A politics of collective guilt: the sacking of Rebecca Long Bailey and the democratic process of redemption

My initial reaction to the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey (RBS) was that it was both an overreaction in itself, and that there may be different motivations for her sacking than the official one put forward.

My more considered reaction is that my initial reaction is wrong and that the sacking is justified.

I will try to explain.

My initial reaction was set, as it will have been for many people, within a quasi-judicial framework, long established in liberal democratic law. Here, the key question is: has an offence been committed?

Set in this framework, the evidence looks fairly light. This was a retweet of someone else’s words, and in any event it is not entirely clear that the content of what was retweeted constituted an antisemitic trope. In this framework, if there is doubt, then the presumption is generally in favour of innocence.

If this manner of judgment is adopted, then it seems that Rebecca Long-Bailey has been unjustly treated, and in that case people may feel entitled to ask what the motivation for the injustice may be.

But this is not the only framework within which the matter can be judged. The other framework is that of collective guilt and responsibility.

This may seem a dramatic departure from the usual to and fro arguments, in these circumstances, about whether such and such a person has used an antisemitic trope, or whether it is a legitimate criticism of an Israeli state action. It is meant to be a dramatic departure, because Labour as a whole needs to explore new routes towards a resolution. And in keeping with an attempt at a new approach, I turn to a dramatization for inspiration.

2. Collective guilt and responsibility

Bernard Schlink’s 1996 novel, The Reader (later a feature film), is the great exploration of what it means to be part of a collective guilt, and of its justification.

In the haunting penultimate scene, the narrator (Michael Berg) travels to New York to hand over to the sole remaining survivor of an SS atrocity a tea caddy, with money in it, as the final wish of his erstwhile lover, an illiterate SS guard sentenced in the 1960s to a long term of imprisonment, during which she learns to read, and at the end of which she commits suicide. The sole survivor refuses the money, saying that to use it for:

something to do with the holocaust would really seem like an absolution to me, and that is something I neither wish nor care to grant.

By proxy, the narrator — born in 1943 and knowing nothing of the SS guard’s past when she took him as a 15 year old lover — is also denied absolution. He remains part of a German people not yet free, even in the 1980s when this scene takes place, of its collective responsibility for the Holocaust.

This is, on a wider canvas, where Germany was at in the 1980s. Conservative forces in the country had initiated a retelling of still recent Nazi history, according to which Germany’s geopolitical position at the centre of Europe and the rise of Bolshevism went a long way to explaining the rise of National Socialism, and how Nazi extermination camps simply followed the lead of the Soviets’. In short, there was an attempt, in the cause of renewed nationalist pride, to deflect blame from the German people.

At this point, Germany’s leading intellectual of the left, Jürgen Habermas, stood up to be counted.

At what his biographer Stefan-Müller Doohm suggests was at significant personal emotional cost, Habermas took to the public stage and led the campaign against the revisionist trend, in what became known as the Historikerstreit, insisting on the need for Germans to retain collective responsibility for its sins:

These dead, first of all, have a right to the weak anamnetic forces of a solidarity which those born late can practise only in the medium of an ever renewed, often desperate, in any case restless remembrance. If we ignore this legacy from Benjamin [2], Jewish fellow citizens, any son or daughter of one of those murdered, would no longer be able to breathe In our country (quoted in Doohm 2016, p.266)

It goes without saying, I would hope, that Labour’s debate on antisemitism is minor in comparison to the ethical debate faced by Germany in the 1980s, won by the left in the shorter term but re-activated in the most concerning as an unintended consequence of reunification just a few years later. [3]

Nevertheless, if we are prepared to look at the current debate within this framework, the Labour party as a membership institution is at a similar juncture to Germany in the 1980s, in terms of its own antisemitic past and, sadly, present.

As a collective, we remain guilty until told otherwise by the victims. There may be individual injustices — as judged within the quasi-judicial framework — but these are unavoidable if we are, at some unknown point, to receive some form of absolution for past sins. That is what we brought on ourselves, by allowing antisemitism to fester through the development of tropes about the relationship between capitalism and Jewishness, the conflation of Jewishness and Israel, and the conflation of these conflations.

And if, as I suggest we should, we take Keir Starmer at his word pending further validation, then we should see him as a Habermas figure, putting at risk his own reputation as mature interpreter of Labour’s traditions and leader of a renewed party in order to take up a more fundamental cause.

