Escaping the prison house of the Jewish question and left antisemitism

I. The ideological terrain

The recent move by Britain’s right-wing Conservative government, notably, Gavin Williamson’s punitive request in October 2020 to university vice-chancellors to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, and the government announcement in February 2021 of a ‘free speech champion’ to protect freedom of speech on universities campuses, is, simply put, a demagogic culture war which should be opposed in such terms. As this looms, in this paper, I am seeking a fuller and richer culture on the activist and academic Left for freedom of thought on Palestine and Israel that involves an honest and critical self-reflection on the issue of left antisemitism, alongside freedom of speech and peaceful action against the longstanding and ever-worsening oppression of the Palestinians by Israel’s state and military. This is a plea from the Left to the Left: to oppose a right-wing government’s culture war in the name of freedom of speech, at the same time as, on our own terms, enacting what belongs to us at the grassroots, and to discuss the problem of left antisemitism while opposing the Israeli state and military occupation and dispossession of Palestinian land and subjugation of Palestinian people. My local branch of the University and College Union (UCU) debated the government imposition of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. Whilst I consider this working definition a good educational basis for discussion on the nature of contemporary antisemitism, which does not prevent criticism of Israel’s state and military, I supported the branch’s rejection of the government’s effective enforcement. Any working definition of antisemitism should be shaped at the grassroots by open debate and discussion within our academic communities. There is however a closure to such open debate and discussion at the grassroots, which is that the very idea of the existence of ‘left antisemitism’ is denied by many on the Left. The 2006, 2007 and 2008 UCU Congresses passed a series of motions that demonstrate this: in 2006, denying that “criticism of the Israeli government is in itself anti-Semitic” and claiming that “defenders of the Israeli government’s actions have used a charge of anti-Semitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate and in the context of Higher Education to restrict academic freedom”; in 2007, that “criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-Semitic”; and in 2008, that “criticisms of Israel or Israeli policy are not, as such, anti-Semitic” (cited in Fine and Spencer, 2017: 119). Much of the Left comprehends antisemitism as an exclusive embodiment of the Right: either as a feature of the populist Right and fascism against the Jews; or as a fabricated allegation made, behind-the-scenes, by Israel and the Zionist lobby against the Left globally to silence criticism of Israel; or as a reaction and product of Israel’s existence as a Jewish, expansionist, racist, and settler-colonial state. This paper is an effort to move us beyond this impasse.

To illustrate the ideological terrain that impedes recognition of contemporary and left antisemitism, I draw on rejoinders from three well-known pro-Palestinian left academics on this question. Norman Finkelstein, in an address in 2015 to the Philosophy Society at the University College Dublin, responds to a question on whether there is a rise of antisemitism in Europe. His full response is available to watch on YouTube.

Finkelstein states: “There’s just no evidence for these claims about a rise of antisemitism in Europe and we have to all renew our battle against antisemitism, it’s just not true.” He evidences this reply as follows:

“By far and away the most accepted minority in all the western countries, by far and away, are Jews […] the sign of acceptance, when you know what’s called assimilation has tipped, the sign is always inter-marriage […] Well in the United States today, I would say, there isn’t a single ruling class family that hasn’t intermarried with Jews.”

Finkelstein then goes on to qualify his answer:

“What you do find is, if you look at the opinion polls, there is a spike in antisemitism […] every time Israel launches one of its murderous invasions […] That’s not antisemitism in any meaningful sense, that’s a state that calls itself Jewish carrying out in a horrifying way and so people react to it against Jews, if you want to prevent antisemitism there’s two things you can do, number one you can stop committing massacres and number two stop calling yourself a Jewish state, just call yourself Israel, and then I think the number of antisemitic acts will go back down”.

He concludes:

“If you had a choice, in any European country where they say ‘oh the antisemitism is going berserk’ […] if you’re in France, would you rather be Jewish or short, would you rather be Jewish or obese, […] would you rather be Jewish or ugly […] the world is so plagued by so many horrifying crimes, so much suffering […] so okay some people have some prejudices about me, but if you take it at the legal level, Jews are doing better than anybody else, so all this talk of antisemitism, it’s just a joke.”

Finkelstein claims four things here: one, that in the context of crime and suffering across the world, antisemitism is trivial; two, that what might be considered antisemitism is not antisemitism in a meaningful sense because it is an understandable response to the murderous actions of Israel, and when Israel ceases to be a Jewish nation-state, the so-called problem of antisemitism will disappear; three, that antisemitism is the product of a Jewish nation-state that commits massacres; and, four, that in key respects, Jews actually hold a higher position in society than others. It is worth emphasizing, on this final point, that Finkelstein evidences his observation about Jewish assimilation not by identifying an assimilation to the general, vast majority population but rather by stressing an incorporation (which he calls assimilation) into the ruling class and jobs with power.

In a public meeting hosted by the Socialist Workers’ Party in 2019, titled “Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism”, which is available to watch on YouTube, Ilan Pappé lays bare the relationship between anti-Zionism, Zionism, and the allegations of antisemitism in the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Pappé (2019) explains:

“The inability to cover the criminality in Gaza is one of the reasons that you get instead a hyper inflated coverage of a few emails that may or may not be antisemitic, as if this is an issue that threatens people’s life or existence, and this imbalance between, a manipulated hysteria of something that doesn’t happen and a total ignorance of what really happens is one of the major challenges that this ridiculous equation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism is causing, and which we will have to challenge”.

He stresses, as a continuous mistake from Corbyn down to the activist base when in the mainstream media, that:

“They apologise, not understand what they are apologising for, but they think that apologising is good, apologising is terrible, apologising means that you think there is some truth in it, maybe a little misunderstanding […] every minute we waste on talking about antisemitism instead of talking about Palestine is a wasted minute”.

Pappé elaborates:

“because they cannot […] challenge with facts, they cannot challenge us with a moral position, they have nothing in their arsenal that can really struggle efficiently against our humane position and universal position on Palestine, so they blame us of antisemitism”.

On the journalists who covered the antisemitism allegations in the Labour Party, he speculates:

“either these people are intelligent and I suppose many people who work in The Times and BBC and so on are intelligent and that’s worse, that means they know exactly what they are doing, because they’re afraid, because someone is paying them, I don’t know, I don’t know, I’m not going to investigate, I’m interested in the outcome not in their motives […] or […] they’re ignorant […] on an area that they should know a lot as British journalists, but we should be on the onslaught here, attacking their ignorance or the sinister manipulation effects and stop apologising for something we are not”.

Pappé then moves to a full exposure of what is happening by spelling out that for the first time in the history of any mainstream political party in the West since 1948, a leader holds a pro-Palestinian position:

“This is the whole story, they thought this would never happen, it suddenly unfolded in front of their eyes, they cannot use F-16s, they cannot bomb Jeremy Corbyn, they cannot send Israeli tanks […] to the Labour Party headquarters, so they can’t use the main method they usually use to silence people […] in this case they were a bit more limited in what they could do, I must say to their, cynically I would say, to their credit, they found a way”.

In his summation, he responds to a question about Netanyahu’s rule to explain the true nature of Zionism:

“In those ten years […] all the shields of complexity that Israel, especially the Israeli Labor Party […] the so-called Israeli peace camp, the left Zionist camp, all these shields of complexity, where you supposedly could be a socialist and a Zionist, you could be colonizer and an enlightened person, you could be a progressive and an ethnic cleanser, that all these impossible oxymorons, even the Israeli electorate seem to find them quite ridiculous and that’s why they kicked out the Zionist left, it doesn’t exist anymore, and Netanyahu is just the epitome of this kind of inevitable […] political development inside Israel, where you cannot really reconcile the ideology of Zionism with universal values, whether they are Marxism, socialism or even liberalism”.

On the question of left antisemitism, Pappé presents a situation regard the British Labour Party in which a morally devoid, sinister and manipulative ‘they’ – i.e. Israel and Zionism – have exerted a global reach to witch hunt and silence Jeremy Corbyn and the pro-Palestinian Left by fabricating allegations of antisemitism. On the question of Zionism, Pappé gives it a fixed and inevitable drive of colonization and ethnic cleansing, seemingly gloating at Netanyahu’s success and the defeat of the Zionist Left because it proves him right, apropos “the so-called Israeli peace camp”, that Zionism is the absolute antithesis of progressive universal values.

Finally, in terms of a response to the question of left antisemitism, and also its relationship to the issue of freedom of speech, I present the contentions of the pro-Palestinian left academic David Miller, both from a public meeting in 2020 titled “In Defence of Free Speech” and from a conference in 2021 titled “Building the Campaign for Free Speech”; both hosted by Labour Against the Witch-hunt, an organisation that frames the allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party as a “purge of pro-Corbyn supporters” and akin to McCarthyism. This public meeting and conference are available to watch on YouTube.

