|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 219 June 2018
Antisemitism, Israel-Palestine and the left
The Labour right wing and capitalist establishment are waging a colossal campaign to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and his anti-austerity policies. Particularly pernicious is the avalanche of antisemitism allegations levelled against him – and the left in general. As PETER TAAFFE explains, this threat can only be answered with an all-round, class-based approach to the national question.
"There exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the motion that there is a higher prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party". This is not from an editorial in Socialism Today or The Socialist, the weekly paper of the Socialist Party, but from the cross-party parliamentary committee – including Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour MPs – which explored the charge of Labour antisemitism following the publication of the Chakrabarti report into the issue in 2016.
Yet it has been the Labour Party – because of the threat posed to the possessing classes by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and programme – which has been singled out and found guilty of the charge in the ‘court of public opinion’. An incessant chorus involving the capitalist press, the Tories and their allies, together with the back-stabbing tendency within the predominantly right-wing Parliamentary Labour Party, led a scurrilous, no-holds-barred campaign alleging widespread antisemitism in Labour.
This has been followed by the expulsion of Marc Wadsworth on the flimsiest of grounds: for allegedly accusing right-wing Labour MP Ruth Smeeth of colluding with the Daily Telegraph in its pernicious campaign alleging widespread antisemitism within the Labour Party! He has vehemently denied this but was expelled nevertheless, under Neil Kinnock’s anti-left, catch-all phrase of "bringing the Labour Party into disrepute". This was used in the past against Militant (predecessor of the Socialist Party) and others on the left.
Marc Wadsworth has been attacked for the ‘crime’ of suggesting that right-wing Labour MPs seek to discredit Labour and Corbyn as a nest of anti-Semites. Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn appears to have remained largely silent, after he and his advisers had apparently promised to support Wadsworth and oppose his expulsion. Corbyn has said nothing since. This is now likely to be followed by the expulsion of Jackie Walker, former vice-chair of Momentum, and others on similar charges. Meanwhile, Ken Livingstone has resigned.
Moreover Ken Loach, the left-wing filmmaker who has received widespread acclaim for his work in Britain and internationally and has participated on the left and in the labour movement over decades, faced the withdrawal of an honorary degree after the intervention of the Belgian prime minister! This is because he has supported, like many others, the legitimate democratic rights of the oppressed Palestinians. He has therefore been tried and found guilty by implication, in his absence, on the same charge of antisemitism.
This is all part of a calculated attempt to conflate opposition to the policies of the Israeli government and the right-wing reactionary Benjamin Netanyahu with antisemitism. As part of this campaign we see some right-wing Jewish leaders in Britain identifying the movement for boycott and disinvestment in Israel as an example of antisemitism. The Socialist Party does not support a generalised boycott of Israeli goods for the reasons that we have previously gone into (Boycotting Israel: the Socialist View, Socialism Today No.169, June 2013). But it is entirely legitimate to support the boycott of Israeli arms exports many of which have been used in repression against the Palestinian masses and others.
There is undoubtedly colossal and deliberately created confusion – massive dust blowing – by capitalism and its representatives within Labour, the Blairite right, on the whole issue of antisemitism both historically and today. This in turn is linked to the present character of the state of Israel and how the labour movement, particularly socialists and Marxists, approach the complex issues of the different national aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis.
The Middle East maze
At the same time, the repercussions of the war in Syria, in what is now a multifaceted series of conflicts, have posed the possibility of a new general conflagration. This could involve Israel on one side – supported by Donald Trump’s regime in the US – and Iran, backed up by Syria and the 100 million Shia bloc, with Russia and its armed might in the background, on the other. Trump’s arbitrary withdrawal from the deal with Iran over the development of nuclear weapons has already led to an Israeli missile attack. This could be a prelude to a new war between Israel and Iran.
There is a large element of the Balkans – both in the pre- and post-first world war situations – in the Middle East. Contending imperialist powers are scrambling for influence and possession of territory, with national rights trampled or used as small change, bargaining chips, to enhance the imperialist ambitions of the major players in the region.
The national question everywhere today is like Ariadne’s thread in ancient Greek mythology, complicated and difficult to grasp particularly to those who fail to adopt a rounded out, skilful approach. This is something on which most of the left have been found wanting, and which has contributed to the capitalists and their hangers-on undermining them and the labour movement. Only a consistent class, socialist and Marxist approach can allow the working class and its leadership to find a way out of this maze. This is particularly so in the Middle East, where imperialism’s former domination has left a terrible legacy of multiple unresolved ‘national questions’. On top of this, new national questions have been created.
