British Labour and the Socialism of Fools: The Return of Left-Wing Antisemitism

Peter C. Grosvenor’s review essay in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics Volume 25, 2019 – Issue 2: 240-245 (Corrected for spelling). Sadly there are many dhimmi–“Funktionshäftling”-like Jews that comprise the Regressive Left, their silence on this issue highlighting their mauvaise foi.

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That Labour has an antisemitism problem is beyond dispute

There is nothing new about left-wing antisemitism, or what the German social democrat August Bebel is said to have called “the socialism of fools.”

bierkeller antisemitism and a polite and civilized bistro antisemitism, or what Hirsh calls “the antisemitism of good people” (p. 1). It is the latter that Hirsh finds in Labour.

The formulation consists of two related propositions: that the left, by definition, is inoculated against all forms of racism, including antisemitism, and that, therefore, allegations of left-wing antisemitism can only be veiled Zionist attempts to pre-empt criticism of the Israeli state. Though an increasingly identitarian left feels comfortable with restricting free speech in the cause of anti-racism, it dismisses objections to antisemitism as attempts to suppress free speech in the cause of Zionism, which is depicted as itself a form of racism.

Rich also documents how Labour’s current antisemitism problem is closely associated with the unlikely emergence of political cooperation between Islamists and the left

Luciana Berger was born into the British Labour Party. She is the grandniece of Manny Shinwell, the distinguished Jewish socialist who served in Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government. She formed an ambition to be a Labour Member of Parliament (MP) as a child and was elected in 2010. Yet on February 18, 2019, Berger resigned from the party and became a founder member of The Independent Group in the House of Commons. While doing so, Berger accused the Labour Party of institutional antisemitism, insisting that she had been forced into resignation by sustained antisemitic abuse that had required her to have police protection at the party’s 2018 annual conference. The six other Labour MPs resigning alongside her also cited the party’s ineffectual response to widespread instances of internal antisemitism as a major consideration in their reasons for departure.

That Labour has an antisemitism problem is beyond dispute. In February 2019, the party’s general secretary Jennie Formby disclosed that she had received 673 complaints about antisemitic words and actions by party members. Ninety-six members had been suspended, and 12 were expelled. Some of the more publicized cases have verged on the bizarre, and they have by no means been confined to local activists and low-ranking party officials. In 2014, Naseem Shah MP was temporarily suspended from the party after a Facebook post in which she suggested that Israel should be relocated to the United States. In the summer of 2018, former MP and London Mayor Ken Livingstone resigned from the party after the prolonged suspension that followed his repeated suggestions that the Zionist movement had cooperated with the Nazis in the 1930s. Later that year, veteran Labour activist Pete Willsman was re-elected to the party’s National Executive Committee despite the leak of a recording in which he claimed that Labour antisemitism was a fabrication by Trump-supporting Jews. Immediately after the The Independent Group launch, Ruth George MP tweeted that Israel may have funded the breakaway. And, shortly afterwards, Chris Williamson MP was suspended after a video was released in which he told an applauding audience of Labour activists that the party had apologized too much for antisemitism. In early March 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission announced that it was investigating complaints of antisemitic discrimination in the Labour Party.

There is nothing new about left-wing antisemtism, or what the German social democrat August Bebel is said to have called “the socialism of fools.” Jewish identity, the Zionist movement, and the existence and conduct of the state of Israel have long posed challenges for socialist political theory, and this is the subject of Robert Fine and Philip Spencer’s intellectual history Antisemitism and the Left: On the Return of the Jewish Question. Left-wing antisemitism has clearly undergone a resurgence in recent years and, in Britain, that resurgence has coincided with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party since 2015. David Hirsh’s Contemporary Left Antisemitism and Dave Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Antisemitism both aim to demonstrate the reality of this phenomenon and to confront the arguments of those within the Labour fold who continue to deny its existence.

Fine is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, and Spencer is Emeritus Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Kingston University. Both work within the traditions of Marxist sociology, and they write normatively to counter the re-emergence on the left of the “Jewish question,” which they reasonably present as inherently antisemitic: “All formulations of the Jewish question come back to the harm ‘the Jews’ allegedly inflict on humanity at large and what is to be done about this harm” (p. 103).

