Steve Cohen: a fighter to the end

Submitted by martin on 26 March, 2009 - 1:13 Author: Bruce Robinson

Click to download pdf of Steve Cohen's book "That's funny, you don't look antisemitic"

Steve Cohen, a revolutionary socialist for over 40 years, died on 8 March aged 63. Steve had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for over 15 years, but despite pain and limited mobility remained involved in political activity until a short time before his death.

Dave Landau has written an obituary that gives a detailed appreciation of Steve’s life and politics. Unfortunately we cannot reprint it here for reasons of length but it is available on this website. It recounts Steve’s political history in the International Marxist Group in the 70s and subsequent development as a “critical Trotskyist”, the nature of his identity and commitment as a Jewish socialist, his fight against immigration controls and all forms of racism, including anti-semitism, and his determination to use every aspect of his life — including his illness — as a field for political struggle.

Rather than trying to duplicate what Dave has written — which I in any case couldn’t do, having known Steve far less well — I would like to deal with his relationship with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and make some personal and political comments.

Steve and the AWL

I first heard of Steve as a figure on the Manchester left some time after I moved here in the early 90s, but I only got to know him personally as a comrade over the last few years when his illness had already restricted his activity.

I think the reason our paths crossed then was Steve’s growing interest in the AWL and his being referred to me as the then Manchester organiser. He was influenced by our publication of a book of “Shachtmanite” writings on the USSR and also, I think, impressed by our stand against left anti-semitism, a position he had himself pioneered in his influential 80s pamphlet That’s funny, you don’t look anti-semitic. Later he would write: “For what it is worth — and I’m not a member — it seems only the Alliance for Workers Liberty who can be seen to be mounting campaigns against anti-semitism and organising solidarity actions against the Israeli state.”

A couple of years ago he wrote to me that he wanted to be considered as a sympathiser of ours (in a broad sense rather than formally), and be kept in touch with what we were doing in Manchester; he would try to come to public meetings if his health allowed. He was also keen that the AWL be involved in No One Is Illegal and wrote a number of articles for Solidarity.

Richard Gold, a good friend of Steve’s, said he asked Steve a few weeks before he died which organisation he would join today if his health permitted him to be fully active. He replied that he would join the AWL.

None of which is to bask in Steve’s reflected reputation or claim Steve as an “orthodox” supporter of the AWL. His politics were too individual for that and he had many disagreements with us — such as on two states in Israel-Palestine where, perhaps reflecting sympathies for anarchism and an opposition to borders and states that underestimated the importance of the national question, he favoured “no states”.

He also differed on forms of organisation, rejecting democratic centralism. He said he was an “anti-Leninist”.

Steve drew some political lines very sharp. I tried to discuss with him a few weeks ago his response to the construction workers’ strikes, which he condemned outright as “racist strikes”. Unfortunately he was too ill to discuss this. On other political issues, though, he could be a “softie”, which might come from his years in the IMG, or from what Richard Gold called his “nice politics”.

Jewishness, Zionism, Palestine

Steve recently said in an email to me “my frame of reference is absolutely being Jewish absolutely all the time!...” Steve expressed the paradoxes this gave rise to for someone with his world view in his article: “Writing as a Jewish traitor — an imagined disputation with my comrades on anti-semitism” (here). He wrote: “As a diaspora Jew I am absolutely proud to hold no allegiance to any country on the planet – including Israel. I am proud to be both a Jewish traitor and a traitor of the Jews.”

The article argues against both Zionism and “the anti-Zionism of fools” on the left which he saw as reiterating anti-semitic themes some of which went back to the Middle Ages; he argues against the left slanders against Zionism and for understanding the choices Jews in Europe had in the face of Nazism while refusing to accept a Jewish nationalism. “As an opponent of Israel I will not exceptionalise Israel. And as an opponent of Zionism I do not, will not, demonise Zionism… My final point is to emphasise my role as a traitor. I no longer see any point in being Jewish. And I aim to give up on it. Not that I feel bad about being a Jew. Just the opposite. Rather I want to become the sort of Jew the anti-semites warn us against. The cosmopolitan of no fixed identity. And I hope you are willing to surrender your own tribal/ethnic/nationalist/religious identities allegiances. Join me as a traitor to your own traditions.”

This expresses Steve’s internationalism and universalism, which I think had a utopian element. As part of this, he had no time for the left going along with religious or chauvinist movements. At the start of 2009 he was trying to get Jewish leftists together to discuss the left’s response to Gaza and begin to organise separately from the mainstream of the solidarity movement. He wrote to me:

“…the impression I get from my sitting room, computer and friends is that most of the legitimate protests over Gaza have been turned from peace marches into war marches. Hamas seems to have replaced the SWP as the dominant organisation on the ‘left’… And the Manchester [Jewish] Representative Council with its Zionist chauvinism seems to be the doppelganger… What I keep arguing for is a joint campaign both for Palestinian liberation and against anti-semitism. This would preclude the chauvinists from both sides. Does that make sense?...”

Steve discussed his idea of a movement opposing chauvinists on both sides in his article “For the Third Camp – Yes to Palestinian Liberation! No To Anti-Semitism!”. I think he was wrong to believe this could be done without having a positive programme for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (that was to be for later discussion) but his position that “oppression has become indivisible” was right and honourable and also led him to oppose the academic boycott of Israel (see his article “I would hate myself in the morning”).

Steve as an organiser

Steve was also an organiser. Dave Landau has written about his involvement in anti-deportation campaigns and setting up No One is Illegal. As he could not do what he wanted to because of his illness, he persistently tried to enrol others in his projects. He was diffiult to say no to — though I succeeded when he tried to involve me in disability activism despite my not really being disabled…

Through my part in a campaign he started against a visit by the eugenicist Migration Watch guru David Coleman, he got me to write a pamphlet on eugenics, a subject I knew virtually nothing about! Steve remained active in NOII until a few days before he died.

Over 150 people attended a commemoration of Steve’s life at Manchester Town Hall on 12 March reflecting the wide range of people who had known him. A further political commemoration is planned for June. Our condolences go to his family, friends and comrades.

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