One of the prophets?

I was approached earlier this year to write a chapter for the 4th volume of the Jewish Lives Project – a six part book series celebrating the Jewish contribution to British Society throughout history published by the Jewish Museum in London. This volume focuses on influential thinkers and I was asked to write about ‘Karl Marx and Anglo-Jewish Thought”. Volume 4 has now been published. This is my essay.

Karl Marx never went to shul (synagogue) despite both his parents being descended from a long line of rabbis. I blame his father, the lawyer Herschel Marx, born in Saarlautern in 1782, who later settled in Trier, a town of 12,000 people by the Moselle, where his brother Samuel was the senior rabbi. In 1817 Herschel the Jew became Heinrich the (Lutheran) Protestant, to sidestep barriers blocking his career. Why did Herschel choose Protestantism in heavily Catholic Trier? Perhaps he still enjoyed being a minority.

Herschel and Henrietta Marx had nine children. Only four survived to adulthood. Karl marxMarx was born in 1818. Since Judaism is passed down by the mother, and Henrietta postponed her baptism until after her father’s death in 1825, Karl was officially born a Jew. Not for too long, though. Karl was baptised at the age of six. Then, as a young adult, Karl dispensed with both Lutheranism and Judaism and declared himself an atheist. He memorably described religion, In 1844, as “the opiate of the masses”. It comforted people, he said. It relieved pain in their lives, and gave them temporary euphoria and pleasant illusions. But he wanted people to ditch their illusions, confront reality, and change the world.

I was never offered opiates in shul I when I was young. We were lucky to get a boiled sweet from the shammas. I don’t recall much praying either. Instead I heard sotto voce discussions of football, horse-racing and business worries, interspersed with the congregants standing up, singing like an unruly football crowd, or muttering Hebrew words at lightning speed. “In shul”, one Jewish Marxist told me, “people pray to a God they don’t believe in, in a language they don’t understand, for the security of a state they don’t want to live in”.

On my wedding day, though, Karl Marx the Jew was proudly name-checked by Rabbi Bayfield, head of the Reform Synagogue Movement as he generously described me and my partner, Julia, as social justice campaigners within a “Jewish prophetic tradition”, stretching from Amos and Mica via Marx to the present. The mere mention of Marx provoked nervous coughs among some relatives.

But Marx was indeed a prophet, who argued that major historical changes resulted from the struggle for ascendancy between antagonistic socio-economic classes. In 1818, when Marx was born, the old landed aristocracy were being challenged by a rising industrial bourgeoisie. Once the bourgeoisie triumphed though, they could only sustain their dominance through economically exploiting the class that filled its factories –  the “proletariat”. It was inevitable, Marx believed, that one day the proletariat would revolt, seize power in the name of the majority, and establish a society based on equality and justice.


Communist manifesto in Yiddish published by the Bund in Warsaw

When Marx first visited London in 1845 he met German migrant workers and leaders of radical political groups. On his second visit, in 1847, one group – the Communist League – commissioned him to distill his revolutionary ideas in an accessible pamphlet that would inspire the proletariat to fulfil its historic role. He collaborated on this with Friedrich Engels, and in 1848 they published The Communist Manifesto. It has never been out of print. I possess a Yiddish copy, published by the Jewish Socialist Bund in 1919 in Warsaw. It begins: “A ruakh, a shotn geyt arum iber ayrope – der shotn fun komunizm” (A spirit, a spectre, is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism). The pamphlet urges workers to launch themselves into the struggle: “You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win”. It closes with the rallying cry: “Workers of the World Unite!”

The Marx family settled permanently in London in 1849, living temporarily in Camberwell and Chelsea before renting a two-room flat in Soho, an area full of exiled revolutionaries. Later, they lived in Kentish Town.

Most Jewish Londoners at that time would have scoffed at his manifesto. A small influx of poorer Jews from Holland and Germany scraped a living as clothing and cigarette makers, small traders or petty criminals, but heads of Jewish households were more typically bankers, stockbrokers and entrepreneurs living in capitalist comfort, though barred from standing as MPs until 1858, and their children could not study at Oxford or Cambridge universities until 1856.

