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The longest hatred

Anti-Semitism is resurgent. Where did this poison come from – and is there an antidote?

Jews around the world have recently celebrated Passover, a festival commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. To mark the occasion, the BBC screened a documentary about a modern exodus, the flight of Jews from France. With an estimated 475,000 Jews, France remains home to Europe’s largest Jewish population. But in recent years, rising anti-Semitism and a series of terror attacks have forced out a growing number. As many as 8,000 left in 2014, up from 1,900 five years earlier, a fourfold increase. Most of them are moving to Israel but many are seeking refuge in Britain. French Jewish children now make up half the intake at Jewish schools in London. Anyone who has travelled recently to Paris will have seen signs of the tense atmosphere that French Jewish refugees are leaving behind. Every Jewish building is guarded by soldiers in full combat gear.

Sadly, anti-Semitism in France is only the starkest manifestation of a growing contemporary Jew-hatred in Europe and across the world. The cancerous belief that the world is run by an international Jewish conspiracy shapes the world-view of much of Iran’s governing elite, operatives of Islamic State (IS), nationalist leaders in Slovakia and Hungary, and a major Palestinian political organisation. It even pervades parts of a mainstream British political party, and our university campuses, too. Where did this poison come from, and is there an antidote to it?

 

1. European origins

Conventional religious Jew-hatred is thousands of years old. Across the Christian world, the Jews’ claim to be a “chosen people” and the accusation that Jews killed Jesus led to violent persecution. Throughout Europe, anti-Jewish pogroms were sparked by the accusation that Jews kidnapped and killed Christian children in order to use their blood for religious purposes, particularly in unleavened bread consumed on Passover. One of the earliest cases of the blood libel occurred in Norwich in 1144. Within 150 years, the entire Jewish community was expelled from England. Across Europe, Jews were confined to ghettos and restricted to certain professions, such as moneylending, inculcating an image of Jews as nefarious Shylocks.

Most European Jews were emancipated by the mid-19th century. Thereafter, a new brand of paranoid, racial, political anti-Semitism emerged. As feudal systems fell across Europe, Jews were held responsible for the social and cultural ills that accompanied the collapse of the old order. The Jews were viewed as the vanguard of the department store, which ruined small shopkeepers, of the Industrial Revolution, which gave advantage to the few at the expense of the many, and of a global financial system that enslaved economies through the market and its servant parliamentary democracy. It was in response to this new anti-Semitism, and in particular the Dreyfus affair in France, in which a Jewish army officer was falsely accused of treason amid an atmosphere of intense anti-Jewish bigotry, that Theodor Herzl developed modern Zionism – the re-establishment of a Jewish state in the Jews’ ancient homeland.

Adolf Hitler came to anti-Semitism by way of anti-capitalism, particularly of the “international”, Anglo-American variety, which he accused of reducing post-First World War Germany to the status of a “colony”. The socioeconomic decline of the German middle class after the First World War and particularly during the Great Depression helped bring him to power and make the Holocaust possible.

Jew-haters have thus built on different tropes in different contexts and countries. What unites modern anti-Semites, however, is the conspiratorial belief that Jews run the world. Its foundational text is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. First published in a St Petersburg newspaper in 1903, and subsequently reprinted many times by Russia’s political and religious authorities, this forgery purported to be a blueprint for a secretive scheme to overthrow all existing governments, institutions and religions and, in their place, to construct a Jewish world empire.

The Protocols was neither the first nor the last publication of its kind but it was by far the most successful. After the Russian Revolution, this fabrication was brought to central and western Europe by White Russian émigrés. In the febrile atmosphere across the continent after the First World War, the Protocols offered a simplistic explanation for global unrest. The Jews served as convenient scapegoats for German and Russian right-wingers, seeking to explain their traumatic defeats, and offered an external and internal enemy against whom to rally their countrymen.

Since the Protocols first appeared, millions of copies have been published and the text has been translated into many languages. But nowhere has it been disseminated more widely in the past half-century than in the Islamic world, where political anti-Semitism is a relatively recent phenomenon.

 

2. Middle Eastern connection

Previously, the Muslim-Jewish relationship was an ambiguous one. While there are verses in Islamic scripture that some have taken as commanding all Muslim believers to kill Jews and Christians, there are also verses urging tolerance towards both.

