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Corbyn, Anti-Semitism and the Radical Critics of Imperialism.   Leave a comment

Imperial theorist J. A. Hobson. Photograph: Elliott & Fry/Getty Images

Introduction – The Clash of World Views:

This May Day morning, another row erupted within the British Labour Party over the proximity of its leader’s ‘world-view’ to those of radical anti-Semites in the party since its beginnings. An article by Danny Finkelstein (pictured above) has drawn attention to the foreword to a recent republication of J A Hobson’s influential 1902 ‘Imperialism’, written by Jeremy Corbyn which, apparently, lauded Hobson’s radical critique of imperialism, while failing to acknowledge the problems it raised and continues to raise in respect of anti-Semitism. Hobson argued in the book that global finance was controlled in Europe by “men of a single and peculiar race, who have behind them many centuries of financial experience”, who were “in a unique position to control the policy”. By contrast with Corbyn’s 2011 preface, books written by historians Bernard Porter (1984) and Niall Ferguson on imperialism have drawn attention to these problems in the context in which Hobson himself was writing. I have given some examples below, which I first wrote about in an article on the Cecil Rhodes controversy at Oxford elsewhere on my website.

 

Extracts from Niall Ferguson’s (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World:

So close was Rhodes’s relationship with the Rothschilds that he even entrusted the execution of his will to Lord Rothschild, specifying that his estate should be used to fund an imperialist equivalent of the Jesuit order – the original intention of the Rhodes Scholarships. This would be ‘a society of the elect for the good of the Empire’… Rothschild, in turn, assured;

‘Our first and foremost wish in connection with South African matters is that you should remain at the head of affairs in that Colony and that you should be able to carry out that great Imperial policy which has been the dream of your life’.

Not only was imperialism immoral, argued the critics, but, according to these ‘Radicals’, it was also a rip-off: paid for by British taxpayers, fought for by British soldiers, but benefiting only a tiny elite of fat-cat millionaires, the likes of Rhodes and Rothschild. That was the thrust of J. A. Hobson’s profoundly influential ‘Imperialism: A Study’, published in 1902. ‘Every great political act’ argued Hobson,

‘must receive the sanction and the practical aid of this little group of financial kings… They have the largest definite stake in the business of Imperialism, and the amplest means of forcing their will upon the policy of nations… Finance is the governor of the imperial engine, directing the energy and determining the work.’

H. N. Brailsford, another contemporary radical, took Hobson’s argument further in his ‘The War of Steel and Gold: A Study of the Armed Peace’, (written in 1910, but not published until 1914). ‘In the heroic age,’ Brailsford wrote,

‘Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships. In our golden age the face wears more often the shrewd features of some Hebrew financier. To defend the interests of Lord Rothschild and his fellow bondholders, Egypt was first occupied and then practically annexed by Great Britain… The extremest case of all is, perhaps, our own South African War.’

Was it not obvious that the war had been fought to ensure that the gold mines of the Transvaal remained securely in the hands of their capitalist owners? Was not Rhodes merely, in the words of the Radical MP Henry Labouchere, an…

‘… Empire jerry-builder who had always been a mere vulgar promoter masquerading as a patriot, and the figurehead of a gang of astute Hebrew financiers with whom he divides the profits?’

Like those modern conspiracy theories which explain every war in terms of the control of oil reserves, the Radical critique of imperialism was an over-simplification (Hobson and Brailsford little knew what a liability Rhodes had been during the siege of Kimberley.) And like those other modern theories that attribute sinister power to certain financial institutions, some anti-imperialism conveyed more than a hint of anti-Semitism. (283-4)

The ‘Crux’ of the Issue:

Above: Image from a map of the world in 1900, showing the extent of the British Empire.

