Can Europe Make It?

Reflections: antisemitism, anti-imperialism and liberal communitarianism

In the current European context, associations between left-wing movements and the far-right, anti-cosmopolitan ‘revolt against modernity’ are very much fringe phenomena. Everything should be done to keep it that way.

Marcel Stoetzler
26 May 2016

Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council HQ. The banner angled to annoy Thatcher reads "London's Unemployed May-83 = 353,371".Wikicommons/OLU. Some rights reserved.The politically explosive modern form of antisemitism is the one that is central to the modern, conservative-revolutionary reaction to modernity. Two of the key problems in the analysis of (and struggle against) antisemitism are, to what extent does the modern right-wing critique of capitalist modernity overlap with its left-wing counterpart, and why does the latter sometimes fail to distinguish itself unambiguously from this mortal enemy? In varying contexts, from the Weimar KPD, via Foucault on Iran, to contemporary Labour politicians, some on the left grant too much to their enemy’s enemies, and are perhaps too fuzzy in their thinking to distinguish their own longing for the community of an emancipated future from their enemies’ longing for the racially or spiritually purified, re-born community of whichever reactionary fantasy.                    

The principal strength and attraction of antisemitism lies in its being beyond ordinary politics: antisemitism is meta-political. Both on the right and the left its value is that it connects to the opposite side. The ambiguous meaning of the word ‘socialism’ in its name was one of National Socialism’s strengths, although Hitler made clear enough that his was a socialism ‘the German way’, namely without the corrosive Jewish-Marxist bits about class struggle. Although its specifics put Nazism in many respects into a category all of its own, it also belongs into the wider category of nationalist socialisms that affirm the capitalist mode of production but are ‘anticapitalistic’ in their rejection of this or that detail of capitalist circulation and reproduction – greedy bankers who behave like locust swarms, that kind of thing – and seek a solution to ‘the social question’ at the level of the nation. There are many of those, and they are not about to go away. They are by nature receptive to antisemitism if and when it seems opportune for whichever contextual – cultural, historical – reasons.

The anti-imperialism of the metropolitan Left that indulges even the most abhorrent of ‘my enemy’s enemies’ acts out on the canvas of ‘the Orient’ the communitarian imaginary which at home, due to the practical requirements of capitalist statecraft, tends to be muted. ‘Empowerment’ of ‘the communities’, historically a speciality of British administration of subject peoples in the key of divide-and-rule, has returned to the metropole mostly at the local level, in the form of the multiculturalist administration of large cities. Not incidentally, in this area Ken Livingston is much more of an expert than in German history. The strategic embrace at the level of world politics of Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbollah is mirrored at the political micro-level by the communitarian mode of multiculturalist policy that was in Britain pioneered by Livingston’s Greater London Council in the 1980s.

The shared ground that makes possible the meta-politics of antisemitism is characterized by the emphasis on community over class struggle, totality over fragmentation. Antisemitism with its boundary-transcending and taboo-breaking mystique is the signature of those who aim to transcend partiality, fragmentation, particularity and division by exorcising the fragmenters. The bad reality of nationalism (that is evidenced by Israeli just as any other nation-state realpolitik) is ideologically distilled into the imaginary pure essence of true heroic patriotism (such as, say, that of ‘the Palestinians’) versus the evil scheming of the anti-nation, ‘the Jews’ as embodied in that people-eating imperialistic entity maliciously implanted into the Arcadian shores of the Mediterranean. Such almost cosmological dualisms are of course utterly unhelpful to either side of the actual conflict.

In the current European context, associations between left-wing movements and the far-right, anti-cosmopolitan ‘revolt against modernity’ are very much fringe phenomena. Everything should be done to keep it that way. The currently most prominent context for antisemitism to materialize on the liberal and socialist left is that of supporting, or at least not opposing, the ultra-conservative (in terms of economic policy usually neo-liberal) Islamist resistance to ‘westoxification’ in diverse parts of the world at the cost of abandoning the trade unionists, feminists, Marxists, Jews and gays whom this ‘resistance’ is out to kill. Islamism, like other forms of modern ‘fundamentalism’, developed in tandem with and took inspiration from the European, anti-Enlightenment, post-WW1 Conservative Revolution (most prominently via its influential theorist, Sayyid Qutb). Far from being radical, its metropolitan supporters are traitors who have abandoned the Enlightenment’s still largely undelivered promise of human emancipation.

Many on ‘the left’ seem to take at face value the famous formula of imperialism as the ‘highest stage’ of capitalism, an un-Marxist concept devised for practical, not theoretical, reasons by Lenin. Lenin adopted it from discussions within British New Liberalism, in particular that formulated in the context of the Boer war by the liberal antisemite Hobson. Of course any committed anti-capitalist would want to fight capitalism where it is at its ‘highest stage’, and if one believes this to be ‘imperialism’, then anti-imperialism has to carry more weight than good old-fashioned trade-unionism, women’s emancipation and other forms of struggle that relate to capitalism’s not so high stages. The stupidity of such a perspective is helped through the misleading rhetoric of ‘stages’ which suggests that the fundamental characteristics of capitalism (say, the appropriation of the surplus product, i.e. the product of wage labour beyond the value of the wage, which means, in a modern society, most of it) have somehow become last year’s snow. The term ‘imperialism’ bundles together a range of phenomena, and likewise ‘anti-imperialism’ is a rather shape-shifting creature, depending obviously on what it believes ‘imperialism’ to be.

Some, following Marx’s position, have accused European imperialists of preventing the global spread of the capitalist mode of production from destroying conservative social and cultural structures that stand in the way of human emancipation, notably clerical and other non-rational forms of the cultural legitimation of domination. This was a critique of the fact that metropolitan capitalism is quite happy to keep in place and utilize ‘traditional’ social forms of oppression and domination in the periphery. Still in the 1970s, this was the predominant liberal and Marxist position: cynical and greedy Europeans prevent capitalism from furthering capitalist development elsewhere, and therewith also the globalisation of the conditions of overcoming capitalism itself.

