Saturday, 16 March 2019

Anti-capitalism and Antisemitism

The centre-right Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh's recent admission that she believes anti-capitalism is akin to antisemitism shouldn't surprise us. The idea that the two are linked has been building for a while, as part of a wider tendency that also treats philosemitism as a narrow political identifier and associates antisemitism with political attitudes far beyond the confines of the Israel/Palestine issue. Morbid symptoms of this include Americans like the TV anchor Meghan McCain (daughter of the late John McCain) claiming a superior empathy with Jews and Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian suggesting that in trying to understand 2008 we instinctively reached for "the archetype of the avaricious Jew". There's a degree of projection in evidence here, with traditional antisemitic tropes being liberally used by the right to characterise anti-Semites as malevolent and traitorous, in particular anti-Zionist Jews, but there is also a sense of centrists seeking to defend capitalism not on its merits but by discrediting its critics.

Ironically, the roots of this latter strain of thinking are to be found on the political left, not in the centre or on the right, and they go back decades. The linking of anti-capitalism and antisemitism originates among Marxists of the New Left who deplored the rigidity of the Stalinist "Two Campism" of the post-war era, and who more recently criticised the lack of a sufficiently structural approach by the anti-globalisation movement in the 1990s and the Occupy movement after 2008. Their essential argument was that a failure to treat capitalism as a system of social relations led to a moralising focus on "bad actors" that left itself vulnerable to conspiracy theories. One of the central thinkers in this tradition was the Canadian academic Moishe Postone, who espied a thread of "vulgar anti-capitalism" overlapping with antisemitism running from the Boer War through the Nazis to the contemporary era: "Anti-Semitism is a revolt against global capital, misrecognized as the Jews."

Postone's 1986 essay on Anti-Semitism and National Socialism saw the centrality of the former to the latter as intimately bound up with its anti-capitalist utility: "Anti-Semitism so understood allows one to grasp an essential moment of Nazism as a foreshortened anti-capitalist movement, one characterized by a hatred of the abstract, a hypostatization of the existing concrete and by a single-minded, ruthless—but not necessarily hate-filled—mission: to rid the world of the source of all evil." Of course, this theory runs up against a number of well-known problems: Hitler wasn't a socialist and adopted the term opportunistically ("We might have called ourselves the Liberal Party", he said of the name); he purged the Strasserites, who were certainly vulgar anti-capitalists; he forged a close alliance with German capital both when building the Nazi Party and once in power (and pioneered privatisation along the way); and his antisemitism was "classical" in its focus on ethnicity and its hatred. There is also the small matter of the characterisation of Eastern Jews as verminous sub-humans and "Judaeo-Bolsheviks", rather than an exclusive focus on the haute-bourgeois Jews of Western Europe.

Postone attempts to explain the Nazis' equivocal attitude to capital through the Marxian distinction of value (i.e. money) and use-value: they objected to the abstract, "rootless" former (biologized as the Jews), not to the concrete, "organic" latter (biologized as Aryan labour): "According to this interpretation, the Jews were identified not merely with money, with the sphere of circulation, but with capitalism itself. However, because of its fetishized form, capitalism did not appear to include industry and technology. Capitalism appeared to be only its manifest abstract dimension which, in turn, was responsible for the whole range of concrete social and cultural changes associated with the rapid development of modern industrial capitalism. The Jews were not seen merely as representatives of capital (in which case antisemitic attacks would have been much more class-specific). They became the personifications of the intangible, destructive, immensely powerful, and international domination of capital as an alienated social form".

Postone wasn't responsible for the popularity of the "Nazis were socialists" meme on the right. His point was a more subtle one about an affinity between anti-capitalism and antisemitism as responses to the confusion and abstraction of late-nineteenth century modernity ("the rapid development of industrial capitalism, with all its social ramifications, is personified and identified as the Jew"), but that still provided a handy brush for neoliberals keen to paint the anti-capitalism of the last thirty years as essentially reactionary, despite the very different social contexts of those eras. While Postone provided insights into the theory and practice of Nazi antisemitism, he didn't argue that anti-capitalism tout court is necessarily antisemitic, but too many who have used his work subsequently have been prepared to make that generalisation, ignoring his distinction between a Marxist critique of capitalism and a vulgar anti-capitalism that sought emancipation from an "other" in the form of bankers or a global elite.

