Antisemitism on the left

(Yeah, so this blog seems only to be a repository for mildly tidied up facebook posts these days, but never mind.)

I have been troubled recently by a lot of the responses I have seen in my social media timelines to the antisemitism issues in the Labour party.

First of all: antisemitism exists on the left and in the Labour party; if you believe it doesn’t you’re not looking hard enough, or you’re choosing not to see it. (I’m reminded of the several cis men who, during our CLP’s debate on a motion opposing transphobia, got up to say that they had never witnessed any transphobia in the party. Well…)

Secondly: the mural that was the subject of the recent scandal undoubtedly contained clearly antisemitic imagery. I am surprised that anyone would choose to deny or question this.

Thirdly: the original response by the leaders’ office to the mural was inadequate, although I think Corbyn’s second response was reasonable. (“I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on, the contents of which are deeply disturbing and antisemitic. The defence of free speech cannot be used as a justification for the promotion of antisemitism in any form. That is a view I’ve always held.”) However, it’s clear that in general Corbyn’s office and the Labour party more widely have failed to respond adequately to allegations of antisemitism and that there needs to be a great deal of political education within the Labour party about how to address and challenge antisemitic attitudes.

Left antisemitism has long been an intransigent issue and one which is difficult to tackle at least in part because of the dual bad faith which has existed in parts of the discourse about Israel and Palestine: that is, on one side antisemites who use the cause of Palestinian rights as a cover for their prejudice against Jewish people; and on the other side, those who allege antisemitism in bad faith in order to discredit legitimate criticism of Israel.

This is not to justify the existence of left antisemitism, but one reason why it has historically been difficult to address – although actually it’s straightforward to criticise Israel without being antisemitic: the Jewdas guide is very helpful. Those of my age or older who were involved in Palestinian rights politics at the beginning of the 2000s will remember this ‘debate’ dragging on – and may also remember that antisemitism was a recurrent issue which (in my opinion) much pro-Palestinian politics never adequately addressed.

However, it’s noticeable that the recent antisemitism issues have not been about criticism of Israel or Palestinian rights, but straightforward hatred of Jews: Holocaust denial, images of hook-nosed financiers, the far-right myth that Jewish people were responsible for the slave trade, conspiracy theories about ‘powerful special interest groups’. All of this is appalling, and there is no debate to be had about it; it’s wrong. It shouldn’t happen. And if Jewish people are criticising it, others should listen.

Yes, I understand the impulse to dismiss this as yet another way of attacking Jeremy Corbyn; and I share Rhea Wolfson’s opinion of the Labour MPs who are taking up this cause opportunistically. There have been so many bad faith scandals that it is tempting to dismiss this as a further one. I don’t agree that it is.

It’s fair to note that some of the behaviour uncovered by the press predates Corbyn being elected and that it’s unreasonable to view this as purely a Corbyn problem; antisemitism existed in the Labour party before Corbyn became leader. One of the reasons why this has come to head now is because a) there are many more Labour party members and b) the media are looking for antisemitism in a way that they were not before. Neither of those points lessens the need actively to address left antisemitism. It is possible for something both to exist as a genuine problem and for it to be dishonestly instrumentalised by those trying to use it as an attack line.

Finally: I have been trying to put together some of my thoughts on this issue for a while but have not had the time to write something coherent until now. I wish I had written something earlier as I think the criticism of those who “remain silent” from a Jewish comrade who has just resigned from the local Momentum group is important.

Some things I found helpful to read on the topic:

What I got wrong: personal reflections on the election

I made some fairly pessimistic predictions about this election, partly out of a sort of self-protective attempt to avoid the grim disappointment that followed the 2015 election and the Euro-referendum. I don’t think my pessimism was objectively unjustified, given the polls and the local election results. Owen Hatherley’s piece about the election captured how I felt when the election was called (with my endlessly optimistic mother, who told me there was “everything to fight for!” playing the role of Owen’s Momentum group):

“I sat in silence, struck dumb by the contrast between my expectation of disaster and the enthusiasm and optimism of nearly everyone else in the room. A Tory leader with a gigantic lead in the polls had set out to crush the left for a generation—an obvious and, it seemed, easily achievable aim—yet Momentum seemed unfazed. We can do this, they insisted. Don’t trust the polls. I was incredulous.”

I did think that Corbynism had a good chance of being electorally successful over the longer term, but I had a fairly confident expectation that Corbyn would turn out to be the George Lansbury to someone else’s Clement Attlee: that it would take time for Corbyn’s message to gain in popularity, that Corbyn’s own role would be to lead a renewal of the ideas within the Labour party, but that a younger politician would be the one to achieve electoral success on a left-social democratic manifesto. I thought that if the PLP co-operated (a big if), a result on the scale of the 8th June might be achievable by 2020, and an electoral victory in the following election.

So I went into this election with the expectation that Theresa May would successfully increase her majority; that the best result I could hope for was that Corbyn would increase vote share but not gain seats – I was fairly convinced by those who suggested he would increase majorities in safe seats but not narrow the gap in marginals – and that the outcome of the election would be highly contested within the Labour party itself. Anything short of clear success would lead to a further leadership challenge and a further period of internal antagonism, stalling yet again the attempt to move on from the pre-global financial crisis politics of the Blair and Brown era.

Furthermore I thought it was increasingly likely that if the PLP succeeded in getting rid of Corbyn that the Labour Party would essentially be condemning itself to complete irrelevance and Pasokification, with no hope, under FPTP, of a British SYRIZA or Podemos: an endless future of austerity, increasing social alienation, the continuing rise of UKIP-type nativism, but made respectable as it became more dominant inside the Conservative Party. Perhaps I was over-dramatising, but this felt like a final roll of the dice for the British left, at least for a generation.

Campaigning under those circumstances is emotionally exhausting: maintaining enough energy to keep knocking on doors, to keep trying to convince people that there are good reasons to go out and vote Labour; at the same time not wanting to let yourself build too much hope and set yourself up for crushing disappointment on the 9th June; and looking ahead not just to the expected result, but beyond it to the possibility of more intra-Labour warfare, another protracted period of anxiety, another period of having, yet again, to defend the Corbyn project in the face of electoral disappointment and widespread scepticism about the kind of left-social democratic policies he was proposing. “How many MPs would Labour need to have on June 9 for you to think ‘This isn’t working’?” a friend asked me in early May. I answered, honestly, that I was expecting the election to be a disaster for Labour.

But something started to change. The manifesto was good; not only that, it received a widely positive response from serious people. The polls started to go up. The Tory campaign started to implode, and neither UKIP or the Lib Dems seemed to be going anywhere. Most of all, people seemed to be unusually engaged by the election, by the issues at stake. People wanted to talk about Brexit, about Corbyn, about Northern Ireland, about austerity. They wanted to talk on the doorstep, on the street, even in the Tube. I was surprised how much they wanted to talk. I asked other people with longer experiences of campaigning whether they thought there was more general interest from the public than in previous elections; most agreed that there was.

On June 8th the result showed that my impression of wider, deeper engagement with the political process had been correct.

In the light of my own pessimism about the result, I think the pundits and others who emphasised the failures of the Tory campaign had a valid point (even when this was being deployed as an argument to downplay the success of the Labour campaign.) Yes, Corbynism has shown itself to be electorally attractive, but it’s also fair to acknowledge that Theresa May’s failures gave Labour an unexpected advantage. Stephen Bush’s piece about what he got wrong highlighted how unprecedented the dementia tax U-turn was – and it doesn’t undermine my own position that Corbynism could be successful to accept that Labour benefited from a number of unforced mistakes on the part of the Conservative Party.

But what I learned from this election was a personal lesson about how to think about doing politics: that the best thing to do is just to focus on doing what is right and important, and try not to give too much importance to the surrounding circus of analysing every incident, every poll as it appears. In the last few days of the election campaign I sat in a pub with left-Labour party comrades, and the conversation turned to a rather high-falutin attempt to define our own politics: Marxist, socialist, social democratic. A younger member said: “I don’t know anything about socialism, or anything like that. I just looked at Corbyn, and I liked what he stood for, and he seemed to offer something no one else had offered before.”

It’s hard though, to have that political clarity and not be constantly mired in doubt and anxiety. But the last few weeks of the election campaign had a really profound effect on me: it was literally the first time in my life that a politics I believe in got a fair hearing, and wasn’t simply dismissed out of hand as laughable, derisory, idealistic nonsense. Which I suppose is where the overwhelming tendency towards self-doubt comes from: all my life, I’ve been losing; this is the first time I’ve ever felt that winning was not just possible – but even likely.

[This piece is an expansion of a long Facebook comment on a thread about what people had got wrong about the election and how they might think differently in future.]

Review of the year: 2016 in reading (part 1)

I read 39 books in 2016. That’s less than some years, but not my worst ever. It might have been my worst year for some time in recording my reading, though: I didn’t keep a decent list as I was going along and had to reconstruct one from various notebooks and my own bookshelves.

