The Octopus School of Polemic

Submitted by dalcassian on 17 December, 2015 - 11:53 Author: Sean Matgamna

David Rosenberg evidently belongs to the Octopus School of polemical writing.

He comes out kicking and swinging wildly and spewing clouds of ink. Unfortunately, be does not believe in dealing with the real points in dispute: his chosen technique is to lose them in inky clouds of general abuse and hope no-one notices.

Though Rosenberg throws everything he can into this letter, almost all of it is beside the point.

Some of it is mildly paranoid. SO has no especially friendly links with the Union of Jewish Students, though we have united and do unite with them against anti-semitism in the National Union of Students. The fact that a young SO supporter took a holiday job in the Jewish Socialists' Group [JSG] office six years ago - and she was known to be SO - is now cited as a take-over plot!

We do not throw around the charge of anti-semitism loosely. We have argued at length that the dominant attitude to Israel on the left - that it should not exist - leads in practice to a comprehensive hostility to most Jews, who identify with Israel. We have never called anyone on the left an anti-semite without spelling out why in terms of that assessment. Does David Rosenberg think that it is a wrong assessment?

And much of Rosenberg's polemic is silly. Thus, I wrote that the Jewish Socialists' Group [JSG] is politically ill-defined. Back comes Rosenberg to remind us that I, his critic, have used a few pen-names ("pseudonyms") over the years. Now, he demands sternly, who is ill-defined?

I can think of many good things to say about the JSG: the JSG's sharing a platform with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, advocating conciliation, compensates for a lot of the political woolliness exposed in David Rosenberg's letter. But woolliness takes its toll.

The article David Rosenberg replies to said: "The JSG ['s] a-political solidarity with Pottins meant that they allowed themselves to he used as camouflage for Healy's WRP, who were the paid agents of various Arab governments… mercenary anti-semites”.

Let us review the basic facts, in simple, brass-tacks, question and answer form.

Q. Was Charlie Pottins publicly associated with both the JSG and the Healyite WRP in the years before that organisation shattered in late 1985?

A. Yes, he was.

Q. What did he do for the Healyites?

A. His name was prominent in Newsline, the daily paper Healy put out.

Q. Where did Healy's money come from?

A. Funds were provided by Arab governments such as Iraq Libya and others.

Q: Why did they subsidise Healy?

A . For a number of reasons: to have an English-language propaganda organ putting their point of view, and because Healy provided other services for them.

Q. What other services?

A. According to the WRPers who fell out with Healy in 1985, Healy's WRP was contracted to spy on Arab dissidents in Britain and to provide reports on Jews prominent in British life. Healy helped get a number of Iraqi CPers shot in 1980, it seems.

Q. Did outsiders have to wait until the WRP broke up to know these things?

A. Not at all! It was obvious from the WRP's press that they were paid propagandists. For example, they published in 1980 a glossy pamphlet about the rise to Power of Saddam Hussein that might have been produced by the Iraqi government, and surely was paid for by that government. They publicly justified in their press the killing of the Iraqi CPers mentioned above.

Q. What grounds are there for the charge that the Healy WRP were anti-semitic, and not just anti-Zionist?

A. They printed rabid "world Jewish/Zionist conspiracy" explanations of events. See, for example, the editorial in the illustration accompanying this article. Some of the stuff, about the world Zionist conspiracy stretching from SO to Reagan's White House for example, was on the level of clinical lunacy. It was unmistakeably modelled on the old "world Jewish conspiracy", with "Zionist" substituted for "Jewish".

When the BBC put out a mild programme about the Healy WRP's financial links with Libya, Newsline conducted a months-long campaign accusing "Zionists" in the BBC of smearing them - and accusing SO too, because in reviewing the programme SO had said it was only part of the truth.

Q. Specifically, what did Charlie Pottins do in this connection?

A. When I wrote a short piece in SO about the anti-semitism of the WRP, in response to the crazy Newsline editorial about the "world Zionist conspiracy", Pottins wrote, or at least lent his name to, a three-page diatribe against SO and in defence of the WRP. It was later included in a WRP pamphlet.

Pottins's membership of the WRP allowed people who explained world events by “Zionist conspiracies” stretching across the globe and into both the cabinets of imperialist powers and the editorial board of SO, to more plausibly deploy a hypocritical indignation against the patently true charge that they were engaging in anti-semitic agitation.

The Healy WRP, too, belonged to the “ink in the eyes” school of polemic. The “much respected” Charlie Pottins – if it was Charlie Pottins; but certainly it was Charlie Pottins’s name on the polemic – was particularly indignant because I wrote somewhere that the Jewish community might rightly see the WRP as future pogromists, and its agitation as the preparation of future pogroms. From a “much respected” member of the Jewish Socialists’ Group, that indignation was probably very useful.

Q: Did the JSG do anything about these activities by Charlie Pottins?

A: Not in public they didn’t; nor, as far as I can judge, was anything done in private. The JSG allowed him both to front for the anti-semitic agitation of the WRP and to be in the JSG.

Q: Did the “non-sectarian” JSG, whose other members had as much right to autonomy as did Charlie Pottins, denounce the WRP or take any specific stand against it?

A: Not that I know of. In response to the BBC programme on their finances, the WRP for months ran a half-page or page a day of testimonials to themselves, denouncing SO as “Zionists” and “agents” etc. They had the public support of prominent leftists like Ken Livingstone; they even got trade union branches and Trades Councils to pass resolutions denouncing us.

