In 2011 Jeremy Corbyn contributed the foreword to a new edition of Imperialism, John Atkinson Hobson’s canonical tome first published in 1902. Here was a conjunction of the political present with Britain’s radical past. At the time no-one noticed. But eight years on Daniel Finkelstein, associate editor of The Times, did take note. On April 30th this year he published a carefully aimed assault. He characterised Imperialism as a “deeply antisemitic book” which Corbyn, to his discredit, had commended as “correct and prescient”. Where Finkelstein led other critics piled in. Corbyn responded, insisting that the charge was specious and just the latest in a series of “ill-founded accusations”. A month later, reflecting on the episode, Finkelstein revealed that the catalyst had been a short article written by me. Having had the first word, in this article I attempt to provide, if not the last word, at least a reflection on the controversy; both as history and as a part of politics today.
When Corbyn wrote the foreword to Imperialism he was a backbench MP located on the left fringe of the Labour Party. Four years later he ran to become leader and was elected with an overwhelming majority of the votes cast. Ever since, the Labour Party has been hobbled and sometimes convulsed by controversy over antisemitism.
In 2019 the politics of antisemitism divides the British Left. Labour declares it has a policy on antisemitism of zero-tolerance but weekly meetings of the party’s MPs regularly turn to the problem and its persistence. When seven Labour MPs left the party in February 2018 their stated reasons were the party’s confused approach to Brexit and its weak response to antisemitism. For some the controversy is a “witch hunt”, got up largely by Corbyn’s enemies, the Israeli embassy and the “Israel lobby”, for others it is a political failure.
Often debate focusses on the beliefs and behaviour of Jeremy Corbyn but, whatever the leader’s responsibility, the origins of Labour’s antisemitism mess lie deeper. The venom directed against Jews and discharged by some Labour Party members, candidates and councillors, as well as by non-members who claim to support Jeremy Corbyn, the noisy insouciance of some leftists in the face of this evidence, and the party’s record of prevarication and muddle in dealing with the issue, all suggest that Labour’s antisemitism problem is a matter of political culture and not only about individuals. Political culture is a sedimented thing; layers build over time. It brings into view the Labour movement’s past and how it resonates today. And this brings us back to Hobson and Imperialism.
Born in 1858, by the 1890s John Atkinson Hobson was at the centre of a group of socialists and new liberal thinkers, journalists, reformers and activists whose ideas inspired the Liberal and Labour parties in the first decades of the twentieth century. Hobson broke with the Liberals during the First World War and finally joined Labour in 1924. Today, he is most often remembered for Imperialism. Widely influential in its time, the book is still read by academics, students and activists.
Hobson’s target in Imperialism was not colonialism in general but what he saw as its debasement from the 1880s as Britain, France, Germany and the United States, extended their rule to the tropics. Unsuitable either for white settlement or self-government, these parts of the globe, Hobson argued, provided no economic benefit to the nation as a whole. Nugatory for the common good, imperialism generated profits for “well-organised interests” such as the shipping and arms industries. But it was international financiers, according to Hobson, who were “in a unique position to manipulate the policy of nations” and who had “the largest definite stake in the business of imperialism.” This was a good deal more than a conspiracy theory. The taproot of imperialism was overseas investment driven by gross inequality at home. Low wages lead to excessive saving whose only outlet was investment overseas. The solution Hobson prescribed was social reform and higher wages.
Yet for Hobson the role of the international financiers was crucial. Whereas under-consumption at home provided the structure for his theory, international financiers were the key agents. “The financial interest has those qualities of concentration and clear-sighted calculation which are needed to set imperialism to work,” Hobson explained. And it was here that his understanding of Jews and their difference from non-Jews came into play. International financiers were largely “men of a single and peculiar race.” In case anyone doubted whom he had in mind, he continued, “Does anyone seriously suppose that a great war could be undertaken by any European state, or a great State loan subscribed, if the house of Rothschild and its connections sets their face against it?” Antisemitism is at once a significant and a superfluous presence in Hobson’s theory. He could have done without it and this makes its appearance all the more notable. Why was it there?
First, Hobson believed Jews really were different; that they had particular “Jewish” characteristics that shaped their economic behaviour. This idea can be traced back to his early writing. In 1891 in Problems of Poverty Hobson analysed the impact of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. In London’s East End, he reflected, “the Polish Jew…is the nearest approach to the ideal ‘economic’ man….Admirable in domestic morality, and an orderly citizen, he is almost void of social morality. No compunction or consideration for his fellow-worker will keep him from underselling and overreaching them.” At the same time, he allowed that what was true of Polish Jews was “in large measure true of all cheap foreign labour”. Now, in Imperialism, Hobson pointed to “the race basis of this financial business”. Hobson’s Jews were a distillation of everything noxious about particular sectors of the economy.
Second, antisemitism served a political function. Imperialists claimed to be patriots and, through the press, mobilised support among the newly enfranchised electorate. Hobson claimed to reveal the truth behind imperial patriotism. The malign minority that benefitted from imperialism turned out to be Jewish and cosmopolitan, their loyalties were not to the nation but to profit and themselves.
