Antisemitism and the attack on the left: What do socialists say?

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The forthcoming report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission will unleash a new wave of attacks on the left in the Labour Party, it also sets a trap for our movement, writes Rob Ferguson

As Socialist Review goes to press, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is due to publish its inquiry into allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party. It is very unlikely to find in favour of Corbyn and his team, the most consistent anti-racist leadership in Labour’s history. It is astonishing that Labour is the first party to be subject to a full statutory investigation by the EHRC since the 2006 Equality Act became law. Yet it is quite likely the EHRC will find that “unlawful acts” have been committed by the Party under the Equality Act, 2006 and that the party has unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish. (This could include holding key individuals culpable or subject to censure).
Even if the EHRC falls short of such a finding it can conclude that the Party’s investigatory and disciplinary processes did not “enable it to deal efficiently and effectively with complaints of race… religion or belief, discrimination and racial harassment or victimisation”. The inquiry report will have devastating consequences for Labour’s left. First, the party leadership and the National Executive Committee (NEC) will have to agree an “action plan” with the EHRC.
Starmer has already pledged an “independent” complaints procedure and the current wave of investigations, suspensions and expulsions is almost certain to accelerate as Labour Party members are subjected to an external, politically hostile, disciplinary process. From the very beginning of this year’s Labour Party conference Starmer was at great pains to impress on the party membership that he was moving decisively away from Corbyn’s previous agendas and was in support of a thoroughgoing investigation. The greatest damage will be political. The right aim to use the EHRC report to recement their control of the party. Those who supported and defended the Corbyn project will be tarred with the EHRC judgement.
Even to contest the findings will incur the risk of disciplinary proceedings. In a circular to constituency Labour Party secretaries and chairs, Labour’s general secretary, David Evans, made clear that no motions or discussion should be accepted in relation to the key issues of controversy over allegations of antisemitism: the internal Labour report leaked in April, into thehandling of antisemitism cases by officials in Labour HQ hostile to Corbyn and the left; the out of court settlement with former officials and BBC journalist John Ware over the Panorama programme, “Is Labour antisemitic?”; The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance “working definition” of antisemitism or the EHRC inquiry itself. Curtailing democratic debate and invoking arbitrary discipline are important means of control for the right.
However, the strength of their grip really lies in the inexorable electoral logic that unites both left and right of the party. This acts as a defining constraint at every level of party organisation. Even in opposition, with the next election four years away, party members are under pressure to back Starmer against a Tory government. Where criticism is voiced, it does not translate into open confrontation within the party. The dominant response within Corbyn’s wider support base has been to self-police, to evade sanction and carefully calibrate expressions of opposition.
Suspensions are contested on an individual, confidential basis or in the form of legal action over process. This still leaves the political mud sticking to the left, and the right’s ideological offensive remains intact. The right will seek to weaponise the EHRC judgement at every level of the party to further isolate the left and undermine any remaining influence. The party’s structures will be insulated against any possibility of a future left challenge and we can expect constitutional firewalls to be reinforced.
Socialist Review has long argued that a principled political response was required from the onset of charges of antisemitism against Corbyn and the left in 2016. Crucially, this required a rebuttal of the conflation between anti-Zionism, criticism of Israel and antisemitism. Unfortunately, from the outset, Labour’s strategy was marked by concession and retreat. Why was that the case?
Fundamentally, the strategy was premised on preserving party unity. The stakes facing Corbyn were extremely high. An outright confrontation over this issue would have meant a breach within the Parliamentary party. Trade union leaders’ support for Corbyn, even amongst left-leaning leaders like Len McCluskey of the Unite union, was conditional. Ultimately the trade union leadership’s priority as a body is to maintain Labour as a vehicle of political representation in parliament.
The regional and national apparatus of the party would have been resolutely hostile to any open confrontation. The Corbyn period has vividly demonstrated how even with the support of a mass membership, and popular support outside parliament, the left cannot overcome the internal structures of the Labour Party. The charge of antisemitism was the weapon with which to attack the left. The charge had little initial impact on the electorate, although it was clearly a factor in Labour’s defeat at the 2019 elections. During the elections, it was difficult for the right to challenge Corbyn over his very popular anti-austerity rhetoric or his radical, anti-militarist foreign policy.
