In a recent discussion on the left blog Socialist Unity, about the events surrounding George Galloway’s February appearance on BBC Question Time, its initiator Andy Newman made an important political point. Galloway’s appearance was the occasion for a blatant attempt by Zionists to attack the right of an elected Member of Parliament to propagate his views and those of the Respect Party in a national, televised forum.
During the Socialist Unity discussion, the question of Galloway’s interview and political engagement with Gilad Atzmon, the ex-Israeli Jazz Musician and outspoken critic of Israeli racism and ‘Jewish ideology’ was also discussed. It should be noted that, unlike many others on the left, Socialist Unity do not go along with the Zionist demonisation of Galloway and its mainstream trend are virtually uncritical supporters for some of his weaker sides politically, i.e. his left reformist politics. However, the positive side of this is that the poisonous Zionist-influenced hysteria against Galloway and Respect is absent.
This has not, in the past, meant you could have a rational discussion there of Gilad Atzmon’s politics. That was a step too far for Socialist Unity. Raise any kind of dissent from the demonisation of Atzmon by both Zionists and the supporters of alternative left-wing forms of Jewish identity politics, and a ferocious denunciation of the heretical view would result. Sometimes posters were banned for raising this view. There are two reasons for this: one is that Atzmon’s hostility to all forms of Jewish identity politics severely offended those with illusions in this kind of politics.
The other reason is Atzmon’s own views on the WWII Nazi genocide, which are a reaction against Israel’s cynical utilisation of the same. The genocide has been turned by Israel into a kind of cult, in order to justify the ethnic cleansing and oppression of Arabs today. He has publicly expressed doubts, not that persecution and massacres were perpetrated, but about key elements of this such as the existence of gas chambers.
Zionist propaganda trump-card
Revulsion against the justification of the oppression of Palestinians by reference to the genocide (an everyday retort to criticism in Israel since 1947) has led to a scepticism about the about the truth of the genocide among many Palestinians and other Arabs. This has been true for many decades. Prominent Arab leaders, both secular and non-secular, such as Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Assads, the leadership of Hamas, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, even the current President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmood Abbas, have all publicly either denied, or expressed doubts about, the historicity of the Nazi genocide. Not to mention prominent non-Arab Muslim figures like the Iranian leadership, particularly former president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. There is little doubt that the views of these leaders reflect widespread public opinion in that region.
It is hardly surprising that, as Israel’s moral authority has plummeted in more recent times, this now manifests itself among a layer of Jewish critics of Israeli racism , who are generally are too young to have direct knowledge of the genocide. Such a thing, even though it is wrong historically, is actually a sign of health in another way. for it means that such people have broken decisively with the chauvinistic mindset of contemporary Jewry and wholeheartedly embraced the liberation of the Arabs.
The Zionists use the genocide as a propaganda ‘trump card’ against any and all criticism of their mass ethnic-cleansing and terrorisation of the Palestinians, an all-encompassing argument that says “No matter what has been endured by the Arabs, what happened to us is far worse. And the fact that ‘we Jews’ were victims of this much worse crime and ‘did not have a country’ entitles us to the land we have taken. Our allies in the West, who either were responsible for, or did nothing to help us in, our worst sufferings, owe us, and must and will help us to maintain the country we have taken from the Arabs”.
The obvious response of those on the receiving end of barbarism and brutality justified by this argument is to deny its validity. And it is not an enormous step from denying its validity to questioning the truth of the historical event that is used to underpin it. This syllogism may horrify Western liberals and leftists who have been brought up on a diet of guilt about what European anti-Semites did to Jews, and a fair amount of culturally conditioned contempt for Arabs and Muslims as being ‘uncivilised’, ‘savage’ and generally inferior. But in fact any people faced with ongoing atrocities justified by a similar propaganda narrative would be 100% certain to challenge such a narrative, and would also not care much if there was an element of irrelevant truth in it.
A Failure of Internationalism
The fact that the Western left finds it so difficult to think this through politically, and engage with the trend of which Atzmon is the most illustrious representative, is not primarily a failure of reasoning. It is actually only part of the picture of why the Western left has failed thus far to delivery effective internationalist solidarity with not only the Palestinians over the specifics of the Israel question, but also with the many victims of the war on terror.
