John McTernan, writing in the Financial Times claims that anti-capitalism ‘masks and normalises anti-Semitism’. The claim was picked up the next day by a Labour MP on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Is anti-Semitism in Labour due to Corbyn?
anti-Semitism? This is a recent phenomenon, and it coincides with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
This is, quite simply, completely untrue. Anti-Semitism has been present in the Labour Party for well over a century. Keir Hardie, the Party’s founder, published Labour Leader newspaper which wrote in 1891 “Wherever there is trouble in Europe, wherever rumours of war circulate and men’s minds are distraught with fear and change and calamity, you may be sure that a hook-nosed Rothschild is at his games somewhere near the region of the disturbances.’” 1
Hardie wasn’t only anti-Semitic, he was also anti-immigration, saying of Lithuanian immigrants to Scotland that they had "filthy habits", lived off "garlic and oil", and were carriers of "the Black Death" 2
McTernan however was more than happy to recommend to Ed Miliband that he invoke Keir Hardie in a suggested speech published in the Scotsman.3
McTernan’s selective memory doesn’t only extend back to the 19th Century, but also the same year that he was head of operations for Tony Blair. In February 2005, Labour released two campaign posters featuring Jewish Conservative MPs. On one, Michael Howard was depicted holding a pocket watch, widely viewed as a reference to Fagin, Dickens’ anti-Semitic caricature from Oliver Twist. In the second poster, Howard and Oliver Letwin were depicted as flying pigs. Labour withdrew both posters shortly afterwards, following outrage across the mainstream British media. Luciana Berger, who McTernan references in his article as having recently left the Labour Party over anti-Semitism, called the anti-Semitic election posters ‘misguided’ and ‘wrong’ in a Telegraph interview.4
While Labour was producing anti-Semitic caricatures of Tory MPs for their election campaign, the Tories campaigned hard against immigration. Rather than criticise this strategy, McTernan expressed admiration for it: "The best thing about it was Crosby’s language, the dozen words that crisply defined the Tories, the subversive, persuasive – and correct – slogan: 'It’s not racist to worry about immigration.'"5
So far, this is more of the usual denial of Labour’s long history of racism that we have unfortunately come to expect from the Labour Party (including the majority of both Corbyn’s defenders and attackers). From Tony Blair6 claiming that racism started with Corbyn, to General Secretary Jenny Fornby7 claiming that Labour has always been anti-racist and therefore can’t be now.
Is anti-Zionism anti-Semitic?
Having completely misrepresented both the long and recent history of the Labour party, McTernan then goes onto completely misrepresent the history of anti-capitalism, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
All of these feature in the criticism of Israel and the so-called Israel lobby. They can be easily moulded into a critique of capitalism, too. Rhetoric about the 1 per cent and economic inequality has the same underlying theme — a small group of very rich people who cleverly manipulate others to defend their interests. So anti-capitalism masks and normalises anti-Semitism — condemned as the “socialism of fools” by German political writer August Bebel.
McTernan has previously said “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, plain and simple”8 .
First of all we should say that anti-Zionism can be used as a way to mask anti-Semitism. Sometimes the word ‘Zionist’ is used as a stand-in for Jews for what would otherwise be obviously anti-Semitic statements. Sometimes Israel is credited with influence on international politics far beyond what it actually exerts, due to a conspiracy of the Jewish diaspora to work against the interests of their ‘own’ countries in favour of Israel. Israel is a close ally of the US and receives a lot of military support, and groups like AIPAC lobby the US government on its behalf. However, Israel does not control US foreign policy either via direct lobbying or due to the influence of Jews in politics and the media. In fact a significant wing of support for Israel in the US comes from far-right evangelicals9 . Policy also simply emerges from more structural US geopolitical interests in the Middle East where Israel is a US military ally against countries like Iran, in the same way it does with other countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Is ‘the 1%’ anti-Semitic?
McTernan criticises Occupy’s slogan, the 1% vs. the 99%, as ‘masking anti-Semitism’ and again falls far short of the mark. Corbyn occasionally talks about the richest 1%, his more common refrain is ‘for the many, not the few’, an adaption of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “we are many, they are few” from his Masque of Anarchy.
‘The 1%’ is obviously populist rhetoric, which has similar framing to Corbyn’s discussion of ‘elites’ and a ‘rigged’ system. As such it can lead to a fatalistic approach to capitalism, and people could substitute ‘the richest 1%’ for ‘the Jews’ (and graffiti was reported in the University of Winnipeg saying “The 1% is 99% Jewish”10 , so this isn’t entirely hypothetical).
