Jun 11, 2022

No longer a gendarme for the West: Simon Pirani on Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Woman holding hand-printed sign that reads "I'm Russian, I'm against war"
How should western leftists respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? How do we best oppose imperialist aggression and systemic violence in a situation that defies simple narratives? How do we navigate between Kremlin-inspired propaganda and anti-Russian hysteria, or between the “anti-imperialist” and “anti-Nazi” pretensions of a right-wing authoritarian capitalist aggressor and the “pro-democracy” claims of critics who routinely support brutal repression and mass murder?

From a three way fight perspective, the Russia-Ukraine war presents special challenges because it’s a situation where fascists—and claims of antifascism—have played significant—but also significantly different—roles on both sides.

There are a lot of wretched takes on the Russia-Ukraine war, but a number of good ones as well—statements and articles that lay primary responsibility on Russia’s imperialist attack while also critiquing the actions of western powers and Ukraine’s capitalist state. Three Way Fight has compiled some of the writings we’ve found most useful in our “Antifascist Resources on Ukraine” post.

One writer I’ve returned to again and again over the past several months is Simon Pirani, a British leftist who has been studying and writing about Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics since the 1990s, first as a journalist and then as an academic scholar. (See “Note” below.) Most of Pirani’s recent writings can be found on his blog People and Nature or on his website. Pirani’s work stands out because:

  • his analysis of both Russia and the Ukraine is informed by decades of research and personal engagement with radical movements in the former USSR;
  • rather than focus on geopolitics or the relations between governments, he places the development of social forces at the center of his analysis and working-class solidarity at the center of his calls for action; and
  • he makes a number of important points that few others have made, such as noting that Putin long acted as “a gendarme for international capital” before falling out with western powers.

In this essay I offer a review of Pirani’s recent writings about the Russia-Ukraine war and its background. Because Pirani has produced a series of essays and interviews that overlap in scope, I have pieced together a number of his core arguments and grouped them into four sections: “Russia,” “Ukraine,” “The war,” and “What to do.” This approach necessarily involves skipping back and forth from one article or interview to another, so I have included a full list of Pirani works consulted at the end.

Russia

Pirani describes Russia’s role in global capitalism as both subordinate and imperialist:

“In terms of its relationship with the large Western states, and its position in the world economy—principally as a supplier of raw materials—Russia is very definitely in a subordinate position. But in relation to Ukraine and other countries around it such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Georgia, and states in the Caucasus, it definitely acts as an imperialist power.”

Because of inequities baked into the international economy, Pirani argues, Russia’s dependence on commodities exports has fostered a “rent-seeking, parasitic form of capitalism” that in many ways has more in common with countries of the Global South than industrialized countries. To compensate for its lack of economic power, Putin’s Russia has relied disproportionately on military strength—including its nuclear arsenal—to bolster its ambitions to great power status. It has fought wars in Chechnya (1999-2009), Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014 to the present), and Syria (2015 to the present), and has sent troops to suppress political protest movements in Belarus (2020) and Kazhakhstan (2022). At the same time, Pirani notes, “Russia has shown little sign either of wanting to acquire territory, beyond enclaves with a majority of Russian speakers, or of being able to dominate it economically.”

“In terms of… its position in the world economy—principally as a supplier of raw materials—Russia is very definitely in a subordinate position. But in relation to Ukraine and other countries around it… it definitely acts as an imperialist power.”

To augment Pirani’s account, Russia’s reach has been further extended by military contractors, most notably the Wagner Group, a private Russian company that has close ties with the Russian military and Putin himself. Wagner mercenaries have been deployed to eastern Ukraine, Syria, and at least fourteen African countries, including Mali, where they have been implicated in massacres of hundreds of civilians.

To understand how Russia came to occupy its contradictory international role, Pirani reaches back to the origins of post-Soviet Russia. After the USSR collapsed in 1991, representatives of western capitalism went in and pushed successfully to break up the state-run economy and restore private enterprise on terms of ruthless neoliberalism. As a result, Pirani notes, “both Russia and Ukraine were plunged into the greatest peacetime slump anywhere, ever. Whole swathes of industry, including much manufacturing capacity related to the military, were junked. Social welfare systems collapsed.” It was this period that established Russia’s primary international economic role as an exporter of fossil fuels and other commodities.

Under Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, not only the welfare state but the state as a whole was extremely weak:

“Tax collection, above all from the oil, gas and metals companies, sank into a very low level.... The state was losing its monopoly on armed force, not only with the [separatist] situation in Chechnya and some of the other republics, but also just in terms of the number of guns that were in the hands of criminal gangs who could participate in the economy by seizing property or other methods.”

After coming to power in 2000, Vladimir Putin set about restoring a strong Russian state. First, he used brutal military power to suppress Chechen autonomy and give a warning to separatists anywhere else in Russia. Second, he

“made very clear to the companies that taxes from now on were going to be paid. And the oligarchs who argued with him the most fiercely, or were otherwise politically dangerous to him, ended up either outside the country, or in jail, or, in a couple of cases, dead. Putin tilted the relationship of power between the state and capital to the state's advantage.”

Third, Putin’s government increasingly cracked down on political dissent and independent media.

Pirani notes that during the first decade of Putin’s rule, economic modernizers within the governing elite talked about moving the country away from dependence on resource exports, but this ended after the 2008 financial crisis, a 2012 decline in oil prices, and finally Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and Western powers’ imposition of sanctions in response. Economic modernizers lost their influence and the siloviki (people from the security services, including Putin himself) became completely dominant.

Pirani debunks the idea that Putin’s Russia and the western powers have been locked in a steadily mounting conflict:

“From the time Putin’s set-up became established, from the point of view of Western capital, they had a good relationship with Russia. Russia was supplying oil, gas and minerals to the world market. They were obeying the rules of that market. They were trading on terms which the West could understand. They were accepting all the rules of international finance and the dominance of the Western banking system.”

In addition, Pirani argues, the western powers accepted Russia’s military role as a gendarme for international capitalism—an enforcer of order in the former Soviet republics and even in the Middle East:

“For all their disavowals of ‘spheres of influence,’ Western powers not only ignored Russia’s multiple war crimes in Chechnya, but acquiesced in the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and, most significantly, Russia’s bloody intervention in support of the Assad dictatorship in Syria since 2015. This tolerance for Russia as a gendarme was the other side of the coin of the Western powers’ own military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and their support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen.”

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea caused the western powers to modify this stance by kicking Russia out of the G8 and imposing limited sanctions, but in other respects they continued to accept Russia’s gendarme role, for example with regard to its recent military interventions in Belarus and Kazakhstan. The relationship did not fundamentally change until Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine this year. Now, for the first time, “the bourgeoisie internationally have decided to shut out Russia from the international financial system, to shut Russia out of any investment, and Russia’s population can starve!” Pirani describes this as comparable to the western powers’ policy toward Venezuela or Iran: “They want to buy these countries’ oil on the world market, but allow the rest of their economies to collapse.”

“Western powers not only ignored Russia’s multiple war crimes in Chechnya, but acquiesced in the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and, most significantly, Russia’s bloody intervention in support of the Assad dictatorship in Syria since 2015. This…was the other side of the coin of the Western powers’ own military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and their support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen.”

Pirani’s analysis of Putin’s regime appears to have evolved in response to recent events. In an interview conducted in mid March, he touched briefly on the far right’s role in Russia, noting that, contrary to Putin’s supposed interest in de-Nazification, “the Russian fascists and nationalists are a greater force, and a better armed force…than the Ukrainian fascists”:

“Sometimes [the fascist movement in Russia] is subject to heavy clampdowns from the state; at other times it is allowed by the state to, for example, terrorize migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, to terrorize the left. The state, to some extent, regulates the extent to which the fascists are able to do street activity in Russia. And the use of Russian fascist gangs, supported by the Russian state, was the key force in the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the establishment of the so-called ‘people’s republics’ there. Russian fascists and extreme nationalists, and some of the Chechen armed gangs that are used by the Russian state to control Chechnya, were heavily involved.”