The left – with the exception of the Socialist Party – tends to emphasise one side of the question, the national rights of a group sometimes in direct opposition to the legitimate national rights of others. Support for the present Israeli state is justified by some, particularly on the right but also on the left, because of the terrible crime of the slaughter of six million Jews perpetrated by the Nazis through the Holocaust.
A Jewish homeland
Leon Trotsky – who was with Karl Marx, historically and politically, one of the most famous of Jewish figures – originally opposed the idea of a homeland for the Jews. He saw them, as did Lenin, as a specially oppressed layer, but not possessing in the pre-second world war period the distinct attributes of a nation: clear territory, a common everyday language, etc. However, the terrible slaughter of the Jews during the second world war generated a growing clamour among them for their own homeland.
Therefore, recognising the changed reality, he and the Trotskyist movement as a whole changed their position. Before his assassination in 1940, Trotsky conceded the legitimacy of a homeland for the Jews – perhaps in a part of Latin America or Africa, with the agreement of the peoples of the area of course. Not in Palestine, however, because it was recognised by Marxists from the outset that a new majority Jewish state there could only be achieved through colonisation, the effective forcing out of the native Palestinian population by a growing immigration of Jewish people.
This would be a formula for continued strife in the region, which Trotsky predicted could turn into a "bloody trap" precisely for the Jews themselves. A big element of Trotsky’s prediction was borne out from the beginning, with seemingly endless conflict and four major wars up to now. Trotsky also predicted that a Jewish state would be used by imperialism as a wedge against the growing Arab revolution. This is what transpired.
Therefore, the central task of the workers’ movement within the borders of Israel was to seek to forge an alternative, a class alliance of the Jewish – now Israeli – and Palestinian working masses, linked to the socialist revolution in the state with the possibility of perhaps autonomous rights for the Jews as part of a socialist confederation throughout the Middle East.
Two socialist states
The demands of the Palestinians began to change under the whip of the Israeli state. The systematic, ruthless and discriminatory policies, together with the repression, land grabs and the building of Israeli settlements on land legally belonging to Palestinians, led them to begin to abandon the idea of a one-state solution in favour of two states.
We therefore recognised these legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people, while at the same time defending the right of Israelis to their own state. Accordingly, we also advanced the idea of two states. So also did the bourgeois wing of the Palestinian movement. But their proposal – for a separate capitalist state with agreed borders alongside an Israeli state – was always a reactionary utopia, something which could never be realised by rotted capitalism and imperialism. The Israeli bourgeois – with US imperialism in the background – would always fear that such a state, starved of resources, would inevitably become a launching pad for endless attacks on Israel.
However, a section of the Palestinian masses – a minority at this stage – now express a deep scepticism towards any two-state solution. This was reflected in the comments of one of the organisers of the recent demonstrations in the Palestinian areas to a Financial Times reporter. He said that he now believed in a shared struggle, with Palestinians linking up with sections of the Israeli population to confront the existing Israeli regime. The task, he argued, was similar to the overthrow of an Israeli version of South Africa’s apartheid state.
However, the analogy with South Africa and Israel today does not hold. In 1990, Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress leadership were able to postpone the South African revolution to the future by collaborating with remnants of the apartheid regime and holding out the prospect of ‘black empowerment’. Netanyahu and the present Israeli state are not prepared to embrace even the leadership of the bourgeois Palestine Liberation Organisation to share power in a new state.
Therefore, the only way to begin to address the national demands of both the Israeli and Palestinian masses is by advancing the idea of two socialist states: one Palestinian and the other Israeli. And the only viable way to realise this goal is on the basis of a mass movement – of both Israelis and Palestinians – to carry through the socialist transformation of Israel-Palestine linked to the idea of a socialist confederation throughout the Middle East.
Foreign policy is a continuation of home policy. However, when it comes to foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular, the left internationally abandons this dictum, resorting to ‘solutions’ which do not go beyond the framework of capitalism. At least Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, in a recent article in the New Statesman, sought to stress the key role of the working class in shaping events in Israel. We would say the same applies to the region as a whole. He wrote: "I have much admiration for those Jewish socialists inside Israel who fight against their government and for peace and justice".