There were pogroms against Jews in Granada (1066) and Fez (1465) in which thousands were killed. Within the Ottoman empire, however, Jews enjoyed protection as second-class citizens (dhimmis), allowed to practise their religion quietly as long as they paid a special poll tax, abided by various proscriptions, including bans on bearing arms and riding horses, and accepted their inferior status. Up until the 18th century, Jews fared far better in the Muslim world than in Christian Europe.

When anti-Jewish persecution grew more pronounced in the 19th century, responsibility often lay with Christian Arab communities, whose propagation of the European-sponsored blood libel produced the Damascus outrage of 1840 in which 13 leading Jews were arrested and four killed. It was only after the First World War, the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of European protectorates over parts of the former Ottoman empire that growing anti-Zionism provoked violence against Jews across the Arab world. Massacres of Jews occurred in Hebron (1929), Baghdad (1941) and Tripoli (1945). The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who resided in Germany for much of the Second World War, urged the Nazis and their allies not to allow Jews to escape to Palestine, but to send them “to Poland” (meaning Auschwitz) instead. Even before the establishment of Israel in 1948, therefore, paranoid, political anti-Semitism had gained a foothold in the Islamic world.

After 1948, anti-Semitism among Arabs was exacerbated by the defeat of their armies by a people traditionally confined to a subservient position in the Muslim world. A tragic consequence of the war was that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled and, in response, hundreds of thousands of Jews from across the Arab world, members of 2,000-year-old communities, were now identified as Zionist agents, persecuted and ultimately driven to seek refuge in Israel. The Protocols, which first appeared in Arabic in 1927, and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, partially published in Arabic in the 1930s and fully in 1963, now found even more enthusiastic readers across the region. As the USSR emerged as a political ally of the Arab nations, and the United States forged closer ties with Israel after the 1967 war, Arab anti-Semites increasingly focused on the allegedly capitalist and imperialist character of world Jewry, and on Jewish control over US foreign policy.

In recent decades, this brand of anti-Semitism has become increasingly Islamised. As early as 1950, the seminal Islamist thinker and Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb was writing about “Our Struggle With the Jews”. Qutb claimed that “world Jewry’s purpose is to eliminate all limitations, especially the limitations posed by faith and religion, so that the Jews may penetrate into [the] body politic of the whole world and then may be free to perpetuate their evil designs”. But it was only with the failure of Arab nationalism by the late 1970s that Islamist anti-Semitism really took off.

The founding charter of Hamas, the Sunni Muslim fundamentalist organisation that governs Gaza, refers approvingly to the Protocols and quotes a disputed hadith that says: “The hour of judgment shall not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, so that the Jews hide behind trees and stones, and each tree and stone will say: ‘O Muslim, o servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’”

The leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, declared in his book Islamic Government (1970) that “Jews and their foreign backers are opposed to the very foundations of Islam and wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world”. Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, often denies the Holocaust, and he and other Iranian leaders routinely refer to the global dominance of “Jewish” and “Zionist” forces – terms that they use interchangeably.

Iran’s Shia proxy, Hezbollah, has fought to keep Anne Frank’s diary out of Lebanese schools as part of a Holocaust denial campaign and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, stated that if the Jews “all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide”. However, this did not preclude Hezbollah from targeting a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires (1994) or bombing Israelis on a bus in Bulgaria (2012).

Even in Malaysia, remote from Israel and home to barely any Jews, anti-Semitism is rife. In 2003 Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad urged the world’s Muslims to unite against Jews, claiming that although Europeans had killed six million of them, “today the Jews rule the world by proxy”. Just last month, Dr Fouad Bseiso, the Palestine Monetary Authority’s first governor in the 1990s, claimed on Hamas satellite TV that “global Judaism” had caused the 2008 fin­ancial crisis, fulfilling plans revealed in the Protocols. Explicit anti-Semitism is routine in Middle Eastern political discourse. At the same time, this toxic ideology is being reimported into its continent of origin and is now flourishing among disenfranchised Muslim immigrant communities in Europe.

 

3. The reimportation of anti-Semitism to Europe

The embodiment of this new anti-Semitism is the proudly anti-Zionist and Jew-baiting French “comedian” Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. His shows are particularly popular among disadvantaged French youth from immigrant backgrounds. They feature Holocaust revisionism, jokes about the gas chambers and the “quenelle”, an inverted Hitler salute that M’bala M’bala invented. M’bala M’bala also likes to refer to the Shoah as the “shoannas” (as in ananas), likening the Holocaust to a pineapple. In January, he responded to the killings of Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris by signalling solidarity with the perpetrator, Amedy Coulibaly.

