Bevin, The Anti-Semite

  • Brendan Clifford
  • [This reprint from Labour and Trade Union Review July/August 2002 deals with the question raised in the biography by Andrew Adonis ‘Bevin, Labour’s Churchill’, reviewed last month.] —

“The immediate straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back was the repeated refusal of the Jewish settlers in Palestine to be grateful for British protection and to conform to the plans that Bevin had made for them. By 1947, Bevin had become anti-Semitic… The Jews had rejected his pet solution to their problem… Goaded by a perilous mixture of fury and extreme self-pity, Bevin got it into his head that the Jews were organizing a world conspiracy against poor old Britain and in particular against poor old Ernie! Crossman was an instrument of this diabolical plot”: that’s Tam Dalyell in Dick Crossman: A Portrait (1989).

Dalyell does not present a single piece of evidence in support of his assertion that Bevin became an anti-Semite. There was no need for him to. It is one of those truisms that have disabled the British Left ever since Bevin’s time. It is a self-evident truth, a received truth, of a political culture which abhors thought.

Bevin was both the strategist and the founder of the welfare state established in the 1940s, which was constructed so securely that it still exists in substance despite all that has been done by Thatcher and Blair to erode it. He was the strategist in the 1920s and 1930s when, as creator and leader of the powerful Transport and General Workers Union, he distanced himself from the socialist ideologues and worked out how to make actual and functional reforms in the working class interest. He laid the foundations of the welfare state between 1941 and 1945, in Coalition with the demoralised Tories, when, as Minister for Labour, he ran the country while Churchill ran the war. In 1945-50 he was Foreign Secretary while the domestic reforms were worked out under Attlee’s direction.

An evolving Labour movement would have taken the Bevin/Attlee era (1940-1950) as its historical base area and worked its way forward from it. What actually happened was that Bevin was depicted as a right-wing ogre by the socialist ideologues prior to being removed from political memory, and Attlee was sidelined as a kind of plaster saint. With the passing of Attlee and Bevin, the Labour Party was ‘radicalised’ by Nye Bevan, Michael Foot, etc. In this state of mind it could only enact superficial and fleeting reforms. It could not see where essential reforms, difficult to reverse, were to be made. The last Labour (as distinct from New Labour) Government enacted many reforms, all of which were easily undone by Thatcher. But the radicals had no time for the proposal of a Royal Commission that the workforce in enterprises should be represented on the board of management on equal terms with the shareholders. That reform, if enacted, would have been well-nigh irreversible, and on a par with the 1945 reforms. But it somehow appeared worthless, or even damaging, to the ideology which had developed from a rejection of the Bevin/Attlee approach.

When Bevin became Foreign Secretary he opposed the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. He was therefore branded an anti-Semite by Zionist enthusiasts and Jewish ideological influence was deployed against him. And that was certainly a factor in blotting him out for the next generation.

Dalyell describes himself as an “issue” politician, as distinct from a “position” politician intent on advancing his career in government. But he takes absolutely no account of the issue on which he brands Bevin a racist–the issue of whether to establish a foreign state amidst the actual inhabitants of Palestine. It appears that the issue simply does not exist for him. He is in that respect a perfect imperialist. And he is of course a remnant of the old ruling class which was accustomed to discuss world affairs in what Kipling called “the argot of the Upper Fourth Remove”.

Zionism was, and is, a colonial movement. It was a Jewish movement to colonise Palestine, displace the Palestinians, and make Palestine a Jewish state.

Zionism was adopted into British colonial policy by Arthur Balfour, a high Tory, in November 1917, when Britain was in process of conquering Palestine. And this new colonialism of the anti-imperialist era somehow became the Utopianism of the Labour Party in the 1920s.

Imperialist assumptions run deep in English society. Zionist resolutions were routinely adopted by Labour Party conferences without any concern about their implications of ethnic cleansing, or genocide, or whatever we would call it these days if the Serbs attempted it. The notion that Palestine was an empty land could only be sustained on the basis of wilful and purposeful ignorance, and the idea that a Jewish colony could be inserted as the foundation of the Jewish state without riding roughshod over the Palestinians was strictly for the birds.

