The limits to opportunism / FRFI 216 Aug/Sep 2010

FRFI 216 August/September 2010

The limits to opportunism

Kautskyism past and present, Alec Abbott

Kautskyism past and present is a three-volume study of the nature, origins, growth and spread of Kautskyism. Volume 2 will be posted on the internet towards the end of summer 2010, and Volume 3 in 2011. The following review focuses on Volume 1, ‘Modern-day Kautskyism’.[1]

Abbott begins with a brief account of Kautsky’s 1914 standpoint, his prediction that the world’s finance capitalists will resolve their differences by uniting in a gigantic, all-embracing trust. Abbott then turns his attention to current debates by examining the standpoints of Antonio Negri, a prominent anarchist in the anti-capitalist movement, and Alex Callinicos, the SWP’s leading theoretician. Whereas Negri and his followers maintain that capitalism has evolved along the lines indicated by Kautsky, the SWP insists that a single world trust is a fallacy. Capital, as Callinicos never tires of telling us, can only exist as many capitals.

And so Abbott goes on, for some ten pages, leaving readers wondering what the connection is between Kautsky’s theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’ and the SWP’s ‘many capitals’ argument. Does Abbott reject the SWP’s criticism of Kautskyism, or does he simply look upon it as inadequate? It is at this point that Abbott makes an important contribution to our understanding of Kautskyism. Kautsky, he informs us, held to a number of theories of ‘ultra-imperialism’, including the ‘single world trust’ and ‘many capitals’ variants. This may well come as a surprise to many readers.

By now readers are back on track, eager to learn more of Kautsky’s different theories of ‘ultra-imperialism’. Abbott takes us through them briefly, providing us with enough information to arrive at an important conclusion, which is this: by associating Kautsky exclusively with the ‘single world trust’ idea, the SWP is able to smuggle in its own brand of Kautskyism on a seemingly anti-Kautskyite platform. Though supposedly critical of Kautskyism, the SWP leaders are actually the purveyors of Kautsky’s pre-war theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’.

From this point on, the Negriites and SWP opportunists are as putty in Abbott’s hands. He demonstrates how each set of opportunists adopts the other’s standpoint whenever the need arises. Thus Callinicos, the man who prattles on about competition among ‘many capitals’, asserts that Cuban socialism is not viable because it faces a unified and indivisible global bourgeoisie. Similarly, Negri, in a desperate attempt to obliterate the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations, maintains that international capitalism is an essentially competitive system, one that has eliminated nationally differentiated profit rates.

In the second chapter, Abbott gives an account of yet another variant of the theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’, that of ‘hegemonic ultra-imperialism’. I would urge readers to pay close attention to this chapter, as it reveals the fundamentally social-chauvinist content of the writings of such erudite luminaries as Perry Anderson, Leo Panitch and Robert Brenner. These opportunists view the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq as an expression of capitalism’s historically progressive character. Abbott scathingly dubs them ‘hegemonists’.

All too often, socialists hurl epithets at one another, using labels as a substitute for analysis. But there is nothing crude or simplistic about Chapter 2. With analytical precision, Abbott reveals the connection between the hegemonists’ theory of imperialism and their social-chauvinist practice. When the hegemonists declare that the US acts, not in its own, predatory interests, but in the interests of capital in general, they give strength and succour to the American neo-conservatives. Yet these are the ‘Marxists’, the ever so nuanced and refined ‘Marxists’, who condescendingly dismiss the RCG as Stalinists. The RCG, of course, is not a Stalinist organisation.

In Chapter 3, Abbott drops another of his ideological bombshells. The proponents of the theory of ‘hegemonic ultra-imperialism’ pride themselves on their critical prowess, going so far as to chide Kautsky for not recognising that a ‘hegemonic’ power like the US can fulfil the same function globally as states fulfil domestically. Unmasking their pseudo-critical posturing, Abbott explains that the theory of ‘hegemonic ultra-imperialism’ was devised by JA Hobson as long ago as 1911. No less importantly, he shows that Hobson’s 1911 theory was adopted by Kautsky, who continually shifted his allegiance from one ‘hegemon’ to another, as the circumstances required. Abbott predicts that our modern-day opportunists will undergo similar shifts.