It is a failure of empathy and internationalism, partly a result of deeply insular, national-reformist politics which make it extremely difficult to accurately judge political dynamics in societies such as the Arab countries and Israel, which are very different (in complementary ways) from the West. In the case of some leftist Jews, this failure is also driven by hatred for those who criticise their own form of identity politics. And among non-Jewish leftists, it is reinforced by ingrained, indoctrinated guilt over the Jewish question, the knee-jerk reaction that no matter the crimes committed by Israel, the Holocaust trumps all, and Jews are always the victims. This latter is a soft-Zionist prejudice, belied by the fact that Jews are no longer an oppressed minority in Western society, but have climbed the racial hierarchy to parity with the main ethnic substrates of the Western imperialist ruling classes.
When Andy Newman wrote, as part of the discussion on Atzmon on Socialist Unity, that..
“… Atzmon and his acolytes either consciously or unconsciously rehabilitate anti-Jewish themes that are deeply embedded in our culture.”
Or when another poster, a supporter of the soft-Zionist anti-racist pressure group Hope not Hate (using the name ‘Jellytot’) wrote of
“the divisive, leaden and genuinely anti-Semitic tropes employed by the likes of Gilad Atzmon.”
…they are expressing views that themselves are ‘deeply rooted’ in current “Western culture” about an earlier, archaic and obsolete manifestation of the same Western culture.
Since the Second World War, there has been a shift. Jews are now celebrated as the model of an ‘integrated’ minority, and indeed lionised by the bourgeoisie for their contribution to capitalism. See this video of David Cameron’s speech at Downing Street on the occasion of Hanukah last year as a representative sample of the attitude of the ruling class:
The contrast between this situation, and the pre-WWII fear and hatred of the Jews by significant sections of the ruling class for their supposed proclivity to finance and support revolutions against capitalism, is obvious.
This current worldview was defined after WWII in the light of not only the Nazi Genocide, but also the foundation of the state of Israel, and the historic event of its massive ethnic cleaning of the Palestinian Arab population to create a Jewish majority in a previously overwhelmingly Arab country. The creation, and consolidation, of Israel first as a state, and then as a strategic ally of the dominant imperialist world hegemon, meant a major shift in Western culture regarding the Jewish question. As with history itself, ‘culture’ was moulded or re-moulded by the victors.
So now, for instance, what was previously referred to prior to these events as ‘Christian civilisation’, or more archaically as ‘Christendom’, is now designated as ‘Judeo-Christian civilisation’. This designation of North American and West European advanced capitalist societies is universal, pervasive and completely hegemonic. Is this an improvement on what went before? Perhaps from a narrowly Jewish-chauvinistic standpoint it may be seen that way. From the standpoint of the many on the receiving end, which also includes quite a few people of Christian faith, not only in Palestine, but also elsewhere in the semi-colonial world, and also from a genuinely universal, communist standpoint, it is really no improvement at all.
Not only the depiction of the previous bourgeois paradigm was dictated by the victors in the historical events, but also the interpretation of the various components of that previous world-view. The ‘tropes’ of anti-semitism that ‘Jellytot’ refers to, have among them the notion that Jews have disproportionate financial power, power in the media, power in society as a whole, relative to their numbers.
Disproportionate roles and materialist analysis
For anti-semites, when the term was first coined in late 19th Century Germany, this was an important part of their ideology. It was not based on phantoms, or inventions out of thin air, but rather well known social facts. Indeed, if it had not corresponded at least in part to social and economic reality, then as a propaganda ‘trope’, it would have been ineffective.
It is simply an historical fact that Jews have played a disproportionate role in banking and finance. This is related to their earlier social role in the medieval period, when the very survival of Judaism as a minority religion in societies where other, hostile but related religions were dominant was dependent on it playing a different social role. This social role as a ‘foreign’ religious community was as the repository of commercial and later usurious money capital in feudal societies.
Being based on natural economy and forms of exploitation of serfs based on the production of use-values, the entire sphere of money, trade and exchange relations was something socially ‘alien’ to these societies and had to be embodied in an ‘alien’ religion, and thereby a people-class that embodied that (see Abram Leon’s work The Jewish Question: A Marxist Analysis).
Furthermore, this ‘foreign’ character was an essential characteristic for another reason; commodity exchange did not generally characterise economic relations within feudal societies, but rather between different feudal states. Therefore, an effective merchant class had to have international connections to facilitate such international exchange, to enable them to buy cheaply in order to make a profit elsewhere. Jews, as a pan-national religious/communal population dispersed through many countries and constituting distinct minorities within them, were ideal for this.
This role was massively modified by the decline of feudalism, and the rise of ‘native’ commercial and industrial bourgeois classes that in effect made the Jewish people-class redundant in its merchant role. Usury and moneylending then became the role of the people-class in decline, along with related services for the declining and increasingly parasitic aristocracy, such as tax collecting.
This social role, as a kind of a subsidiary exploiting class, in the later medieval period often in direct contact with the exploited peasantry (whereas the lords were often more at a distance) led to social conflict with the peasantry, and at times even to uprisings of the peasantry that were directed against exploitation, but immediately targeted the Jews as the day-to-day agents of that exploitation. One famous example was the Khmelnytsky uprising in Polish-ruled Ukraine in 1648, which was in fact very similar to the 1381 Peasant Revolt in England led by Wat Tyler, but the former uprising also led to a considerable slaughter of Jews, particularly those who were seen tax-farmers for the Polish nobility.
Jews were mercilessly driven out of trade in the late medieval period, and often into ghettos, where usury was still practiced by a Jewish pariah class. But then the bourgeois revolution, in destroying the feudal regimes, shattered the ghettos and began the emancipation of the Jews.
At this point, the long experience of Jews in trade, their previously accumulated wealth, and the porous, open nature of the early bourgeoisie meant Jews had cultural advantages in taking advantage of the social opportunities posed by capitalism and its generalisation of commodity relations. This is the historical materialist explanation for the over-representation of Jews in capitalist finance, which is one of the key facts that the original anti-Semitic movement used as ammunition to back up its racist ideology in the late 19th Century.
Overrepresentation in oppression and privilege
Whether or not a particular ethnic group is overrepresented in a particular part of society, whether high finance or conversely, in prisons, if such a thing is significant or potentially significant, ought to be a matter for sober, factual research and historical materialist analysis. This is imperative for Marxists, who are the most consistent opponents of systematic inequalities between peoples. Such things ought to be a major cause for concern.
It is a fact, for instance, that oppressed ethnic minorities are massively over-represented in prisons in many countries, not only the imperialist countries.
Racists and chauvinists will inevitably put this down to some kind of inherent criminality on the part of those populations they despise. Whereas Marxists will look at the total material circumstances that led to that situation, and particularly take account of the role of discrimination and ethnic/racial bias in the justice system of the state concerned, as well as the resultant social and economic disadvantage that drives those impoverished by such discrimination to crime, in what amounts to a vicious circle.
Where there is an over-representation of a particular ethnic group in a privileged part of society, such as high finance, then this has to be analysed and explained, and political conclusions drawn from it, by the same method as with disadvantaged minorities. That is, it has to be explained historically as a product of social and political-economic causes, and not some inherent ‘essence’ of the people concerned. Given this approach, for a Marxist there can be no shying away from such analysis because it offends some liberal sensibility that says that a particular, once victimised group cannot be the subject of materialist analysis in this way. Such a contention would be a betrayal of Marxism.
The oppression of the Jews in late feudal societies resulted from the rise of capitalism and commodity exchange as a growing mode of economy, and then production, in its own right, as a factor tending to dissolve feudal society and make way for the capitalist order. This destroyed the distinct social role of the Jews within feudal society as the ‘foreign’ repository of a limited form of commodity economy that served the feudal economy itself.
As commercial and then manufacturing capital started its road to dominance, the Jews lost not only their monopoly of trade, but their entire role as traders (except in money itself). The agency that actually enforced this was the semi-bourgeoisified absolutist monarchies, which attempted to enrich themselves based on the new economic forms while preserving hereditary feudal privilege as much, and for as long, as possible.
In the long run, this proved impossible to maintain, in the most advanced European countries, most classically in Holland, then Britain and France, the absolutisms were razed to the ground by bourgeois revolutions, that not only smashed feudalism, but also abolished the ghettos and emancipated Jews with the grant of equal citizenship. This struggle radicalised many of the middle class and poorer Jews, who played an important role in the bourgeois revolutions, as well as the later struggles against absolutism in countries further East, such as Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.