David Miller (2020) talks of his “shocked, perhaps not that surprised” realisation of the complicity of the leadership of the Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby, in the witch hunt:

“They [the leadership under Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby] adopted the witch hunt […], they decided that what was going on here was people who had genuine grievances, perhaps mistaken but genuine grievances about members of the Party, and we should engage them in constructive dialogue, and of course there is no constructive dialogue with the Zionist movement, the Zionist movement isn’t interested in dialogue, in truth, in finding out how best to tackle antisemitism, and that is the fundamental mistake and a fundamental error for the Labour Party […] so it wasn’t just a question of the Zionist movement, of the trolls, of the JLM, of Labour Against Antisemitism, and […] and all of that lot, you know backed of course by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs in Israel, it wasn’t just a question of them […] you see in the Labour leaked report […] there’s a bit where they discuss the people that they took on to be in charge of antisemitism investigations, one of whom is a former member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a well-known [bleep] faction, and the other one says in a long passage in the report, which he himself must have written, that he learned about left antisemitism from reading a book by Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust, an organisation which has been at the forefront of pursuing the witch hunt, which is unable to distinguish between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and which purposefully blurs together those two concepts in order to pursue the Left  […] so the idea that people like that should be engaged in constructive dialogue is a fantasy, these are people who must only be faced and defeated, they are supporters of Israel, of the racist policies of the Israeli government and of course of the racist foundation of the Israeli state founded of course as we know on ethnic cleansing and settler-colonialism […] there is of course much we can do to engage in Palestine solidarity work, as many people are doing, but also we must of course engage the enemy in this which is, not just of course the British government and US imperialism but the Zionist movement, the Zionist movement and the Israeli government are the enemy of the Left, the enemy of world peace and they must be directly targeted […] in order for the Palestinians to win, Zionism as a philosophy, as an idea, as an ideology, must be defeated, and that seems to be the clarity which the current historical moment gives us […] I think that there’s a strategic problem in discussing this under the rubric of free speech on Israel or Zionism or antisemitism, I mean there isn’t free speech for racists […] and you know the problem with defending the principle of freedom of speech in relation to this issue is that we don’t have the freedom of speech and they have the freedom of speech and we are never going to get the freedom of speech because they are in power, and so it seems to me that what we should be talking about is not counterposing our conception of ‘Zionism as racism’, which I think most of us are agreed on, with their conception that ‘we’re all anti-Semites’, because that’s a balance which is based on falsehood and it’s based on a racist understanding of how things are, it’s not acceptable for them to call us racist, it’s untrue, and so what I think we should be saying is not how we create slightly more space for the Left to say slightly more things about Palestine and Israel while they at the same time are using their speech to destroy people’s lives, careers, mental health, and jobs […] we should be saying is, no we’re not here to defend freedom of speech, we’re here to end Zionism”.

Miller (2021) later proclaims:

“The enemy we face here is Zionism and the imperial policies of the Israeli state, and free speech is not the main problem here […] It didn’t start with the Labour Party, it’s not started with the Labour Party and moved to the universities, it’s an all-out onslaught by the Israeli government, mainly through the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, but also other ministries too, on the Left globally and this is not something which just happened in Britain […] this is an all-out attack by the Israeli government […] this attempt by the Israelis to impose their will all over the world and that I think is what we should recognise”.

Miller’s narrative on antisemitism in the Labour Party and freedom of speech on Palestine and Israel is that, Zionism is racism so there cannot be freedom of speech for Zionists, and Zionism is an all-powerful and infiltrating movement which is waging a war globally against the Left: hegemonizing freedom of speech for itself while denying the pro-Palestinian Left its freedom of speech under the accusation of antisemitism and the pretence of fighting antisemitism. Zionism must be faced and defeated in all of its multiple personifications and manifestations: both as an omnipotent, permeating global movement that seeps right down to the local and individual level and consciousness, and as a settler-colonial state. He identifies people who accept a basis to the claims of antisemitism in the Labour Party as supporting a racist Israel based on ethnic cleansing and settler-colonialism – people who, in his words, “must only be faced and defeated”. In sum, for Miller, what’s freedom of speech in times of war.

II. Defining left antisemitism

A definition of antisemitism attributed to the academic Brian Klug is often cited by members of the activist Left as offering a sensible and simple insight into what antisemitism actually is and academic legitimation of how accusations of left antisemitism are false; a part sentence or paraphrase of Klug’s work is picked out, specifically, “anti-Semitism is hostility to Jews as Jews” (Klug, 2013: 471). The pro-Palestinian left activist Tony Greenstein, speaking at a public meeting titled “The abuse of antisemitism to silence free speech on Israel” in 2017, hosted by Brighton’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and available to watch on YouTube, is an example of how the definition of anti-Semitism as hostility to Jews as Jews is applied to the question of left antisemitism in the Labour Party.

Greenstein (2017) states:

“All this stuff of antisemitism has nothing at all to do with antisemitism whatsoever, it’s a complete blind and a complete smokescreen […] the antisemitism crisis and the allegations, of the hysteria that’s grown up, has nothing whatsoever to do with antisemitism, it has everything to do with Israel’s record and Zionism’s record in the Middle East […] one of the ways you defend it is by saying that anyone who criticizes it is antisemitic, they’re singling it out, yes we are singling out Israel in one respect because it’s the only apartheid state in the world […] there are many repressive states in the world, I grant you, but there is only one racist state, there’s only one apartheid state […] the definition of antisemitism is remarkably simple, you don’t need to be a genius to work out […] it is hostility to Jews as Jews, it is simple, an Oxford academic, a friend of mine, Brian Klug, worked that out years ago, but the government has a problem, and the problem is how to associate antisemitism with Israel, and therefore they have come up, they came up in 2004 with what they called the working definition, the European Union Monitoring Committee [EUMC] Working Definition of Antisemitism, which met a lot of resistance, the University College Union opposed it, the National Union of Students opposed it […] and in 2013 the successor agency to the EUMC […] took it down from its website and it basically fell into a bed, however, the Zionist monster is a multi-headed Hydra and it has grown again, it’s becomes something called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition.”

Here Greenstein provides an opposition to the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism based on the idea that it is an end product of a Zionist racist monster that has manufactured false allegations of antisemitism to silence international criticism of its monstrous record in the Middle East; in making this case, he offers up an Oxford academic’s simple and obvious definition of antisemitism.

The definition of antisemitism as hostility to Jews as Jews has very limited explanatory power, because what does one mean by ‘Jew’? The process of racialization is skipped: the process of identifying difference as significant and the cause of harm, which requires the one doing the racialization to identify and label a difference and to assign negative meaning and consequence to that difference. Let me put it differently, one could define anti-Muslim racism, or Islamophobia, as hostility to Muslims as Muslims. But what does one mean by ‘Muslim’? The process of racialization is omitted: again, the process of identifying difference as significant and the source of harm, which involves identifying and labelling a difference and giving negative meaning and consequence to that difference. On September 15th 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a man of American nationality, was attacked and killed in a hate crime in the US state of Arizona. He was a practising Sikh with a beard and a turban – the beard and the turban were identified with the figure of the Islamist terrorist. Explaining this hate crime as hostility to Muslims as Muslims actually offers no explanation at all; more precisely, Balbir Singh Sodhi was a victim of anti-Muslim racism and the process of racialization that that entailed.

Similar to other forms of racism, with anti-Jewish racism, or antisemitism, it is not ethnic difference per se that matters but the identification of ethnic difference as significant and a problem. Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism involves a process of signification that assigns ‘the Jew’ with negative characteristics that have negative consequences – the idea of ‘the harmful Jew’ – which fuses into a way of seeing and making sense of the ills of global capitalism. The harmful Jewish Other is seen as part-and-parcel of a Zionist collective that harbours a particularly harmful imperialism, a particularly harmful nationalism, a particularly harmful settler-colonialism, a particularly harmful ethnic cleansing, and a particularly harmful racism, comparable only to two historical pariahs, South African apartheid and Nazi Germany, and which operates, surreptitiously, a particularly sinister, tyrannical and harmful global reach to shut down criticism of Israel, to dominant the world, and to threaten world peace.

In a comparison of contemporary Islamophobia and antisemitism, old and new, Pnina Werbner (2013: 451) astutely observes its intersection with the politics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

“we find these concepts and the protagonists who enunciate them entangled with each other in mutual recriminations, invoking a wide concatenation of ambiguous, polysemic, ideological tropes: Zionism, Islamism, racism, colonialism, apartheid, genocide, terrorism, Nazism, orientalism, occidentalism.”

Revisiting her conceptualisation of the “three archetypal demonic figures conjured up by the racist imagination […] the slave, the witch and the Grand Inquisitor” (ibid: 455; see image below), she recognises that on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “extremist actions seem intent on confirming the worst racist imaginaries each group has of the other” (ibid: 461): the Jews as conspiratorial witches and the Palestinians as the Islamic Grand Inquisitor.

Werbner, Pnina (2013) “Folk devils and racist imaginaries in a global prism: Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the twenty-first century”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 36:3, 450-467.

“The witch”, Werbner (2013: 455-456) elaborates:

“crystallizes fears of the hidden, disguised, malevolent stranger, of a general breakdown of trust […] Your neighbour may be a witch who wants to destroy you. He or she is culturally indistinguishable in almost every respect because the witch masquerades as a non-alien.”

