Excusing racism, sexism or antisemitism — the SWP is just one example
[NB: The materials herein are freely available in the public domain, and this is produced as an educational resource for antiracists and antifascists.]
A racist and the SWP
In 2005, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, the Socialist workers Party put out a statement defending Gilad Atzmon.
In the intervening years Atzmon went full-on into Holocaust denial, as was predictable in the early part of the 2000s.
But we all know of his racism, it’s been documented and commented on by HOPE not Hate, etc
I have reproduce their statement as a matter of public record, but it is kept for eternity at the Way Back machine, as a reminder that anyone can indulge antisemites. Anyone.
However, I really wanted to comment on one particular passage, which comes of time and again when someone has been caught with their trousers down around antisemites and antisemitism.
The SWP 2005 statement:
“21 June 2005
Gilad Atzmon and Marxism 2005
There has been some controversy surrounding our invitation for the musician Gilad Atzmon to perform at Marxism 2005. One or two small groups are claiming that Gilad is an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. We would like to state the following:
Gilad Atzmon is an Israeli born Jew who served in the Israeli Defence Force and who now lives in “self-exile” in Britain.
He is an internationally acclaimed jazz musician whose album Exile won BBC Best Jazz Album of 2003.
The SWP would also like to make it clear, that we would never give a platform to a racist or fascist. Our entire history has been one of fierce opposition to fascist organisations like the National Front and the British National Party. We played a prominent role in setting up the Anti Nazi League in the mid-1970s and Unite Against Fascism two years ago.
One of our members, Blair Peach, was killed on an anti-fascist demonstration in west London in 1979. Our founding member, Tony Cliff, was Jewish and, like many of his generation, lost many members of his family in the Holocaust. Nazis in the British National Party and National Front have targeted our members for attack. In the last three weeks we have helped initiate two vigils in response to anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish cemeteries in Manchester and east London. Across the country our members are involved in campaigns to defend asylum seekers, oppose police brutality and defend communities from scapegoating.
We have a record of opposing fascism, anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, that is second to none.
The SWP does not believe that Gilad Atzmon is a Holocaust denier or racist. However, while defending Gilad’s right to play and speak on public platforms that in no way means we endorse all of Gilad’s views. We think that some of the formulations on his website might encourage his readers to feel that he is blurring the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti Zionism. In fact we have publicly challenged and argued against those of his ideas we disagree with.
We do not believe that Gilad should be “banned” from performing or speaking. “No Platform” is a principle that the left has always reserved for fascists and organised racists. Where other disagreements occur, the left, with the same vigour, has defended the right to freedom of speech, debate and the clash of ideas.”
Spotting the issue
In many ways approaches towards sexism and antisemitism are similar. To spot these nasty attitudes we need to be sensitive to them.
We need to have the ability to recognise the episode or instance in the first place. It is a requirement, it is a must. That is not a skill that everyone has, or is even willing to acknowledge a deficiency in that area.
For example, to appreciate societal misogyny fully we need to understand sexist imagery, sexist memes and the narratives that relates how women are viewed in society. And, I would argue, that applies when the topic is antisemitism and Jews albeit with understandable differences.
Moreover, we see similar forms of language used when instances of sexism or antisemitism have occurred and need to be dismissed or explained away.
Formularistic “antiracism” and anti-sexism
Compare these sentences:
1. “We have a record of opposing fascism, anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, that is second to none.”
2. “That’s why the fight against that oppression must be a central concern to anyone who wants to do away with capitalism, and [we], women and men, have always been leading in battles for equal pay, for abortion rights, against sexism on university campuses, and against the monstrous way the police and courts treat women.”
3. “…has a reputation for being transparent and taking responsibility for our actions, but last week we did neither. There’s no excuse. We can do a lot better.”
4. [Our] “…commitment against anti-Semitism is and always has been absolute and unconditional.”
Notice the linguistical trick employed in each case, to bolster their own reputation, then to say how they are really against sexism/racism/sexism and go off somewhere else.
The first example is the SWP’s statement exculpating Gilad Atzmon. The second is from Julie Sherry, SWP central committee member, trying to dismiss complaints about sexist and rape culture in the SWP.
The third is from Github over the long term harassment of women by senior staff within Github. Read it, the parallels with the SWP and parts of the Left are uncanny.
It is hard to say why there is such an inability to come clean on these issues. I imagine in most instances it comes down to: ego, insecurity and a profound unwillingness to learn, not malice.
We regularly hear “it must never happen again”, but it often does.
That is true for institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police, sexism and misogyny in the technology sector, or in the British Left when it comes to understanding concerns on antisemitism.
It might be from a sense of entitlement, arrogance or sheer ignorance, the idea that these dedicated individuals could, ever, ever make a mistake seems beyond them.
However, as we mature we learn to take responsibility, we accept we are not infallible, we know to err is very human and unless we can admit our own faults we will learn little or nothing.
Still, not everyone or every organisation matures and looking across the pond to Donald Trump should remind us what the alternatives are.
[The post was originally posted on Medium on 3rd July 2017.]