In this last comment by Niall Ferguson, we reach the crux of the issue. Certainly, Rhodes was a colonialist and imperialist, as were most leading figures of his day, not just within the British Empire, but within all the European empires. In Africa, as noted here, the French were equally aggressive in their pursuit of land and resources, and the Belgians and subsequently the Italians also used what, even within the terms of this ‘scramble’ were excessive means against the native African populations. That is not to justify the actions that Rhodes was involved in, but just to place them in a broader context. It also needs to be noticed that his while his strategy for developing Rhodesia was a classical colonialist one, through the control of trading companies, his involvement in the Transvaal and later in the relief of Kimberley was concerned with achieving British supremacy over a white race, the Boers and that, if anything, his attitudes towards the original natives were far more liberal than those of the Afrikaners, certainly than those of Kruger. There is also evidence that, as a businessman, he retained a practical antipathy for everyday racial discrimination. On this question, he should not be judged by today’s standards, but as living at a time when theories of racial hierarchy and paternalism were dominant throughout Britain and Europe.

These theories are certainly evident in the architecture of Oxford, Bristol, Liverpool, London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and other cities which grew rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. If every surviving reminder of slavers, colonialists and imperialists were to be torn down, the city-scapes of Britain would look radically different, and greatly impoverished. More importantly, much of modern human history has been about the replacement of one great ‘construct’ with another, whether in economics, politics, or art and architecture. As Niall Ferguson has pointed out in more recent and specific publications on the issue, the liberal imperialism of the late Victorian period was criticised by Radicals who revealed themselves as overtly anti-Semitic. The new empires of fascists and communists which characterised the 1930s and 1940s were far more universally destructive than the old ones, yet we do not seek to remove every trace of them. Finally, far from being an ‘architect of apartheid’, as recently asserted in the Oxford student debates over the potential removal of his statue there, there is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ between the imperialism of Rhodes and his contemporaries in Africa and the post-1948 racist regimes in Southern Africa. They drew their inspiration from a heretical view of sectarian Calvinism which was very far removed from the Victorian ‘Anglican’ paternalism of ‘the white man’s burden’ to which Rhodes subscribed.

In an article in ‘The Guardian’ (1 May 2019) another academic historian has pointed out how deeply Hobson’s hatred of all forms of imperialism ran, and his book is certainly a compelling read, an essential one for all undergraduates studying the dominant themes and events of the first half of the twentieth century. Taylor, a professor in modern history at the University of York, wrote in his article that:

“He understood the terrible consequences of European conquest overseas like no one before. He described how jingoism and support for empire inveigled its way into popular culture at home via the media and populist politicians. It remains a signature text and influenced Lenin, the philosopher Karl Kautsky, the political economist Joseph Schumpeter and other classics of the anticolonial canon. Hobson himself went on to become an éminence grise within the Labour party after the first world war, helping draft its economic policy as it entered government for the first time in 1924. He was later tipped for a peerage.

“However, his antisemitism is inseparable from his attack on imperialism. Only alluded to once in the book to which Jeremy Corbyn added his thoughts, Hobson’s virulent assault on Jews is a recurrent theme of another book that first brought him fame and acclaim, 1900’s The War in South Africa. Sent out to cover the Boer war for this newspaper when it was known as the Manchester Guardian, Hobson let rip his racism. Reporting on his visits to Pretoria and Johannesburg towards the end of 1899, he mocked Judaism, described the control of the gambling and liquor industries by Jews, and their behind-the-scenes influence over the warmongering newspapers. Indeed, “the Jewish factor” received an index entry all of its own in this book. Without The War in South Africa, and its antisemitism, Hobson would not have shocked his way into the public eye and received the commission for his most famous work of all.”

Today the Labour Party seeks to draw a line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that few would have understood a hundred years ago. The Radical anti-imperialists like Hobson had a direct influence on the development of the early Labour Party’s foreign policy. By the mid-twenties, there were those within the Labour Party, like the Fabian Beatrice Webb, who began to question the aims of the Zionist movement:

… I admire Jews and dislike Arabs. But the Zionist movement seems to me a gross violation of the right of the native to remain where he was born and his father and grandfather were born – if there is such a right. To talk about the return of the Jew to the land of his inheritance after an absence of two thousand years seems to me sheer… hypocritical nonsense. From whom were descended those Russian and Polish Jews?

The principle which is really being asserted is the principle of selecting races for particular territories according to some ‘peculiar needs or particular fitness’. Or it may be some ideal of communal life to be realised by subsidised migration. But this process of artificially creating new communities of immigrants, brought from many parts of the world, is rather hard on the indigenous natives!

In other statements, Beatrice Webb was also quite open about her antipathy for Zionism. In 1929, the new Labour government in Britain appeared to repudiate the Balfour Declaration. Beatrice’s husband, Sidney Webb, by then Lord Passfield and Colonial Secretary, published a white paper which threatened to restrict Jewish immigration and the sale of Palestinian lands to Jews. This was viewed as a provocative act, and was greeted by a furore of protests from Zionists worldwide, from Conservative imperialists in Britain and from some Labour MPs. This enabled the Zionists to sweep away this hurdle; the British government quailed beneath the storm and gave way. This was a crucial decision because, although afterwards pro-Zionist feeling in Britain was never again as strong, control of migration was taken out of Britain’s hands. The Jewish population of Palestine more than doubled in the five years between 1931 and 1936.

What determined the outcome in Palestine, the creation of the state of Israel on the left bank of the Jordan in 1948, and its subsequent expansion into Arab territory, was the balance of strength on the ground between the two populations, which had changed in favour of the Zionist settlers by 1936. Between the wars, however, Palestine had to remain a British mandated territory. The British were unable to delegate their responsibilities to the Zionist organisation, as many wanted them to do. It remained in the same state as the ‘dependent’ territories within the British empire, a colony ruled directly from London, like Kenya.

Right: Sidney Webb (Lord Passfield)

What emerges from these portraits and documents concerning Zionism, imperialism and Palestine in the period 1916-36 is that there was no imperialist conspiracy to create the state of Israel as it existed after 1948. Certainly, there were good relations between leading Zionists and imperialist politicians in Britain, including those in Attlee’s government, but it was the confusion of competing claims and rights in Palestine itself, together with the inability to control the flow of migrants and refugees under the terms of the British mandate which led to the development of the country through settlement into the self-governing state of Israel following the handover of the mandate to the United Nations in 1948. It is difficult to imagine how the outcome of these events could have been any different, especially given the refugee crisis created by the war. The idea that the state of Israel was an artificial creation, a ‘mistake’ as Ken Livingstone has called it in his more recent interview on Arabic TV, does not match the reality of the emerging patterns of the population on the ground in inter-war Palestine. There was no rational alternative to the decisions that were made and no other alternative humanitarian solution.

The Labour Party needs to accept the burden that history has given it to bear from the past hundred years. Either it continues to support the creation of the state of Israel, as Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee finally did in 1949, or call for its dismantling and destruction, by one means or another, which is what the current leadership of the Labour Party, in the Fabian tradition of the Webbs, wants to do. The continuing tropes about global capitalist conspiracies with Israel and Jewish individuals/ organisations (like Georges Soros and ‘Open Society) at the centre of them have been shared among populist leaders from Viktor Orbán’s extreme right-wing government in Hungary to Corbyn’s hard- left supporters. Even if they wanted to, their opportunism and ideologies (respectively) would not allow them to jettison these anti-Semitic tropes.

The Debate Continues in ‘The Jewish News’, 3 May 2019:

While a spokesman said this week Corbyn “completely rejects the antisemitic elements in his analysis”, the veteran MP made no mention of this in his lengthy endorsement. Instead, the Labour leader described Hobson’s book as “a great tome”, and praised the writer’s “brilliant, and very controversial at the time” analysis of the “pressures” behind western, and in particular British, imperialism at the turn of the 20th century.

After the Board of Deputies wrote to him to demand an explanation, Corbyn responded yesterday to say he was “deeply saddened” that the…

…“mischievous representation of my foreward will have caused real stress within the Jewish community” and rounded on the “false accusation that I endorsed the antisemitic content of this 1902 text”.

“While writing the foreword, I reserved praise for some of the broad themes of Hobson’s century-old classic study of imperialism in Africa and Asia. As with many book written in this era, the work contains highly offensive references and observations. I totally deplore the language used in that book to describe Jews and people from colonised countries.

