Searching for Socialism

Searching for Socialism, by academics Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, traces the odyssey of Labour’s “Old Left” from the 1970s until the defeat of the far left in last year’s elec-tion. It looks at the political voyage of left-wing Brexiteers from Tony Benn to Jeremy Corbyn; and also indicates that the mindset of the far left on the Jewish question remains as fixed as ever.

While the solutions to deep-seated inequalities are expounded in detail, the analysis of the antisemitism dispute is remarkably superficial — a robotic slavishness to the accepted wisdom in the far left. Even Jon Lansman, the progenitor of Momentum, to his credit, did not gloss over the problem.

While Ralph Miliband is quoted extensively, his disagreement with the anti-Zionist Marcel Liebman on matters Jewish at the time of the Six-Day War is ignored. And, while the New Left Review’s Perry Anderson is referred to, his colleague on the editorial board, Fred Halliday — who followed a lonely left-wing path on many vexed issues including that of anti-Jewish racism — is omitted.

This approach by the authors colours their lack of understanding that many Jews might indeed accept a radical agenda that would challenge the injustices within British society, but would vehemently disagree with their dilettante approach to the Jewish question. Many on the far left who entered the Labour party in recent years had studied the life and times of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. They hoped this would help them change Labour from a democratic socialist party to one moulded in their own image. Robert Henderson’s book about Lenin’s presence in London over a century ago would interest them greatly, for it documents the Russkaya ostrovka — the little Russian island of revolutionaries in the midst of the Jewish East End.
Many revolutionaries lived within walking distance of the British Museum, where they could study Marxist texts. Trotsky called its Reading Room, “the sanctuary” and it attracted many other Jewish revolutionaries including Julius Martov and Lev Deutsch. It also attracted spies, who spent long hours in the Reading Room, acting on behalf of both British intelligence and its Russian counterpart, the Okhrana.

A “Free Russian Library”was to be found in Whitechapel Lane in the East End, situated near a kosher restaurant such that the smell of “cabbage and fried fish” regularly wafted upwards.

The journalist, Isaak Shklovsky, wrote that the library’s readers were “unemployed, poorly dressed, pale and in all likelihood, starving, as they silently leafed through the pages of the Russian and Jewish newspapers on offer.” It was also frequently visited by Yiddish- reading agents who passed on their information to Scotland Yard.

Lenin himself visited London six times between 1902 and 1911 and was befriended by the forgotten figure of Apollinariya Yakubova who was probably written out of history by the Soviets. Lenin had been attracted to Yakubova in Russia and was possibly rejected — and married instead Nadezhda Krupskaya. The breaking point seems to have been Yakubova’s anguish at the virtual expulsion of the Jewish Bund — manipulated by Lenin and Trotsky — during the congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1903. This led to the historic Bolshevik-Menshevik split.

Robert Henderson recalls that Lenin’s apartment was later demol- ished and replaced by a hotel. In August 1972, the Soviet Ambassador was present at its opening and was asked to unveil a blue plaque in honour of Lenin. The ceremony was disrupted by a protest in support of Soviet Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel.

Henderson’s revelatory book captures the atmosphere of a time of Jewish idealism preceding that of the horrors of the Gulag.

Jewish Chronicle 22 May 2020

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