When I lived in the Soviet Union in my early twenties, I developed a personal hostility to socialism. I saw the misery it had visited on that society – the political, spiritual and economic harm. I understood at first-hand how the secret police corrupted personal and public life, how state propaganda denied freedom of thought and how the regime hid the slaughter and imprisonment of millions of its own people.
I came to the conclusion that whichever totalitarian power had survived World War II – Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union – they would probably have looked much the same by the time of their demise. I never understood why Westerners did not – or could not – see the closeness of Left and Right extremes and the similarities between their fellow travellers. So when I hear people like Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell praising Marx – he has said: “I’m honest with people. I’m a Marxist” – it concerns me.
In the UK we see politics as being linear; if you are hard Left, you are the opposite of hard Right. In fact, both share many traits: acceptance of their political violence, denial of individual liberty and indulging in conspiracy theories. Perhaps most critically, many of them at their heart share a resentment and even hatred of capitalism and Jews – or both.
Perhaps McDonnell doesn’t realise it, but Karl Marx’s conspiratorial view of the world is at the rotten root of both hard Left and Right. Marx helped provide the intellectual base for both the Holocaust of the Jews and the Holodimir – mass starvation – of the Ukrainians. Between them these acts claimed the lives of more than ten million people.
In his 1843 essay, The Jewish Question, Marx, whose father converted from Judaism to Protestantism, equated emancipation from capitalism and Judaism as being one and the same. “Money is the jealous god of Israel” Marx wrote. “The god of the Jews has become secularised and has become the god of the world.” He jumbled together hostility to private property and capitalism, and his personal hatred of Jews as self-interested, rootless and enablers of secret control, updating miserable medieval tropes for the modern world. Once society succeeded in the preconditions of Capital, “the Jew will have become impossible [Marx’s italics],” perhaps the most profound example of bastardised pseudo-science in modern political history.
Marx ends with a final, rhetorical flourish. “The social emancipation of the Jew is the emancipation of society from Judaism [again Marx’s italics].” In other words, the destruction of capitalism and Judaism are one and the same in the creation of a purer society. Only when one ceases to exist will the other be liberated from its false consciousness.
In denouncing Judaism and capitalism, Marx helped lay the intellectual foundations for the ethnically-based genocide of the National Socialists in Germany and the economically-based genocide in the USSR, although it should be said that the Soviets conducted ethnic genocides too. As well as the organised famine of the Ukrainians – arguably both economic and ethnic – this includes the mass expulsions of ethnic groups ranging from Lithuanians to Chechens in the 1940s. A second holocaust of the Jews, this time in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, was scrapped only with Stalin’s death.
Marx’s Anti-Semitism in The Jewish Question, in his private letters and in other works such as The Russian Loan, have been largely ignored by supporters. Occasionally, Left writers admit a structural problems with anti-Semitism (the hard Right has long since embraced it) but mask it with pious mitigations over the Left’s campaigning record on ‘good causes’.
That’s true, but only up to a point. The British intelligentsia has a dreadful record. It was co-opted by Stalin’s Popular Front in the 1930s, despite the mass murders taking place at the time. Left intellectuals such as the Fabians founders, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, helped suppress knowledge of the killings. Since then, many on the hard Left have embraced any two-bit revolutionary anti-capitalist thug.
The final, malign achievement of Marx was to update medieval anti-Semitism concepts for the modern era. In Europe from the late 19th century through to the mid 20th century, anti-Semitism and anti-capitalism swirled in unholy alliance. Marx wasn’t the only one responsible, but his rancid writings help explain why the hard Left and the hard Right swim in the same moral and intellectual cesspit.
Today, Trump flirts with the fringes of white identity police and economic nationalism while tweeting headlines from a site accused of plugging anti-Semitic stories. Does he recognise his debt to Marx? I suspect not. In Britain, anti-Israeli campaigning has become a cover for hatred of US ‘imperialism’ and a casual anti-Semitism, as Richard Kerbaj and Tim Shipman’s excellent Sunday Times investigation this week showed.
John McDonnell has said, “there’s a lot to learn from Capital.” If he’s such a fan, McDonnell should read his idol’s words more carefully.
Bob Seely is MP for the Isle of Wight. He sits on Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee