The socialism of fools: The Left and the Jews

Standpoint's Daniel Johnson held his most recent 'dialogue' session on the subject of Left and the Jews with Nick Cohen and Anthony Julius

Dialogue-sephardi-centre
Daniel Johnson talks with Nick Cohen and Anthony Julius

Daniel Johnson: Our subject is the Left and the Jews. A famous phrase from the 19th century—I think it came from the German social democrat August Bebel—was that "anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools". If that was true then, there are still plenty of these fools around today.

Just as in the 19th century, when leading figures of the Left such as Karl Marx set a bad example in their writings about the Jewish people, so today we have a problem on the Left. Where does this come from? Why does it exist?

For so many years, the Left, if we define it as beginning with the French Revolution, was seen as the friend of the Jewish people, of emancipation, toleration and equality. But the problem, I think, stems from something which Isaac Deutscher, a great icon of the Left, called the "non-Jewish Jew". The price to be exacted in return for emancipation and full equality was that Jews should give up everything that was distinctive and specifically Jewish.

For years, most on the Left did not believe this, but some did. Karl Marx, above all, began the trend towards anti-Semitism on the Left. These leftist thinkers saw thousands of years of Jewish tradition, religion and ritual as in some sense a burden to be sloughed off. 

In today's world that attitude still exists, but it has been hugely exacerbated by the unholy alliance that we have found among elements of the Left-not, by any means, among everyone-and the forces of Islamism. A whole new dimension has been created.

We began to see this most visibly in the 1960s after the Six-Day War, when anti-Zionism morphed into the "new anti-Semitism", as it has often been called. In this country today, and indeed across the West, anti-Semitism is no longer the preserve of the extreme Right. It has become embedded even in the respectable salons and newspaper offices of the Left. 

Nick Cohen: This discussion is like wading into a minefield. Because what do you mean by Left? As Daniel suggested, there are all kinds of shades of opinions on the Left, on this as any other issue. It is like saying, "The Right and the Jews". You can't debate without generalisations—you can't write without generalisations—so it is certainly true that there are anti-Semites on the Left.

But it is equally true that left-wing thought can lead to conspiracy theorising. The late 20th century saw the collapse of socialism. From the 1880s through to the 1980s, you would have none of my problems of definition about talking to the Left. If you were left-wing, you were a socialist of some sort. Socialism died before the Berlin Wall came down. All over the world, people were giving up on socialism, not least Communists, especially in China and Russia.

You then have a problem with people who are raging, often with very good reason, against injustice in their society, who call themselves left-wing. What do you do next? How do you explain defeat? One way to explain defeat is a kind of conspiracy theorising.

You see this in Britain a lot: people opine on the reasons elections are lost, because of Rupert Murdoch and the Tory press brainwashing the electorate. Lots of people on the Right, for instance, keep saying that the reasons the Tories keep losing elections (and they still haven't won one, incidentally, not even against Gordon Brown. I would have thought that if you missed that goal you might as well give up football completely) is because of the BBC and the liberal media. 

It is quite easy to get into conspiratorial ways of thinking. As soon as you start thinking like this, Jews come along, particularly when confronted by an injustice like that suffered by the Palestinians. It is very easy to go from explaining defeat and injustice to saying that there is a Jewish conspiracy which controls British and American foreign policy and runs secret levers of power. 

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