In Chapters 4 and 5, Abbott swings his analytical scythe in the direction of the SWP once more. He does so in order to bring into the open the affinity between the SWP opportunists and the hegemonists. This is no mean feat, since the SWP opportunists dabble in the language of Leninism, so detested by the hegemonists. First Abbott shows that the SWP’s core theories – notably those of ‘state capitalism’ and ‘the permanent arms economy’ – are founded on shifting sands, utterly devoid of consistency and coherence. Then he demonstrates, step by step, how the SWP has adapted its standpoint to accommodate the hegemonists’ anti-Leninist sensibilities.

By the end of Chapter 5, readers will have little difficulty grasping what the above opportunists have in common. Without exception, they believe a) that capitalism has yet to exhaust its progressive potential, b) that parasitism is no longer a feature of imperialism, and c) that the US has, in the words of Callinicos, ‘creatively knitted together’ the world’s many capitals. The following editorial comment by the SWP sums up the opportunists’ outlook: ‘though a “supremely good theory in its day”, [Lenin’s] analysis is no longer tenable... [T]he politically enforced transfer of wealth from a dependency to an “imperialist” power... is no longer central to the survival of capitalism, nor is the export of capital from advanced to backward countries.’[2]

It is certainly true that colonialism is now the exception rather than the rule; but so too is it true that ‘usury imperialism’ has supplanted ‘colonial imperialism’ as the dominant form of super-exploitation. Since both the hegemonists and SWP opportunists deny the prevalence of parasitism, they have nothing worthwhile to say about imperialism in general or British imperialism in particular.

In Chapter 6, Abbott explains how Britain underwent the transformation from ‘colonial imperialism’ to ‘usury imperialism’, a transformation that has profoundly affected all aspects of British life. He further argues that, this side of socialism, British ‘usury imperialism’ is as irreversible as it is unsustainable. In the near future, as Europe and the US square up for a war over the redistribution of the global loot, Britain’s financial oligarchy will be faced by a thorny choice, that of integrating itself into Europe or becoming a financial-military outpost of the US.

Chapter 6, with its stark predications about the future of British imperialism, is likely to be highly controversial. Yet whatever socialists conclude about Britain’s standing in the world, the reality of British ‘usury imperialism’ must never be denied. By incorporating the Leninist concept of different imperialist types into his analysis, Abbott has made an important contribution to our understanding of the evolution of British imperialism. Ever since its inception in the 1970s, the RCG has been virtually alone in this country in bringing to light the parasitism in which British imperialism is necessarily steeped.

Finally, in Chapter 7, Abbott tackles David Harvey, one of the few opportunists to acknowledge the existence of parasitism. According to Harvey, Marx’s ‘falling rate of profit argument’ is a convincing one, since it explains the tendency towards the ‘overaccumulation of capital’. His ‘Marxist’ credentials thus established, Harvey goes on to argue that profit rates may fall for a variety of reasons, including a rise in the organic composition of capital, working class combativity (which ‘squeezes’ profits) and declining living standards.

Having reduced Marx’s crisis theory to a medley of disjointed assertions, Harvey turns his attention to imperialism. He uses fiery expressions such as ‘predation’, ‘fraud’ and ‘thievery’ to describe the financiers’ conduct, but then hastens to cleanse his work of any radical content. He does this in the classical Kautskyite manner, by drawing a false dichotomy between ‘vulture capital’ and ‘productive capital’. The former, he insists, though ‘dialectically’ related to the latter, is not a necessary feature of imperialism. On the basis of an ongoing alliance with capitalism’s progressive supporters (including the likes of George Soros, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz), the workers will be able to clear the way for ‘a far less violent and far more benevolent imperial trajectory than the raw militaristic imperialism currently offered up by the new-conservative movement in the United States’ (quoted in Abbott, p233).

As always when unmasking the modern-day opportunists, Abbott delves deeply into the past, this time drawing our attention to the writings of William Clarke, an early Fabian. Like Harvey, Clarke railed against the nasty financiers who, he claimed, were recklessly imperilling the real economy through their self-seeking, profiteering activities. The only difference between Clarke and Harvey is that the latter sweetens his reformism with Marxist phrases.

Since Abbott wrote his work, Harvey has continued to proffer a heady brew of eclectic formulations. In his latest offering, The Enigma of Capital, he reiterates that the limits to capital are many and varied. Heading his list are capital scarcities, labour problems, mismanagement, disproportionalities, natural limits, indiscipline in the labour process and lack of effective demand.[3] There is method in Harvey’s eclecticism. In the 1970s, when the workers’ were fighting to preserve their living standards, he advanced the reactionary ‘profit squeeze’ argument. Later, following the neo-liberals’ triumph, he opted for a milder version of opportunism, attributing declining profits to the workers’ underconsumption. The instant the workers begin to recover lost ground, we can expect Harvey to switch theories again (in a ‘dialectical’ manner, of course).

