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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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Losing Momentum: how Jeremy Corbyn’s support group ran out of steam

Tom Watson says it is destroying Labour. Its supporters say it is a vital force for change. Our correspondent spent six months following the movement, and asks: what is the truth about Momentum?

1. The Bus

 The bus to the Momentum conference in Liverpool leaves at seven on a Sunday morning in late September from Euston Station, and the whole journey feels like a parody of a neoliberal play about the failings of socialism. We depart an hour late because activists have overslept and we cannot go without them. As we wait we discuss whether Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected leader of the Labour Party this very day. One man says not; a young, jolly girl with blonde hair cries: “Don’t say that on Jezmas!” She is joking, at least about “Jezmas”.

A man walks up. “Trots?” he says, calmly. He is joking, too; and I wonder if he says it because the idea of Momentum is more exciting to outsiders than the reality, and he knows it; there is an awful pleasure in being misunderstood. Momentum was formed in late 2015 to build on Corbyn’s initial victory in the Labour leadership election, and it is perceived as a ragtag army of placard-waving Trots, newly engaged clicktivists and Corbyn fanatics.

We leave, and learn on the M1 that, in some terrible metaphor, the coach is broken and cannot drive at more than 20mph. So we wait for another coach at a service station slightly beyond Luton. “Sabotage,” says one man. He is joking, too. We get off; another man offers me his vegan bread and we discuss Karl Marx.

A new coach arrives and I listen to the others discuss Jeremy Corbyn’s problems. No one talks about his polling, because that is depressing and unnecessary for their purpose – which, here, is dreaming. They talk about Corbyn as addicts talk about a drug. Nothing can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault. “There are problems with the press office,” says one. “Perhaps he needs better PAs?” says another.

One man thinks there will be a non-specific revolution: “I hope it won’t be violent,” he frets. “There have been violent revolutions in the past.” “I stuck it out during Blair and it was worth it,” says another. “They’ve had their go.” “We don’t need them [the Blairites],” says a third. “If new members come in, it will sort itself out,” says a fourth.

I have heard this before. Momentum supporters have told me that Labour does not need floating voters, who are somehow tainted because they dare to float. This seems to me a kind of madness. I do not know how the Labour Party will win a general election in a parliamentary democracy without floating voters; and I don’t think these people do, either.

But this is a coach of believers. Say you are not sure that Corbyn can win a general election and they scowl at you. That you are in total agreement with them is assumed, because this is the solidarity bus; and if you are in total agreement with them they are the sweetest people in the world.

That is why I do not tell them that I am a journalist. I am afraid to, and this fear baffles me. I have gone everywhere as a journalist but with these, my fellow-travellers on the left, I am scared to say it; and that, too, frightens me. MSM, they might call me – mainstream media. What it really means is: collaborator.

The man beside me has been ill. He talks sweetly about the potential renewal of society under Corbyn’s Labour as a metaphor for his own recovery, and this moves him; he has not been involved in politics until now. I like this man very much, until I mention the Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger and the anti-Semitism she has suffered from Corbyn supporters and others; and he says, simply, that she has been employed by the state of Israel. He says nothing else about her, as if there were nothing else to say.

We listen to the results of the leadership election on the radio; we should be in Liverpool at the Black-E community centre to celebrate, but the solidarity bus is late. Corbyn thanks his supporters. “You’re welcome, Jeremy,” says a woman in the front row, as if he were on the coach. She nods emphatically, and repeats it to the man who isn’t there: “You’re welcome, Jeremy.”

In Liverpool, some of the passengers sleep on the floor at a community centre. The venue has been hired for that purpose: this is Momentum’s commitment to opening up politics to the non-connected, the previously non-engaged, and the outsiders who will attend their conference in a deconsecrated church, even as the official Labour conference convenes a mile away. But never mind that: this is the one that matters, and it is called The World Transformed.

 

2. The Conference

Later that day, outside the Black-E, a man comes up to me. Are you happy, he asks, which is a normal question here. These are, at least partly, the politics of feelings: we must do feelings, because the Tories, apparently, don’t. I say I’m worried about marginal seats, specifically that Jeremy – he is always Jeremy, the use of his Christian name is a symbol of his goodness, his accessibility and his singularity – cannot win them.