By the time Marx died in London, in 1883, having written Das Kapital, pauperised Jewshome_trouser_yiddish_banner1 from the Russian Empire were pouring into Britain, fleeing pogroms and persecution. Marx’s vision of a just world, where the downtrodden and persecuted would turn the tables, spoke directly to Jewish migrants working 14-18 hour shifts for subsistence level pay in dingy East End sweatshops. They came to view their situation not as a misfortune but as an injustice that they could remedy through forming unions and striking for better conditions against the sweatshop owners. The banner of the Jewish Trouser Makers’ Union, formed in 1882, was emblazoned with Marx’s slogan: “Workers of the World Unite!” in English and Yiddish.

Marx had his greatest influence on British Jews between the 1880s and the 1930s. Some joined the early radical and revolutionary groups, such as the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League and studied his economic teachings. Bundist exiles in London campaigned in Yiddish, keeping workers informed about developments in Russia while preparing them for struggle in their workplaces here. East End anarchists organised around a Yiddish newspaper, Arbeter Fraynd which embraced Marx’s economics but leaned closer to utopian political thinkers such as Proudhon and Bakunin.

Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor admired her father’s work and was active in the Bloomsbury Socialist Society that met in the “Communist Club”. She proudly reclaimed the family’s Jewishness that her grandfather and father had rejected. Her happiest moments, she said, “are when I am in the East End amidst Jewish workpeople.” A talented linguist, drama teacher and recruiter for trade unionism, she learnt Yiddish, avidly read Fraye Velt, a radical Yiddish newspaper, and taught adult education classes at a workers club in Whitechapel established by Yiddish–speaking revolutionaries.

In 1890, when she was invited to address a large indoor rally protesting against the persecution of Jews in Russia, she wrote to the organisers: “I shall be very glad to speak… the more glad that my father was a Jew.” She was living in Jews Walk, Sydenham when she committed suicide aged 42,. Eleanor had told her sister, “I am Jewishly proud of my house  on Jews Walk”.

Endorse_workersciorclejewish-easeendtradeunion-cpIn the 20th century, two organisations provided a sustained Jewish engagement with Karl Marx’s ideas. The Arbeter Ring (Workers’ Circle) was a Friendly Society, founded in 1909 by Yiddish-speaking Bundists and anarchists, later joined by communists and left-wing Zionists. Its membership peaked in the 1930s. It closed in 1984. Circle members had sharp polemics with each other but all shared Marx’s basic philosophical outlook.

The other organisation was the Communist Party, established nationally in Britain three years after the Russian Revolution. In Jewish working class enclaves in Manchester, London, Leeds and Glasgow in the 1930s, Young Communist League branches were brimming with idealistic Jews, proud that so many Jews sat on the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks who made revolution in Russia.

In 1933, on the 50th anniversary of Marx’s death in the city where he had spent the largest portion of his life, a memorial committee purchased a building in Clerkenwell Green and set up a Workers’ Library and Trade Union school. The Marx Memorial Library boasts a hall downstairs called the Simcha Hall. Upstairs the bookshelves bear tags honouring book donors, many of them with Jewish names.

Between 1934-37, the Communist Party (CP) doubled its membership nationally, but its largely Jewish East End branches increased five-fold. The Communist Party led militant opposition to Mosley’s fascists in that period. When Oswald Mosley told a 15,000 strong rally at Olympia that the principal enemies of fascism were followers of “the German Jew Karl Marx”, he was telling the truth for once.

Some historians dismiss Jewish involvement with Communism as a brief flirtation reflecting the convergence of Jewish and communist opposition to fascism. Yet, every conversation I have had with Jews who joined the Party in that period, even those who later left feeling bitter and betrayed, revealed a deep identification with the Party’s Marxist beliefs. Jews whose school lives were cut short by poverty told me how they expanded their education  by devouring the Marxist political literature the Party encouraged them to read.

Several of my Jewish teenage friends had erstwhile communist relatives. One friend’s father, Ken, had replaced his youthful attachment to communist internationalism with Jewish nationalism – Zionism – and joined the Jewish Male Voice Choir. He visited America which Party comrades described as an Evil Capitalist Empire, but he came away impressed. Ken did not move far, though, from his working class roots. He urged me to read Man’s Worldly Goods – the bible of economics that the Party had introduced him to as a youngster, written by Leo Huberman, an American Jewish Marxist.

The classic representation of that period in Jewish working class life when many Jews 9781408156605felt that affinity with a party that embodied Marx’s ideals, was written in the late 1950s by Arnold Wesker. His play, Chicken Soup with Barley, centred on a Jewish communist East End family. Scene one begins on the day of the “Battle of Cable Street”. The family are confident they will see off Mosley, fascism will recede and communism will advance. Sarah, the play’s matriarch, is ready to deal Mosley a blow personally with her wooden mixing spoon. By the final scene, set in 1956, both the family and their ideals are disintegrating. Soviet tanks are quelling a popular rising in Hungary. Sarah’s son Ronnie urges his mother to open her eyes. But Sarah defends the ideals that brought her into the Party and turns angrily on him: “You want me to give it up now? You want me to move to Hendon and forget who I am?”

That last sentence illustrated the sharpening divide between East End working class Jews, many influenced by Marx, certain of the place of Jews in the collective struggle for a better world, and those rushing to the suburbs, happy to swap Marx for bourgeois comforts and individualism.

As the Jewish exodus to the suburbs accelerated in the 1960s and 70s, Marx was largely cast aside by those enjoying new prosperity. Their children would be the first in their families to go to university, rather than serve apprenticeships, drive cabs, work the markets or become secretaries. Ironically, in the universities, some of their offspring would encounter Jews for whom Marx remained pivotal.

I was taught by the political theorist Ralph Miliband who fled to Britain from Nazi occupied Belgium, Lou Kushnick a radical Brooklyn-born scholar of race and class in American politics, and the Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, exiled from his native Poland in 1968, with many other Jews, when antisemitism was weaponised in a bitter power struggle within the Communist Party.

British universities boasted outstanding Jewish proponents of Marx’s thinking such as the North American philosophers David-Hillel Ruben and Gerry Cohen, the political scholar Norman Geras, and historians Eric Hobsbawm and Raphael Samuel. Samuel’s communist aunt Miriam was married to the Jewish Studies professor, Chimen Abramsky, whose personal library included books with Marx’s own handwriting in the margins.  The New Left of the 1960s and ‘70s included many suburban Jewish students whose parents were moving rapidly in the opposite political direction.


Isaac Deutscher

Jewish scholars talk of lomedvovniks – righteous fighters for social justice who appear in each generation. Rabbi Bayfield had his line of prophets. The Polish Jewish marxist, Isaac Deutscher, who died in London in 1967, identified common traits among the most radical Jewish thinkers.

“Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky… all found Jewry too narrow, too archaic, and too constricting. They all looked for ideals and fulfilment beyond it… yet I think in some ways they were very Jewish indeed… as Jews they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilisations, religions and national cultures… they lived on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations… in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it. It was this that enabled them to rise in thought above their societies… to strike out mentally into wide new horizons”.

Marx  is long dead. For most British Jews the struggle against poverty has receded. Jewish institutions have a decidedly conservative face. And yet new Jewish radical movements are springing up today, proving that a bond between part of Anglo-Jewry and Marx’s revolutionary ideas continues to renew itself.

Jewish Lives Project: Thought is published by the Jewish Museum, £25




It is not only on racism that the far right are mobilising

My speech at the first plenary session of yesterday’s international conference at Friends House, London: “How do we defeat the rise of fascism and racism?” 

Here is a quote:

“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world. They are not generous but vengeful, and always attack the heart.”

It sounds like classic 1930s Hitler antisemitism.

It is from an election campaign in March this year in Hungary. That was Victor Orban whose party Fidesz won the election, talking about Georg Soros a Hungarian Jew, successful businessman and supporter of human rights, especially pro-refugee campaigns. When Orban won the election Boris Johnson sent a gushing tweet of congratulation.


Poland, 2018

The same antisemitic anti-Soros themes are spreading in Poland, country where last November 60,000 ultra nationalists took to the streets with slogans calling for a “jew Free Poland” alongside those saying “Pray for Islamic holocaust”.