“The accusation is the latest in a series of equally ill-founded accusations of anti-Jewish racism that Labour’s political opponents have made against me. I note that the Hobson story was written by a Conservative Party peer in a newspaper whose editorial policy, and owner, have long been hostile to Labour. At a time when Jewish communities in the UK, and throughout Europe, feel under attack, it is a matter of great regret that the issue of antisemitism is often politicised in this way.”

Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl wrote to Corbyn, telling him that the …

… “community is entitled to an apology for this failure to speak out against prejudice against our community when confronted with racism.

“There is ‘an impression that you either do not care whether your actions, inadvertently or deliberately, signal support for racist attitudes or behaviours” …

“Whilst you, quite correctly, explicitly commended Hobson’s criticism of caricatures of African and Asian people, there is a failure to make even a passing reference to the blatant antisemitism in the book that you enthusiastically endorse.”

“In your letter, you claim only to have ‘reserved praise for some of the broad themes’ of Hobson’s book and that you ‘totally deplore’ the antisemitism that was commonplace in ‘this era.

“However, we note that your lengthy and detailed foreword of over 3500 words, variously describes Hobson’s work as “great”, “remarkable”, “interesting”, “brilliant”, “painstaking”, “very powerful”, “attractive”, “valid”, “correct”, “prescient” and “very prescient”, without any qualification referring to the antisemitism within it.”

The Jewish Labour Movement has submitted an official complaint to the party over this week’s revelation and asked the EHRC to include Corbyn’s endorsement of Hobson’s book in any investigation of the party for institutional antisemitism. “A fish rots from the head”, it said in a strongly-worded statement, adding that any other Labour member would have been suspended and calling on Corbyn to consider his position.

Conclusion – More Tropes & Conspiracy Theories:

Corbyn’s ‘foreword’, written well before he became Labour leader was not a critical appraisal of Hobson’s work, which would have been scholarly and circumspect, but an uncritical and ahistorical whitewashing of a text which not only criticises the ‘Liberal’ imperialism of the time, but also contains anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories which dominated the thinking of many Left-wing theorists within the Labour Party in the early part of the twentieth century. It helped to create a popular intellectual climate which led directly to the persecution of Jews throughout Europe in the years that followed. In this context, Corbyn should explain himself and/or apologise for his slipshod and shoddy writing, which has caused considerable offence to the Jewish Community.

From Berlin to Baghdad: Autumn 1990   Leave a comment

3 October 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Germany…

In the early summer of 1990, the conditions to be attached to German reunification were hammered out. The Soviet Union failed to secure a transitional period in which the military forces in East Germany retained “associated membership” in the Warsaw Pact, an obvious nonsense, or an agreement on a hard-line plan whereby for three to five years the other powers would oversee Germany’s conduct. In London in early July, a NATO summit made a declaration of non-aggression with the Warsaw Pact nations. That helped the cause of German reunification, and Germany, meanwhile, helped itself by confirming its borders with Poland, promising to limit the future size of a German army, agreeing not to station nuclear weapons in East Germany and offering to pay the costs of removing half a million Soviet troops from the former DDR and resettling them in Russia. Kohl and Genscher went to Moscow together, and at a press conference on 16 July, Gorbachev declared, “whether we like it or not, the time will come when a united Germany will be in NATO if that is its choice. Then, if that is its choice, to some degree and in some form, Germany can work together with the Soviet Union.”

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West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (second from right), with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow.

This extraordinary statement was, as Chancellor Kohl put it, “a breakthrough, a fantastic result.” A fortnight earlier, at the Twenty-eighth Party Congress, Gorbachev had been ferociously attacked by party hard-liners for letting the Baltics go, for weakening the Warsaw Pact, and for undermining the ideological foundations of the Soviet Union and its ruling Communist Party. He was, nevertheless, re-elected its general secretary, and continued to commit the Soviet Union to uproot the cornerstone of its security policy since the end of the Second World War. On 3 October, East and West Germany were joined; Germany was reunited.  The crowds and flags in the pictures below show that this was a popular political reunification, at first, within the European Union. The security and economic issues would be addressed later.