Coulibaly’s armed assault, two days after the Charlie Hebdo killings, followed a pattern that has long been evident in Islamist terror attacks. In March 2012, Mohamed ­Merah killed seven people in Toulouse. Four of his victims, including three children, were murdered at a Jewish day school. In 2014 Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national of Algerian origin, killed four visitors to the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Security services now view this as the first in a succession of attacks in Europe linked to Islamic State. Nemmouche was part of the European network set up by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, thought to have masterminded the November Paris terror attacks that left 130 dead.

Nor is this pattern evident only in Europe. One target of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks was a Jewish centre, where hostages were tortured before being killed. After the 19 March suicide bombing in Istanbul, where three of the five victims were Israelis, intelligence offers uncovered advanced plans by IS terrorists to murder Jewish children in Turkey.

What is striking about all these attacks is that they are directed against Jews worldwide, rather than Israel itself. In part, to be sure, this reflects the Jewish state’s capacity to defend itself, but it is also a sign that these anti-Semites see themselves as engaged in a global struggle against Jewry, rather than just a regional contest against Israel.

 

4. Resurgence of fascist anti-Semitism

Though Islamist anti-Semitism is the most virulent strain of this hatred today, the old-style, fascist variant is also experiencing a revival in Europe. Far-right parties are advancing across the continent and many are directing their hatred against Muslims and Jews alike. Anti-Semitism is very pronounced in Hungary, home to the largest population of Jews in the eastern European Union. Gábor Vona, chairman of the racist Jobbik, which recent opinion polls rate as Hungary’s second-strongest party, told a rally in Budapest against the World Jewish Congress in 2013: “Israeli conquerors, investors and expansionists should look for a country in another part of the world because Hungary is not for sale.” Vona accused Hungarian “Jews” (pure and simple) of being “anti-Hungarian”. A Jobbik MP called on the Hungarian government to “establish how many people of Jewish descent there are here, and especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government, who represent a security risk”.

Another manifestation of a far-right movement motivated by anti-Judaism, sometimes masquerading as anti-Zionism, is in Slovakia, home to a minuscule Jewish population since the Holocaust. In March, Marian Kotleba and his ultra-nationalist People’s Party Our Slovakia made a strong showing in parliamentary elections. Until recently, he wore the uniform of the Hlinka Guard – the militia of the Nazi-sponsored Slovak state – which was an eager participant in the transportation of 75,000 Slovakian Jews to the gas chambers. Kotleba’s party newspaper reprinted a Nazi propaganda cartoon featuring a stereotypical image of a Jewish moneylender. This is part of a broad attack on the West and its values. Kotleba has condemned Roma as “gypsy parasites”, denounced Nato as “criminal”, supported Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and denounced Western democracy for spreading “dangerous sects and sexual deviations”, all standard themes of the far right across Europe.

Like Nazi ideology, Islamist extremism and far-right fascism are rooted in a deep-seated anti-Semitism that begins by targeting Jews and expands its focus outwards. Islamists and European fascists are convinced that a global Jewish conspiracy runs the world. They regard Jews as the embodiment of the West and as symbols of all they most despise about its values: tolerance, liberty, freedom and democratic capitalism. The West is thus regarded as politically “Jewish” whether it is aware of this or not.

Far from being an exclusively Jewish problem, paranoid, political anti-Semitism endangers us all. It is the harbinger of a broader assault on Western modernity.

 

5. Anti-Semitism and the left

As the heir of the Enlightenment and ideals of the French Revolution, the European left championed emancipation, equality and tolerance in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus, it was regarded favourably by Jews. And yet hostility to Jews animated the world-view of some pioneering socialists. For instance, the late-18th- and early-19th-century utopian socialist Charles Fourier regarded Jews as “parasites, merchants, usurers”. They were agents of capitalism and commerce, personified most powerfully by the Rothschilds. Karl Marx, even though he was of Jewish descent, claimed that Jews had made money the “God of the world” and called for humanity to be emancipated from Judaism. It was these manifestations of anti-Judaism that led the German Social Democrat August Bebel to refer to anti-Semitism as the “socialism of fools”.

