Robert Fine on antisemitism and Stalinism: a comment

Submitted by martin on 13 August, 2019 - 12:34 Author: Eduardo Tovar
Fine and Spencer

I read Dan Davison’s article on Robert Fine and the critique of antisemitism in Solidarity 512 with great interest.

While Davison’s overall tribute to Fine is both lucid and commendable, there are two significant aspects of Fine’s critical perspective that Davison left under-examined. These are, first, Fine’s understanding of the connections between antisemitism and racism and, second, his standpoint on Stalinism and anti-Stalinism.

Having written reviews of two of Fine’s books so far as part of an ongoing series, I found Fine’s ideas about antisemitism thought-provoking. Indeed, I can see key threads running between “Antisemitism and the Left: On the Return of the Jewish Question” (2017) and those earlier books I reviewed. These threads include the relationship between Marxism and the Enlightenment, and the contrasting manners in which opposition to racism develops in different political contexts.

I think Fine and Spencer’s chosen framework for their analysis of antisemitism has both strengths and weaknesses. They analyse “the Jewish question” in terms of how the Jews have experienced both the “emancipatory” and the “repressive” face of universalism: how, for the Jews, universalism has meant, on the one hand, their integration into civic and political life, and on the other hand, their constant singling-out as an obstacle to human progress. This manifests on the modern left as, among other things, a view of Israel as a uniquely illegitimate state whose lobby is uniquely powerful and harmful across the globe.

The framework’s main weakness is that it does not easily account for several major factors in the left’s singling-out of the Jews and Israel, such as the perpetuation of distorted or one-sided historical understandings of the Holocaust and the creation of Israel (often unknowingly influenced by Arab nationalist perspectives). Its main strength is that it highlights a recurring failure on the left to live up to the principles of human solidarity that should be at the heart of any socialist project.

While Davison’s article provides a clear and accurate explanation of Fine’s perspective on the connections between antisemitism, radical social theory, and the left, there is one key work to which Davison does not refer: “A Common Cause”, Fine’s 2012 article in the scholarly journal “European Societies”, co-authored with Glynis Cousin. [1] That article provides Fine’s major exploration of the relationship between racism and antisemitism, and of what he termed their “methodological separation”. In Fine’s view, the tendency to keep the analysis of antisemitism and the analysis of racism separate has led us to overlook the extent to which the political exclusion of Jews and the “scientific” classification of non-European peoples as racially inferior were historically connected in the rise of the modern nation state.

It has also led us to miss how several influential theorists of racism, including WEB Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, perceived deep ethical and experiential connections between the Jewish struggle against antisemitism and the black struggle against racism. This is true even with Fanon’s ultimate characterisation of Jews as white Europeans, based largely on his view that Jews can hide their “Jewishness” from the racist “white gaze”, whereas black people cannot hide their “blackness”.

In the early stages of the modern era, the mass expulsions and forced conversions of Jews within the rising European nations occurred in conjunction with the emergence of race-theoretical justifications for colonialism. The connective tissue between these events is the development of “the nation”. Political antisemitism helped build the nation “at home”, while the subjugation of indigenous peoples helped build it overseas. That is, the drive to create homogenous nation states in modern Europe created new conditions of vulnerability for “aliens”, both within and beyond the nation’s borders; in both the “core” and the “periphery” of the emerging colonial powers.

Fine does not seem to have completely decided whether he thought of antisemitism as distinct from racism or as a peculiar kind of racism. Nevertheless, he believed that the almost total separation between the study of racism and the study of antisemitism has kept important connections between the two phenomena under-examined and under-theorised. In his view, rather than implying an “obliteration of differences” between antisemitism and what we ordinarily think of as racism, an emphasis on connections “both extends understanding beyond the familiar and sponsors reflection on the familiar” (Cousin and Fine 2012: 181).

Given his academic specialisation in bourgeois sociology, I find Davison’s omission of the 2012 article striking. Since comrades in Workers’ Liberty have been debating the relationship between antisemitism and racism, it seems worthwhile to alert readers of Solidarity to the article’s existence. I found Cousin and Fine’s discussion of Du Bois’ visit to the Warsaw Ghetto especially thought-provoking, since this visit “prompted [Du Bois] to deepen his understanding of racism as a form of ‘human hate’ capable of ‘reaching all sorts of people’ of all kinds of skin colours” (Cousin and Fine 2012: 170).

This brings me to the other opening for further discussion I feel Davison failed to pursue fully: Fine’s critical perspective on Stalinism and anti-Stalinism. Fine outlines this in a Workers’ Liberty magazine article from 1990 titled “The Poverty of Anti-Stalinism”. [2] There he points to two related problems with the prevailing manners in which socialists explain their opposition to Stalinism.

First, there is a tendency to criticise Stalinism on grounds of it being insufficiently anti-capitalist, often by pointing to historical instances of Stalinists engaging in class-collaboration, such as the Comintern’s “Popular Front” strategy in the 1930s and the Eurocommunists’ orientation to the cross-class “Popular Alliance” in the 1970s. As Fine correctly points out, this overlooks how Stalinism was perfectly capable of being viciously anti-capitalist in its own right, and how there is an inherent antagonism between Stalinism and Marxism despite their shared anti-capitalism.

Second, there is a tendency to counterpose Stalinism to either the idea or the ideal realisation of socialism. As Fine puts it in two pointed and thought-provoking passages:

“This line of argument inverts the procedure of investigation which is required: it sets socialism up as a dogmatic standard against which to measure Stalinism, whereas the proper method must be a criticism of Stalinism that is not afraid of its findings, even when these findings undermine our idea of socialism or our belief that we have beholden its ideal realisation.”

“Marxism cannot be defined negatively; it is neither simply the negation of bourgeois forms of social life nor is it simply the negation of Stalinism. The slogan of ‘anti-capitalism, anti-Stalinism' may be a useful starting point for socialists, but is no substitute for the positive reformulation of Marxism.” (Fine 1990: 155)

Davison’s article rightly acknowledges Fine’s view of what is lacking in the way the anti-Stalinist left commonly criticises Stalinism. He also rightly connects this perspective to Fine’s methodological objection to the way in which much of the left criticises Israel by measuring it against an abstract, ideal state rather than by concretely comparing it to how other countries have dealt with the contradictory demands of nation and state.

Nevertheless, Davison should have elaborated significantly more on Fine’s critique of Stalinism and anti-Stalinism. In a similar way to how many on the left adhere to an “anti-capitalism” that amounts to little more than a mechanistic negation of capitalism, we can succumb to an “anti-Stalinism” that lacks any meaningful effort to refine our understanding of what we are fighting for positively. Fine’s claim that the anti-Stalinist left often finds itself intellectually trapped by having to define itself negatively against Stalinism and capitalism contains more than an element of truth. Nonetheless, I think he takes the claim a bit too far.

Yes, there are tendencies on the left that over-emphasise what Fine describes as Stalinism’s “right” turns towards class-collaborationism or simply insist that, whatever Stalinism was, it was not socialism. This is especially true in sections of the left influenced by Orthodox Trotskyism, which viewed Stalinism as in some sense progressive in relation to capitalism and the Stalinist states as already in transition to socialism (that is, as already in the process of actualising their existing vision of socialism, albeit in a deformed or degenerated manner). One also sees a version of this problem in the various currents in and around the New Left of the 1960s that tried to draw some form of equivalence between the dehumanising features of capitalist and Stalinist societies.

Nevertheless, I think that reconstructing our understanding of socialism through our critique of Stalinism forms only half of the necessary process. This is because we have to possess some initial understanding of what socialism is before we turn our critical lens upon Stalinism. Otherwise, there is a risk of us becoming so intent upon reconstructing the ideal of socialism in light of Stalinism that, ironically, we return to the preliminary problem of our conception of socialism being excessively determined by its relationship to Stalinism.

I think the approaches of (a) measuring Stalinism against an existing ideal of socialism and (b) reconstructing our ideal of socialism via our critique of Stalinism should be treated as a “both/and” rather than an “either/or”. We move dialectically between, on the one hand, our initial, abstract understanding of socialism and, on the other hand, the concrete historical experience of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union. In this manner, we sharpen our understanding of the positive contents of a socialist project worthy of the name. We also sharpen our understanding of how and why such positive contents stand in opposition to Stalinism.

Lamentably, I did not have the chance to discuss this with Fine before his untimely passing, but I suspect he would have agreed with me. After all, Fine consistently viewed certain positive principles as central to genuinely socialist politics: free will, democracy, individuality, equal rights, and other values that bourgeois liberalism correctly regards as emancipatory, but have only an inchoate or shadow existence in the social and material conditions of capitalism. This is why we need to think of socialism as the supersession of bourgeois society rather than its abstract negation; as that which fulfils the Enlightenment’s promise of universal emancipation.

In summary, while Davison provides an accurate explanation of Fine’s political and theoretical standpoint, there is a lot more to Fine’s writings on antisemitism and Stalinism that we should engage with both positively and critically to sharpen our own perspectives as socialists.

[1] Glynis Cousin and Robert Fine, “A Common Cause: Reconnecting the Study of Racism and Antisemitism”, European Societies, vol. 14(2), 2012, pp. 166-185

[2] Robert Fine, “The poverty of anti-Stalinism”, Workers’ Liberty vol 1, no. 14, 1990, pp. 14-15.

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