However, in an article published April 19th, Pirani offered a much bigger claim, that the Russian state as a whole is not only authoritarian but is now moving toward fascism. He argues that four recent developments constitute this shift toward fascist rule:

  • a redefinition of patriotism to center on repelling external and internal enemies militarily
  • an ethno-nationalist redefinition of the “Russian world,” with a focus on purging Ukraine from the earth
  • the incorporation of armed far rightists into the state
  • intensified repression of dissent via both state organs and fascist-like squads.

I agree that these developments represent an alarming, qualitative shift in the character of the Russian state. To bolster one part of Pirani’s argument, Putin’s vision of Russia leading a Eurasian civilizational clash with the West echoes the ideas of neofascist theorist Aleksandr Dugin (although Dugin’s direct influence on Putin has often been exaggerated).

Yet overall, I don’t agree that we should understand the changes in the Russian state as a move toward fascism. Pirani’s argument is based on “the possibility that fascism can congeal in the state, without the type of mass mobilization on which Hitler and Mussolini relied.” While I support efforts to rethink standard Marxist assumptions about fascism, I also think it’s analytically and strategically important to delineate fascism from other forms of dictatorship. To me fascism necessarily involves a mass-based revolt against the established political order, rather than an intensification of that order’s own authoritarian tendencies. (Paul Bowman has argued this point directly with regard to Putin.)

Ukraine

Like Russia, after the USSR’s collapse Ukraine experienced massive privatization and developed what Pirani calls “a parasitic form of capitalism” with heavy reliance on commodities exports. However, “US and European capital were far less committed to plundering Ukraine’s resources than they were Russia’s, Poland’s or the Baltic states’. And while the EU had no interest in admitting Ukraine to membership, it welcomed an inflow of cheap migrant labour from Ukraine.”

Unlike Russia, Ukraine was a relatively small country, historically colonized by Russia and navigating between bigger powers on either side. Pirani quotes Ukrainian socialist Yuliya Yurchenko’s analysis that the country’s oligarchs “turned pre-existing and largely non-conflictual differences [such as between Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers] into new animosities and prejudices...as an effective strategy to divide and rule the population that kept resisting the plunder with waves of resistance from below, from the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan uprising in 2013. These divisions were further amplified by the different oligarchs’ relationships with the European Union (EU) and Russia.”

Pirani notes that the split between pro-Russian and pro-EU elite factions has been a through-line of post-Soviet Ukraine. At the same time, he cautions that standard portrayals of Ukraine’s pre-2014 presidents Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych as “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian,” respectively, are oversimplifications. While they had different leanings, both tried to pursue a binary policy between the two neighboring powers.

In February 2014, President Yanukovych was deposed and fled the country following three months of protests in Kyiv’s central square, or Maidan. Some western leftists and liberals have portrayed this as a fascist coup backed (or in some versions orchestrated) by the U.S. government. Pirani rejects such claims as “Kremlin-inspired nonsense.”

“Maidan was not invented by the US or European bourgeoisie. It was a ‘wave of resistance from below’... It came amid economic instability caused by the 2008-09 economic crisis, and hard on the heels of the ‘Arab spring’ of 2011-12. Hundreds of thousands of people occupied the centre of Kyiv, including overnight in sub-zero temperatures. Subsequent research by sociologists showed the high level of participation across Ukraine in local demonstrations, and in particular on attacks on police stations that led to the collapse of the police force.”

The Maidan mass movement was “politically heterogenous [sic] and confused” but in broad terms motivated by (a) a desire for Ukraine to become part of “Europe” so as to improve wages, (b) opposition to political corruption, and (c) fear of excessive Russian influence on Ukrainian politics. “These fears fed into nationalist slogans.”

Pirani acknowledges that provocateurs and opportunist politicians were active on both sides of the conflict, and that armed fascists played an active role among the protesters. “We have many friends—socialists, trade unionists, feminists—who were also in the crowd, and who actually felt threatened and also tried to organize themselves to protect themselves from these fascists.” But, bottom line, “this was a mass movement, and we can’t analyze these events in 2014 without recognizing that.” Pirani’s assessment confirms the analysis of the Maidan revolution that I offered at the time.

The Maidan uprising and revolution, Pirani continues, sparked an “anti-Maidan” countermovement fueled by “fears among working-class Russian-speaking Ukrainians about the influence of Ukrainian nationalism, including reactionary and fascist types of nationalism, in the Maidan movement—although sociological evidence shows that these fears were expressed as separatism only by a tiny minority.” Pirani argues that the two movements, despite being in conflict, shared similar aspirations (of social and economic reform) and adds that “it was right-wing militias from Russia, and the Russian army, that militarised the conflict and suppressed the anti-Maidan’s social content” [italics in original]. (For more on the Maidan and anti-Maidan movements, see this 2014 discussion, which Pirani cites, by Ukrainian and Russian activists and scholars.)

Pirani argues that the danger from Ukraine’s fascists is real but “has not overwhelmed Ukrainian civil society.” He notes that although fascist played a significant part in the 2014 revolution, in the elections that followed fascist parties received a small percentage of the vote—less than in many other European countries. However, armed fascist gangs became more numerous and dangerous, as guns were taken from local police and as fascists (and others) mobilized to counter pro-Russian separatism in Donbas. These fascist gangs, some of which were incorporated into the military, have launched physical attacks against leftists, Roma, and the LGBT community.

I agree with this assessment as far as it goes, but I think there’s also more to be said. Lev Golinkin, a Jewish Ukrainian American journalist who is no fan of Putin, has warned not only of fascist units within the Ukrainian military but also fascists holding high-ranking positions in the national police and, more broadly, widespread and largely official glorification of World War 2-era far right organizations that participated in mass killings of Jews and Poles. There have also been significant ideological differences between different Ukrainian far right groups, for example with regard to the European Union and to the severity of antisemitism.

Aerial view of crowd of people sitting and standing in station waiting area
Evacuation of students from 26 countries from Ukraine to Poland


The war

Pirani sharply criticizes those who portray the Russia-Ukraine war as essentially an inter-imperialist conflict:

“[T]his is not a conflict, in the first place, between Russia and the US, or between Russia and the NATO powers. It's a conflict—in the first place—between the Russian army instructed by the Russian government, and the Ukrainian population as well as the Ukrainian government. It's complicated, but then life is complicated.”

In this war there is a fundamental asymmetry between the two sides:

The Ukrainian war can not be seriously equated with the Russian war, any more than the Iraqi war with the US-UK invasion; the Kurdish war with Turkish aggression; the Palestinian war with Israeli apartheid; or, going further back, the Vietnamese war with the US war. People who think Ukraine is fighting ‘a proxy war for NATO’ should clarify the difference, if any, between this and the ‘proxy war for the Arab states’ fought by Palestine, or the ‘proxy war for the USSR and China’ fought by Vietnam.”

Pirani has followed Ukrainian socialists in describing Ukraine’s resistance to Russia as a people’s war, by which he means “an armed conflict in which a significant section of the population is engaged, alongside or independently of the state, and in which social, labour and democratic issues figure along with national ones.” He highlights three ways this describes the Ukraine conflict:

  • “the Russian army’s shockingly anti-popular methods, a continuation of its methods in Chechnya and Syria,” which parallel western forces’ brutal tactics in Vietnam or Iraq and which turn Ukrainians’ resistance into “a war for survival”
  • the fact that millions of Ukrainians have chosen not to flee the country, and a large proportion of them have taken up arms or joined the war effort in non-military roles
  • the widespread and persistent popular protests by Ukrainians in areas occupied by Russia.

At the same time, Pirani cautions against romanticizing the Ukrainian resistance. He warns that “assumptions widely shared by Marxists in the early 20th century, about the potentially progressive roles of the national bourgeoisie,” and which have often been associated with the concept of people’s war, have proven to be false. He warns that any people’s war carries the danger that “new forms of statehood, authority and oppression will proliferate” or that militarization may overwhelm civil society, as happened in Syria. The motives of NATO countries in arming Ukraine must also be taken into account.