In marked contrast to many opportunists, Harvey holds to the view that economic recessions are not only inevitable in the capitalist system but also ‘necessary to the evolution of capitalism’.[4] Actually, there is nothing particularly radical about such a perspective. Even avowed Thatcherites acknowledge the crisis prone nature of capitalism. Thus Ian Grigg-Spall, writing of the current global crisis, stated: ‘A crisis in capitalism serves an essential purpose. It wipes out the least healthy companies allowing the most healthy to thrive.’ (The Guardian, 24 November 2008)

Marx’s Capital is more than just an explanation of the necessity of booms and slumps. As Abbott reminds us, Marx’s great work is an analysis of ‘the origin, existence, development, and death of a given social organism and its replacement by another and higher organism’ (Abbott, p256). The immanent laws of accumulation and the recessions they repeatedly engender necessarily gave rise to imperialism, the epoch of dying capitalism. This is something that neither the crude Thatcherites nor the refined ‘Marxists’ will ever acknowledge. Like all opportunists, Harvey denies that imperialism is the highest and final stage of capitalism.

Few books have dissected Anglo-American opportunism as systematically and thoroughly as Abbott’s has. He not only demonstrates the many different ways in which an adherence to Kautskyism leads to the undermining of proletarian and anti-imperialist struggles, but also penetrates to the core of opportunist ‘theories’, revealing what the parallels and non-parallels between them are. In the coming years, as crises deepen and revolutionary struggles intensify, opportunists are likely to shift their allegiance from one brand of opportunism to another, in an attempt to maintain a semblance of ideological coherence. With the aid of Abbott’s work, reviewers will be able to swat the opportunist flies as they flit from one rotten ‘theory’ to another.

Peter Howell

1 Volume 1 was completed in July 2007 and posted on the internet in May 2010.

2 Introduction to the second edition of Michael Kidron’s ‘Imperialism: Highest Stage but One’, International Socialism, No 61, 1973, p1.

3 The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey, Profile Books, 2010, p117.

4 ibid.

Strangeways protest dramatised / FRFI 215 Jun/Jul 2010

FRFI 215 June/July 2010

Crying in the Chapel by Stafford, Clarke and Coghill, produced by Fink On Theatre company at the Contact Theatre, Manchester 26 April-9 May 2010

On 1 April 1990, when over one thousand men in Strangeways Prison in Manchester decided that they had suffered enough mental and physical brutality at the hands of the prison system, it is unlikely that any of the prisoners involved would have predicted that their actions would still be of such great interest, intrigue and inspiration 20 years later. Although probably unexpected, it is not at all surprising that Crying in the Chapel received standing ovations from audiences and was sold out by its second week. This story of an uprising that started within an institution designed to represent complete control over the working classes shows concretely what can be achieved.

Crying in the Chapel tells the story of the Strangeways revolt of 1990 from the perspective of the prisoners involved and the ex-sufferers of the abusive penal system.  Refreshing in its accuracy and attitude, the play captures the spirit of the prisoners with compassion and honesty. Instead of simply presenting the revolt as an abstract occurrence of anger and violence, Crying in the Chapel manages to give a concrete insight into the conditions suffered by Strangeways inmates who went on to cause the uprising.

The Strangeways that is described by most ex-prisoners was a jail of overcrowding and severe brutality. 1,647 men in a prison built for a maximum of 970, constant beatings, the liquid cosh (a drug used to sedate inmates who weren’t easily ‘controllable’), 23 hours in a cell and the list goes on. A ‘screws nick’ where even the governors had no control, with everyone that worked within the prison colluding with this system of abuse. For those aware of the conditions it was less a shock to see the prisoners protesting on the roof and more of a shock that it had taken so long.

The script for Crying in the Chapel was partly devised by actors at workshops preceding the original performances of the play in 2000 and partly based on the Larkin Publications book Strangeways 1990: a serious disturbance by Nicki Jameson and Eric Allison. The recent production differs from the original by putting an actor portraying Eric Allison on stage as a narrator of the events that unfold. He ends the performance by describing today’s prison system, where although conditions have improved as a result of the 1990 protests, overcrowding and mistreatment of people with mental health problems continue to be rife, and warns that it is only a matter of time before protests on the scale of Strangeways shake the system once again.