Whilst:

“[t]he Islamic Grand Inquisitor is not a disguised, assimilated threat as the Jewish ‘witch’ […]; ‘he’ is not subservient and bestial like the black ‘slave’. He is upfront, morally superior, openly aggressive, denying promiscuous society and the validity of other cultures […].” (ibid, 458).

Both antisemitism and Islamophobia mobilise religion as a marker for racialization and entail a dynamic of ‘conspiratorial racialization’ – defined by Reza Zia-Ebrahimi (2018) as an ahistorical and unchanging, psychological and moral essentialisation of a population as “a monolithic group animated by only one will”” (ibid: 319) that is “the ultimate enemy out for our destruction” (ibid: 318). Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism operates a racist imaginary akin to Werbner’s description of the Jewish witch and Zia-Ebrahimi’s (2018) understanding of conspiratorial racialization: many on the Left seek to expose the hidden power of Zionism and its followers who are out to destroy us and see Zionism as the ultimate epitome and personification of the insidious harm wrought by global capitalism and imperialism.

In their book Antisemitism and the left: On the return of the Jewish question, Robert Fine and Philip Spencer (2017) construct a powerful argument around the two faces of universalism: its emancipatory face that seeks to include the Other as an equal human being and its repressive face that singles out the Other as the failure of what is required for membership of humanity. They explore how the negative face of universalism has shaped the Jewish question over time; ‘the Jewish question’ being, “the classic term for the representation of Jews as harmful to humanity as a whole” (Fine and Spencer, 2017: 2). Furthermore, they recognise, quoting Hannah Arendt, “[t]he classic form in which the Jewish question was posed in the Enlightenment” – that is, the belief that the Jew can only be a human being when he or she stops being a Jew – “provides classic antisemitism its theoretical basis” (Arendt cited in Fine and Spencer, 2017: 17). Fine and Spencer (2017: 6) reason that while it should not be controversial to state that a critique of antisemitism should be integral to any emancipatory movement that strives “to understand” the problems of “modern capitalist society rather than simply blame it on secret conspiracies or particular scapegoats”, much of the Left respond to ‘charges’ of antisemitism with suspicion; a suspicion not made of other forms of racism. As such, they suggest, “something has gone seriously wrong with the universalism of the antiracist imagination” (ibid: 7). Fine and Spencer (2017) identify four methodological assumptions that have seeped into the culture of the activist and academic Left that support and intensify the Left’s misrecognition of antisemitism: one, ‘methodological separatism’, which disconnects antisemitism from other forms of racism; two, ‘methodological historicism’ that places antisemitism as a phenomenon of the past; three, ‘methodological dualism’, which obscures our view of antisemitism and racism through a world framework of ‘them’ versus ‘us’, “reinforced […] when racism is condemned as the exercise of oppressive power while antisemitism is excused as a mislabelled or misguided form of resistance” (ibid: 8), and when those who raise concerns of antisemitism are consequently placed in the camp of the oppressive power; and, four, ‘methodological nationalism’, or rather, “the replacement of the cosmopolitan critique of methodological nationalism by a simulacrum of cosmopolitanism that projects into one particular instance of nationalism the defects of nationalism in toto” (ibid: 9). The idea that something must be done to end the harm caused by the Jewish nation-state and its supporters because of its particular infliction on humanity is the contemporary form which the Jewish question and left antisemitism takes.

I propose that the methodological assumptions that Fine and Spencer (2017) identify as made by much of the Left, and which underpin and compound its misrecognition of antisemitism, have some roots in what Robert Miles (1989; 1993) critiques in much of the theorising about capitalism and racism in British and North American academia since the 1960s. Such theoretical work, while recognising the immorality of the racism that culminated in the Holocaust, nonetheless applies:

“a colonial model which has little scope to explain much of the European racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and certainly not that form of racism which others label anti-semitism […]; it does, however, have a relevance to the controversial debate about whether or not Zionism can be defined as an instance of racism […]. Consequently, we are offered definitions and theories of racism which are so specific to the history of overseas colonialisation (that is, specific to the domination of ‘white’ over ‘black’ as so many writers express it) that they are of little value in explaining any other (non-colonial) context.” (Miles, 1989: 68)

Miles (1989: 33) understands that the scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not simply replace earlier representations of the Other, rather earlier ideas of “savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it”. Widening one’s historical and geographical perspective beyond a colonial model of racism enables us to comprehend the racialization of religion, or rather the co-constitution of ‘race’ with religion. As James Thomas (2010: 1738-1739) in his study of the racial formation of medieval Jews points out, whilst:

“[m]ost scholars still conceive of race as a post-Enlightenment ideology built upon the Atlantic slave trade, hinged upon observable phenotypical human differentiation and therefore absent in pre-modern societies whose ideologies of difference were simply ‘cultural’ […] discourses of modern racism not only antedate the social taxonomies arising out of nineteenth-century scientific thought, but it was Christianity which provided the vocabularies of difference for the Western world, and even for secularized science […].”

Returning then to Fine and Spencer’s (2017) identification of methodological slippages into a left misrecognition of antisemitism, a colonial model of racism can be seen to have contributed to a disconnection of antisemitism from racism, an effective relegation of antisemitism to the past, and a framework of ‘white’ domination over ‘black’ in which Zionism is racism. In Ilan Pappé’s (2007) words, on Palestine and Israel, “[t]he story here is a simple story, a story of white people who were persecuted in Europe and who drove away the black people who used to live here”.

Contra to a colonial model of racism, Miles (1993: 21) theorises racism through a focus on “the articulation between the capitalist mode of production and the nation state, rather than between capitalism and colonialism, because”, he explains, “this maps the primary set of social relations within which racism had its origins and initial effects”. And although “[c]olonialism was an integral moment of this articulation, […] racism was not an exclusive product of colonialism […]” (ibid: 21). Miles (1993: 61-62) expands on both the distinctiveness and potential overlap of nationalism and racism:

“For much of the nineteenth century, nationalism was synonymous with a struggle for political sovereignty within defined spatial boundaries and for some form of representative government. […] By way of contrast, there was no single political strategy that emerged from the general theory of biological, hierarchical differentiation expressed in the idea of ‘race’. […] The theorisation of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ took place at a time of ‘internal’ European political and economic reorganisation and ‘external’ colonial expansion, in the course of which the range of human cultural and physiological variation become more widely known to a larger number of people. The extension of capitalist relations of production increased the circulation of commodities and of people, and this increasing mobility, migration and social interaction provided part of the foundation upon which the ideologies of racism and nationalism were constructed. […] Because nations were identified as naturally occurring groups identifiable by cultural differentiae, it was logically possible to assert that these symbols of ‘nation’ were themselves grounded in ‘race’ […]”.

Earlier in this section I quoted the pro-Palestinian left activist Tony Greenstein (2017), including his assertion, “there are many repressive states in the world, I grant you, but there is only one racist state, there’s only one apartheid state”. A colonial model of racism aids the singling-out of the nation-state of Israel as an examplar of settler-colonialism in an era of decolonization. Only seeing racism in the context of European colonization (and decolonization), rather than as intersecting with capitalist political economy and the nation-state more broadly, enables the possibility of the statement, “there are many repressive states in the world, I grant you, but there is only one racist state, there’s only one apartheid state”. On the question of apartheid, South African apartheid operated through a narrow caste exploiting the labour-power of a majority population – a class dynamic that is not present in Israel. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court alongside the 1973 United Nations General Assembly’s International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid define apartheid as the institutionalized and regime-maintaining, systematic domination and oppression of one racial group over another racial group. Even with this wider definition of apartheid, there are nation-states other than Israel guilty of an apartheid racism but which fall outside of the lens of a colonial model of racism. Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing and segregation of the Rohingya population, for example, and China’s persecution of the Uyghur-majority population in the state of Xinjiang through the detainment of an estimated one million Uyghars in re-education camps, the mass separation of children from Uyghar families, and the forced contraception and sterilisation of Uyghar women.

III. Challenging left antisemitism

“An emphasis upon racism as a ‘false doctrine’”, Robert Miles (1989: 80) points out, “fails to appreciate that one of the conditions of existence of ideologies (which by definition constitute in their totality a false explanation, but which may nevertheless also incorporate elements of truth) is that they can successfully ‘make sense’ of the world, at least for those who articulate and use them.” This point is congruent with Antonio Gramsci’s dissatisfaction with the notion of false consciousness and his alternative concept of contradictory consciousness: the co-existence of two competing philosophies, common sense and good sense. Common sense is a way of making sense of the world that goes against “thinking dialectically”, instead encouraging dogmatism and eagerness “for peremptory certainties” (Gramsci, 1971: 435). Common sense is employed by people simply because it seems to make sense as “a specific way of rationalising the world and real life, which provide[s] the general framework for real practical activity” (Gramsci, 1971:337) – albeit “a creation of concrete phantasy” (ibid:126). “Common sense as the site of unexamined prejudices, values and normativities” co-exists with “good sense” which “demand[s] a human life for all people” (Holub, 1992: 53). The way in which much of the Left understands and responds to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict reflects contradictory consciousness, both common sense – left antisemitism – and good sense – a sincere and passionate commitment to end the longstanding and ever-worsening repression of the Palestinians by the Israeli state and military. Freedom of speech and peaceful action are essential here, but so too is the creation of circumstances that enable people on the Left, activists and academics, to engage in critical self-reflection and honest debate. This necessitates an advancement in the culture of the Left: a culture where “people join in a criticism of themselves and their own weaknesses without [losing] faith in their own strength and their own future” (Gramsci, 1985:251), both challenging and overcoming common sense and developing existing embryonic good sense.

