Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Westminster too: Addressing sexual harassment in politics

Mona Lena Krook


In October 2017, allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein inspired millions of women around the world to use the #MeToo hashtag to draw attention to widespread sexual harassment and assault around the world.

In Britain, female politicians, staff members, and journalists opened up about their own experiences, provoking the resignation and party suspension of a number of male Cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament.

This is not the first time that women have come forward about sexual harassment in British politics. Distinct from previous occasions, however, both major party leaders responded and, on 30 October, MPs weighed in as well, with Harriet Harman posing an Urgent Question to House of Commons Leader, Andrea Leadsom, asking for a statement about her plan to tackle sexual harassment in Parliament.

The rapidly developing nature of this scandal raises a number of questions. First, how did this issue get on the political agenda? Second, what features of politics might foster harassment and discourage reporting? Third, what solutions might be pursued to tackle this problem? And, fourth, what does it mean for democracy?

A worldwide awakening?


Sexual harassment in the workplace has long existed, but sexual harassment in politics has only newly been recognised as a phenomenon. That sexual harassment occurs in politics, however, has long been known.

Over the last ten years, sexual harassment allegations have led a number of high-level political officials to lose their positions worldwide.

These include Mbulelo Goniwe, chief whip for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party in South Africa in 2006; Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews, Liberal MPs in Canada in 2014, followed by a third Liberal MP, Darshan Kang, in 2017; Silvan Shalom, interior minister of Israel in 2015; and Denis Baupin, vice president of the French National Assembly in 2016.

In the wake of #MeToo, attention to this issue has begun to accelerate globally. In the United States, the issue became salient in October 2017 when more than 140 women in California politics started the #WeSaidEnough campaign to denounce widespread sexual harassment against (and by) lawmakers, aides, and lobbyists.

Sexual harassment as a systemic problem in politics


Sexual harassment is not an expression of sexual desire, but is motivated by a craving for power and status. Hostility to women, or negative attitudes toward gender equality, determine a person’s likelihood to engage in – and/or tolerate – sexual harassment. Emphasis on status means that other forms of inequality – like age, race, and disability – can exacerbate these dynamics. Consequently, sexual harassment should be understood as a systemic, cultural issue rather than one reducible to the problematic behaviours of particular individuals.

Politics has long been viewed as a quintessentially masculine space, creating a context ripe for sex-based harassment. Additionally, the lack of robust policies means that targets are less apt to report incidents and have their allegations taken seriously, leading to few or no sanctions against perpetrators.

Several structural features of employment at Westminster encourage under-reporting and impunity: staff are directly employed by MPs, and political journalists rely heavily on MPs for information to enable them to do their jobs. Victims thus lack the types of protections that they would have in any other workplace.

Interventions against sexual harassment 


Despite the few protections afforded to victims of sexual harassment in the political sphere, the representative nature of politics also means that it – more than any other arena – should be the focus of intervention. However, harassment does not only take place in Parliament, but also in local councils, inside parties, and online. A multifaceted response, therefore, is most appropriate.

At the parliamentary level, one message emerging clearly from the Urgent Question debate was the need for an independent body to receive and adjudicate claims. The existing parliamentary hotline offers quite a minimal infrastructure. An independent body, several MPs proposed, might include offering impartial legal advice.

A second suggestion, put forward by numerous MPs, involves provision of training on inappropriate behaviours. The new sexual harassment policy introduced in the Canadian parliament in 2014, for example, requires sexual harassment training for all MPs and staff.

Political parties also have an important role to play in the fight against sexual harassment. Although the Labour Party already instituted a Code of Conduct for MPs and party members prior to October 2017, women in the party continue to express concerns that the party's ‘new’ sexual harassment procedures do not go far enough in terms of transparency and training. The ‘integrity commission’ set up by the ANC in South Africa might provide one alternative model; in 2016, it ruled in favour of the twenty-one-year old complainant against one of its powerful provincial chairmen.

At the civil society level, finally, various networks have mobilised to raise awareness and give voice to those who have been sexually harassed. Most directly, women have taken power into their own hands by setting up anonymous reporting mechanisms for elected women, female party members, and parliamentary staff. Like the #WeSaidEnough campaign in California, women in the Labour Party set up the #LabourToo website to collecti testimonies and lobby party leaders to take these issues more seriously.

Why ignoring sexual harassment harms democracy


Sexual harassment, in politics as in other domains, has long been viewed as the cost of women’s incursion into the public sphere. Violence and harassment against women in politics is not simply a question of equality, however. It also poses serious threats to democracy.

Sexual harassment, for example, can render female politicians and staffers less effective in their jobs, taking time and emotional energy away from substantive policy work. Staff attrition as a result of harassment, in turn, can affect the political pipeline, as many staffers later run for political office themselves.