Our government meanwhile has very good relations with the governments of Poland and Hungary. The Tory’s main partner in their European Parliament group is the ultra nationalist Polish Law and Justice party.

When the European Parliament recently passed a motion against Hungary over several issues including antisemitism – Europe’s main far right parties supported Hungary. As did Tory MEPs and their newest recruits to the Tory-led group – the far right Swedish Democrats

In February this year Theresa May’s former close advisor Nick Timothy wrote a column in the Telegraph accusing Soros of leading a plot to stop Brexit.

More recently, Donald Trump claimed that protesters against his dubious Supreme Court nominee were paid by Soros.

For far right groups, antisemitism is still the glue that holds their economic world view together. It’s becoming more brazen. Our solidarity between Jews and Muslims facing racism, often from the same sources, and with Jews and Muslims, must be total.

People in Britain today agonise about our future relationship with Europe. The far right meanwhile just get on with it, building links, visiting each other, sharing ideas. We need to catch up. In Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Roma prejudice and anti-refugee sentiment all ride in tandem. So do other forms of bigotry – especially homophobia and misogyny. Each of these countries has a big attack on women’s rights and they promote defence of the “Christian family”.

Orban in Hungary has recently been moving to close down Gender Studies in


Anti-orban protesters, Budapest

universities. These forms of bigotry are being used just as surely to garner working class support as racism and anti-refugee themes.

The far right grows in times of economic crisis but in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic there is no crisis. Something more deeply ideological is happening and we need some new thinking.

In each of these countries union membership is very low, and also some unions support their right wing governments. We are fortunate here that union membership is higher and closely aligned to a Labour party led by the left.

The unions and the Labour Party must both be part of broadening and deepening of our movement here against racism and fascism, because they are organised in every part of the country. Whatever stunts the far right pull in big city centres, their real goal is to build a base in local areas. That’s where we need to build.

Last week we saw only a segment of the far right – DFLA. In June we saw the more frightening alliance that is forming.

Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 19.29.27

Gerard Batten speking up for Tommy Robinson

Remnants of small hard-core Nazi groups, large groups of Islamophobic football thugs, some Polish fascists and UKIP. UKIP’s Gerard Batten makes speeches indistinguishable from the BNP. There were also sharply-dressed young men from the American Alt-Right and the European based Generation Identity movement – educated middle class fascists. Far right politicians from Euro from Holland and Belgium were there too. They had hi-tech equipment – flash screens, powerful PA systems – all bankrolled by the American white supremacist Steve Bannon.

I want to finish with a comment about the Jewish community and antisemitism. We know antisemitism is growing, that it cannot be fought on its own but is part of the fight against all racism, and it’s the left that has that understanding and that capacity.

But those who self-define as leaders of the Jewish community, egged on by the right wing press, have taken increasingly anti-left positions. They look at antisemitism through the prism of Israel and Palestine, but Netanyahu’s government is best mates with Donald Trump and the antisemitic and Islamophobic regimes in central and eastern Europe.

In the 1930s the Board of Deputies told Jews to stay indoors when Mosley was invading the East End in the 1930s. Thankfully people ignored them, and joined with non-Jewish allies in standing up against antisemitism and fascism. We need to ignore those voices now, and concentrate on building alliances on the ground with ordinary Jewish people and grassroots Jewish groups in fighting our common enemies and in building an anti-racist and anti-fascist majority in society.

No Pasaran!

The conference was organised by Stand Up To racism

Tommy Robinson – sharing the hate

My speech at the counter-demonstration organised by Stand Up To Racism to the Democratic Football Lads’ Alliance march in support of Tommy Robinson


I was lucky enough to be almost born an anti fascist. Before I learned to ride a bike I had heard about the Battle of Cable Street from my grandad – a boxer in the East End – and his escapades fighting Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s.

The fascist, Oswald Mosley, once told a dinner party. “Every successful movement needs someone to hate.”

And that is the only lesson that Tommy Robinson – the two-bob Oswald Mosley – the lummox from Luton – has learned from history. How to hate and get others to hate.