During Occupy in the US, far right activists attempted to infiltrate the movement by latching on to the focus on banks. Spencer Sunshine’s study of their attempts notes the strategy of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke11
The most prominent figure on the Far Right to endorse Occupy was David Duke, a former Republican state representative from Louisiana and an elder statesman of the U.S. White nationalist movement. In a video from October 2011, “Occupy Zionist Wall Street,” Duke denounced the “Zionist thieves at the Federal Reserve” and “the most powerful criminal bank in the world, the Zionist Goldman Sachs, run by that vulture-nosed bottom feeder, Lloyd Blankfein.” The video has received more than 100,000 views to date. Duke later wrote on the White supremacist web forum Stormfront that “OWS is an opportunity. … Grab this opportunity!”"
However to simply say that the problem with the slogan is that it masks/leads to anti-Semitism is both to deny that there is a richest 1% at all, as well as to gloss over the other side of the problem, the framing of ‘the 99%’. An analysis that only looks at the very richest in society, tends to frame all the rest of us positively - proletarians, small and medium business owners, police officers, estate agents, landlords. Whilst there have been some incidents of people using the 1% in an anti-Semitic way, we’re more likely to see protesters chanting “You are the 99%” at police shortly before getting arrested, or bemoaning the loss of small chains to large chains, or supporting higher police numbers as opposing Tory cuts to public service12 . Corbyn’s “For the many, not the few” is clearly intended to appeal to police officers as much as unemployed workers, especially with Labour’s promise to recruit 10,000 more cops and 500 more border guards. Anti-Semitism (and the populist rhetoric that is blamed for it) then needs to be looked at in a wider context of explicit and open support for state violence and immigration controls. So while we recognise that there is indeed a super-rich of Gates and Kochs and Bezos, this should fit into a systemic understanding of capitalism, that instead of welcoming the police into a populist 99%, rejects their role as defenders of private property that is essential for maintaining class relations.
In McTernan’s 2016 article “Labour is not a socialist party, and it never has been” (finally something we can agree on, albeit McTernan thinks this is something to be celebrated), McTernan writes 13 :
Defining your role in terms of the minority—however important—is a politics of impotence not of power. It is a strategy of daytime TV ambulance-chasing lawyers: “Not got your fair share? Dial 0800-LABOUR!” Power is a majoritarian, universalist project—everyone needs strong defence, good education, high-quality health care, opportunities for themselves and their families.
Ah ha! So McTernan’s issue is not that the 1% is a dogwhistle for ‘the Jews’, but that it doesn’t identify the 1% as those on unemployment benefits, opposed to the 99% who all need Trident as a nuclear deterrent. In fact, the 99% fits exactly into McTernan’s majoritarian project, what he doesn’t like is that it hints at the possibility of a capital/labour relation, which McTernan would prefer to pretend does not exist at all.
Why is equating anti-Zionism or anti-capitalism with anti-Semitism anti-Semitic?
There is a long tradition of communist, anti-Zionist Jews, and McTernan is labeling those Jews as anti-Semitic - or rather has to pretend they don’t exist to make his point. For McTernan's point to be correct, he has to homogenise the ideology of the entire highly varied Jewish diaspora while also associating Jews with support for capitalism. Both of these ideas, as well as being wrong, are quite obviously anti-Semitic.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, the Jewish Labour Bund in Russia was one such group with tens of thousands of members taking a very different path to the colonisation of Palestine (an idea gaining ground promoted by Theodor Herzl and the Zionist Organisation he founded). As legendary Bundist Moishe Olgin said, “Zionism means a fight against the Arab masses; they are to be deprived of their land, and the Arab working masses enslaved.”14
The Bund were also fiercely critical of the Jewish establishment for their cowardice in confronting anti-Semitic violence. Olgin denounced them: “we who fought [the pogromists] when the Jewish bourgeoisie were cowering in their cellars afraid to show their noses above ground … We Communists fought against the pogroms and will continue to do so”.15
The Bund criticised Russian police for colluding with pogromists, organised mass armed self-defence, a series of militant strikes, and took part in the 1905 revolution. 16 They were also involved in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, such as in the activity of prominent Bundists such as Bernard Goldstein17 and cofounder of the Jewish Combat Organisation, Marek Edelman18 .
