Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Better Out Than In: My Affair With the SWP

Posted on: January 9, 2019

I was bad at maths, but the maths teacher, Mrs Rosenberg, was sympathique, always good humoured and I’d seeen her on CND marches. She showed an interest in my oil painting, which was kind of her, considering that she was artistic herself, her sculpture later exhibited at the Royal Academy.

I was fifteen. She asked if I would paint a portrait of her little boy and invited me to her house in Stoke Newington. It was a sunny day and we went into the garden where her husband was sitting in a deck chair.

‘This is Cliff,’ she said, which was disconcerting as I was expecting to call him Mr Rosenberg. Furthermore, she called him what sounded like ‘Glixon’ and I found it best to avoid using any name at all. I set up my easel in the garden and the three year old sat patiently while I painted his portrait and his brother, a bright ten-year-old, kept up a sociable chatter. They were a charming family. Mrs Rosenberg made lunch, boiled chicken wings, and ‘Cliff’ made me a present of a book he’d written, ‘State Capitalism’.

Mrs Rosenberg drove me home when I’d finished painting, I in the back, Cliff in the passenger seat.

‘Are you religious?’ she asked me.

‘I’m an agnostic’ I said.

‘An agnostic is either a shame-faced believer or a shame-faced atheist,’ said Cliff.

In subsequent weeks, I persevered with ‘State Capitalism,’ as it was polite to read a book someone gave you, especially if they were the author, but it was impenetrable and I gave up, having gleaned the message that the Soviet Union was not even communist any more.

When I was sixteen, I went to CND meetings and, in due course, had a boyfriend who was a member of the International Socialism group. I learned from him that Cliff was a famous Trotskyist and found myself back at the house in N16 for an IS meeting.

Everyone who spoke was impressively, dauntingly, intellectual although nothing was quite as unfathomable as ‘State Capitalism’. My boyfriend, aged eighteen, smoked his pipe. I was in love with him, which may seem irrelevant as far as International Socialism is concerned, but probably had something to do with my readiness to become involved.

I started going to the meetings regularly. . Due to lack of space in their living room, a lot of people sat on the floor. Cliff was quite a personality.

Someone asked him about the brutality used by Lenin in suppressing rebellions against the new Bolshevik government.

Cliff said ‘Listen. On the Queen Mary, the Captain allows the crew to play soccer on deck but, on a little rubber dinghy, you open your blooming mouth, you’ve had it.’ He spoke in parables. He meant that Soviet Russia under Lenin had been too fragile to permit rebellion.

When my boyfriend broke off with me, I carried on going to IS meetings. I could tell if the ex-boyfriend was there as soon as I entered the house, because I could smell his pipe.

I went on picket lines and sold Socialist Worker. Somehow I wound up on the editorial board of a louche, short-lived journal called Rebel. I didn’t say a word at any of the board meetings.

The Six Day War happened. I had never heard anyone question Israel’s right to exist but Cliff, a Jew born in Mandate Palestine, was very anti-Israel. He said that as a teenager he’d attended a talk about workers’ rights and called out ‘Arab-Jewish unity!’ An Israeli bouncer came and broke his little finger.

A woman who was somewhat supportive of Israel said, ‘Cliff, I think your little finger is affecting your judgment about this.’ Yes. There were a lot of Jews in IS and I believe not all of them were against Israel at that time. Cliff was anti- Israel but he wasn’t like JVL. As far as I recall, he didn’t deny the existence of  left antisemitism.

My parents were not pleased when I went home from meetings talking about the rights of Palestinians whom they thought of as Jordanian Arabs, complicit in trying to destroy Israel. My parents were not right-wing. They attended anti apartheid rallies and CND marches but they disliked my association with IS, later renamed – in about 1976, I have been reminded – as the Socialist Workers’ Party.

It was the late sixties and I was in Grosvenor Square, as often as not, protesting against the Vietnam War. Membership of all the Trotskyist factions – the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Militant, Tariq Ali’s International Marxist Group – had quadrupled and more, and the SWP more than any of them..

In a pub, a comrade who’d recently joined the group assured me that all Jews were rich capitalists. I couldn’t believe that I was hearing it from a comrade. I hadn’t thought that I would meet antisemitism on the left. It was of course very much milder than the left’s utterances about Jews in this year of grace 2019.

The SWP espoused the cause of Al Fatah and I heard that some comrades had gone to training camps in Jordan, preparing to fight Israel. I was shocked by this and resolved to leave the group.

I penned a letter to the chairman of my local branch, which was no longer in Hackney but in a London suburb closer to the North Pole. He was Ian B, a teacher at a college of Further Education and subsequently Cliff’s biographer. I wrote of my attachment to Israel and pointed out that the SWP took a very one-sided view of the conflict, which was not, in my view, a third world struggle against colonialism.

Ian wrote back, telling me that the SWP was a broad church and that there was room in it for members like me, who held a favourable view of Israel. It was a nice letter, and I can’t imagine anyone in the SWP speaking that way today. Indeed, I wish I still had the letter, so that I could check my memory of it.

Nevertheless, I left ‘The Group’ as it was sometimes called. I was nineteen. I went to university and joined the Socialist Society but kept clear of all Marxist factions. I was very interested in my degree course, philosophy and – I don’t know why now – I avoided a module in political philosophy in my second year and opted for medieval: Aquinas instead of Hobbes, Anselm instead of Adorno. I went on some anti-apartheid demos and participated half-heartedly in a students’ sit-in in the Whitworth Hall.

I spent a summer in Israel and worked on a kibbutz for a few weeks. I didn’t care for the American volunteer who said Israelis were superior persons and I hung out with the French contingent, of Algerian origins. I loved Jerusalem with its golden sky and stone buildings and I prayed at the Western Wall where prayer was a local call.

