“If Only”

6th March 2019

“If only we could have a transformative socialist Labour Government, but without the antisemitism.”

“If only we could be part of the Corbyn movement; and if only we could persuade that movement to oppose antisemitism.”

But I don’t want to be part of the Corbyn movement. If by magic the Corbyn movement wasn’t antisemitic, it would still be dangerous and a threat to democracy.

Its antisemitism is hard-wired into its contempt for the democratic state. The democratic state only makes sense when it is conceived of in balance with civil society, with the sphere in which human beings are free to pursue their own interests, make their own networks, create loves and friendships, develop their own values. It is not an accident that the pursuit of happiness was one of the key demands of the American revolution. The freedom to make things and to buy and sell them seems to me to be important.

Is socialism necessarily antisemitic and anti-democratic? Sure, there are anti-totalitarian socialist traditions which have been part of the left for as long as there has been a left. But I’m not convinced that those traditions are much more than satisfying intellectual places for smart people to position themselves. Yes, they have all the arguments, their theory is unfalsifiable because they are fundamentally religious, but no, they don’t win.

In the mean-time, it is the bourgeois system that socialists wish to smash which has created the NHS, the welfare state, universal education, accessible and profoundly creative universities, a united Europe, international institutions, political democracy spreading out across the planet, the emancipation of women, LGBT freedom, and which has lifted more people out of hunger than anything else. This is not to be Utopian about the world that exists; it is to understand something about how the world is made better.

Engels wasn’t the only posh boy who walked around Manchester and was shocked by the conditions of the working class. Other posh boys did the same. Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto while the other posh boys built the sewers.

The task of our age is to address the populist threats to democracy, democratic culture, freedom, co-operation and democratic reason. That threat does not only come from the populist left, it also comes from the populist right; the right in which every vulgar and irrational stupidity is able to gain a toe-hold in the mainstream, the right which is trying to smash up the democratic union of European states, the right which has abandoned liberalism in favour of an exclusivist and disgraceful communitarianism, the right which has brought Trump and his amorphous political movement of resentment and tantrum into the realm of the mainstream and made it seem normal.

I am not even convinced I want to be a member of something called a labour movement. I am not a socialist. I do not wish to socialise the means of production, I do not wish to create a community of producers, I do not wish to take democratic control of the economy; I want a free economy with an egalitarian and efficient framework of regulation.

I do not believe that the working class is magical raw material for an identity politics which will radically improve the world. I am not working class, I’m a middle class Jewish boy. My experience of being a member of a trade union, the UCU, is the least egalitarian, least empowering experience of my life; I was made to feel like Jews didn’t belong unless they disavowed the global Jewish community and unless they sided with antisemitic politics. That culture, because we were unable to change it, seeped into the so called ‘Labour’ Party too. I am not against trade unions; but trade unions are not a substitute for politics, or for democracy or for family or for community or for the state.

I am for a democratic politics in which we know what world we’re fighting for, in which we side with democratic movements and states around the world, in which what we say and do is more important than some essentialized populist notions of who we are. I am for a politics which allows people to live their lives as they wish, and which treats human beings as though they were fundamentally of equal value.