It was with great sadness that I learnt of the death of Steve Cohen – socialist and anti-racist – on Sunday 8th March. I am posting below an obituary from his close friend and another indefatigable anti-racist campaigner, David Landau. But I would like to give my own recollection and personal appreciation.
I first heard of Steve when, over 30 years ago, he came to speak at a fringe meeting on immigration controls at NUS Conference. At that time a big campaign had been mounted to keep an Asian woman, Anwar Ditta, in this country.
I didn’t meet Steve again until the Barbed Wire Europe Conference in Oxford in September 2000. I was shocked to see him with a walking stick suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and obviously in pain. The last time we saw each other was at the Trade Union Conference against Immigration Controls in Liverpool nearly 2 years ago. His condition had obvious deteriorated but nonetheless his determination to fight against racism and injustice was undiminished. His strength and courage were an example to all.
Steve and myself were ideological sparring partners for some 20 years. I never accepted his thesis of ‘left anti-Semitism’. If you’re on the left you oppose racism – period. If you make exceptions, choose to turn a blind eye or remain indifferent, you are no socialist. Nor are you on the left.In the early 1980’s I wrote a pamphlet ‘Zionism – anti-Semitism’s twin in Jewish garb’. Although there are things I would change in it, the essence of the argument I made, viz. that Zionism was the most reactionary response of a small section of the Jews to anti-Semitism remains correct. And in so far as it adopted the ideological framework of the anti-semites it was inevitable, given its imperial alliances, that its bastard child – Israel – would turn out to be racist, as we can see with Avigdor Lieberman set to take over as Israel’s Foreign Minister.
Steven never turned a blind eye to racism, but I felt that in his pamphlet ‘That’s Funny you don’t look anti-Semitic’ he ignored the reality of what Israel had become and where it was going. In it he criticised both myself and Lenni Brenner for our arguments that Zionism’s record during the Nazi holocaust left a lot to be desired – to put it mildly. Steve disagreed with this, though in private correspondence with me he accepted that Rudolf Kasztner, leader of Hungarian Zionism had indeed betrayed the Jews of Hungary.
We fought over our different interpretations of Zionism and anti-Semitism in the pages of Big Flame in particular (much to the annoyance it seemed of the rest of the Collective!). The core of our differences were Steve’s belief that the initial phase of Zionism, its reaction to anti-Semitism, could be divorced from how it turned out. On the latter there was really no difference between us. As he said in an article
on the Beyond the Pale Collective site: ‘I cannot see how Zionism in its triumphant form (the Israeli state) is anything except essentially racist.’
I also disagreed with Steve’s formulation of being an ‘anti-Zionist Zionist’. To me this was as much a contradiction as being an anti-racist racist. But the reality is, despite the attempt of the anti-boycott Engage to claim his name for their cause, that Steve was someone with a romantic vision of ‘old’ Zionism coupled with a horror at what Israel had become. ‘Engage’ on the other hand utilises ‘anti-Semitism’ as a means of attacking any and all support for the Palestinians.
Steve was the product of the holocaust, with all its contradictions. The lessons he learnt were anti-racist ones, but the enormity of the Nazi crime were such that he saw Israel, in the same way as Isaac Deutscher, as a ‘lifeboat state.’ Wrongly but understandably.
I was therefore very happy when, at the beginning of last year, when I launched a fight to cleanse Indymedia of the anti-Semitic outpourings of Gilad Atzmon, that Steve was someone (with Lenni Brenner!) who joined forces with me. He wrote the following message
to IM UK when the battle was at its height:
‘As a hitherto supporter of Indymedia I am writing in total support of Tony Greenstein’s attribution of anti-Semitism Some political positions are so clear that they require no reflection to asceratain their meaning. Nazism is one such position. What you have published is another.
To talk of “Judaic world view” (ie attributing to all Jews the same view – the conspiracy theory) and refering to the “unpopularity” of Jews in Nazified Europe (a form of holocaust minimisation which virtually coincides with denial) as well as “their holocaust”( the holocaust was perpetrated ON Jews – and others. The perpetrators were the Nazis)…all this is clear,unarguable anti-Semitism. Just as “kill the Yids” is clear,unarguable,anti-Semitism. But yet you claim a) it is open to interpretation b) even if it were anti-Semitic you need a “consensus” as to what to do if anything – a somewhat unique position on fighting racism c) in the meantime you feel quite prepared to print this junk (which incidenetally in identifying anti-Semitism with Palestinian liberation puts you in antagonism to all progressive Palestinian thought).