3. The hermeneutics of validity politics

This description of Starmer may sound tongue-in-cheek. If so, it is because in writing it I have to go through a suspension of my own initial belief; my initial reaction was, as I set out above, to see the sacking of RLB as motivated by something other than a wish to stand strong on antisemitism.

In the end, moving the party beyond antisemitism requires from many on the left this suspension of initial belief.

It requires us, in Habermasian terms, to offer an unconditional validation even to those who we might, if were operating within the quasi-judicial framework in which it is the act not the actor which is judged accuse of ‘weaponizing’ antisemitism. It requires us to ‘overshoot’ the facticity of the political space in which we now find ourselves, in the faith that this overshooting process is what actually creates a new (post-antisemitism) constitutional settlement.

Further, it requires us, as a community of solidarity, to be prepared to exclude from membership those who breach the (new) norms. As Bernard Schlink has written elsewhere:

The price for establishing and maintaining solidarity is of course that one is regarded and treated equally also when one would rather not be. As long as the ties of solidarity are not severed, all the behaviour of the one will also be credited to the other. [4]

Taken together, these are two heavy demands, especially because the ‘facticity’ of possible weaponization, overshot by our ethical commitment to validation, may mean that individual injustices will be done. It is for that reason that I talk of the ‘faith’ needed; the demand, in biblical terms, is that we be prepared to ‘turn the other cheek’, and even offer up ‘martyrs’ for the cause. It is , arguably, a demand that we reconceptualise what we mean by ‘stay and fight’, seeing it no longer in terms of a determination to contest disputed terrains of language, but in the liberational terms that Gustavo Guttiérez (1996 [1984]: 161) would have us espouse, in which ostracization, or worse for defending the victim becomes a privilege of (ex-)party membership. [5]

Does my suggested approach, then, simply become a flight of proto-Christian socialist fancy, unattainable in the real world, and open to a very different interpretation: throwing in the towel in the fight against the Labour right.

4. Ethical demands

I would argue that it doesn’t, for two related reasons.

First, validating Keir Starmer’s big act on antisemitism as symbolic of a sincere commitment to the cause and as devoid of ulterior motive is to take the moral high ground. Effectively, it says to Starmer: “We believe you are well-motivated, and will support you on more concrete actions. Please let us know what these are.”

It makes an ethical demand of Starmer, early in his leadership, to go further than this one act, and to be pro-active. This may be through authorizing the kind of party-wide ‘kitemarking’ programme I have long advocated (Cotterill 2018), or it may be a different set of actions, but the onus is now on him to finish what he has started. And of course it requires consistency on the part of Starmer when dealing with likely future transgressions of trope, given the extent to which they have become rooted in the everyday language of those seeking, in whatever way, to defend those without capital against those with it.

In the same vein, validating Starmer also addresses — again from a moral high ground — the kind or ‘realpolitik’ ‘Guardianista’ commentary (e.g. Helm, 2020) from the Labour right which, which weaponizes not antisemitism as such (for a direct response is now voluntarily put off limits in the interests of validation) but instead cynically weaponizes the Labour right’s own limited, skewed responses to antisemitism. As I said of Helm’s article at the time:

What strikes me most about this article on Starmer tackling antisemitism in Labour is the total absence of any analysis of whether his tackling antsemitism in the party will reduce antisemitism in the party, or any consideration of whether that’s important (Cotterill, 2002c)

Offering support for a fuller attempt by the Labour leadership to come to terms with the party’s antisemitic legacy undercuts this kind of divisive approach to party management on clear moral grounds.

Second, it opens the space to argue, from the moral high ground, that Labour should develop positions based on listening to the victim.

As activist and Red Pepper editor Amardeep Dhillon Singh has pointed out cuttingly, Labour may have a way to go now, not least given Starmer’s initial take on the Black Lives Matter protests (which remained framed by a narrow legalism of the type I critique here), before marginalized BAME communities really feel that Labour is rooting its policies in those communities’ lived experience [6].

Solidarity to rid Labour of lingering antisemitism is a good in itself, and the lived experience of the Jewish people is unique [7], but that does not mean that the lessons learned from seeking to come to terms with the Holocaust through a deep understand of and collective responsibility for it, are not relevant to the uniqueness of slavery (something I will pick up in part 2).