I appreciate Pirani’s effort to face the complexity of this issue, but I also think fuller discussion is needed. Pirani’s definition of “people’s war” is so broad that it could apply when a large part of the population is mobilized around a war of conquest, if that war involves a challenge to established political structures or calls for socioeconomic reform. I’m thinking particularly of some wars of settler colonialism, notably the U.S. War of Independence and Israel’s 1948 war: in both cases popular struggles for political autonomy and seemingly radical change were integrally bound up with systematic forced expulsion of whole peoples. The larger point here is that mass mobilizations may be the opposite of liberatory, even if they involve ostensibly progressive goals. That doesn’t negate Pirani’s point that leftists should support the Ukrainian resistance, but we need to either sharpen our concept of “people’s war” or find a different yardstick altogether.

That said, Pirani does make a number of distinctive points in discussing why Russia chose to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the first place. In broad terms, he emphasizes internal factors over external ones, and argues that among external factors, NATO expansion was much less important than the larger crisis of international capitalism.

By invading Ukraine and provoking harsh western sanctions, Putin’s government has “wrecked the Russian economy’s prospects” or, to put it differently, “has prioritized military adventure and associated political aims over the medium-term and perhaps long-term economic interests of Russian capital.” Despite Putin’s history of punishing even elite dissenters, some Russian capitalists, such as Lukoil’s board of directors, have openly called for an end to the war.

I think it would be helpful to consider this part of Pirani’s argument in relation to a recent debate between Ilya Matveev and Volodymyr Ishchenko on whether Russia’s invasion was economically rational or guided by imperial ideology. Central to this discussion was the idea that Russia now has a Bonapartist regime, in which the political elite exercises state power in the interests of big capitalists as a class but independent of any specific capitalist factions. (The discussion was sponsored by Salvage journal and Haymarket Books, and LeftEast published a summary.)

Many western leftists have argued that NATO expansion into eastern Europe threatened Russia’s security and thus provoked the Ukraine invasion as a defensive measure. Pirani rejects this argument for several reasons. He points out that most NATO expansion happened before 2004 and that it was motivated as much by eastern Europeans’ historically based fears of Russian dominance as by western imperialist aims. He argues further that NATO’s expansion was offset by its acceptance of Russia’s gendarme role within the latter’s own sphere of influence, as discussed above. In addition, blaming the Ukraine invasion on NATO expansion falsely portrays the Russian state as a victim—obscuring that state’s actual victims in the war—and underplays Russian internal dynamics: the re-emergence of the strong state, the tensions between economic interests and military-political ones, and the state’s uneasy relationship with its own population.

In the context of Russia’s internal dynamics, Pirani highlights two immediate factors behind the invasion: first, nationalist and militarist pressures from the increasingly powerful siloviki within the state. In Pirani’s words, “Putin could not be seen by hardliners in the military and security services to be the president who failed to undermine the Ukrainian state when he had the chance.” Second, Kremlin fears that the Ukrainian mass protest movement that toppled Yanukovych might spread to Russia. Pirani doesn’t directly say so, but these fears may have been heightened by the mass protests against the Belarusian dictatorship in 2020, which Russian military intervention helped crush.

On the most macro level, Pirani agrees that international capitalist forces brought about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but argues that these forces must be understood systemically—not as an inter-imperialist power play by western states but as “the broader crisis of 21st century capitalism”:

“It is this crisis that dashed the 1990s hopes of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, and many social democrats, that Russia would be integrated as a democratic European partner. Moreover, it is this same crisis that favored the rapacious form of capitalism on which Kremlin authoritarianism rests, and that produced the social unrest of the 2010s in both Russia and Ukraine that formed the backdrop for the initial outbreak of war in 2014.”

To reduce these dynamics to a “one-sided focus on NATO expansion,” Pirani argues, “has more in common with a distorted conspiracy theory than a coherent explanation.”

Pirani agrees that international capitalist forces brought about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but argues that these forces must be understood systemically—not as an inter-imperialist power play by western states but as “the broader crisis of 21st century capitalism.”

What to do

How should western leftists respond to the Ukraine war in practical terms? Pirani is cautious about answering this question in detail, but he does offer some broad recommendations. Some of these—such as denouncing anti-Russian bigotry and calling for all refugees to be welcomed regardless of ethnicity—are relatively uncontroversial on the left. His call for international solidarity with the anti-war movement in Russia, while a problem for active Kremlin supporters, would likely be shared by leftists whose position is based on the slogan “No war but class war.”

Because he sees the Russia-Ukraine conflict as a war of imperialist aggression, Pirani calls for solidarity with the Ukrainian people and their resistance, including armed resistance. That means movement support—presumably including material support—for Ukrainians who join territorial defense units and foreigners who travel to Ukraine to help the fight. It also means support for the delivery of weapons to Ukraine, but not support for a no-fly zone, because of the danger of triggering a wider war. (Gilbert Achcar, another leftist supporter of Ukrainian resistance, has argued for a similar distinction in more detail here and here.) Pirani is clearly reluctant and conflicted about some of the positions he advocates, warning that “military conflict inherently favours state machines and other hierarchies, and disfavours collectives and communities.” But this is one of those times when not taking a position is taking a position.

Conclusion

In a series of recent articles and interviews, Simon Pirani has offered one of the best overall analyses I have seen of the Russia-Ukraine war and the developments that have fueled it. Pirani’s approach combines a nuanced understanding of social and political dynamics with a deeply humanistic concern for how these dynamics affect actual people. He is rightly critical of those western leftists who prioritize opposition to the U.S. and NATO out of a one-dimensional approach to anti-imperialism. Although Pirani writes from a Marxist perspective, many anarchists and others could find his approach helpful. His analysis meshes well with in-depth discussions of various areas he touches on only briefly, such as accounts of anti-war resistance in Russia and of the Ukrainian state’s repressive and anti-working class policies.

Pirani's analysis is certainly not the last word on Russia or Ukraine. For example, I suggested above that his treatment of the Russian state could benefit from dialog with conceptions of Putin's regime as Bonapartist, and thus relatively autonomous from direct capitalist control. My criticisms of Pirani center on three issues. First, I think the far right’s role in Ukraine needs fuller discussion than Pirani provides. Second, I disagree with his claim that Putin’s Russia is moving toward fascism, because I believe fascism is best delineated from the establishment-based authoritarian nationalism Putin represents. Third, I agree with Pirani that western leftists should support Ukraine's resistance while being mindful of its dangers, but I think his concept of “people's war” unintentionally legitimizes certain mass-based, seemingly progressive wars of conquest. All of these criticisms are rooted in standard Three Way Fight arguments: that far right politics needs close attention, right-wing authoritarianism takes different forms and fighting them requires different strategies, and drives to strengthen oppression and systemic violence can come from below as well as from above.

These are limited criticisms, and none of them calls the substance of Pirani's core arguments into question. Pirani has enriched my understanding of the Russia-Ukraine war and its significance for today's world, and I hope many more readers will give his work the close attention it deserves. 

Thanks to John Garvey and Michael Pugliese for helpful discussions that informed this review, and to Xtn for comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.

Note

One part of Pirani’s background requires special comment: he was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) from 1972 until its breakup in 1985. The WRP was a British Trotskyist group led by Gerry Healy that represented one of the most poisonous examples of left-wing sectarianism and abuses of power; the group splintered when Healy’s extensive sexual violence against female members was exposed. Pirani’s politics have moved far from the WRP’s vanguardist arrogance, and he has written thoughtfully and self-critically about his involvement in the WRP (which he joined at age 14) and its dissolution.

Simon Pirani works consulted

The Russian Statelets in the Donbas Are No ‘People’s Republics’” (Jacobin, 1 March 2022)
Ukraine: the sources of danger of a wider war” (People and Nature, 21 March 2022)
Is this monstrous war of aggression really between two equal sides?” (Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières, 21 March 2022)
Putin has sacrificed Russia’s economy for this war on Ukraine’s people” (Truthout, 24 March 2022)
Our movement needs a different politics that is concerned with Ukrainian and Russian people not governments” (Links, 1 April 2022)
Supporting the Ukrainian resistance. Six questions” (People and Nature, 19 April 2022)
The Russian empire is failing in its own way” (People and Nature, 1 June 2022)

Photo credits

1. Russian diaspora protest against war in Ukraine, photo by Silar, 6 March 2022 (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.
2. Photo by State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, 10 March 2022 (CC BY 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

May 7, 2022

Abortion, the Christian right, and antifascism

It’s time for antifascists to stop treating the Christian right as a secondary threat. 