Of course you can continue to use your energy going down this obnoxious path. Or else you can print an apology.
steve cohen ‘
Although even during the battle we kept up our internal polemic, Steve writing to me (13.11.07) that:
‘Actually I could write a more “considered” reply. I think there are two issues on which we disagree(d). They are linked but separate. One is the nature of zionism itself (you say it is racist. I agree but say it is also anti racist). The other is whether anti-zionism equals anti-semitism. My position always was/is that the two are theoretically distinct but in practice can merge. Your position seem(ed) to have been they can never merge. However I do think that with the rise of Islam then by and large virtually everything that passes for anti-zionism is anti-semitic. FTP represents this. You shouldn’t be surprised. In the past you kept bad company and now they are letting you down. Is that a cruel thing to say? I don’t mean it to be. But hasn’t your recent fights with the PSC made you reconsider some of your past positions/alliances. It is a genuine question – not point scoring. If point scoring was the isue then overall politically I’d be about 5-0 down.
Steve is someone I shall always remember with genuine fondness and now sadness that I didn’t manage to visit him before he died. Steve was one of the few socialists who stayed true to his ideals and didn’t waver throughout his political life, unlike the gaggle of ex-far lefties who took New Labour’s shilling
Steve was a genuinely warm and humorous person. I have no doubt that wherever he has gone the fight will continue.
STEPHEN WILLIAM COHEN
16 JULY 1945 – 8 MARCH 2009
Steve Cohen was committed to struggle against all forms of oppression, for justice and for socialism. This commitment was expressed both in activities and in the application of his formidable intellect to progressing struggles, often in the form of publications. No short account of his life, even one focussing solely on Steve’s political activities, can begin to do justice to the breadth and depth of these commitments. I will try to highlight some key themes.
After studying law at Trinity College Oxford and at Birmingham University, Steve trained as a barrister and in 1970 went on to set up an adventure playground in Moss Side Manchester (!). In Birmingham Steve got involved in organising the Balsall Heath rent strike. They talked about the Balsall Heath Soviet in those heady times.
Critical Trotskyism Steve joined the International Marxist Group in 1968 and left at the end of 1974. He was attracted to this group rather than the other myriad of tendencies on the left at the time, because of its dynamism, openness to ideas and discussion and the seriousness with it took oppressions that the rest of the left either avoided – such as questions of sexuality and gender – or which they didn’t see as fundamental; such as racism. He was also impressed by the robust anti-imperialism of the IMG regarding Ireland.
Steve’s disenchantment with the group was around largely the same issues that attracted him. There were limits to how much the group supported self-organisation of oppressed groups, particularly when raised in relation to the internal life of the organisation. There were limits to the extent ideas outside the Marxist cannon could be introduced from feminism, psychoanalysis and new ideas emerging from the Black movement which we marshalled, for example, in trying to develop an understanding of fascism. The emphasis on debate sometimes just promoted clever debaters to the top and despite the apparent freedom of discussion and plethora of internal tendencies, there was, Steve felt, an authoritarian streak running through the group. Everyone in the IMG shared a concern about the lack of an organic link with the wider working class, but Steve others, including myself, felt that there was a retreat towards the economism that marked out so many other groups at the time, which we never believed was the key to working class politics. And he noted with irony, that as the organisation tried to make a ‘turn to the class’, there were comrades who were rooted in the working class who became more marginalised or dropped out, while the ‘intellectuals’ tried to make a ‘turn to the class’.
Despite leaving the IMG Steve did value his experience in theory and practice in that organisation. Steve always had a high regard for Trotsky’s ideas and would often refer to the influence of these ideas, commenting that his views were often more in line with what Trotsky argued than the Trotskyist groups themselves. He developed strong criticisms of positions he had held before in the IMG. In particular the idea of unconditional but not uncritical support of anti-imperialist movements around the world bothered Steve. Those movements which were Stalinist had often been responsible for murders of thousands of political opponents; often left wing opponents in the communities they claimed to represent. Or they promoted a nationalism that would come to show its vicious side to minorities in the future. Later he argued that this prepared the way for uncritical support for groups driven by religious fundamentalism by sections of the left in recent times. Steve became very interested in the debates between Trotsky, Cannon and Shachtman around these questions. These important debates had been lost to the generation of Trotskyist in the IMG, or appeared in a very distorted form – not entirely surprisingly as Shachtman’s later evolution made his positions easy to demonise. These debates sit at the core of an unpublished novel that Steve wrote and was editing at the end of his life.
Steve questioned Trotskyist and Leninist ideas about democratic centralism, dictatorship of the proletariat and so forth believing that we have to learn from other traditions such as anarchism and bundism.
Ireland. A positive thing that Steve absorbed from the IMG days was an appreciation of the centrality of Ireland to the struggle for socialism in Britain – although he later became self-critical regarding the unconditionality of our support for some of the politics and actions of the Republican movements. He made an important contribution to this struggle, linking it to the struggle against racism in general, focussing on the treatment of Irish people in this country. He wrote a pamphlet against the Prevention of Terrorism Act entitled “Apartheid in Britain”. In these days of ‘war on terror’ and the racism that surrounds this, Steve’s pamphlet anticipated a phenomenon which has spread and eaten deep into the body politic since then.
In 1976 he was invited to speak at a meeting organised by the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty) about this pamphlet. The meeting was broken up by fascists and Steve was knocked unconscious.
He got to know Moira O’Shea through his work at North Manchester Law Centre on Mental Health. When Moira was herself accused of terrorism Steve was heavily involved in her campaign.
Jewish Socialism, Anti-Semitism and Zionism. Being Jewish was always important to Steve. Not in a religious way. But in recognising an important history, being part of a refugee people, a persecuted people and recognition that anti-Semitism is still very much alive. This has informed his opposition to racism, fascism and immigration controls. As the saying goes “two Jews, three views”. Steve regarded heterodoxy as a central part of his Jewish identity as well as of his socialism, and he challenged the ‘machers’ – the self appointed leaders of the Jewish community who claim to speak for all of us, but usually say things we are trenchantly opposed to – at every opportunity. Steve was a member of the Jewish Socialist Group off and on over a number of years and was a member when he died. His approach to life and his humour were quintessentially Jewish.
From his IMG days onwards Steve championed the rights of the Palestinian people. Steve was more radical than many in this regard in trenchantly opposing the ‘two-state solution’ on the grounds that it was inherently racist and could only be achieved through ethnic cleansing, apartheid or a combination of both. Exclusive states, Jewish or otherwise, were anathema to Steve.
Steve took the fight into the Jewish community itself, getting physically thrown out of a synagogue in the 80s.
But at the same time Steve felt that there was an anti-Semitic strain contaminating the anti-Zionist movement. Some times this was a deliberate use of the anti-Zionist flag of convenience under which anti-Semitic ideas were peddled. More often it was unconscious, old anti-Semitic notions would emerge. Analyses and leaflets appeared where the tail wagged the dog, Zionism strode the international stage as a thing in itself, higher than capitalism, manipulating the great military powers such as the USA. A throwback to the old World Jewish Conspiracy ideas. He wrote a pamphlet in 1983 entitled “That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic” about anti-Semitism on the left. This infuriated many. Not even the Jewish Socialist Group would publish it although it was eventually published by the Beyond the Pale Collective.
Whilst Steve looked back critically at “That’s Funny….” he believed that the central thesis remains even more pertinent today, when there are sections of the left who sing the praises of Hizbollah and Hamas. And he was very concerned that there appeared to be an exceptionalism about how Israel is talked about and acted upon, compared to other equally or more appalling regimes. He has recently characterised himself as a Zionist anti-Zionist. Zionist, not because a Jewish state is a good thing, but because of a recognition that Jews live in a hostile world in which they need protection and recognising that this a moving force behind support for Zionism. Anti-Zionism, because of the occupation, the racism and so forth of the Israeli State. He saw these as two dialectical anti-racist poles.
He argued that campaigns and actions in solidarity with the Palestinians should always explicitly have opposition to anti-Semitism as part of their platform.
Fighting Immigration Controls Steve’s work at North Manchester Law Centre opened a door for him on the world of immigration controls. People were coming in facing deportations, or fighting to bring in other members of their families, falling foul of internal controls through refusal of welfare, educational, health rights and so forth. What before was a theoretical opposition to immigration controls for Steve became a living issue for him as a community lawyer. He soon realised that a key to success was open campaigning and developed a partnership between community campaigns and the legal battle. He was soon involved in a number of high profile campaigns. Nasira Begum, Anwar Ditta, Said Bibi, Nasreen Akhtar in the late 70s, and later Viraj Mendi, Florence Okolo, the Rahman family campaign to name just a few.
All this got Steve researching into the history of immigration controls and re-discovering the anti-Semitic campaigning that led to the introduction of the Aliens Act back in 1905 and bringing attention to the proto fascist group at the turn of the 19th/20th century, the British Brothers League.
Steve saw the necessity of bringing the lessons of these campaigns and of the history immigration controls to wider public and wrote a number of pamphlets whilst at the law centre. Steve also saw the necessity of a specialist centre of resistance and legal support and campaigned for the establishment of the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, of which he was the first co-ordinator for many years.
Steve saw the weaknesses in the movements resisting different aspects of immigration controls: the idea that there can be some kind of fair and non-racist controls; not seeing the need to marry forthright campaigning with legal tactics; and a lack of knowledge in different professions about how immigration controls impact and what to do about it. Steve set about dealing with these by writing a series of books. ‘Immigration Controls, the Family and the Welfare State’, ‘No One is Illegal’, ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Fascism’ and ‘Deportation is Freedom’ which draws close parallels with the ‘newspeak’ described by George Orwell in 1984 and the discourse of the ‘immigration service’ (there’s a good example), the Home Office and Government.
Illness forced him to leave the Unit but he continued to write. He became increasingly aware of the need for a voice which openly called for the abolition of immigration controls and with the assistance of a few of us comrades wrote the No One Is Illegal Manifesto. This led to the establishment of No One Is Illegal group which has organised conferences, published a number of pamphlets, pushed for defiance of controls amongst the caring professions and so forth. Since then there has emerged the No Borders Network and the Campaign Against Immigration Controls all strongly influenced by the ideas of the manifesto and in the last year of his life Steve was concerned to find a way to bring these all under one umbrella.
Mr No Polltax Steve played a small role in the monumental struggle that brought down the Thatcher’s Poll Tax. Under the name of Mr No Polltax, Steve entered into a protracted legal correspondence with Bury Council as to why he would not and could not pay his poll tax. Ironically Steve was one of the few who would be slightly better off under the poll tax than under the old rates system, but he saw it as a matter of principle to resist an unjust system.
Disability – fighting His System and The System In 1995 Steve developed chronic rheumatoid arthritis with intense acute episodes. Over the years these became increasingly debilitating and intensely painful. This required medicines which progressively weakened his immune system leaving him vulnerable to infection and other illness. This led to him being in and out of hospital in the last few years of his life.
Did this stop Steve fighting? No it didn’t. He still went to Lithuania, taking me as his carer, to investigate the role it had as a buffer state in terms of immigration control and alert students to the evils of developing controls. Whilst in Lithuania he took the opportunity to research the fate of his own family during the Nazi era, visiting the shtettle (Jewish village) where a branch of his family came from.
What his illness did do was present him with a new battlefield. What he found were many wonderful dedicated workers in the health service and in the local authority caring service on the one hand, and institutions which could not properly come to grips with or even understand the issues of disability on the other. He had a series of battles large and small. One was to fight for a different design of chairs in the hospital as the existing design was unsuitable for many disabled people. Steve got involved in disability groups, bringing to their attention relationships between the struggle for disability rights and the fight against racism.
Steve’s last battle was against the New Labour policy of privatising home care in the name of choice. The only choice he wanted – to keep his existing regular carers – was not on offer. He managed to win the battle in his own case but saw this as the opening salvo against a system in reaction and a union in retreat. So that war has yet to be won and has lost one of its most militant soldiers.
Culture Steve often found literary expression to his political involvements. From his little book of poems “From the Jews to the Genitals” in 1975 through to a novel he just finished (as yet unpublished) just before his death relating to all of the themes above and more.
Steve lived his life according to the No One Is Illegal motto DEFIANCE NOT COMPLIANCE. He will be sorely missed by his children, Rachel and Tom, his daughter-in-law Cecilia, his two grandchildren, Fintan and Ellen, his friends and comrades.
21 March 2009