ERODING THE CONSENSUS: An interview with Moshé Machover

Shortly after Moshé Machover was expelled from the British Labour Party, Science for the People activists organized an international petition in his defense. Prioritizing academics from Machover’s fields–Mathematics and Philosophy of Logic–but also featuring Israelis, Palestine solidarity activists and British legal professionals, the list of Lead Signatories quickly became impressively star-studded. Machover’s colleagues had rallied to his defense and, just as we were preparing to deliver and publish the petition, we received word that the expulsion had been rescinded! 

With his accusers put on the defensive, Machover had the additional solidarity of dozens of prominent academics and political figures. And since our petition’s demand–for an investigation into the causes of the expulsion–remained unmet, we had every reason to press on. In conjunction with the new British formation Jewish Voice for Labour which tracks all the developments surrounding this campaign, Science for the People delivered the petition to Labour Party leaders on November 16th.

To read the full petition statement and to add your name as a supporter, the petition is available here. For more of the back story, please follow the links included within.

In the course of carrying out the campaign, several important political questions emerged: How to understand the debates and maneuvers within the Labour Party? What is the history of Palestine solidarity activism within Labour? Why is Machover himself so controversial to those who support Israel? In a wide-ranging interview that weaves 100 years of British imperialism in the Middle East with internal British Labour Party politics, Moshé Machover answers all this and more in this exclusive conversation with Science for the People

Science for the People:  Thank you for speaking with us. As the details of your expulsion from and readmission into the Labour Party have been well documented I hope that we can discuss some of the context and background. To begin, can you talk about your relationship to the Labour Party since you moved to the UK in 1968?

Moshé Machover:  Well, I joined the Labour Party the first time sometime in the 1970’s. It must have been around 1973 because I remember some connection with the Yom Kippur War. But I didn’t stay long because like many people I saw the party moving to the right at that time. And in fact towards the end of the 1970’s it moved sharply to the right. Like a lot of people I actually gave up on the Labour Party. Some joined  various little leftist groups–what the French call groupuscules–but I didn’t. I remained in touch with a lot of people around the radical left but I did not join any particular organization.

A couple of years ago, there was an initiative by Ken Loach to form a new party called Left Unity consisting mainly of people who had given up on the Labour Party. But then, you know, not long afterwards, Labour elected—somewhat surprisingly and possibly by a fluke—someone who didn’t expect to be elected; someone who stood just because it was, as the English say, Buggin’s Turn. The Left in the Labour Party—the very small left remaining in the Labour Party—every time a leadership contest came up used to put forward a candidate without any hope of winning. Just to make a point, to assert their existence, as it were. This time it was the turn of Jeremy Corbyn. He stood and lo and behold, something completely unexpected happened. I mean, now in retrospect you can see why it happened. I mean it wasn’t just a coincidence.

Then I felt like many people in Left Unity that what’s the point? The real interesting goings on are in the Labour Party and like hundreds of thousands of people I rejoined the Labour Party. I rejoined like many older people and of course among the hundreds of thousands who joined at the time in the last couple of years are many younger people who have been alienated from politics; they didn’t see the point. They weren’t even registered on the electoral roll. And a lot of younger people who had been alienated from politics joined so now the Labour Party has become the largest party of any kind in Western Europe. It’s some 800,000 people, a massive party for a country the size of Britain.

So I was part of this; but of course you see that this party is now a very strange animal because the grassroots are huge and massively to the left. A small circle of leadership around Jeremy Corbyn and some of his closer associates are also of the left but the middle of the party, that is to say the bureaucracy, most of the members of Parliament, elected councilmen, members of local town and county councils are remnants of the Blairite years. They are part of what used to be called New Labour which now looks definitely very, very old.

SftP:  And so there’s this rift within the Party between the Blairites and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. How much does your expulsion reflect that division?

MM:  Absolutely. It is a straightforward reflection. The bureaucracy, the old guard of so-called New Labour, started expelling or suspending anyone they suspected of being on the Left. I was by no means the first, nor I understand, the last. It just so happens that in my case—something unexpected to me and to the witch-hunters, which is what they are has occurred—I got a huge wave of solidarity from within the party and beyond. And now, after I’ve been reinstated, I was gratified by the solidarity resolution asking for an apology and an investigation of the mechanism and means of the expulsion. For example, a local branch of the train drivers union, one of the lines of the London Underground adopted a unanimous resolution supporting me.

SftP:  I do want to talk more about the solidarity campaign that helped you regain your membership, but first I want to ask you about the efforts by Zionists in the UK and even the Israeli embassy itself as reported by Al Jazeera earlier this year. How does this relate to what you just described, the Labour Party bureaucracy’s campaign against Corbyn and his base. Is it simply a confluence of overlapping interests?

MM:  I think they work in what is known as synergy. But it’s really three factors, not two. First of all there are the Zionists, committed to Israel, who hate the fact that for the first time in its history, the leader of the Labour Party is a known supporter of Palestinian rights. And it actually got expression in his speech at the latest conference of the Party back in September. So this is one part. They really care about Israel and they have weaponized the accusation of anti-semitism which they conflate with anti-Zionism.

And this is orchestrated of course by the Israeli Hasbara, the propaganda machine. By the way there is a minister in the Israeli cabinet who is in charge of this world wide campaign. His name is Gilad Erdan. He is minister of strategic affairs which means this international campaign but also internal security in Israel and of propaganda. He is a senior minister in the cabinet and he is orchestrating this. I mention this because you mentioned before the al Jazeera program.

