The 1980s and left antisemitism

Submitted by SJW on 30 May, 2018 - 11:28 Author: John O'Mahony
WRP discovers world Jewish conspiracy

Consider Ken Livingstone and the Labour Party, Al Capone and the US government. They jailed Alphonse Capone, a multiple-murderer gangster, for tax evasion. That was odd, but I think it better they got him for that than that they didn’t get him at all.

So with Ken Livingstone’s separation from the Labour Party on antisemitism. Livingstone has for nearly four decades been a public purveyor of political antisemitism.

Here I want to consider how serious antisemitism has spread into the Labour Party by way of the ostensibly revolutionary left — the WRP and the SWP — and their ex-members migrating into Labour. In 1981-5 Ken Livingstone ran (through Labour Herald) a branch of the WRP’s antisemitic operation, for which the WRP was well rewarded, with over £1 million, by Arab dictatorships.

I can think of three main currents of virulent antisemitism that flow into the septic strains of Labour left antisemitism, and one, so to speak, prehistoric source.

Two of the leaders of the first British Marxist organisation, the Social Democratic Federation founded in 1881-3, were, to judge by the vehemence of what they wrote, antisemites: Henry Hyndman and Harry Quelch.

The SDF was not a kitsch-Leninist sect. Discussion was possible. Ernest Belfort Bax and others argued opposite views.

The Stalinist current is unfortunately not ancient history. There was from the beginning a dimension of antisemitism in the Stalin group. In the 1920s Trotsky wrote about the use of antisemitism in the branches of the Bolshevik Party against the Opposition. In the Moscow show trials of the mid-30s, the original Jewish names of the victims, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and many others, were printed in the newspapers along with the names for which they had been known for decades. When Trotsky pointed that out, even right-wing Jewish leaders in the USA denounced him for libelling Stalin.

Between 1949 and Stalin’s death in 1953 a series of show trials were held in the satellite states of Eastern Europe in which many of the victims, leading Stalinists such as Rudolf Slansky in Czechoslovakia and Lazlo Rajk in Hungary, were accused as “Zionists” as well as enemy agents. The Stalinist press throughout the world echoed Moscow and Prague.

What now poisons the minds of many people on the left originated in that Stalinist campaign. It was rehashed in the writings of Lenni Brenner.

“Zionist” was used but Jew was meant. The Zionists had collaborated with the Nazis. The inner natures of Nazism and Zionism were symmetrically racist. The Zionists-Jews were “rootless cosmopolitans”, part of a great international network of reactionary conspirators. Israel — which Stalin had at first backed, as a potential lever against the British Empire — was a spawn of imperialism and racism. It was an illegitimate state.

In 1952 five Jewish doctors who had served the dwellers in the Kremlin were accused of poisoning and planning the poison the leaders. Stalin died before they could be brought to trial, and they were released. If Stalin had lived, a large-scale rounding-up of the USSR’s Jews would probably have been the outcome of the “anti-Zionist” antisemitic drum-beating.

The two more recent springs of antisemitism in the left come, one from the WRP and Ken Livingstone, and one from the SWP.

The WRP had once been an Orthodox Trotskyist organisation, flawed but real. For good reasons and partly with good politics, it interested itself in revolutionary movements in the Arab countries. It actively supported the Algerian war of independence against France (1954-62) and had links with one of the nationalist organisations there: it published a small pamphlet with a portrait of that organisation’s leader, Messali Hadj, on the cover. Two of its French co-thinkers, one of them Pierre Lambert, stood trial in France in the mid 1950s for supporting the Algerians. (They were acquitted).

When the current poisonous wisdom of the Trotskisant left on Israel was being created by Stalin and his allies, 1949-53, the group called the concoction what it was, antisemitism, and denounced it.

In 1976-7 the leaders of the steeply declining WRP sold its services to Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and the PLO as a propaganda outlet for them and a spy agency on prominent Jews (“Zionists”) and on Arabs in Britain.

They published big pamphlets glowing with adulation about Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein that could have been published by the regimes, and certainly were financed by them.