When the U.S. Supreme Court scraps legal protection for abortion rights—using arguments that also directly threaten legal protections for homosexuality, contraception, interracial marriage, and much more—it will mark a historic victory for the Christian right. More than anyone else, Christian rightists have worked steadily and carefully for almost half a century to reach this goal. They have done this not only because they want to stop pregnant people from making decisions about their own bodies. More broadly, Christian rightists have used abortion as a tool to rally mass support behind their larger agenda to impose patriarchal families, compulsory heterosexuality, and “God-given gender identity” on society as a whole.

Protesters hold abortion rights signs and a large banner that reads "We'll never go back" with a coat hanger crossed out
Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights (BACORR) clinic defense
at Planned Parenthood on Valencia, San Francisco, 29 September 2011

The Christian right has played a long game, setting aside centuries-old theological disputes, bringing millions of people into political activism for the first time, mobilizing both wealthy patrons and independent funding streams, and gradually building a rich organizational network, from think tanks and lobbying groups to local prayer cells. The Christian right has forged and used alliances with diverse actors, including neoconservatives and laissez faire libertarians, Likudniks and conservative Islamic governments. The Christian right’s embrace of Donald Trump as a modern day “Cyrus”—an ungodly man of power who serves God’s purpose—is a model of realpolitik, and it has paid off in spades.

The Christian right has functioned as a political big tent, encompassing multiple ideological doctrines, strategies, and tactical approaches, and making room for different factions to riff off of each other without tearing each other down. Most importantly, it has encompassed both reformist and revolutionary poles of thought—a creative tension between those working to make changes within the existing political system and those who want to scrap all secular and pluralist institutions and replace the existing state with a full-on theocracy. In this dynamic, the incrementalists have had the numbers but the theocrats have been the trend setters, again and again staking out forward positions that have helped to guide and animate their more cautious comrades.

A pioneering current of theocratic politics known as Christian Reconstructionism—whose “Godly” vision includes disenfranchising women and punishing homosexuality with death by stoning—has played a pivotal role within the anti-abortion rights movement, pushing it toward more violent actions and more militant opposition to the state. Michael Bray, a Lutheran pastor who spent four years in prison for firebombing a series of reproductive health clinics in the 1980s, is a Reconstructionist. So was Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian minister who murdered a physician and his bodyguard outside a clinic in Pensacola, Florida, in 1994. So is Matt Trewhella, a Pentecostal minister and founder of Missionaries to the Preborn, who in the 1990s defended the killing of abortion providers as “justifiable homicide” and urged Christian rightists to form church-based militias.

The movement’s other leading theocratic current, New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), has combined Reconstructionism’s call for right-thinking Christians to “take dominion” over all spheres of society with authoritarian mass organizing and the Pentecostal/Charismatic belief in divine prophecy and working miracles. NAR leaders have aggressively promoted homophobic legislation, including a notorious bill in Uganda that would have made gay sex punishable by death. New Apostolics have been a dominant force in the Christian Zionist movement and have proselytized Jews aggressively in Israel and elsewhere. NAR leaders staunchly supported Donald Trump throughout his presidency and have played key roles in the fraudulent Stop The Steal campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

The Christian right’s theocratic wing falls squarely within my proposed definition of fascism: a revolutionary form of right-wing populism, inspired by a totalitarian vision of collective rebirth, that challenges capitalist political and cultural power while promoting economic and social hierarchy. Whether you accept that definition or not, it’s clear that Christian theocrats (a) advocate intensified forms of oppression and repression, (b) want to impose their beliefs through a comprehensive transformation of society, and (c) use scapegoating, rituals, and people’s longing for community to mobilize supporters behind their goals. Theocratic organizations are a significant force in their own right, and their role within the larger Christian right give them leverage far beyond their numbers. (One 2013 estimate puts the NAR’s U.S. membership alone at 3 million. Even if that’s off by an order of magnitude, it still dwarfs the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys combined.)

Discussions of right-wing politics are often compartmentalized by ideology. This approach treats Christian rightists separately from white nationalists and the far right, and excludes Christian right politics from many definitions of fascism. That’s better than lumping all rightists into one nebulous category, because we need to understand our opponents’ differences so we can combat them effectively. Unfortunately, in practice many antifascists treat Christian right politics as not just separate from white nationalism, but also less important. Maybe they think Christian rightists are more moderate than white nationalists, or maybe they see issues of gender and sexuality as secondary to issues of race. In this framework, the Christian right gets attention only to the extent that it has a relationship with white nationalism or the extent to which its politics are seen to be “really” about race.

Interconnections with white nationalism are important, as is segregationism’s role in fueling the Christian right’s rise in the 1970s, and the movement’s more complex racial politics today. But those aren’t the main reasons the Christian right is dangerous. For half a century, Christian rightists have consistently placed gender and sexuality—not race—at the center of their program, and those wars need to be fought on their own terms.

Let’s remember: In the 1990s, the Anti-Racist Action Network made support for abortion rights and reproductive freedom one of its four Points of Unity, and ARA activists helped defend reproductive health clinics while also confronting neonazis and racist cops. This is history we can learn from. The fight against Christian theocracy is a fight against fascism. The fight for abortion rights is a fight against fascism.

For further details and references about the Christian right, see Insurgent Supremacists, chapters 2 and 6, and Right-Wing Populism in America, chapters 11 and 12.

Photo credit: By Steve Rhodes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via Flickr.

Apr 24, 2022

The Gilad Atzmon and David Rovics Antisemitism Controversy, Explained

by Shane Burley

Editors’ note: Ideological hatred of Jews is centered in the far right, yet too many leftists continue to tolerate and even promote antisemitic themes when they’re packaged to look and sound radical. For decades, supporters of the Israeli state have falsely claimed that any critique of Zionism is anti-Jewish. Mirroring this lie, many antisemites falsely claim that any criticism of their anti-Jewish beliefs aids Israeli oppression of Palestinians. For both of these reasons, it’s critically important that we learn to delineate between anti-Zionism that embodies liberatory principles and anti-Zionism that embodies anti-Jewish scapegoating, such as the false claims that Jews control U.S. foreign policy or that Judaism is inherently oppressive and violent.

In this guest post, anti-fascist writer Shane Burley analyzes the antisemitic views of Israeli-born musician and writer Gilad Atzmon, and the support Atzmon has received from leftist musician David Rovics despite criticism from Burley and others. Three Way Fight first addressed Atzmon’s poisonous role in the anti-Zionist movement in 2012, when we helped to organize a campaign urging leftist organizations to deny Atzmon a platform to promote his work. 130 leftists in several countries signed a statement in support of this campaign, and 22 Palestinian activists signed a separate statement that denounced Atzmon in similar terms.

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David Rovics has been having a problem. “You don’t have to be Mossad to do Mossad’s job,” wrote Rovics in one of the many numerous Twitter screeds, directed at Jewish antifascist writers.[1] This public meltdown came after many, many people raised questions about his conversations with, and public support for, some people widely known as racists and antisemites.[2]

Rovics has been a staple of many radical communities for a couple of decades. Known for his acoustic protest songs, he often plays at demonstrations, writes tracks related to contemporary political issues, and tours internationally and has self-published dozens of albums.

In 2021 Rovics had a YouTube video and podcast interviewing the neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach. The interview is a softball, where Rovics agrees with many of Heimbach’s critiques of the left and challenges virtually nothing Heimbach says, essentially giving him an open forum to state his views. Heimbach has argued that he has reformed, that he is no longer a white nationalist, but both by listening to his views and listening to experts, journalists, and antifascists who know him and his work well, this is an easy lie to dispel.[3]

Then Rovics hosted the antisemite Gilad Atzmon on his YouTube/podcast, where they talked at length about “Jewish tribal politics” and “Jewish identity politics.” Rovics knows well that there has been a great deal of evidence amassed about Atzmon and when he was confronted with it, both recently and historically, he has doubled down, refusing to deny Atzmon his support. Third, he appeared on the conspiracy podcast hosted by Kevin Barrett, who denied the Holocaust while Rovics was on his show; again, Rovics seemed to give him a pass.[4] Barrett is a known antisemite and conspiracy theorist, who describes himself as a “Holocaust agnostic” and who describes the antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a witty piece of “satire.”[5]

Rovics has apologized for the Heimbach interview and taken it down. But that is not the issue at the heart of the ongoing controversy. People make mistakes, and Rovics believed Heimbach when he shouldn’t have. I, and all journalists and antifascists, quote white nationalists in stories, sometimes from direct interviews, because we have to prove they are what we allege they are. That is necessary for reliable journalism and the safety of the community. But when I do this I analyze and re-analyze the choices, I get a huge number of eyes to ensure it is being done ethically, and I never give them an open platform to speak up without being directly countered. So, this could be considered an understandable mistake, one which stems from his own arrogance to think that he does not need any expertise or accountability when doing this type of work.