Rebecca Rensten

Sons of Cuba / FRFI 215 Jun/Jul 2010

FRFI 215 June/July 2010

sons of cuba poster

Sons of Cuba - Fighters for socialism

Sons of Cuba, film directed by Andrew Lang, released March 2010. For details of screenings go to:

Cuba has won 62 Olympic Medals in boxing in the last 40 years. British director Andrew Lang was inspired to make this film about young Cuban boxers after reading double Olympic winner Mario Kindelan’s explanation of their success: ‘Cubans are fighters in all walks of life. Ours is a small country, but we live to fight’.

The US-imposed blockade, the millions of dollars spent yearly on attempts to sabotage the Revolution, and the ever-present military threat, have indeed turned the Cuban people into fighters. Sons of Cuba focuses on three young boxers training for the Under-12s National Championships at the Havana Boxing Academy. The academy is a boarding school for gifted young boxers, who combine school work with training. It is a significant achievement that a poor country, suffering immensely from the blockade, can offer all its young people equal access to sport and culture.

In Cuba, personal ambition combines with that of the whole nation. The film observes the boys attend a May Day Parade, watch a televised address by Fidel Castro after he is taken ill during filming in 2006, and talk about their feelings about the national situation. It is heart-warming that young people have such a strong awareness of the importance of the whole nation working towards a common goal. The boys express surprising maturity by considering the feelings of their opponents, and shedding tears for team mates who do not qualify for the National Championships. This solidarity, encouraged by enthusiastic coach Yosvani Bonachea, shows the consciousness fostered by growing up in a socialist society. Reassuringly, the ill-health of Fidel Castro, the ‘Champion of Champions’, is met with sadness and concern, but not the kind of alarm, or expectation of change, that the right-wing media would have you imagine. The training goes on, life goes on, socialism continues to be constructed.

Training is demanding. The boys rise early to practise before school. They are motivated by the dream of becoming international champions and bringing honour to their small island. In a world dominated by economic, military and cultural hegemonies, amateur sporting victories can inspire the entire nation. An ex-champion lives in the same way as the rest of the population, a fact much derided in the western media – yet this only makes the astronomical salaries of European football stars seem more outrageous. A few individuals may be tempted by the fortunes offered to them as professionals in the US, but the majority decline these bribes in favour of inspiring the next generation of champions in the country of fighters they are so proud of.

Saija Lukkaroinen

POA: a history of repression / FRFI 214 Apr / May 2010

FRFI 214 April / May 2010

The Everlasting Staircase: A history of the Prison Officers’ Association 1939-2009, David Evans with Sheila Cohen, Pluto Press in association with the Prison Officers Association, 2009, £20

‘The fact that the police was originally recruited in large numbers from among Social Democratic workers is absolutely meaningless. Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance. The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.’ Leon Trotsky What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, 1932

In August 2007 the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) staged a one-day national strike in defiance of laws outlawing industrial action by prison officers. This and subsequent wildcat actions were eagerly seized on by the selection of British left groups which had long been courting the POA and generally applauding the ‘struggles’ of ‘workers in uniform’, including the police. Foremost among the cheerleaders is the Socialist Party (SP) and in September 2009 POA General Secretary Brian Caton announced his defection to the SP from the Labour Party. Caton is now a prominent speaker for SP-backed electoral grouping the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.

The Everlasting Staircase is written for the express purpose of positioning the POA in the leadership of ‘militant’ trade unionism in Britain in the face of mounting public sector cuts and privatisation. Its authors are Caton’s predecessor as General Secretary and an academic specialising in trade union history. It was commissioned by the POA itself and does not purport to be impartial.

FRFI has been among the few voices on the British left consistently to point out that it is nonsense to simply view police and prison officers as ‘workers in uniform’. Engels and Lenin* explained the creation of ‘special bodies of armed men’, such as police and prison officers, as an intrinsic part of the apparatus constructed alongside the division of society into antagonistic classes. Trotsky agreed, although many of his followers today do not, clinging instead to examples of armies and police that have gone over to the side of revolutionary movements. While it is true that in a revolutionary situation this would be both necessary and inevitable, Britain today is so far removed from such a situation as to render these examples entirely irrelevant.