Lenny then went too far in his acceptance of the ‘1967 borders’. However, all these issues would be up for discussion in a united workers’ movement, including the borders of whatever state forms eventually emerge. The only way to win the confidence of both sides is to discuss democratically all their grievances, many of them arising from the murderous strife which has characterised the situation in the region for almost 70 years.
Firstly, it is necessary to recognise the legitimacy of the Palestinian and Israeli demands for their own states. The precise state forms will be decided in mutual discussions after capitalism has been overthrown in Israel and, in all probability, in the Arab world as a whole. It is impossible to say beforehand what the precise borders will be or whether they will even be necessary. It is possible that a victorious socialist and revolutionary movement of Israelis and Palestinians could lead them to agree to coexist in one state. On the other hand, they may decide they need separate states, the borders of which would be open to democratic discussion, debate and negotiation.
One of the greatest accomplishments of the Russian revolution in 1917 was the realisation of the national demands of former oppressed minorities and nations under the whip of tsarism. The obvious example is Finland – see: Finland’s Lost Revolution, Socialism Today No.215, February 2018 – which was granted complete independence by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Other parts of the tsarist empire were able to realise their own state and government but then agreed voluntarily to come together in a confederation.
This completely bore out Lenin’s arguments against those who opposed the right of self-determination. His opponents, notably the great Rosa Luxemburg, argued that this would lead to the splitting up of a unified Russia, resulting in the scattering of the economic basis of a new state. Lenin argued that by granting the right of self-determination it was possible for the Russian workers to win the confidence of the workers and peasants who tsarism oppressed, and convince them of the need for a socialist and democratic federation. Moreover, while Lenin and the Bolsheviks accepted the need for the centralisation of the productive forces, this could only take place on the basis of agreement, a voluntary decision to pool the resources of the states for the common good, through a federation.
This would have been impossible without a clear, sensitive policy on the national question, without which the Russian revolution would never have been sustained, particularly in its first period of existence. Moreover, a successful struggle for socialism will not take place in the Middle East unless the workers’ movement, together with the small farmers, is able to convince through action the majority of the masses of the correctness of their programme and defend their legitimate national demands.
Lenin argued consistently that it would be necessary – particularly in the first stages of a democratic workers’ state – to give concessions, not only to oppressed nationalities but even to small groups, in order to win their confidence and support for the revolution. Unfortunately, because of unfavourable objective factors, this sensitive policy gave way to the hooligan bureaucratic centralisation under Stalinism. In the main, this trampled over legitimate national democratic rights and created new national questions on top of those that had been inherited from tsarism.
The left and the national question
Ironically, the position of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI – the international movement the Socialist Party is part of) on the national question – particularly in Israel-Palestine – has been vindicated by the furore over antisemitism allegedly ‘running riot’ within the Labour Party.
It is noticeable that, on this occasion, it has not been possible for the hyenas of the bourgeois press – and their echoes on the right of the Labour Party – to include the Socialist Party in their anti-Semitic smears. They have not been able to find formulations or loose phrasing in past articles in the Militant or Socialist newspapers, or in Socialism Today, which abandon the class criteria or where we have been seen to back bourgeois or petty-bourgeois sectarian leaders. On all occasions we fight for the independent programme and action of the working class, seeking to unite workers against the common foe of capitalism and imperialism.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case with many of the organisations of the left. For example, some of them wrongly supported the Irish Republican Army in Ireland and in Britain, something which the Socialist Party has never done. On the contrary, while our comrades in Britain and Ireland have supported the aspirations and class interests of the nationalist/Catholic and the Protestant working class, we have consistently criticised the terrorist campaign of the IRA, which was based on a minority of the population and was bound to reinforce existing divisions and sectarian strife.
This same approach has been applied to the struggles in Israel-Palestine, which brought us into collision with other left organisations such as the SWP in the Stop the War committee. They, along with George Galloway, gave uncritical support to Islamic organisations and groups, and rejected amendments moved by us which sought to emphasise the common class questions. This leaves these organisations wide open to attack because of their incorrect, one-sided statements on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and on other issues.
Moreover, the CWI is among the very few which has managed to construct a small but nevertheless vital organisation in Israel itself, which has attracted at different stages Arab and Jewish workers and youth to its ranks. This is something that few other genuine Marxist/Trotskyist organisations have been capable of doing. This has only been made possible by a clear class programme, strategy and tactics which our comrades have put forward consistently, sometimes in a highly polarised situation.