Notes

[1] Habermas does not clarify his allusion to Walter Benjamin here, but his use of the word ‘weak’ suggests it is to Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, part II, in which he emphasizes the claim of the past on the present:

Among the most noteworthy characteristics of human beings,” says Lotze, “belongs… next to so much self-seeking in individuals, the general absence of envy of each present in relation to the future.” This reflection shows us that the picture of happiness which we harbour is steeped through and through in the time which the course of our own existence has conferred on us. The happiness which could awaken envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, with people we could have spoken with, with women who might have been able to give themselves to us. The conception of happiness, in other words, resonates irremediably with that of resurrection. It is just the same with the conception of the past, which makes history into its affair. The past carries a secret index with it, by which it is referred to its resurrection. Are we not touched by the same breath of air which was among that which came before? Is there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today? Have not the women, who we court, sisters who they do not recognize anymore? If so, then there is a secret protocol between the generations of the past and that of our own. For we have been expected upon this earth. For it has been given us to now, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim. This claim is not to be settled lightly. The historical materialist knows why. (Benjamin 1999[1940])

[2] Habermas’ principal biographer, Stefan Müller-Doom gives an excellent summary of Habermas’ worries about unification, and especially how the failure of the German Democratic Republic to address the Nazi past, is something like the way he and his left colleagues had stervied for in th 1980s, was a real danger for a new Germany, not least in the way that this might feed a new far-right nationalism in the West as well as the East (2006: 272–273).

Habermas was right, in a way which I suggest supports my current thesis: go through a process of collective guilt as redemption against pre-modern sins, or see them re-emerge.

[3] I use the term ‘overshoot’ here because it is the word use in translation of this crucial explication, early in Habermas’ Between Facts & Norms, of the interplay between validity and facticity

The ideal moment of unconditionality is deeply engrained in factual process of communication, because validity claims are Janus-faced; as claims they overshoot every context; at the same time, they must be both raised and accepted here and now if they are to support an agreement effective for coordination — for there is no acontextual standpoint. The universality meaning of the claimed validity exceeds all contexts, but only the local binding act of acceptance enable validity claims to bear the burden of social integration for a context-bound everyday practice.(1992: 20–21)

Another way to describe this ‘Janus-faced’ nature of validity claims is to say, as I do above, that they require of the hearer of the claim some form of suspension of belief. Such suspension of belief depends in turn on varying levels of ‘tension’ between a gut reaction as to truth(fullness) of the claim and the need, for the sake of overall ‘agreement effective for coordination’, to acknowledge its truth(fullness).

In this instance, my proposal is that, whatever level of doubt we may be in about Starmer’s motivations in sacking Long-Bailey, the wider political programme demands that we still validate the claim. This, as I suggest above, is not easy, given the hermeneutical complexity involved understanding what we seek not to understand, but it is part and parcel of the solidarity we need to show as members of a party adopting an attitude of collective responsibility.

As such, the ‘tension’ I ask that we bear for the sake of political progress is an example of the wider validity-facticity tension which I have suggested (Cotterill 2020, chapter 2) should be at the knowing heart of a wider political programme of democratic renewal.

In particular, though, bearing that tension is a key task of any political leadership that sets itself the goal, as Starmer professes to have done of a return to enlightened democracy, and will be so even to the point of quasi-Kierkegaardian sacrificial offer.

Faith in the ideal of democratic progress must trump hermeneutical anxiety at lack of democratic progress. Corbyn understood this role instinctively, but probably lacked the intellectual capacity to know as much. Starmer may turn out to have the intellectual capacity, but he needs to be tested by the movement he leads on whether he has the personal integrity for it. That time, as I’ll set out in part 2 of my piece on Black Lives Matter (Cotterill,2020b) is upon us.

[4] In his superb short essay Collective Guilt, Bernard Schlink emphasizes the pre-modern history of the concept, and how the post-Enlightenment shift to a judicial system focused on individual acts displaced it. The suggestion is that, as a great act of barbarism as isolate from the Enlightenment, the Holocaust demands a return to the pre-Enlightenment concept of redemption via collective guilt. I think this is an important concept to draw forward into the discussion of how white people deal with colonial slavery, also a historical act delivered within the Enlightenment period, but beyond its norms.