‘A union which has given true leadership to the whole working class movement’

The Everlasting Staircase chronicles the POA’s development from 1865, when the Prisons Act officially defined the role of prison warder, through the years of pre-union staff associations and underground organisation to its official formation in 1939 and right up to the 2008 TUC conference, where Brian Caton spoke emotively in support of low-paid public sector workers and against anti-trade union laws, exhorting the supine TUC to strike against the government’s ‘unacceptable pay restraint on public sector pay’. The book ends quoting him:

‘The POA will continue its campaign and fight to get the whole of the Labour Movement to straighten their spines and stand up for new laws that take away the restrictions on strike and industrial action.

‘Our simple message to other unions is “Don’t think that your members cannot deliver on strike action – they can.”

‘Please recognise that if you don’t ask them – they never will.


In the eyes of the book’s authors, this call to arms demonstrates that ‘the POA stands proud today as a union which has given true leadership to the whole working class movement.’

Trade union history

Read on its own terms, the account is of some historical interest. The problems of prison staff in relation to pay, staffing levels, housing and prospects of promotion are documented, as are the machinations of successive governments to prevent industrial action by prison staff. Initially prison officers were treated in the same way as the police and banned from forming trade unions; however in the early 20th century an underground prison officers’ union was gradually formed and made links with militant trade unionists in the civil service. Eventually, the POA was created, with the government of the day concluding that treating prison officers as civil servants was a preferable way of dealing with them.

The book takes us through the period of Thatcher’s attack on the unions (including an account of the POA taking court action against the Tory Party following a party political broadcast which gave the erroneous impression that it had supported a motion put to the TUC by Arthur Scargill! – p106), to the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which made it illegal for prison officers to strike. The Labour Party promised to overturn this if elected, just as it promised to end prison privatisation. It reneged on both. The POA then signed a ‘voluntary no strike agreement’ in return for pay claims being dealt with by a succession of unsatisfactory review board mechanisms. Why exactly the ‘militant’ POA signed this agreement at all is a matter for speculation; however relations between the union and the Prison Service became rockier and ultimately broke down completely, resulting in the strike action of 2007.

The other side of the story

This is all very well, but even during its pre-history while the union was being formed in secret, the POA’s ‘militancy’ was couched entirely in terms which depended on depicting prisoners as wild and dangerous and liable at any moment to get uncontrollably ‘out of hand’ (p51).

This potential violence of prisoners is the POA’s main leverage and it plays on and exaggerates the threat at every opportunity. This has led it to oppose any reform of the system or relaxation of the strictest rules. Well before the introduction of the current dispersal system or close supervision centres, the POA ‘had been agitating for years in favour of the segregation of troublemakers in a small prison on their own’ (p62). In Scotland prison officers went on strike against the closure of the barbaric Inverness cages (p94). In relation to the north of Ireland we read of the ‘solidarity’ shown in the 1970s by prison officers from England, Scotland and Wales, who volunteered to be transferred to help staff internment (pp97-99). In the late 1970s and 1980s the POA campaigned for more weaponry and riot training, resulting in the introduction of the infamous MUFTI squads which were deployed to attack protesting prisoners (p130).

The POA opposed the abolition of the death penalty on the basis that convicted murderers serving life sentences would be difficult to manage and it would lead to an increase in the murder of prison officers. The second certainly did not transpire – outside the north of Ireland only one British prison officer was killed by a prisoner in the whole of the 20th century, while many prisoners have been killed by staff

POA supporters point out that it has long opposed ‘slopping out’ and overcrowding. This is true. Although debatable in whose interests this opposition was mounted, the POA opposed slopping out from the early 1980s (p127) and in the early 1990s took direct action to ensure that no more prisoners were crammed into overcrowded, insanitary prisons by simply locking the gates and not letting any more in (p173). What happened to those locked out is not explored, but the likelihood is that they were detained in even more unsuitable conditions in police stations. The POA does not argue for fewer people to be sent to prison, but for more staff to police those who are there and more spaces in which to detain them.

The book is revealing in relation to the contradiction posed for the POA by prison reform. While the union has consistently opposed any prison regime not strictly based on punishment and containment, whenever any moves are made towards the introduction of more activities, the union also argues for its members to be the ones staffing them, claiming that their daily contact with prisoners gives them an understanding not shared by the ‘“new breed” of liberal-minded governor grades, most of whom were fast-tracked university graduates with little experience of working on the landings of a prison’ (Caton, p198).