“The polls aren’t his fault,” the man says, “it’s [Labour] people briefing the Tories that he is unelectable.” I do not think it’s that simple but it’s easy to feel like an idiot – or a monster – here, where there is such conviction. As if there is something that only you, the unconvinced, have missed: that Jeremy, given the right light, hat or PA, could lead a socialist revolution in a country where 13 million people watched Downton Abbey.

But the man does say something interesting which I hope is true. “This is not about Jeremy, not really,” he says. “It is about what he represents.” He means Momentum can survive without him.

There is a square hall with trade union banners and a shop that sells Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, as well as a Corbyn-themed colouring book. When I am finally outed as a journalist, and made to wear a vast red badge that says PRESS, I attempt to buy one. “That’s all journalists are interested in,” the proprietor says angrily. That is one of our moral stains, apparently: a disproportionate (and sinister) interest in colouring books.

I go to the Black Lives Matter event. A woman talks about the experience of black students in universities and the impact of austerity on the black community. Another woman tells us that her five-year-old son wishes he was white; we listen while she cries. I go to the feminism meeting and change my mind about the legalisation of prostitution after a woman’s testimony about reporting an assault, and then being assaulted again by a police officer because of her legal status. Then I hear a former miner tell a room how the police nearly killed him on a picket line, and then arrested him.

This, to me, a veteran of party conferences, is extraordinary, although it shouldn’t be, and the fact that I am surprised is shameful. Momentum is full of the kinds of ­people you never see at political events: that is, the people politics is for. Women, members of minority communities (but not Zionist Jews, naturally), the disabled: all are treated with exaggerated courtesy, as if the Black-E had established a mirror world of its choosing, where everything outside is inverted.

When Corbyn arrives he does not orate: he ruminates. “We are not going to cascade poverty from generation to generation,” he says. “We are here to transform society and the world.” I applaud his sentiment; I share it. I just wish I could believe he can deliver it outside, in the other world. So I veer ­between hope and fury; between the certainty that they will achieve nothing but an eternal Conservative government, and the ever-nagging truth that makes me stay: what else is there?

There is a rally on Monday night. Momentum members discuss the “purges” of socialist and communist-leaning members from Labour for comments they made on social media, and whether détente is possible. A nurse asks: “How do we know that ‘wipe the slate clean’ means the same for us as it does for them? How on Earth can we trust the likes of Hilary Benn who dresses himself up in the rhetoric of socialism to justify bombing Syria? The plotters who took the olive branch offered by Jeremy to stab him in the back with another chicken coup?” I am not sure where she is going with that gag, or if it is even a gag.

The next man to speak had been at the Labour party conference earlier in the day; he saw Len McCluskey, John McDonnell and Clive Lewis on the platform. “Don’t be pessimistic, folks,” he cries. “On the floor of conference today we owned the party. Progress [the centrist Labour pressure group] are the weirdos now. We own the party!”

A man from Hammersmith and Fulham Momentum is next. “The national committee of Momentum was not elected by conference,” he says. “It’s a committee meeting knocked up behind closed doors by leading people on the left, including our two heroes.” He means Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. This is explicit heresy, and the chair interrupts him: “Stan, Stan . . .” “I’m winding up!” he says. “We need a central committee of Momentum elected by conference,” he says, and sits down.

The following day Corbyn speaks in the hall in front of golden balloons that spell out S-H-E-E-P. It may be another gag, but who can tell, from his face? This is his commitment to not doing politics the recognisable way. He is the man who walks by himself, towards balloons that say S-H-E-E-P. (They are advertising the band that will follow him. They are called, and dressed as, sheep.) The nobility of it, you could say. Or the idiocy. He mocks the mockers of Momentum: is it, he was asked by the mainstream media, full of extremists and entryists? “I’m not controlling any of it,” he says calmly, and in this calmness is all the Twitter-borne aggression that people complain of when they talk about Momentum, for he enables it with his self-satisfied smile. “It’s not my way to try and control the way people do things. I want people to come together.” He laughs, because no one can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault.

I meet many principled people in Liverpool whose testimony convinces me, and I didn’t need convincing, that austerity is a national disaster. I meet only one person who thinks that Momentum should take over the Labour Party. The maddest suggestion I hear is that all media should be state-controlled so that they won’t be rude about a future Corbyn government and any tribute colouring books.

 

3. The HQ

Momentum HQ is in the TSSA transport and travel union building by Euston Station in London. I meet Jon Lansman, Tony Benn’s former fixer and the founder of Momentum, in a basement room in October. Lansman, who read economics at Cambridge, lived on the fringes of Labour for 30 years before volunteering for Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership.