In Mosley’s case he hated was the Jews. In Robinson’s case he hates Muslims.

But racism gets lonely when it is on its own, and is much happier when it extends that hate to other groups.

And what we have witnessed with every far right group in Britain is the opposite of “sharing the love”. It is sharing the hate. Racists and fascists don’t replace targets, they accumulate them, and can attack them simultaneously.

Racism thrives among those who feel neglected, unjustly treated, and hopeless, who become embittered and look for easy scapegoats.

18-Tommy-Robinson-GetRobinson may be a pretty hopeless and embittered individual but he is far from neglected. He has big over-privileged backers like Steve Bannon, who has set up an office in Belgium aiming to strengthen the far right across Europe. He is supported by the well-heeled, university-educated racists and fascists of Generation Identity, and the very comfortable leaders of UKIP who are not exactly representative of foodbank Britain, zero-hours-contract Britain, homeless Britain.

But if Tommy Robinson and his privileged allies have only learned one lesson from history, then I will help them learn a bit more. That the people who you hate, who the National Front hated, who Oswald Mosley hated, will fight back. Every time you share the hate, you also tell us about the kind of alliance we need to build against you and your followers.

And we can see that alliance here today. Trade unions, Labour MPs, Muslims, Jews, black, white, all ages, all genders, and we can win. But we won’t win unless we build an anti-racist and ant-fascist majority in society.

That means not only saying racism is evil. Of course it is. It means, though, that we must link the fight against racism with the fight against neglect and hopelessness; the fight for housing, health, education, real jobs: a better world where none are scapegoated, where refugees are welcomed, and there is social justice for all.

No pasaran!

He didn’t get to first base

October 1934: The British Union of Fascists celebrated the launch of their first branch in London’s East End. Oswald Mosley, writing in The Blackshirt could barely contain his excitement:

Thursday October 4th… The Blackshirts marched in procession from Bow Branch premises … into Stepney Green, where a large crowd … had gathered which later increased to well over 1,500. The Blackshirts had a very noisy reception as the larger part of the audience were aliens who resented British people holding a meeting in what they considered to be their own territory… October 4th will go down in Blackshirt history as a memorable day

But October 4th became our memorable day. Two years later it fell on a Sunday. By then the British Union of Fascists (BUF) had four well organised branches in the East End, with Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Limehouse augmenting its Bow branch. Together they formed a horseshoe around the 60,000 strong, beleaguered Jewish community of Whitechapel, which bore the brunt of sickening verbal abuse from BUF street orators and physical violence from those they incited. Half the BUF’s national membership was in those four East End branches.

Two major parliamentary debates on antisemitic terror in the East End took place in 1936.  MPs detailed the wave of attacks on their Jewish constituents, but the only response Home Secretary John Simon could muster was to call for “all sides” to behave reasonably. Pathetic, though perhaps better than the sniggering of Tory backbenchers in the House in 1934 after violence erupted at a 15,000-strong fascist rally at Olympia in June that year.

The rally audience included 150 MPs looking for political inspiration, while some Tory


Captain Ramsey – Tory antisemite

House of Lords members turned up in black shirts. The violence at Olympia was one way. Eighty anti-fascists needed medical treatment, yet Tory MPs parroted the BUF line that anti-fascists had attacked Mosley’s thugs. William Greene, Conservative MP for Worcester asked in the House: “Is it not a fact that 90 per cent of those accused of attacking Fascists rejoice in fine old British names such as Ziff, Kerstein and Minsky?” Frederick MacQuisten, Conservative MP for Argyll enquired: “Were some of them called Feigenbaum, Goldstein and Rigotsky and other good old Highland names?” A fellow Tory MP, Captain Archibald Ramsey frequently railed against what he called the “Jewish imperium in Imperio (empire within an empire),” claiming that the correct term for “antisemite” was “Jew-wise”.

On October 4th 1936, Mosley planned to show that his movement could dominate any Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 07.56.47streets they wished. Beyond the Jewish enclave Mosley supporters set up four platforms where their triumphant leader would make successive speeches after his invasion. The following week Mosley was due in Berlin for his second marriage, this time in the home of Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, with Hitler an invited guest. Mosley relished the prospect of boasting to the Fuhrer how he had invaded fearful Jewish streets.