Prisoners’ struggles for their rights

David Evans was POA General Secretary from 1982 to 2000. This period includes the miners’ strike and the biggest spate of prison uprisings ever to shake the British prison system. You would hardly know this from the book though, as although a picture of the wrecked Strangeways prison features in the illustrations, the events of 1990 are mentioned only in passing. Likewise, although there is considerable material about prisons in the north of Ireland, and in particular about prison officer casualties of the war, there is hardly any mention of the hunger strikes or protests, other than a quote from the 1979 May Report to the effect that ‘The most stressful present custodial work undoubtedly involves the staff responsible for the three H blocks in The Maze prison which house the non-conforming prisoners...the nature of these inmates’ protests is bizarre in the extreme and the filth associated with it abhorrent and degrading’ (p99).

For prisoners and their supporters, The Everlasting Staircase – ironically titled in reference to the treadmills prisoners were once forced to walk endlessly – reads like a text from a parallel universe. We see a system of mass incarceration of men, women and children, who are overwhelmingly poor and working class and disproportionately black or minority ethnic, and whose oppression in prison sometimes drives them to band together and fight back. But this piece contains no analysis of who is actually in prison and the authors appear to see all prisoners as little more than wild animals, who can be kept reasonably docile if not given too much freedom, and to view any protest action as inexplicable and frightening. For example, the conscious political prison protests of the 1970s organised by PROP (Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners) are described as part of ‘turbulent years, when Britain...was swept by a... wave of strike action’ in which ‘prisoners themselves caught the protest “bug”’. A POA official complains: ‘Governors, with no inkling of what to do, met with prisoner deputations who gained in importance, thereby undermining the authority of staff’ (p83).

Similarly, for us the name of the POA is synonymous with thuggery and bullying and the stories of violence by prison staff are legion. But Evans and Cohen’s account is virtually silent on such accusations, with even POA members’ well-documented mistreatment of imprisoned fellow trade unionists glossed over and the disgraceful conduct towards the Shrewsbury Two in 1973 put down as some kind of misunderstanding (p83).

In 1998, horrific details of staff brutality at Wormwood Scrubs prison in London emerged, resulting eventually in a series of criminal prosecutions and civil claims for compensation. This is not mentioned anywhere in this account, At the time Evans publically refuted any wrongdoing by any POA member, to the extent that he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that ‘In all my years that I have been in the prison service I’ve never known a single occasion where prison officers have interfered with mail.’ Hundreds of thousands of complaints submitted by British prisoners and hours of court time attest to the ludicrousness of this statement.

POA – policing class-divided society for the ruling class

We do not subscribe to the view that trade union organisation is by definition progressive. There are countless examples of reactionary trade union activity: the strike by loyalist workers in the north of Ireland against power-sharing with Irish nationalists in 1974; the pro-capitalist Solidarnosc in Poland in the 1980s; the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela which supported the US-backed coup in 2002. The fact that the POA is strident and well organised in its own interests is not sufficient to make it progressive.

The Everlasting Staircase sets out to make the case for the POA against those who would say it is not a ‘real’ trade union and, further, to put forward its credentials as a leading force in a resurgence of trade union militancy. However, it succeeds only in underlining that the role of prison staff in capitalist society is to police the working class and oppressed on behalf of the ruling class. The authors aim to show us a vanguard of class warriors, but succeed in showing us a bunch of chauvinist thugs.

Nicki Jameson

* See Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and Lenin, State and Revolution

Unpicking the Zionist myth / FRFI 214 Apr / May 2010


FRFI 214 April / May 2010

The invention of the Jewish people, Shlomo Sand, translated from the Hebrew by Yael Lotan, Verso 2009, 332pp, £18.99. ISBN 978-1-84467-422-0

‘I could not have gone on living in Israel without writing this book. I don’t think books can change the world – but when the world begins to change, it searches for different books’

Shlomo Sand, 2008

The world is indeed changing. Since the recognition of an Israeli state by the United Nations in 1947 and the extension of its borders in 1967 by war and occupation, Zionism* has demanded and received unconditional support from the US and Europe and silence on its record of oppression of the Palestinian people. Today this collusion is breaking down and the Zionist state of Israel can no longer claim that the exceptional tragedy of the European Holocaust puts it beyond reason and responsibility for its actions. Israel is being ever more exposed as a racist, apartheid state with a record of war crimes and crimes against humanity