I read 14 books by men; 24 by women; and the correspondence of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. I guess about 7 of those books are by people of colour. It’s probably good to at least be aware of those numbers.

It was a good year for poetry, particularly poetry by women: a third of my reading was slim volumes of verse, as well as several books by and about poets: the Bachmann/Celan letters; the second part of Langston Hughes’ autobiography; a terrific collection of essays on, among other things, poetry and feminism by Adrienne Rich; and an enjoyable, if slightly inexplicable sort-of biography of a very short period in the life of Sylvia Plath. But one reason that it’s been a good year for poetry is, I think, because my attention span is completely shot: I’ve barely read anything which required concentration for long periods, and at times like these I come back to poetry. (I started reading poetry when I as doing my GCSEs and my mother, trying to hep me revise rather than bury myself in novels, suggested that poetry was much better than fiction as it was much more put-down-able. I’m not sure that’s the right way to describe it, but it’s true that I find poetry much easier to read – and finish! – despite my attention span being currently shorter than it ever has been.)

Standout books: going through the list chronologically, the first book of the year, Invisible Cities, was probably also the most delightful. I first read Calvino years and years ago and ruined If on a winter’s night a traveller for myself by taking it terribly, terribly seriously: but Calvino is the best kind of writer, a serious writer who you can take lightly (the worst is the frivolous writer who insists you take him (probably him) seriously). Invisible Cities, in which the explorer Marco Polo describes all the cities he has known to the Chinese ruler Kubla Khan, is enchanting and funny and poetic and everyone should read it. My favourite invisible city was Armilla, in which the city is constructed purely of plumbing, where

Against the sky a lavabo’s white stands out, or a bathtub, or some other porcelain, like late fruit still hanging from the boughs.

Maybe just because I love baths too and identify with the naiads and nymphs, who:

Accustomed to travelling along underground veins, […] found it easy to enter into the new aquatic realm, to burst from multiple fountains, to find new mirrors, new games, new ways of enjoying the water.

Anyway after that I reread If on a winter’s night a traveller  and enjoyed it much, much more, which just goes to show that one must never take a book out of its correct time (my reading motto).

The story of the lost child brought the Ferrante quartet to an end: possibly the best books I have read in the last few years. I’ve read a lot of feminist (or do I mean “feminist”?) novels over the years and started to make a division in my mind between the realist feminist novelists, mostly American and British, and white, who tend towards a recognisable account of the oppression undergone by women, in which cause and effect are unshadowed and power relations are clear; and the psychological feminist novelists (Jelinek, Bachmann, Lispector) who write about women on the edge, women in breakdown, women behaving irrationally, and have a lot more to say to the continental feminism which examines language and  rationality. It’s a crude, probably unfair, distinction which doesn’t hold up to deep examination (there are dozens of exceptions: Doris Lessing, Jean Rhys, Christa Wolf), but I’ve always found the second kind more interesting but the first kind more straightforwardly satisfying. I loved the Ferrante quartet for being both at once: because the book examines the lives of two very different women over such a long period and does not shy away from the historical and political context, it seems to bring together reflections on speech and madness and the alienation of women from the lives they are expected to live with quite a materialist analysis of some of the problems women face in trying to live the lives they may want to live. I also loved reading a series of books in which the most important, foregrounded, definitive relationship was the friendship between two women: it’s so rare for female friendship to have the centre stage, and particularly for that friendship to be considered across the decades, rather than (in particular) being confined to early adulthood.

By contrast Camille Laurens’ novel Dans ces bras-là describes a woman’s life through the relationships she has with men: her father, her teachers, her boyfriends, her husband. The novel starts as the narrator sits in a café and spots a man passing by who she immediately decides is the one for her; after following him to his offices, she eventually discovers that he is a psychoanalyst (this is a very French French novel) and signs up for analysis with him. The chapters describing the men she has known and her relationships with them alternate with the conversations she has with her new analyst about herself and her recently ended marriage. I thought this was clever and profound: the sense of recurrence and repeating patterns in relationships, ow every relationship is formed by the one before. It was also very funny about the awfulness of men.

