The double meaning apparent in the title of Daniel Randall’s new book Confronting Antisemitism on the Left expresses its two important aims: to confront antisemitism which appears on the left while at the same time confronting antisemitism firmly from a left perspective.
Grabbing the baton from Steve Cohen’s important 1984 analysis of left-wing antisemitism, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Antisemitic, and running much further, Randall’s book is not only sharp in its arguments about the nature of antisemitic forms of leftist discourse, but it’s also very well grounded in the history of the different forms that antisemitism has taken on the left.
This includes what may be termed “primitive antisemitism”, the centuries-old conspiratorial view of Jews being associated with finance or secretive power, which though ancient has clearly not been absent from the milieu of many Labour party members as the many examples in the book illustrate. As well as quoting infamous antisemitic statements from well-known left-wingers such as Bakunin and Proudhon, more remarkably, Randall also discusses the origins and critiques the problems with the well-known adage that well-meaning socialists fall upon when describing antisemitism as the “socialism of fools”.
Though indeed well-meaning, there has always been within that phrase a half implication that an antisemite has rightly diagnosed the problem but misattributed it to Jews. Antisemitism and anti-capitalism should not be partial synonyms; someone who has subscribed to antisemitic ideas isn’t “partially right” about anything and the view that someone denouncing Jewish bankers is on their way to becoming a socialist if only they stopped saying the word Jewish has its own problematic consequences. The book emphasises strongly the disempowering nature of conspiracy theories that end up turning people away from seeing the real problems with a capitalist system whose essential processes are carried out in the open and clear for all to see.
Another strain of left antisemitism that is investigated in detail is the legacy of Stalinist antisemitism, from the Doctors’ Plot of the 1950s to the “anti-Zionist” campaigns during the Cold War. This form of antisemitic anti-Zionism, and its overlap with a “campist” worldview that sees Israel as not just an oppressive state towards the Palestinians (undoubtedly true) but as in some sense the embodiment of world imperialism (a view that leads to seeing any force that considers itself anti-Zionist to be necessarily progressive) has been one of the major problems with the worldview of many on the left and the need to confront this ideological error for left antisemitism to ever be defeated is articulately discussed in great length.
The problem of whether or not specifically left-wing forms of antisemitism can be considered racism or a form of oppression is intriguingly discussed as a separate chapter, with the author giving his own view and contrasting it with those of other serious thinkers who have written about the issue. Though concluding that left antisemitism is not always best understood as straightforwardly racist behaviour and instead considers it as an ideological problem, Randall is nevertheless sharp in his opposition to it not simply because problematic worldviews hamper the left’s wider project but because there has been clear historical precedence for ideologically reactionary views such as antisemitism being an intellectual weapon of projects that do cause violence and oppression towards certain groups.
Randall also spends time dealing with how we may combat left-wing antisemitism and promote an ideologically healthier left, while at the same time critiquing the problems with attempting to right the wrong of left antisemitism by bureaucratic methods, a tactic surely likely to fail. Notwithstanding individual antisemites whose behaviour constitutes harassment or abuse, for whom few would disagree that disciplinary action is appropriate, the major fundamental problems the left in particular has with antisemitism are in the sphere of ideology and the political culture that arises from it.
Confronting Antisemitism on the Left is an ideal tool in the arsenal of socialists to use in the extremely necessary work of arguing against and ideologically confronting the poison of the left antisemitic worldview.