Anti-Semitism, morality and left populism

Chris Clarke

Perhaps the biggest misconception about the last five years of Labour infighting is this: that differences between the far left and the centre left are based on ideology and degrees of radicalism, rather than on world view and analysis. It’s often assumed that the centre-left and far left lie on a continuum; on this view, the far left of the party believe wholeheartedly in economic justice, equality and fairness – whereas those on the centre left believe in these things only a little.

This explanation suits Labour’s Corbynite contingent, of course, allowing them to allege that the centre left are bean-counters, closet Tories and careerists – believers-in-nothing or cynical ‘weathervanes’. Their preferred descriptors for the non-Corbynite left – ‘centrists’, ‘moderates’, the ‘right of the party’ – feed into this, framing their political next-door-neighbours as the diluters of progressive thought.

Those of us on the centre left, meanwhile, enable the misconception. Our charge is too often that the far left are unelectably radical – that they are hopeless idealists or swivel-eyed adherents of Trotskyism.

Yet the true sources of Labour’s divisions for the past five years lie somewhere else altogether – at the level of approach and mindset. If we are to understand what has happened to the party since 2015 – and to stop it from happening again – we must acknowledge this.

Those who supported Corbyn throughout tend to see the problems of the world in a fundamentally different way to those who opposed his leadership. Their explanations for why wars happen or why inequality exists are distinct from the explanations of those on the centre left.

The far left’s diagnosis, as a rule, includes two assumptions.

The first of these is that the political spectrum is a moral spectrum, and that the left is where virtue lies. This approach ultimately boils down each dispute to a battle of good and evil. Those on the right are seen as motivated by spite and self-interest.

The second assumption is that the problems of the world are imposed from above, or are, in some other way, authored by the powerful. This encourages the idea that we live under the yoke of a thinly veiled dictatorship, which crushes the popular will for personal gain or plies them with ‘MSM’ propaganda.

I call these notions the Dark Knight and the Puppet Master; the idea of an immoral enemy, against whom our struggle is destined to play out, and that of an all-powerful elite, covertly controlling the rest of us.

These two narratives, the Dark Knight and the Puppet Master, are both much smaller features when it comes to centre-left thinking. And they go a long way towards explaining the far left’s problems with anti-Semitism – an issue which burst forth once again last week, following the EHRC report and the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the party.

The importance of narratives

The discussion of Labour anti-Semitism from both sides has tended, from the start, to centre on processes and systems. Corbyn’s former Chief of Staff Karie Murphy, for example, recently defended the procedures she had overseen while Corbyn was leader.1 And the lines of questioning by the media have focused, often with good reason, on the specifics of complaints-handling or the independence of decision-making.

Yet the question which is asked less often is why anti-Semitism fits so neatly into the world view of many on the far left. Why are those who promote anti-Jewish tropes drawn to Corbyn? And why was he so bad at spotting anti-Semitism himself?

I myself encountered some of these questions in relation to the far right, while working as a Labour press officer in Nigel Farage’s 2015 target seat of South Thanet.

The presence of Farage in Thanet drew in members of extreme right-wing organisations. On one occasion a group led by a former EDL organiser pushed Labour canvassers to the ground and tore up their literature, shouting “This is for Ukip”. Elsewhere an activist had aerosol sprayed in their face and a Labour stall was turned over on the high street.

Despite his rallies being well-attended by far right activists – though of course not all his followers held far-right views – Farage himself could plausibly deny any connection to these events. And, while I detested his politics, I did not in fact think that he had personally authorised the things extremists were doing in his name. Yet common sense dictated that Farage bore responsibility. If he disapproved of his followers then he needed to ask why they were so keen on him.

The truth was that his warlike language towards immigrants and his fear-mongering about ‘liberal elites’ fed straight into their ways of thinking. The EDL or National Front members in Farage’s slipstream were merely taking his populist rhetoric to its natural conclusion.

For the Labour left to turn its back on a sorry chapter in its history, the same sorts of questions must be asked. Debates about processes to deal with anti-Semitism are essential. But we also need to discuss narratives.

The Dark Knight

‘Elections are about taking sides’, began Labour’s strapline during the 2016 elections. The slogan was a loose riff on ‘Which side are you on, boys?’ – a protest song, popularised by Billy Bragg in 1984.

Underpinning these mantras is a deeper idea: that politics is, necessarily, a grand, struggle. ‘The Red Flag’ itself, Labour’s anthem, depicts a partisan conflict, where only ‘cowards’ or ‘traitors’ cross the floor.

This Manicheanism leads the left to gravitate towards a set of causes and groups which are deemed to be ‘on our side’, and against those which are not. Being ‘on the left’ is about backing the entities in the virtuous, White Knight column, whenever they come up against their self-interested, right-wing counterparts.

This is the politics of Cold War, of class war and of culture war; of ‘no enemies to the left’, of ‘socialism or barbarism’ and of the adage that you must ‘rise with your class, not out of it’. Those who refuse to take sides – the dreaded ‘Blairites’, for example – are regarded as perhaps the lowest of all.