In Israel itself, Matzpen, the Socialist Organisation in Israel fought against Zionism from the 1960s to the 1980s. Matzpen viewed Israel as a settler-colonial project allied with the Imperialist powers and founded on the displacement of the Palestinians. Instead of this colonial project, they proposed19 :
the formation in the Arab East and in the whole world of a social order without exploitation, privilege or oppression in which the anachronism of national boundaries will disappear and the alienated, coercive power of the state will be progressively reduced; a society in which consciously co-operating human beings will be ever more able through the products of their work to satisfy their material and cultural needs, as they themselves consciously and collectively define these needs. [Our] goal, in short, is socialism.
A central component of these anti-Zionist Jewish communists is that they argued not only against the Israeli state (whether yet-to-be for the Bundists, or their own homeland for Matzpen), but against the capitalist state in general.
Did August Bebel think anti-capitalism masked anti-Semitism?
Bebel argued for an explicitly anti-capitalist communism (albeit one reached via parliamentary activity, as was the mainstream of the German workers movement until just after his death and the capitulation of the Social Democratic Party to the First World War), rather than arguing for an non-anti-capitalist socialism. He was one of few voices in Germany at the time to condemn the Herero and Nama genocide of the early 20th Century, a strong contrast to McTernan’s support for the Iraq war. McTernan can’t even name Bebel as a socialist in his article, instead calling him a ‘German political writer’:
The transformation of all means of production into common property forms the new basis of society. The conditions of life and work for both sexes.. become radically different... the state disappears; it, so to say, abolishes itself.
- Bebel, 187920
McTernan cites Bebel as coining the description of anti-Semitism as ‘the Socialism of Fools’, in fact Bebel was quoting Ferdinand Kronawetters, and argued that the phrase did not quite capture the source of the problem. 21
Bebel himself identified anti-Semitism in the late 19th Century in Germany as springing primarily from petit-bourgeois shopkeepers and smallholders, who would face Jews in business competition either as competitors, or as owners of their mortgages. In some areas of Germany such as lower Saxony, these social positions were disproportionately held by Jews. That some of these social roles were disproportionately held by Jews does not mean that most Jews held them, however - as the tens of thousands in the Jewish Labour Bund demonstrate.
While Bebel’s comments on anti-Semitism have not been properly translated into English yet. We can cite Belgian Jewish communist Abram Leon who was killed in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1944. In 1943, organising resistance activities against the Nazis with Belgian Trotskyists, Abram Leon wrote ‘The Jewish Question’22 , an attempt to trace the history of both the Jews and anti-Semitism in Europe. Leon pointed out that big business had taken the rudimentary anti-Semitism of the petit-bourgeois, and created the figure of ‘Jewish capitalism’ - channeling discontent in both the petty bourgeois and a section of the working class against ‘speculative’ capital to distract from their own monopoly capitalism. An example of this in the present day would be the relative lack of attention paid to Jeff Bezos despite him being the richest man in the world (and getting involved in politics via buying the Washington Post etc.), compared to the many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros.
It is consequently incorrect to accuse big business of having brought about anti-Semitism. Big business only proceeded to make use of the elementary anti-Semitism of the petty-bourgeois masses. It fashioned it into a major component of fascist ideology. By the myth of “Jewish capitalism, big business endeavored to divert and control the anticapitalist hatred of the masses for its own exclusive profit. The real possibility of an agitation against Jewish capitalists lay in the antagonism between monopoly capital and speculative-commercial capital, which Jewish capital was in the main. The relatively greater permeability of speculative capital (stock exchange scandal) allowed monopoly capital to channel the hatred of the petty-bourgeois masses and even of a part of the workers against “Jewish capitalism.”
French Jewish anarchist Bernard Lazare writing in 1894 located modern anti-Semitism from three sources: the increasing hold of nationalism that accompanied the formation of modern nation states; the economic position of Jews in society due to discriminatory legislation; and the beginnings of ‘race science’ and Aryan supremacism taking hold in Germany.
His comments on nationalism identify the common trope of Jews as unassimilable rootless cosmopolitans23 :
The nationalists have been led to consider them as the most active propagators of the ideas of internationalism; they even found that the example alone of these countryless laymen was bad, and that by their presence they undermined the idea of fatherland, that is any special idea of fatherland. For this reason they became antisemites or rather for this reason their antisemitism took on added force. They not only accused the Jews of being strangers, but even destructive strangers. The conservatism of the exclusivists connected cosmopolitanism with revolution; it upbraided the Jews first for their cosmopolitanism, and then for their revolutionary spirit and activity.