He didn’t get to first base. The anti-fascist majority of Eastenders turned up in force to repel the Blackshirts. They blockaded Gardiners Corner at Aldgate, built barricades in Cable Street and engaged in hand-to-hand combat at Tower Hill where Mosley’s troops assembled and police were more thinly deployed. The fascists had tried hard to mobilise Irish Catholics against the Jews, but on the day, dockers and railway workers came from the Irish end of Cable Street to assist Jews building barricades at their end.

The front ranks of those blockading Gardiners Corner endured savage beatings from the mounted police but held firm. In Cable Street, police eventually dislodged the first barricade (an overturned truck), and ran through to check it was safe for the fascists. They were halted at a second barricade where they endured resistance on the ground and an aerial barrage of kitchen implements and slops including the contents of chamber pots thrown by women in the flats above Cable Street’s shops. The police had to retreat.

People came from beyond the East End to support local anti-fascists. The Independent Labour Party published a pamphlet: 300,000 workers say no to Mosley. They and the Communist Party, could take most credit for the mobilisation, but the Labour League of Youth (at odds with Labour Party elders), and a local grassroots movement – the Jewish People’s Council against Fascism and Antisemitism (JPC) – played a huge part too.

It was the JPC that attracted nearly 100,000 signatures (Jews and non-Jews) that week on a petition demanding that the Home Secretary ban Mosley’s invasion. Local people’s desire to be free from fear was counterposed to Mosley’s “right” to invade an immigrant area, threaten, abuse and intimidate its population – in the name of his free speech and movement. The Tory government privileged Mosley’s rights, and sent 7,000 police, including every mounted policeman in London to uphold those “rights”. The JPC produced a further leaflet, addressed to “Citizens of London”, declaring “This march must not take place.” If the government refused to ban it then the people would, through force of numbers, which they did. Eighty four demonstrators were arrested, 79 of them anti-fascists, of whom 13 were women. Many were fined. Charlie Goodman and Jackie Shukman served custodial sentences, but then went to Spain to join the International Brigades fighting Franco’s forces after being released.

Facing overwhelming resistance, Mosley was eventually ordered by the police to turn round, march his troops in the opposite direction, and disperse. He condemned the Government for surrendering “to Red violence and Jewish corruption.” The Blackshirt newspaper said “Jewry had humiliated Britain for a few short hours.”  The BUF swore revenge, and promised to rid the country of the ”unclean influence of alien contamination.”

But they were not the only people who were humiliated that day. Leaders of mainstream political parties who told people to stay indoors and let the fascists pass, were shamed for their cowardice. Apart from the fascists, though, none suffered greater humiliation than the arrogant, right-wing “leaders” of the Jewish Community. From the relative comfort of the West End, the Board of Deputies sent messages to be read out in synagogues the day before the fascist invasion, instructing the East End’s working class Jews to stay off the streets.

Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 08.27.07Their echo chamber, the Jewish Chronicle, published an “URGENT WARNING” advising Jews to “KEEP AWAY” from the Blackshirt march. Those who “become involved in any possible disorders”, it said, “will be actively helping anti-Semitism and Jew-baiting.” Middle-class leaders of Jewish youth clubs put on extra football matches that Sunday to divert Jewish youth from the counter-protest but the young people preferred to tackle fascists that day instead of each other. When the Board and the Jewish Chronicle finally roused themselves in the weeks following the people’s victory over the fascists, they directed most of their energy to attempting to undermine the Jewish People’s Council who had played such a crucial role in mobilising Jews and allying with non-Jews to defeat their opponents.

As recent political interventions have shown the “advice” offered to the Jewish community from its self-defined “leaders” has not improved in the decades since. The current Board of Deputies president, Marie Van der Zyl displayed either political ignorance or amnesia when she told an Israeli news channel recently that the Conservative Party have “always been friends of the Jewish community”. Meanwhile, anti-fascists must face up to the renewed threat to minorities, not just here, but elsewhere in Europe and America. We still have much to learn from those who united in resistance and built an anti-fascist majority in their communities in 1936.