Workers’ Liberty has been debating theories of racism and their relationship to left anti-semitism. This contribution is a response to Carmen Basant (Solidarity 454).
Modern political antisemitism consists in damning the very existence of the Israeli state (however modified) as inescapably racist and imperialist, and thus damning all Jews who fail to renounce connection to or sympathy with Israel (however critical) as agents of racism and imperialism.
More traditional racial antisemitism consists in damning Jews, as a hereditary supposed “race”, as constitutionally malevolent and disruptive.
There is no Chinese wall between these forms of antisemitism, or indeed between either of them and other forms of antisemitism in history (Christian, reactionary anti-capitalist, etc.) However, there are distinctions, and it is important to understand these if we are to convince left-minded people influenced by strands of antisemitism rather than only cursing them.
I adduce five reasons for distinguishing between political antisemitism and racial antisemitism.
1. The term “racism” has acquired a diffuse width of meaning, and at the same time come to be cognate with crimes and immoralities rather than with erroneous (or hurtfully erroneous) ideologies. When we are arguing with people who have strands or traits in their thinking of political antisemitism, but who (by their own lights) abhor racial antisemitism, to call them “racist” cuts short the argument. It conveys to them that we do not wish to dispute political ideas with them, but instead to brand them as criminal.
2. Antisemitism is much older than racism. It is possible, of course, to stretch the term racism by back-defining it to cover many phenomena from centuries before the term existed. But to do that blurs rather than clarifies. In particular, it blurs the ways in which antisemitism operates quite differently from general racism (or, if you insist on putting it that way, from other racism).
3. It is indeed, as Carmen points out, disorienting to identify racism exclusively or overwhelmingly as an offshoot of European colonialism. But it is equally disorienting to identify it as a characteristic offshoot of nationalism, presumably of irredentist and revanchist Arab nationalism. Political antisemitism has a dynamic different from both nationalism and racism.
4. Being Jewish does not license antisemitic views, any more than being a woman licenses hostility to feminist demands. But the high-profile Jewish political antisemites are clearly not “self-hating Jews”, either.
5. If we abandon the distinction between political antisemitism and racism, then that makes us no longer able to point out and denounce where people drift over the line.
1. Widening of the term “racism”
The word “racism” (and its synonym “racialism”, more common until the early 1970s) has an odd history.
Xenophobia in various forms is old. The systematic division of humankind into races, and desire to promote or defend one “race” (the vast majority of whose other members are utterly remote to you) against another, is relatively new.
With the development of capitalism, and the consequent decay of social classifications which consigned categories of people to helotry from birth, like serfdom, racist ideologies emerged as rationalisations for defining “alien” hereditary groups of people (such as dark-skinned people) as excluded from the full human rights now being claimed by others. The heyday of doctrines which sought to consolidate such rationalisations as “science” was from the late 18th century through to the late 19th century.
In the early 20th century, when the world was dominated by European colonial imperialism, “scientific” racism was already much discredited, but looser doctrines had great weight. Karl Kautsky, writing on the question, felt he had to take it as given that there were such things as “races”, so as then to show that “in the place of sharply distinct races, unchanged for long periods, we find a constant and increasingly rapid process of race disintegration... natural scientists are by no means agreed on the division of human races, but are obliged to admit that everything is in a state of flux... there is nothing more absurd than the theory of the ‘natural’ hostility between races”.
Yet the words “racist” or “racialist” were rarely used. The left conducted its battles against racism without using the word.
The word “racism” came into wider use from the 1930s, as more and more people (including many themselves tainted by “racial” prejudice) expressed horror at the “racial” doctrines of the Nazis.
Its use remained fairly steady until about 1960, and then, in the aftermath of the winning of independence of most of the European colonies, increased enormously.
It increased hugely yet again from the early 1980s, before levelling off around 2000. I take that second surge to reflect the ascent of neoliberalism, under which (as our comrade Danny Reilly showed in articles in the mid 1970s) governments combined drives against racial discrimination within their own countries (reckoned to cause friction and waste of resources) with restrictive immigration policies, racist by implication but not explicitly.
