In Solidarity 498, in March of this year, I wrote a review of an article by Joni Alizah Cohen in which she drew upon Moishe Postone’s work on the basis of the extreme Nazi iteration of antisemitism and compared this to the way the Nazis themselves as well as the contemporary fascistic far-right rationalise their hatred of transgender people.
She argues that there is a common basis in what she terms abstractions. Jews represent “abstract” financial capital as opposed to the “concrete” industrial capital, whilst the trans woman represents the embodiment of the “abstract” gender vs the “concrete” biological sex.
I think there is something to be said for this explanation and am keen to see more in the way of higher-level thinking about the basis of transphobia develop in the working class movement. It is however, another of Postone’s contributions to the understanding of antisemitism that I wish to speak to.
Postone argues that left-antisemitism has a “pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have”. In this, he is on the one hand speaking to the antisemitism sometimes referred to as the “Socialism of fools”, in which people on the left see themselves as having an opposition to capitalism and, through the pervasiveness of racist antisemitic tropes, they associate capitalism with Jewish people.
On the other hand he is also referencing what might be referred to as a “post-1948” strand of antisemitism. In that people look upon the policies and actions carried out by the Israeli state and, through seeking affinity and solidarity with the Palestinian cause, either generalise the Israeli state as a representative of all Jewish people worldwide and therefore seek to hold all Jewish people accountable, or seek revanchist solutions which would lead to the mass expulsion of Jewish populations from the Middle East.
In either of the forms of antisemitism that Postone refers to here, the intentions of the person holding these views are, in general, of seeking justice and liberation for oppressed peoples. This antisemitism is justified by an idea of “punching up” rather than down. That is why these ideas have such a particular grip on the left and tend to take a form particular from that of the right.
The same can be said for transphobia. Transphobia on the left does not; generally speaking, appear in the same form as either the far-right strain that Cohen describes or in the more broadly right wing bigoted view that tends to share a lot in common with homophobic bigotry that was most prominent in the 1980s.
Rather, we have an extremely prominent (though small in terms of absolute numbers) layer of the labour movement organising and agitating against trans people.
Some trans-rights activists make the argument that this layer of the labour movement are entirely detached from feminism. That is incorrect. Significant parts of this layer, as well as some of the milieu they draw around them, at the very least earnestly see themselves as feminists. In many cases they have a reasonably strong record in feminist activism within the trade-union movement as well as in keeping services like women’s shelters open during periods of very little funding or support.
The root of the problem is not lack of a broadly defined feminism that is. Rather, it is what we might term a “feminism of fools”, in which the societal prominence of misogyny is seen to be embodied by trans women, just as the 19th century’s “socialism of fools” scapegoated Jews as the embodiment of abstract capital.
Quite a significant layer of activists who have for some time been on the left of feminist issues within the labour movement have managed to be on the wrong side of the issue of trans rights on the basis of “punching up” against trans women.
It is important for the broader labour movement to come to terms with these tendencies. Given that the labour movement and the organised working class possesses the structural capabilities to fight for change in society, it is crucial that our own house is in order.
If we are to fight for human emancipation, particular sections of our class cannot be sold down the river under the premise of “punching up”.