In Postone's telling, the synergy of anti-capitalism and antisemitism was furthered after the war by the Soviet Union, which had junked the structuralism of Marxism in the 1930s for a crude anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, and had then instrumentalised antisemitism in the 1940s and 50s (the Doctors' Plot, the Slansky trial etc) as part of Stalin's repression of dissent within the Communist Party and among the satellite states of the Warsaw Pact. According to Postone, "This strand of anti-semitic anti-Zionism was imported into the Middle East during the Cold War, in part by the intelligence services of countries like East Germany. A form of anti-semitism was introduced into the Middle East that was 'legitimate' for the Left, and was called anti-Zionism." Again, it's important to emphasise that Postone wasn't insisting that anti-Zionism was necessarily antisemitic, but that the culture of anti-Zionism on the left (which was actually pre-war Jewish in origin) was corrupted by Soviet influence.

Postone's leading epigones in the UK are probably Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, who published Corbynism: A Critical Approach last year. For them, "Corbynism" is characterised by "a national-populist platform of economic protectionism, twinned with a crude 'two campist' isolationist foreign policy". Following Postone, the first is framed as a vulgar anti-capitalism (hence the emphasis on its "populism") in which the system is explained by the actions of an elite (the few not the many), while the second serves to frame Corbyn's foreign policy as an antiquated anti-Americanism that subscribes to an anti-Zionism that is inherently antisemitic (as an aside, the regular press snark about the influence of "Stalinists" in Corbyn's "immediate circle" alludes to this narrative while ironically employing a conspiracist trope). What is important is the "twinning": an antipathy towards Israel (inferred from a left anti-Zionism that is presumed to have been corrupted) is taken as corroborating evidence that Corbyn's anti-capitalism is tainted by antisemitism and must therefore be illegitimate (i.e. vulgar). The aim is not to characterise Corbyn as an antisemite so much as a naïve anti-capitalist.

Just as Postone semi-detached Hitler from a long tradition of cultural and ethnic antisemitic thought, so Bolton and Pitts obscure the English socialist tradition that Jeremy Corbyn is the inheritor of. If the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marx, then Corbyn owes even more to the Quakers and the ethical internationalism (which actually has its roots in 19th century Liberalism) exemplified by individuals like George Lansbury and groups like the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Ignoring the intellectual history of the Labour left in this way is all the odder given the effort they expend in linking John McDonnell's economic thinking back to Tony Benn and the Alternative Economic Strategy of the 1980s (essentially to rubbish it as old wine in old bottles). Corbyn's emphasis on a system rigged for "the few" is wholly within the ethical socialist tradition. While that was no more free of the risk of antisemitism than any other tradition - the "socialism of fools" is a real thing, after all - it cannot be written off in its entirety any more than Adam Smith can be dismissed as a conspiracist for claiming that "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices".

Conspiracy is as central to Bolton and Pitts's analysis as populism: "A critique of capitalism based on the need to eradicate 'globalism' is politically ambiguous at best, able to be utilised by the far-right as easily as the left. What this lapse from critical to conspiracy theory suggests is that the antisemitic tropes which pervade the Corbyn-supporting 'alt-media' and activist base, as well as Corbyn’s own dubious brand of 'anti-Zionism' and 'anti-imperialism', are not mere contingencies, but the logical outcome of the movement’s morally-charged, personalised critique of capitalism as conspiracy." That the anti-capitalism of the last twenty years has often been simplistic is not much of an insight. That a focus on the "1%" or the "global elite" sails dangerously close to conspiracy theory and thus the employment of traditional antisemitic tropes is true enough, but this is not sufficient to damn the rhetoric let alone equate anti-capitalism with antisemitism. It also fails to show that Corbynism is peculiarly conspiracist (The Canary or Chris Williamson are not persuasive evidence), in much the same way that centrists have failed to show that it is peculiarly populist.

Though their utility in the media obviously depends on their willingness to say disobliging things about Corbyn and McDonnell, and even if it is the charge of accidental antisemitism that sells rather than that of deviationism, Bolton and Pitts are not shy in advancing an explicitly Marxist analysis: "Our critique stems from a fundamentally different understanding of capitalism. In our view, capitalism is not a monolithic system consciously designed and covertly imposed by one group — be it the 'capitalist class', the 'bourgeoisie' or the 'elite' — upon another, whether that is the 'workers' or 'the people'. Capitalism is a specific historical form taken by human social relations. It compels everyone — rich and poor — to behave in certain ways in order to survive, even whilst one group benefits at the other’s expense." But what they don't prove is that the Labour leadership actually disagrees with this analysis. Corbyn and McDonnell are operating within an antagonistic political system in which an appeal to a common interest over vested interests is perfectly normal (try a structuralist approach on BBC Question Time and see where it gets you). That the shared preferences of the owners and managers of the larger capitals are a product of the system of capitalism, rather than their collusion, doesn't mean that they are not a coherent interest group that can be distinguished for rhetorical effect.