Others, by contrast, accused imperialism of actually doing what Marx had hoped it would do: globalizing a secular, more humane and liberating modernity that would sponsor the overcoming of the cultural and political muck of ages as well as of modernity’s own principal engine, capitalism. This seems now the predominant position of ‘the left’, though: imperialism, which is really just capitalism under a different name, is rejected because it destroys cultural identities and imposes universally identical imperial monoculture. This is the conservative critique of capitalist modernity that Marx spent a lifetime fighting against. Hegel would have relished the irony that anti-imperialism has become a brand name for cultural reactionaries in various parts of the world who learned from European revolutionary conservatives how to use reactionary aspects of western modernity against its own – still largely undelivered – promise of emancipation. He would have been more than a little surprised to see, though, that so many of his own liberal and socialist descendants support such people. Those who think that ‘imperialism’ is a valid category of analysis still must make any support dependent on what the social content of any particular anti-imperialist struggle is: in the name of which societal goals is the struggle being conducted?

Differing from their ancestors in the nineteenth-century salad days of wild, brutal and honest liberalism, the political parties of developed bourgeois democracy share with their totalitarian opponents the compulsion to deny their partiality: they profess to disdain representing interests, standpoints, bias, and in general the icy waters of egoism that flow in the baptismal fonts of modernity. Although even progressive capitalists agree that ‘the economy’ needs nothing more than an army of thoroughly greedy and egoistic trade-unionists who drive up wages and spending levels, particularity and partisanship are the devil to the sublime idealism of modern mass membership political parties. They work for the integration of society by whipping amour propre out of its constituents.

Those by tradition seen as stubborn representatives of difference, even if they in fact want nothing more than being equal, are unlikely to be looked upon with grace by the nationalist spokespeople of the harmonious commonweal. The more liberal of these modern nationalists will happily endorse the Jews’ own nationalism, as long as they put up their tents elsewhere, while others will find Jewish nationalism exceptionally, unacceptably, shockingly egoistic: it is just that little bit too particularistic. The national homeland of the eternal non-nationals cannot but disturb the eternal peace that liberals assume will result from granting all genuine nations their right to self-determination. Whether they happen in other respects to be ‘right-wing’ or ‘left-wing’ is accidental.

Due to its spread in the hand luggage of western civilization, antisemitism has turned from a local problem of Europeans to a global issue, more pervasive than ever. It is perfectly in tune with the general dynamics of globalization that some Muslim immigrant groups in Europe would hire religious instructors from their (spiritual or actual) countries of origin who reimport to them, in translation, also some of the less attractive ideas that Europeans had developed in the nineteenth century to address the darker sides of rapid modernization.

One of these time-honoured European ideas is political antisemitism. If and when European Muslims adopt it, then it should be seen as a sign of their successful integration into a world system dominated by Europeans and explained by western ideas: as liberal and socialist anti-imperialists know well, imperialism has a habit of shaping also the resistance to itself. Without doubt, though, current immigrants to Europe are as well able as anybody else to figure out which of the many contradictory things that the dialectic of enlightenment has produced – from brain surgery to the atom bomb, from multicultural society to the Holocaust – are emancipatory and useful, and which are not – unless they are deprived of the breathing space to do so. If liberal society can defeat its own illiberalism, then enlightenment can still ‘master itself and assume its own power’ (Horkheimer and Adorno) and figure out how to get to ‘the better state of things … where one can be different without fear’ (Adorno).


Literature consulted:

Adorno, Theodor W. 1978, Minima Moralia, Reflections from damaged life, London: Verso

Al-Azmeh, Aziz, 1991, ‘Islamist Revivalism and Western Ideologies’, in: History Workshop Journal 31:2, 44-53

Bassi, Camila, 2010, ‘“The Anti-Imperialism of Fools“: A Cautionary Story on the Revolutionary Socialist Vanguard of England’s Post-9/11 Anti-War Movement’, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 9(2): 113–137.

Bhatt, Chetan, 2014, ‘The Virtues of Violence: The Salafi-Jihadi Political Universe’, Theory, Culture & Society 31:1, 25-48

Boyd, Jonathan and L. Daniel Staetsky, 2015. ‘Could it happen here? What existing data tell us about contemporary antisemitism in the UK’. Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

Bright, Martin. 2006. When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries. The British State’s flirtation with radical Islamism. Policy Exchange

Cooper, Melinda, 2008, ‘Orientalism in the Mirror. The Sexual Politics of Anti-Modernism’, in: Theory, Culture & Society 25:6, 25-49

Euben, Roxanne L. 1997. ‘Premodern, Antimodern or Postmodern? Islamic and Western Critiques of Modernity’. The Review of Politics 59:3, 429-459.

Halliday, Fred. 2007. ‘The Jihadism of Fools’. Dissent 54:1, 53-56

Horkheimer, Max; Theodor W. Adorno, 2002, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Philosophical Fragments, edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, translated by Edmund Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press

Mathew, Biju. 2012. ‘Wrestling the Dinosaur: Reflections on the Post 9/11 Decade’.

Mufti, Aamir R., 2007, ‘Fanatics in Europa’. Boundary 2, 34:1, 17-23

Postone, Moishe, 2006. ‘History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism’, in: Public Culture 18:1, 93-110

Sahgal, Gita and Nira Yuval-Davis, 1990, ‘Refusing Holy Orders’, in Marxism Today March 1990

Wolfe, Ross. ‘Reflections on Left antisemitism’. April 30, 2016. 

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