The ‘Dark Knight’ mode of viewing the world has many flaws. But among the most pronounced is that it offers no way of evaluating groups or individuals who fulfil both ‘good’ left-wing traits and ‘bad’ right-wing ones. The myth therefore encourages its believers to make assumptions about the whole based on a part.

This is where anti-Semitism comes in. As one House of Commons report points out, discrimination towards the Jewish community is ‘distinct’:

Unlike other forms of racism, anti-Semitic abuse often paints the victim as a malign and controlling force rather than as an inferior object of derision, making it perfectly possible for an ‘anti-racist campaigner’ to express anti-Semitic views.2

Indeed, the historic root of left-wing anti-Semitism lies in the conflation of the Jewish community with business, property, and private ‘interests’. While Jews have been subject to appalling persecution, they also fall into categories deemed by the populist left to be right-wing (and, therefore, immoral).

The words of former Corbyn aide Andrew Murray bear this out – at least as far as Corbyn’s own views are concerned. Murray’s assessment of Corbyn’s attitudes was as follows:

He is very empathetic, Jeremy, but he’s empathetic with the poor, the disadvantaged, the migrant, the marginalised… Happily, that is not the Jewish community in Britain today. He would have had massive empathy with the Jewish community in Britain in the 1930s and he would have been there at Cable Street, there’s no question. But, of course, the Jewish community today is relatively prosperous.3

For Corbyn (at least in Murray’s estimation), a persecuted minority could only merit empathy if they fell into the left-wing, virtuous category on all other points.

This White Knight/ Dark Knight way of seeing the world has a clear geopolitical slant, too. Indeed, foreign policy is an area where the Labour leadership has frequently found itself exposed in the past five years.

The instinctive desire to give Russia the benefit of the doubt is an obvious example. Corbyn claimed in 2014, for instance, that Russia’s actions in the Ukraine were the result of provocation caused by ‘the US drive to expand eastwards’.4

This was at a time when America, the supposed right-wing Dark Knight in the scenario, was led by Barack Obama – and where Russia, the supposed White Knight, was led by Vladimir Putin. The interests of the Ukraine (and, by implication, other countries caught between East and West), were overlooked in the name of a grand struggle.

The case illustrates the mental rigidity which the ‘us and them’ school of politics creates. It compels you to adopt ‘enemy’s enemy is my friend’ positions, of the kind Corbyn specialised in throughout his career.

The geopolitical slant to the Dark Knight myth again helps to explain anti-Semitism within Labour. The Middle East is an area which, like Northern Ireland, has seen a messy regional dispute became infused with a spirit of all-out Manicheanism by some left-wingers.

This has led to collective guilt, with atrocities blamed on the Israeli people rather than on the Israeli government. It has made it hard for the far left to ‘classify’ Judaism on the White Knight/ Dark Knight spectrum. Whose ‘side’ should the left be on?

The fact that the US supported the creation of Israel, and the way Israeli governments have conducted themselves, is sufficient to render Jewish Israelis closer to the Dark Knight pole than Palestinians – in the minds of some on the left. The word ‘Zionism’ often acts as the point of conflation here, between a broad, emotional connection to the idea of a Jewish homeland, and support for the specific policies of the Israeli government.

Indeed, many of the less overt examples of anti-Semitism have stemmed from this conflation. They have occurred when Jewish people are held answerable on social media for the behaviour of the Benjamin Netanyahu government – or are asked to disavow it, in a way that other minorities would not be expected to.

Through this zero-sum, Dark Knight process, Israelis are placed closer to the ‘bad’ pole than Palestinians, and Islamophobia closer than anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism on the left tells a story about how Dark Knight ideas of collective guilt and moral singularity can spiral out of control.

The Puppet Master

The far left’s attraction to an ultra-partisan reading of each dispute is only part of the issue. Anti-Semitism is also the immediate corollary of a second myth, the Puppet Master.

This narrative is about power and society, more than morality. It imagines a plutocracy, controlling our lives to protect their interests. According to this, ‘the powerful’ subvert or bypass the will of the people, using force and propaganda.

This narrative reads a grand design into everything: an ‘MSM’ manufacturing ‘consent’; a ‘deep state’ undermining the left; a ‘rigged’ system overseen by a corrupt 1%; etc. It imagines an intertwinement of political, financial and media ‘elites’, who could end the world’s problems, but find that it serves their interests not to.

The words of columnist and Corbyn supporter George Monbiot exemplify this Puppet Master mode of thought:

We have been induced by politicians, economists and journalists to accept a vicious ideology… A small handful, using lies and distractions and confusion stifle [our] latent desire for change5

This is the thin end of the conspiracist wedge. It becomes more common the further you go to the left – and the further from power. In 2015, for example, Corbyn supporters were four times as likely as Liz Kendall backers to say “the world is controlled by a secretive elite.”6

The Puppet Master myth feeds directly into the populist left’s reading of economics. This tends to see capitalism as centrally-planned by a corrupt elite. Journalist and campaigner Paul Mason, for instance, refers to ‘neoliberalism’ as “a set of ideas that justifies the economic dominance of a ruling group…propagated through the ruling group’s control of the media and education.”7

In their book Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Matt Bolton and Harry Pitts unpack in detail the populist left’s conception of the economy. They criticise Corbynism’s dependence on a narrative which:

Understands the problems of capitalist society to be caused by the external intervention of alien elements in a natural, moral community of the productive, rather than the systemic pressures caused by a specific form of social organisation.8

The Puppet Master mindset varies in its intensity. For some it is a mild suspicion that the BBC is working to a Tory agenda, for others it spirals into all-out conspiracy theories about 9/11.

However, what underpins the myth is that it imagines a small group running society, who are fundamentally different from the rest of us. This group lacks recognisably ‘human’ qualities – being more competent and less well-intentioned than anyone we know. The more strongly we buy into the idea that problems can be traced back to this unfeeling ‘elite’, the more inhuman and superhuman the elite must be, to get away with the things they do.

Such an analysis raises a troubling question: how could a self-interested minority have risen to the position they allegedly hold? Who are they?

Here, again, anti-Semitism all too easily comes in – the place where almost all conspiracy theories ultimately seem to lead. Anti-Jewish tropes provide, ready-made, a group of inhuman superhumans. They allow left populist logic to jump the track. Corbyn’s online defence of an anti-Semitic mural in 2012 is a classic example of how this transgression occurs.9

This is the ‘socialism of fools’ as it is sometimes known. It leaves other Puppet Master advocates, such as those among the left-populist commentariat, ill-equipped to address the   problem – without renouncing their milder strains of conspiracism at the same time.

This helps to explain why the populist left so often stray into territory they thought was safe but which turns out to have anti-Semitic undertones. The unthinking recourse, on whatever topic, is often to blame a shadowy media stitch-up or the agendas of financiers. Such an approach cannot help but drift towards anti-Jewish racism. Len McClusky’s recent comments about Peter Mandelson ‘counting his gold’ illustrate this.10

This is why Corbyn often baulks at condemning anti-Semitism, and why his allies are bad at spotting it. They are selling the gateway drug on the school gates – in the form of the Puppet Master analysis. Hence, they are ill-equipped to preach abstinence when their customers move onto harder stuff, and start talking about the Rothchilds or George Soros.

This is not to deny the existence of a super-rich, who are wealthier than anyone should be – nor to suggest that many large companies avoid tax. But it is to refute that these individuals and groups spend their time plotting to keep the rest of us down. And it is to deny that the efforts of the few who do are the main cause of our unequal society.

The alternative to the Puppet Master is the banal truth that those with influence are less powerful and better-intentioned than we imagine. Problems mostly stem from organic and anarchic forces – not grand design.

Pulling the thread

The EHRC report revealed a systemic problem within the Labour Party post-2015. This ethical shortcoming will probably, in years to come, be the aspect which people remember most about the rise-and-fall of Corbynism.

To avoid landing in these traps in the future, a wider conversation is needed within Labour, about how you have a progressive politics without Dark Knight or Puppet Master bogeymen. The idea that being on the left relies on fighting a malign foe – or that society is stitched up by a tiny cabal – cannot help but lead us into the terrain where we found ourselves last week.

For the populist left, this acknowledgement is hard to make – perhaps impossible. Looking the root causes of anti-Semitism in the face pulls at a thread which could, potentially, cause their whole belief system to unravel. Hence, the desire to see anti-Semitism as a discrete, procedural failure.

The true factor which distinguishes Corbyn’s politics from those of the social democratic mainstream has always, ultimately, been about Dark Knight and Puppet Master ways of thinking – not about core ideals.

For a brief period from 2015, these narratives became his great strength – enthusing young activists on the left who craved ‘red meat’ from Labour, and setting him apart from those who talked of compromise and complexity.

But the EHRC findings and the wider issue of anti-Semitism now reveal these populist vices as his biggest failure. The ultimate lesson of the Corbyn era is that we must jettison them once and for good.

Chris Clarke is author of The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master, published by Penguin Books.

[1] ‘I was Corbyn’s chief of staff. We acted decisively to remove Labour antisemites’, Karie Murphy, Guardian, October 2020

[2] ‘Antisemitism in the UK’, House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2016–17, p.44.

[3] Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, Left Out (2020), 120-121.

[4] ‘Nato belligerence endangers us all’, The Morning Star, April 2014.

[5] ‘George Monbiot: how do we get out of this mess?’ Guardian, September 2017.

[6] “You may say that I’m a dreamer”: inside the mindset of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, Freddie Sayers, YouGov, August 2015.

[7] Neoliberalism – system first, ideology changeable, Paul Mason, Medium, August 2015.

[8] Matt Bolton, Frederick Harry Pitts, Corbynism: A Critical Approach (2018), 158.

[9] Jeremy Corbyn regrets comments about ‘anti-Semitic’ mural, BBC, March 2018.

[10] Len McCluskey accused of antisemitism after ‘count your gold’ jibe to Peter Mandelson, The Independent, October 2020.