In the long run, this is the only way to be prepared to answer the attacks of the bourgeois and the Labour right wing. It will still not stop them from distorting the ideas of the Socialist Party, or the basic ideas of the labour movement for that matter. But we will be better prepared to counter the lies and distortions of the capitalists and their press – and completely refute the arguments of the right within the Labour Party.
Labour Party witch-hunts
The current campaign around antisemitism is reminiscent of the witchhunt in the 1980s, with the expulsion of the leaders of Militant and working-class fighters, such as the Liverpool councillors and many others. We must never forget this was all orchestrated, in the first instance, by the Tories, with Margaret Thatcher boasting that her greatest achievement was Tony Blair, the conversion of Labour at its base from a workers’ party into another capitalist party.
Moreover, some on the left chose to ignore the threat to themselves in the attack first levelled against Militant. They came for us in the morning but, as we warned, they would come for others on the left later. In the case of Ken Livingstone, it was much later. Without a full explanation of his comments on the connection between Hitler and Zionism, they were likely to be torn out of context by the capitalist class and the Labour right. Livingstone opened himself to attack because he does not have an analysis of – or has not explained – how the bourgeois internationally, not just the German capitalists, backed Hitler. Winston Churchill hailed and supported fascist leaders like Mussolini and Hitler.
More serious for the labour movement was Livingstone’s decision in 1985 to break the common front established by 22 left-wing councils, including Liverpool and Lambeth, which pledged to uphold implacable opposition to the cuts which Thatcher was intending to carry through. We and others subjected Livingstone to severe criticism following the retreat of the Greater London Council, and then by other councils such as Sheffield under David Blunkett, with the subsequent savaging of jobs and services in local government.
We criticised Ken Livingstone, but made no demands for his expulsion. Positive criticism, yes, but not expulsions. The same applies to the case of Jackie Walker whose issues should be answered with argument – if the right-wing has any – and not with exclusions. (See: Antisemitism, Labour and Momentum, Socialism Today No.203, November 2016) We maintain this principled political position despite the spiteful ‘criticisms’ of Ken Livingstone in 2016, when he sought to mollify the Labour right by criticising the Socialist Party to the BBC as a "bizarre little sect".
We are not opposed to expulsions from Labour or other workers’ organisations when it has been conclusively proved that the accused have stabbed workers in the back, resorted to undemocratic means to hold onto office, stolen trade union funds, etc. Bob Crow, the late, revered leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, called Livingstone a "scab" for urging RMT members to break a strike. It would have been entirely appropriate to expel Livingstone or anybody else for such a shameful act as siding with the bosses.
The Blairites who exercised almost complete control of the Labour Party at the time fully supported this and Livingstone’s other anti-working class, anti-labour movement measures. He agreed with them on programmatic issues, such as privatisation, the acceptance of ‘free-market’ capitalism, and all that flowed from this in terms of cuts and attacks on working-class living standards. Even then, we and Bob Crow preferred to answer him politically within the labour movement.
Now, every concession to the right wing by Jeremy Corbyn and his team – the attempt still to incorporate two parties in one – only emboldens the right and the capitalists to go further in their attacks on Corbyn, his policies and the danger to their vital interests they perceive emanates from him. The same kinds of threats against a Corbyn government are currently being prepared, including the completely synthetic campaign against the left’s alleged antisemitism. This must be defeated. We also reject the attempt of the capitalists and their agents in the right of the PLP to use this campaign to intervene in the internal affairs of the labour movement by having ‘outside oversight’ on these kinds of issues.
From the very inception of the Labour Party the capitalist state has sought to control the finances and organisational forms of the labour movement for their own ends. It has continued to do this with the attacks on the collection of trade union dues (check off), and union facility time used by shop stewards and reps to defend workers and workplace conditions, etc. The position of the labour movement should be crystal clear: no state interference in the trade unions or the Labour Party.
If a disciplinary body is required for Labour it should – as with the Socialist Party – be made up of rank-and-file workers trusted by the membership and subject to decisions by the party conference. When we establish a democratic, socialist workers’ state, we would still propose that the trade unions both support the state but also remain separate. This would act as a defence for the working class against any bureaucratic tendencies of their own state!
Workers in this country should support all the oppressed in the Middle East, struggling to assert their legitimate national and social demands. Only in this way could we really prepare for a socialist and democratic federation in the region. Here in Britain, there should also be an urgent counter-movement by the left – involving opening up Labour’s ranks – including the affiliation of the Socialist Party to Labour so that the full power of the working class can be mobilised to prepare the ground in Britain for socialist change.