In a Socialist Workers’ Party public meeting of its July 2017 Marxism Festival, titled “Zionism, antisemitism and the left today”, which is available to watch on YouTube, Brian Klug is a guest speaker. The Socialist Workers’ Party member Rob Ferguson refers in this meeting to Klug’s 2004 article in The Nation, “The Myth of the New Antisemitism”, and his 2013 keynote lecture in Berlin, “What do we mean when we say ‘antisemitism’”, as a benchmark to understanding antisemitism. What Klug says in this public meeting is nuanced and insightful, and the other contributions made thereafter are noteworthy.

In sum, Klug (2017) critiques “a discourse [on the pro-Palestinian Left] that folds Zionism completely, without remainder, into the history of European imperialism and colonialism, as if Zionism does not have its roots in the Jewish experience […] of centuries of exclusion and persecution in Europe”. He emphasizes that he does not want to be seen as defending Zionism, which he is not, rather his agenda is for a change on the pro-Palestinian Left to how Zionism is spoken about and for a more thoughtful response to the question of antisemitism. Klug stresses his political credentials: recognising and rejecting dominant Zionism today as dispossessing Palestinians and possessing Jews. He continues by stating that whether or not any of the allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party were true, there clearly was a cynical and shameful campaign by enemies of Labour on the outside and enemies of Corbyn within, under the guise of combating antisemitism, “and yet”, he adds, “things are not quite that simple”. Klug then tells the meeting of an experience that was told to him by a friend, “I’ll call her Daphne, not her real name”: a lifelong socialist and a Jewish anti-Zionist. Daphne, it is relayed, had recently proposed a motion at a well-attended Labour Party CLP meeting criticising Ken Livingstone for his comments linking Zionism with Nazism. For her, Klug explains, the history of the Holocaust is part of the identity of all Jews regardless of what one might feel about Israel, and her motive had nothing to do with Livingstone’s politics on Israel which she made clear when she proposed the motion. He continues:

“Nevertheless, and I quote her, “everyone who spoke against the motion suggested that it was part of a plot by Israel or that it was an attempt to prevent discussion of Israel”. Daphne was made to feel, in her own words, “an agent of the Israeli state”. Her opponents didn’t address her arguments, they didn’t try to defend what he [Livingstone] said, Daphne told me, “they were”, I quote, “only interested in discrediting those behind the motion by linking it to Israel or right-wing manoeuvring in the Party”. In effect, her opponents, I quote, ““shut down discussion, I felt I was being silenced”, she said”.

Klug makes two points on this. On the one hand, one is familiar with people crying antisemitism to shut down critical discussion of Israel, on the other, in Daphne’s case, there were those, in effect, crying Zionism to shut down discussion on antisemitism. The second point:

“Here we have an anti-Zionist, anti-occupation Jew being made to feel by a group of people on the Left, all of whom knew her, as though she were an agent of the Israeli state. […] What should we call this? Antisemitism? Or maybe, I don’t know, and I almost said I don’t care, the word antisemitism is so contested, so emotive that it sometimes seems to get in the way of thinking [original emphasis]”.

Klug does nonetheless call this incident an injustice: an injustice to Daphne, just like the injustice when it is the other way around. He states that while he refrains from ‘crying antisemitism’, someone without a pro-Israel agenda could suspect bigotry at play. He concludes on the case of Daphne:

“All too often, when a Jewish person, even an anti-Zionist, anti-occupation Jew says they feel uncomfortable or worse with the way in which Jews or Israel are spoken about, the knee-jerk reaction is to scoff and to cry ‘Zionism!’, we wouldn’t treat members of other racialized minorities this way, then why the Jews?”

Klug then returns to expand on the standard way Zionism is thought and spoken about on the pro-Palestinian Left:

“Zionism is seen as part and parcel of the history of European, especially British, imperialism and Israel as a settler-colonial state, to which I have two responses, yes that’s true and no that’s false, it’s true as far as it goes but it doesn’t go far enough and what it leaves out is crucial which is why it’s false.”

Klug’s main point here is that Zionism was part of an argument about how to save the Jews, not a debate about how to make Great Britain greater; “this is the piece that is missing from the stock discourse […] the missing piece is the centrepiece of the story but it is certainly not the whole story”. Zionism, he suggests, should be recognised as Janus-faced, as belonging to two opposite histories simultaneously: as part of a history of Jews as a racialized minority and the internal Other of Europe and as part of the history of British imperialism. While Zionism from the outset spoke the language of colonization, Klug stresses that Zionism thought of itself as a colonization for emancipation not a colonization to expand and enrich an Empire. He cites a Palestinian academic to summate his point, the European saw the back of Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives, the Palestinian saw the face of settler-colonialists. Klug’s participation and contribution in this public meeting is commendable. His aim was to invite thinking; in a Gramscian sense, he was an organic intellectual in a genuine effort to generate a culture of “thinking well, whatever one thinks, and therefore acting well, whatever one does” (Gramsci, 1985: 25). Noteworthy then is the rest of this public meeting, i.e., the contributions of the other two panellists and those from the floor. While there was some limited discussion about Ken Livingstone connecting Zionism with Nazism, which ranged from Tom Hickey calling his comments “clumsy” whilst stating that Livingstone must nevertheless be defended, to someone else saying you don’t mention Zionism and Nazism together, no one identified the story about Daphne as either problematic or, further still, antisemitism. Indeed, the second speaker from the floor – Jonathan Rosenhead – was the only person to directly address the case of Daphne. He said this: “she was offended, she felt criticised […] I use to be offended like that […] we are not obliged to be hypersensitive about people who are still feeling offended that Israel can be criticised in serious ways”. The general Socialist Workers’ Party line pushed in the meeting was twofold, the threat of antisemitism comes from the far Right and fascists and we are the true opponents of fascism, racism and antisemitism, not the Zionists who capitulate to antisemitism and promote an illegitimate racist colonial state, and, that we must engage and have arguments with Jewish students on university campuses who are attracted to soft Zionism, while being mindful of our language, in order to get them to make the break from Zionism.

IV. Conclusion

“The Jewish question is not just an attitude of hostility to Jews or to those who invoke the sign of ‘the Jews’ but a theory designed to explain the winners and losers of capitalist society. It is formulated in terms of dichotomies – the modern and the backward, the people and its enemies, the civic and the ethnic, the postnational and the national, imperialism and anti-imperialism, power and resistance, the West and the rest. In every case Jews appear as the ‘other of the universal’: a backward people who stubbornly resist progress or an all-too-clever people who manipulate progress and hold the world in its thrall; a nation within a nation that is endemically treacherous or a nation unlike all other nations in that it is not a valid nation at all; a ‘settler-colonial’ state in an otherwise decolonised world or a ‘cosmopolitan elite’ with no comprehension of global responsibility. The ‘othering’ of Jews inevitably creates an inequitable economy of compassion and a restrictive arena of solidarity. In its spiritless radicalism it at once turns Israel into the primary source of violence in the world and places Palestinians into a single identity script as victims, only as victims and only as victims of Israel. Just as it subsumes the plurality of Jewish voices to ‘the Jews’ and the plurality of Israeli voices to ‘Israel’, it also subsumes the plurality of Palestinian voices to ‘the Palestinians’ and risks turning them into ciphers of our own resentments. […] Jews never were the problem; they are not the problem now. What has to be dealt with is not a Jewish question, but the question of antisemitism that generated the Jewish question in the first place.” (Fine and Spencer, 2017: 124)

To recap, much of the Left comprehends antisemitism as an exclusive manifestation of the Right: either as an aspect of the populist Right and fascism against the Jews; or as a false accusation made, behind-the-scenes, by Israel and the Zionist lobby against the Left internationally to silence criticism of Israel; or as a reaction and product of Israel’s existence as a Jewish, expansionist, racist, and settler-colonial state. Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism, or antisemitism, involves a process of signification that ascribes ‘the Jew’ with negative characteristics that have negative consequences – the idea of ‘the harmful Jew’ – which merges into a way of seeing and making sense of the ills of global capitalism. The harmful Jewish Other is seen as part-and-parcel of a Zionist collective that harbours a particularly harmful imperialism, a particularly harmful nationalism, a particularly harmful settler-colonialism, a particularly harmful ethnic cleansing, and a particularly harmful racism, comparable only to two historical pariahs, South African apartheid and Nazi Germany, and which operates, clandestinely, a particularly sinister, tyrannical and harmful global reach to shut down criticism of Israel, to dominant the world, and to threaten world peace. What follows is the conclusion that the Jewish nation-state must cease to exist as a Jewish nation-state in order to belong to humanity, and that the Zionist Jew must stop being a Zionist Jew to be included in the commune of human beings. As Fine and Spencer (2017) make plain, the Jewish question and left antisemitism expresses itself through the negative face of universalism, as the Other of universalism. This is confirmed by Ilan Pappé’s (2019) damning assertion, previously quoted, “you cannot really reconcile the ideology of Zionism with universal values, whether they are Marxism, socialism or even liberalism”.

