"Why Jews should join Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party"

Author: 

Daniel Randall

Workers' Liberty member Daniel Randall spoke on a panel at Limmud, a Jewish cultural and educational conference, on a panel entitled “why Jews should join Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party”. The other speakers were Jon Lansman (Momentum), Anna Lawton (Labour Party member and Limmud 2017 chair), and Barnaby Raine (RS21). The session was chaired by Andrew Gilbert (London Jewish Forum and Labour Party member).

This is a slightly-edited version of Daniel's speech at the session.


I'm Daniel Randall; I work on the underground in London, where I'm a rep for the RMT union. I'm also a member of the socialist group Workers’ Liberty; we're a Trotskyist organisation, but a rather heterodox one. I should also say that I'm not currently a member of the Labour Party, having been expelled, twice, for my membership of Workers' Liberty. So I'm speaking here somewhat as a Labour Party member “in exile”.

The title of this panel is “why Jews should join Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party”. I'm going to approach the issue slightly differently, because I'm not a communalist; I'm not a Zionist, or a Bundist, or nationalist or cultural autonomist of any other stripe. I don't believe in a unitary “Jewish interest”, and I don't believe there's any essentialist, innate “Jewish characteristics” that ought to compel Jews to join Labour, or any other political party. Fundamentally, I think Jews should join the Labour Party if they support its foundational purpose: to represent in politics the interests of the working class.

I should also say that I don't believe there's any such thing as “Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party”. The Labour Party belongs to its members, not to its leader, and has always been a politically contested space and a site of struggle. You might not like the current political composition of the leadership, for whatever reason, but if you believe in labour representation, you should be in the Labour Party.

But to say nothing more than that would be a missed opportunity, I think, so I will use the not-very-much time I have to say a bit more on what a Corbyn-led Labour Party might imply for the relationship between Jews and the left.

I think the Corbyn surge represents an opportunity to recompose and renew the left. Hundreds of thousands of young people, many of them new to politics and without the training and baggage of years spent organised under prevailing far-left common sense, good and bad, have become politicised, and some have become mobilised and active.

If you're a Jewish leftist or labour movement activist who has felt uncomfortable with, or alienated by, the common sense that has prevailed on the left around certain issues, and I agree that there has been much to feel uncomfortable about, then the febrile political atmosphere created by the Corbyn surge represents an opportunity to challenge and change that common sense. You should get involved in and be part of those discussions, but that means making a commitment to attempt to see this political moment through, on its own terms.

Much has been said about Jeremy Corbyn’s personal, individual attitude to Israel/Palestine and antisemitism. On substantive questions of policy he has a much better position, in my view, than the one which has predominated on much of the far-left: he is for a two-state settlement, rather than the destruction of Israel, and against blanket boycotts of Israel. That puts him one up on much of the far-left.

His weaknesses on these issues, his historic softness on Hamas, for example, reflect the reality of him as a product of the existing left – a left characterised by Stalinist politics, and a “my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend” approach to international issues. But the new left in the Labour Party is bigger than Jeremy Corbyn himself and, as I've said, represents an opportunity to challenge those politics.

I think it's also important for me to say here that the view that the entire far-left is institutionally antisemitic is a calumny, and I think some of the antisemitism scandals in Labour have been blown out of proportion and manipulated for factional ends, by figures on the right of the party.

Nevertheless, left antisemitism is a real and distinct phenomenon which needs a specific analysis and response. We don't have time to say much here, but briefly, I think we can understand antisemitism on the left as a form of implied political hostility to Jews, distinct from the racialised antipathy of far-right antisemitism. This has its roots in the efforts by Stalinism, from the 1950s onward, to cynically conflate “Zionism” with imperialism, racism, and even fascism, which established a common sense which came to dominate even on the anti-Stalinist left. Only an analysis that understands the historical roots of left antisemitism, and which sets as its aim the renewal of the left, on a politically healthier basis, can meaningfully confront it. The required response is fundamentally political, rather than moralistic or administrative or bureaucratic; to be part of recomposing and renewing a movement you must first be part of the movement.

The key is a culture of open debate, discussion, and education, conducted in an atmosphere of free speech, on all sides. We’re not there yet; far from it. But I believe we have an opportunity to build a left that is characterised by those things, and if you believe in them too then I urge you to help shape it.

I will finish by offering a different, perhaps more fundamental set of reasons why Jews should join the Labour Party.

We live in a grossly unequal world, characterised by exploitation and oppression. Just in this country, one of the richest in the world, over 500,000 people use food banks. In 2016, nearly 200 employers were found to be paying less than the minimum wage – a wage which it is now widely acknowledged it too low to live on anyway. Various forms of social oppression persist, and ecological degradation continues. It's a bleak picture. And against this backdrop, the wealth of the richest continues to skyrocket. The richest 1,000 in Britain have increased their wealth by 112% since 2009.

All of that is grotesque and obscene. It should offend you, “as Jews”, and as human beings. It should make you want to change it. The only way we can change it is on the basis of a movement based fundamentally, structurally, on the relationship and conflict that animates it all: class. That is what the Labour Party and wider labour movement is for. And if you believe that it is the mission of the labour movement to change the world, and you find the labour movement before you inadequate or deficient in some way, then it is your responsibility not to abandon it, but to help transform it.

As I said at the beginning of this speech, I don't believe in any innate Jewish characteristics that ought to compel us in a particular direction. But perhaps there is something in our historical experience that can help us gain an understanding of why our world is organised in that way, and how it might be different. In his essay “The Non-Jewish Jew”, Isaac Deutscher explores why Jews have seemed to be over-represented in the ranks of the thinkers and organisers of the left. Considering various figures including Marx, Trotsky, and Luxemburg, he writes:

“Have they anything in common with one another? Have they perhaps impressed mankind’s thought so greatly because of their special 'Jewish genius'? I do not believe in the exclusive genius of any race. Yet I think that in some ways they were very Jewish indeed. They had in themselves something of the quintessence of Jewish life and of the Jewish intellect. They were a priori exceptional in that as Jews they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilisations, religions, and national cultures.

“They were born and brought up on the borderlines of various epochs. Their minds matured where the most diverse cultural influences crossed and fertilised each other. They lived on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations. They were each in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it. It was this that enabled them to rise in thought above their societies, above their nations, above their times and generations, and to strike out mentally into wide new horizons and far into the future.”

That is our history. We do the most honour to our heritage when we attempt to use that history and experience to go beyond our own experience, into perspectives for universal emancipation.

That is why you, as a Jew, should dedicate yourself to the struggle to change the world. That is why you should join the Labour Party.