That Jewish leftists were heavily represented in the leadership of the socialist and communist movement, from Trotsky down, led right-wing racists to equate Judaism with Bolshevism. At first, the Soviet Union embraced this association. In 1931 Stalin declared that anti-Semitism was “the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism” and that “under USSR law . . . active anti-Semites are liable to the death penalty”. The USSR was the first state to grant de jure recognition to Israel, and supported it with arms during the 1948 conflict. However, it turned sharply against Israel and global Jewry from the 1950s onwards.

In the early 1950s, Stalin launched a major anti-Jewish campaign that culminated in the arrest of Jewish doctors accused of poisoning Communist leaders. In 1952, he told the Politburo: “Every Jewish nationalist is the agent of the American intelligence service.” America was the USSR’s principal enemy in the Cold War and its sizeable Jewish community was believed to be at the centre of a worldwide network that was doing the bidding of the new Israeli state, and which had operatives across the globe, including the USSR and communist-controlled eastern Europe.

This anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist campaign was taken up throughout the communist world. Its anti-Jewish nature was clear in the show trials of Jews and their removal from critical positions in local Communist Parties, accompanied by a barrage of openly anti-Semitic propaganda. The most notorious instance of this was the 1952 Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia, during which the state denounced the defendants, not all of whom were Jewish, as “Zionists”, “Jewish capitalists” and “Jewish Gestapo agents”.

After Stalin’s death, his successors upheld his legacy of conspiratorial, anti-Semitic anti-Zionism. Soviet propaganda portrayed “Zionism” as both a tool and a puppet master of US imperialism, peddled the delusion that a state established by Jews fleeing genocidal racism was in fact a Western colonialist enterprise, and depicted “Zionists” as the ideological heirs of Nazi Germany, controlling financial markets and the media. These calumnies were uncritically circulated by the communist press in Europe and seeped into the ideology of Soviet sympathisers on the socialist left. The residue of this can be seen in the former Labour parliamentary candidate Vicki Kirby’s suggestion that Hitler was “the Zionist God” and the Trotskyist former Labour member Gerry Downing’s contention that a capitalist offensive against workers is led by “the Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie”.

Soviet-sponsored anti-Semitism was reinforced by a third-world romanticism that regarded Zionism as reactionary imperialism and the Arab opponents of Israel as progressive fighters for national liberation who could never be condemned, however radical their rhetoric and tactics.

Western extreme leftists attended Palestinian terror training camps and participated in attacks against Israelis and European Jews. In 1976, operatives from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and members of the German Revolutionary Cells hijacked an Air France flight and diverted it to Entebbe. They released all non-Jewish passengers and held all Israelis and other Jews of various nationalities hostage.

Conspiratorial leftist, anti-Semitic anti-Zionism did not disappear with the collapse of the USSR. Instead, it mutated into an anti-globalist variant, maintaining the belief that Israel is a vestige of Western colonialism and that “Zionists” are behind the spread of global capitalism, run US foreign policy and seek world domination. The extent to which this poisonous perspective is thriving on British university campuses is illustrated by Malia Bouattia’s election as president of the National Union of Students (NUS). Bouattia has called the University of Birmingham a “Zionist outpost”, on the grounds that it has “the largest J-Soc [Jewish Society] in the country”. While serving as the NUS’s national black students’ officer, she refused to vote for a motion condemning IS and blamed UK anti-terrorism policy on a “Zionist and neocon lobby”.

Further evidence of left-wing anti-Semitism emerged when it was reported that the Labour MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah, until 26 April a PPS to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and a member of a parliamentary select committee investigating British anti-Semitism, had urged the “transportation” of Israeli Jews to America en masse. Shah was consequently suspended from the Labour Party.

Unlike Islamist and far-right extremists, most of the “anti-Zionist” left does not think of itself subjectively as anti-Semitic; many would be appalled at the suggestion. They are often uncomprehending of the nature of Middle Eastern and Islamist anti-Semitism, as evidenced by Vicki Kirby wondering on Twitter why IS had not yet attacked “the real oppressors #Israel”.

One wonders what is more remarkable here: the spectacle of a member of a mainstream Western party handing out white feathers to an extreme Islamist terror group, or her failure to understand that it is primarily waging a global war on Jews and the West, not a regional struggle against Israel. One way or the other, leftist elements who speak of the “Zionist media”, conflate Jews with Israel and generally obsess about Palestine exhibit a structurally anti-Semitic world-view, whether they are conscious of it or not. It is striking that those who spend so much time talking about “discourses”, “dog-whistle politics” and suchlike should show so little sensitivity when it comes to the use of language about Israel, Zionism and the Jews.