We can see this trope deployed when pro-immigrant sentiment is cast as originating in North London (an area with a large Jewish population).
This has been deployed both by Corbyn supporter Len McCluskey as well as Ian Austin MP who supposedly resigned from the Labour Party over anti-Semitism and who was previously a junior minister in Gordon Brown’s government..
McCluskey refers not only to North London, but to North London socialists, evoking ‘Judeo-Bolshevists’ against immigration controls24 :
Unite favours labour market regulation and controls on the exploitation of agency labour. But can my friends in north London in groups called Socialist this or Workers’ that please at least admit that a free-market in labour power works no better than it does in any other area of economic life?"
Or we can see this expressed directly, in McTernan’s own writing on Blue Labour, when he said: “There was something of the rootless, cosmopolitan elite about New Labour's response to the new economic rules.”25
So come on, why is anti-Semitism a problem in Labour if anti-capitalism isn’t the issue?
Anti-Semitism, and the use of anti-Semitic tropes by people who would not consider themselves anti-Semites, is quite prevalent in modern society (and, it appears, John McTernan’s own writing), more than most of us would like to admit. Beyond this, there is a general receptiveness to conspiracy theories as a way of explaining defeat and frustration and providing a way to avoid confronting systemic issues, amongst other things. Labour’s increase in membership means that the raw quantity of anti-Semitism, whether hard ‘jew hatred’ or softer conspiracist anti-Semitic tropes is going to be higher, simply due to an increased number of people.
Having said this, there’s a question as to whether the culture of discussion among Labour Party supporters and the leadership educates people away from anti-Semitic ideas and the kinds of flawed analysis or conspiracism which can sometimes lead to them or not. While the ‘anti-Semitism crisis’ has resulted in some thoughtful responses from some Labour figures, there has also been a huge amount of defensiveness and denial. Narratives such as ‘they’ll do anything they can to prevent a socialist government’ can feed back into the kind of conspiracism that in turn can lead to anti-Semitism. Corbyn is offering quite mild social-democratic reforms, not a ‘socialist government’, and some of his policy suggestions have been warmly received by the CBI and the EU. Much of what has been directed at Corbyn has been due to factional issues in the Labour Party itself with old power centres losing their grip, and the kind of general Tory scaremongering that was applied to both Ed Miliband as Labour leader and Sadiq Khan as mayoral candidate. Instead social media accounts with significant followings are often engaged in significant discussions about the guests and audience members on Question Time, a show watched by less than 3 million people.
Corbyn, while the most left wing Labour leader for a very long time, is not an anti-capitalist or an internationalist26 .
You know things are bad when the Daily Mail calls out a rigged economic system.
The Tories have put the interests of city speculators over people's jobs.
Labour would have stopped the takeover of GKN and in government we'll make our economy work for the many, not the few.
The ‘rigged economic system’ here is identified not as capitalism in general, but ‘city speculators’. This is not in itself anti-Semitic: objectively both the Tories and New Labour have presided over a de-industrialisation of Britain’s economy, while the financial sector has grown, and Britain’s financial sector is not ‘Jewish’ except to the anti-Semite or the over-zealous philo-Semite. However, the solution to this problem is not just to curtail financial capital in favour of national/productive/monopoly capital, but to oppose capital as a social relation. Financialisation is a symptom of capitalist development, not its cause, it can’t be blamed on ‘the Tories’ and while Labour might be able to do some rebalancing, it’s not going to ‘un-rig’ the system.
In 2018, the New Economics Foundation (which is a lot more pro-Corbyn than me), released a report called ‘Framing the Economy’27 looking at the ways in which certain concepts mobilise or demobilise people when talking about capitalism.
Models such as ‘the system is rigged’, that the media has a ‘hidden agenda’, and that problems in capitalism are down to ‘greed’, whilst common views amongst survey participants, “in particular led to tremendous fatalism and an inability to imagine positive, structural changes in the economy”. Talking about these things therefore can supplement unhelpful, defeatist sentiments which are very widespread. The NEF report highlights the need to go from suchinitial statements to more positive framings of how things can be changed. Corbyn’s promise to rebalance the economy ‘for the many not the few’ still leaves people in the quite passive position of voting in a Labour government to do that for them, and every mis-step on that path can be interpreted as yet another confirmation of the ‘rigged system/media’. With the sustained media onslaught against Corbyn, a vast amount of effort goes into ‘countering media narratives’ and various other defensive postures (despite not being remotely invested in the Corbyn project, you could say this article is a part of that dynamic too).