The independent Marxist theoretician and French Orientalist scholar Maxime Rodinson does well to emphasize that the prevailing colonial philosophy in Europe both explains and is responsible for the fact that the actual population of Palestine was generally ignored by the early Zionists (Rodinson, 1968). A new population of Europeans settled on an already occupied territory whose people refused such a settlement and these settlers “came from that world which was everywhere known as the world of the colonizers” (ibid: 215). For the Arabs, Zionism, a manifestation of nationalism that pursued its project in an era of decolonization, is synonymous with imperialism, colonialism and capitalism, and the Palestinian refugees are the living symbol of injustice (Rodinson, 1968). At the same time, the ultimate momentum for this mass settlement was European fascism: “anti-Semitism played a capital role in gathering together an entire group that was otherwise on the road to disintegration. Zionism played no significant role […] before 1939 […]” (Rodinson, 1983, page 164). Rodinson (1973, page 91-93) concludes that while the “creation of the State of Israel was an outrage committed against the Arabs as a people”:

“Colonists and colonizers are not monsters with human faces whose behavior defies rational explanation, as one might think from reading left-wing intellectuals. […] The Jews of Israel too are people like other people. Some of them have hammered out an illusory ideology to which they have sacrificed themselves as well as a great deal of effort and many human lives. They are not alone. Many are those who have suffered much but have looked with indifference upon the sufferings and rights of others. Many went there because it was the life preserver thrown to them. They most assuredly did not first engage in scholarly research to find out if they had a right to it according to Kantian morality or existentialist ethics. It is accordingly useless to reproach them for it. […] Let it be said forthrightly, even if it hurts or arouses indignation among left-wing conformists who believe the social revolution solves all problems. There is no “revolutionary solution” to the Israeli-Arab problem.”

What’s more, the proclaimed revolutionary solution of undoing the Jewish nation-state to deliver redress and justice to the Palestinian-Arabs is “liable to be calamitous and unjust” (Rodinson, 1968: 231). It “binds”, as Daniel Randall (forthcoming) puts it, the “advancement” of “Palestinian rights to an outcome” of historically unprecedented “mass collective disavowal of national rights by Israeli Jews”, which would be achievable only “by bloody force”; “[i]t is rare for lasting equality and justice to emerge from ashes”, more often, such ashes are the “fertile ground for ongoing cycles of nationalist resentment and revanchism. If the left cannot construct an active solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination on the basis of consistent democracy and equal rights, our politics are doomed”.

In our opposition to the culture war of Britain’s right-wing Conservative government against the Left in academia, which includes its punitive request to impose the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, we must also create space for a fuller and richer culture of discussion and debate that is able to escape the prison house of the Jewish question. There is, however, a danger that opposition to this culture war is blended into the Jewish question – that too, we must resist.

References

Fine, Robert and Spencer, Philip (2017) Antisemitism and the left: On the return of the Jewish question, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Finkelstein, Norman (2015) “Is there a rise in anti-Semitism in Europe?”, YouTube https://youtu.be/iDSP9lmMQzg, last accessed 27 April 2021.

Gramsci (1985) Selections from Cultural Writings, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Gramsci (1971) Selections from Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Greenstein, Tony (2017) “Tony Greenstein: The abuse of Anti-semitism to silence free speech on Israel”, YouTube https://youtu.be/M5PKI__M14k, last accessed 27 April 2021.

Holub, R. (1992) Antonio Gramsci: Beyond Marxism and Postmodernism, London: Routledge.

Klug, Brian (2017) “Zionism, antisemitism and the left today – John Rose, Brian Klug & Rob Ferguson”, YouTube https://youtu.be/XhkkpKlSvH4, last accessed 27 April 2021.

Klug, Brian (2013) “Interrogating ‘new anti-Semitism’”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 36:3, 468-482.

Miles, Robert (1993) Race after ‘race relations’, London: Routledge.

Miles, Robert (1989) Racism, London: Routledge.

Miller, David (2021) “Building the Campaign for Free Speech conference, Feb 13 2021 – part 1”, YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSjlMHNkEWg, last accessed 27 April 2021.

Miller, David (2020) “Campaign for Free Speech! With Norman Finkelstein, Tariq Ali, Jackie Walker and others”, YouTube https://youtu.be/0Yc_dO-6Ua8, last accessed 27 April 2021.

Pappé, Ilan (2019) “Socialism 101: Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism –Ilan Pappé”, YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c__G_in2Dy0, last accessed 27 April 2021.

Pappé, Ilan (2007) ““Two States or One State” – a debate between Avnery and Pappe”, The Saker http://thesaker.is/two-states-or-one-state-a-debate-between-avnery-and-pappe/, last accessed 27 April 2021.

Randall, Daniel (forthcoming) Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists, London: No Parasan Media.

Rodinson, Maxime (1983) Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question, London: Al Saqi Books.

Rodinson, Maxime (1973) Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?, London: Pathfinder.

Rodinson, Maxime (1968) Israel and the Arabs, Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Socialist Workers Party (2017) “Zionism, antisemitism and the left today – John Rose, Brian Klug & Rob Ferguson”, YouTube https://youtu.be/XhkkpKlSvH4, last accessed 27 April 2021.

Thomas, James M (2010) “The racial formation of medieval Jews: a challenge to the field”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 33:10, 1737-1755.

Werbner, Pnina (2013) “Folk devils and racist imaginaries in a global prism: Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the twenty-first century”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 36:3, 450-467.

Zia-Ebrahimi, Reza (2018) “When the Elders of Zion relocated to Eurabia: conspiratorial racialization in antisemitism and Islamophobia”, Patterns of Prejudice, Vol 52, No 4, 314-337.

Maxime Rodinson on Edward Said’s “Orientalism”

The independent Marxist and Orientalist scholar Maxime Rodinson is praised by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) for his “extraordinary achievements” and his “methodological self-consciousness”. For Said, Rodinson was one of an exceptional few who proved “perfectly capable of freeing themselves from the old ideological straitjacket” of the Orientalist disciplines.

Rodinson wrote the following books: Mohammed (1974), Islam and Capitalism (1977), Marxism and the Muslim world (1979), Israel and the Arabs (1982), The Arabs (1985), Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1988), Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (2001), and Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (2001).

Maxime_Rodinson_(1970)

(Wikimedia Commons)

This is what Rodinson states, in the endnotes of his book Europe and the Mystique of Islam (first published in French in 1980), of Said’s Orientalism:

“Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York, 1978) had a great and unexpected success. There are many valuable ideas in it. Its great merit, to my mind, was to shake the self-satisfaction of many Orientalists, to appeal to them (with questionable success) to consider the sources and the connections of their ideas, to cease to see them as a natural, unprejudiced conclusion of the facts, studied without any presupposition. But, as usual, his militant stand leads him repeatedly to make excessive statements. This problem is accentuated because as a specialist of English and comparative literature, he is inadequately versed in the practical work of the Orientalists. It is too easy to choose, as he does, only English and French Orientalists as a target. By doing so, he takes aim only at representatives of huge colonial empires. But there was an Orientalism before the empires, and the pioneers of Orientalism were often subjects of other European countries, some without colonies. Much too often, Said falls into the same traps that we old Communist intellectuals fell into some forty years ago, as I will explain below. The growth of Orientalism was linked to the colonial expansion of Europe in a much more subtle and intrinsic way than he imagines. Moreover, his nationalistic tendencies have prevented him from considering, among others, the studies of Chinese or Indian civilization, which are ordinarily regarded as part of the field of Orientalism. For him, the Orient is restricted to his East, that is, the Middle East. Muslim countries outside the Arab world (after all, four Muslims in five are not Arabs), and even Arab nations in the West receive less than their due in his interpretation.”

See also, my post: Edward Said’s “Orientalism”: a critique through the spirit of Marx

For more on Maxime Rodinson, see: Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a ‘marginal man’Maxime Rodinson: A Marxist historian of Islam, and Some thoughts on the death of ‘anti-Marxist’ Maxime Rodinson.

Racism 101: what is it?

DSCF0103“the construction and reproduction of the idea of ‘race’ is something that requires explanation.” (Miles, 1989: 73)

I. The idea of ‘race’

Primarily to offer an explanation of European history and national formation, the idea of ‘race’ entered the English language in the early sixteenth century. The idea of ‘race’ came under scientific investigation from the late eighteenth century. A scientific discourse of ‘race’ was extensively reproduced in the nineteenth century across Europe, North America, and the European colonies. That said:

“the scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not replace earlier conceptions of the Other. Ideas of savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it.” (Miles, 1989: 33)

After the Second World War and the Holocaust, the scientific idea of biological ‘races’ was discredited, and yet the idea of ‘race’ has remained (to date) as a “common-sense discourse to identify the Other” (Miles, 1989: 38). Racism makes sense of the world, regardless of the fact that it makes sense of the world in a nonsensical way.