Al Jazeera wasn’t quite precise about the person involved, the Israeli agent. He was based in the Israeli embassy but he wasn’t working for the foreign ministry. He was working for the ministry of Gilad Erdan. Shai Masot was the name of this guy. And in fact there was some kind of conflict between him and the ambassador because of who was reporting to whom—he was in the embassy but he was also talking to Erdan which the ambassador didn’t like very much. But that’s just by the way.

Then there are people who hate Jeremy Corbyn, but care very little about Israel and Palestine but they just use it as a cudgel to hit Corbyn. So while there certainly are people who belong to both categories, among those who use accusations of anti-Semitism are people who do it cynically without really caring about Palestine and Israel.

Then there is, above these reasons, an international dimension. Israel plays an important role in the alignment and strategy of the United States regionally in the Middle East and the globe. This has been documented—if you want we can go into greater detail—but Israel is a strategic asset to the United States. Now the United States is heading what is euphemistically referred to as the ’International Community’. It used to be called the ‘Free World’ in the old days, but it is really the bloc of the United States and its camp followers. And there is a hierarchy in it. Some members of this so-called International Community are higher up than others. Britain is fairly high up. Not quite as high up as Israel. British elites and the British establishment fancy their “special relationship” with the United States. Well, yes, but not quite as special as Israel.

A condition for being in this ‘International Community’ is being nice to the Rottweiler of the boss. Which is Israel. So if the Rottweiler pisses on your shoes, you don’t kick it, but you say, “good dog, good dog.” So there is this obligation which is shared by the whole establishment in Britain irrespective of party. So you have them desperately trying to block any criticism of Israel. What is worrying them—and this worries all three circles that I mentioned—is that in actual public opinion, Israel is losing the fight.

And this applies even – I think it is also to some extent true of the United States – it was revealed in the support that was displayed in the run up to the American election, especially young people. And what is worrying for Israel especially is among Jewish people there is a process of alienation and unease about Israel. Because they don’t like being identified with what Israel is doing. Israel claims to speak on behalf of all Jews around the world and to act on their behalf. And that implies that they are complicit in what Israel is doing. And a lot of younger Jews, especially don’t like it—and I’m talking about under-30’s—you’ve got a sense of this in the Bernie Sanders campaign in the United States. Of course the United States is far behind  Britain in this respect.

So that is the background. These bureaucrats, right-wingers and Zionists in the Labour Party and outside undertaking this campaign of which I was and am still one victim. But there are many, many victims.

SftP: On the subject of imperialism, since we are talking on the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Balfour Declaration, can you summarize the long arc of British relations with Zionism over the last century with a particular focus on the role played by the Labour Party.

MM: OK. The Balfour Declaration is now being talked about quite a lot. I think many people don’t have the details quite right. They believe that there was a country called Palestine and that there was something called Sykes-Picot agreement that Britain made with France in 1916 during the First World War and according to this agreement Palestine was to come under British rule. And the British then promulgated the Balfour Declaration. This description is the standard one and it’s almost completely wrong.

I don’t know if you want me to get into the details of why it is wrong, but just briefly: According to the Sykes-Picot agreement, Palestine should not have come under British rule but was to come under joint British and French administration. A country called Palestine didn’t pre-exist. It was a vague concept. It’s like every American knows what the Midwest is. But there’s no state called the Midwest; it’s not a well-defined political entity. So Palestine was understood roughly, especially by western people and locally by Palestinians who were west-looking, many local Christian residents. It was the south of Greater Syria.

According to the Sykes-Picot agreement, this part should have been administered jointly by Britain and France. Prime Minister Lloyd George did not fulfill the Sykes-Picot agreement in two respects. One of them was, if you look at the map of Syria you will see very clearly if you look at the South eastern border of Syria: It’s mostly a straight line, but there are two kinks at each end. The line drawn by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot was to be straight from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk. You know they took a map and drew a straight line with a ruler!

But Lloyd George heard that in Mosul there is oil as well as in Kirkuk. According the Sykes-Picot agreement, Mosul–about which we’ve heard quite a bit recently—was supposed to be in Syria, not in Iraq. But Lloyd George, being the head of the government that came out of the First World War stronger—not quite so strong as it had entered it, but stronger than France—as part of the rivalry, he grabbed this part. And also he wanted to grab Palestine. But for this he needed the support of Woodrow Wilson. And the Balfour Declaration was in part promulgated in order to get the support of Woodrow Wilson for Britain to have the mandate over Palestine.

And then the Balfour Declaration actually defined what Palestine was to be. It’s not that there was a country called Palestine and Britain gave it to the Zionists in the Balfour Declaration but the Balfour Declaration actually defined what Palestine was to become. The whole idea was to start in Palestine an implantation of a community that would owe its security and its existence to Britain and it would serve its interests. The first British Governor of Jerusalem after the First World War Ronald Storrs put it like this: ‘We have in Palestine a little loyal Jewish Ulster [i.e. Northern Ireland] in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism’.

So that was the idea. And this is what actually the Zionist project of colonization has always been. It is unique in the sense that unlike, for example, the colonization of North America which was implemented initially exclusively by citizens of the metropolis that had possession of it. So the British actually went there and then they sent their own citizens. So there was the mother country and its citizens colonizing. In the case of Palestine the Zionist settlers were not citizens of a metropolis that possessed that part of the world. So they needed a surrogate mother country. And they always looked for the imperial power that would be dominant in that part of the world and made a deal with it. First it was Britain.

This lasted until some time in the 30’s when it became difficult for Britain to reconcile with its other regional interests. Britain is known, you know, for its duplicity. Actually, it’s more like triplicity. Because there was the agreement with France, which Britain broke. Then there were the promises they made to the Arabs who were rebelling against the Turkish empire in order to get their support. They promised these Arabs in Arabia a large, independent Arab state which would encompass Palestine. And then they promised Palestine to the Zionists. So there were three incompatible promises which Britain had to juggle. Britain had other possessions in the area and its promotion of the Zionist project became difficult to maintain alongside its other interests in the region.

