Gerry Downing’s ‘Jewish Question’
10 March 2016
Gerry Downing is an aging Trotskyist from the Socialist Fight organisation who has been expelled, re-admitted to, and now re-expelled from, the Labour Party. Amongst his many statements and ideas that have caused outrage is his belief that there is a ‘Jewish Question’ that needs to be solved.
The Labour Party isn’t the only organisation with housekeeping to do. Both Downing and his Socialist Fight comrade Ian Donovan were at the AGM of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in January, and Donovan spoke in one of its policy debates. If antisemitism truly has no place in PSC, as it regularly states, then Downing and Donovan should not be involved with that organisation either.
One of the curiosities of the Labour Party under its current leadership is that pundits need to familiarise themselves with Marxist theory that many assumed had become obsolete a long time ago. In that spirit, this blog post will provide a (very) brief guide to what Trotskyists mean by the ‘Jewish Question’.
This isn’t the same as the Nazi’s Jewish Question which led to the Final Solution. Trotskyists do want Jews to disappear, but not via genocide. Instead, they have theorised Jews out of history, and get upset that Jews refuse to go along with this theory and perform their historical function by disappearing.
The key Trotskyist text is The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation, written by a wartime Jewish Trotskyist called Abram Leon. Leon wrote The Jewish Question while in hiding in Belgium during the Nazi occupation, before being caught and deported to Auschwitz where he was killed. The book built on Karl Marx’s original On The Jewish Question (written a century earlier) by coming up with the concept of the “people-class”: a distinct ethnic, religious or racial group, such as Jews, whose characteristics become effectively synonymous with their economic function in society. Using this theory, Leon explained that Jews survived in European history because they were traders and moneylenders and therefore had value in medieval society.
According to Leon’s theory, Jews should have disappeared under capitalism as they became a “declassed element” with no place in modern society. However, antisemitism had prevented them from fully assimilating. Zionism, Leon predicted, would fail because it was an attempt to “resolve the Jewish question independently of the world revolution.” Only socialism could provide a solution, by offering Jews “The end of Judaism” – something that Leon welcomed.
Leon’s book has proven enormously influential in Trotskyist thinking about Jews. Gerry Downing’s article on his Socialist Fight website titled “Why Marxists must address the Jewish question concretely today” draws extensively on Leon. Severalotherarticles on the website do the same. The Socialist Workers Party pamphlet Israel: The Hijack State claims that “Leon’s book is today recognised as the authority on the Jewish question by both Jewish and non-Jewish opponents of Zionism” (emphasis in the original). Shlomo Sand, author of The Invention of the Jewish People, said “I feel that Abram Leon is my family” – politically speaking.
The idea that Jews will one day dissolve into the revolutionary masses and cease to be defined separately as Jews remains part of orthodox Marxist theory. The fact that they haven’t done so yet causes problems. As Socialist Fight put it:
“How to explain the current situation then, when far from Jews being pariahs and rejected by capitalism, Jews are revered by capital and a form of Jewish nationalism – Zionism, exercises enormous power in the imperialist world? Why are Jews so overrepresented among the most strident spokespeople for capitalist reaction – the neo-conservatives and neo-liberal ideologues?”
The answer to this is found, according to Ian Donovan, in “Zionism’s hegemonic role in Western racist politics today”. Zionism, he argues, is a “highly specific form of Jewish racism” and “the Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie… is a key component of the vanguard of world capital”. American support for Israel can only be explained the ‘fact’ (I have no idea whether it is a fact) that nearly half of American billionaires are Jewish. These Jewish billionaires act with “a common purpose”, which is to support Israel and Zionism. “The Jews are not a nation”, he writes, but Israel and “the various hegemonic pro-Israel bourgeois Jewish organisations in a number of imperialist countries” have a common project to oppress the Palestinians, and their power extends deep into the American and European ruling classes. Bringing this down is “is a priority of the working class worldwide”.
At this point it’s easy to lose count of the antisemitic tropes being used: Jews and money, Jews and racism, Jews and political manipulation, Jews with no national loyalty, and so on.
Socialist Fight argue that their theory about “the world ‘Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie’” has nothing to do with antisemitic theories about global Jewish conspiracies. “There is no moral judgement contained within the observation that Jews are overrepresented in the bourgeoisie of the United States and other advanced countries”, Donovan writes; “It is simply a material fact with certain implications for politics.”
Others may be less than convinced, but here’s one clear implication for politics: Gerry Downing is no longer a member of the Labour Party, and if he appeals against his expulsion he should be refused.