6 April 2022

The Ukraine invasion has shown up the moral bankruptcy of the ‘anti-imperialist’ left

By Dave Rich

One of the least important, but most nauseating, consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the light it has shone on the moral bankruptcy of what passes for anti-imperialist politics on parts of the British left.

Some of these people said America brought 9/11 on itself. Some made excuses for al-Qaeda and for the Taliban, chanted ‘We are all Hezbollah’ and think of Hamas as a progressive liberation movement.

This is also the part of the left that spent years ignoring or denying the overwhelming evidence of antisemitism in the Labour Party, and that parroted the Kremlin’s conspiracy theories over who really used chemical weapons against civilians in Syria and Salisbury. No wonder they find it so easy to pivot to questioning the evidence of Russian atrocities in Bucha.

Take David Miller, who was a professor at Bristol University until he was sacked last October following various antisemitic comments about Jewish students. He was on Kremlin propaganda channel RT recently, claiming that the bombing of the Mariupol theatre never happened: apparently it was a ‘false flag’ designed to trick the watching public that the Russians are the bad guys.

Miller also appeared on Iran’s Press TV alongside the rapper Lowkey and former Labour MP Chris Williamson to discuss just how pro-Nazi, exactly, the Ukrainian state and its Jewish president is. According to Lowkey the mainstream media has ‘weaponised the Jewish heritage’ of President Zelenskyy to mask Ukraine’s Nazism. Lowkey’s previous work has included conspiracy theories about 9/11 and memorable lines about Israel like ‘every coin is a bullet if you’re Marks & Spencer’ and how buying coffee from Starbucks funds ‘the Zionist lobby’.

For this, he gets to be a patron of the Stop The War Coalition and of Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace & Justice Project.

Lowkey was recently forced to pull out of a performance at the national conference of the National Union of Students, and there is now a campaign to have his music removed from Spotify. There is a legitimate debate to be had about whether his views should be protected free speech, and where this all sits within the broader back-and-forth over cancel culture on left and right.

But that is not the defence that is being mounted. Instead, we are back to the bad old days of circling the wagons and euphemising anything that, however tangentially, involves Israel and Zionism as mere ‘criticism of Israel’.

Naturally, the Stop The War Coalition tweeted their ‘solidarity’ with Lowkey and called him ‘one of the most important voices in our movement’. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign claimed he is the target of a ‘disingenuous’ campaign of ‘slander’ aiming ‘to define criticism of Israel outside of a very narrow proscribed framework as inherently antisemitic’. Former Labour MP Laura Pidcock and Tommy Corbyn voiced their support, and a host of artists and musicians have put their names to a letter in aid of the British rapper.

A similar thing has happened with Professor Miller. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign backed him when he was sacked, as have hundreds of academics. Since then, Miller has claimed that ‘Zionists’ in Britain want to ‘colonise every single public institution…there has been a long, long history of Zionist attempts to penetrate this country and to take on and to colonise parts of the power structure of this country’. This even includes ‘the whole of the British anti-racist movement’ which he claims has been ‘contaminated’ by contact with ‘Zionists’.

Oh, and according to Miller there is a ‘Zionist stranglehold over the top of the music industry’.

If this level of antisemitic conspiracism doesn’t put people off, nothing will.

As Mitchell Cohen wrote in an essay for Dissent nearly 15 years ago, this is the left that doesn’t learn. Much of the Labour Party’s struggle over antisemitism under Corbyn’s leadership was rooted in a stubborn refusal to view anything that came from within its walls as antisemitic.

There was an inability to understand just how bizarre and cranky some of these views were. Instead, every criticism was dismissed as a smear, a scam or part of a Tory-Zionist-Blairite plot to bring them down.

The Labour Party learnt its lesson and has done much to excise the poison. This could have been a moment for the more radical parts of the left – including some trade unions and university departments – to do the same. Instead, they are stuck in a zombie leftism where people take Stalin flags to May Day rallies and think they are supporting freedom.

Antisemitism is only a fragment of this repulsive politics, that stands opposed to many of the left’s own traditions. Liberalism, democracy and human rights were the left’s great causes for much of the twentieth century. Now they stand in mortal struggle against Putin’s looming totalitarianism.

A truly internationalist left with a moral compass would know which side of that fight it ought to be on. 

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Dr Dave Rich is Director of Policy at the Community Security Trust and author of The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Antisemitism.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.