All this shows that much of the British student left, and parts of the Labour Party, have “some kind of problem with Jews”, as Alex Chalmers stated when resigning as co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club in February 2016. A coalition of apparently anti-racist, anti-colonial activists is united in its unwavering hostility to “Zionism”. They demand that Jews and only Jews give up their national self-determination, for the belief in the right to a Jewish state is all that the term “Zionism” means.

The absurdity of anti-racist anti-Semitism is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by a march in 2014 in Toulouse against anti-Semitism, homophobia and other forms of racism that ended in Jewish protesters being denounced as Zionists and urged to leave. When Jews are being chased away from rallies against anti-Semitism, the problem should be clear for all to see.

 

6. An antidote?

Dealing with anti-Semitism has become more difficult since 1945, after the mass murder of the Holocaust, as few anti-Semites, at least in Europe, are now willing to wear that label openly. Anti-Semitism is a virus that has taken so many forms and proved so resistant that it may be impossible ever to eradicate it. Yet we must begin by recognising that anti-Semitism is a world-view, rather than just another form of prejudice. Other groups – such as black people and gypsies – may suffer worse discrimination in European societies every day. Nobody, however, thinks that black people or gypsies run the world.

After the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks, the BBC correspondent Tim Willcox put it to a terrified Jewish woman that a possible explanation for the slaughter was that “Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands”. Leaving aside that no action taken by Israel could justify the killing of Jews merely because they are Jews – in Paris or anywhere else in the world – it is clear that the murders were motivated not simply by a particular reading of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but by a paranoid, conspiratorial anti-Semitism.

We must ensure that expressing solidarity for the Palestinian cause does not extend to sharing platforms, joining coalitions or marching in rallies that include anyone who justifies genocidal terrorism, invokes the blood libel or denies the Holocaust. We must reject cultural and moral relativism, and establish a new intellectual and political project committed to combating conspiratorial views of Jewish power, whoever expresses them.

We must make clear that the establishment of the state of Israel was a product of global, especially European, anti-Semitism and not the other way round.

We must recognise that, throughout history, the Jews have served as a “canary in the coal mine”, providing early warnings of extreme, xenophobic ideologies on the rise. This is evident in radical Islamism, the most extreme contemporary manifestation of anti-Semitism. While the West thinks it is fighting a war against “terrorism”, Islamists are fighting a war against what they perceive to be a world Jewish conspiracy. Islamist terror attacks are almost certain to be preceded by, involve, or be followed by attacks on Jews, and we must adjust our ­security measures accordingly.

Above all, we must all be aware of the stakes. Supporting Jewish people worldwide against the new anti-Semitism, be it Islamist, far-rightist or leftist, is not so much a matter of demonstrating solidarity, but of ensuring our own survival.

Although the French government has increased security at Jewish institutions, it is clear that governments alone cannot make Jews feel safe in France or elsewhere in Europe. Moreover, with Dieudonné and his ilk claiming that attacking Jews is the best way to harm the “establishment”, some say that governmental protection only stokes their paranoia. Well, as C P Snow said, the only way to deal with a paranoid man is to give him something to be paranoid about. Other European countries must follow France’s example and devote additional security resources to the defence of Jewish institutions across the continent. They must eschew the example of Belgium, where the authorities asked the Jewish community to drop Purim celebrations, pleading insufficient manpower to protect them after the Brussels attacks in March. The symbolism of the “Great Synagogue of Europe” in the political capital of our continent cancelling service
on a major Jewish holiday was shattering.

By dedicating themselves to defending Jewish institutions across the country, the French security authorities have shown that they recognise that paranoid anti-Semitism is a threat to civilised values everywhere. As soon as the rest of the world wakes up to this, and ensures that Jews never again have to flee persecution, the safer we will all be.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and the president of the Project for Democratic Union

Charlie Laderman is a research fellow at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. He is the author of “Sharing the Burden: Armenia and the Origins of Anglo-American Humanitarian Intervention, 1895-1923”, forthcoming from Oxford University Press

Note: This article was amended on 12 May. An earlier version wrongly stated that the Quran commands Muslims to kill Jews and Christians and that the Hamas charter quotes a Quranic verse urging Muslims to “fight the Jews and kill them”. These quotations are from the hadith.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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