Politics and archaeology

At the heart of this excellent book is the thesis that there is no such thing as ‘the Jewish people’. Sand comprehensively unpicks the dominant Zionist narrative, what he calls the ‘mythistory’, by reviewing a mass of historical research, including archaeological finds that were buried, neglected or banished by the Zionists. He describes how in the 1950s and 1960s Zionist archaeologists deliberately configured excavations and discoveries to match the heritage story of the Old Testament. So, for example, Moshe Dayan, Israeli Chief of Staff, minister of defence and amateur archaeologist, collected ancient artefacts, ‘some of them stolen’, and systematically destroyed ‘ancient mosques, even from the eleventh century’, in order to construct a past that matched the biblical text (p113). With carefully referenced evidence, Sand contends that these Zionist investigators knew that the celebrated biblical kingdoms of David and Solomon were relatively small settlements inflated by the foundation myths of the early historical period. Most significantly, he says there is no substantial evidence of a forced exile by the Romans of Jewish people in the first century after the fall of the Second Temple. On the contrary, all investigation supports the view that the majority of the population remained in Judea and Canaan as a conquered people, and lived on through the centuries as peasant farmers. They were converted, willingly or otherwise, to add to the growing numbers of Christians and Muslims, under the powers of the Byzantine and Caliphate Empires.

Khazars and Judaism

The Jewish religion also continued to grow and spread, particularly in the area between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains then known as Khazaria. Judaism was as active and as proselytising a religion as the other two monotheisms, converting many kings and tribal chiefs who in turn imposed their chosen religion on their subjects. Furthermore, a range of different ethnicities and peoples embraced and adapted the Jewish religion into a variety of sects. Records indicate the existence from the fifth century of a great Khazar Empire on the steppes of Asia, ruled by Jewish monarchs who conquered, enslaved and expanded their domain for hundreds of years. The torrential Mongolian invasion led by Genghis Khan in the early thirteenth century swept aside the Khazar kingdom, along with neighbouring societies. This invasion from the east depopulated the steppe lands which perished with the destruction of the ancient irrigation systems that had supported agrarian food cultivation and settlements. A small Khazar community was all that remained and it survives today in the foothills of the mountains of the Caucasus. Khazarians retreated into the western Ukraine, Polish and Lithuanian territories. There, they formed the majority of what came to be known as Ashkenazi Jews, and settled in eastern Europe as a population quite dislocated from the Semitic tribes of the Old Testament.

Arthur Koestler versus Zionist mythistory

The history Sand introduces to the reader is neither original nor new, but one that is authenticated by a historical record that has been deliberately buried. Arthur Koestler, born in Hungary in 1905, was a close supporter of the Zionist right-wing leader Vladimir Jabotinsky in his youth. He joined the Communist Party in Berlin in 1931 and worked undercover for the Comintern in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. He resigned from the Communist Party in 1938 in disgust with Stalin. His popular anti-communist book, Darkness at Noon, was published in 1940 to great acclaim. In 1976 Koestler published The Thirteenth Tribe: the Khazar Empire and its heritage, drawing on the earlier research and collecting together the evidence for the Khazar Empire. Koestler’s study concludes that:

‘The large majority of surviving Jews in the world is in eastern Europe – and thus mainly of Khazar origin. If so, this would mean that their ancestors came not from the Jordan but from the Volga, not from Canaan but from the Caucasus, once believed to be the cradle of the Aryan race; and that genetically they are more closely related to the Hun, Uigur and Magyar tribes than to the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ (cited p239)

The Thirteenth Tribe is focused on the origins of the Ashkenazi, or European, Jews and does not extend to the history of the Sephardic Jewish communities of Spain and Portugal or the Judaised people of Ethiopia and North Africa. Koestler was puzzled by the hostile reception to his book because he remained a Zionist and supported the State of Israel, which he regarded as ‘based on international law’ and not on ‘the hypothetical origins of the Jewish people, nor on the mythological covenant of Abraham with God’ (p239). When the book appeared, Israel’s ambassador to Britain described it as ‘an anti-Semitic action financed by the Palestinians’ (p240)


Sand’s book has much to offer, even to those uninterested in Old Testament stories or who are past caring whether the displacement of the Palestinians is carried out by Zionists of Semitic or other tribal origins. It is a book about history and historical truth in general and readers will find their critical faculties sharpened and understanding deepened by this study. History down the ages informs us not just about the past but also about the historian. Sand says, quoting the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce that ‘any history is first of all a product of the time of its writing’. Historians, as people, as scholars, as professionals, as members of educational establishments or as record keepers, present their work from a contemporary and ideological standpoint. This evaluation of history is known as ‘historiography’ and leads to close examination of the sources, theories, methods of research and writing of historians. Sand subjects the ‘Zionist historiography of the Jewish past’ (p19), to a rigorous examination of the values it promotes and the truths that it ignores or buries.