The frame for their historical analysis of left antisemitism is the tension in socialist thought between the universal and the particular or, in other words, the left’s emphasis on human commonalities and global solidarity in a world of more localized and specific identities. They posit two manifestations of universalism. The first is emancipatory and inclusive, based on the conviction that the “other” is ultimately a fellow human being; the second is repressive and assimilationist, deeming the “other” to lack certain prerequisites for membership in a common humanity. The authors show how, since the Enlightenment, the duality of universalism has been present in the Jewish historical experience: as a force for the political, civil, and social inclusion of Jews but also as a source of antisemitic prejudice that asserts their necessary “Outsiderness”.

The challenges posed by Jewish identity to the radical left-wing universalism can be found in Marx’s 1843 writings On The Jewish Question. Marx was responding to his then-fellow Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer, who argued that Jewish political emancipation could only be achieved at the cost of Jews renouncing their religious identity: emancipation presupposes secularism and can therefore provide no space for religious particularism of any kind. Fine and Spencer find in the literature two readings of Marx’s critique of Bauer. First, there is what they term the “disparaging” view, which is prominent in contemporary antisemitism studies. On this reading, Marx’s writings anticipate the left-wing antisemitism to come—Marx’s own Jewish family origins notwithstanding—in their deployment of classic anti-Jewish tropes such as the identification of Jews with finance. By contrast, an “apologetic” reading, standardly advanced by Marxist scholars, has ignored Marx’s antisemitic remarks or trivialized them as insubstantive asides reflecting nothing more than commonplace prejudices of the time and having no bearing on Marx’s scientific socialism.

Fine and Spencer find both readings unsatisfactory. The first fails to acknowledge that the overall corpus of Marx’s writings contains few, if any, compelling examples of antisemitism. Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge Marx’s and Engels’s unequivocal support for the cause of Jewish emancipation in Germany and their confrontation with left-wing opponents of that cause. The second contends that Marx’s universalism ultimately protects him from the charge of antisemitism, but this ignores the oppressive and assimilationist aspects of universalism, some of which are evidenced in Marx’s echoing of the anti-Jewish sentiments of his time. What emerges from Fine and Spencer’s analysis is a quintessentially humanist Marx who wrote, contra Bauer, that “[w]e do not tell the Jews that they cannot be emancipated politically without radically emancipating themselves from Judaism …” (quoted p. 35). They find support in Marx for their own contention that “a universalism that creates its own ‘other’ ends up as no universalism at all” (p. 44).

But Marxism after Marx took a decidedly nationalist turn, as Lenin distinguished between “the nationalism of the oppressor” and “the nationalism of the oppressed” (quoted p. 47) and Stalin enshrined the nation as an indispensable building block in the socialist project. Rosa Luxemburg stood out for her fundamentalist defense of Marx’s universalism but, in general, Marxism’s accommodation of a nation-state nationalism that identified Jews as rootless cosmopolitans undoubtedly created the conditions for the re-emergence of the “Jewish question” on the left.

In the Weimar era, the German Social Democrats failed to prioritize the struggle against antisemitism, even as it became weaponized by the Nazis. Many Jewish activists left European Communist parties after the 1939 Nazi–Soviet Pact, and the Russian nationalism of Stalin’s Great Patriotic War fueled antisemitism in the Soviet Union. To some extent, the Trotskyists may have had a greater understanding of antisemitism, but the Trotskyist intellectual Ernest Mandel initially likened the Holocaust to the expulsion of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia before later conceding that “there can be no greater injustice than Auschwitz” (quoted p. 53).

The Holocaust—a massive body blow to all progressive theories of history—forced Marxism to re-engage seriously with antisemitism. In this, the Frankfurt School, dominated by Jewish intellectuals such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, took the lead. The evolution of the state of Israel after 1948 then brought another dimension to disputes over antisemitism, and Fine and Spencer trace the exacerbation of tensions between the universal and the particular occasioned by Zionism through the writings of Hannah Arendt, a cosmopolitan republican pluralist who nonetheless insisted that Jews, when attacked as Jews, should defend themselves as Jews.

Though they unhesitatingly acknowledge that “criticism of Israel is no less or more problematic than criticism of any other country,” Fine and Spencer write that “[t]he most significant expression of the reconfiguring of the Jewish question in the present period lies in the rise of negative representations of Israel and Zionism” (p. 111). Viewing Israel and Zionism through the lens of the “Jewish question,” they plausibly contend, involves the kind of prejudice and selection that the sociology of deviance has shown to account for the criminalization of individuals. The most prominent examples of the criminalization perspective are Israel’s exclusivity as a Jewish state, its allegedly genocidal policies toward the Palestinians, and parallels between Israel and apartheid South Africa, all charges to which Fine and Spencer offer their own detailed counterarguments.