This is where the onslaught over antisemitism fits in. Though the attacks served other purposes — undermining the left, re-asserting the Labour right’s traditional pro-imperialist stance and its support for Israel — centrally the antisemitism attacks sought to directly at Corbyn himself. In relentlessly pursuing the charge of antisemitism, the right peeled away the centre and the soft left, isolating Corbyn and his supporters. The retreat over charges of antisemitism fed into a wider, generalised retreat, in particular over Brexit, setting the context of electoral defeat. Starmer and the Labour right are very likely to use the EHRC inquiry to ram home their advantage.
The attack on the Labour left has wider consequences. The charge of antisemitism has been used to attack Palestine solidarity and support for the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Labour’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “working definition” of antisemitism has given unwarranted legitimacy to a wider suppression of free expression and right to protest over Palestine. In addition to being used to suppress pro-Palestinian solidarity, the narrative of this “new antisemitism” has been aimed at the left, the Muslim community and social movements, including Black Lives Matter and the anti-war movement.
The conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism implicit in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition has also given the far right and fascist movements a free pass. Antisemitism is used by Trump and far right leaders in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere to attack Jewish financiers as ruthless “globalists”, who undermine national economies for personal gain. Jewish figures such as George Soros are portrayed as promoting “invasions” of Muslim migrants and funding “alien” ideologies. At the same time, they declare common cause with Israel against Islamic “terror”.
Socialists must reject the conflation of criticism of Israel, anti-Zionism or support for BDS with antisemitism. Second, we must reject the argument that antisemitism somehow flows from a socialist critique of capitalism, from an analysis of an international ruling class or from anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. Antisemitism is a reactionary ideology. It developed in its modern form as an ideological defence of capitalism, nationalism and militarism.
This ideology took institutional form in the shape of parties and movements that used antisemitism to mobilise, initially, middle class and small business support against socialist movements. In Tsarist Russia it was used to mobilise pogroms in response to the threat of revolution. It reached its ultimate expression in the Nazi Holocaust. At certain times antisemitism has affected some on the left. Working class movements and movements of the oppressed are not immune from antisemitism and reactionary ideas. However, in the collective nature of our experiences there exists a material basis for challenging and defeating these ideas.
This is not true for those who seek to continue to benefit from a system based on exploitation, racism, oppression and war. Subsequently, reactionary ideas prevail on the political right and it is here that antisemitism finds its “natural home”. This is vitally important for the left today to understand. As far right and fascist movements have grown so has their use of antisemitism as a tool to “explain” the crisis of the system.
Finally, Socialists need to understand Zionism as a political ideology, and its influence on both Jews and non-Jews. Zionism serves as an ideological defence of an apartheid, racist state. The state of Israel is a settler-colonial project, and peace and equality between Jews and Palestinians rests on a one-state solution and the right of Palestinians to return. However, the majority of Jews outside Israel accept its legitimacy. This is also true of the wider left, expressed by support for the socalled “two state solution” of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state. We need to be clear about why this is the case. Originally, Zionism emerged in response to the rise of modern antisemitism in the late 19th century. It was a small, minority movement widely opposed on the left at the time, as well as by liberal Jewry assimilated into Europe society.
The situation was completely transformed by the horrors of the Holocaust. Now, Zionists were able to project a Jewish state as sanctuary from antisemitism and genocide to a very wide political audience, including on the left. This historical experience of antisemitism and the Holocaust underpins the wide support of the state of Israel. Hence supporters range from those on the far right to anti-racist protestors who support BLM, believe in equality for Palestinians, and oppose the occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. All of this means socialists need a nuanced approach. Broad anti-racist movements will include Jews and non-Jews who understand the Jewish state as a legitimate response to antisemitism, as well as those who oppose Israel and Zionism.
The job of socialists is to stand on principle over Palestine whilst arguing that the true sanctuary from antisemitism is in the unity of all the oppressed in opposition to colonialism and imperialism. This is the task facing British socialists in the aftermath of attacks on Corbyn. The fact that right wing Zionists reference antisemitism and the Holocaust in defending Israel, and in their attacks on the left, must not lead socialists to falling into the trap of devaluing their significance as some have. Socialists need a broad-based defence of Palestinian freedom, grounded in an anti-racist, antiimperialist politics which understands the historical legacy of antisemitism, located in the struggles before us.