 

II. Europe and the idea of ‘race’

It is important to observe that:

“for the European, the Other has not been created exclusively in the colonial context. Representations of the Other have taken as their subject not only the populations of, for example, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the Americas but also the populations of different parts of Europe, as well as invasionary and colonising populations, notably from North Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, the Other has been created not only externally to the nation state, but also within, most notably in the case of the Jews.” (Miles, 1989: 39)

Historically in Europe, the idea of inferior ‘races’ has focused on the Irish and the Jews on the basis of the supposed biological superiority of the Nordic ‘race’.

With this in mind, I would suggest that Said’s concept of Orientalism, of a dual camp dichotomy between East and West (in part emerging from a European corporate institution of the late eighteenth century onwards), falls short in analytical sharpness and explanatory power; and ought not to be conflated with or substitute for an understanding of racism.

 

III. Racism and conceptual inflation and deflation: Islamophobia and privilege theory

As a crucial legacy to conceptualising racism, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies collective and Stuart Hall (in the vein of Frantz Fanon) were reluctant to specify the analytical content of racism, which Robert Miles problematizes as follows:

“Hall recognises that racism is a concept (a ‘rational abstraction’) that identifies a particular phenomenon but warns against ‘extrapolating a common and universal structure to racism, which remains essentially the same, outside of its specific historical location’ (1980: 337). However, if there are ‘historically-specific racisms’ (1980: 336), they must also have certain common attributes which identify them as different forms of racism.” (Miles, 1989: 65)

Robert Miles identifies two forms of conceptual inflation with regard to racism:

“On the one hand, a number of writers have continued to confine the use of the term to refer to specific discourses, but have inflated its meaning to include ideas and arguments which would not be included by those who initially formulated and used it.” (Miles, 1989: 66)

While:

“On the other hand, other writers have inflated the analytical meaning of the concept so as to refer largely to individual and institutional practices which have as their outcome the determination and/or reproduction of ‘black’ disadvantage, regardless of intention or legitimating ideology.” (Miles, 1989: 66)

Alternatively put, there is the continued use of the concept of racism which is either inflated as a discourse of the Other that has new ideological content, or inflated – or rather, I would propose, contrary to Miles, deflated – so that a discourse of the Other is secondary or largely irrelevant. I would suggest that contemporary examples of this conceptual inflation and deflation are, respectively, Islamophobia and privilege theory. The problem with this, as identified by Miles, is that we are left with a concept of racism that has inadequate discriminatory power and makes identifying determinacy hard:

“The case for limiting the use of the concept to refer exclusively to ideology is based on the assumption that the analytical value of a concept is determined by its utility in describing and explaining societal processes.” (Miles, 1989: 77)

 

IV. What is racism?

“What matters is not difference per se but the identification of difference as significant, and this requires an investigation of the conditions under which processes of signification occur.” (Miles, 1989: 118)

Racism entails a process of signification and, more specifically, a process of racialisation that defines the Other somatically (i.e., in relation to the body), and assigns this categorised group with negative evaluated characteristics and/or recognises this group as giving rise to negative consequences, which may be biological or cultural.

I would argue that post-9/11 there has been a blending of religion into the idea of ‘race’ vis-à-vis the Muslim population and related somatic features. Take the following example, TIME magazine reports on the spiking of violence against the Sikh population in the USA since 9/11, in which:

“In the majority of […] cases, Sikhs say, they were mistaken for Muslims, because of their religious dress, which includes turbans, beards and long robes.”

It makes more analytical sense and offers greater explanatory power to understand this phenomenon through the concept of anti-Muslim racism rather than Islamophobia.

 

Recommended reading: Marxism, racism and the construction of ‘race’ as a social and political relation: an interview with Professor Robert Miles

Edward Said’s “Orientalism”: a critique through the spirit of Marx

800px-Palestinian_Cultural_Mural_Honoring_Dr._Edward_Said

(Wikimedia Commons)

“[…] Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).” (Said, 43)

I. Introduction

Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978) is a retort to his conceptualisation of a dual camp schema of the world called Orientalism, which effectively inverts this dual camp and with a method devoid of class politics. He opens his book with a quote by Karl Marx:

“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”

The tone is thus set for a necessary antidote to a paternalistic and patronising Western system of political representation and domination, of which Marxism is an inevitable part.

Said attributes Orientalism to three interdependent meanings: firstly, the academic discipline of Orientalism and its research on the Orient and the Occident; secondly, a particular style of thought that differentiates, ontologically (on the nature of being) and epistemologically (on the theory of knowledge), ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’; and finally, commencing from around the late eighteenth century, the corporate institution that deals with the Orient “by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it” (Said, 3). With this threefold definition in mind, Said reviews Orientalism as a Western-style discourse employed first by British and French imperialisms and later by US imperialism, to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient.

Orientalism is seen to be heavily imbued with geography, that is, imaginary spatial prejudices infused with power and exploitation, and a Western-centric notion of development and progress. Said goes as far as describing Orientalism as a delusion of exaggerated self-importance:

“Psychologically, Orientalism is a form of paranoia, knowledge of another kind, say, from ordinary historical knowledge. These are a few of the results, I think, of imaginative geography and of the dramatic boundaries it draws.” (Said, 72-73)

This paranoid form of knowledge, Said argues, ennobled British, French, and later US imperial projects:

“The important thing was to dignify simple conquest with an idea, to turn the appetite for more geographical space into a theory about the special relationship between geography on the one hand and civilized or uncivilized peoples on the other.” (Said, 216)

 

II. The Near East, the Arab world, and Islam

“Not for nothing did Islam come to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians. For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma.” (Said, 59)

There is nothing, in and of itself, problematic about the above statement; its intended meaning is understandable even outside its related paragraph, chapter, and book, and yet Said’s Orientalism has given birth to a climate on the Left for such statements to be all-too-swiftly labelled as ‘Islamophobic’ and racist (see In defence of comrade Matgamna and Workers’ Liberty). The depiction of the Near East, the Arab world, and Islam by the contemporary Orientalist lens is regarded by Said as especially bad, for four reasons:

  1. the weight of history in respect to anti-Islamic and anti-Arab prejudice;
  2. the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or rather “the struggle between the Arabs and Israeli Zionism, and its effects upon American Jews as well as upon both the liberal culture and the population at large”;
  3. a cultural vacuum that makes it impossible to discuss Islam or the Arabs in a way that identifies with either or is composed;
  4. “because the Middle East is now so identified with Great power politics, oil economics, and the simple-minded dichotomy of freedom-loving, democratic Israel and evil, totalitarian, and terroristic Arabs, the chances of anything like a clear view of what one talks about in talking about the Near East are depressingly small.” (Said, 26-27)

The historical relationship of Orientalism to Islam is explained as follows:

“To the West, […] Islam was militant hostility to European Christianity. To overcome […] the Orient needed first to be known, then invaded and possessed, then re-created by scholars, soldiers, and judges who disinterred forgotten languages, histories, races, and cultures in order to posit them – beyond the modern Oriental’s ken – as the true classical Orient that could be used to judge and rule the modern Orient.” (Said, 91-92)

In the contemporary hegemonic Western (specifically, American) popular culture of film and television, Said states:

“the Arab is associated either with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty. […] Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.” (Said, 286-287)

The possibility of an independent vantage point and independent class politics is simply ruled out, since:

“[…] when Orientals struggle against colonial occupation, you must say (in order not to risk a Disneyism) that Orientals have never understood the meaning of self-government the way “we” do. When some Orientals oppose racial discrimination while others practice it, you say “they’re all Orientals at bottom” and class interest, political circumstances, economic factors are totally irrelevant. […] History, politics, and economics do not matter. Islam is Islam, the Orient is the Orient, and please take all your ideas about a left and a right wing, revolutions, and change back to Disneyland.” (Said, 107)

But what of independent working class agency and self-government in the Marxist tradition – what does Said have to say of this? This leads us back to the quote at the start of Orientalism and to the subsequent substance of Said’s rebuke of Marx and Marxism.

 

III. Said on Marx, and back to basics: what Marx actually said

Three sources of Marx are directly referenced in Orientalism as the basis for Said’s critique of Marxism as part-and-parcel of Orientalism: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, The British Rule in India, and The Further Results of British Rule in India.

One sentence is plucked (twice) from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte – “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – which appears at both the start of Said’s book and in its Introduction chapter:

“The exteriority of the representation is always governed by some version of the truism that if the Orient could represent itself, it would; since it cannot, the representation does the job, for the West, and faute de mieux, for the poor Orient. “Sie können sich nicht vertreten, sie müssen vertreten warden,” as Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” (Said, 21)

I will go on to show, through necessary lengthy extraction from Marx’s original text, just how much Said departs from, and subsequently exploits and distorts, the original meaning of this sentence.

