Twenty years ago today Mick Hume had an essay published in the New Statesman magazine entitled ‘the anti-imperialism of fools’. The then editor of spiked-online argued that Israel-bashing had become central to a newly emerging outlook of fake radicalism.
This viewpoint had come to the fore following the Islamist terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC on 11 September 2001. Its exponents included a strange alliance of anti-globalists, Islamic fundamentalists and European neo-Nazis.
Hume noted that defending the democratic right to self-determination was central to the original politics of anti-imperialism. In contrast the anti-imperialism of fools, often focused on Israel, was entirely reactionary in character. He argued that it: “not only endorses imperialist intervention, it also appears to oppose anything progressive that the west stands for - such as rationalism, universalism, scientific experimentation or economic development”.
With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight I still think Hume’s article was prescient and accurate. Israel, a tiny state in geopolitical terms, has had the misfortune to become a cypher for a strikingly wide range of grievances. The country’s more hysterical critics consider themselves radical but are staunchly opposed to what were once considered foundational progressive ideas.
With that in mind I was struck by a reference to the ‘anti-imperialism of fools’ while rereading an essay in a wonderful collection by Isaac Deutscher (1907-67), The Non-Jewish Jew and other Essays. The Polish Marxist writer used the phrase in an essay written in 1967, 35 years before Hume’s article was published. Deutscher was also referring to a potential development in the Arab world rather than, as with Hume, a development already underway in the West. But despite the differences in time and place it is worth considering how the two uses of the phrase relate to each other.
Deutscher’s essay was written shortly after the Six Day War of 1967 when Israel destroyed the armies of the surrounding Arab countries in less than a week. In his concluding paragraph Deutscher argued that the Arabs “need to be put on guard against the socialism or anti-imperialism of fools”. As a self-proclaimed leftist he hoped they would instead learn the lessons of their defeat and “lay the foundations of a truly progressive, a socialist Middle East”.
His concern was that the Arab inhabitants of the region would draw the wrong conclusions from Israel’s stunning military victory. Deutscher argued – I think correctly – that Israel’s military success was not primarily the result of its intrinsic strength but of two external factors.
First, Israel was confident that, in the face of a radical Arab nationalist movement in the region, it would enjoy western backing. He said that Israel was “absolutely sure of American and, to some extent British, moral, political and economic support”. So Israel’s victory was, at least partly, the result of backing from much larger and more powerful western nations.
Second, and well understood, was what Deutscher called the “hopeless bungling” of the Egyptian regime – representing a country much larger and more powerful militarily than Israel. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader, had made many high profile threats against Israel and had blocked the straits of Tiran, a narrow sea passage, to Israeli shipping. But having made these threats he did not even take elementary precautions against an Israeli pre-emptive strike. For example, Egypt left its military aircraft out in the open where they could easily be bombed by the Israeli air force. From an Israeli perspective it was like being threatened by a large bully who did nothing to protect his face against a knockout punch. In the event Israel destroyed most of the Egyptian and Syrian air forces on the ground before mounting a rapid ground offensive.
Deutscher’s sincere hope was that the Israel’s victory and the Arab setback could create the basis for peace in the region. He wanted the Arab population to recognise the venality of its leaders and Israel to accept the need for genuine peace with the Palestinians.
In the event, despite some peace agreements on paper, neither hope was realised in the way Deutscher envisaged. It is a tragedy that neither side had leaders courageous or far-sighted enough to achieve a genuine reconciliation. If they had the region today would look fundamentally different.
Instead what happened on the Arab side, and indeed in the Middle East more broadly, was that the anti-imperialism of fools became more consolidated. The largely discredited Arab regimes in particular had an interest in talking up Israel’s power and downplaying their own weaknesses.
From the aftermath of the Six Day War till about 1990 the idea of a massively powerful Israel was often linked to the Palestinian struggle. The Palestine Liberation Organisation itself embodied this idea, at least to some extent, with its frequent calls for the West to impose a settlement on Israel. It had little faith in the ability of its own supporter base to struggle for freedom. This position was endorsed more broadly by the Arab regimes.
But from the late 1980s onwards Islamism began to gain more traction in the Arab world and the demand for Palestinian self-determination was increasingly downplayed. It was in Islamism that the anti-imperialism of fools reached a fully developed form. Israel was seen as an immensely powerful Jewish force engaged in an existential battle against the Muslim world.
From this point onwards it is possible to see the link with Mick Hume’s arguments made a little later. The western incarnation of the anti-imperialism of fools was, at least in part, imported from the Arab world and the world’s poorer countries more broadly. Western Islamists and anti-globalisation activists were the conduits for this pernicious transfer of ideas.
That is not to say that the emergence of the anti-imperialism of fools in the West can be entirely explained as an external influence. On the contrary, there were also important domestic forces at work. But imported ideas contributed a significant element in the mix.
So by the early 2000s both the anti-capitalism of fools (with Jews seen as representing arch-capitalists) and the anti-imperialism of fools (with Jews playing the role of arch-imperialists) were gaining influence in the West. More recently identity politics, with Jews viewed as hyper-exponents of white privilege, has added another ingredient to the vile cocktail.
Anti-Semitism today differs significantly from its incarnations only a short time ago.