When it comes to Gilad Atzmon, no such apology has been forthcoming, and instead Rovics defended Atzmon’s views and, at times, even reproduced them. While saying he doesn’t “endorse” Atzmon, he has actually done just that and has even published open defenses of him.[6]

Gilad Atzmon playing saxaphone
Gilad Atzmon
Atzmon is a Jewish Israeli who left his country traumatized by his time in the Israeli Defense Forces; he now lives in Britain and makes his living as a well-known jazz performer. He also has a long history as a writer and activist in the pro-Palestinian space, but he was pushed out of the movement for his open antisemitism. For Atzmon, the issue with Zionism is not imperialism (he specifically says that Zionism is not colonialism)[7], but the ideology’s supposed uniquely Jewish roots and nature: it’s not just nationalism applied to Jews, but something distinctly corrosive that emerges from Jewish ideology and Judaism itself. “The never-ending robbery of Palestine by Israel in the name of the Jewish people establishes a devastating spiritual, ideological, cultural and, obviously, practical continuum between the Judaic Bible and the Zionist project. The crux of the matter is simple yet disturbing: Israel and Zionism are both successful political systems that put into devastating practice the plunder promised by the Judaic God in the Judaic holy scriptures,” says Atzmon.[8]

Instead of seeing Zionism as a political ideology that he finds objectionable, or Israel a country engaging in a military occupation of an indigenous people, he sees them specifically as an outgrowth of what he says is a “Jewish tribal identity.” “I do not consider the Jews to be a race, and yet it is obvious that ‘Jewishness’ clearly involves an ethnocentric and racially supremacist, exclusivist point of view that is based on a sense of Jewish ‘chosen-ness,’” says Atzmon, in a distortion of the Jewish religious concept of chosenness.[9] Keith Khan-Harris writes that “[the] problem is that for Atzmon, one form of identity is the ur-identity: Jewish identity. While he does take swipes at other forms of political identity – LGBT identity politics is a particular bugbear – really, his argument is that Jewish identity forms the basis for the poisonous practice of identity itself. It is not just that Jewishness is, and has always been, a form of exclusionary ‘ethnic supremacism’; for Atzmon, Jewishness is the ultimate source of everything that divides and rules us.”[10]

The heart of Atzmon’s antisemitism here is revulsion at the Jews’ stubborn refusal to assimilate and give up their Jewishness. “At the most, Israel has managed to mimic some of the appearances of a Western civilisation, but it has clearly failed to internalize the meaning of tolerance and freedom. This should not take us by surprise: Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, and Jewishness is, sadly enough, inherently intolerant; indeed, it may be argued that Jewish intolerance is as old as the Jews themselves,” says Atzmon.[11] Historically, antisemitism was directed at the religion of Judaism and Jewish cultural distinctiveness rather than a bigotry directed as Jews as a race or ethnic group. Jews were forced to de-Judaize themselves at the point of mass slaughter and torture, and so antisemitism has, for most of its history, been about compulsive Jewish conversion and assimilation.[12] This, of course, was itself a falsehood, even when Jews did convert they were generally unaccepted, such as the Spanish “conversos” who converted in Spain during the Inquisition yet continued to be the target of suspicion and violence. In this model of anti-Judaism, Jews can stay alive as long as they rid themselves of literally anything that differentiates them as Jews.

Atzmon claims that he does not hold someone’s Jewish ethnicity against them (something I will dispute in a moment), but instead it is their Jewish identity. As scholars like Bernard Harrison have pointed out, the Jewish ability to maintain a cultural distinctiveness has been a challenge to many who want to destroy social pluralism when they see it as destructive to their homogeneous vision: Atzmon thinks Jews should simply cease to be different, cease to be themselves.[13] As scholars like Ibram Kendi point out, “assimilationist ideas are racist ideas” because they force the minority group to conform only to the dominant system, which in this case is largely non-Jewish.[14] A truly tolerant, multicultural, cosmopolitan, and internationalist view allows people to remain themselves with other people, doing so without borders, walls, or national lines. Jewishness is an identity with a rich history, one that brings joy and perseverance to millions, and yet Atzmon and his defenders demand it simply disappear if its adherents are to “join the human family.”[15]

Atzmon argues that Jews hold a near monopoly of power in the world, that they control the West, and they do this through political movements that are secretly Jewish (neocons) or by controlling the media, banks, and governments. “Why are Jews so overwhelmingly over-represented in Parliament, in British and American political pressure groups, in political fundraising and in the media?” asks Atzmon.[16] This is functionally identical to white nationalist antisemitic theories rooted in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. “The current mess in Iraq is the direct outcome of Jewish political domination of the West for the last two decades,” says Atzmon, which he obsessively connects to what he says is the Jewish character of the neoconservatives, such as figures like Paul Wolfowitz.[17] To discuss this he talks heavily about John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which is often too simplistic and can be prone to some problematic assumptions[18], but he goes much further: it is not just Israeli lobbying organizations, it is the entirety of Jewish civic life.

Jews have historically been forced outside the auspices of state protection and social services, and since they had many of their own social and legal systems, there is a long history of Jewish nonprofits and organizations that support the Jewish community (such as Jewish federations and various aid organizations). By misrepresenting the history of these groups, and having little understanding of how civic organizations work, these groups are presented as a kind of shadow government, advocating for a supposed homogeneous political position of Jews. More than this, they are all-powerful: Zionism, not simply being a political ideology related to the State of Israel, is a worldwide totalitarian force that has its hands on the trigger of the imperialist war machine. It doesn’t matter if a social problem has no connection to Israel or Jews, the Zionists (whatever the conspiracy theorist means by that) are likely still in the driver’s seat. This does not mean that there are not Israeli organizations and supporters in powerful places, but we cannot lend them outsized, conspiratorial level importance.

“Zionism was supposed to solve the Jewish Question, and it practically just moved it to a different place,” Atzmon told Greg Johnson, editor-in-chief of Counter-Currents.[19] Atzmon has been a longtime favorite with white nationalists and participates in their work. This includes Counter-Currents, one of the largest white nationalist publishers in the United States, which publishes neo-Nazis, alt-right writers, and Holocaust Deniers. Atzmon publishes a blog at the white nationalist Unz Review, known for publishing work on race and IQ.[20] In conversation with white nationalists, who believe the “Jewish question” is a racial one, Atzmon drops his tribal/ethnic distinction and engages in pseudo-scientific discussions about Jewish psychology. “The issue of biology is very interesting, and I think that Kevin MacDonald himself understands it,” Atzmon says, citing a white nationalist psychologist known for arguing that Judaism was a “group evolutionary strategy” for Jews to eugenically improve themselves and outcompete Gentiles for resources.[21] “How much of it is biology, race, culture? These questions should be discussed openly. I don’t see Jews as a race. There is no Jewish racial continuum, but there is definitely a cultural pattern that has some biological implications,” says Atzmon. “I use The Bell Curve models to show how Jews’ cognitive ability distribution was in the Jewish society. There is something that people don’t know a lot about. Kevin MacDonald definitely knows about it. He wrote about it. Jews, for as long as 1,500 years, European Jews married intelligence – the sage, the rabbi, the young boy that is destined to become the rabbi – with the merchant’s daughter. For 1,500 years, in the ghetto, rabbinical Jews married scholarship with money, and they have managed to create a very unique elite that specialized in scholarship and money.”[22] Atzmon accuses Jews of pushing Critical Race Theory, of manipulating non-whites for their own agenda, running the Atlantic slave trade, and other tropes found mostly in white nationalist literature.[23]

Atzmon’s best known book, and the one that Rovics has recommended multiple times and called “fantastic”[24], is The Wandering Who?, published by Zer0 Books in 2011. It caused controversy immediately since it was published by an ostensibly left-leaning publisher and contains neo-Nazi level canards about Jewishness.