The anti-racist drive of neoliberalism has gone with the grain of many efforts from labour movements and the left, and has had successes. Overt racial discrimination, almost everywhere, is not a question of dispute, but a crime. Even far-rightists today insist that they are not racists.
The use of the term “racism” has widened. Today it has come to mean, not just discrimination, hostility, or subjugation on the pretext of explicit theories about biological “race”, but a wider range of disadvantaging. It can include “inadvertent” racism or “institutional” racism.
This widening is a good thing. It means that a wider range of discriminatory or divisive practices get examined and criticised.
It can, however, be abused, by branding critical discourse about ideas and cultures as “racist”. A section of the left has defended its complaisance towards political Islam by claiming that any other attitude is “racist”. Thus in 2013 we had people on Facebook branding us “racist” because of rough comments on political Islam. This year we had Socialist Worker denouncing the “Council of Ex-Muslims” (people “racially” similar to still-Muslims) as “racists” because they joined the Pride march with provocative anti-Islamic placards.
Elsewhere, speedy resort to the label “racist” often serves to close arguments and replace them by exchanges of abuse, rather than to sharpen and clarify them.
The two SWP-linked groups in Australia, Solidarity and Socialist Alternative, differ on the question of “457 visas”, visas for certain categories of migrant temporary contract workers. S Alt stresses opposition to 457 visas, in a way that sometimes must come across as suggesting the expulsion of 457-visa workers. Solidarity stresses trade-union organising of 457-visa workers.
A few years ago they held a more-or-less civil debate on the issue. However, the gist of it was each group trying to brand the other’s position as “racist”. There were more substantive arguments made, but the fundamentals of the debate were played out on the basis of one side being “racist”.
It is surely arguable that pushing for British exit from the EU, when it is known that the chief (and desired) result of exit is to block free migration from Eastern Europe, has racist implications against East-European peoples
However, to denounce pro-Brexit positions flatly as “racism”, or pro-Brexit people as “racist”, is to widen the use of the terms in a counterproductive way. The pro-Brexit people will see the denouncers not as attempting to have a (maybe heated) argument with them, but rather as accusing them of a crime.
Those who think that free movement from Eastern Europe will bring “too many” people here, undercutting wages, overstretching housing and other social provision, are wrong. You can tease through implications from their argument which are “racist” in terms of ranking Poles or Romanians lower than British-born people. But often, in fact usually, they are really not “racist” in terms of considering Poles or Romanians to be “races” which are by heredity less deserving of rights than others.
Most left-wing people with political antisemitic views do not at all consider Jewish people to be a “race” which is by heredity less deserving of rights than others. They are sincerely shocked by the idea.
The term “racist” has become a loose one, with a wide range of meanings. In principle it could be extended to cover political antisemitism, too. But the extension would blur rather than sharpen debate.
Much better to say to those with political antisemitic views: yes, of course, I know you abhor racist antisemitism as much as anyone. I know you think your views are only a political opposition to a sort of politics, Zionism, and a state with that sort of politics.
But here is something special about your political opposition to what you call “Zionism” — a quality different from that of your political opposition to neoliberalism, or radical feminism, or whatever — and that “something special” has implications which may make you want to reconsider...
2. Antisemitism operates differently from racism
Antisemitism is much older than racism. For most of its history, antisemitism — Muslim, and, much worse, Christian — stigmatised and disadvantaged Jews not as a “race” but as a religious grouping. Jews could and did escape the stigma and disadvantage by converting to Islam or Christianity.
19th century antisemitism built on Christian antisemitism, but gave it a twist, identifying Jews with hated aspects of capitalism. Modern political antisemitism, derived from the Stalinist campaign of the late 40s and early 50s, continues that reactionary anti-capitalist strand, combining it now with a reactionary anti-imperialist strand which identifies Israel as the world’s hyper-imperialism.
Thus antisemitism operates differently from racism — or from other racism, if you prefer.
Moishe Postone explains: “The way in which antisemitism is distinguished, and should be distinguished, from racism, has to do with the sort of imaginary of power, attributed to the Jews, Zionism, and Israel, which is at the heart of antisemitism.