On the other hand, the Zionist project became more ambitious. The original promise was not to found a Jewish Nation-state by giving the whole of Palestine to the Zionists but to create within Palestine a national home for the Jews. But now, the Zionists wanted the whole cake and they wanted their own nation-state. So they came into conflict with Britain. Until that point and in fact until the Second World War, the British Labour Party was even more keen than the British Government to promote the Zionist project. There is a resolution of the Labour Party from its conference in 1944 which actually advocates the transfer of population: let the Arabs move out as the Jews move in. Let’s transfer them to some other part of the region. I have the resolution in front of me, if you like?

SftP: Yes, please.

MM: The resolution was authored by Hugh Dalton and it is the most pro-Zionist resolution ever adopted by the Labour Party:

There is surely neither hope nor meaning in a ‘Jewish National Home’ unless we are prepared to let Jews, if they wish, enter this tiny land in such numbers as to become a majority…. In Palestine surely is a case, on human grounds, and to promote a stable settlement, for transfer of population. Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in. Let them be compensated handsomely for their land… settlement elsewhere be carefully organized and generously financed. The Arabs have many wide territories of their own; they must not claim to exclude the Jews from this small area of Palestine… we should re-examine the possibility of extending the present Palestinian boundaries by agreement with Egypt, Syria or Transjordan. Moreover, we should seek to win the full sympathy and support both of the American and Russian Governments for the execution of this Palestinian policy.

SftP: So that’s the Labour Party position during the Second World War. And as the war weakened Britain’s colonial influence, this strategy of population transfer is precisely what paved the way for Israel’s creation a few years later. Without the “handsome compensation,” of course. That’s a pretty incredible quote. But to move us up through the decades, when did the U.S. emerge as Israel’s primary backer?

MM: Before Israel became the rottweiler of the United States, Israel’s main imperial sponsor was France. The United States was not very interested in fact. In 1956 when Israel, in collusion with France and Britain attacked Egypt, the US actually compelled Israel to withdraw. And France’s alliance with Israel was connected with other problems the French had in the region. They regarded Egypt as the big supporter of the Algerian revolution. If Egypt did not support it then they thought that the Algerian resistance would collapse. This led them to support Israel and invite Israel’s invasion. This support from France ended some time in the 1960’s, before the ‘67 war.

Israel began to receive substantial arms from the United States some time in the 1960’s escalating up to 1966. And the June War of ‘67 would not have happened if the United States hadn’t given Israel the green light. That is important because a lot of people believe that Israel became sort of the United States’ junior partner following the June War of ‘67 but that is not quite true. It wouldn’t have moved against Egypt in 1967 without American say-so.

SftP: I’d like you to talk about the group you built in these years, the Israeli Socialist Organization, also known as Matzpen. It’s my understanding that throughout Western Europe there was a consensus on the political left, including within the Labour Party, of support for Israel: a general sympathy for the international Jewish diaspora after the holocaust but naive to the reality and consequences that Zionism had for the Palestinian people. And that Matzpen introduced a systematic critique of Israel to left-wing audiences for the first time. And as the messengers were Jewish Israelis, you began the process of eroding the Zionist consensus in social democratic parties throughout Europe. 

MM: Yes, but I should say there was another factor in the sympathy for Israel because Israel had managed very cleverly and successfully to present itself as the underdog in the ‘67 situation. It helped also that Egypt’s president Nasser made blood-curdling, threatening speeches and so on. The Israeli generals knew very well that he was in no position to attack Israel, that his best forces were tied up in Yemen, that the position of his forces in Sinai were defensive and that he was not preparing an attack. He was so unprepared for war that he left all his air force parked sitting in airfields, allowing Israel to destroy it.

So both because of what Israel did in its own propaganda as well as helped by the ineptness and strategic and propaganda mistakes by Egypt, Israel was presented as the underdog, as the potential target for annihilation, a second holocaust. Israeli leaders–especially the generals–knew that this was rubbish but a lot of people believed it and it was superficially believable until the actual details became known. So there was a lot of sympathy for Israel. Both for the reasons you mentioned and because of this.

We had some Matzpen comrades already in various European countries. I don’t think we had any actual members in the United States. There was one of our comrades who visited the United States in the early ‘70’s. But we had my late comrade, Akiva Orr, he was in London during the June War of ‘67 and we had a great comrade, Eli Lobel, in Paris. Matzpen had come into being in 1962. By the time of the war we had elaborated the position which is basically our analysis of Zionism. Those of us who associate with the Matzpen group came to an analysis that remains valid today–things have not changed except becoming worse. You know like in substance they did not change. So we were ready to come out with how we regarded the war, that the state of Israel is a settler state of a special kind, that Zionism is a colonizing project, that it is based on denial of the national as well as individual rights of Palestinian Arabs and so on and so forth. So we were able to put forward this analysis.

I came to London at the end of 1968 and I joined this campaign. At that time we were much younger, and we had the energy. We were going up and down the country four times a week in different places. Mostly in student meetings. In those days each university had its own socialist society, which grouped together socialists, some from the Labour party and some from the groups of the radical Left. They were thirsty for information and analysis of what is actually going on. Look, I mean, I don’t think it was only what we said, it was also reality. They looked at the reality that didn’t quite conform, soon things began to happen that didn’t quite conform, to the picture that they had of the situation. So they were puzzled. It’s not that we came and changed their minds a hundred-and-eighty degrees. People were actually looking for information.

