Anti-capitalist discourse has become personal. Moishe Postone, Professor in the University of Chicago’s History Department, is an intellectual historian who explains this well. Unless I’m mistaken, he also edited His work is also published in what for me is one of the most important texts to come out of the small section of the radical left which fights antisemitism – the reader Why Your Revolution Is No Liberation (all links point here, but it’s gone – I’ll see if I have a copy on file to upload).
His presentation at SOAS on June 15th outlined with great clarity the origins of the weaknesses of thought on the radical left which are preventing it from reckoning with antisemitism. He explains difficulties both universalist and particularist ways of looking at the world have had accommodating Jews since the rise of Fascism in the ’30s. This is not an optimistic presentation, but it does set out and clarify our problem: radical anti-capitalist critique has taken up antisemitic ways of thinking.
Buchenwald and Hiroshima was dealt with by Left; but the left has not managed to deal with Auschwitz.
The Age of Catastrophe in the 30s and 40s gave way to High Fordism’s state centred synthesis and its welfare states; in turn this yielded to Post-Fordism with its social differentiation and unemployment, downturns in some parts, undermined welfare state.
USSR as development of capitalist social formation, no matter how antithetical. It was a response to capitalism, not an independent movement.
Antisemitism understood widely as variant of racism. But modern antisemitism treats Jews not as a racially inferior group to be kept in place but as dangerous, destructive and powerful in an intangible, global, abstract way. Jews as vast modern conspiracy.
Antisemitism is populist, counterhegemonic, claims explanatory power. Modern a/s purports to explain the modern capitalist world. Misrecognises the global domination of capital. Freeing the world involves freeing it from the Jews. Emancipatory. Blurs differences between reactionary and progressive/emancipatory. Bebel. Antisemitism today understands capitalism as a Jewish conspiracy.
Is the reactionary critique a first step to a progressive critique? No, not historically.
Left responses to the Holocaust.
As fetishised form of anticapitalism.
Nazis were recognised first as anti-modern, then fundamentally modern. A problematic reversal. Anti-capitalism was an effort to overcome a huge historical change which seems to be beyond people, impersonal. Reimagine the struggle against capitalism as a struggle of wills. But that world view faded for decades after the Holocaust. History faded as an issue for a while. Beginning in the mid 50s, rapid economic growth enveloped Stalinist East and Keynsian West and seemed to be an age of universal progress. History seemed tame. Nazism seemed like an aberration, an incongruity – anti-modern at a time when affirmations of modernity were hegemonic.
Shift to particularism saw Nazism as extreme eg of rationalised bureaucratised modernity. But still counter-hegemonic.
The Holocaust was marginalised between ’45 and ’60s, after which it became centralised in discourse. But the centrality of antisemitism to Nazism was completely bracketed. Fascism was understood as a tool of capitalism used against working classes; antisemitism was seen as a variation. USSR monuments to the Holocaust didn’t mention the Jews, or else they listed them as one of many nationalities victimised by Nazis. Ruling elites were prepared to curry favour with groups who remained antisemitic. Neither Churchill nor De Gaulle avoided this. So Jewish children sent to Auschwitz were officially described as ‘political deportees’ – the different reasons for being sent to Auschwitz were conflated. This constituted a submergence of specificity of the Holocaust. It was a form of universalist colour blindness which viewed any mention of Jews-as-Jews as unacceptably particularistic. After ’45 each country formerly occupied by Nazis presented itself as a briefly-occupied nation of resisters; this nationalist self-regard suited the emerging Fordist-Keynsian capitalist configuration.
In the USSR there were show trials; the Jewish Doctors’ Plot; in the US, McCarthyism. Each configuration viewed its foe as abstract and intangible. In each, Jewish identity was not treated as contingent, but central. Soviet show trials described Jews as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ and ‘Zionists’. The Doctors’ Plot led to preparations in ’53 to round up Soviet Jews, abandoned on Stalin’s death that year. The turn against ‘cosmopolitanism’ was also seen in McCarthyism, a move against “international communism”. After 53, Cold War ‘regularised’, with blocs presenting fetishised values of alternatively liberty or equality, actualised according to universalised principles.
New movements – for the liberation and emancipation of women and other minorities – criticised abstract universalism and there was a shift towards a politics of recognition and of particularistic specificity. But anti-imperialism has reproduced old dichotomies by taking one particularist side against another.
