Tuesday, May 03, 2016
Yes, it is a witch-hunt. posted by Richard SeymourBy now, I think, it is being quietly acknowledged in most sensible quarters that Labour doesn't have an 'antisemitism problem'. This doesn't mean there are no examples of antisemitism. There are. It just means they are a handful of cases, that they are mixed in with cases that are not antisemitic, examples that are tendentiously misrepresented, instances that are wildly exaggerated, and that they by no means justify the absurd claims of institutional antisemitism in the Labour Party. It is. Just. Absurd.
But how does this relate to the argument that what is taking place in the Labour Party, with the apparatus of inquiry and suspensions, is a witch-hunt? After all, aren't many of these cases genuinely problematic? Didn't Naz Shah reference "the Jews"? Isn't there another councillor who referred to "Zionist Jews" when criticising Israel? Didn't Ken Livingstone's clumsy attempt to redefine antisemitism at least push in a dangerous direction? And so on. So what if a few "innocent people" get caught up in the understandable haste to expunge the taint?
This is worth clarifying. A witch-hunt is not usually aimed exclusively or even largely at 'innocent' people. To take the classic example, McCarthyite terror was not aimed at 'innocent' people. (It will, of course, be controversial to compare party suspensions and inquiries to a state-led crackdown that ruined people's lives, but the point of the historical detour will become obvious.) According to Ellen Schrecker's histories of the era, the majority of those targeted by investigations, prosecutions, censure, blacklisting, purges, and so on - at least in the 'classical' age of McCarthyism (from 1947 to 1954) - were not 'innocent' of being either Communists or 'fellow-travellers'. That is to say, they were not 'innocent' of glorifying an atrocious, repressive regime. They were not 'innocent' of defending the show trials, supporting the Hitler-Stalin pact, or justifying Russian expansionism in eastern Europe at the end of the war. They were not 'innocent', from the point of view of African American civil rights struggles, of opposing the March on Washington during their 'anti-imperialist' phase (because it would encourage war), and of opportunistically anathematising organisations to their right. They were not 'innocent', from the point of view of the labour movement and the Left, of supporting repressive measures against workers and other leftists during the war - including, in a horrible irony, the invocation of the Smith Act which was later used to hammer the Communist Party during the Cold War. They were wrong in so many ways and, if you care to see things in this way, had a lot of explaining to do.
The point of this kind of witch-hunt was not that it invented accusations out of whole cloth, though it sometimes did that. And it was not that 'innocent' people got sucked into it, although that certainly happened - particularly during the civil rights era, when anticommunist countersubversion was directly utilised by Southern states in a battle to preserve Jim Crow. It is, rather, that real political problems were instrumentalised, exaggerated, and entangled with a great many non-problems, inventions and distortions, the better to create a narrative which could help organise political repression. It armed the state with the means to hammer the most powerful sector of the Popular Front Left and accelerate a realignment of many of these forces toward the 'Vital Centre'. It anchored the ideological mainstream in an anti-leftist articulation, and ensured that the dissidence of even moderate liberals was timid and well-policed.
For the sake of elaboration, those who are interested in this history may wish to have a look at what happened to the NAACP during the Cold War era. The NAACP was, as now, a mainstream, liberal civil rights organisation. It had close ties to the State Department, and some history of antagonism with the Communist Party going back to the Scottsboro Boys. But it, like all other such organisations, was put under tremendous pressure to 'root out' the Communist menace in its ranks. This included not only the expulsion of W E B Du Bois, who was faulted above all for his role in the We Charge Genocide petition, but the adoption of an anticommunist resolution supporting the purging of Communist influence in the organisation. As Walter White, then leading the association, put it, they vowed to be "utterly ruthless in clean[ing] out the NAACP, and, making sue that the Communists were not running it". There was, of course, precious little evidence of Communist membership, or 'infiltration', of the NAACP, much less of any Communist attempt to "run" the organisation. Illegitimate claims of infiltration were sometimes used to justify battles against individuals in local chapters who were, for one reason or another, considered problematic. But if there were no mass purges, that is because there was no one to purge.