Many politicians who wouldn't be considered antisemitic have employed populist rhetoric and questionable tropes, from Margaret Thatcher's characterisation of trade union leaders as an unelected elite frustrating "the people" to Theresa May's "citizens of nowhere" remark, so attacking the "few" or the "1%" proves little on its own. Likewise, favouring a more "national" economy over a "rigged" one isn't compelling evidence of antisemitism, unless every British party leader from Attlee to Callaghan is to be so condemned. To make the charge stick requires the addition of the international dimension and in particular a critical attitude towards both the USA and Israel. As Bolton and Pitts put it: "This often comes combined with a mechanical 'anti-imperialism' which regards the foreign policy of the US and its allies, particularly Israel, as bearing responsibility for the negative effects of capitalist development around the world." For them, it is the absence of this half of the combination that exempts post-war administrations, and it is its presence that is characteristic of Corbynism. The argument is that a suspect anti-Zionism is amplified by a vulgar anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, thereby encouraging antisemitism.

In reality, economic Corbynism - specifically in the statements of John McDonnell - doesn't amount to much more than mild social democracy, while the foreign policy outlined to date would have found favour with Robin Cook, Tony Blair's first Foreign Secretary (that Blair wanted a more right-wing policy, which he got with Jack Straw, is not in dispute - the point is that Cook's attempt at an "ethical" approach was mainstream in the eyes of the public, if not the establishment). This suggests that the issue really does boil down to Israel. The implication is that Corbyn might, if he came to power, push for a more explicitly anti-Zionist policy by the UK, or at least an implicit one in the form of a questioning of the viability of the moribund two-state solution. This idea - that Corbyn has raised the risk of antisemitism gaining purchase within Labour precisely because he is neither a Zionist nor conventionally agnostic on the subject (i.e. conservative) - was made explicit by John Harris recently: "Corbyn’s lifelong interest in Israel-Palestine, and his associations with – and I’m being polite here – some of that conflict’s more controversial elements, have played a part in pushing this narrative somewhere grim."

We have then a particular strand of Marxist thought that espies "the socialism of fools" in modern anti-capitalist and anti-globalist movements, essentially because their lack of a structural approach makes them vulnerable to conspiracism. Where this intersects with anti-Zionism, antisemitism is likely to flourish both because of that conspiracism and also because of the historic corruption of left anti-Zionism by Stalinism. This is obviously a rather patronising (even snobbish) view, which not only marginalises Jewish anti-Zionism but dismisses naïve anti-capitalism for being unschooled, but it's perhaps not surprising to find this given the notorious factionalism and long memories of the left. What is unusual is the recent prominence of an argument that can be traced back to the 1960s and whose revival can't be explained by the supposedly "antique" nature of Corbynism. I suspect its salience has little to do with the idea that capitalism needs defending with any weapon that comes to hand, despite its intellectual cringe since 2008. Capitalism didn't collapse a decade ago and the system has accommodated itself to both stagnation and a more discreet hegemony. Corbynism isn't an existential threat to it.

It's more likely that the argument's contemporary utility arises from anxiety over Israel and in particular that country's drift towards both an exclusionary nationalism and an aggressive, anti-social capitalism during the Netanyahu years. Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, but if you accept that anti-capitalism is inherently antisemitic, then given that Israel is demonstrably capitalist and is increasingly happy to identify with the broader ideology of the American right, the space for a socialist anti-Zionism that is not antisemitic disappears. Indeed, even a Zionist socialism begins to look like a category error. The corollary of that is a tendency by those who support Israel to attribute criticism of it not to its own domestic choices but to a wider attack on "the West", whether in the religious form of "Judaeo-Christian values" or the secular form of liberal capitalism. Siobhain McDonagh isn't ironically presenting a Marxist critique, or even exhibiting philo-semitism, so much as continuing the fine old Labour centre-right tradition of philo-Americanism.

A stylistic note: I have got so irritated by the inconsistency of auto-corrections across the various platforms I use that I have decided to try and apply a simple rule to spelling in this post. Antisemitism is one word (no hyphen, no capital S) because there is no proper noun Semitism (the IHRA agree). Ditto philosemitism. Conversely, anti-capitalism deserves a hyphen because capitalism is a thing in its own right, while anti-Zionism is also fine because Zionism is both a thing and a proper noun (being derived from Zion).