We did a lot of work over the years and it seems to have worked to a great extent. Look, I tell you, wherever I go to a meeting these days, usually about the Middle East, someone comes up to me, an elderly person with grey hair, maybe in their fifties or sixties, and they say, “you know, you can’t remember me, but I was a student, in 1972,” let’s say, “in Essex university. And you came and gave a talk and it sort of changed my mind. I remember you from that time and I changed my thoughts about the situation in the Middle East.” I can tell you that almost in every meeting that I go to I get this kind of reaction. So it must have worked somehow.

Another index of this is how it percolated into the Left of the Labour Party. The Labour Party had been very pro-Zionist and it became sort of majority right-wing mainstream. Which is not surprising because the right-wing of the Labour Party supported this establishment view of things international as well as national. I mean they were, sort of, a bit left-of-center. But not more than a bit.

But there was always a Left in the Labour party. A distinguished and admired leader of the Left was Anthony Benn, about whom you may have heard. The present left-wing leadership were all associated with him. He was a sort of figurehead. At the time when I arrived in Britain, he was considered officially as a friend of Mapam, a sort of Left Zionist party [in Israel]. Over the years, he became a supporter of Palestinian rights, he was a sponsor of the Palestine solidarity campaign and so forth. He became strongly opposed to the Zionist project.

Now it’s not that he was present in any of the meetings in which any of us spoke but it shows you that there was a shift in the climate on the left especially among people who were young at the time. So there is this process. Jeremy Corbyn, as it were, is in part a product of that shift that happened in the immediate period after the June War of ‘67.

SftP: I understand, but it’s worth acknowledging that you did in fact help the British Left take a step forward in its understanding of Zionism and its solidarity with the Palestinian cause. It’s almost appropriate that fifty years later, the campaign that emerges within the Labour Party to hold Zionist influence within it to account is in large part around you. So has this latest campaign created an opportunity to advance Matzpen’s analysis of Israel?

MM: Sure, sure. Any such situation actually can backfire from the point of view of the people who are instigating the witch hunt. Look, I was an unknown person. As I told you I was known to a lot of people in the Left, on the margins, but I wasn’t known nationally. People didn’t come to interview me. I was thinking to myself, look I’m becoming an old fart sitting at my desk writing articles on the situation in the Middle East, analysis and so on. Which is published in a modest weekly, the Weekly Worker; maybe 2000 people read, but that’s all. I mean, it doesn’t go very far. And now, I think that this modest little paper that has done me the honor of publishing my article; I’m sure a lot of people are saying to themselves, what is all this fuss about? What are these articles that are allegedly antisemitic, that shouldn’t have been published in that paper anyways, etc.

You know what they say: any publicity is good so long as they spell your name right. I think these witch-hunters are kicking themselves for finally picking on someone who has aroused such a wave of solidarity. And I’m feeling a little bit guilty about it because I’m not the only one by any means. And other victims have not had this kind of support. Probably because I’m older than most of them and have been around and have written a lot about this subject and I’m an Israeli. So this also counts for why it was easier for people to rally.

SftP: So, we’ve gone back 100 years and are now back at the present. I want to talk about your expulsion and the campaign to reverse it. I understand that there was quite the push within the local Labour Party branches and that that campaign continues to pursue an apology as well as an investigation. You mentioned earlier the locomotive workers resolution, for example. But what were the accusations against you in the first place?

MM: You see there are two things: First of all there is the smear of antisemitism that has no basis at all. You just have to look at what I’ve written. It takes a sick mind to actually associate this with antisemitism. And this requires an apology. And in fact it requires examining the premises from which the accusations have been made. Because they rely on some kind of fake definition of antisemitism, some kind of sly formulation of what antisemitism is all about. They haven’t actually proved that my writings are in any way antisemitic. What they have actually demonstrated is that their definition is false. In fact, it’s what we logicians call reductio ad absurdum. They have reduced to absurdity the premise.

But they still need to apologize. And beyond this there is the draconic rule which they used to expel me. In the end, the smear of antisemitism was only mood music. It was a gratuitous smear because it wasn’t actually used as a pretext for expelling me. It wouldn’t have worked as a pretext. But what they used was a certain rule in the Labour Party rule book. There’s a rule book, you know, which you can find online. So, I think 2.I.4B is the article that they used against me; which allows them to expel automatically anyone who is a member and/or a supporter of a political organization other than those that are affiliated to the Labour Party. Now, there are three things obviously wrong with this.

First of all that you can expel someone automatically. That means without any hearing, without any chance to examine the evidence; so the bureaucrats can just expel you. Secondly the rule doesn’t define what ‘political organization’ is. Except it defines what political organizations are permitted. But it doesn’t define what are the political organizations that you shouldn’t be a member or supporter of. So, it could include Momentum, which is a big movement mainly of supporters of the Labour Party, but it is not affiliated with the Labour Party. To be in Momentum you don’t need to be a member of the Labour Party. It could be an organization called Refuge for fighting against domestic violence. There is such an organization that fights domestic violence and militates against modern slavery, etc. This is a political organization. And the rule is so vague, it could apply to the Electoral Reform Society.  There is a society in Britain which advocates some kind of quasi-proportional representation. So it’s a political organization. It’s about politics and it’s an organization. And lastly, the rule doesn’t define what support means. And if you think about it, support is not yes or no matter. It’s like these deceptive referendums. You are asked to make a false choice: you are given just two choices when in fact it’s not a yes or no question.