But the Zionist project was not only a colonial project which could only be accomplished with the support of an Imperial Power–a fact which the Zionist leaders never concealed–it was also a project for whose practical realisation a vigorous element of racial contempt was needed. How could you do to the Arabs what needed to be done to them, so that a Jewish colonial state could be set up in their country, if you did not hold them in contempt?

Bevin was an Imperialist. He took the Empire as given, and could hardly have become a Minister of the Crown if he hadn’t. The difference between him and some other Labour Ministers in that respect is that he did not posture as anti-imperialist. What was lacking from his make-up was the racial contempt. He was not the leader of a craft union with a closed-shop mentality, but the creator of a great General Union accustomed to dealing fairly with people of all sorts and conditions. He did not have it in him to do the necessary for the final accomplishment of the Balfour Declaration. And that is why he was branded an anti-Semite.

In a biography of Bevin published by the Manchester University Press in 1993 (Ernest Bevin by Peter Weiler) we are told:

“Because of a number of his public statements and his opposition to Zionist goals, Bevin was accused at the time of being anti-Semitic, a charge denied by Alan Bullock and other historians who countered that he was merely heavy handed and insensitive. Certainly, Bevin’s belief that the Jews could be convinced to resettle in Europe showed a lack of understanding of the emotional impact of the Holocaust, as did his warning that if Jews wanted to ‘get too much at the head of the queue’ for resettlement they would enflame anti-Semitism. Similarly, his irritated observation that Americans agitated the Jewish immigration to Palestine because ‘they did not want too many Jews in New York’ had a point–immigration restrictions excluded most Jews from going to the United States–but it was not tactful.

“It was also the case, however, that Ernest Bevin held anti-Semitic views. We have already seen the connection he drew between Jews and finance. He did the same for Communism. Warning Zionist leaders of the political dangers of an all-Jewish state, he said that ‘it was significant that the only constituency in the United Kingdom which, on a population basis, was in a position to return a Jewish Member of Parliament had, in fact, returned a Communist’. He thought that Israel might become ‘another China’. Various of his colleagues privately noted what Ian Mikardo called ‘the pejorative and often vulgar language of many of Bevin’s references to Jews’. Christopher Mayhew, Bevin’s Parliamentary Under Secretary, wrote in his diary in May 1948 that he “must make a note about Ernest’s anti-Semitism… there is no doubt in my mind that Ernest detests Jews. He makes the odd wisecrack about the ‘Chosen People’; explains Shinwell away as a Jew; declares the Old Testament is the most immoral book ever written… He says they taught Hitler the technique of terror–and were even now paralleling the Nazis in Palestine. They were preachers of violence and war… ‘What could you expect when people are brought up from the cradle on the Old Testament’.

“Some of Bevin’s bitter responses can be explained as anger at Zionist terrorism and frustration that the “Jews showed no readiness to reach a reasonable compromise”, as he saw it, and therefore undermined his Middle East policy. There can nevertheless be no denying Bevin’s prejudices, although there is no evidence that they shaped his policy towards Palestine”. (p. 170-171)

If his anti-Semitism did not shape his Palestine policy, the question arises whether this alleged anti-Semitism was shaped by Palestine and Jewish conduct therein. But Weiler does not ask this question.

If he showed that Bevin had been anti-Jewish before 1945, either in his conduct of union affairs or as Minister for Labour, one would have to take the matter seriously. But all his examples date from the years of Bevin’s Foreign Secretaryship and therefore prove nothing.

The comparison of Jewish conduct in Palestine with Nazi conduct is noted in May 1948, which is to say within weeks of the Deir Yassin affair–the Arab Lidice. Deir Yassin was a Palestinian village near Jerusalem in which the Jews killed all the villagers–about 300 of them. I say “the Jews” because the thing was not done furtively, or in hot blood, or as a reprisal. It was done at leisure. Some of the villagers were killed on the spot to begin with. Others were put in lorries, driven to Jerusalem, paraded around, and then taken back to Deir Yassin and shot.