The denigration of Israel and Zionism looms large in the antisemitism that is to be found in today’s Labour Party. In Contemporary Left Antisemitism, David Hirsh, a senior lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths and a Labour Party member, uses numerous empirical studies to demonstrate “how antisemitism emerges out of the ostensibly democratic discourse of criticism of Israel” (p. 2). More broadly, Hirsh is concerned with “antisemtism among people who believe that they strongly oppose antisemitism” (p. 1), focusing on the multiplicity of examples from within the Labour Party and from the anti-Israeli Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement in British academia. He employs the distinction, first made by the writer Ben Cohen, between violent and hate-filled bierkeller antisemitism and a polite and civilized bistro antisemitism, or what Hirsh calls “the antisemitism of good people” (p. 1). It is the latter that Hirsh finds in Labour.

A principal feature of bistro antisemitism is the tendency to see the accusation of antisemitism, rather than antisemitism itself, as the problem. Hirsh devotes an entire chapter to his coinage of the “Livingstone formulation,” his characterization of Ken Livingstone’s oft-repeated response to allegations made against him of serial antisemitism. The formulation consists of two related propositions: that the left, by definition, is inoculated against all forms of racism, including antisemitism, and that, therefore, allegations of left-wing antisemitism can only be veiled Zionist attempts to pre-empt criticism of the Israeli state. Though an increasingly identitarian left feels comfortable with restricting free speech in the cause of anti-racism, it dismisses objections to antisemitism as attempts to suppress free speech in the cause of Zionism, which is depicted as itself a form of racism.

As Hirsh details, the reductio ad absurdum of the Zionism-as-racism case is the comparison of Zionism, and/or the practices of the Israeli state, with Nazism, another apparently obsessive–compulsive trope of Livingstone’s and one widely observed on the placards of left-wing demonstrators. This perspective exists on two levels. Firstly, it is a specific reference to the Haavara agreement of August 1933 between Nazi Germany and the Zionist Federation of Germany, under which Jews were permitted to move to Palestine subject to their prior agreement to buy German goods. For Livingstone and others, this constitutes evidence that Hitler was himself a Zionist and that there were structures of cooperation between Nazis and Zionists. In reality, the agreement was exceptional, and it was deeply controversial and divisive within the international Zionist movement at the time. Though Nazi Germany no doubt benefited from the exacerbation of intercommunal tensions within the British Mandate of Palestine caused by increased Jewish immigration in the 1930s, no serious historical analysis supports the contention that the Third Reich favored the establishment of a Jewish state.

More generally, there are attempts on the part of sections of the left to compare the ideological content of Zionism with that of Nazism: that both are examples of “race thinking,” both reject the possibilities of coexistence between Jews and non-Jews, and both require the creation of an ethnically exclusive state. Most Jews, Hirsh points out, are Zionists, and to compare them to their ultimate historical nemesis is a particularly vehement form of Jew-baiting. Furthermore, Zionism was a response to antisemitism, whereas Nazism had antisemitism at its core. Consequently, it is incoherent at the most fundamental level to equate the two ideologies.

Nonetheless, Hirsh finds the Livingstone formulation and its attendant Nazi comparisons to be widespread on the pro-Corbyn Labour left. For Hirsh, Corbynism is “another variant of populism, rather than a democratic alternative to it. While Brexit and Trump are tolerant of xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia, the Corbyn left tends to be tolerant of antisemitism” (p. 50). For Hirsh, Corbyn has redefined Labour’s “community of the good” (note 1) in such a way that Labour members protesting antisemitism will put themselves outside of it. In Hirsh’s interpretation, Corbyn and his supporters inhabit a Manichaean world of American, British, and Israeli imperialists versus developing world anti-imperialists in whose ranks the Iraqi resistance to Anglo-American occupation, Hamas, and Hezbollah have pride of place. This binary shatters the left universalism that Hirsh, like Fine and Spencer, wants to recover, and Jews occupy a highly problematic place within it: “The Jews of the Holocaust still symbolize absolute powerlessness, the oppressed; but the Jews who survived the Holocaust, particularly those who found sanctuary in Israel or the USA, fit better into another ready-made way of thinking about Jews: disproportionate power” (p. 58).

