What is the socialism of fools?

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By Daniel W. Round, Stourbridge CLP

In his recent statement addressing concerns raised in the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn called anti-semitism the “socialism of fools”. But where does this phrase – much used of late – come from?

August Bebel, Chair of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany between 1892 and 1913, is credited with popularising it. He used the phrase when denouncing the political anti-semitism that arose in Europe in the late 19 th century. This form of anti-semitism relied on some of the usual medieval tropes, but was augmented by a new intolerance that emerged from the burgeoning, exclusionary nationalisms of the era, combined with scientific racism and popular stereotypes about the position of Jewish people in the economy.

The new anti-semitism’s banner was raised by the proto-fascist Karl Lueger when he was elected Mayor of Vienna in the 1890s. Lueger and other prominent anti-semitic demagogues of the period, many of whom came from right-wing Catholic parties, were later held up as models by the Nazis.

But why then? The second half of the 19th century was a period of great upheaval during which national communities were being constructed and re-imagined across much of Europe. With this came a homogenising drive towards unified national identities, from which Jewishness was seen as incompatible, removed; an obstacle to be overcome, a ‘question’. Perceived social and economic mobility was also often held in deep suspicion.

From the 1880s, this reactionary politics became popular among many ‘little men’ of capitalism – including small business owners, shopkeepers and farmers – who felt threatened by rapid changes in industry and the wider economy. These little men were encouraged by anti-semitic populists such as Lueger to blame Jews for their problems. As the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote: “the typical cartoon image of the capitalist in the belle époque was not just a fat man in a top hat smoking a cigar, but one with a Jewish nose”. Hence, the socialism of fools.

These ideas were also taken up by some workers in the labour movement who too associated the worst ravages of capitalism with the Jewish ‘other’. Anti-semitism was to an extent, though, curbed on the left by anti-racist education, the presence of Jewish socialists, and the strong stance of many in the SPD and other (though not all) socialist parties of the era.

The context of anti-semitism is of course very different in 2018. Much of it is now coded, designed to be difficult to detect, and often comes from an obsessive anti-Zionism. However, many of the tropes around the nature of financial elites, for example, remain (e.g. Rothschild conspiracy theories).

Furthermore, the re-emergence of identity as a political force, the rise of conspiracy theories on internet, and continued post-crisis economic anxiety forms a dangerous cocktail. This cocktail reinforces the racist theories of the hard right (see Viktor Orban in Hungary), but can also lead to sloppy thinking among sections of the left where the absence of proper materialist analysis leaves a dangerous vacuum. As we have seen, such sloppy thinking can easily give way to left anti-semitism (these days, the anti-capitalism or anti-imperialism of fools), or apologism for it.

To eradicate anti-semitism and conspiracy theory in the labour movement once and for all, we need widespread socialist education that puts a sophisticated analysis of class firmly at its heart. We need prominent figures to fully understand and clearly explain the history (including the pernicious legacy of Stalinism). And we should all call out the fools that Bebel would undoubtedly recognise, whenever and wherever we encounter them.

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