I haven’t  yet read the first volume, but the second volume of Langston Hughes’ autobiography, I wonder as I wander was one of the most enjoyable books I read this year, primarily because Hughes is such a delightful companion. The book is divided into Hughes’ travels around the US in the 1930s and his journey across the (still very young) USSR, where he ends up with a troupe of Black American actors, and whether it is Jim Crow or the bureaucratic tyrannies of the Soviet system he manages to find both the humour and the humanity in any situation. I really enjoyed his travels across the Soviet ‘Stans with Arthur Koestler: Koestler finds the dirt and backwardness of the central Asian states repulsive, and keeps repeating in disgust ‘What a place to have a revolution!’ but Langston makes all sorts of unusual friends – as well as observing how recently a Jim Crow-type distinction had been drawn between ‘Europeans’ and others in the pre-Soviet Central Asian states.

In part 2 I’ll write about the stand-out poetry I read this year.


Don’t tell ME to be positive: John McDonnell and hard Brexit

John McDonnell’s speech on hard Brexit (also reported here) is a pointless, stupid and destructive approach to the unquestionably difficult issue of what Labour’s policy should be on Brexit.

Yes, a majority of voters were in favour of leaving the European Union, as the question on the ballot paper put it. The people have spoken, but that is all we know about what they have said. The ballot paper didn’t ask about immigration, the single market, the Eurozone, the ECHR, the NHS, Greece, the refugee crisis, or any of the myriad other issues around which both right and left Brexiters campaigned.

I don’t support a second referendum at this stage (although as with the referendum on Scottish independence, it would seem reasonable to hold another if it became apparent that a significant proportion of voters had changed their position). Nor do I agree with those who would like to split hairs and ignore the referendum result on the basis that it was purely advisory: to do so would show a contempt for the democratic process which would deepen the already existing social and political fault lines in this country.

But refusing to countenance challenging or delaying the Article 50 process in Parliament seems absolutely wrong-headed. The government is clearly floundering and divided, and its majority of 12 is almost certainly less than the number of pro-Europe Tories who might be equally keen to refuse or delay Parliamentary approval for Article 50 unless a clear plan is put forward which aims at keeping the UK in the single market.

Single market membership would include continued free movement of people, in my opinion the first battleground for the left in trying to mitigate the effects of Brexit. It’s deeply disappointing that the noises on free movement and immigration which are coming from the Labour party leadership and others such as Len McCluskey, mixed and contradictory as they are, seem to be conceding to the racist anti-immigration, anti-free movement narrative which gave the victory to the Brexit campaign in the first place.

I voted for Jeremy Corbyn (twice) at least in part because I was disgusted by the weakness of the Labour party under Blair, Brown and Miliband in challenging the anti-immigration narrative over the last twenty years. Every Labour politician who has uttered the weasel words “very real concerns” – rather than pointing out the fact that immigration is an economic benefit – has to accept that they share some responsibility for the leave vote.

Corbyn and McDonnell should be proud of their record opposing racism and defending the rights of migrant workers, but this week’s inept triangulation – in which the policy direction is correct, but the headlines proclaim that freedom of movement “has not worked” is not the way to go. It’s heading down the path which leads to Rachel Reeves’ disgraceful Enoch Powell tribute act at this year’s Labour party conference.

Perhaps Corbyn and McDonnell feel uncomfortable about forming alliances with Tories and Lib Dems. Perhaps they’re concerned about the electoral threat from UKIP. Tough. The priority now must be the defence of free movement of people (as a limited counterbalance to the free movement of capital) and protection of the rights of EU citizens and other immigrants who have chosen to make this country their home. If that means talking to the likes of George Osborne and Nick Clegg, it’s worth it to hold Boris Johnson and Liam Fox’s feet to the fire.

I didn’t want this referendum or think it was necessary. Like most of the British left, I voted to stay in the EU not out of any great love for that institution but from a revulsion against the forces I felt would benefit most from a Leave victory. The analysis that the populist and fascist right would reap the benefits of a Leave victory is being confirmed every day. But that does not mean that there isn’t everything to be fought for.

I don’t usually engage in politics via extended Facebook rant, but this has made me very very angry. Practical suggestions in the comments about what Labour party members can do to stop John McDonnell’s ideas becoming Labour’s Brexit policy, and what the left can do more generally to defend migrant rights and the freedom of movement, and to resist the international rise of the far right, would be very welcome.

The beauty of the husband – Anne Carson

My first encounter with Anne Carson’s poetry was with her poem Hero (from Glass and God) anthologised in a collection of women’s poetry (I’ve tried to track down which, but can’t for the life of me find it; all I know is I copied Hero into my commonplace book of poems some time between 1999 and 2004). At the time I was struck with the smartness and wit of it, and the references to Emily Brontë; but also with the way it captured some of what I was feeling at the time about my then-difficult relationship with my mother:

I can tell by the way my mother chews her toast
whether she had a good night
and is about to say a happy thing
or not.