Academic lawyer Lesley Klaff has labeled the juxtaposition of the Holocaust with contemporary Israeli power “Holocaust inversion” (quoted p. 24) (note 2). This consists of an “inversion of reality”—the casting of the Israelis as the new Nazis—and an “inversion of morality,” in which the Holocaust is presented as a course of moral instruction that Jews failed to internalize (cited p. 24). This moral inversion expresses itself in, for example, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s claim that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians proves that Jews have forgotten the lessons of the Holocaust. Perhaps the most deft and concise navigation of this phenomenon is Howard Jacobson’s indispensable When Will the Jews Be Forgiven the Holocaust? (2013) (Note 3).

The claim that Labour’s current antisemitism problem is intimately connected to Corbyn’s leadership is supported in greater detail in the updated new edition of Dave Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem, which was originally published in 2016. Rich, an associate at the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, begins his account with a survey of the Left’s changing historical perceptions of Zionism and Israel.

Zionism was led by European Jewish socialists, and the Labour Party consistently supported the Balfour Declaration after 1917. The state of Israel was created through an insurgency against British imperialism, and it was immediately recognized by the Soviet Union. Many on the left drew inspiration from the libertarian socialism of the kibbutz movement and from the central role played by the Histadrut trade union confederation in the Israeli welfare state. And Jews were prominent in the leaderships of European left parties. All of this changed in the 1960s, with the rise of an ideologically “Third Worldist” New Left and Israel’s conquest of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights in the Six Day War of 1967, after which the New Left presented Israel as a projection of Western imperialism. By contrast, Jews around the world experienced 1967 as an existential crisis for Israel and became more disposed to support the Jewish state.

Rich’s research shows that the development of anti-Zionism as a core feature of New Left thinking in Britain was the work of Young Liberals such as Louis Eaks, Peter Hellyer, and Peter Hain. These activists were also prominent in the direct action campaigns against the South African regime, and they contributed much to the New Left’s depiction of Israel as another apartheid state, an allegation that remains central to the anti-Zionism of today’s Labour left. Rich also documents how Labour’s current antisemitism problem is closely associated with the unlikely emergence of political cooperation between Islamists and the left in organizations such as the Stop the War Coalition and George Galloway’s now-defunct Respect Party. The invasion of Iraq provided many of the settings in which Corbyn and some of his supporters shared platforms with deeply controversial Islamist speakers with long track records of explicitly antisemitic rhetoric, a legacy that even Corbyn’s most loyal supporters will find it difficult to defend.

Like Hirsh, Rich plausibly concludes that the Labour Party is now institutionally antisemitic, which is to say that the party’s culture, as opposed to its formal rules, makes it an uncomfortable, and possibly untenable, environment for Jewish people. Whereas Fine and Spencer’s work reminds us that left antisemitism predates Israel, and even Zionism, Hirsh and Rich acknowledge that the breakdown in the Israel–Palestine peace process and the rightward drift in Israeli domestic politics have provided the context, but by no means the justification, for the antisemitic words and actions of party members that are now a matter of record.

But responsibility for Labour’s long-drawn-out and public failure to deal with the “socialism of fools” lies clearly with the current leadership. It is widely accepted that Corbyn’s unexpected election as leader was, to a large extent, the result of Labour activists’ pent-up revulsion at Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq. Ironically, then, the emphatically pro-Israeli New Labour bears some responsibility for the Corbyn Labour Party that is mired in allegations of antisemitism. If Corbyn’s perceived New Left anti-Zionism continues to bleed into antisemitism, it will permanently alienate Labour’s rapidly declining Jewish support, further divide the party, and, taken together with its Brexit equivocations, deprive Labour of its leadership of the British progressive movement, even as the electoral system blocks the emergence of an alternative. For more than its own sake, therefore, Labour needs to save its socialism from its fools.


1 David Hirsh, The Corbyn Left: Politics of Position and Politics of Reason, Fathom, Autumn 2015.

2 Lesley Klaff, Holocaust Inversion and Contemporary Antisemitism, Fathom, Winter, 2014.

3 Howard Jacobson, When Will Jews Be Forgiven the Holocaust?, Amazon Kindle, December 2013.