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A Note on the Hobson-Corbyn Imperialism Controversy

This one was the subject of wide discussion yesterday – from The Times:

Jeremy Corbyn endorsed book about Jews controlling banks and the press

Jeremy Corbyn wrote the foreword to a book which argued that banks and the press were controlled by Jews.

In 2011 he agreed to endorse a new edition of JA Hobson’s 1902 book Imperialism: A Study, four years before he was catapulted from backbench obscurity to the Labour leadership.

In his foreword Mr Corbyn said the work was a “great tome”, praising Hobson’s “brilliant, and very controversial at the time” analysis of the “pressures” behind western, and in particular British, imperialism at the turn of the 20th century.

The headline reduces the book in a way that is misleading: anyone unfamiliar with the work might assume that this was some anti-Semitic tract akin to Henry Ford’s The International Jew rather than a wide-ranging critique of imperialism that has been of interest and value to wide readerships for decades, despite the flaw in which the author conflated criticisms of capitalist financing with references to Jews.

The Times headline refers specifically to a thesis outlined on pages 65-67 of the first edition, in which Hobson suggests that capitalism is controlled, “so far as Europe is concerned, chiefly by men of a single and peculiar race,” who “are in a unique position to manipulate the policy of nations”. He then asks:

“Does any one seriously suppose that a great war could be undertaken by and European State, or a great State loan subscribed, if the house of Rothschild and its connexions set their face against it?”

This is not a pervasive theme of the book, and had these pages not been included the work would still stand as a coherent argument. However, the existence of this passage – and of anti-Semitic comments made by Hobson elsewhere – must reflect negatively on how we are to understand the author’s worldview as explicated in the rest of his work.

An article by Miles Taylor (Professor of Modern History at York University) in yesterday’s Guardian fully acknowledges Hobson’s anti-Semitism, but in relation to the Rothschild reference he writes:

Without naming him, Hobson’s actual target was Nathan Rothschild, head of the banking family and a prominent public figure in Edwardian Britain. A former MP, ally of Benjamin Disraeli, and the first practising Jew to join the House of Lords, Hobson’s readers would have known immediately at whom Hobson’s invective was directed. Undoubtedly, Lord Rothschild was up to his ears in British imperialism; one of his best friends was Cecil Rhodes, and he helped bankroll the British South Africa Company, which smashed and grabbed its way across the continent in the 1890s.

This contextualisation is important, but one wonders how many of Hobson’s readers would also have thought of the long-standing conspiracy theory, first formulated in the 1840s, that Rothchild’s grandfather, also named Nathan, had profited from the Battle of Waterloo; Hobson’s allusion to the “house of Rothschild” must feed into the more generalised anti-Rothschild rhetoric that is today a staple of conspiracy thinking on both left and right. And is there any reason to give Hobson the benefit of the doubt that this wasn’t the point all along?

Taylor also writes that “nowhere in the book did Hobson refer specifically to Jews”, which seems a bit pedantic given the reference to “men of a single and peculiar race”. Also, a reference to “Hebrew mining speculators” was added in the second edition of the book in 1905 (page 177); this was retained in the third edition of 1938 (page 277), along with the Rothschild reference (page 57). This third edition describes itself as “entirely revised and reset”, yet these passages were retained despite the rise of Nazism. (1)

Corbyn’s foreword for a 2011 reprint from Spokesman Books can be seen here – he appears to have read the text closely, albeit uncritically. It’s possible that he did not engage with the “Rothschild” and “peculiar race” comments because he considered that readers would regard these as obvious archaisms to be disregarded, like Hobson’s references to “lower races” (although in the latter case Hobson was attempting to write sympathetically about the exploitation of tribal peoples, despite the racist language).

However, Hobson’s anti-Semitism has long been identified as a problem to be acknowledged, (2) and its continuing capacity to cause harm ought to have been recognised by anyone promoting the text in 2011 – especially a politician with influence within a particular activist milieu.

This is not the first time that Corbyn as come under criticism for apparently failing to recognise anti-Semitic conspiracy rhetoric relating to banking – I discussed a previous instance here.

Notes

1. I was alerted to the different editions by reading a 1985 review in n Victorian Studies by J.L. Herkless of J.A. Allett’s biography of Hobson. Herkless writes that “Allett quotes a passage from Hobson’s Imperialism (1902) in which there is a slighting reference to the ‘Hebrews'”. I looked for this in the source and couldn’t find it in the 1902 edition, and so I consulted Allett’s book and saw that he was actually quoting the third edition on this point. The website Archive.org now makes it an easy matter to consult, search and compare all three editions: for the first edition, see here; for the second edition, see here; and for the third edition, see here. I don’t know which edition forms the basis for the Spokesman Books reprint.

2. There are two sources in particular: Colin Holmes (1978), “J. A. Hobson and the Jews”, in his edited volume Immigrants and Minorities in British Society; and J.A. Allett (1987), “New liberalism, old prejudices: J. A. Hobson and the ‘Jewish question’“, in Jewish Social Studies 49: 2. As noted in the above note, Allett also wrote a biography of Hobson: New Liberalism: The Political Economy of J.A. Hobson (1981).