Anti-Postone: Translator's Preface - Cosmonaut

Date: 2022-01-23T19:23:59+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

In this, the preface to Cosmonaut Press’s Anti-Postone by Michael Sommer, translator Maciej Zurowski explains the importance of Sommer’s text to the contemporary left. While the book is largely directed against broad sections of the German antifascist movement, Zurowski argues that a fallacious theory of antisemitism can be easily weaponized in other contexts against leftists and anti-imperialists. Anti-Postone, which includes this preface, along with a lengthy introduction by Mike Macnair and Sommer’s essay, has now been printed and is available for purchase on Amazon and in the Cosmonaut webstore.

The essay by Michael Sommer that I have translated into English for this publication first appeared in a German-language volume entitled Antifa heisst Luftangriff (Laika 2014, Antifa means Air Raid). A collection of texts by various authors, it criticized the degeneration of anti-fascism in Germany and in Austria from a left-wing endeavor into an ideology that is now fully affirmative of liberal capitalism and defends it against its various detractors. Sommer’s contribution, “Falsch aber wirkungsvoll” (“Wrong but Effective”), analyzed and, in my view, very efficiently demolished the antisemitism theory of the Canadian academic Moishe Postone, which had provided some of the key concepts for the new German anti-fascism, both institutional and “militant,” roughly since the turn of the century. 

The central device of this system-friendly anti-fascism has been antisemitism charges — aimed usually not at fascists, but at the anti-capitalist left, and more recently also at Arab migrants and the German working class. Sommer argues in his essay that the critique offered by Postone’s epigones “presents itself with the gesture of a theoretically upgraded anti-fascism, yet in reality pursues very little aside from accusing those of fascism who defend themselves against the ravages of capitalism today.” As we will see, it also rests on theoretically unsustainable foundations and is therefore, plainly speaking, bunk.

When the essay was first published in Germany in 2014, Anglophone readers might have struggled to comprehend how an ostensibly radical German left could allow itself to be sidetracked into adopting essentially pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist positions in the name of resisting antisemitism. Had the text been made available to them at the time, the antics of Postonean “anti-fascists” described by Sommer in the opening pages would have been met with incredulity. German guilt may have been identified as the psychological motivating force, and the notion that “this could not happen here” would have prevailed especially among readers from the UK, where few self-identified socialists, with the notable exception of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, were susceptible to the spectre of a rampant left antisemitism.

This can no longer be taken for granted. As I write, the UK boasts a rudderless left that has emerged from the demoralizing experience of supporting Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader for a matter of almost five years. During this period, it was subjected to a systematic witch-hunt: from April 2016 right until Corbyn’s general election defeat in December 2019, reports of “Labour antisemitism” were appearing in the British media almost on a daily basis, and suspensions, expulsions, and the public hounding of left-wingers were rife. The reasons for this are not difficult to fathom: here you had the potential party of government in the fifth-largest economy in the world, the heart of financial imperialism linked through a “special relationship” to the US (and thus to its key Middle Eastern ally Israel), suddenly led by an anti-war activist whom the capitalist class could only regard as unreliable. And so, a broad range of establishment forces found that it was in their common interest to stop Corbyn and his supporters. After successive ill-fated attempts to portray him as unpatriotic, an IRA sympathizer, a communist, and so on, these forces eventually stumbled upon the most effective weapon of all: antisemitism charges. They proved so effective precisely because antisemitism is considered today the most reprehensible vice, perhaps second only to pedophilia, by the vast majority of British society across the political spectrum. Few people, including on the far right, would want to be associated with it.

The disinformation and smear campaign that ensued was unprecedented in scope. Since instances of actual antisemitic sentiment in the Labour Party were rare, social media accounts were trawled going back many years, off-hand comments turned and twisted and “antisemitic tropes” found everywhere — the beauty of the tactic being that almost any accusation of corruption, scheming, or collusion with the enemy can be read as an “antisemitic trope,” even when it is a statement of fact.1 

The longer the campaign went on, the more the narrative of an epidemic of antisemitism in Labour made inroads into parts of the British left itself. While a sheepish silence was the response of its majority to the witch-hunt — better to throw comrades to the wolves than “die on that hill” — some discernibly began to wonder whether the left didn’t have an antisemitism problem, after all. Soon you could hear certain activists demanding that “we start from anti-racism” and take the accusations seriously, no matter where they emanated from — or to what ends they were being employed. 

In Britain it was not misplaced guilt that rendered the left incapable of defending itself, but its diminishing ability to see the bigger picture beyond a multitude of causes and concerns, coupled with its unwillingness to challenge the subjective standpoints of professed spokespeople for identity groups — read: its intersectionality. Moreover, the left did not recognize that its enemies had learned to avail themselves of the left’s own weapons, including its language, in order to attack, divide, and demobilize it.  

