If the last few years or so have taught us a couple of things, it is surely that the phrase "life-long anti-racist" will never quite have the same ring to it again, and that nothing should surprise us from the Labour Party. However, on first seeing news of that party's latest scandal trickling over Twitter late last night, I genuinely thought it must be the result of some sort bizarre misunderstanding. But it turned out to be true: the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had been found to have been the author of a foreword to a 2011 reprint of the 1902 book Imperialism, by the economist John Atkinson Hobson - a book he describes as "brilliant," and "a great tome," yet one whose central argument is underpinned by antisemitism. I confess I had never read Hobson before this sorry affair - nor, I imagine, had many of the book's (or Corbyn's) supporters or detractors - but the reading I have done since has left me sick to my stomach. Though, considering that this is a man who happily took £20,000 to present programmes on Iranian State tv (whose regime was pledging to annihilate the world's only Jewish state and hanging people for the crime of being gay) and the calibre of people he has openly supported in the past, it should hardly have come as a surprise that the Labour leader would endorse this book.
The initial responses from the JC fanbase were typically sycophantic and evasive, and almost all to the effect that, although he praised the book, and provided its foreword, Jeremy had probably not actually read it, or understood it, and in all probability knew nothing of its author's views. This ridiculous defence soon collapsed with the further revelation that he had, in fact, presented a talk on the book for the London Socialist Historians group in December 2010.
Of course, there is an argument that the prejudiced attitudes of yesteryear might be perceived within the context of their time, a claim for which I have some time - but this ignores that Corbyn, far from holding the economists of the early 20th Century to a lower moral standard than today's, can be highly critical of colonial attitudes when it suits. He cites Hobson's railing against the commercial interest that fuel the role of the popular press with imperial might that then lead on to racist cariacatures of African and Asian peoples...and argues that the way in which the British press portrayed Gandhi in the 1930's, or Kenyatta in the 1950's, or, indeed, Argentina's soldiers and sailors in the 1980's, shows that the tricks have not changed dramatically. But his concern ebbs away when the cariacature in question pertains to men of a single and peculiar race, who have behind them many centuries of financial experience (and are) in a unique position to manipulate the policy of nations.
This antisemitic tone leads into an even more blatant slab of cliche, reading almost like something out of the Victor Orban book of conspiracy theories:
Does anyone seriously suppose that a great war could be undertaken by any European state, or a state loan subscribed, if the house of Rothschild and its connections set their face against it?
Those who defend Corbyn by pleading that his foreword does not imply agreement with all the author's views miss the point. There seems to be some (willing?) confusion as to why the foreword is so troubling. The problem is not in celebrating the writings, or extolling the ideas, of an economist who also happened to be an antisemite, but in specifically endorsing a text whose central arguments appear to be defined by it.
There is a tiresome discussion which does the rounds in poetry circles every now and then, usually when poets have run out of other things to talk about, in which they furrow their brows and bite their nails over the rights and wrongs of enjoying poetry written by people who weren't very nice.
Its an unpopular view these days, especially in academic circles, where
textual objectivity is taken almost as an article of faith, and the
existence of authors almost seen as an inconvenience, but I am prone to
intepret a text with at least one eye on the significance of the
author's life and background. I find it can be refreshing and interesting to sample the different worldviews of diverse ranges of people. This does not imply endorsement or agreement.
There is a world of difference between, for example, providing a scholarly analysis into, a celebration, or indeed a foreword to, the works of TS Eliot, whose poetry in so far as it was influenced by his politics, betrays this influence elliptically or subconsciously, or even that of a poet such as unrepentant antisemite Ezra Pound, and choosing to ignore or acknowledge the unpleasant attitudes these poets, and endorsing a work which itself promotes antisemitism. I would find it impossible to provide any sort of sympathetic, or even
objective, analysis of a book of poems by, for sake of argument, Nick
Griffin. I should feel categorically
unable to lend my time in any way to boosting the ego, bank balance or
intellectual esteem of such a racist. However, it would still be
possible to argue the case for doing so provided the reviewer were
satisfied that the poetry in question did not promote the kind of
political message with which its author was usually associated. As
unpalatable as I would consider such an excercise to be, it may be
posited that author and text were separate, seperated, entities. What
would be morally indefensible would be a promotion of a book of poems
whose theme and message purported hate, especially if failing to draw attention to any offending passages - since it is impossible to do so without, by definition, promoting that hate, given that it serves as the bedrock of the book's thematic hub. The views of an economist who believes in a worldwide, warmongering conspiracy engineered by one particular race, cannot but be shaped by this warped belief.
I am aghast that some intelligent people seem unable to grasp this. Those taking to twitter to demand that, if we are to condemn Corbyn for endorsing Hobson's hate, we must remove Oliver Twist from schools for its depiction of a Jew, or the whataboutery merchants pointing out that figures from the Left, Right and Centre have referenced Hobson and quoted from his works, seem to be deliberately avoiding the fact that Corbyn's foreword does not seek to contextualize the economist, or to distance himself from Hobson's unpleasant views. As I have stated, I have some time for the idea of accepting the views of an author within historical context. Corbyn does not - his foreword for Hobson explicitly draws critical attention to contemporaneous stereotyping.
The language Hobson uses to describe the Jews (the above quotations are taken from a chapter entitled The Economic Parasites of Imperialism) is troubling, and it is not suprising that the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has written to Jeremy Corbyn to request an explanation as to why he would endorse it. His party are under investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the only party to have been so other than the openly fascist BNP. I am among those for whom the Labour Party, even when I did not vote for them (the last time I did was 2015), were generally considered as a bastion against racism, and a general force for good. My own father was briefly a party member in the 60's. But the last few years have altered everything. Even in my own back yard, antisemitism from the party has reared its head - culminating in the forced resignation of a mayoral candidate who had posted antisemitic conspiracy theories blaming Israel for 9/11, accusing "the Rothschilds" of backing ISIS, and denying the Holocaust. Elements of the local poetry circuit have become a kind of extended Corbyn fan club, leaving me feeling disconnected and unwelcome in my own town. It is, however, surely wrong to pin this phenomenon squarely on one man - it is an endemic, party-specific problem, and one which shows no sign of abating.