This is why the books read by the young Michael Berg to ex-SS Guard Hanna in The Reader are classics of the Enlightenment; he provides the first step towards her understanding of her guilt, but he incurs, by association with her, his own guilt.

[5] Increasingly, I’m of view that a political programme and leadership of democratization in West needs to be imbued with a spirit of liberation theology, and that the validity-facticity tension needs to be expressed as a secular ‘faith’.

I will write more about this, but for now it is important to stress that liberation theology is rooted as much in devotion to the liberation of the victim/the oppressed as it is to the praise of the Lord, and that the former is actually the latter.

Within this, it is important to identify who the victims are. In this essay the focus has been on Jews as the victim and, as such, the rightful object of our collective guilt.

But, as the British, we need also to seek redemption for our colonial sins against the Palestinian people, and our colonial sins if slavery.

One eventual redemption may set the course for another, but it still has to be trodden. Maxine Peake was right about George Floyd.

[6] I sketched this piece before Keir Starmer’s more recent commentary on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) ‘moment’, so this may look now like a significant understatement. In the interests of time and the need to move on, I won’t address directly here the route Starmer appears to be taking on BLM, and merely say, that in terms of the validity-facticity process I suggests should be at the heart of a new political programme (note 3), the tension is ratcheted up a few notches. At the very least, conceptualizing things in this way may allow members to recognize more clearly at what point the validity-facticity elastic may snap, while also allowing for affirmative actions within the party which allow the tension to be reduced over time.

[7] I should acknowledge, albeit in the form of a late note so as not to introduce too much in the way of caveat into my main argument, is this: the belief that the Labour party is institutionally antisemitic is not a universally held belief amongst Jews, and perhaps especially not amongst Jewish Labour members. For some Jews — I have no way of quantifying — Labour as an antisemitic party is a construct of those who have ulterior motives for disliking Labour.

In this piece, I have adopted a form of precautionary principle; if any single Jewish person feels that the Labour party is antisemitic, then the Labour party needs to act as though it is. To do this, though, risks ignoring the voices of those Jews who disagree with the need for that principle, and who have, precisely because are Jewish, more insight than I do.

All I can say is that I am open to learning, and to wonder aloud about the actuality of the relationship between (self)-identity as a Jew and as a socialist. In 1970, 30 years after the death of Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt had this to say about Benjamin and his Jewish peers:

What strikes one as indecision in the letters, as though he were vacillating between Zionism and Marxism, in truth was probably due to the bitter insight that all solutions were not only objectively false and inappropriate to reality, but would lead him personally to a false salvation, no matter whether that salvation was labelled Moscow or Jerusalem. He felt that he would deprive himself of the positive cognitive chances of his own position……

What was decisive was that these men did not wish to “return” either to the ranks of the Jewish people or to Judaism, and could not desire to do so-not because they believed in “progress)’ and an automatic disappearance of anti-Semitism or because they were too “assimilated” and too alienated from their Jewish heritage, but because all traditions and cultures as well as all “belonging” had become equally questionable to them. This is what they felt was wrong with the “return” to the Jewish fold as proposed by the Zionists; they could all have said what Kafka once said about being a member of the Jewish people: “ … My people, provided that I have one.” (Arendt, 1970: 40–41)

I do not know whether the same kind of tensions still apply, and if so, to what extent.

References

Arendt, H 1999 [1970], Introduction to Illuminations, Pimlico

Benjmamin, W 1999 [1940] Theses on the Philosophy of History in Illuminations, Pimlico

Cotterill, P 2018 A Labour Antisemitism Action Plan, April 1st

Cotterill, P 2020a Truthfulness, conviviliaty and voice for a post-virus world: Labour’s turn to Habermas, May 13th

Cotterill, P 2020b Black Lives Matter: from performative civil disobedience to material change (part 1),June 13th

Cotterill, 2002c Tweet, June 28th

Gutiérrez, G, 1984 We Drink from Our Own Wells in, Essential Writings (Nickoloff, J 1996), SCM Press

Habermas, J 1992, Between Facts and Norms

Helm, T2020 What we’ve learned about Starmer is, f you pick a fight with him, you lose, The Observer, June 28th

Müller-Doohm, S 2016 Habermas: A Biography, Polity Press

Schlink, B 1996 The Reader, Phoenix

Schlink, B 2009 Guilt About the Past, Beautiful Books

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Paul Cotterill

Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.