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Primitive Antisemitism and the Contemporary Left

Primitive Antisemitism and the Contemporary Left

Many expressions of antisemitism in the Labour Party since 2015, and in left-wing spaces more widely for the last decade or more, have borne only a tangential connection to any definitive political argument about Israel/Palestine, and have much more closely resembled a more primitive form of antisemitism – conspiracy theories about Jewish financiers, and their alleged power over world affairs.

In 2018, Jeremy Corbyn's 2012 defense of “Freedom for Humanity,” a mural painted in East London by the artist Mear One, was recirculated. The mural drew precisely on imagery suggesting a conspiracy of mainly Jewish financiers as the source of oppression and exploitation in the world. To ensure no one was left in any doubt, the artist Mear One himself explained that the painting was explicitly intended to demonize Jewish financiers: “Some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg, etc., as the demons they are.”

The Labour Party report into its own Governance and Legal Unit's work on antisemitism noted that while instances of antisemitism were “sometimes framed in terms of support for the Palestinian people,” they incorporated  “traditional tropes about Jewish power/influence.” The terms “Israel” and “Zionism” appear in this discourse, but rarely in connection to any concrete argument about Israeli policy or advocacy of Palestinian national liberation. Claims that “Israel was created by the Rothschilds,” or that the Rothschilds “have used usury alongside modern Israel as an imperial instrument to take over the world and all of its resources,” for example, are not criticisms of Israel in any rational sense. They are straightforward, conspiracy-theorist, antisemitic canards.

The Marxist academic Moishe Postone's analysis of antisemitism, representing a “primitive critique of [...] capitalist modernity,” which aspires to be “the expression of a movement of the little people against an intangible, global form of domination,” resonates clearly here. Postone's description of antisemitism as embodying a would-be “antihegemonic” and “pseudo-emancipatory” character explains how it continues to provide the ideological bedrock of contemporary conspiracist movements such as QAnon.

The motif of intangibility – the untouchable, the unseen, the hidden – occurs repeatedly in antisemitic ideology: the Rothschilds and George Soros pulling behind-the-scenes strings, the “Zionist lobby” controlling U.S. foreign policy, the incorporeal, rootless, international nature of Jewish financial power. Against this intangible enemy, the endeavor of would-be radical politics is thereby reduced not to any real struggle for power or greater equality, but simply an attempt to pull back the curtain, touch the intangible, name the hidden threat.

Explaining how some on the left found themselves disarmed against a resurgence of primitive antisemitic ideas requires looking back to the “anti-globalization” wave of the late 1990s, and, more recently, the echoes of the 2007/8 financial crash. The anti-globalization movements of the 1990s and early 2000s, such as the World Social Forum movement and mobilizations such as the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” protests against the World Trade Organisation (WTO), often focused their critique on “globalization” and “trade” rather than capitalism as such. By highlighting these apparently rootless – incorporeal and transnational – elements of capitalism as the primary sources of global injustice and exploitation, nationalist and antisemitic political narratives could organically assert themselves. 

The dominant responses were the populist ones generated by broad, amorphous movements like Occupy, rather than political parties or revolutionary socialist groups. The Occupy movement's key idea was the “99 percent” versus “the 1 percent,” a classically populist motif, positioning “the people” against an “elite.”

The “we are the 99 percent” slogan, by itself, is not a gateway to antisemitism. That notion would surely have horrified its originator, the late anthropologist and anarchist activist David Graeber. The slogan invites those who might otherwise feel alienated and atomized to express a sense of mass collectivity, and echoes the stirring conclusion of “The Masque of Anarchy,” Percy Shelley's 1819 poem about the Peterloo Massacre: “Ye are many, they are few.”

But despite these virtues, it is nevertheless a step away from a critique of capitalism in structural, class-based terms. The ruling class is certainly a small minority compared to the working class, but it is not merely 1 percent of society. And the working class, while certainly the overwhelming majority class, does not comprise 99 percent of the population. The exact nature of the social collectivities we talk about when we use concepts like “the many” and “the few” matters. When a movement like Occupy exploded, many left groups undoubtedly saw a shortcut out of marginality, by presenting socialism as a version of the populist, bankers-versus-the-people narratives prevalent in Occupy and other similar social movements, or as something which could give political expression to those narratives without having to develop or revise very much of their existing analysis. Some Marxists sought to directly piggyback on the catchcry success of the 99 percent vs 1 percent framing, recycling the narrative rather than challenging it.

