In an exchange reprinted in the Workers’ Liberty pamphlet on Left Antisemitism, I debated with Martin Thomas on the question of whether left-wing antisemitism should best be classed as a form of racism.
Central to Thomas’s argument is that by identifying left antisemitism as anti-Jewish racism we curse well-meaning leftists whom we wish to engage in a dialogue.
He consequently draws a distinction (but, he says, no Chinese wall) between a modern political antisemitism and a traditional racial antisemitism. His delineation and understanding of both is flawed.
Thomas gives five reasons to his desire to distance left antisemitism from the notion of anti-Jewish racism:
1. “Racism” has come to be associated with crimes and immoralities rather than ideologies. Nonetheless, racism is an ideology: a way of making sense of the world, albeit a nonsensical and reactionary sense of the world.
In a Gramscian sense, racism is common sense. Even if, in some contexts, racism is associated with immoralities rather than ideology, we should patiently explain that most people have a contradictory consciousness: made up of common sense and good sense.
The role of socialists is to challenge common sense and help develop good sense into a coherent and critical framework of thought and action.
2. Antisemitism is older than racism and operates differently from general racism.
Prior to the birth of racial science, the European hegemonic discourse of civilisation versus barbarism focused on the Islamic Other, and was used to justify conversion of populations outside of Europe to Christianity. So, in this vein, one could argue that anti-Muslim ideas also operate differently from this so-called “general racism”.
The key point here is that the scientific discourse of “race” did not replace earlier representations of the Other, such ideas predetermined this discourse and were reconstituted by it.
3. Thomas agrees that it disorienting to identify racism as exclusively an offshoot of European colonialism and equally so as an offshoot of nationalism, but argues that political antisemitism has a different dynamic from nationalism and racism.
Following the academic Robert Miles (1989), the “articulation between the capitalist mode of production and the nation state, rather than between capitalism and colonialism” is central because “this maps the primary set of social relations within which racism had its origins and initial effects. Colonialism was an integral moment of this articulation, but racism was not an exclusive product of colonialism…
“The theorisation of “race’ and “nation’ took place at a time of “internal’ European political and economic reorganisation and “external’ colonial expansion, in the course of which the range of human cultural and physiological variation became more widely known to a larger number of people.”
In Europe there was a critical shift from religion to “race” in representations of the Other. In the case of Islam and Jewish people then, religion fused with the idea of “race”.
In late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Europe, the inferior “races” were the Irish and the Jews. The Jewish “race” was deemed an alien presence and a threat to destroy civilised society through an international conspiracy.
Nazi Germany saw Jews as a degenerate, unproductive and criminal “race”, and simultaneously a “race” of exploiters and revolutionaries. (It is worth noting here that Thomas gives as a reason why antisemitism operates differently to racism, the imaginary power given to the Jews; yet this is precisely a current of classic racial scientific thinking.)
There is no Chinese wall between currents of early racialised representations of Jewish people and so-called political antisemitism. Why? Contemporary racism entails seeing real and imagined somatic and / or cultural characteristics as signifying innate markers of difference. (Previously the Other has also been exclusively based on cultural characteristics, such as European representations of the Islamic Other in a Christian/heathen dichotomy.)
Left antisemitism marks out a group of people vis-à-vis Israel, which is Zionist, which is racist, which is a Jewish collective of world domineering and tyrannical power; left antisemitism offers salvation also, prove yourself an absolute anti-Zionist and you are assimilated as one of us.
4. High profile Jewish political anti-Semites are not self-hating Jews, says Thomas.
I have many members of my extended family who are British Indian and have racist ideas against Muslim people and contemporary immigrants. Personally I think in their desire to be assimilated as “good British people” there’s an element of distancing themselves from their own biographies. One might call it self-hating.
5. If we abandon the distinction between political antisemitism and racism then we can no longer point out and denounce when people drift over the line?
Here, Thomas argues, the use of the term racism has widened and can be used to shut down critical discourse about ideas and cultures, for example, take a section of the Left vis-à-vis political Islam.
So when members of the SWP denounce members of the AWL as racist for criticising political Islam, is this the same as us pointing out that left antisemitism is logically anti-Jewish racism? No. Why? Given the colonial model of racism that dominates UK and US academia’s understanding of what racism is, the legacy is that: one, racism is what white people do to black and brown people, and, two, Zionism is racism.
It would actually be beyond a general leftist’s understanding that left antisemitism could indeed be a form of racism. What’s more, pointing out to a well-meaning leftist that some of their ideas have a current of left antisemitism is no more likely to push them away from dialogue then patiently spelling out that such a current of left antisemitism is logically also a form of anti-Jewish racism.
Who in the AWL would behave as crassly and illegibly as members of the SWP shouting at us, “you’re racist!’.
Thomas states that most leftists with politically anti-Semitic views do not see Jews as a “race”. Much contemporary racism doesn’t rely on a biological delineation of “race” – it pivots on cultural difference implying an innate difference.
As Robert Miles states: “In so far as Marxism asserts that all social relationships are socially constructed and reproduced in specific historical circumstances, and that those relationships are therefore in principle alterable by human agency, then it should not have space for an ideological notion that implies, and often explicitly asserts, the opposite”.