While all this was going on, the JSG’s contribution to the fight against anti-semitism in the labour movement was to provide the WRP with a captive “Jewish socialist”, David Rosenberg’s “much respected” Charlie Pottins.

Q: Has the JSG ever reconsidered any of this?

A: No. Its leaders do not even seem to have taken it in.

Q: What is the evidence for that opinion?

A: David Rosenberg’s letter!

Rosenberg is bitterly angry at what I wrote concerning the strange story of how the JSG’s “much-respected” and “highly valued” member Charlie Pottins was used by the anti-semitic WRP.

Yet Rosenberg does not even try to deal with what I wrote except by a few flat assertions. He neither refutes the facts I alluded to and here spell out, nor seriously disputes the construction I put on them. Essentially, he confines himself to telling us that Pottins was “much respected” and was the only JSG member also to be in the Healy WRP. (“Just one. We only had one stooge of the anti-semites in the JSG. Just one little muddlehead, Guv’nor!”)

Rosenberg does not notice that here he reinforces the mystery I described: for how could the Jewish Socialists’ Group, of all people, “respect” Charlie Pottins – even if they felt sympathy with him, a man torn by terrible contradictions and conflicts, as I do, having known him since we were both troubled adolescents in the Healyite Socialist Labour League – when he was up to his neck in Healy’s dirty anti-Jewish propaganda?

I queried their “tolerance” of Pottins; Rosenberg “explains” it by saying that Pottins was “much respected”. It is not an answer; it raises an additional question.

What is oddest about Rosenberg’s letter is that he seems to believe it is a sufficient answer. It is as if he does not realise that there is anything out of the ordinary in this extraordinary story.

In face of the facts I cite, he contents himself with a few little self-satisfied sneers and clichés about “sectarians” as distinct from broad “democratic” organisations like his own; but the point here, David Rosenberg, is that by way of Charlie Pottins your “non-sectarian”, “democratic”, all-inclusive organisation was annexed as convenient camouflage by the most vicious sectarians in the history of the British Labour movement. Your virtuously anti-Leninist Jewish socialist organisation was used as a cover by anti-semites!

This seems to me to have a bearing on the dispute between the Leninists and the others about how best socialists should organise, and I said so. Ah, says Rosenberg, you question the right of a group of Jews to define themselves? Is this because of hostility to Jews?

According to the anything-goes rules of Octopus polemic, there is nothing weird in Rosenberg, defending Pottins, and himself for tolerating Pottins’s links with crazy anti-semites, thus turning things on their head and accusing those of us who fought the real and open “left” anti-semites of… anti-Semitism. It’s all in the game. But it is not serious.

The reference to anti-semitism is a two-edged weapon for Rosenberg because I think one of the reasons why people like himself tolerated having a member in common with Gerry Healy’s WRP was that they have not faced the fact that the “anti-Zionism” of the left is currently the most important form of anti-semitism in Britain.

A number of questions are entangled in Rosenberg’s defence of the “Bundist” JSG: the sort of organisation that socialists of any sort should build; whether ethnic or national minority groups should organise separately from the rest of the socialist and labour movement; if there is a case for a distinct organisation to work with a certain constituency, whether it should be completely autonomous or a sub-section of the general socialist movement.

The latter question was disputed at the 1903 congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, where the majority – including the founder of the Jewish socialist Bund, the future Menshevik Julius Martov – wanted the Bund to be a sub-section of the general movement rather than fully autonomous. I cannot for space discuss the dispute here. If there is a case for a separate Jewish socialist organisation, there is no possible case for one so loose that it includes a stooge of anti-semites!

A Jewish socialist organisation which includes a member of Healy’s organisation – a political organisation defined by its Jewish identity which includes a befuddled stooge of mercenary anti-semites – is surely too loose and ill-defined. Saying it is just “democratic” is no answer, and neither is a reference to the group’s political manifesto. A political programme is not just words on paper; it is the totality of what the organisation does in life.

Yet our Leninist truths about loose organisations like the JSG do not answer all the questions raised here.

Sympathy for Charlie Pottins; “tolerance” philistine dismissal of the dispute between the WRP and SO as “sectarian”; old Bundist obsessions with old anti-Zionist polemics and thus, I guess, the half blindness to the fact that “anti-Zionism” is now the cutting edge of anti-semitism, especially on the left; a rare, only-once-in-a-lifetime, political obtuseness – these are the elements which led them to tolerate Healy’s advocate Charlie Pottins as a “much respected” member of the JSG. But what was the mix? And why does Rosenberg mark “tolerance” of “anti-Zionism” a virtue? I wish he would tell us.

If apology is due, it is due SO from Rosenberg for helping cover for the WRP at a time when they were dragging us through the courts and conducting a lying campaign against us in the labour movement. For myself, I would settle for a plain no-bluster explanation.

Yes, the JSG, I think, is owed an apology – from David Rosenberg and any others of its members who knew what Charlie Pottins was doing for Healy and let him get away with it, being “all too tolerant” of Healy’s crazed anti-semitism and its “anti-Zionist” Jewish stooge Pottins. Or, maybe, they, like me, would settle for a candid explanation.

Socialist Organiser 507, 14 November 1991

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.