The history of British Marxism is more noble, perhaps, than the histories of such ideologues in other nations but it still contains much that is shameful. Well-off academics and aristocrats denied or defended some of the greatest horrors of the century: from the outright traitors, like Burgess and Blake, to the admirers of tyranny, from Shaw to Pritt, to the Hobsbawmiam handwringers who could wince at cuts and thrusts made by Stalin and Mao but retained an ardent faith in their virtues of their purpose. If it is red-baiting to observe these grim phenomena, it is brown-baiting to analyse the far right.
Still, there was Marxist opposition to the bloodshed. From C.L.R. James to E.P. Thompson, communist theories were softened and reshaped into more democratic forms. One might oppose their aims for class war, and hopes for the dismantling of British institutions, but there are both intellectual and moral differences. Such were their contributions to society, too, given Shaw’s plays, Lessing’s novels, Hobsbawm’s history, James’ cricket, Williams’ criticism and Mullan’s filmmaking that even passionate capitalists would find it hard to deny that Britain has often been enriched by their presence. Certainly, if wishing to destroy the aristocracy; seize the wealth of the affluent and oppose industrial progress make on a hater of Britain, and a wholly malign force, we are forced to consign Orwell to the dustbin of history.
There are grounds on which to dislike Geoffrey Levy’s polemic against Ralph Miliband in The Mail, then. As far as I can tell, though, racism is not among them. He is charged with implying that immigrants have no right to criticise the land that offers them a home, and with some justice. I believe that people should restrain themselves from openly promoting changes to their new abode, as they should take time to appreciate its culture. Levy attacks Miliband on the basis of writings in his diary, though, and as a teenager, which is a cheap shot.
Yet a “classical age-old antisemitic smear about disloyal Jews”? Firstly, Miliband’s ethnicity went unmentioned except in a passing reference to his escape from Hitler. Secondly, can you imagine that if he had been Chinese, Pakistani or Lancastrian and paid homage to Karl Marx The Mail would have been any more forgiving? I do not.
Jonathan Freedland draws attention to a highfalutin line in its defensive editorial, which reads: “We do not maintain, like the jealous God of Deuteronomy, that the iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the sons”. An implicit attack on Judaism? Well, perhaps, but I suspect not. British people who are smart enough to know what Deuteronomy is would think not of the Torah but The Bible. To me, this is a reference to the idea of “the sins of the fathers“, clad in the pomposity befitting of an apologia that includes the words “exposed the poisonous heart” and “felt a duty to lay before our readers”.
If the authorities of the paper were so bigoted as to sneak in such an eccentric reference for anti-semitic purposes it might lead one to ask why they employ Melanie Phillips, Alex Brummer, Geoffrey Levy and the maker of a programme called The War on Britain’s Jews?
I dwell on this point because Roger Cohen of The New York Times has used this controversy to imply that Britain is a home of anti-semitism. For him, The Mail’s article was “laden with stereotypes of the scheming Jew”, and “the fact that it has scarcely been debated as such demonstrates the existence of a problem”. Such a debate has, in fact, been conducted in The Guardian, The Jewish Chronicle, The Daily Mail and elsewhere.
There is, Cohen writes, a “genteel prejudice” that forces Jews to “keep quiet” and “use codes”. I could name some of the proudly Jewish men and women who contribute to our public life but why bother when The Jewish Chronicle publishes an annual list of dozens of them. That is either evidence that Cohen is being over-dramatic or that this publication is terrible with codes. It is true, of course, that anti-semitism exists, but opposition to it is so mainstream that a novel that attempted to satirise it won our foremost prize for literature. The worst stuff happens on the streets, where tribally-minded Muslims and old-school nationalists can pose serious threats to Jewish citizens.
This does not please me. Nor does the fact that our press can be so ugly and opportunistic. Yet I will oppose the notion that little has changed since the days in which Shanks and Webster published The Jewish Peril. Because it has, and because I love my country.