Imperialism provides an ambitious general theory. Two years earlier, in the particular context of Britain’s war with the Boer Republic, Hobson set out some of his ideas on the subject (with the major exception of the significance of under-consumption.) He had gone to South Africa as correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. The Jews there, he wrote to his editor, C.P. Scott, were “the veriest scum of Europe”. The war was being fought for men “most of whom are foreigners by origin, whose trade is finance, and whose trade interests are not chiefly British.” Johannesburg was “the new Jerusalem”.
It was this simplified critique of empire (all agency and no structure) that most appealed to radicals and the Left at beginning of the twentieth century. In these circles, the idea that imperial expansion was being undertaken on behalf of Jewish financial interests had been commonplace ever since the invasion of Egypt in 1882. John Burns, trade unionist and politician, told the House of Commons “wherever we go in this matter [the war in South Africa] we see the same thing. Wherever we examine there is the financial Jew operating, directing, inspiring the agencies that led to this war.” Henry Hyndman, leader of the Social Democratic Federation, decried “the Jew capitalists [who] have been specially prominent in this nefarious business; and… the Jew-owned yellow mob press which has been specially virulent in exciting the jingo mob here.” Just as antisemitism was attractive for Hobson, both conceptually and politically, so it was for Burns, Hyndman and countless others. Hobson’s books and articles were lauded in the labour press. Reynolds Newspaper, whose radicalism had been tinged with antisemitism for half a century, regularly denounced the “Anglo-Jewish Financial Party on the Rand”.
The problem with imperialism, Hobson believed, was that the system benefitted the few – financiers more than anyone else – at the expense of the many. His career illustrates how this rhetorical opposition of the many to the few is vulnerable to antisemitism. Interestingly, this arose once more in Hobson’s writing on Zionism. Three years after the Balfour Declaration, under the pseudonym Lucian, Hobson wrote 1920: Dips into the Near Future. Here he imagined the ceremonial return of “the Chosen People” to Jerusalem: “One of the most interesting groups in the procession consists of representatives of the Transvaal Companies, who will with due solemn rites transfer the soul of the Rand, its share certificates, from Johannesburg to the New Jerusalem, thus completing the spiritual symbolism of the Golden City.”
Hobson’s concern for the many not the few, his attack on finance capital and his opposition to Zionism, were not inherently antisemitic positions but that is just what they became at different points in his career. There isn’t a simple straight line that leads us from Hobson to the present. Nevertheless, antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism and the representation of the powerful and monied “few” as Jews, recur within the left. Hobson forms one link in a radical tradition that projects economic injustice, conspiratorial politics, and unethical behaviour on to “Jews”, and has done so from the early nineteenth century to the present. One question, therefore, concerns what we should do today as we encounter Hobson. The question is especially timely as the movement to “decolonise the curriculum” makes us more aware of the significance of embedded assumptions and problematic legacies.
In March 2018 Jeremy Corbyn promised a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to antisemitism in the Labour Party. The following month, in the Evening Standard, he issued a thoughtful intervention on the subject. Here he acknowledged that criticism of the Israeli government sometimes used anti-Semitic ideas and that “there are people who see capitalism and imperialism as the product of a conspiracy by small shadowy elite rather than a political, economic, legal and social system.” For Hobson, as we have seen, imperialism was both these things.
Alas, when Daniel Finklestein and others catapulted Hobson and Imperialism into the headlines, Jeremy Corbyn and his band of vocal supporters responded only as politically embattled figures and without much critical self-understanding. As we have seen, the Labour leader was unapologetic. The historian Donald Sassoon rushed to his defence asserting antisemitism is “completely marginal” to Hobson’s text and that the hunt for Corbyn’s antisemitism is simply “ridiculous”. As we have seen, the former claim is untrue and the only ridiculous thing in play is Sassoon’s misleading assertion that no-one has ever pointed to the antisemitic aspects of Imperialism.
This is characteristic of how Corbyn and many of his loyalists have responded to the protracted antisemitism crisis. They tend to conceive antisemitism as a disease that has nothing to do with the party, a contagion which can be eliminated by showing “zero tolerance”. Antisemitism is too often seen as a political problem to be faced down rather than an ethical problem to be confronted. It is treated as an alien presence that has somehow latched on to the Labour Party and therefore can simply be expelled, rather than as a phenomenon that has developed within the Left, is a part of its history, and that persists today. Hobson’s antisemitism was not only, as Corbyn rightly points out, characteristic of many books written in that era; it is has also been an enduring, though never dominant, feature of the British Left. The Labour Party has much to do to in order to confront its antisemitism problem in the present: one contribution will be to reckon more fully with its past.
David Feldman is an editor of History Workshop Journal. He teaches history at Birkbeck College London where he is Director of the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism. Currently he is writing a history of the meanings of the word ‘antisemitism’. In 2016 he was one of two vice chairs of the Shami Chakrabarti Inquiry into Antisemitism and other forms of Racism in the Labour Party.