Films are made about Lidice, a Czech village where a large number of the inhabitants were killed in reprisal for the assassination of the German Governor by a Czech parachuted in from Britain. Deir Yassin has been erased from popular memory, except amongst Arabs.

As to the Chosen People, that is the official status of the Jews in Judaic cosmology, is it not? As far as I could discover, that is the earnest understanding of the core which has kept Judaism in being. They are not preserving themselves as a cultural museum piece. They had purpose beyond cultural conservationism for refusing to become Christians.

As to the Old Testament, what is it if not an exhortation to genocide by the Elect? and it says a lot for Bevin that he was revolted by it even though he was brought up as a Baptist.

Protestantism in England was in great part a reversion from the New Testament to the Old, bearing little resemblance to the empty sentimentality which passes for Christianity after its collapse. I do not see the comparison of the Book of Joshua with Mein Kampf as outrageous. And I know that the Book of Joshua has outlasted Mein Kampf as a guide to action.

If observation of the connection between Jews and finance is anti-Semitism, then anti-Semitism can only be avoided by denial of empirical fact. An investigation by a Jew of the position of Jews in the new states created in Eastern Europe by the Versailles Conference, published by Gollancz in 1938, shows the Jews in all those basically peasant countries as being concentrated in the commercial sector (A People At Bay by Oscar Janovsky). And, whatever the historical causes of it, that actually was the case. It did not greatly matter in the multi-national Austro-Hungarian Empire that the Jews made up the greater and most vigorous part of the commercial/professional stratum, but when Britain, having won the First World War, broke up that Empire into small national states it mattered very much indeed. The New Order in Europe, established by Britain in 1919, generated a strong, widespread anti-Jewish sentiment around Europe long before Hitler came to power in Germany. And that anti-Semitism was not a remnant of mediaeval superstition. It was the specific product of the destruction of a functional and largely democratic European Empire, and the setting up in its place of a series of small nation-states, from the Baltic to the Balkans.

The sentiment of nationality had been extensively provided for within the evolving structure of the Austrian Empire in ways that minimised national conflict. Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Slovenes etc. had representation in the Imperial Parliament as nationalities, but not as territories. This was the arrangement of “cultural-national autonomy”, which was roundly denounced by Lenin. The advanced nationalist idealists within the various nationalities aspired to establish separate territorial nation-states, but the national-separatist movements were retarded in their development by the democratic structure of the Empire.

Lenin advocated territorial nationalism for the purpose of undermining a state which was a stronghold of the capitalist order in Europe. But it was not the growth of territorial nationalism under Leninist inspiration that destroyed the multi-national Empire. The setting up of the nation-states did not signify the rise to social dominance of nationalistic capitalist classes in the various regions of the Empire. The Empire was broken up and the nation states put in its place by the guardians of the capitalist order internationally–Britain, America and France. The nation-states were set up in place of the Austrian Empire by the Great Powers–the British Empire, the French Empire, and the United States. This deliberate engendering of nationalism had the dual purpose of punishing the Germans and Austrians for losing the war, and enlisting nationalism against Leninism in Central Europe.

These new national entities had not forced their way into the European order. They were brought into being by the Great Powers for ulterior purposes regardless of the fact that they lacked the internal structures that would have made them functional as liberal-democratic states of the capitalist order.

The Austrian Empire did not divide into coherent national units either territorially or economically. The Empire itself had been a more coherent entity than any of the states into which it was split up. The peoples on whom the new structures of nation-states were laid by the Versailles Conference had predominantly been peasant communities within the Empire. They might be described as provincials of the Empire. Their provincial cultures were worked up into national cultures by nationalist intelligentsias. But, at the moment when the Great Powers formed those provincial regions into nation states, those nationalist intelligentsias were still very far from forming capitalist classes of the various nation-states that were conjured into being by decree of the Great Powers.