So what was the function of anticommunist paranoia in this context? If there were no 'witches', what was the witch-hunt about? One end that it definitely served was to keep the NAACP loyal to the US government, so that leading figures whitewashed the realities of American racism in order to rebut "Soviet propaganda". A key example of this would be Channing Tobias downplaying the murder by a local Sheriff of four African Americans falsely imprisoned on rape charges, despite the victims being NAACP clients. It would, of course, be tendentious to claim that this sort of thing is exhaustive of the NAACP's record in this period. Of course it is not. And Cold War paranoia was not the only factor contributing to the moderation of middle class-led black civil rights organisations. But that is, in a way, the point: a witch-hunt works on the basis of existing materials, exacerbating, accelerating and re-directing existing tendencies. It codes these processes differently, giving them a seemingly coherent and compelling rationale, and putting their critics and opponents on the defensive.
A similar pattern is at work with Labour. The character of Labour's crisis does not have to do with antisemitism. It is a deep, secular crisis rooted in the changing social bases of Labourism, the crises of its traditional modes of party management, the depletion of its core vote, its inability to manage and respond to the problems with its traditional Unionism, and so on. Currently, as a consequence of the comprehensive collapse of the Blairite Right, it is taking the form of a battle led by the Old Labour Right to weaken and finally bring down a leadership of Bennite vintage (though not one that is able to advance Bennite policies). Long before the antisemitism accusations took off, there was an effort on the part of local notables, constituency chairs, councillors and others who detest Corbyn to find excuses to purge party members. The justification cited has usually been that they support policies or parties that are at odds with the "aims and values" of Labour, a suitably nebulous accusation. What the furore about antisemitism does, with all its grotesque disproportions, its slanders and distortions, is re-code those processes that were already at work. It draws on some combination of reality and bullshit to give new meaning to an old struggle, creating a panic situation which derails all of the careful groundwork that has been laid by Corbyn and his supporters over the last few months, and shatters the growing impression of a steady stream of modest but real successes. In the days before a series of elections, it has an obvious tactical purpose, but its goal is strategic: to bring forward the day when Corbyn, his allies, and his supporters can be effectively and irreversibly driven out of the Labour leadership. And even with the best will in the world, the current suspensions and the promised inquiry play into that.
How should the Left respond to this? Obviously not by denying that anyone has ever said anything problematic. That would be silly. We should defend people against false accusations, and point out when problems are exaggerated or distorted. But we should also point out that the relationship between the alleged problem and the supposed solution is not an intuitive one. For example, the latest instance of suspension involves councillors who, among other things, shared the famous satirical meme calling for Israel to be 'relocated' to the United States (which is not problematic), referred to "Zionist Jews" (which is in most cases problematic), and implicated Israel in regional conspiracies and intrigue (which is bombastic nonsense). And they've been suspended for this?
If someone, a Labour Party member or anyone else, used the phrase "Zionist Jews" in my company, I would politely point out that this phrase is dodgy and worth avoiding. If someone proposed a conspiracy theory about Israel, I would point out the ways in which the argument didn't make sense. If possible, I would do it without embarrassing them or being a dick about it. What I would not do is rush to call them antisemites. What I would not do is call the compliance unit and demand their suspension pending investigation and expulsion. It is the mark of a deeply unpleasant, authoritarian streak in anyone to think that the discomfort raised by statements about "Zionist Jews" is best dealt with by means of ex-communication. Any party would want to have recourse to means to exclude people where other means fail, and certainly where someone is consistently and unrepentantly racist, but I'm not sure even the most hard-assed 'Leninists' whom I have met would rigorously defend suspensions pending investigation and possibly expulsion for saying something stupid on Facebook.
This brings me back to my main point. There are very few 'innocent' people, and hopefully none in politics. There is no one who has not - whether out of bad politics, inexperience, frustration, whimsy, or any variant of these - said something stupid. And sometimes, you may even have said something sexist, or homophobic, or ableist, or racist, or at least bordering on it, at least pushing dangerously in that direction. I certainly have, and I can recall moments that make me cringe. And I can also remember moments in the past where individuals have made arguments that sounded ever-so-tough and realpolitik, but which in retrospect would embarrass them. People learn, people change, provided someone is willing to argue with them. And hopefully, when they do change, they don't become self-righteous about it out of some overdetermined guilt reflex. But the point is that no one is 'innocent', all of us have been politically impure. So the existence of real problems, where they exist, may provide the occasion or raw material for a witch-hunt, but it is not its point, and it is not a justification.