So I am not a member of either of the organizations they mention [in the expulsion letter]. One is the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) that publishes the paper Weekly Worker in which many of my articles have been published. And the other is Labour Party Marxists. Which I think did the thing that really got them furious. It reproduced an article I had written in the Weekly Worker a year ago–actually before I joined the Labour Party–and they distributed it in the Labour conference in September. It was selling like hotcakes. They actually managed to get rid of thousands of copies. The article was about why anti-Zionism is not the same as antisemitism. And this actually got a huge amount of support. So they expelled me for “supporting” these two groups.

I have had very little dealing with Labour Party Marxists except that I allowed them to republish. They asked me, “Can we reprint your article?” I think it’s a matter of elementary politeness and I said, “Of course!” Anyone who wants to republish my article would be welcome. So I allowed them. That’s my dealings with them. With the CPGB, yes I use their forum; it’s very hospitable because, although they are a very small group, their paper is not the sort of a party organ that publishes only their own stuff. They open it to the whole of the Marxist left. So people publish stuff that conflicts with their program. And they allow it. This is very nice of them and it’s also very clever. Because it makes their paper more interesting than the papers and journals published by little left groups because there is discussion and debate within it. And this is why I like to publish there.

I support some of their views but not others. Originally, before the election of Corbyn as Labour leader, one of the things I didn’t agree with them is that they were too optimistic about the Labour Party. Even before Corbyn, they used to say don’t give up on the Labour Party. It’s still the party of the British working class. Which is true, though it was a right wing party of the working class. But they said, “Don’t give up on it! It’s possible to change it and fighting for its soul is worthwhile.” I thought they were talking rubbish. But that was before I joined the Labour Party of course. Now I realize that they had a point.

Another thing I support: contrary to other groups on the left, they advocate all trade unions be affiliated to the Labour Party. Not all trade unions in Britain are affiliated to the Labour Party. Some have disaffiliated during the previous years because they didn’t get support from the Labour Party for their members. And there are groups on the left which are not too eager for trade unions in which they have influence to rejoin the Labour Party. The CPGB advocates this. What’s wrong with it? I support this position. Can the Labour Party complain about me supporting the CPGB position which calls for all unions to affiliate to the Labour Party? I mean this is ridiculous. I don’t agree with all their positions but this draconic catch-all rule is used to get rid of leftists from the Labour Party. And it is still being used, I mean, the witch-hunt is by no means finished.

SftP: One of the main reasons I think you’ve received so much support beyond those partisans of the debate about Israel is because in content and spirit the accusations do come with a strong hint of McCarthyism.

MM: Yes, yes. Absolutely. I mean it stinks of McCarthyism

SftP: So can you talk a bit more about the mood music as you described it? The accusation that your anti-Zionism constitutes antisemitism. In that letter in which they expelled you they referenced your “apparent antisemitism” but also said that because you’re no longer a member of the party, you don’t have any right to defend yourself against this accusation.

MM: No, no, no, you are slightly wrong, what they said was, we can’t investigate you because you’re not a member of this party. We expelled you because of this other thing.  But since you’re not a member, we can’t actually say anything about it. The whole mention of these vile accusations was completely gratuitous, it was otiose, it did not have anything to do formally with the reason for my expulsion.

SftP: So, now that you’re a member again, can you insist on such an investigation to turn the tables and advance a better understand of what anti-Zionism is?

MM: I don’t think I have a need to defend myself against the accusations of antisemitism. As I told you they are so absurd as to actually refute the assumptions from which they make these accusations, so I think even trying to defend myself against the accusations would give the accusers too much credit. It’s not even worth defending against. It’s rubbish. I mean, if I accuse you of being a witch would you defend yourself? Would you try to prove you are not a witch? I mean, this is totally absurd. But, I demand an apology.

SftP: So I do want to give you an opportunity to respond to the international solidarity you’ve received. The petition that Science for the People organized has attracted the support of dozens of renowned scientists and human rights leaders. But most impressive has been the ranks of your colleagues, prestigious mathematicians including Sir Michael Atiyah, David Mumford, Stephen Smale, Neal Koblitz, David Klein, Colette Moeglin, Ivar Ekeland, Joseph Oesterlé, Michael Harris, Ahmed Abbes, Emmanuel Farjoun, Chandler Davis & Catherine Goldstein.

MM: Well look, when I saw these names I just gasped: Smale? Mumford? Atiyah? I mean, for a mathematician–you know; mathematics doesn’t have a Nobel Prize. It has the Fields Medal. And in fact it’s even better than the Nobel Prize because they don’t give it to people for lifetime achievements when they are near the grave. You have to be under 40. So these are names that mathematicians venerate. I am so overwhelmed, and some of the other names that you mentioned are some of the great mathematicians and scientists. I really appreciate them mobilizing to support a colleague. I am not a great mathematician. I’ve been a lifelong mathematician, but I’m nowhere near the stature of the people you have mentioned. But they have mobilized to support me.

This is very nice of them but also I think it is what should be done. Because mathematicians and other scientists should not stay in their proverbial ivory tower; they are part of society and they should use their knowledge of their subject and general reality to mobilize for progress against the forces of darkness.

SftP: So obviously in Science for the People we share a commitment to using whatever legitimacy or intellectual contribution our solidarity can lend. I do wonder if the efforts within the Labour Party might experience any kind of a boost from this type of international solidarity.

MM: This cannot but help the forces of light against the forces of darkness. It’s obvious and I think the British have always had a tendency to be a little bit insular. I mean they live in an island and they have an insular mentality. But they also have an inkling that there is world beyond; and it is very important for people in the Labour Party to realize it’s not just an internal Labour Party affair and it’s not just an British affair. They are realizing now because some of the expressions of support come from outside the Labour Party there are groups and organizations close to but not within the Labour party, and to see that there is an international dimension.