I returned to England, went back to University, got married, had a baby; then there was a general election and Harold Wilson was Prime Minister again. I wore a red rosette on election day and so did the baby. There was a Labour government all the way until Margaret Thatcher.

On and off, I was a member of the Labour Party. At elections I stuffed envelopes with Labour leaflets and delivered them to voters. Mrs Thatcher got returned in 1983 and 1987. There was Spitting Image to cheer us up. My children watched it and learned the names of all the government ministers. Mrs Thatcher went and John Major became Prime Minister. The Conservatives won another General election in 1992. I cried as the results came in.

Then it was 1997 and Labour won, with Tony Blair. I drank champagne with like-minded friends. How happy we were.

One day, Mrs Rosenberg came into the bookshop where I worked. Twenty – no, thirty years had passed and made a difference but she was recognizable. I called her by her name and told her I had been a pupil.

‘Were you…with us?’ she asked, eyeing me with something of her former, twinkling expression.

I told her that I was, but had left over Israel.

She said ‘You think Israel will save Jews but only Arab-Israeli workers’ unity can save Jews.’

I thought it was a point worth considering, except that it sounded more like pie-in-the-sky optimism than a serious prediction.

In 2000, I heard that Tony Cliff had died, at the age of eighty-three. I knew his age as he was born the same year as my father.

The left seemed to have hardened. Disturbing reports hit the media, about sexism, bullying and worse in the various Trotskyist factions. Their obsessive hatred of Israel was impossible to miss and some of the left-wing discourse about Jews began to resemble that of the far right. After 9/11, it became more emphatic and many on the left embraced an urban myth about Israel being behind the attack.

The Iraq war happened and Tony Blair fell from grace in the eyes of very many. I let my membership lapse, not that I blamed Blair, but in 2003 and the years following, it was difficult to know the full nature and extent of errors which had undoubtedly occurred under his watch.

The new Prime Minister Gordon Brown soon got a bad press and Vince Cable called him a mixture of Stalin and Mr Bean. As a one-liner it was quite funny but it seemed to damage Gordon Brown’s standing and of course there was the crash of 2008, which would have been more effective even than Vince Cable in influencing the electorate. So in 2010, we got the Coalition, from which the LibDems have not, to this day, recovered.

One day, on the 253 bus on my way home from work, I saw a sprightly old woman standing among the passengers, immersed in reading some kind of pamphlet. I thought she might be Mrs Rosenberg, now ninety plus, and her t-shirt emblazoned with a left wing logo seemed to confirm this. Her pamphlet was font size 10, and, from where I was standing, I was unable to glean the subject matter. The upshot is that I made myself known, we got seats on the bus and traveled some way together. She told me she had just written an autobiography called ‘Fighting Fit’. She still struck me as a likeable and impressive woman. Again we spoke of Israel without bitter disagreement. I was not anti-Palestinian and she was not antisemitic. I didn’t refer to the troubling antisemitism which seemed to have become embedded in the far left.

After the next General Election, Mr Cameron was still Prime Minister but without the Coalition. Ed Miliband resigned as Leader of the Opposition and the surprise winner was Jeremy Corbyn. Believing that his anti-Zionist record bordered on antisemitism, I left the Labour Party which I had rejoined before the 2015 General Election.

I didn’t expect the avalanche of antisemitism which I have witnessed in the Labour Party since, as if all manner of ex BNP and National Front supporters had joined forces with the most charmless elements of the Trotskyist and Stalinist left. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I encounter a new kind of enmity when I express my opinions online.

I sometimes wonder, do left wing people who are not antisemitic see what’s happened to the left? Those who deny that it’s happening and attribute the narrative to Zionist smears are probably not free of bigotry,  undiscerning at best in matters of racism; at worst, so wedded to furthering the socialist agenda that any harm to Jewish communities seems a small price to play. And certainly, for many on the left, Israel and Palestine symbolize the struggle of bourgeois and proletarian, evil and good, imperialism and revolution, heresy and orthodoxy.

Often, an adversary on Twitter will ask, ‘Why don’t you ever talk about right-wing antisemitism?’

Well I’ve talked all my life about right-wing antisemitism but now the left is nudging the far right, in that horseshoe where the extremities almost touch. Not unrelated are the terms I have seen on Labour forums, excoriating black or Asian Conservatives and  ‘Blairites’ with dehumanizing words which I’m not inclined to cite.

Was it I who changed, or the Left, or the world?

It’s always the world. It makes changes to religion too and science and every kind of belief. Generally, something can be salvaged from former belief.

The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

Who said that? It was Hubert Humphrey. I can’t believe that I’m quoting Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President. I don’t much like the word handicapped, but the quotation speaks of government’s obligations towards the least privileged in society. And I think one should add, a government has obligations to those who come to their shores or cross their borders, seeking a refuge from conflict, poverty or persecution. That’s how my grandparents settled here, in ‘this other Eden’.

That Aristotelian, rationalistic, medieval philosopher Maimonides produced thirteen principles of the Jewish faith. Number twelve states with patient tenacity:

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he tarry, daily I await his coming.

Secular Jews who opted for revolution also had messianic expectations. And the national anthem of Israel is called ‘The Hope’.  With difference degrees of patience, we all wait while the Messiah tarries.

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2 Responses to "Better Out Than In: My Affair With the SWP"

Fascinating insight to how the new fascists are emerging from the left!

Sometimes I can’t believe what i’m seeing from the Left. I wonder – was it like that, in the time I was writing of, and I didn’t realize. But I think the antisemitism of the left took off in the 1970s when Palestine became a symbol of struggle for them – then all the old style hatred of Jews attached itself to that.

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