  1. Ben Philliskirk16 March 2019 at 15:55

    The very problem with extreme structuralist versions of Marxism is that they ignore the fact that, however much capitalism is an impersonal system outside of conscious control, the privileged elites are very much keen to preserve the power structures that exist and thus represent the major barrier to overthrowing or superseding the capitalist system. Thus the US is unable to create and stable and prosperous Middle East, but it is quite capable of intervening in the area in a way that destroys threats to its own power and prosperity. In a similar vein, Israel cannot use force in a way that comprehensively establishes its security, yet it can ensure that any threats are isolated and crushed piecemeal.

    The irony with structuralist critics of 'anti-elite' movements and positions is that, as E.P. Thompson suggested in 'The Poverty of Theory', they essentially represent a political and intellectual elitism themselves, asserting as they do that only a small group of people *really* understand how the capitalist system works and these people need to be in charge of movements that seek to somehow overthrow that system. As was the case in the 1970s and 80s, these people easily degenerate into class collaborationism and cynicism, and always end up attacking their 'own' side more than the 'official' enemy.

    1. I think Bolton & Pitts fall into that elitist trap. They're coming at it from a different angle, but they're similar to those centrists who ridicule Corbyn's lack of a degree.

      I think one reason why the charge of antisemitism has proved popular is the desire to characterise Corbynism as "foolish socialism" and a vulgar mass movement.

    2. Ben Philliskirk16 March 2019 at 18:27

      Yes, Corbyn is 'win-win' for these people. On the one hand he is not an intellectual and can be derided for that, while on the other he is of middle-class origin so is out of touch with 'ordinary people'.

    3. I remember reading a letter by Engels which said for communists no individual is responsible, they are simply products of the system.

      This goes to the heart of their materialism, where how society produces and consumes determines behaviour. So people who eat with forks will be very different to those who eat with their hands.

      Now, there is of course something to be said for this, but I think they take it too far.

      They imagined the whole sorry history of humanity could be withered away given the right structural set up. I beg to differ and think laws will be with us for some time to come!

    4. Socialism in One Bedroom23 March 2019 at 18:39

      "The very problem with extreme structuralist versions of Marxism is that they ignore the fact that, however much capitalism is an impersonal system outside of conscious control, the privileged elites are very much keen to preserve the power "

      the other point to make is that we don't fight structures we fight real people. The French didn't put structures in the guillotine!

  2. I won’t deal with how it is a myth that the Nazi’s were anti capitalist, but being acquainted with their attempts to restore the rate of profit in Germany is all you need to know.

    The thing about the conflation of anti Semitism with anti capitalism is that it is completely wrong; at least it is in the UK. In fact the people who are conflating things are those who see this link. They see racism and think it is anti capitalism, but it is they who are making the mistake to think this racism is anything other than racism! Marx made this mistake when he claimed the racism of his day was a sub conscious expression of something else. I have seen enough racists in my time to know there is nothing behind their racism other than naked bigotry, idiocy and prejudice. For example trying to find some secret anti establishment reason for Brexit misses the point that Brexit was simply a racist shriek, with nothing deeper underlying it all. Sometimes when you scratch the surface you get the surface, the mask comes off to reveal the mask!

    I grew up and have lived in a typical working class neighbourhood and I have never ever heard one anti Semitic remark or any reference to Jews. On the other I have heard an endless stream of Islamophobia and racism against dark skinned people.

    This is the real centre of racism. Anti Semitism is a canard. Yet the more people like Freeland use it to justify Israel’s racist white supremacy the more they create the myth of this Jewish other in our midst. They are literally attempting to segregate Jews from society. You will note that Freeland would not have to make this effort for Muslims, who are already the other and the enemy within.

    Freeland’s attempts to segregate the Jews and pretend they are some under siege community won’t only not wash it won’t work and for two main reasons.

    Firstly the people he claims are anti Semtitic are not, and do not have racist tendencies.

    Secondly, the actual people who are racist, i.e. the other side of the political spectrum, are not interested in jews currently, they are more interested in dark skinned people, particularly those who look like they might be Muslims!

    And why does Freeland attack the first group and not the second, because he is part of the second group!

    So we have racists attacking anti racists for their racism. Welcome to the high water mark of post modernism! Onward toward the totalitarian future!