In November 2020, the Labour MP Nadia Whittome, who is politically close to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, made a rare explicit mention of Postone in an article for LabourList, in which she reprimanded Jeremy Corbyn for noting that Labour antisemitism had been “overstated.”23 Various themes also typical of Postonean “anti-fascism” have been invoked in a much cruder fashion not by left-wingers, but by establishment figures. Thus Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, remarked in an interview with BBC Radio Four that it is “part of hard left politics to be against capitalists and to see Jewish people as the financiers of capital. Ergo you are anti-Jewish people.”4 And in October 2020, the U.S. Department of State organized an international conference on internet antisemitism.5 There, the attempt was made to subsume all politics that pose a nuisance to US foreign policy — far-left, far-right, and Islamist — as “antisemitic,” while guests such as the former Labour MP Luciana Berger and the British government’s “antisemitism Tsar,” John Mann, expounded on anti-capitalism and antisemitism. In a March 2019 article for the Financial Times, the Blairite political advisor to the Labour Party John McTernan made a statement that is worth quoting at length: 

As the historian Deborah Lipstadt points out, anti-Semitic tropes share three elements: money or finance is always in the mix; an acknowledged cleverness that is also seen as conniving; and, power — particularly a power to manipulate more powerful entities. All of these feature in the criticism of Israel and the so-called Israel lobby. They can be easily moulded into a critique of capitalism, too. Rhetoric about the 1 per cent and economic inequality has the same underlying theme — a small group of very rich people who cleverly manipulate others to defend their interests. So anti-capitalism masks and normalises anti-Semitism.6

Of course, this is not to say that Siobhain McDonagh or John McTernan are Postone disciples, but they do rehash popular versions of his “insights” picked up second-hand. What’s more, the antisemitism campaign, although originally targeting the left, has paradoxically opened up some of its softer sections to such ideas. It is not inconceivable, then, that Postone’s theses will finally fall on fertile ground in Britain too, offering a superficially Marxist theoretical framework for a left that is temporarily defeated and unwilling to “die on that hill” next time around. In the long run, this could prove a far greater success for the right than the expulsions of left-wingers from the Labour Party were.7

This booklet cannot stop the left from absorbing the bourgeois ideology of its time. But I hope it will make it a great deal harder for those peddling Postonean sophistries to justify them theoretically, let alone be taken seriously when touting them as Marxist — or as in any way serving human liberation. Above all, I hope that Sommer’s vivid exposure of these arguments will contribute toward inoculating the international left against the extreme political degeneration that we have seen occur in Germany. Some topical references found in Sommer’s text, such as those to the Blockupy protests of 2013, may now seem dated — but his analysis of this pseudo-scientific variety of “anti-antisemitism” remains essential.

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  1. The best-known case in this regard was probably the anti-racist activist Marc Wadsworth, who in 2018 was expelled from the Labour Party for accusing the Labour MP Ruth Smeeth for working “hand-in-hand” with the Daily Telegraph. Smeeth happened to be Jewish and, more to the point, was part of the anti-Corbyn Labour right — so Wadsworth’s remark was construed as an “antisemitic trope.” In more recent cases, such as that of the Bristol university lecturer David Miller, charges of “dishonesty” and “racism” against pro-Israel organizations have also been identified as “antisemitic tropes” by some — see Jewish News article of 19 Feb 2021 at https://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/pressure-mounts-on-bristol-uni-over-academic-accused-of-antisemitic-tropes/.
  2. Nadia Whittome, “Labour antisemitism must be confronted — with nuance, clarity and empathy,” LabourList, Nov. 29, 2020, https://labourlist.org/2020/11/labour-antisemitism-must-be-confronted-with-nuance-clarity-and-empathy/.
  3. Martin Thomas and other Alliance for Workers’ Liberty members have written favorably on Postone and interviewed him. See, e.g., “Postone, capitalism, and the working class” at https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2018-12-30/postone-capitalism-and-working-class, “Anti-semitism and reactionary anti-capitalism” at https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2017-07-26/anti-semitism-and-reactionary-anti-capitalism, and “Moishe Postone 1942-2018” at https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2018-03-28/moishe-postone-1942-2018.
  4. “Siobhain McDonagh links anti-capitalism to antisemitism in Labour,” LabourList, Mar. 4 2019, https://labourlist.org/2019/03/siobhain-mcdonagh-links-anti-capitalism-to-antisemitism-in-labour/.
  5. Luciana Berger, “My Story — ‘Under Attack,’” (presentation, U.S. Department of State Conference on Internet Anti-Semitism, Oct. 21, 2020), https://2017-2021.state.gov/anti-semitism-conference-2020/my-story-under-attack/index.html.
  6. John McTernan, “Labour’s mistake is to believe there are no enemies to the left,” Financial Times, Mar. 1 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/2448aafc-3b89-11e9-9988-28303f70fcff.
  7. Indeed, Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts’s Corbynism: A Critical Approach (Emerald Publishing, 2018) attempted to add some “academic Marxist” muscle to the witch-hunt — the text was substantially informed by Postone’s antisemitism theory and in fact dedicated to his memory. As I finish writing this preface, I receive news that the snappily named No Pasaran Press is about to publish a Daniel Randall book entitled Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists. Randall is a Labour Party member and Alliance for Workers’ Liberty supporter who frequently cites Moishe Postone’s work as crucially informing his understanding of antisemitism. No Pasaran Press presents itself as a “left-wing activist collective” — see https://www.nopasaran.media. However, a cursory check in the British government’s business directory reveals that it is run by Baron Jonathan Mendelsohn, a life peer in the House of Lords who is also on the board of directors in the Blairite Labour think tank Progress, the former chair of Labour Friends of Israel, and involved in a variety of other pro-Israel organizations. Another No Pasaran Press publication, Ben Freeman’s Jewish Pride, which explicitly sets out to counter the growing trend of left-wing anti-Zionism among young diaspora Jews, was launched at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. For No Pasaran Press business information, see https://find-and-update.company-information.service.gov.uk/company/11938098/officers.