Quoting briefly from Marx’s The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India, Said goes on to problematize what he describes as the puzzlement of Marx’s paradoxical position vis-à-vis colonialism and the Orient. A puzzle, that is, until Said expounds that the Marxist discourse is inseparable from the Orientalist discourse:

“Karl Marx identified the notion of an Asiatic economic system in this 1853 analysis of British rule in India, and then put beside that immediately the human depredation introduced into this system by English colonial interference, rapacity, and outright cruelty. In article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution. Marx’s style pushes us right up against the difficulty of reconciling our natural repugnance as fellow creatures to the sufferings of Orientals while their society is being violently transformed with the historical necessity of these transformations. […] Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking, even though Marx’s humanity, his sympathy for the misery of people, are clearly engaged. Yet in the end it is the Romantic Orientalist vision that wins out […] The idea of regenerating a fundamentally lifeless Asia is a piece of pure Romantic Orientalism, of course, but coming from the same writer who could not easily forget the human suffering involved, the statement is puzzling. […] It is as if the individual mind (Marx’s, in this case) could find a precollective, preofficial individuality in Asia – find and give in to its pressures upon his emotions, feelings, senses – only to give it up when he confronted a more formidable censor in the very vocabulary he found himself forced to employ.” (Said, 153-155)

Rather than accept Said’s verdict that Marx incoherently and inconsistently abhors British imperial rule in India but ultimately welcomes it as a progressive force for necessary regeneration due to his heart being beaten by his head, which is inescapably arrested by the discourse of Orientalism, I will demonstrate that Marx’s analysis is guided by a dialectical materialist methodology and that his conclusions are not problematic.

 

i. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

index2-1“If ever an event has, well in advance of its coming, cast its shadow before, it was Bonaparte’s coup d’état.” (Marx, 309)

Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852 [1977]) is a brilliant polemic written in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution when Louis Napoleon seized power in France in December 1851, with reference back to Louis Bonaparte’s coup d-état of 1799. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is essentially an exploration of the relationship between class politics and the state. As Marx later reflected, this pamphlet reveals “how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part” (cited in McLellan, 1977, 300).

The first theme to arise from Marx’s discussion is a general one, that of the connection between the force of human agency and the force of human history:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” (Marx, 300)

“[Humans] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” (Marx, 300)

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” (Marx, 300)

Marx issues a warning that revolutionary upheaval may dangerously and manipulatively dredge up the past, which the energy of a genuinely social revolution must resist. In this respect, he distinguishes between bourgeois revolutions and the critical praxis of proletarian revolutions:

“And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle-cries, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.” (Marx, 300)

“The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past. Earlier revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content. In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead.” (Marx, 302)

“Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm swiftly from success to success; their dramatic effects outdo each other; men [sic] and things seem set in sparkling brilliants; ecstasy is the everyday spirit; but they are short-lived; soon they have attained their zenith, and a long crapulent depression lays hold of society before it learns soberly to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses, and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he [sic] may recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! [Here is Rhodes, jump here!] (Marx, 303)

The second of Marx’s themes is specific to the events proceeding the 1848 revolution, up to and including Louis Napoleon’s coup d-état of 1851, and the consequent banishment of the former gains of the revolution, such as “liberté, égalite, fraternité”:

“all has vanished like a phantasmagoria before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not make out to be a magician. Universal suffrage seems to have survived only for a moment, in order that with its own hand it may make its last will and testament before the eyes of all the world and declare in the name of the people itself: All that exists deserves to perish.” (Marx, 304)

“It remains to be explained how a nation of thirty-six millions can be surprised and delivered unresisting into captivity by three swindlers…” (Marx, 304)

“On the threshold of the February Revolution, the social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost. The democratic republic announces its arrival. On 13 June 1849, it is dissipated together with its petty bourgeois, who have taken to their heels, but in its flight it blows its own trumpet with redoubled boastfulness. The parliamentary republic, together with the bourgeoisie, takes possession of the entire stage; it enjoys its existence to the full, but 2 December 1851 buries it to the accompaniment of the anguished cry of the royalists in coalition: ‘Long live the Republic!’” (Marx, 314)

“France, therefore, seems to have escaped the despotism of a class only to fall back beneath the despotism of an individual, and, what is more, beneath the authority of an individual without authority.” (Marx, 315)

The third theme is where Said’s quote by Marx – “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – is located, and it concerns both the nature of Louis Napoleon’s state and the interrelated nature of its demographic base, the small-holding peasants:

“Only under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have made itself completely independent. As against civil society, the state machine has consolidated its position so thoroughly that the chief of the Society of 10 December suffices for its head, an adventurer blown in from abroad, raised on the shield by a drunken soldiery, which he has bought with liquor and sausages, and which he must continuously ply with sausage anew. Hence the downcast despair, the feeling of most dreadful humiliation and degradation that oppresses the breast of France and makes her catch her breath. She feels dishonoured. And yet the state power is not suspended in mid air. Bonaparte represents a class, and the most numerous class of French society at that, the small-holding peasants.” (Marx, 317)

“The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is increased by Frances’s bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants. […] In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name, whether through parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself.” (Bold: my emphasis; Marx, 317-318)

“By its very nature, small-holding property forms a suitable basis for an all-powerful and innumerable bureaucracy.” (Marx, 320)

Marx’s analysis of the French peasantry goes on to divulge its full nuance:

“But, it may be objected, what about the peasant risings in half of France, the raids on the peasants by the army, the mass incarceration and transportation of peasants? […] let there be no misunderstanding. The Bonaparte dynasty represents not the revolutionary, but the conservative peasant; not the peasant that strikes out beyond the condition of his [sic] social existence, the small holding, but rather the peasant who wants to consolidate this holding, not the country folk who, linked up with the towns, want to overthrow the old order through their own energies, but on the contrary those who, in stupefied seclusion within this old order, want to see themselves and their small holdings saved and favoured by the ghost of the empire. It represents not the enlightenment, but the superstition of the peasant; not his [sic] judgement, but his prejudice; not his future, but his past; not his modern Cevennes, but his modern Vendée.” (Marx, 318)

Marx’s conclusion to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte makes especially clear his assessment of the state from the perspective of independent class politics; and what’s more, it underlines the inappropriateness of Said’s plunder to support his allegation of Marxism-as-Orientalism:

“Bonaparte would like to appear as the patriarchal benefactor of all classes. But he cannot give to one class without taking from another. […] He would like to steal the whole of France in order to be able to make a present of her to France or, rather, in order to be able to buy France anew with French money, for as the chief of the Society of 10 December he must needs buy what ought to belong to him.” (Marx, 323)

“Driven by the contradictory demands of his situation and being at the same time, like a conjurer, under the necessity of keeping the public gaze fixed on himself, as Napoleon’s substitute, by springing constant surprises, that is to say, under the necessity of executing a coup d’état en miniature every day, Bonaparte throws the entire bourgeois economy into confusion, violates everything that seemed inviolable to the Revolution of 1848, makes some tolerant of revolution, others desirous of revolution, and produces actual anarchy in the name of order, while at the same time stripping its halo from the entire state machine, profanes it, and makes it at once loathsome and ridiculous. The cult of the Holy Tunic of Treves he duplicates at Paris in the cult of the Napoleonic imperial mantle. But when the imperial mantle finally falls on the shoulders of Louis Bonaparte, the bronze statue of Napoleon will crash from the top of the Vendôme Column.” (Marx, 324)

In sum, when Marx wrote the line – “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – it directly refers to an analysis of the isolated nature of the social base of Louis Napoleon’s anti-democratic, bureaucratic state (the small-holding peasants); a state that Marx critiqued as a violation and a ruination of the relative gains of the 1848 French Revolution. When Marx’s quote is used by Said in Orientalism (twice), it reads as an unambivalent reference to an Orientalist dual camp position that: the poor and downtrodden working classes cannot represent themselves, thus ‘us’ Marxists must do this job for ‘them’.

 

ii. The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India

Prior to turning to Marx’s articles The British Rule in India (1853) and The Further Results of British Rule in India (1853 [1977]), it is first necessary to point out the inherent characteristics of Marx’s general methodology and critique of capitalism.

Dialectical materialism is a means to understanding societal change, for history is not linear but thrusts forward in a tense and fitful manner – reminiscent, for example, of Marx’s discussion of revolutions in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. As Friedrich Engels reminds us about dialectical philosophy in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886):

“nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away […]”

Communist-ManifestoWith this in mind, Marx and Engels, in the opening chapter of The Communist Manifesto (1848), describe the globalisation of capitalism as pregnant with contradictory possibilities and constraints, which give birth to:

  • creative destruction – “[al]ll that is solid melts into air”;
  • social evolution – “all that is holy is profaned”;
  • social intercourse – “[i]n place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction”;
  • working class agency – capitalism “produces, above all, […] its own grave-diggers”.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. […] The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man [sic] to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. […] All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man [sic] is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature. […] It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves.”

