Updated: Aug 27, 2019
Like many people I have been deeply distressed and surprised by the growth of anti-Semitism in left-wing circles. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is typical of a wider phenomenon. Anti-Zionism has given a fig leaf to expressions of hostility to Jews. Who can forget Mcebo Dlamini's fondness for Hitler or the anti-Semitic graffiti associated with 'Fallists' or even the claims that Adam Habib and the Wits administration were beholden to Zionist financiers. Even if these were isolated incidents, the fact that they happened at all is suggestive of a political mutation.
Growing up in South Africa, Anti-semitism was unmistakably a phenomenon of white South Africans. Going to public schools in the 1970s and 1980s exposed Jews to deeply racist and ant-semitic environments. I know this from personal experience. Woodmead, a school that sadly did not survive the transition was a liberation to me. Non-racialism, diversity were spaces of subversion and freedom. So too was the UDF and the broad 'progressive movement'. Black politics opened up spaces of personal and political freedom. It was axiomatic that left-wing spaces were democratic and convivial.
So how has anti-Semitism become a 'left-wing' phenomenon? The standard answer is that Left-wing anti-Semitism is not anti-Semitism at all. It is anti-Zionism, an expression of opposition and antagonism to the Apartheid-like character of the the Israeli state and its ruling ideologies. The fact that the Zionist state insists that it is a Jewish state implicates modern Jewishness in racism, occupation, colonialism. The fact, moreover, that so many Jews identify as Zionists, implicates the majority of Jews as racists, occupiers, colonialists.
Yet I think there is a much more profound transformation in left-wing politics - of which anti-Semitism is a symptom. It is true that left-wing politics has a long and complicated relationship to the figure of the Jew. We only have to read Marx to see how the Jew comes to stand for the logic of capital itself. This is not what I am referring to, however.
I have been reading two books alongside each other, one by Karl Polanyi and the other by Marshal Berman. Polanyi’s 'The Great Transformation' was published in 1944 and is a brilliant reply to Hayek's celebration of the 'free market'. Relative to Marshall Berman's 'All that is solid melts into air', 'The Politics of Authenticity', is a little known work - especially in South Africa. Both texts, however, are concerned with social alienation.
Polanyi and Berman were strident critics of capitalism. Both emphasised the extraordinary productive and destructive capacity of an economic system, premised on private property, that commodified labour and land. Both were socialists. They were also Jewish. The first a Hungarian Jew of bourgeois origins, at ease in the assimilated world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ultimately he converted to Christianity. Berman was a New York Jew of working class provenance.
The vision of freedom in the two books is very different. It is in this difference that we can glimpse the terms of a mutation in current left-wing politics.
While Polanyi died in the US a fairly obscure figure 'The Great Transformation' has enjoyed attention posthumously, usually during periods of economic crisis. Polanyi is widely credited as the intellectual inspiration of many Corbyn policies. In South Africa he is experiencing a small renaissance. It is not difficult to understand why. He provides a language of critique that is free from the political baggage of Marxism. (I am always struck reading him how like Rousseau he sounds). His concept of defence and embeddedness, though slippery, speak to a politics of authenticity.
For some, authenticity has come to mean an embrace of nationalism. This is the bind of the British Labour Party today. It is caught between its traditional internationalism and a nostalgia for faith and community. This is why it can't decide on Brexit. In South Africa, the alliance between organised labour, the Communist party and the ANC - between that is, socialists, communists and nationalists- was given by the fact that Apartheid was a system both of race domination and class exploitation.
The problem with nationalism, whatever its form, however, is that it is ultimately a politics grounded in racial essentialism. As nationalists have come to the fore in South Africa (since Mbeki), so racial essentialism has more and more come to dominate politics. This is what we call populism today. Therein lies the seam of continuity between Mbeki and Zuma. Both men were predominantly nationalists. The bind of many 'progressives' today is that reconciled to nationalism, they explain away its corruption and are shocked by its racism.
It is not nationalism, however, that Polanyi endorsed as a defence to capitalism. In South Africa this has recently been suggested. It was a model of solidarity and cooperation rooted in Catholic social doctrine. In the UK this stress on values and community in left politics has come through Blue Labour, founded by Maurice Glasman seeking a place for faith in radical politics, including Jewish faith. At stake for him, following Polanyi, is the importance of 'intermediate' institutions and solidarities to re-embed economics in society - subjecting it, that is, to moral and social constraints. This is a politics that resonates very closely with mine. In Polanyi, however, these intermediate institutions are decidedly Christian in character.
The discovery of Polanyi (or the turn to Catholic social theory) comes at a moment when the left has reconciled itself again to nationalism (was this not the hallmark of Stalinism?). The community as nation is thus a Christian community. (I wonder, therefore, if Glasman and the Blue Labour movement in the UK have adequately accounted for nationalism there).
Consider how different this is to the spirit of the 1960s and the movements of liberation and emancipation that it nourished. The notion of radical individualism expresses a different vision of freedom. Authenticity is not a nostalgic reflex towards a lost past or present that is disappearing. It constitutes a refusal of institutions, processes, systems that force one to conform to a fixed social role, whatever it might be. Modern authenticity - to be oneself - is not, on Berman's terms, attached to any particular identity but to the possibility of invention and discovery. One is authentic when one frees oneself from received social roles (of religion, of class and caste, of gender, of race and so on).
Contemporary anti-semitism is different to the old charge that Jews are irreconcilable with the universal - unless they cease being Jewish. Ironically, in a left politics reconciled to nationalism, the urge to restore the place of faith in society, still leaves the 'Jew' out in the cold.
On the one hand s/he/they is a Zionist, the modern incarnation of racism and colonialism. On the other hand, s/he/they is not a Christian - and a figure, therefore, remote and unintelligible to a contemporary politics of left solidarity. Polanyi is the ideal representative of this politics. He is the Jew that repudiated his Jewishness to become a Christian.