Now I read it and recognise my mother’s still-difficult relationship with her mother too. But the poem stuck with me for the way that the rhythm of the poem takes seemingly ordinary conversation, puts it into (mostly) three-line stanzas and gives it a pulling, pushing rhythm which underscores the tension between the mother and her daughter:

You’re saying women deserve to get raped
because Sears bathing suit ads
have high-cut legs? Ma, are you serious?

Well someone has to be responsible.
Why should women be responsible for male desire? My voice is high.
Oh I see you’re one of Them.

One of Whom? My voice is very high. Mother vaults it.

Mothers and daughters then; I suppose it makes sense that now, after a couple of failed relationships, I should be intensely struck by The beauty of the husband, a poetry sequence following a marriage from its beginning to its end. I started reading it in the Tube home after buying it and didn’t put it down until I’d finished it, captivated by the way that Carson’s smart tricksiness sifts through the story of the marriage, separating whatever in it was beautiful and true from the repeated failings and dishonesties of the husband.

The book is blurbed (blurbs itself?) as “an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.” I said tricksy. But never so tricksy as to stop being enjoyable: the tone of the book is one I associate with late-night conversations with my sisters and my close women friends: a sometimes painful emotional honesty, but one which is salted with a cynical, or at least smart-assed and humourous understanding of how we got into these disastrous, ridiculous romantic entanglements, and the impossibility of getting out again.

Each tango is prefaced by an epitaph from Keats – including academic jokes (tango 15’s epitaph: 151 She] written over {He} KRD) – and titled in a sequence of titles which follow on from one another (title of tango 1: I DEDICATE THIS BOOK  TO KEATS (IS IT YOU WHO TOLD ME KEATS WAS A DOCTOR?) ON GROUNDS THAT A DEDICATION HAS TO BE FLAWED IF  A BOOK IS TO REMAIN FREE AND FOR HIS GENERAL SURRENDER TO BEAUTY. Title of tango 2: BUT A DEDICATION IS ONLY FELICITOUS IF PERFORMED BEFORE WITNESSES – IT IS AN ESSENTIALLY PUBLIC SURRENDER LIKE THAT OF STANDARDS OF BATTLE).

As the long discursive titles follow each other, making a sequence of their own, the poems follow the marriage through, from the wife looking back in middle age over the whole marriage:

Loyal to nothing
my husband. So why did I love him from early girlhood to late middle age
and the divorce decree came in the mail?
Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty.
As I would again
if he came near. Beauty convinces. You know beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.

The alternation of long and short lines gives that superb rhythm and energy to the dialogue, I suppose like the tango itself, which I was taught at school goes: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. Tango 19 strips the poem back to dialogue alone, pared down to a Beckett-like simplicity:

You live a counterfeit life.
Yes yes but for you.
These are my trophies my campaigns my honors I lay them before you.
The women.
The lying.
The shame.
No there is no shame.
The shame I feel.

But the narrator’s never not able to see both the pain and the ironies of the situation: her husband’s admission to her that he has a mistress in tango 3 causes her to quote to us Mr Rochester, of all people, on the evils of jealousy (I’ve left it as an image as I don’t want to keep copying out massive chunks of text, and that section repays a long quote):

beauty of the husband

I love that. I love the combination of raw emotion (Clothed in flames and rolling through the sky) and the woman who can still ironically quote literature’s most famous would-be bigamist on the question of jealousy. Love may make fools of us all, but there’s a difference between a fool and an idiot, and a fool is still capable of seeing how ridiculous her situation is, of recognising that her beloved is a coward, a bully, a liar, and being able to laugh at – or at least see the funny side of – his betrayals even while she can’t see her way out of the situation. I wrote of conversations with my sister: this is our tone, the one that women have with each other when men aren’t there, the one that turns sentences like “Well, I hope she’ll be very happy” or “How kind of him to say that” into black jokes that make us collapse with laughter.

The last poetry book which struck me so deeply was another narrative sequence, also following a relationship from its very beginning to its end. Also, now I think of it, with a little bit of tricksiness of structure and a richness of allusion and reference: it was Ciaran Carson’s For all we know, which I might try to write about at some point. (Also, of course, by another poet named Carson, but I don’t think that signifies.)


I wrote to the Guardian last week after they published the terrible photos of the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi following his death by drowning while trying to travel with his family to Europe:

Letter to Guardian

You can read the other letters on the same subject here and you can read the John Berger article I quote from here (pdf)