Atzmon suggests in the book that the Holocaust may have been the fault of the Jews, who should ask themselves why they have so been disliked – something that perfectly echoes the questions that Holocaust Deniers like David Irving have asked.

“65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz we should be able to ask – why? Why were the Jews hated? Why did European people stand up against their neighbours? Why are the Jews hated in the Middle East, surely they had a chance to open a new page in their troubled history? If they genuinely planned to do so, as the early Zionists claimed, why did they fail? Why did America tighten its immigration laws amid the growing danger to European Jews? We should also ask what purpose Holocaust denial laws serve? What is the Holocaust religion there to conceal? As long as we fail to ask questions, we are subjected to Zionist lobbies and their plots. We will continue killing in the name of Jewish suffering. We will maintain our complicity in Western imperialist crimes.”[25]
This traces into the kind of Holocaust Denial that Atzmon is accused of, including his support of Irving and other Denial materials. “It took me many years to understand that the Holocaust, the core belief of the contemporary Jewish faith, was not an historical narrative, for historical narratives do not need the protection of law and politicians,” says Atzmon. “[The Holocaust’s] ‘factuality’ was sealed with draconian laws, and its reasoning secured by social and political institutions.”[26]

Atzmon said, at an event for Richard Falk, that the “Jews were expelled from Germany for misbehaving” and that “Jews are always expelled for a reason.”[27] “At another meeting, Atzmon said, “I’m not going to say whether it is right or not to burn down a synagogue, I can see that it is a rational act.”[28]

The Wandering Who? uses the antisemitic racial slur “Zios,” which was created by David Duke, putting it in the title for Chapter 2. “Yes, I read controversial texts, and when I read David Duke I just couldn’t believe how much this goy knows about Jewishness,” said Atzmon in a conversation with white nationalist Greg Johnson. “I read David Duke, who can think about racial matters in an open manner, and he understands exactly what is happening in the Jewish society or the Jewish national project.”[29]

Later in the book, Atzmon takes on what is often called the “Khazar Hypothesis,” which generally says that modern day Ashkenazi Jews are not the descendants of the Ancient Israelites (a position Rovics takes[30]) and are the results of a “mass conversion” of members of the now dispersed Khazar people of Eastern Europe. This argument has been used by a lot of white nationalist, Christian Identity, and antisemitic authors (but by no means exclusively by them) as a way of presenting Jews as frauds: if they are not people from the Levant, what claim do they have to Israel?[31] Atzmon cites Shlomo Sand, a Israeli who has published widely about how he “stopped being a Jew.” Sand, while controversial to some, is certainly not an antisemite, but Atzmon takes further steps from Sand and prefers to use the fine edge of anti-Zionism to build up a more caustic version. “Though most contemporary Jews are utterly convinced that their ancestors are the Biblical Israelites...the Roman exile is just another Jewish myth,” writes Atzmon.[32] The historic roots of Ashkenazim is fair game for debate, but Jews should be seen as much a distinct people as any ethnic group, and the issue with the oppression of Palestinians is not because Jews are not really a nation therefore without claims to land. Even if Jews were all directly descended from Ancient Israelites, they would not have the right to expel and oppress indigenous Palestinians, and even if they had no relationship to the Middle East they still experienced life as a distinct people who lacked political autonomy and protection. “People are entitled to invent themselves, as so many national movements have done in their moment of inception,” writes Ilan Pappe, discussing the question of historic Jewish nationhood and the Sand argument. “But the problem becomes acute if the genesis narrative leads to political projects such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, and oppression.”[33]

Atzmon places the cause for all of this Jewish perfidy on “Jewish power,” echoing Kevin MacDonald, and suggests that Jewish documents, like the Book of Esther, are responsible for this. He brings back classical antisemitic accusations, saying that he wonders whether “these accusations of Jews making Matza out of young Goyim’s blood were indeed empty or groundless.”[34] The book goes on like this, citing other antisemitic authors, tracing a huge range of modern problems directly to Jewishness: Israel is just another result of Jewishness, and we have to take on this identity. Jews are even guilty of deicide, the killing of Jesus, according to Atzmon, reviving the same kind of accusation that was used as an excuse to target Jews for centuries.[35]

All of these comments and others have pushed the Palestinian solidarity movement to roundly reject Atzmon. A huge denunciation, signed by two-dozen Palestinian leaders and published at The Electronic Intifada says “We reaffirm that there is no room in this historic and foundational analysis of our struggle for any attacks on our Jewish allies, Jews, or Judaism; nor denying the Holocaust; nor allying in any way shape or form with any conspiracy theories, far-right, orientalist, and racist arguments, associations and entities.”[36] Another letter denouncing Atzmon was signed by dozens of activists, including major critics of Zionism like Max Blumenthal, saying, “In our struggle against Zionism, racism, and all forms of colonialism and imperialism, there is no place for antisemitism or the vilification of Jews.”[37] Organizations that track the far-right have been open in their denunciation of Atzmon, as have many Jewish writers, and his work is generally understood as an extension of antisemitic discourses.

David Rovics playing guitar
David Rovics
When David Rovics was asked about this, and his relationships with people like Heimbach and Barrett, he flew into a rage at the idea that he should apologize for it and withdraw his support for Atzmon. He spent the next couple of months lashing out on social media, accusing various writers, particularly those of Jewish descent, of organizing some type of wild conspiracy and acting like the Israeli intelligence organization Mossad. These writers have spoken up about this issue, which owes to the fact that typically it is people of Jewish descent that have to speak up about antisemitism that appears on the left.

Rovics has himself had a soft spot for conspiracy theories, such as 9/11 Truth, which itself often takes on an antisemitic edge.[38] Rovics says that he disagrees with the antifascist idea that the far-right, racists, and antisemites should be “no platformed” and denied access to their ability to speak and organize.[39] Rovics has said that his critics’ “version of ‘antifascism’ involves viciously attacking anyone who is a critic of Israeli apartheid, and using lies and innuendo to do so.”[40] This is what is called the Livingstone Formulation: if someone criticizes you for antisemitism, just say it’s because you’re a critic of Israel even if the issue had nothing to do with Israel.[41]

Seeing as Rovics honed in on me and I have been public about my time with Students for Justice in Palestine and my support for BDS, there is no reason to believe that I am an enthusiastic supporter of Israel. (That is, unless, you think my Jewish family background and religious affiliation counts as a reason.) It is my opinion that nationalism of any kind is a poor way to solve oppression and instead reproduces the conditions of identity-based dispossession. I want to see the eradication of all borders, including in Israel, and want it to be a bi-national autonomous region where Jews, Palestinians, and other peoples share complete democratic, secular, and political self-determination. This includes the Palestinian “right of return” and protection for all residents, including shared access to holy sites and the preservation of cultures, religions, and community traditions. This is why Atzmon’s suspicion of Jewish anti-Zionists and supporters of Palestinians is so troubling: it disallows them to continue being Jews and still support Palestinians. If you attend any Palestinian solidarity rally, besides people of Palestinian descent, Jews are likely to be amongst the most represented demographics. There is a long and rich tradition of Jewish criticism of Israel, ranging from liberal Zionist to anti-Zionist and a whole range of positions in between. Atzmon’s positions essentially erase these Jews and suggests that they are simply denying the natural affinities of their identity, which is inherently exclusive, nationalistic, and supremacist.

Shaul Magid wrote recently in an article about the BDS movement and the settlements in the West Bank that “[what] BDS and the settlers both do is undermine the liberal Zionist narrative, which rests on the dual notion that the state is legitimate but the occupation is not.”[42] Atzmon essentially makes an argument that the Israeli National Religious community makes: that Jewish identity is correctly understood as nationalistic, and that anti-Zionist Jews are simply denying the reality of their identitarian ideology. This undermines both movements to confront Israel’s crimes and Jewish abilities to form an identity separate from the Occupation, which forces the only option to be Jewish disappearance. 