Progressive role of Jews in revolutions
Thus Jews played a significant role in the the struggles for democracy in the 19th Century, but even more so in the socialist and working class revolutionary movements which spanned both the 19th and 20th Centuries. This continued through the terrible events of two world wars, the revolutions after WWI, the counterrevolution that fought against it that often used anti-semitism as a reactionary weapon, the rise of fascism and Nazism, the persecution and massacre of Jews by Hitler’s regime and its vassals, such as Petain and Pavelic.
This has led to a considerable Jewish input into the left, and to an enormous authority of Jews as a people on the left. Which leads straight to the other ‘trope’ that the early anti-semites used to back up their racist theories: a demonisation of radical Jews. The disconnect between Jews, as a sometimes oppressed minority in quite a few countries, and the dominant forms of national chauvinism, meant that elements of internationalism were a native part of their political outlook, which again for reactionary nationalists such as the original anti-semites, fuelled this demonisation.
And in fact, the product of both of these ‘tropes’ is a combined ‘trope’ which amalgamates these, and comes up with the accusation that Jewish financial power, Jewish radical democracy and leftism, and Jewish internationalism are but facets of a unitary strategy by the leaders of this supposedly uniquely sinister (but, contradictorily, inferior) ‘race’ to conquer the world for their own collective benefit.
This was the world outlook put forward in the Tsarist secret police document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was, in its purposes, above all a work of counterrevolutionary demonology, aimed at ascribing the ongoing downfall of the aristocratic and pre-capitalist order in Europe to sinister Jewish conspiratorial forces.
The Jewish input into the left was an overwhelmingly positive and progressive thing in its time. Indeed, without this it is highly doubtful if the working class would have won the (now largely reversed) victories and gains it won in the 20th Century, notably the Russian revolution. Many of the most far-sighted leaders of the communist movement, from Marx to Trotsky, derived the breadth of their insights in part from their Jewish background, which meant they were relatively immune from the national narrowness and short-sightedness of many non-Jewish leftists.
Transformations into opposites
However, one thing that Marxists should take particular note of, given that Marxism is based in terms of its logical thought on the dialectics of Hegel, is the insight that every phenomenon is contingent, historically specific and in no way timeless. Something that arises in one set of circumstances can, in different circumstances be transformed into its opposite.
The foundation of Israel, and the rise of that new imperialist formation to the front rank of allies of the imperialist hegemon, the United States, has changed the relationship of Jews to the workers movement and the left. Obviously, for Marxists, who understand that social being tends to determine social consciousness, the creation of an oppressor imperialist state with national pretentions, and which does appear to claim to loyalty of most Jewish people internationally, changes beyond recognition the relationship of Jews to the workers movement that existed prior to the birth of that state.
Given this quasi-national loyalty, it is reasonable to draw the conclusion that an imperialist chauvinism, similar in many respects to that prevalent among British people, French people, Americans, with regard to ‘their’ respective imperialist states, is also prevalent among Jews. This has material consequences for the role of Jews on the left.
It means that the specific gravitational pull of an imperialist Jewish chauvinism on would-be Jewish leftists, revolutionaries and radical exists, and is similar to that imperialist-chauvinist pull that exists on British, French, Americans, etc. It means that that Jewish chauvinism, and softness on Zionism, may, just as with more conventional imperialist chauvinism, exist in subtle ‘left’ guises, and must be guarded against in just the same manner on the would-be revolutionary left. In this context, for instance, left forms of Jewish identity politics should be regarded as just as much likely to be a disguised form of chauvinism as, say, left forms of English or French identity politics.
An imperialist chauvinism with unique features
This is however, an imperialist chauvinism with some unique features. One is that large numbers of Israel-loyalists do not live in Israel. Their loyalty of a great majority of Jews to what they see as the Jewish state is however similar to that of most citizens of the older imperialist states to ‘their’ imperialist states. This consciousness is mainstream among those who are not consciously revolutionary opponents of imperialism. It permeates social democracy in the older imperialist states; in a slightly different form, an analogous imperialist Jewish chauvinism also permeates the Jewish left and influences even very left-wing, subjectively revolutionary Jewish leftists who are still influenced by the idea that there is something progressive about the Jewish identity itself.
The imperialist formation that is Israel has a unique form, since part of its ruling class resides outside the country and overlaps with the ruling class of other imperialist countries – most importantly, but not confined to, the United States. This is a historical product of the development of the Jews from a trading/moneyed people class under feudalism, to a situation where part of that people have become a distinct caste within the bourgeoisie of several advanced Western imperialist nations. The Zionist movement, which was initially led by a radical petty-bourgeois ‘Jacobin’ vanguard, solidified into something that embraced most, though not all, of the overseas Jewish bourgeoisie.
The bourgeoisie of the imperialist countries, as a result of the outcome of World War II, the formation of Israel, and its consolidation as a key strategic bulwark of the world capitalist order, has been cured of the historically evolved delusion that ‘The Jews’ were in some way a subversive threat to capitalism. Rather, the Jewish bourgeoisie is now regarded as a priceless asset of the system itself, and in fact, the culture of many Jewish bourgeois ideologues, which is often deeper, broader and more far-sighted than that of the non-Jewish bourgeoisie, leads to them being revered as a kind of bourgeois vanguard. Think of the prestige of Milton Friedman among the neo-liberal bourgeoisie, for instance.
Power of the Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie
When Atzmon and others talk of ‘Jewish power’, they are using a classless term for the power of the Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie, which has a kind of national consciousness and regards Israel as its state, even though it often does not consider it profitable to reside there full time at least. To say that this resembles the ‘tropes’ of anti-Semitism superficially seems to have some traction – except for one thing. Their statements also correspond with reality.
For instance, how else does one explain the obvious power of AIPAC and other Zionist lobbying groups in the United States, which dominate both the twin parties of capital and can easily destroy the political careers of dissident bourgeois politicians of either party who speak out of turn, even in a tepid and inadequate way, in favour of some kind of Palestinian rights? How else do you explain the hegemony in the UK of the Conservative Friends of Israel, which boasts that 80% of Tory MP’s are its supporters, or the comparable level of influence that the Labour Friends of Israel has in Labour? The Lib Dem Friends of Israel have also made their presence felt in recent years, not least by witch-hunting outspoken supporters of Palestinian rights within that party, such as Jenny Tonge and David Ward.
The only explanation of this level of hegemony for Zionism within Western bourgeois politics is: that these are political expressions of a Zionist bourgeoisie in Western politics. Their power is not as result of the ‘Jewish vote’ , which even in the United States is only 2% – in the UK around 0.5%. Explanations that this is because of the power of the ‘Zionist lobby’, or even the ‘Jewish lobby’ also beg the question: why should this lobby be more powerful than other ‘lobbies’ that seek to lobby for opposite objectives? Zionists would claim, of course, that this is because of the obvious rightness of their cause, but we can dismiss such self-serving nonsense.
But the explanation is very simple – it is ownership of parts of the capitalist economy that gives this kind of social and political power. Nothing else can explain it – the over-representation of Jewish bourgeois among the bourgeoisies of the advanced countries, a historically constituted phenomenon like any other, and the possession by much of this caste of a distinct semi-national consciousness, gives Zionists this social weight in the older imperialist countries.
Jewish chauvinism is imperialist chauvinism
Like any such powerful bourgeois layer, they exert a gravitational pull on the bourgeois society of which they are part. Their social weight has a massive effect on politics, even of the politics of those who purport to oppose capitalism. Thus we see the phenomenon of forms of ‘Marxism’ whose universalist content is diluted with Jewish chauvinism.
The real victims of this kind of ‘Marxism’, which necessarily must soft-peddle the specific responsibility of movements such as AIPAC or Britain’s ‘Friends of Israel’ party factions for the oppression of the Palestinians, are the Palestinians themselves. This ‘Marxism’ results in a tepid left, that cannot by its very nature organise wholehearted solidarity with the victims of Zionism, since what it fears more than anything else is that it might be forced into real confrontation with Zionism and its domestic bourgeois supporters and camp followers, which would mean being accused of peddling anti-Semitism by its hirelings and ideologues.
But there is actually no alternative to confronting this question for any real opponent of Zionism and supporter of the Palestinians. Those who fail to do so will sooner or later tread a well-worn path, that has already been trodden by those on the left who have given up opposition to imperialist war, and are following in the footsteps of the David Aaronovitches, the Nick Cohens, the likes of Harry’s Place and the Alliance for Workers Liberty, whose social-imperialism is completely bound up with their Jewish chauvinism and Zionist politics, in some cases vicarious, in others not. Others can try to ignore this question, but it will not ignore them.