Because this is an international issue. We started our discussion with mention that at least two of the three factors [behind the allegations against me] are international. Both the Zionist campaign worldwide against people who criticize Israel and the Zionist project of colonization and also the commitment of the powers that be to the American hegemon. These are international factors. The hate for Jeremy Corbyn within the Labour Party is a local matter but this is only part of the picture. And the rest of it is international so I don’t see any reason why the fight within the Labour Party should be regarded as something that people outside should not have any say about.

Thanks to Daphna Thier and Amber Keller for transcription assistance.

 

Which Way for Science?

by the Science for the People editorial team

On April 22, 2017, the March for Science will pull several thousands of people into the streets to stand up for science and resist funding cuts proposed by the current US administration. Our organization, Science for the People, sees this development as a mostly positive step in the right direction. The scale of the political and economic crises facing people across the world is enormous and will require mass movements to resist and organize for change. However, we believe there is a need to advance radical solutions to face these crises. As such we have been interested in how the March for Science has developed since its inception around January 25, 2017. Our members have been taking measured approaches to engaging with the March for Science–nationally and locally–with the overall goal of putting forward a politics capable of both taking seriously the multitude of contradictions that define scientific enterprise and accounting for the people affected by and disaffected with the pursuit, uses, and abuses of science.

For radicals and revolutionaries, unearthing and addressing the burning questions of the latent social movement for science is an urgent and primary task:

  • What’s happening to U.S. Science?
  • Who will March for Science? Who will not?
  • What is Science for the People?

What’s Happening to US Science?

Supporting science as a national priority has fallen out of favor with the powers that be, to say the least. The new administration has made it perfectly clear that it intends to incapacitate the agencies and programs that make science happen every day in America–or at least those with missions orthogonal to developing U.S. military or resource extraction technologies. Their budget calls for the evisceration of the Environmental Protection Agency, a double decimation and reorganization for the National Institutes of Health, annihilation of various Department of Energy advanced research programs dedicated to renewable energy and climate, and more. While none of this is set in stone yet, as the budget must pass through the US House and Senate, it remains to be seen just how much the legislature will dispose of what the president proposes. Either way, by a few major lacerations or a thousand tiny cuts, U.S. science is likely to lose a lot of blood.

For mainstream commentators, the the primary victim is US leadership in research, as they see these attacks as tarnishing America‘s reputation for innovation and compromising national security. Concordantly, the tears of patriotism shed for the coming loss of America’s scientific hegemony come with a blurry vision for change: perhaps Congressional bipartisanship and compromise will save us all?

As bad as the current situation is, it’s worth remembering that funding woes for U.S. science are not new. Despite help from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the past near-decade of U.S. fiscal policy shows science losing out in the budgetary fights between the Obama administration’s ambitions for science and the GOP-controlled House of Representatives’ preference for imposing across-the-board austerity. Biomedical research institutions and their workforce have experienced much of the damage, with cuts and inflationary pressure on federal nondefense science and technology spending. It’s not just federal austerity bringing down U.S. science, either, as state cutbacks to public research universities have compounded the downward pressure for funding research and for the costs of providing science education, as the increasing costs of the university are passed on to the students as tuition.

None of this is intended to diminish the gravity of the current situation, but we should understand that what is happening is an increase in the rate of change on the same trajectory. This should prime us to be critical of establishment science organizations claiming to be vehicles of resistance to the current attacks on science. If the strategies and tactics of establishment science organizations were not able to secure the foothold for U.S. science during an administration that has been characterized as being the most friendly to science on record, how are we to expect that they will work under a regime that is decidedly oppositional to science and scientists? Ruthless criticism of the capacity of establishment organizations to make change from science workers themselves is necessary if we wish to move beyond the current, stultifying paradigm of lobbying and “science communications” as being the only legitimate mode of political organizing for science. Neither perfectly crafted explanations of climate change nor new science-friendly PACs offer a way for science to move beyond its designated but diminished roles within increasingly dysfunctional U.S. federal and state governments, into a form that realizes its radical potential to catalyze transformative social and political change.

Which brings us back to the March for Science, its significance in this political moment, the entanglement of reformist and radical forces within the march, and the need for both progressive and radical scientists to strategize about moving forward after the march is over.

Who will March for Science? Who will not?

When the March for Science was announced in late January, the spontaneity and resonance of the call to action was palpable, as tens of thousands of people hopped into social media groups clamoring for details about the march and how they could get involved. No doubt, the magnitude of the organizing task–bringing together potentially hundreds of thousands of people in just over a month’s time to march on Washington, D.C. (the original event was supposed to take place in March)–proved too much for the group of initiators. Soon thereafter, a network of coordinators and communicators tapped into the digital infrastructure to take over the reins for organizing the march. The opacity of the internal organizing processes and leadership structure of the march makes it difficult to assess exactly how the current organizing committee came together. Representatives of the organizing committee have made several thoughtless remarks and strategic missteps that have induced negative feedback toward the organizers, leading to rolling revisions to the statements of principles and recomposition of the organizing body.

Scientists and activists have engaged in heated debate and varied discussions about the March for Science on Facebook and Twitter, stemming from claims by the march’s organizers that the march would be apolitical, nonpartisan, and separate from “identity politics.” For instance, in Memphis, the latest version of the March for Science Diversity and Inclusion Principles caused  a split between organizers willing to uphold these principles, and those that were not. “This isn’t about scientists. It’s about science,” claims co-chair and science writer Dr. Caroline Weinberg, a stance March for Science has since changed. Science is inherently political. What is studied, to what end, by whom and under what conditions, are all political questions integral to the very nature of science. By denying this fact, we risk erasing the struggle of scientists of color, women, disabled scientists, and scientists from the LGBTQ community who have had to fight for education, credibility, funding, and job opportunities within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Concordantly, we risk ignoring and diminishing the struggles of scientists who have resisted the use of science for making war, exploitation of workers, the enabling of environmentally destructive resource extraction, and the support of industries that harm people and the planet.

