CST Blog

The Anti-Imperialism of Fools

3 July 2009

In January 1987, the American left wing journal Dissent carried an essay by Paul Berman titled "The Anti-Imperialism of Fools", in which Berman tried to answer the question, "why is it that Israel arouses, around the world, such ferocious hostility?"

Berman was and is not an 'Israel right or wrong' advocate. He began his essay by recounting several Israeli policies which drew criticism from the left, criticism with which Berman agreed; none of which, though, fully explain "the special tension, the extra electricity, that enters discussion within these sectors when Israel is mentioned."

Berman found his answer in an updated version of the political aphorism, "Antisemitism is the socialism of fools". As he explains, left wing antisemitism, like most forms of racism, is based on ignorance as much as bigotry. Where some nineteenth century socialists blamed Jewish bankers for the world's ills, choosing a simple but false analysis over the complex, messy but more accurate truth, nowadays anti-imperialists place Zionism at the centre of their analysis of world affairs:

The most important remark about anti-Semitism made in the Marxist tradition is August Bebel's phrase, "Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools." It's worth recalling what he meant. Bebel was addressing the nineteenth-century workers' movement and its tendency to rail against Jewish bankers. His purpose wasn't to defend the Jewish bankers, who were as bad as any banker. But he saw that the workers who focused on Jews were pinning the troubles of the working class on a visible scapegoat, instead of on the economic system as a whole. Anti-Semitism in the workers' movement did contain, in its singling out of some capitalists, a sort of social analysis. But it was a stupid analysis. It showed no understanding of how society actually functions. It was the socialism of fools.

And today? Around the world anti-imperialists confront stupendously complex foes and difficulties, and around the world are anti-imperialists who propose a stupendously simple social analysis. Their social analysis rails against one of the world's smallest countries. Stand up to denounce the perfidious policies of this small country, and partisans of the simple view will cheer everywhere with thecharacteristic ferocity, blithely unaware of how neatly they have fallen into the pattern noted ninety years ago by Bebel. For in the modern world, in parts of the modern left, let us acknowledge, even here, in certain of the enlightened realms of sophisticated New York, anti-Zionism has become the anti-imperialism of fools.

It is not hard to find examples today, over 20 years after Berman's essay was published, of the idea that Zionism has some kind of malign global influence, particularly via alleged control of American foreign policy. For some, this sort of analysis can lead them towards the idea of targeting Jewish communities around the world for some kind of hostile activity. Take this comment, posted on the Socialist Unity blog yesterday by a commenter using the name  'Jock McTrousers':

Well thanks for replying rather than deleting anyway. But I don’t see any indications that the Israelis will ever be interested in anything but a zero-sum game, unless external factors force it on them; if significant numbers of American (those who matter, effectively)jews signed up to the ‘ Jews against a Jewish supremacist state’ or whatever, that would be a great help - thus far I disagree with Gilad Atzmon, for instance. But there’s no sign that they will. So should we just let them off with that? Express no disapproval? And let’s be clear: not all jewish organisations are zionist organisations, but as far as I can discern nearly ALL jewish organisations support (somehow) the zionist organisations. And let’s not pretend that the zionist organisations like AIPAC and the ADL and the others aren’t powerful; you don’t have to accept that they are completely in control of the USA to acknowledge that there is a formidable price to pay for any politician who oppposes them. Sure, Israel is a pretty lucrative cash cow for the military-industrial complex, and a useful money-laundering facility for the elites generally, but let’s not forget that jews are now such a disproportionately large percentage of the capital-rich elite investor class, that it’s not clear whether there COULD be any clash of interest between ‘jewish elites’ and ‘the ruling class’, rather an occasional disagreement within the ruling class.

My point is that if we’re not talking about the ramifications of this, then we’re not seriously talking about what can be done. Israel can’t exist without outside support. If we are not focused on the sources of that support, we are not serious about supporting the Palestinians.

According to this analysis, "zionist organisations" may not have complete control of the USA (the most powerful country the world has ever known), but they are so powerful that their control is effective enough; "jewish elites" and "the capital-rich elite investor class" overlap so much that they are effectively synonymous, for political purposes; and this is where supporters of the Palestinian cause should focus their work. Note the easy slippage from "zionist organisations", to "jewish elites", to international capitalists, and all on a fairly mainstream socialist blog.

Andy Newman, who runs Socialist Unity, disagreed with the comment, writing:  "...as long as there are idiots who imply threats to Jews in the wide world in retaliation for Israel’s actions then Jews arunf [sic] the world will continue to solidly see Israel as a bastion of safety against that sort of danger. Tolerating anti-Semitism in our midst is a terrible disservice to the Palestinian cause." This objection seems disappointingly tactical, rather than moral, although Newman has written before about antisemitism on the left. He is in a minority for that, and nobody else on the thread joined him in rejecting the antisemitism in this comment.

There are lots of reasons why conspiracy theories appeal to people on the far left. For a political tradition built on the idea of close analysis of historical events, they give the appearance of a clever explanation for a complicated world. Antisemitic conspiracy theories have a particular application; the antisemitism may be hidden under many layers and not be  immediately apparent. But like most forms of bigotry and prejudice, they are based on little more than ignorance, foolishness and fear. They are, as Berman put it, a stupid analysis.

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