The historical left really was ‘for the many, not the Jew’

John Hobson’s antisemitic 1902 work, ‘Imperialism’, praised by Jeremy Corbyn, cannot be relativised as mere outdated thinking. It is key to understanding the ideological roots of the far left, says David Feldman


In 2011 Jeremy Corbyn contributed the foreword to a new edition of Imperialism, John Atkinson Hobson’s canonical tome first published in 1902. At the time no-one noticed. But at the end of April this year, in The Times, Daniel Finkelstein published a carefully aimed assault. He characterised Imperialism as a “deeply antisemitic book” which Mr Corbyn, to his discredit, had commended as “correct and prescient”. Where Lord Finkelstein led, others piled in. Mr Corbyn responded, insisting that the charge was specious and just the latest in a series of “ill-founded accusations”. Writing in this newspaper, Lord Finkelstein revealed that the catalyst for the dispute had been an article written by me. Here I provide a reflection on the controversy, both as history and as a part of politics now.

Today the Labour Party is hobbled and sometimes convulsed by controversy over antisemitism. Often debate focuses on the beliefs and behaviour of Mr Corbyn but, whatever the leader’s responsibility, the origins of Labour’s antisemitism mess lie deeper. The venom directed against Jews by some Labour Party members, the noisy insouciance of some leftists in the face of antisemitism, and the party’s record of prevarication and muddle in dealing with the issue, all suggest that Labour’s antisemitism problem is a matter of political culture and not only about individuals. Political culture builds over time. It brings into view the past and how it resonates today. And this brings us back to Hobson and Imperialism.

Born in 1858, by the 1890s Hobson was at the centre of a group of socialists and radical writers and reformers whose ideas inspired the Liberal and Labour parties in the first decades of the 20th century. Hobson finally joined Labour in 1924. Today, he is most often remembered for Imperialism.

Hobson’s target in Imperialism was not colonialism in general but what he saw as its debasement from the 1880s as Britain, France, Germany and the United States extended their rule to the tropics. These parts of the globe, Hobson argued, provided no economic benefit to the nation as a whole. Nugatory for the common good, imperialism generated profits for “well-organised interests” such arms manufacturers.

But it was international financiers, according to Hobson, who had “the largest definite stake in the business of imperialism”. This was more than a conspiracy theory. The taproot of imperialism was overseas investment driven by gross inequality at home.

Yet, for Hobson, the role of the international financiers was crucial. “The financial interest has those qualities of concentration and clear-sighted calculation which are needed to set imperialism to work,” Hobson explained. And it was here that his understanding of Jews and their difference from non-Jews came into play. International financiers were largely “men of a single and peculiar race”. In case anyone doubted whom he had in mind, he continued, “Does anyone seriously suppose that a great war could be undertaken by any European state, or a great State loan subscribed, if the house of Rothschild and its connections sets their face against it?” Antisemitism is at once a significant and a superfluous presence in Hobson’s theory. He could have done without it. Why was it there?

First, Hobson believed Jews really were different; that they had particular “Jewish” characteristics that shaped their economic behaviour. This idea can be traced back to his early writing. In 1891 in Problems of Poverty, Mr Hobson analysed the impact of Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. “The Polish Jew”, he reflected, “is almost void of social morality. No compunction or consideration for his fellow-worker will keep him from underselling and overreaching them.” At the same time, he conceded what was true of Polish Jews was “in large measure true of all cheap foreign labour”. Now, in Imperialism, Mr Hobson pointed to “the race basis of this financial business”. Mr Hobson’s Jews were a distillation of everything noxious about particular sectors of the economy.

Second, antisemitism served a political function. Imperialists claimed to be patriots and, through the press, appeared to mobilise mass support for the Conservative government. Hobson claimed to reveal the dark truth behind imperial patriotism. The malign minority that benefitted from imperialism turned out to be cosmopolitan Jews, whose loyalties were not to the nation but to profit and themselves.

Imperialism provides an ambitious general theory. Two years earlier, in the context of Britain’s war with the Boer Republic, Hobson set out some of his ideas on the subject. He had gone to South Africa as correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. The Jews there, he wrote to his editor, were “the veriest scum of Europe”. The war was being fought for men “most of whom are foreigners by origin, whose trade is finance, and whose trade interests are not chiefly British.” Johannesburg was “the new Jerusalem”. This antisemitic critique of empire appealed to many radicals and socialists at the beginning of the 20th century. Hobson’s books and articles were lauded in the labour press. In these circles, the idea that imperial expansion was driven by Jewish financial interests was commonplace.

John Burns, trade unionist and politician, told the House of Commons “wherever we go in this matter we see the same thing. Wherever we examine there is the financial Jew operating, directing inspiring the agencies that led to this war”.

The problem with imperialism, Hobson believed, was that the system benefitted the few — financiers more than anyone else — at the expense of the many. His career illustrates how this rhetorical opposition of the many to the few is vulnerable to antisemitism. Interestingly, this arose once more in Hobson’s writing on Zionism. Writing under the pseudonym Lucian, Hobson wrote 1920: Dips into the Near Future. Here he imagined the ceremonial return of “the Chosen People” to Jerusalem: “One of the most interesting groups in the procession consists of representatives of the Transvaal Companies, who will with due solemn rites transfer the soul of the Rand, its share certificates, from Johannesburg to the New Jerusalem, thus completing the spiritual symbolism of the Golden City.”

Hobson’s attack on finance capital and his opposition to Zionism were not inherently antisemitic positions but that is what they became at different points in his career.

There is not a simple straight line that leads us from Hobson to the present. Nevertheless, antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism and the representation of the powerful and monied “few” as Jews, recur within the left. Mr Hobson forms one link in a radical tradition that projects economic injustice, conspiratorial politics, and unethical behaviour onto “Jews”, and has done so from the early 19th century to the present.

In March 2018, Mr Corbyn promised a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to antisemitism in the Labour Party. The following month he issued a thoughtful intervention on the subject. Here he acknowledged that criticism of the Israeli government sometimes used antisemitic ideas and that “there are people who see capitalism and imperialism as the product of a conspiracy by small shadowy elite rather than a political, economic, legal and social system”. For Hobson, as we have seen, imperialism was both a system and a conspiracy.

Alas, when Lord Finklestein and others catapulted Hobson and Imperialism into the headlines, Mr Corbyn and his most vocal supporters responded only as politically embattled figures and without critical self-understanding. The Labour leader was unapologetic. This is characteristic of how he and many loyalists have responded to Labour’s protracted antisemitism crisis. They conceive antisemitism as a contagion which can be eliminated by showing “zero tolerance”. They treat it as an alien presence that has somehow latched on to the party and can simply be expelled.

In fact, antisemitism is one part of Labour’s history and persists today. Hobson’s antisemitism was not only, as Mr Corbyn rightly points out, characteristic of many writers in the early 20th century, it has also been an enduring — though never dominant — feature of the British Left.

The Labour Party has much to do to in order to confront its antisemitism problem in the present: one contribution will be to reckon more fully with its past.


This is an abbreviated version of an article that first appeared on History Workshop Online at 

David Feldman is Professor of History and Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism 
at Birkbeck, University of London

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