The slow acknowledgement of the political nature of science and the marginalization and exclusion of underrepresented groups from the March for Science, especially scientists of color, unleashed a Twitter storm in the three months leading up to the march. Underrepresented scientists expressed concern about the lack of diversity in the leadership of the March for Science, intersectionality, the hesitancy to reach out to other activist groups (e.g., Black Lives Matter, #NoDAPL, Women’s March), the need for a diversity statement, and accessibility issues. Dr. Stephani Page, a biochemist/biophysicist and creator of #BLACKandSTEM, spearheaded a discussion on diversity on Twitter with the hashtag #marginsci. This thread has helped force the March for Science to reflect on and reconsider their approach to organizing the march. Thanks to #marginsci, the March for Science diversity statement has been through several revisions. The March for Science organizers have also more recently created an anti-harassment policy (due to several racist, sexist, ableist, and homophobic incidents online) and recruited a few scientists of color to assist with the march.

These various stumblings reveal the ugly, longstanding problem with diversity and inclusion in STEM. According to sociologist Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, who has been following and reporting the actions and discourse of the March for Science, organizers have even perpetuated sexist and racist stereotypes of passivity and potential for violence, respectively, in promoting the march. Female scientists of color have been trolled (i.e., harassed online) for their comments by White and primarily male peers in the science community. In response to #marginsci, the organizers announced two female scientists of color, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, as spokespeople for the march. According to critics, the addition of these women seems to be an afterthought to the organizers, who had early on slated celebrity scientist Bill Nye as a march co-chair. Dr. Stephani Page responded to the announcement by stating that despite the fact that she loves Nye, she still thinks that he reinforces the White, male narrative in science. “He is a white male, and in that way he does represent the status quo of science, of what it is to be a scientist,” Page tells Buzzfeed.

We applaud the efforts of activists like Page to push the March for Science to take such steps and consider it their victory that the organizers were made to respond. As of the writing of this statement, it is unknowable how many scientists of color or other individuals from underrepresented groups plan to attend or stay home during the March for Science. But it is clear that many people from marginalized and oppressed communities have been turned off by the messaging and the lack of acknowledgement of their historic struggles within STEM. This negation both whitewashes the impact of science in enabling the oppression and marginalization of these communities, and ignores the contributions of scientists from these communities. For many marginalized scientists, the March for Science appears to be centering the concerns of those who are overrepresented in STEM by focusing on issues of funding and shifting research priorities as the dominant themes of the march, while subsuming the experiences of marginalized scientists to statements of diversity, rather than creating parity for issues that are just as important and longstanding as funding. The attempts made by the organizers of the March for Science to downplay the deeply political nature of contemporary science risk making it a symbolic representation of objectivity and “science for all,” a unifying rallying cry to fight against the “attack on science.” Such failures do not address the systemic racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and classism that still plagues the science community and society more broadly. These are not simply problems of individual morality but rather are complex structural problems and must be addressed as such through organization and demands beyond the calls for objective or diverse science.

In this moment, it is vital that we question who the scientific establishment benefits, oppresses, excludes, and ignores. How can science be more inclusive and equitable to people who identify as being disabled, LGBTQ, of color, and/or female-identifying? How can we enhance science access to local disenfranchised communities (e.g., indigenous, low-income, Black, Latinx) and how can we work with and for those communities? How can science serve humanity and the planet? Is it possible for scientists who desire meaningful social change in our society to put their talents to work for a movement capable of achieving that change, or must “politics” remain split off from their work? Can we ensure the use of evidence-based, ethical decision-making in public policy? As the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) fight have shown us, now is not the time for scientists to sit on the sidelines, claim neutrality or objectivity, and remain silent. Silence amounts to acceptance of the status quo, which could mean life or death for people and the planet.

What is Science for the People?

It is impossible to escape the political implications of scientific work. Particularly since the Sputnik era, the American ruling class–primarily characterized by upper-class, educated, wealthy Whites–has long had a commitment to science based on the belief that science is good for the long-term welfare of American capitalism, exemplified by the rhetoric around the potential STEM workforce shortage and the imperative that the U.S. should reclaim its rightful place as the top nation in STEM. This outlook is shared by the trustees of universities, leading U.S. scientists in the National Academies, government administrators, and private funding agencies. They see this viewpoint as representing a mature social responsibility that is morally superior to the “pure search for truth” attitudes of some scientists, who are tolerated as long as they don’t impede or challenge these economistic aims. With the reemergence of the use of biological concepts of race in genomics research and climate change denial, persistent environmental racism (environmental disasters that disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income residents, like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and fracking in North Dakota and California), major racial, class, and national health disparities, the role of scientists and science in society needs to be reexamined. Dr. Marc Edward’s, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education about his and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s investigation that revealed the deliberate inaction of the city and state government to address the lead contamination of Flint’s water supply, shared:

I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill—pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index—and the idea of science as a public good is being lost. [emphasis added]

Like Edwards, if the scientific community believes that science truly is a public good, then more scientists need to speak out, organize, and engage, for themselves, with, and for all marginalized and oppressed people. As a society, we need to use science to serve the people, not to turn profits or support private interests. Traditional attempts to reform scientific activity through professional societies and conferences, to disentangle it from its more malevolent and vicious applications, have failed. Actions designed to preserve the moral integrity of individuals without addressing how the institutions of science and the power they embody are complicit in systems of domination have been ineffective. What is needed now is not liberal reform or withdrawal, but a radical shift in the practice of science. Scientific workers must organize amongst themselves and as part of broader struggles to envision and achieve a liberatory science. This will require close attention to the changing nature of scientific work itself. For instance, young scientists, who are increasingly unable to find permanent employment as scientists, especially in the academy with its supposed offer of intellectual independence, will have difficulty changing science in a purely individualist manner.

The March for Science nationally and others globally who have been politically energized by the current state of affairs can learn from the history of radical politics in science. Courageous scientists throughout history have taken on social and political issues above and beyond their disciplinary “expertise.” Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins, Jon Beckwith, Stephen Jay Gould, Ruth Hubbard, Hilary Rose, Steven Rose, Christopher Caudwell, Helen Rodriguez-Trias, Connie Redbird Uri, and antebellum scientists of color like James McCune Smith and Martin Delany, are all examples of scientists whose lives, science, and activism were propelled by the understanding that science is deeply political. In the 1970s, radical socialist science movements like Science for the People in the U.S. and British Society for Social Responsibility in Science in the U.K. enabled a renaissance for socially conscious, politically radical critiques and analyses of the entanglement of science with U.S. imperialism and global capitalism. At the 1970 meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science, members of Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action (a precursor to Science for the People) publicly disrupted a keynote by Glenn Seaborg, then Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, and indicted him for both his role in aiding the development of nuclear weapons and “establishing, organizing, maintaining, and developing institutions of science and government for the effective use of the ruling class.” In the early 1970s, Science for the People’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP), designed to aid radical groups with technical needs, helped free medical clinics hosted by the Chicago Black Panther Party break into city electrical power grids to provide free power for the clinics. Journalists for the Science for the People magazine worked to document the negative consequences of environmental exploitation on local populations and the movements of citizens to protect the land against energy and mining corporations (see Kelly Moore’s Disrupting Science and the forthcoming book on SftP for more history). They demonstrated that such environmental catastrophes could not be undone by science alone, but required scientists to unite with citizens organizing for their communities against powerful corporations and lackadaisical regulatory agencies. Yet with the deradicalization of academia and lack of history within science education curriculum, many scientists are unaware of this history, as evidenced by the national March for Science’s blundering statements concerning politics and science.

By reorganizing Science for the People, we aim to revitalize its legacy of documenting the use and abuse of science and to organize scientists to contribute to human liberation and transformative social change. As a coalition of progressive and radical science workers and supporters, Science for the People finds the alternatives of “science for science’s sake” and “science for the progress of capitalism” equally unacceptable. We can no longer stand by as science is used as a means to promote a neoliberal, capitalist agenda that objectifies individuals and communities in pursuit of exploitative and imperialist goals. We also cannot simply engage in scientific pursuits without questioning who the research serves and impacts, how science is directly or indirectly complicit in oppression, and how we can make our work accessible and meaningful to everyone. To uncritically assume that science is progressive is to leave the tools of science in the hands of the powerful. We need to think about scientific work differently: what would science look like if it were with and for the people?

Science for the People must be organized through a grassroots effort that is intersectional, inclusive, democratic, and accessible from its inception. We must be cognizant of how individual experiences of science are shaped by race, gender, class, nationality, and so on and how this, in turn, shapes the questions, assumptions, approaches, and social interactions in science. Rather than hiding behind the pretense of an “apolitical science,” we should acknowledge, reveal, critique, and contest the ways in which power and privilege manifest within the scientific community, scientific practice, and society. Scientists, science educators, science communicators, advocates, and community members should share “ownership” of the movement while elevating and centering the voices of the marginalized and oppressed. This is especially vital if the scientific community intends to (re)establish trust with communities that have often been harmed and traumatized by scientists and scientific research (e.g., indigenous, Black, Latinx, disabled, LGBTQ). We should be inspired by the work of those scientist-activists who have been and continue to engage the scientific community and society in difficult conversations around science, power, privilege, and oppression, such as Dr. Danielle N. Lee, Dr. Jedidah Isler, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and the Scientists Against Fascism, Dr. Raychelle Burks, Dr. Caleph Wilson, Dr. Marc Edwards, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and Free Radicals.

Anything called Science for the People must directly serve marginalized, exploited, and oppressed persons and strengthen their ability to participate in struggles and achieve liberation for all. Doing this radical political work requires forging connections to community and political organizations where scientific analysis and technical prowess can provide aid in struggle, addressing the “undone science” that has yet to be completed. To accomplish this, it will be necessary to establish within Science for the People a network of scientists organized and capable of collaborating on projects brought forth by social and political organizations seeking assistance and take seriously the process of learning from criticisms and suggestions by others. It also calls for the (re)learning of the history of science with a focus on hidden or untold stories and the creation of decolonized science.

Additionally, we must foster resistance to doing science that can be used as weapons against the people, either in the natural or social sciences, or that aids in the efficiency of the capitalist system to exploit people and the planet for profit. The time has come for a revitalized Science for the People. STEM workers must redirect their capacity away from serving reactionary forces and institutions that uphold the current system, and towards work that saves the planet and serves the people.

The March for Science this weekend is the exciting first step of what we hope will become a mass movement to both defend the necessity of science and to build science that works for all people. We have an opportunity to raise the issues we have discussed with our colleagues and community members while there is heightened visibility and momentum around the power of science to unite and change our world. We present both enthusiasm for and criticism of the March for Science in the spirit of solidarity and construction. As scientists and those who deem science valuable mobilize this weekend we have a chance to think deeply and critically about the root of issues in science research, funding, and impact. Science has the potential to be a force of liberation but is frequently complicit in systems of domination. Let us join with all those engaged in liberatory struggles to build a world where all science is Science for the People.