Antifascism: Pros and cons

Saturday’s lopsided standoff between fascist and antifascist demonstrators in Boston, in which the latter outnumbered the former roughly a hundredfold, has been occasion for some relief among liberals scandalized by images of Charlottesville. I would caution against any overhasty optimism, however: Claudio Segrè, biographer of Mussolini’s heir apparent Italo Balbo, reminds us that the first Italian fascists were initially viewed as clowns in November and December 1920, fringe elements that could hardly be taken seriously. “They suffered from unsavory backgrounds and reputations,” writes Segrè, “not the stuff out of which to create a mass movement.” Just two years later they were in power.

Quartz reports that linguistic analysis of billions of Reddit comments has shown a marked increase in the use of alt-Right rhetoric and conspiratorial dog whistles (about “globalists,” “Soros,” “cultural Marxism,” and “Zionazis”). A suspect sample set, one might counter, but the numbers are suggestive either way. With Trump’s presidency spiraling out of control, losing far Right credibility with the bombing of Syrian airbases and the firing of Steve Bannon, its former supporters might look for new outlets to express their political discontents. Outlets other than the carnival sideshow of the 2016 Donald Trump campaign. But are more feelgood mass rallies like Boston really the answer to right-wing radicalization?

Fifteen years ago, massive antiwar marches took place in major cities across the US and around the globe. Impotently, they proclaimed “not in our name.” The invasion of Iraq happened anyway; the demonstrations did nothing to stop it. Participants in these marches could comfort themselves with the thought that their voices had been heard, but they weren’t really interested in stopping imperialism. Evidence of this can be seen in the near total collapse of the antiwar movement in 2008, as the various “soft fronts” of the ISO and FRSO — e.g. the ANSWER Coalition, whose members marched arm-in-arm with Howard Dean supporters and other Democratic Party pacifists — were liquidated into vegan bake-sales for the election of Barack Obama.

I’d similarly contend that most of the people who showed up in Boston on Saturday are not all that serious about stopping fascism. Most of them were liberals eager to reassure themselves that “we’re better than that,” with a meatspace analog to the #ThisIsNotUs hashtag that briefly circulated on social media. Gus Breslauer points out in a note for the Guy Debord Club of Houston that “communists are the only ones who can make fascism impossible.” Antifascism on its own is not up to the task, as we indicated in the previous post: Opposition to fascism does not a communist make. “Communists are the ones best equipped to effectively fight it if it continues to grow,” Beslauer continues, “since they are the only ones who can confidently say they not only want to destroy fascism, but all of what makes fascism possible.”

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Reflections on Left antisemitism

Now also split into four parts, for readability:

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

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The furore currently unfolding in Britain over allegations of left antisemitism cannot pass without some comment on my part. Not because I’m Jewish, though I am. And not because I’m an astute observer of British politics, which I’m not. Rather, it’s because the issue arises with such frequency and remains so contentious within the Anglo-American Left, as well as its continental European counterpart. Here I would like to examine the phenomenon more broadly.

Some helpful literature, too, for anyone interested:

  1. Ber Borochev, Class Struggle and the Jewish Nation (1908)
  2. Nobert Elias, “On the Sociology of German Anti-Semitism” (1929)
  3. Max Horkheimer, “The Jews and Europe” (1939)
  4. Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate (1946)
  5. Ernst Simmel, ed., Antisemitism: A Social Disease (1948)
  6. Maxime Rodinson, Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1981)
  7. Moishe Postone, “Notes on the German Reaction to the Holocaust” (1983)
  8. Enzo Traverso, Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism after Auschwitz (1998)
  9. Mario Kessler, On Anti-Semitism and Socialism: Selected Essays (2005)
  10. Marcel Stoetzler, ed., Antisemitism and the Constitution of Sociology (2014)

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Opportunistic accusations

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First, a few words about the situation in the UK. Over the past couple weeks, a number of prominent Labour Party officials and student activist leaders have come under scrutiny for making antisemitic remarks. Three main figures have been at the center of the controversy so far:

  1. Malia Bouattia
    1. Bouattia, who was recently voted president of the National Union of Students (NUS), took aim at the “Zionist-led media” in 2014 for its sympathetic coverage of Israel during the bombardment and invasion of Gaza earlier that year. Unfortunately, this occurred at an event organized by the Tricontinental Anti-Imperialist Platform to celebrate the Palestinian resistance. A promotional banner with the figure of Hassan Nasrallah emblazoned across it could be seen in the background as she addressed the audience. Nasrallah, general secretary of the Shi’ite paramilitary group Hezbollah in Lebanon, is a notorious antisemite.
    2. Perhaps even more outrageously, Bouattia was almost solely responsible for blocking an NUS motion to condemn ISIS a few weeks later. Such a measure, she contended, was potentially “Islamophobic.” Though an amended version of the motion was eventually passed, this was only after news outlets had got a hold of the story and mocked her mealymouthed prevarications to a fare-thee-well. Roza Salih, the coordinating officer who initiated the proposal, was baffled by Bouattia’s objections. In an interview with Workers Liberty, she voiced her consternation: “I’m extremely disappointed and frustrated…What was Islamophobic about it? I myself come from a Muslim family, and would never propose a motion that was Islamophobic. Either way, it is not Islamophobic to condemn ISIS and its backers!”
    3. Confronted on these issues, Bouattia has proved for the most part evasive. At any rate, she has done little to assuage concerns. “Zio-media” is an epithet that shows up in texts by David Duke and his ilk, and comes much too close to age-old refrains about the Judenpresse for comfort.
  2. Naz Shah
    1. Shah, who unseated the far more objectionable fuckwit George Galloway in the district of Bradford West not twelve months ago, was then discovered to have approvingly shared an offensive image on social media a few months prior to her run for office. Beneath a map of Israel juxtaposed onto a map of the United States, a series of bullet points suggesting that conflict in the Middle East might be resolved by deporting Israeli Jews to the US en masse. (Galloway’s claim that “the Zionist movement from Tel Aviv to New York” would rejoice at her election appears all the more absurd in retrospect).
    2. Around the same time, Shah also urged her friends to get out to the polls since “the Jews are rallying.” Many have noted how similar this statement is to Netanyahu’s bit about how “the Arabs are voting in droves,” spurring Jewish voters to turn out.
    3. To her credit, Shah has apologized unreservedly for her 2014 posts. I’m not too big on the whole culture of heartfelt apologies followed by public self-criticism, but she’s at least remained tactful and reserved throughout the media shitstorm of the past couple weeks. Which is more than can be said for some who have come to her defense. Enter now the former mayor of London.
  3. Ken Livingstone
    1. Livingstone is low-hanging fruit by anyone’s estimation. Back in 2005 he compared Oliver Finegold, a journalist for the Evening Sun, to a Nazi concentration camp guard after learning he was Jewish. “You are just like a concentration camp guard,” declared Livingstone. “Only doing it because you’re paid to, right?” The Evening Sun may be a right-wing rag, but that’s really not the point. Directing such a remark at a Jewish news reporter is insensitive no matter who that person works for.
    2. Fast-forward to 2016: Livingstone takes it upon himself to come to Shah’s rescue, despite the fact she was handling the matter quite well on her own. Almost immediately he makes everything worse: “When Hitler won the election in 1932, his policy was that Jews should be moved to Israel. Hitler supported Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Never mind the fact that in 1932, Israel did not yet exist. Palestine didn’t even exist, in the sense of a free and autonomous state. There was only the Palestinian mandate, which was under British rule at the time. Generally speaking, as Sam Kriss has pointed out, something like Godwin’s Law should apply in contemporary discussions about Israel. Yes, the temptation the establish a “cruel historical irony” in terms of Zionism’s relationship to Nazism may seem irresistible at times, rhetorically speaking, but it’s still fucking stupid.
    3. In the days that have passed since committing this gaffe, Livingstone has somehow managed to dig himself deeper. Corbyn wisely decided to suspend Livingstone, as that kind of liability was the last thing he or Labour needed right now. Questioned about his suspension, Livingstone likened accusations of antisemitism made against him to false accusations of rape. He then went on to grant a radio interview where he apologized for his poor timing, and the disruption it caused. But he would not apologize for what he actually said, since it was supposedly a statement of fact. Livingstone even appealed to the authority of the American Trotskyist Lenni Brenner, discussed later, to bolster his claims. (Incidentally, as Bob from Brockley points out, Livingstone takes liberties with Brenner’s arguments).

Obviously it is no coincidence that these charges are being leveled at the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party with local elections on May 5 around the corner. Especially in the case of Naz Shah, whose term in office has been fairly uneventful up to now. Last year Shah even came out in support of Yvette Cooper, a staunchly pro-Israel candidate, something which at least ought to complicate the picture of her currently being drawn. Right-wing opportunism is nothing new, however, both on the part of the Tories and butthurt Blairites within the Labour Party, whose neoliberal legacy seems threatened by the sudden rise of Corbyn. A great deal of the outrage expressed so far has been cynical, all the more so when one recalls the antisemitic imagery The Sun deployed last year against Ed Miliband’s doomed campaign.

It is therefore important to recognize the politically-motivated character of these attacks, and stand with Bouattia and Shah against slurs, lies, and innuendo from the Right, even as we continue to criticize them from the Left. Bouattia in particular ought not be made immune to criticism, as the residual Stalinism of her positions has already been noted by Daniel Cooper. Shah cannot really be considered a leftist at all, more a liberal than anything else. Livingstone is someone I could more or less do without. He is an embarrassment. The one and only good thing that could come of this debacle, as Alan Johnson writes in Ha’aretz, is the prospect of his replacement by Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral race. (Hat-tip goes out to Michael Gaul and Elena Louisa Lange for sharing this article). Continue reading

The dead Left: Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution

Marco Torres
Platypus Review
July 1, 2010

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This article is republished on the occasion of Hugo Chavez’s death for the purpose of discussion.  It is not meant to insult his character shortly after his demise, as it was written three years ago.

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One finds quite a bit of name-calling among the innumerable articles and blog posts written in criticism of Hugo Chavez and his government. Although most of this invective is not very illuminating, one article by a young, Colombian, Trotsky-ish labor organizer describes Chavez perfectly in two words: a “postmodern Bonapartist.”

Chavez, his Bolivarian Revolution, and his project of “21st Century Socialism” are postmodern in the sense that they exist in a discontinuity, in an amnesiac disconnect, with the modernist project of social and political emancipation that started with the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century and withered and died sometime in the late 20th century. Since this project of freedom is inseparable from the politics of the revolutionary socialist Left, to say that Chavez’s politics are postmodern is simply to say that they are post-Left. He is not a liberal. Nor is he a Marxist. He has never theorized or organized proletarian revolution like Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, or Trotsky did. He has never even advocated for a “people’s war” like Mao or Che. One hesitates even to brand him a Stalinist. While Stalinism was, in Trotsky’s words, “the great organizer of defeats” for the working class, one would be hard pressed to call Chavez a “great organizer” of anything of such historical significance. Indeed, he is best thought of as more effect than cause. While Stalinism made Marxism into a dogma, the only dogma of the Bolivarian Revolution is whatever notion happens to cross Chavez’s mind at the moment. Chavez’s ideology is so versatile there is seemingly nothing it cannot take on board. From time to time, it even makes gestures in the direction of LGBTQ and women’s rights. This, however, should not be seen as anything more than mere posturing, since in Venezuela abortion is still illegal, and Chavez embraces numerous openly homophobic allies such as Evo Morales, Fidel Castro, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

There are no coherent, historically self-aware principles to the politics of Chavismo. It is bricolage, a precarious construction: Some ’30s vintage Pop Frontism mixed together with a little ’90s anti-globalization, molded upon an armature of ’60s-style developmentalist Third Worldism, then sprinkled with equal parts “communitarian” participatory democracy, “multiculturalism,” and ascetic anti-consumerism. (A touch of anti-Semitism is added as and when necessary.) Although this incoherent composite can sometimes be cynical and performative, more frequently it tends to be semi-conscious and nearly involuntary — made up of vestigial impulses whose purpose has been forgotten, having been inherited from an older political project, now decomposed beyond recognition.

The historical discontinuity between Chavez’s politics and the revolutionary Left of the 20th century is not only theoretical or ideological; it is also practical. Chavez the politician emerges from no labor background or popular movement. He hardly participated in any leftist organizations before being elected president in 1998. In fact, the Left in Venezuela was dead and buried long before he appeared on the scene.

The story of revolutionary politics in Venezuela is short and dismal. In the late 1950s, the Communist Party of Venezuela [CP] formed a popular front with the Social Democratic Party of Democratic Action [AD] to defeat a military dictatorship and to establish, for the first time, a representative democracy in the country. But the communists were soon abandoned by their erstwhile allies. AD and the Christian Democratic Party [Copei] joined forces to exclude the communists from Venezuela’s political life. At this juncture, some of the more impatient communists, galvanized by events in Cuba, armed themselves and took to the hills. The guerrilla war that followed, planned with the help of Che Guevara himself, was a disaster. Many young leftists died, the CP was criminalized, and Moscow, largely responsible for this turn of events, scolded the revolutionists for getting lost in their dreams of Cuba. Anti-imperialist “national liberation” fighting between guerrillas and the Venezuelan government continued into the mid-1970s, having now little to do with socialist politics. Meanwhile, the CP shriveled as its cadre began its exodus into Eurocommunist-style parties or “third way” social democracy.

It was not until the late 1980s, years after this Cuban-inspired hara-kiri, that Chavez stepped onto the Venezuelan political stage. From the beginning his political career was ideologically unengaged and organizationally disconnected from the history of the Venezuelan Left. But, in fact, this discontinuity is one of the traits that gives Chavez his appeal, especially for his American and European supporters. This is because Chavez seems to stand at a remove from the Left’s sordid history of failure. He appears to offer a fresh start to the intellectually and politically exhausted, while also letting them have it both ways. For although Chavez basks in the fresh air of ahistoricism, he never ceases to piously, if disjointedly, rehearse all the old certainties and comforts. “21st Century Socialism” is appealing because it authorizes its supporters’ unwillingness to reflect upon the failures of its 20th century predecessor without denying them the moral self-satisfaction of remaining true to the good old cause. Continue reading