Insofar as there was a commercial/professional class of the Empire–a bourgeoisie–a capitalist class co-extensive with the Empire and flourishing in all its regions, that class was the Jews. The Jews therefore did not experience the break-up of the Empire of the Empire into nation-states as any kind of liberation. Janowsky described the formation of the nation-states as a “Balkanisation” of the Empire, and that description corresponds with the actual Jewish experience of the event.

Within that series of new states in Eastern Europe–liberated or Balkanised, depending on one’s point of view–the Jews made up the greater part of the commercial/professional class. On average they were around five per cent of the population of the state, but made up about 80% of the commercial/professional economic stratum. They occupied a position where in a nation-state one would expect to find the national bourgeoisie. But, while they were pre-eminently bourgeois, they were not national at all. They were the Balkanised remnants of the cosmopolitical middle class of the destroyed Empire.

Since they could not play the socio-political part of a national bougeoisie in those nation-states–in fact the part of many national bourgeoisies in conflict with each other–it was not a practical possibility that they should retain the economic position which they held at the moment when the Empire was broken up into nation-states. It was a practical inevitability that, within these hot-house nation-states, there would be a forced development of national bourgeoisie out of the various peasantries, and that, by one means or another, the Jews would be displaced from their economic positions.\

Most of the new nation-states were in territorial dispute with each other–until nationalist conflict was eased by the great ethnic cleansing conducted after the defeat of Germany in 1945, under the auspices of the United Nations, combined with the superimposition of Communist regimes harmonised by Moscow–but they shared a common culture of anti-Semitism. And, in the British war-propaganda of 1939-45, it was acknowledged that the position occupied by the Jews in the Versailles states created out of the Austrian Empire was unsustainable. A distinction was made between religious bigotry and an “anti-Semitism of fact”, which was understood to be a means of dealing with an objective social problem.

Was that distinction not itself an expression of anti-Semitism?

I don’t know that Bevin ever gave a moment’s thought to the possibility that the mode of Jewish existence in Europe after 1918 might have been an authentic social problem, or that he was in any way implicated in the anti-Semitism of the “anti-Semitism of fact”. He was running Britain during the War, and taking advantage of the disordered position of the Tories to lay the groundwork of the welfare state. I have seen no suggestion that his attitude was in any way anti-Jewish in his conduct of union affairs, or that he saw the position of the Jewish community in Britain as being problematical for Britain. And he appears to have given properly mindless support to the Imperialistic resolutions in support of Zionism which were regularly passed at Labour Party Conferences.

Zionism was the Utopian ideology of the rather futile and compromised British Labour Party in the 1920s and 1930s–its alternative to the Leninist Utopianism of the Communist Party. It was a bright ideal, as glittering as the Soviet, but safe and practically irrelevant–until in the Summer of 1945 the Labour Party found itself not only in office, but in power–in a way that in the course of the 20th century only the Liberal Party of 1906 and the Tory Party of 1979 have been. Bevin was then faced with the immediate task of realising the Zionist ideal. He could not disguise from himself the reality of what was involved in the implementation of the Zionist policy. He was not a Parliament-bred politician who lived through euphemistic phrases. He was accustomed to looking frankly at the brute realities of life, and once he became Foreign Secretary he saw the brute realities of what was involved in the Zionist project–massive cleansing of the native population of Palestine to make way for massive Jewish colonisation–and he refused to play. That is why he was branded an anti-Semite by Richard Crossman. The slander stuck because Jewish influence in the Labour Party was considerable. And it is now repeated by Tam Dalyell in what is more a hagiography than a biography of Crossman.

I think it must have been pretty well the case that socialist Jews in Britain who were not Zionists were Communists. But, since the Communist Party was venomously hostile to Bevin on other grounds–he made “right-wing social democracy” effective and thereby curbed Communist influence in the Labour movement–Communist Jews had no more time for him than Zionist Jews.

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