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Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, 3 October 1990. Crowds celebrate as Germany is reunited.

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Some historians say the Cold War ended when the Berlin Wall came down in October 1989: others say it was when the Soviet Union publicly reconciled itself to seeing a reunited Germany, whose invasion and defeat in 1941-45  had cost the Union more than twenty million dead, in a military alliance with the West. Since Germany had always been at the epicentre of the Cold War in Europe, Gorbachev’s statement in Moscow on 16 July has a strong claim to be considered the decisive moment of the Cold War’s ending. However, there was still a great deal of unfinished business, both in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 marked the beginning of what has become known by historians as the ‘Second Cold War’, so too the summer of 1990 also marked the beginning of two conflicts which still remain to be resolved, one in the Persian Gulf and the other in what, then, was still part of the USSR, in the Ukraine.

Gorbachev had, almost immediately, to cope with two desperately difficult tasks at home, in what was still, just, the USSR. He was trying, as fast as he could, to reform an economy and system of government that had become a way of life. Just the prospect of radical economic restructuring threatened social chaos and caused immediate fear and distress. To go from a command economy, where everyone did as they were told by the centre, to one that operated without central planning and control, leaving prices to market forces, was to travel a pathless route into unknown territory. Not many wanted to go that way, and the few who did had no route map by which to arrive at a clear destination.

On 20 July a “five hundred day” economic programme to move the USSR towards a market economy was published. It proposed the sale of large numbers of state enterprises, the dissolution of state collective farms, currency reform and a new banking system. But Gorbachev’s nerve failed him, and the reforms were not introduced. Uncertainty was only making matters worse, and the Bush administration steadfastly refused to provide aid to fund the programme up front, saying that it would only give it as a reward for implementing reform, not as an inducement. Moreover, concerned that Gorbachev might be deposed, the US continued to maintain a state of full military preparedness.

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Above: Ukrainians protest at continued Soviet domination.

At the same time, Gorbachev was also trying, against all the odds, to hold the Union together, when it seemed that every single member state, in turn, was seeking independence. On the very same day that he was declaring German reunification and NATO membership a foregone conclusion, Ukraine declared its sovereignty, followed by Armenia, Turkmenistan, and Tadzhikistan in August, and Kazakhstan and Kirghizia in October. In October, too, both Russia and Ukraine declared their state laws sovereign over Union laws.  The Supreme Soviet declared this invalid in November. Gorbachev proposed to set up a new central government that would have in it representatives from the fifteen Soviet republics. By the end of November, he proposed a new Union Treaty: a Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics, with loosened ties between each republic and the central Soviet government. In other crucial matters the Supreme Soviet had taken giant strides; on 1 October it passed a law guaranteeing freedom of worship and on 9 October legislation was brought in to set up a multiparty system.  The media too were freed from state control.

While Gorbachev was dealing with these ‘domestic’ issues, the superpowers’ commitment to peaceful collaboration was severely tested by events in the Persian Gulf region. On 2 August the army of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s brutal Baathist dictator had overrun neighbouring Kuwait, a small but oil-rich nation to the southern end of the region. Iraq was a Soviet ally, but it had also enjoyed the tacit support of both Britain and the US in its war with Iran and had secretly been provided with arms by them while it continued to torture and oppress both its Shi’ite and Kurdish minorities, as well as many dissidents. Several thousand Russians worked in the country. The invasion and annexation of Kuwait had taken the Kremlin, the White House and the world by surprise. On 2 August, BBC journalist John Simpson, who had been an eye-witness to most of the tumultuous events of 1989-90, was on holiday in southern France. Within three hours of hearing on the radio that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, he was on a plane back to London. Not for another six months was he able to take another day off.

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Above: August 1990. The Iraqi army invades and annexes Kuwait.