Many early Zionist narratives saw Jews as a necessarily pathetic people, hopping from one pogrom to the other, de-militarized, without the gumption to fight back. Zionism would create a “New Jew” who would engage in the contest of military strength just like any other nation. This had implicit antisemitic overtones to it, sometimes explicit, suggesting that the diaspora was like a disease that had to be cured. In Atzmon's vision, the Jewish anti-Zionist world is subsequently erased, from the Pittsburgh Platform to Jewish Voice for Peace, as themselves simply playing in the same problematic world that Zionists do, only with nominally different branding.

As mentioned, Atzmon has just as much of a problem with Jewish anti-Zionists as he does with Jewish Zionists because they maintain their “tribal identity” and refuse to disaffiliate with Jewishness. “Don’t they love themselves for being enlightened, progressive socialists, while at the same time sinking into neurosis upon realizing that being Jewish tribal petit bourgeois, they have never managed to join the human family, let alone the working class,” says Atzmon about Jewish anti-Zionists.[43]

“If we redefine Zionism as a modern form of Jewish activism that aims to halt assimilation, we can then reassess all Jewish tribal activity as an internal debate within the diverse Zionist political movement – colonizing of Palestine can then be considered as just another one of the faces of Zionism. Jewish socialism and Jewish progressive activism fits very nicely into the Zionist project. As integral parts of the Zionist network, they are there to collect the lost souls amongst the humanist Jews, to bring them home for Hanukkah. The Israel Lobby and Alan Dershowitzes of the world are the voices of Zionism; the third-category socialists are there to stop proud, self-hating Jews from blowing the whistle.”[44]
What Atzmon says here is that it is the maintenance of the Jewish identity that’s the heart of Zionism (which he alleges is to “confront assimilation and the disintegration of Jewish identity[45]), not simply its extensions of colonialism and nationalism. If you fight against the Occupation or apartheid in Israel and yet do so as a Jew, you are a part of the problem since the project of being Jewish is inherently monstrous. He provides what he says are three “escape routes” for Zionists, the third one is what he says is “Departing from Jewish-ness, Jerusalem and any other form of Judaic tribalism, and leaving ‘Chosen-ness’ behind. This is probably the only form of genuine secular Jewish resistance to Zionism one can take seriously.”[46]

These conversations, both about the Jewishness of Zionism and of the power of Jewish lobbies, miss another key factor: Christian Zionism. The evangelical focus on Israel as the locus of resolved prophecy has given Christian Zionism much longer history than Jewish Zionism. The dispensationalist ideology sees the creation of a Jewish Israeli state as the fulfillment of eschatological prophecies by returning the Biblical people to their homeland, ushering in the rapture, the anti-Christ, and the subsequent second coming. This, of course, turns out poorly for the Jews who are largely wiped out or pushed to Christian conversion in this story.[47] Christian Zionism has become a massive force in pro-Israel politics, with groups like Christians United for Israel and dozens of others making up a significant portion of the lobbying efforts, funding of the West Bank settlements, and political infrastructure required for generous military support of Israel. As I’ve written before, the Israel Lobby could just as easily, and more accurately, be named the Christian Zionist Lobby, one which does not represent Jews.[48] This complication does not play into the simplistic notion that Jews run global politics and that Israel is the embodiment of Jewish identity, and therefore it is largely ignored. “Israel is the Jewish state and Jewish-ness is an ethno-centric ideology driven by exclusiveness, exceptionalism, racial supremacy and a deep inherent inclination towards segregation,” says Atzmon, clarifying that Jews must rid themselves of this ideology to “become people like other people.”[49] With that, are they people at all?

Rovics suggests criticisms of those engaging in antisemitism are illegitimate, mentioning Alison Weir. Rovics signed a letter in support of Weir,[50] the founder of If Americans Knew and a person who pushes classic antisemitic conspiracy theories like the Blood Libel and wildly outsized accusations of the “Zionist lobby.” Weir has likewise been pushed out of the Palestine solidarity movement for her antisemitism, something there is consensus on amongst people who know this issue.[51] Weir, along with Atzmon and Israel Shamir (a Holocaust Denier and conspiracy theorist), make up their own identifiable wing of anti-Zionism, dubbed the ‘Weir-Shamir-Atzmon Axis.’ It locates the issues with Zionism with Jews themselves, not simply the issues involved in the oppression of Palestinians.[52]

That is also why the Heimbach interview cannot simply be reduced to a mistake. Heimbach has pushed himself as a “Strasserite,” the “left” wing of the Nazi party, and his use of left-leaning economic arguments and anti-imperialism has led some people without political knowledge to believe his grift.[53] Rovics went along with the interview, where he added that “the number of billionaires in the US of Jewish lineage is clearly disproportionate according to their population.”[54]

While antifascists have discussed how corrosive antisemitism is, and how it can seep into the left, it often goes unaddressed. Antisemitic ideas creep into left political spaces attached to conspiracy thinking, which often suggests that a secretive cabal is at the center of world affairs. “Modern conspiracy narratives are so steeped in antisemitic imagery that tropes about villainous Jews can thrive even in populations with literally no Jews,” says Kelly Weill, a reporter who tracks white nationalists.[55] As antifascist writer David Renton says, antisemitism on the left is a sign that someone lacks political sophistication.[56] Antisemitic ideas can creep in as a form of distorted anticapitalism, whereby certain types of professions or cultural associations are deemed parasitical and then stereotyped along with Jews.[57] Because Jews were, at times, historically pushed into money lending by widespread antisemitism, when capitalism developed there were many who believed that the entire culture had been “Judaized.” This secularized religious antisemitism and pushed the belief that Jews were responsible for the alienations of modernity and the growing financialization of the economy.[58] There is a kind of vulgar anticapitalism and anti-imperialism that does not understand what those issues are, and instead wants to target other marginalized people, such as Jews, as agents of capitalism – thereby taking very real class anger and diverting it onto an opportunistic target.[59]

Today, when it comes to Israel, any rejection of Zionism is often seen as preferable, even when it comes from a place of bigotry. Our resistance to Israeli apartheid must come from support of Palestinian freedom and a global desire to end empires and borders, and that does not mean having a “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” mentality about racists in the movement against Israeli violence. Rovics’ own lack of political sophistication seems to have led to his inability to parse antisemitic discourses, and to assume that any accusation is necessarily disingenuous.[60] This negates the very real threats that Jews around the world are facing in the midst of rising antisemitism. It is not unnecessarily divisive to confront antisemitism, it is divisive to respond to any criticism of oppressive behavior with a conspiratorial stream of venom.

Antisemitism is the canary in the coal mine on the left, revealing where analysis is straying into places of bigotry and far-right influence. We should hold people to account for allowing antisemitism to enter into leftist and antiracist social movements, and we do not owe access to movement platforms to every single person who demands it. While Rovics has screamed “cancel culture” from the rooftops, and an “anti-antifa” perspective, you can just look at his associations and his support for open antisemites and decide whether or not you find that acceptable. Rovics published an “exposé” of antifascists on February 21 where he reproduced much of this questionable rhetoric, such as singling out authors of Jewish descent, accusing them of conspiracies, complaining about “cabals,” and suggesting that they are coordinating some kind of attack using crypsis.[61] On March 3rd, he released an “antifascism survey” where he included a plurality of questions related to Jews, such as suggesting, by context, that it would be wrong to root out antisemitism, that people suggesting antisemitism is an issue are just defenders of Israeli apartheid, as well as questions about “Jewish billionaires.”[62] At best, this shows that David cares so little about the reproduction of antisemitic motifs (“conspiratorial Jews”) that he thinks nothing of letting that be the center of his argument. These are just more examples of assuming Jewish concerns are disingenuous, that people disassociating with Rovics must be the result of some organized prodding from Jewish activists, and straw man accusations about their intentions. These show even less willingness to address his behavior or take antisemitism seriously, and even the willingness to reproduce it. While Rovics accuses all of his critics of being “puritans,” they are confronting very real antisemitic rhetoric that can have deadly consequences. Jews deserve to feel welcome in social movements, and deserve to have comrades who demand their safety as well.