We are seeing a cycle where accusations of anti-Semitism from commentators like JK Rowling or John McTernan become ever grander and more encompassing. We’ve seen people accuse Corbyn of anti-Semitism simply for criticising bankers in quite a straightforward way. With some positive exceptions, there is also a culture of defensiveness among many Corbyn supporters. In many ways the philo-Semitism and bad faith from some Corbyn critics is self-reinforcing the anti-Semitism of some Corbyn supporters - if not in nature then certainly in visibility, as particular social media accounts get promoted by either ‘side’.
How can we counter left-anti-Semitism?
As we can see from the work of Bebel, Leon, Lazare, the Bund and many others, anti-Semitism can arise when critiques of society are insufficiently anti-capitalist, rather than from being anti-capitalist, or too anti-capitalist.
The German petit-bourgeois of the 19th century had no interest in anti-capitalism, being small capitalists themselves, but they would be opposed to specific Jews that they faced as rival small business owners or financiers, drawing on the long history of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe from the middle ages. Large business owners and ideologues, then exploited these divisions to create the figure of ‘Jewish capitalism’, the only form of capitalism to be opposed, leaving their own industrial capitalism off the hook. As an ideology, anti-Semitism could be used to divert not only the petit-bourgeois, but also the working class, from an opposition to capitalism as a whole, to an opposition to Jews, as some kind of parasitic infestation of what would otherwise be a healthy system. The ‘socialism of fools’ then is not really a poor understanding of socialism, but one where this poor understanding has been substituted with an opposition to only a particular facet of capitalism (‘parasitic’ or ‘speculative’), personified in “the Jew”.
In other words a partial or foreshortened critique of capitalism leaves a gap in analysis which anti-Semitism or conspiracism more generally may fill. This doesn’t mean that ‘if you’re not anti-capitalist you’re anti-Semitic’, this would be to simply invert McTernan’s flawed logic on its head. The reality of capitalism and the difficulty of challenging it as a system can very easily lead to fatalistic or conspiracist views of the world - with anti-Semitism and other forms of racism often substituting for useful analysis. Class struggle organising can mitigate against these tendencies, although fatalism and conspiracism are not unique to the Labour Party, but can affect all sections of the left.
The answer to this is to oppose not only financial capital and foreign capital, but also the national capital of the British (or American) state, and the patriotic nationalist capitalism of Wetherspoons or Greggs 28 . Or more specifically, capitalism not as a collection of capitalists, but a social relationship where the vast majority of people are forced to sell their labour power for wages, in order to buy commodities to survive. A system that is rooted in our dispossession from the means of production via historical and current violence, the enclosures, colonialism past and present, and the criminalisation of anyone trying to meet their basic needs outside regular wage labour.
This answer then includes everything from producing material that explains ‘abstract’ concepts like wage labour, capital, and the commodity form, to very concrete examples of struggle against the intensification and lengthening of the working day, rent increases, and state violence, which bring people into much more direct conflict with more local personifications of capital like bosses, landlords and the police.
The actions of particular capitalists, capitalist factions, or types of capital can then be discussed within this broader context of how capitalism operates as a system.
We look forward to John McTernan’s suspension from the Labour Party while this historical pattern of anti-Semitic dogwhistling in national publications is investigated soon.
- 1Quoted in Satnam Virdee: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/0031322X.2017.1335029
- 2Keir Hardie: The Making of a Socialist, Fred Reid, p. 122
- 14The Emergence of Modern Jewish Politics: Bundism and Zionism in Eastern Europe, ed. by Zvi Y. Gitelman
- 25https://www.scotsman.com/news/john-mcternan-can-blue-really-become-the-new-red-1-1667587 (now removed, but archived here: https://web.archive.org/web/20190626180506/https://www.scotsman.com/news-2-15012/john-mcternan-can-blue-really-become-the-new-red-1-1667587)
- 28national British pub and bakery chains which are often suggested as candidates for (tongue in cheek?) Labour nationalisation. Wetherspoons chairman Tim Martin has used the chain to support Brexit