Part of the deal was that the WRP now made anti-Jewish propaganda. They salved their political consciences by saying Zionist when they meant Jew, but there was no mistaking the meaning. They saw “Zionist” conspiracies everywhere, for instance when a Jewish man, Stuart Young, was made chair of governors of the BBC. They roused a huge and cry in the labour movement against… Zionists.

They published at least one editorial about a “Zionist connection” running from Ronald Reagan’s White House, through Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, all the way to Socialist Organiser (9 April 1983: "").

In the early 1980s the WRP helped Ken Livingstone and other by starting a weekly paper, Labour Herald. The Herald echoed the WRP’s hysterical “anti-Zionism” in articles and cartoons: one, in June 1982, show Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin in SS uniform and giving a Nazi salute).

When in 1985 Livingstone went for and won the Labour parliamentary selection for Brent East, the WRP ran a vicious campaign against the sitting Labour MP, Reg Freeson, as “the Zionist Freeson”, i.e. the Jew Freeson.

Even after the WRP collapsed, among much scandal, in 1985, Livingstone never dissociated himself from it. As late as 1994, he wrote a friendly introduction to a hagiographical biography of the WRP’s long-time leader Gerry Healy (

The SWP too had a hardened animosity to Israel. The central figure in the group, Ygael Gluckstein (Tony Cliff), was a Palestinian-born Jew in background. He could say things that someone who was not Jewish could not say.

His wife Chanie, who was active in the group, and her brother Michael Kidron, who was for a long time also a central figure in the group, were also of Palestinian Jewish background.

Cliff’s political evolution and history on this question can be traced in the files of the Trotskyist press. On the eve of war in 1939 he was involved in exchanges about Palestine in the American magazine New International. At that point he was in favour of free Jewish immigration into Palestine.

In December 1944 the British Revolutionary Communist Party published an Open Letter from Palestinian Trotskyists (unsigned, but written by Cliff) to the Labour Party conference, urging delegates not to back the motion from the Executive.

Somehow, living in Palestine, in the shadow of the Holocaust and in the course of it, he had become a hardened opponent of free Jewish immigration. It is tempting to explain this as neurotic guilt focused against the other Jews who had got to Palestine and like himself survived? One can speculate. But the hard political fact is that sometime in the period between the outbreak of war and 1944, he turned into a lifelong enemy of the Palestine Jews.

He left Palestine in September 1946, and at a time when many Jews were in displaced persons’ camps he had the resources, and contacts such as ILP MP John McGovern, to arrange a visa to go to Ireland as a student and to spend enough time in Britain to become part of the British Trotskyist movement.

His critics within the organisation during and after the Six Day War in 1967 would explain his bitterly Israeli-defeatist politics then in terms of his having been given “a hard time”: he had spent a month in jail in late 1939 in the company of hard-core Zionist prisoners. He had been won over or coerced to their views, for a short time. I have no independent knowledge of that. Cliff’s was, however, a remarkable shift of opinion to make in the early 1940s and in Palestine, and it does need explaining.

In an interview in Socialist Review 100 (July-August 1987), Cliff would say that he was wrong to favour free Jewish immigration to Palestine before the war. Considering the alternative — death — which those who escaped from Europe had avoided, that was a judgement that it would have been better if they had not escaped.

None of the Trotskyist organisations backed the Arab states in the 1948 war. Nor did Cliff. He was silent on the question for many years thereafter, and according to his biographer Ian Birchall said of Israel, with a shrug: “What’s done is done”.

In the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967 Cliff published a pamphlet on Israel. That was not the full absolute anti-Zionist position: noting that “an anti-Israeli campaign quite easily degenerates into a ‘jihad’,” he took that as a bad thing, and implied, if unclearly, the same rights of national self-determination for the Israeli Jews as for the Kurds: “a socialist republic, with full rights for Jews, Kurds and all national minorities”.
The group then prided itself on a theory that capitalist imperialism had come to an end. The SWP would not attain its present “anti-imperialist” pitch until 1987, when it switched to support Iran in the Iran-Iraq war.

An anti-Israel tone became dominant after the 1973 war, but the shift to hostility to Israel becoming a world outlook, with all its ramifications was also around 1986-7.

It can be dated to July 1986, when they published a pamphlet, much reprinted since, entitled Israel, the Hijack State, whose cover cartoon showed Israel as a mad dog on a leash held by the USA.

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