The terms are these: I can ask whatever I want, but afterwards James Schneider, the 29-year-old national organiser (who has since left to work for Corbyn’s press team), will decide what I can and cannot print. ­Momentum HQ wants control of the message; with all the talk of entryism and infighting reported in the mainstream media, the movement needs it.

There is a civil war between Jon Lansman and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) and other far-left factions, which, I am told, “wish to organise in an outdated manner out of step with the majority of Momentum members”. Some of the Momentum leadership believe that the AWL and its allies want to use Momentum to found a new party to the left of Labour. Jill Mountford, then a member of Momentum’s steering committee, has been expelled from Labour for being a member of the AWL. It screams across the blogs and on Facebook; more parody. We don’t talk about that – Schneider calls it “Kremlinology”. It is a problem, yes, but it is not insurmountable. We talk about the future, and the past.

So, Lansman. I look at him. The right considers him an evil Bennite wizard to be feared and mocked; the far left, a Stalinist, which seems unfair. It must be exhausting. I see a tired, middle-aged man attending perhaps his fifteenth meeting in a day. His hair is unruly. He wears a T-shirt.

The last Labour government, he says, did one thing and said another: “Wanting a liberal immigration policy while talking tough about refugees and migrants. Having a strong welfare policy and generous tax credits while talking about ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’ unfortunately shifted opinion the wrong way.”

It also alienated the party membership: “Their approach was based on ensuring that everyone was on-message with high levels of control.” It was an “authoritarian structure even in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party]. Even in the cabinet. It killed off the enthusiasm of the membership. They never published the figures in 2009 because it dropped below 100,000. We’ve now got 600,000.” (The membership has since dropped to roughly 528,000.)

And the strategy? “If you have hundreds of thousands of people having millions of conversations with people in communities and workplaces you can change opinion,” he says. “That’s the great advantage of ­having a mass movement. And if we can change the Labour Party’s attitude to its members and see them as a resource – not a threat or inconvenience.”

That, then, is the strategy: street by street and house by house. “We can’t win on the back of only the poorest and only the most disadvantaged,” he says. “We have to win the votes of skilled workers and plenty of middle-class people, too – but they are all suffering from some aspects of Tory misrule.”

I ask about polling because, at the time, a Times/YouGov poll has Labour on 27 per cent to the Tories’ 41 per cent. He doesn’t mind. “It was,” he says, “always going to be a very hard battle to win the next election. I think everyone across the party will privately admit that.” He doesn’t think that if Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham were leader they would be polling any better.

Upstairs the office is full of activists. They are young, rational and convincing (although, after the Copeland by-election on 23 February, I will wonder if they are only really convincing themselves). They talk about their membership of 20,000, and 150 local groups, and 600,000 Labour Party members, and the breadth of age and background of the volunteers – from teenagers to people in their eighties. One of them – Ray Madron, 84 – paints his hatred of Tony Blair like a portrait in the air. He has a ­marvellously posh voice. Most of all, they talk about the wounds of austerity. Where, they want to know, is the anger? They are searching for it.

Emma Rees, a national organiser, speaks in the calm, precise tones of the schoolteacher she once was. “A lot of people are sick and tired of the status quo, of politics as usual, and I think trying to do things differently is hard because there isn’t a road map and it’s not clear exactly what you’re supposed to do,” she says. She adds: “It is a coalition of different sorts of people and holding all those people together can sometimes be a challenge.”

Is she alluding to entryism? One activist, who asks not to be named, says: “I don’t want to insult anyone, but if you rounded up all the members of the Socialist Workers Party [SWP] and the Socialist Party and any other ultra-left sect, you could probably fit them in one room. Momentum has 20,000 members.”

The SWP were outside at The World Transformed in Liverpool, I say, like an ambivalent picket line. “Well,” James Schneider says pointedly, “they were outside.”

Momentum, Emma Rees says, “is seeking to help the Labour Party become that transformative party that will get into government but doesn’t fall back on that tried and failed way of winning elections”.

They tell me this repeatedly, and it is true: no one knows what will work. “The people who criticised us don’t have any route to electability, either,” says Joe Todd, who organises events for Momentum. He is a tall, bespectacled man with a kindly, open face.

“They lost two elections before Jeremy Corbyn. It’s obvious we need to do something differently,” he says. “Politics feels distant for most people: it doesn’t seem to offer any hope for real change.

“The left has been timid and negative. More and more people are talking about how we can transform society, and how these transformations link to people’s everyday experience. Build a movement like that,” Todd says, and his eyes swell, “and all the old rules of politics – the centre ground, swing constituencies to a certain extent – are blown out of the water.”

Momentum sends me, with a young volunteer as chaperone, to a rally in Chester in October to watch activists try to muster support for local hospitals. They set up a stall in the centre of the shopping district, with its mad dissonance of coffee shops and medieval houses. From what I can see, people – yet far too few people – listen politely to the speeches about austerity and sign up for more information; but I can hear the hum of internal dissent when an activist, who asks not to be named, tells me he will work for the local Labour MP to be deselected. (The official Momentum line on deselection is, quite rightly, that it is a matter for local parties.)

We will not know what matters – is it effective? – until the general election, because no one knows what will work.

 

4. The Fallout

Now comes the result of the by-election in Copeland in the north-west of England, and the first time since 1982 that a ruling government has taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election. Momentum canvassed enthusiastically (they sent 85 carloads of activists to the constituency) but they failed, and pronounce themselves “devastated”. The whispers – this time of a “soft” coup against Corbyn – begin again.

Rees describes calls for Jeremy Corbyn to resign as “misguided. Labour’s decline long pre-dates Corbyn’s leadership.”

This produces a furious response from Luke Akehurst, a former London Labour ­councillor in Hackney, on labourlist.org. He insists that Labour’s decline has accelerated under Corbyn; that even though Rees says that “Labour has been haemorrhaging votes in election after election in Copeland since 1997”, the majority increased in 2005 and the number of votes rose in 2010, despite an adverse boundary change. “This,” he writes, “was a seat where the Labour vote was remarkably stable at between 16,750 and 19,699 in every general election between 2001 and 2015, then fell off a cliff to 11,601, a third of it going AWOL, last Thursday.”

And he adds that “‘85 carloads of Mom­entum activists’ going to Copeland is just increasing the party’s ability to record whose votes it has lost”.

But still they plan, and believe, even if no one knows what will work; surely there is some antidote to Mayism, if they search every street in the UK? Momentum’s national conference, which was repeatedly postponed, is now definitively scheduled for 25 March. Stan who complained about a democratic deficit within Momentum at The World Transformed got his way. So did Lansman. In January the steering committee voted to dissolve Momentum’s structures and introduce a constitution, after consulting the membership. A new national co-ordinating group has been elected, and met for the first time on 11 March – although, inevitably, a group called Momentum Grassroots held a rival meeting that very day.

I go to the Euston offices for a final briefing. There, two young women – Sophie and Georgie, and that will make those who think in parodies laugh – tell me that, in future, only members of the Labour Party will be allowed to join Momentum, and existing members must join Labour by 1 July. Those expelled from Labour “may be deemed to have resigned from Momentum after 1 July” – but they will have a right to a hearing.

More details of the plan are exposed when, a week later, a recording of Jon Lansman’s speech to a Momentum meeting in Richmond on 1 March is leaked to the Observer. Lansman told the Richmond branch that Momentum members must hold positions within the Labour Party to ensure that Corbyn’s successor – they are now talking about a successor – is to their liking. He also said that, should Len McCluskey be re-elected as general secretary of Unite, the union would formally affiliate to Momentum.

Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the party, was furious when he found out, calling it “a private agreement to fund a political faction that is apparently planning to take control of the Labour Party, as well as organise in the GMB and Unison”.

There was then, I am told, “a short but stormy discussion at the away day at Unison” on Monday 20 March, where the inner circle of John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry “laid into” Watson, but Shami Chakrabarti made the peace; I would have liked to see that. Watson then released a bland joint statement with Corbyn which mentioned “a robust and constructive discussion about the challenges and opportunities ahead”.

Jon Lansman, of course, is more interesting. “This is a non-story,” he tells me. “Momentum is encouraging members to get active in the party, to support socialist policies and rule changes that would make Labour a more grass-roots and democratic party, and to campaign for Labour victories. There is nothing scandalous and sinister about that.” On the Labour right, Progress, he notes, does exactly the same thing. “Half a million members could be the key to our success,” he says. “They can take our message to millions. But they want to shape policy, too. I wouldn’t call giving them a greater say ‘taking over the party’” – and this is surely unanswerable – “it’s theirs to start with.”

Correction: This article originally named Luke Akehurst as a Labour councillor. Akehurst stood down in 2014.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution