.

For practical purposes that meant an antagonism to most Jewish people, those who, however critical they might be of particular Israeli Governments and policies, continued to identify with Israel. Notoriously, in the '70s and '80s this took the form of harrying young Jews in the colleges as "Zionists" and "racists".

Steve wrote a pioneering book against this and general anti-Semitism, in 1984, "That's Funny, You Don't Look Anti-Semitic." Retaining a proper revolutionary socialist antagonism to those who rule Israel, he refused to actively join or acquiesce in the crusade of the left wing "absolute anti-Zionists". He rejected a “Two States” position on Israel-Palestine for reasons that seemed to me to be more a matter of anarchist hostility to the state as such than anything else. Nevertheless, he refused to play the role of the Jewish anti-Israel, absolute anti-Zionist “Uncle Hymie” to the kitsch-left...

Steve was a highly moral man, for whom anti-racism and hostility to all the chauvinisms and aristocratisms – of the nation, the skin, the passport and the residency permit, as well as of the bank-account — was a straight and simple moral issue. He early took a stand, and held it all his life. Last Summer, when the economic crisis reached a dramatic public peak, he wrote to me arguing that the main thing for socialists would be to defend immigrant workers from the inevitable backlash. Steve was on the side of those in AWL whose impulse was to simply denounce the recent strikes. He had no time for the complexities and "combined" responses sometimes imposed on socialists by such strikes: even where it is afflicted by foul political and social attitudes, the working class remains our class, the protagonist in the Marxist socialist "scenario": we remain with it in all circumstances, opposing things that need to be opposed, here chauvinism and racism, from within its ranks.

Steve was a notably decent man too. When he discovered that the long-ago Secretary of the IMG, Pat Jordan, was isolated in a care home, much of his recent memory destroyed by a stroke, Steve organised a one-man campaign to end his isolation by appealing for people write to him. (It appeared in Solidarity and perhaps elsewhere). That impressed me quite a lot. That sort of simple, decent humanity is not one of our most pronounced traits on the left.

Over a period of twenty five years he made occasional contributions to the press of AWL and its predecessors. At the end, he considered himself a supporter of AWL. He saw himself as having re-located politically in the "Shachtmanite" Workers Party-Independent Socialist League tradition, that AWL in part draws on. At the same time he proclaimed himself an "anti-Leninist". He was combative about it, but wouldn't, I think, have claimed that he had it all neatly sorted out...

He lived quite a bit longer than his doctors had predicted. One of the things that kept him going in this last phase, swimming often deliriously in a welter of pain and pain-killing drugs, was the writing of a surrealist novel about the US Trotskyists, especially the Shachtmanites. To judge from his e-mails, spiritually he had migrated across the Atlantic and back in time to a world of political ghosts, taking people with him that he had known in the British Movement, notably Pat Jordan. It, perhaps, came to be his inner “safe place”. He finished the novel at the end of last year. A publisher has yet to be found.

I only got to know Steve in the last three years or so of his life (mainly in numerous e-mail exchanges) by way of a mutual friend, Jane Ashworth. For a number of years Jane devoted herself with loving care to his well-being, thereby perhaps helping to prolong his life, and also drew others into it. As I got to know him, I was glad she had.

We had a number of disputatious exchanges in which he passionately and eloquently summed up his beliefs. I'd saved those with the vague idea that they would be a fitting epitaph for someone I knew to be dying. Unfortunately my computer collapsed, and the e-mails proved to be unsalvagable.

Steve made a characteristic joke, inverting Joe Hill's famous injunction as he faced the Utah firing squad, urging those who remained in the land of the living: "Don't mourn — Organise!" Steve said: "Don't organise — mourn.”

It was, of course, a roundabout, unpretentious way of repeating, endorsing, what Joe Hill said.

One can do both.

Sean Matgamna