The rise of the nation state

Departments of Jewish History in Israel and universities around the world promote an ethno-national history of Judaism that derives from 19th century Zionism. This was the period when other ‘nationalisms’ arose as expressions of the needs of capitalism or ‘modern industrial societies’ as Sand says (p36). In an interesting review of the rise of modern nationalism, Sand describes the emergence of new nations from the collapsing empires and disintegrating peasant communities as coming from above. Ruling powers employed deliberate, ideological practices, rituals and ceremonies designed to foster an inclusive national identity. Historians justified the new power elites by writing, or re-writing, histories of a national past, reviving and inventing distant figures to serve the present need.

Modern nationalisms, however, are characterised by their inclusiveness. It was their purpose, as it largely remains today, to create a national territory in which all citizens are members of the community, that is, of the state. Modern institutions cut across earlier identities replacing old emotional and historical ties with different structures and beliefs for the new urban and industrial masses. Even the rise of fascism in Italy under Benito Mussolini in the early 20th century continued

the inclusive political nationalism of Italy’s independence heroes, Mazzini and Garibaldi, whose vision of a united Italy swept from the Sicilian South to the Alpine north in the 19th century. It was only in 1938 that Italian fascism added on an ethno-biological antagonism to its population of Jewish and Croatian origin (Sand p59).

Some emerging nationalisms, however, continued to cultivate ancient tribal ethnocentric myths about blood ties and the original ‘race people’, as the core. Political leaders called upon these reactionary myths to dominate the national mood in times of political upsurge and pressure. The rulers of Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia resisted the modernising call for a national identity on the political basis of citizenship. Bismarck’s consolidation of the German Federation into a new Germany utilised the ‘mythistory’ of a ‘people-race’ originating in the distant past to configure a modern military state that had to reconcile Catholics and Protestants, Prussians and Slavs, as well as Jews, within its new national borders. Above all, the state had to stamp its authority on the hopes of a new bourgeois class who demanded emancipation from the relics of feudal control. The wave of revolutions in 1848 led by liberals and radicals in Germany were defeated by violent suppression. Marx, Engels and others in the fledgling socialist movement were imprisoned, persecuted and expelled.

Zionism and heredity

The temporary defeat of class politics in Germany and central Europe ushered in a period of reaction in which the ruling class resorted to a reinvigorated racial nationalism, speaking of ‘blood and soil’. Zionist intellectuals likewise moved the ground of debate to racial lines. The new biological science of heredity was used to promote ethno-biological nationalism. The large Yiddish-speaking communities of east and central Europe became not only the victims of anti-Jewish pogroms, but also the object of contempt from the young Zionist movement. The rich, diverse cultural histories of the people of ‘Yiddishland’ (p247) were enclosed in the pseudoscientific terms of the ‘blood ties that exist in the Israelite family’ (p259). The founders of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Martin Buber and others, spoke about the national identity inherent in man’s ‘blood’. In the words of Vladimir Jabotinsky:

‘It is physically impossible for a Jew descended from several generations of pure, unmixed Jewish blood to adopt the mental state of a German or a Frenchman, just as it is impossible for a Negro to cease to be a Negro’ (p261).

This unapologetic appeal to blood and genetics was, and remains today, the foundation for the existence of the Zionist state of Israel. Indeed, the search for coherent blood lines continues, with efforts to use new DNA investigations to establish a genetic cohesion in the population of Israel. These have failed, of course.

Israel – the ethnic state

Building on his historical review of the emergence of nationalism, Sand concludes that the Zionist state is a nation built on the old ‘mythistory’ people/race model. The state does not act in the interests of all its citizens, and is not accountable to non-Jewish minorities. The Israeli state offers more protection and rights to every Jew in the world under the Law of the Right of Return than it does to Palestinians who are born from the generations that live there. While there are multiparty elections, political platforms are severely limited by a constitution based on blood ties to Judaism. Non-Jews cannot own land, cannot serve in the armed forces and cannot marry a Jew, and there is no civil marriage or burial in Israel. Sand concludes that there is no chance of peace in the future until the mythic race history of the Jewish people is discarded, along with anti-Semitism, in the dustbin of history. A highly recommended read.

Claudia Miller

* The term Zionism is used throughout to signify the belief that the land of Israel is the promised land of God’s Chosen People, the Jewish people. Page numbers refer to Sand’s book.