Here Marx and Engels are assessing capitalism’s dialectical nature: the closures in its innate, mindless exploitation and inequality, and the openings in its destruction of past reactionary forms of existence and the creative potential of universal internationalism and interconnectedness between human beings. In Grundrisse, Marx (1857-1861 [1973]: 161–162) deems “ridiculous” any utopian yearning for an earlier, pre-capitalist moment, on the basis that “a merely local connection resting on blood ties, or on primeval, natural or master-servant relations” is not preferable to present-day social bonds; capital thrusts contradictory tidings that destroy and revolutionise “traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life”, and “tear down all barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs”. Above all, Marx and Engels conclude the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto by recognising the working class – a product of capitalism – as central to overthrowing capitalism:

“The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”

karl-marx-on-indiaTurning now to The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India, it is perfectly consistent that Marx should analyse the specific entry and operation of British capital in India (note, for example, his references to the cotton industry and the railway network) as also general to global capital:

“There cannot […] remain any doubt but that the misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before. […] England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his [sic] old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history.” (Marx, The British Rule in India)

“It was the British intruder who broke up the Indian hand-loom and destroyed the spinning-wheel. England began with driving the Indian cottons from the European market; it then introduced twist into Hindostan, and in the end inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons.” (Marx, The British Rule in India)

“The devastating effects of English industry, when contemplated with regard to India, a country as vast as Europe, and containing 150 millions of acres, are palpable and confounding. But we must not forget that they are only the organic results of the whole system of production as it is now constituted. That production rests on the supreme rule of capital.” (Marx, 336, The Further Results of British Rule in India)

“The ruling classes of Great Britain have had, till now, but an accidental, transitory and exceptional interest in the progress of India. The aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy to plunder it, and the millocracy to undersell it. But now the tables are turned. The millocracy have discovered that the transformation of India into a reproductive country has become of vital importance to them, and that, to that end, it is necessary, above all, to gift her with means of irrigation and of internal communication. They intend now drawing a net of railroads over India. And they will do it. The results must be inappreciable.” (Marx, 333, The Further Results of British Rule in India)

It is the following two quotes (in bold only), from The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India respectively, that actually appear in Orientalism, from which Said (154) concludes that Marx is clearly “Romantic and even messianic” since “as human material the Orient is less important than as an element in a Romantic redemptive project”:

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man [sic] to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow. England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind [sic] fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution. Then, whatever bitterness the spectacle of the crumbling of an ancient world may have for our personal feelings, we have the right, in point of history, to exclaim with Goethe: “Sollte these Qual uns quälen 
Da sie unsre Lust vermehrt,
 Hat nicht myriaden Seelen
 Timur’s Herrschaft aufgezehrt?” [“Should this torture then torment us
 Since it brings us greater pleasure?
 Were not through the rule of Timur
 Souls devoured without measure?”]
 [From Goethe’s “An Suleika”, Westöstlicher Diwan](Marx)

“England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.” (Marx, 332)

There are three aspects to these two aforementioned extracts which Said bypasses:

  1. the juxtaposition of an “Oriental despotism” to a dialectical, thus contradictory, social evolution through the globalisation of capital;
  2. past, constraining, reactionarism giving way – through creative destruction – to present and future possibilities of social intercourse and interconnectedness;
  3. no credit to be given to the extremely unpleasant and unintelligent English bourgeoisie who are nonetheless bound up with this revolutionary change.

This final quote, from The Further Results of British Rule in India, elucidates Marx’s conclusion that the kind of revolution needed, and which he advocates, is one in which either the British working class overthrow the British ruling class or the Indian peoples overthrow the British colonial empire of India:

“Modern industry, resulting from the railway-system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power. All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation? The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.” (Marx, 335)

None of this corresponds with Said’s thesis of a Romantic and messianic Orientalism ultimately determining Marx’s thought.

 

IV. Conclusion

“No one can escape dealing with, if not the East / West divide, then the North / South one, the have / have not one, the imperialist / anti-imperialist one, the white / colored one. We cannot get around them all by pretending they do not exist; on the contrary, contemporary Orientalism teaches us a great deal about the intellectual dishonesty of dissembling on that score, the result of which is to intensify the divisions and make them both vicious and permanent.” (Said, 327)

With reference to Antonio Gramsci, Said makes a distinction between political coercion and non-coercion, and sees the might, resilience, and permanence of Orientalism as non-coercive hegemony. Fatefully, I conclude, in Said’s interpretation of Gramsci’s hegemony an ‘anti-dialectical inescapability’ takes hold:

“I doubt that it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries that was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact – and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism. […] he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second.” (Said, 11)

Said later states:

“[…] every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. Some of the immediate sting will be taken out of these labels if we recall additionally that human societies, at least the more advanced cultures, have rarely offered the individual anything but imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism for dealing with “other” cultures.” (Said, 204)

The absence of class politics is stark. Do we come up against the Orient solely on the basis of our nationality and colonial burden? Does that not intersect with our socio-economic position and class relation (and indeed with our gender, ethnicity, and sexuality), and with our own ‘independent’ politics? Said’s Orientalism chimes much with the contemporary popularity of privilege theory (see On privilege theory and intersectionality). Whilst Marxism recognizes human consciousness as contradictory and in constant flux, historically and dialectically shaped by conditions and forces of existence, privilege theory (like Orientalism) is predicated on an unchanging status, i.e., privilege (in this case, as a member of the Occident).

It is worth further exploring Said’s application of hegemony, in particular its echoes of Louis Althusser. Althusser is considered to progress the ideas of Marx on the basis that Marx conceives of a dream-like ideology called ‘false consciousness’, which hides and misleads workers from the exploitation of the economic base; yet such a term and concept is to be found nowhere in Marx’s writings. For Althusser (2006), in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, ‘ideology’ (contrary to false consciousness) represents an already existing “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (109):

“all ideology represents in its necessarily imaginary distortion not the existing relations of production (and the other relations that derive from them), but above all the (imaginary) relationship of individuals to the relations of production and the relations that derive from them. What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live.” (Althusser, 111)

That said, ideology has a material as opposed to a spiritual existence that is manifest in an individual’s performance and interaction with others and society; it is a “material existence of ‘ideas’ or other ‘representations’” (Althusser: 112). All “ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” – a process that begins prior to birth (Althusser: 117). Althusser (118-119) claims that we are largely unaware of the ideological make-up of our reality, except when or if we come up against the state. Beyond the repressive state apparatus (the police and the army), the individual exists within realities structured by various ‘ideological state apparatuses’, i.e., non-coercive hegemony:

“what thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology. What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside it. That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology.”

Understanding the relationship between capitalism and hegemony through an Althusserian frame of reference (as I contend Said does) slides us into an anti-dialectical materialist trap, as McLellan (181) cautions:

“For all his playing down of Hegel’s influence on Marx, Althusser’s approach has a certain resemblance to Hegel […]: Althusser’s ‘structure’ functions as much as Hegel’s ‘idea’ – as an independent entity determining the very items from which it has arisen.”

Notably, the material for Althusser differs in meaning from the material for Marx. For the former, it refers to the ideas and representations that are bound up with practice, for “there is no practice except by and in an ideology” (Althusser, 115). For the latter, as Marx (1845-46 [1965]: 14-15) comments in The German Ideology, material reality is something that can be known (in other words, it is possible to see beyond ideology):

“we do not set out from what [humans] say, imagine, conceive, nor from [humans] as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at [humans] in the flesh. We set out from real, active [humans], and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. […] This method of approach is not devoid of premises. It starts out from the real premises and does not abandon them for a moment. Its premises are [humans], not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions. As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists.”

This Althusserian legacy goes someway to explaining the inescapability of Said’s hegemony-ideology-Orientalism (a departure from Gramsci) and Said’s methodology. So, on the Orientalist text, Said (21) makes plain that he is not concerned with “the correctness of the representation nor its fidelity to some great original”, but rather with “style, figures of speech, setting, narrative devices, historical and social circumstances”. And while he concedes the importance of finding present-day alternatives to studying the Orient – “from a libertarian, or a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative, perspective” – this is left, in his own words, “embarrassingly incomplete” (Said, 24). And yet this is hardly surprising since his inverted dual camp does not provide space for international-wide, independent working class agency. I end then with Said’s description of the present-day Orientalism of the US, in which those of the so-called Arab and Third World are merely ‘passive dupes’:

“My point is that the relationship is a one-sided one, with the United States a selective customer of a very few products (oil and cheap manpower, mainly), the Arabs highly diversified consumers of a vast range of United States products, material and ideological. This has had many consequences. There is a vast standardization of taste in the region, symbolized not only by transistors, blue jeans, and Coca-Cola but also by cultural images of the Orient supplied by American mass media and consumed unthinkingly by the mass television audience. […] Another result is that the Western market economy and its consumer orientation have produced (and are producing at an accelerating rate) a class of educated people whose intellectual formation is directed to satisfying market need. […] Its role has been prescribed and set for it as a “modernizing” one, which means that it gives legitimacy and authority to ideas about modernization, progress, and culture that it receives from the United States for the most part. Impressive evidence for this is found in the social sciences and, surprisingly enough, among radical intellectuals whose Marxism is taken wholesale from Marx’s own homogenizing view of the Third World […].” (Said, 324-325)