“The Jews are seen as constituting an immensely powerful, abstract, intangible global form of power that dominates the world. There is nothing similar to this idea at the heart of other forms of racism... antisemitism is a primitive critique of the world, of capitalist modernity. The reason I regard it as being particularly dangerous for the left is precisely because antisemitism has a pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have”.
3. Racism, nationalism and antisemitism
In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon wrote about the Ivory Coast:
“If the national bourgeoisie goes into competition with the Europeans, the artisans and craftsmen start a fight against non-national Africans. In the Ivory Coast, the anti-Dahoman and the anti-Voltaic troubles are in fact racial riots. The Dahoman and Voltaic peoples, who control the greater part of the petty trade, are, once independence is declared, the object of hostile manifestations on the part of the people of Ivory Coast. From nationalism we have passed to ultra-nationalism, to chauvinism, and finally racism”.
Camila is right: racism is not only an expression and legacy of imperialist exploitation, and not only white-against-black. As Fanon describes, rancid nationalism and communalism can flow over into racism, and it can take markers other than skin colour to tag the group to be denied equal rights.
To see the Israeli-Arab conflict as one of “white” against “black”, and thus surely racist on the Israeli side, is analytically wrong (even apart from the fact that a large section of Israeli Jews are of Asian and African origin, and often dark-skinned, while many Arabs are by world standards light-skinned).
Our website carries a report of a Labour left meeting in 1990 where a speaker denouncing antisemitism gave as one of her arguments that antisemitism would lead to “more Jews going to Palestine where they will oppress our ‘black comrades’, the Palestinian Arabs”.
However, it does not follow that antisemitism is mainly, or in large part, a product of intensified Arab nationalism, or vicarious Arab nationalism.
Among most people with political antisemitic ideas, sympathy for the Palestinians is a rather secondary or subsidiary thing compared to their hostility to Israel. They scarcely deny that Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and the creation of a really independent and viable Palestinian state would improve things. They denounce “two states”, not because they think it would deflect a better outcome for the Palestinians which would otherwise soon be possible, but because they think a “two states” policy expresses not enough hostility to Israel.
They are indifferent to the argument that insisting on a “maximalist” outcome (all of Palestine in an Arab state) is not only undesirable, but cuts against any short-term redress for the Palestinians.
4. Jewish “absolute anti-Zionists”
Some activists are both vehement absolute anti-Zionists (with the consequent political-antisemitic implications) and very anxious to proclaim themselves Jewish. They are fairly few in absolute terms but numerous enough to be a significant factor within the left.
They cannot be explained by the traditional trope of “the self-hating Jew”: if they think about a Jewish “race” at all (and probably most of them would dismiss the whole concept of “race”), then visibly they feel no shame or discomfort about being part of that “race”.
Nor are they like, say, black conservatives, who, having gained for themselves personally favoured positions in existing society, then express contempt and hostility towards battles for equal rights by other black people.
They feel shame and discomfort about Israel’s real misdeeds, and more acutely so because they consider themselves Jewish. They have picked up some of the ideas current on the left about Israel as the acme of capitalism and imperialism.
And then “absolute anti-Zionism” has seemed to them to square the circle. They can be radically hostile to Israel, and tell themselves that this is only hostility to a particular political strand of Jewish opinion. This seems to me more like the “anti-deutsche” in Germany, leftists who denounce Germany as such, than racism (bit.ly/anti-d).
There is a difference. Germans face no danger of systematic persecution, as Germans, anywhere in the world. Jews do. But that doesn’t make the Jewish people swayed by “absolute anti-Zionist” ideas into racists.
5. Recognising the borders in order to be able to identify and denounce drift across them
Some comrades have argued that in recent years the sections in the Labour left (for example) influenced by left political antisemitism have drifted so that now many of their attitudes are much closer to “old-fashioned” antisemitism. This may be true. There are no Chinese walls between the different forms of antisemitism. If it is true, it is an important development.
That gives a reason for maintaining the conceptual distinction between left political antisemitism and racist antisemitism. If the distinction is kept, then overlap and drift between one form and another can be discerned.
If the distinction is abandoned, then they can’t be discerned: all is racism, racism is all, and there are no more distinctions than there are shadows in a dark night.