If you are interested in reading more about antisemitism from a radical, antifascist, or left perspective, click here and check out the reading list!

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Shane Burley is a writer, filmmaker, and union organizer based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021) and Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017), and the editor of the forthcoming anthology ¡No pasarán!: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis. His work is featured at places such as NBC News, The Daily Beast, The Independent, Jacobin, Al Jazeera, Haaretz, Tikkun, The Baffler, Bandcamp Daily, Truthout, and the Oregon Historical Quarterly. He is also the editor of a special issue of the Journal of Social Justice on “Antisemitism in the 21st Century.” He is currently working on two books, one on radical approaches to antisemitism and another on the history of antifascism and popular struggle.

Photo credits

1. Gilad Atzmon, by Bryan Ledgard, 20 October 2007 (CC-BY-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.
2. David Rovics, by Christian Hufgard, 24 September 2013 (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes

1. Twitter, @drovics, February 19, 2022, https://twitter.com/drovics/status/1494939249560506370
2. This was covered earlier in this article: “‘No, It Is The Children Who Are Wrong’: A Response To David Rovics,” It’s Going Down, August 11, 2021.
3. Mark Greenblatt, “Extremist Heimbach To Relaunch Hate Group, Says He Supports Violence,” Newsy, July 20th, 2021. 
4. Kevin Barrett, “David Rovics on Cancel Culture, Deplatforming, Social Media Dystopia...and Solutions,” Kevin Barrett YouTube Channel, February 3, 2021, youtube.com/watch?v=PQf53uxPgbc
5. Cloee Cooper, “Kevin Barrett: Repackaging Antisemitism,” Political Research Associates, October 23, 2017; Kevin Barrett, “Kevin Barrett asks Spencer Sunshine why he wants to censor the Left Forum,” Kevin Barrett YouTube Channel, May 11, 2017.
6. David Rovics, “Disavowing Disavowal - In Defense of Gilad Atzmon,” Salem News, March 28, 2012.
7. “Greg Johnson Interviews Gilad Atzmon,” Counter-Currents, October 5, 2016.
8. Gilad Atzmon, The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics (Winchester and Washington: Zer0, 2011), 121.
9. Gilad Atzmon, “An Interesting Exchange With A Jewish Anti Zionist,” Gilad Atzmon, August 17, 2011.
10. Keith Khan-Harris, “Cloaked In Pretensions, Gilad Atzmon’s Anti-Semitism Soldiers On,Forward, December 10, 2017.
11. Gilad Atzmon, “The Herem Law in the context of Jewish Past and Present,” Gilad Atzmon, July 16, 2011.
12. For more on this, read: Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism (Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves, 2012); Magda Teter, Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020); Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983).
13. Bernard Harrison, Blaming the Jews: Politics and Delusion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2021).
14. Ibrahim X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: One World, 2019), 29.
15. Atzmon, The Wandering Who?, 86.
16. Ibid, 169.
17. Gilad Atzmon, “Iraq, America and The Lobby,” Veterans Today, June 15th, 2014.
18. The issue with the Mearsheimer and Walt thesis is that it often places blame for U.S. governmental behavior onto lobbying groups when it should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the U.S. and transnational institutions of capital. Christian Zionism is not presented as influential as it should be, it places an accusation of undo influence on the Jewish populations that make up the constituencies of the lobby, and it ropes in most of Jewish civic life into the lobby. That said, groups like AIPAC are powerful and allegations of the authors’ antisemitism are dramatically exaggerated and have been used disingenuously. Read more on this: Joseph Massad, “Blaming the Israel Lobby,” Counterpunch, March 25th, 2006; David Renton, Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It (London: Routledge, 2021) 111-114; Natan Aridan, “Israel Lobby,” Israel Studies 24, no. 2 (2019): 128–43.
19. “Greg Johnson Interviews Gilad Atzmon.”
20. “Gilad Atzmon Archive,” Unz Review, no date.
21. Kevin MacDonald, A People That Shall Dwell Alone, Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy, with Diaspora Peoples (New York: Writer’s Club Press, 2002).
22. “Greg Johnson Interviews Gilad Atzmon.”
23. Gilad Atzmon, “Critical Race Theory and the Jewish Project,” Unz Review, August 20, 2021.
24. David Rovics, “Discussion With Gilad Atzmon,” David Rovics YouTube Channel, October 7, 2020, youtube.com/watch?v=8NP1ewzFP0c.
25. Atzmon, The Wandering Who?, 175.
26. Ibid, 149.
27. Quoted in “Jewish students told ‘don’t study at LSE’ by Board president,” Jewish News, May 23, 2017,
28. Quoted in Polly Curtis, “Soas faces action of alleged antisemitism,” Guardian, May 12, 2005.
29. “Greg Johnson Interviews Gilad Atzmon.”
30. David Rovics, “Israel/Palestine FAQ,” Songwriter’s Notebook, August 2nd, 2014.
31. Michael Barkun, Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
32. Atzmon, The Wandering Who?, 142.
33. Ilan Pappe, Ten Myths About Israel (London and New York: Verso, 2017), 21.
34. Ibid, 185.
35. David Hirsh, “Openly embracing prejudice,” Guardian, November 30, 2016.
36. Ali Abunimah, “Palestinian writers, activists disavow racism, anti-Semitism of Gilad Atzmon,” Electronic Intifada, March 13, 2012.
37. “Not Quite ‘Ordinary Human Beings’—Anti-imperialism and the anti-humanist rhetoric of Gilad Atzmon,” Three Way Fight, [February 2012].
38. David Rovics, “The Truth About the 9/11 ‘Truth Movement’,” Common Dreams, April 7, 2008.
39. David Rovics, “Platforming Fascists,” PM Press, January 24, 2021.
40. David Rovics, “Portland ‘Antifascist’ Troll Farm EXPOSEDDavidRovics.com, February 18, 2022.
41. David Hirsh, Contemporary Left Antisemitism (London and New York: Routledge, 2018), 11-12.
42. Shaul Magid, “The Grand Collaboration,” Tablet, January 5th, 2021.
43. Atzmon, The Wandering Who?, 86.
44. Ibid, 76.
45. Ibid, 75.
46. Ibid, 87. His other two solutions are to double down on Zionism or become Orthodox, because he says those are the more authentic expressions of Jewish identity.
47. Sean Durbin, Righteous Gentiles: Religion, Identity, and Myth in John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 28-36.
48. Shane Burley, “Liberation Itself is Sacred,” Protean Magazine, May 25th, 2021.
49. Atzmon, The Wandering Who?, 188.
50. “An open letter to the U.S. Campaign and other Activists for Justice in Palestine,” circa 2015.
51. Spencer Sunshine, “Campus Profile - Alison Weir: If Americans Knew,” Political Research Associates, May 15th, 2014.
52. Spencer Sunshine, “Looking Left at Antisemitism,” Journal for Social Justice, Vol. 9 (2019), 11-12.
53. Molly Shah, “Matthew Heimbach and the Left’s Vulnerability to Fascist Infiltration,” The Real News Network, August 24, 2021; Vegas Tenold, Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America (New York City: Bold Type Books, 2018).
54. David Rovics, “Platforming Fascists.”
55. Kelly Weill, Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything (New York: Workman Publishing, 2022), 178.
56. Shane Burley, “Britains’s Labour Antisemitism Controversy, Revisited,” Jewish Currents, August 27, 2021.
57. Moishe Postone, “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust.’New German Critique, no. 19 (1980).
58. Explained in detail in Michele Battini, The Socialism of Fools: Capitalism & Modern Anti-Semitism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).
59. Werner Bonefield, “Antisemitism and the Power of Abstraction: From Political Economy to Critical Theory,” in Antisemitism and the Constitution of Sociology, edited by Marcel Stoetzler (Lincoln and London: Nebraska University Press, 2014), 321-25.
60. Moishe Postone, “History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism,” Public Culture 18:1 (2006), 93-110.
61. David Rovics, “Portland ‘Antifascist’ Troll Farm EXPOSED.”
62. David Rovics, “Antifascism Survey,” DavidRovics.com, March 3rd, 2022.