James Baker and Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been meeting in Irkutsk, had flown to Moscow. Baker had been anxious to ensure that the Soviet Union would stand with the United States in its condemnation of the invasion and support whatever action it eventually would take against it. Although Iraq had long been an ally of the Soviet Union, and the initial reactions of Gorbachev and some of his colleagues against an alliance, Shevardnadze stood with Baker at Vnukovo Airport the next day. Together they told the press that the two great powers were “jointly calling upon the rest of the international community to join with us in an international cut-off of all arms supplies to Iraq.” Superpower confrontation had become co-operation. For James Baker, this was the Cold War’s ending: for others, it was the first joint act of security policy in the post-Cold War world.

By the end of August, the United States had begun to despatch land, sea, and air forces to Saudi Arabia in Operation Desert Shield, to discourage Iraq from a further invasion. The UN Security Council voted the first of a dozen resolutions demanding Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. However, by the end of the year, Shevardnadze had personally paid the price for the USSR’s concessions in Eastern Europe and on Germany, and support for the United States in the Persian Gulf. He had been offered up as a scapegoat by Gorbachev to the conservatives. Knowing that he was about to be kicked upstairs as vice president, he resigned and returned to his native Georgia.

In September 1990, John Simpson returned to Britain from Baghdad for a short break, if not a holiday. The first poster he saw was Thatcher Warns Evil Saddam. He commented that some of us have been writing and broadcasting about the unpleasantness of Saddam Hussein’s regime for years, while the British government regarded Iraq as a good customer for weaponry of all kinds. He went back to Baghdad after about a week and was there until November 1990. He commented:

Iraq seemed to me like a hijacked plane, being flown to an unknown destination. A man whom scarcely anyone wanted as their president was holding a gun to the pilot’s head, and the passengers and the rest of the crew were terrified to say a word or stop him. The fact that British industry, with the enthusiastic encouragement of the British government, had supplied the hijacker with his gun and the bullets for it made it all the worse. 

In November (19-21), NATO and Warsaw Pact leaders met in Paris to sign a historic treaty setting reduced levels of conventional forces in the whole of Europe (CFE) from the Atlantic to the Urals. Disarmament was no longer simply about the ‘superpowers’ controlling the numbers of nuclear warheads. Negotiations had become multi-lateral and multi-faceted.

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Following a visit to Brussels by Hungarian Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky at the end of June (see picture above), on 16 July, József Antall had become the first Prime Minister of a Warsaw Pact country, Hungary, to meet with the Secretary-General of NATO. He met Manfred Wörner at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. From that point on, the Hungarian Ambassador in Brussels maintained permanent contact with NATO’s relevant authorities. As democratic reform began to take hold in Hungary and elsewhere in central Europe, the United States and other Western Countries agreed to help with the tremendous financial burden of restructuring the former ‘satellite’ countries and preparing them for global integration. In October 1990, Prime Minister Antall made an official working visit to Washington, during which President Bush noted the resumption of American business investment in Hungary. He asked Congress for 300 million dollars in economic aid for Eastern Europe. He also asked the IMF to extend five billion dollars in loans to Eastern European countries to compensate them for increased oil prices following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush also announced the end of travel restrictions on Hungarian diplomats in the US, and that a Hungarian Consulate General would be opened in Los Angeles.

It was against this background that, in Paris, the sixteen member states of NATO and the six member states of the Warsaw Pact countries published a Joint Declaration on non-aggression in which they stated that they no longer considered themselves as enemies. This was immediately followed by a visit by the Secretary-General to Hungary where he held talks with President Árpád Gönz, PM József Antall and members of the government. Wörner also gave a presentation to the Foreign Relations Committee and the Defence Committee of the Hungarian National Assembly. By the end of November, Hungary had been accorded the status of associate delegation by the North Atlantic Assembly (NATO’s ‘Parliament’, meeting in London), together with other Central European countries.

On the same day, 29 November, the United Nations passed Security Resolution 678, authorising the use of force in the Gulf if Iraq was not out of Kuwait by 15 January 1991. As the Cold War ended with the former ‘satellite’ states freely placing themselves under the NATO umbrella, the conflict in the Middle East was about to go up in flames, quite literally. Together with the break-up of the Russian sphere of influence and the Balkan wars, this was to dominate the next generation of international relations.

Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War.  London: Transworld Publishers.

Rudolf Joó (ed.) (1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary.

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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