A new conceptualisation of the world became diverted into an attack on the concrete – a turn from terra incognita and towards the conceptually familiar. Concrete forms of anti-imperialism occlude the nature of abstract domination of capitalism.
Much of the New Left became involved in an anti-colonialism which was a failing as well as an expression of solidarity. Anti-colonialism was also a displaced way of expressing a radical critique of Western society, translated into other terms which fail to mount opposition to capitalism.
Anti-Iraq war demonstrations were not, after all, supporting a progressive force in Iraq, but the Baathist regime. Resistance to the US in and of itself is now viewed as counter-hegemonic. This is a reactionary, rather than progressive, form of anti-imperialism.
The conflation of Israel and US re-articulates old discourse of European political right about Britain and the Jews. The constitution of anti-hegemonic politics and movements was afflicted by this way of thinking in the 20th century, with the eventuality of the Holocaust.
Left cannot formulate an adequate radical critique of capitalism today. This absence of radical critique breeds fetishised forms of anti-capitalism which are essentially antisemitic.
Why do you want to avoid conflating mass extermination with mass murder?
Nazis wanted to kill many Poles and Russians and enslave the rest. But there was a will to kill all Jews, old and young. The killing of children demonstrated the hugeness of the threat that the Nazis assumed the Jews to be. Mass murder does not imply the destruction of evil; extermination does.
Book 2003 Jonathan Brent. ‘The plot against the Jewish doctors’
Equation of Israel with Nazism is a product of Soviet propaganda post-67 when Zionism became once again an international conspiracy, particularly in Pan-Arab discourse.
The focus of attention on Israel could make more immediate problems recede. Anyway, until that time, Nazism wasn’t such a bad word. It was simply expedient to use it as a gold standard of evil at the time.
Soviet messages from 60s include cartoons which cast Jews as complicit in Jewish crimes. Perdition – according to somebody who read a draft, Perdition lost incendiary lines in the editing process, about Jews, as culprits for the death of Jesus, nailing the Christ to the cross and similar or worse.
What resources has the left lacked to allow it to get into this state. Moral perspective lacking? Match-up between straightforward utilitarian consequentialists who are at the same time advancing antisemitism eg Ted Honderichs, and, on the other hand universalists. Critique of anti-capitalism which comes from a milieu without the moral resources to develop the politics of recognition into a truer critique.
Calling into question of a form of universalism which rejects difference – but incoherent because some diffs were liked and some not. A form of universalism which encompasses difference is required. In the US on the academic left there is a reification of difference which either negates or affirms eg Islam as a unitary other, a form of orientalism.
Why are we surprised by discoveries of antisemitism in one or other section of thought?
Left doesn’t understand a/s. Understands it as being anti-Left, anti-gay, anti-black. But a/s is a particular challenge for the left, at the time when the left is largely unmoored.
Why do we persist with umbrella term of antisemitism? Why not say anti-Jewishness?
Antisemitism, the term coined by antisemites, has never referred to semites – it has referred to a world conspiracy.
Herzl was the first to brag about the international Jew. He sold out on the Armenian revolution. What is the Jewish contribution to antisemitism? [this man blames the victims. The “Jewish contribution to antisemitism” is to be the target of it].
There was no answer; a polite deferral.
Anti-imperialism grew out of attempt to explain why Marxist predictions didn’t come to pass. The concept of imperialism exists for the marxist left to explain the failings of marxism.
As long as there is capitalism there is the necessity of understanding it. Communist revolutions were about taking ‘imperialised’ countries and have them develop national capital along statist lines. At the same time the Arab Middle East and Sub Saharan Africa have declined drastically, with people looking for responsibility – and hitting on the US and Israel as the culprits.
State capitalist antisemitism desecrating cemetery with bulldozers in (I think) Eastern Europe. Hamas was being socialist in Gaza even as Muslim nationalists, while the PLO were doing nothing. Maybe a left view of universalism which could address US’s allies Saudi while being pro-public…?
That space is occupied by Islamic fundamentalists. Not optimistic Not seeing possibilities. One of the best things that could happen would be an even shaky resolution between Israel and Palestine, removing one excuse for antisemitism.
You can read an article of his, History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism, and encounter some of these thoughts as the author intended.
Update: Here’s a copy of Why Your Revolution Is No Liberation [PDF]