The reactionary anti-capitalist conflation of Jews with capital has often been described as “the socialism of fools.” In 2018, Jeremy Corbyn wrote, in one of his most comprehensive acknowledgments of a specifically left-wing antisemitism: “The phrase ‘Socialism of Fools’ was deployed by the German Social Democrats in the late 19th century to describe fellow socialists who mixed opposition to capitalism with conspiracy theories about Jewish bankers.” 

The term has taken on a more general meaning since its usage in the 1890s and is often used as a shorthand to designate as “foolish” the idea that socialism and antisemitism are in any way compatible. It is a snappy and useful label. But the common usage of the term in the 19th-century German socialist movement has more negative lessons to impart for the fight against antisemitism on the left than positive ones. Those negative lessons are particularly valuable for socialists considering how to combat primitive antisemitism in a contemporary context.

According to an article from Dale Street, the phrase's traceable origins are in a speech by Ferdinand Kronawetter, an Austrian liberal democrat, given in Vienna in 1889. His specific target was a reactionary, antisemitic movement led by Karl Lüger, a member of the Austrian parliament and former Vienna city councilor. Kronawetter said that antisemitism was “nothing but the socialism of the idiot of Vienna,” referencing a well-known idiom roughly the equivalent of the English term “village idiot.” But when the term gained currency in the German socialist movement, it was given a different twist, and often used in the context of arguments implying antisemitic narratives about Jewish capitalists were halfway to socialist good sense, and that what was “foolish” or “idiotic” about them was that they limited their opposition to Jewish capitalists only.

In 1892, the SPD newspaper Hamburger Echo wrote: “Antisemitism is the socialism of the idiot … and the socialism of the petty bourgeoisie. Suffering more and more under the crushing force of big capital, the petty bourgeoisie rebels against its oppressor and enemy, but against a part rather than the whole, against individuals rather than the system, against the Jews rather than against capitalism, and precisely for this reason is antisemitism the socialism of the idiot.” Implicit in this formulation is an acceptance of the idea that “the Jews” are “a part” of capitalism, and that the conflation of Jews with capital merely needs to be extended and developed into an opposition to all capitalists, rather than challenging that conflation directly.

Thus, as Street points out, “‘the socialism of the idiot (of Vienna)’ ceased to be a statement of unqualified condemnation of antisemitism. It was transformed into a statement which attributed a ‘progressive’ dimension to antisemitism.”

A narrative that conflated Jews with capital had to be challenged as such. Its adherents understood capitalist exploitation not as a relation between classes, but as a conspiracy perpetrated by Jews specifically. The figure of the “Jewish capitalist” did not merely describe a capitalist who happened to be Jewish, and might just as easily be of any other religious or ethnic background. Rather, it referred to a specific type, a figure engaged in an exploitative process because of something inherent in their Jewishness.

Similarly, in a contemporary context, the left cannot pretend that shallow populism, tracing the source of all social ills to small groups of individual financiers, is incipiently progressive. Nor can we respond to narratives that name George Soros or the Rothschilds as the chief enemies merely by suggesting that Soros and the Rothschilds shouldn't be mentioned, or that the names of non-Jewish financiers are added for balance. Direct ideological confrontation with the conspiracy-theorist mode of thought, whether its antisemitism is explicit or merely latent, is needed. Capitalism must continually be explained and re-explained as a class society, the essential mechanics of which take place in the open, rather than a conspiracy conducted by shadowy, unseen forces.

Daniel Randall is a railway worker and trade union activist based in London. He was written extensively about antisemitism on the left; his first book on the subject was published by No Pasaran Media in September 2021. 

This article is adapted from “The Re-emergence of Primitive Antisemitism on the Left”, a chapter in Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists (No Pasaran Media, 2021).

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