Finally, sexual harassment can reduce political transparency and accountability to the extent that female journalists are prevented from reporting on important stories, either because they must avoid certain politicians or are refused information for failing to play along.

Ignoring sexual harassment in politics thus has serious, and deleterious, consequences: it reinforces gender inequality, fosters a hostile work environment, and degrades democratic institutions.

Mona Lena Krook is Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University, and an Andrew Carnegie Fellow (2017-2019).

This article is adapted from a longer piece in the
Political Quarterly journal.

Image by Duncan C. 

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Why universities make inequality worse (and what we can do about it)

Alan Ware

University education in Britain currently exhibits two serious problems of social justice. There are far more graduates than jobs requiring the skills obtained in a primarily academic education. For a large minority of graduates their degree does not improve their financial prospects later. Secondly, adolescents from poorer families do not gain proportionate access to the most prestigious universities, from which most high paying careers are then recruited.

Too many graduates


Even five years after graduation, about one third of graduates this century have not been employed in jobs for which a university degree was required. Furthermore, projections for student loan repayments indicate that well over one third of the total will never be repaid, because many graduates’ lifetime earnings will be too low.

This waste is partly due to traditionally high costs of university level teaching when compared to many means of developing intellectual and other skills. Eventually someone has to pay for it. From the sole perspective of financial return, more is being paid by individuals and the state than necessary for servicing the needs of the labour market.

Degrees have become idealized as the ‘gold standard’ of education and training. This has facilitated the emergence of what might be called University Lite, a mass post-18 education system in which some form of theoretical or non-practical training is added on to more practical training, sufficient for acquiring the title ‘degree’. Many skills could be supplied less expensively, and in less time, via non ‘degree level’ qualifications. Moreover, as Ahlburg himself notes in his article responding to my original argument, the price of degrees is increased further by one effect of ‘filiopietism’: low prestige universities charging high fees to indicate supposed high quality to the unsuspecting.

Refuting the arguments in my original article entails demonstrating that something is amiss with data I cite on graduate employment and on the projected repayment rates for loans. Ahlburg's article never discusses them, and the data he relies on cannot address the most important question: is a substantial minority of graduates better or worse off in the longer term than contemporaries who did not go to university? Graduates are now more diverse, with some acquiring skills and knowledge that earlier would have been obtained, for example, via professional and commercial apprenticeships. It is not surprising that these graduates earn so much less than “high flyers”.

The demand for educational credentials


Ahlburg had noted that my claim, that a graduate premium (in pay) is absent for many graduates, ‘largely ignores demand’. But what precisely are employers paying for? He makes the common, but often false, assumption that they pay more to the “best” graduates for their acquisition of knowledge and intellectual skills of direct benefit to a firm. In most labour market sectors, this is not what drives employers’ behaviour. Their demand is derived from a need to minimize risk in recruitment, because in competitive markets weak hiring threatens financial performance.

Firms face a massive information deficit because they cannot know which graduates will prove the “best” from a large pool. To minimize the risk of employing less satisfactory graduates, many concentrate their hiring on the most prestigious institutions because they will contain proportionately fewer mediocre graduates. This was famously parodied in the television series Suits, where the Manhattan law firm would hire only those graduating from Harvard's Law School. While many believe Suits merely highlights a form of social or intellectual snobbery, it is, unfortunately, an entirely rational approach to minimising risk in recruitment. The strategy underpinning it is used in real world hiring, though in more subtle ways. Social justice demands, therefore, that poorer students have access to the more prestigious universities.

Taking social justice seriously


This problem is not one that universities themselves can solve. The better resourced you and your family are, the more you can help improve on your grades when gaining credentials – through private education, additional tuition or living in the catchment areas of the best schools. This is why the affluent gain disproportionate access to the most prestigious universities, and from there into higher paying jobs. The way to counter this is not through a policy of free tuition, but one of each university charging what the market will bear. Free tuition subsidies the affluent, and tends to lead to poorer students going to less prestigious universities, from which they can less easily access the higher paying jobs.

To prevent resulting massive social injustice, fees actually payable by a student must be related directly to family income. This policy would also have to be linked to ones requiring every university to admit a minimum proportion of its student from poorer households and using some of its income to provide maintenance grants for them. If relative performance at school determines admission, as it does now, the wealthier will always be disproportionately admitted to prestigious universities.

Image by Gillie Rhodes


Monday, 15 January 2018

Learning from New Labour

Ben Jackson

The twentieth anniversary of Labour’s 1997 election victory passed without much comment last year – among other reasons, the hectic pace of political developments left little space for historical debate. But two revealing reflections on New Labour’s legacy did surface towards the end of 2017.

James Graham’s play about the recent history of the Labour Party, Labour of Love, debuted in London in late September and Gordon Brown’s memoir, My Life, Our Times, was published in November. Although clearly very different in intent and form, both of these works made explicit an account of the New Labour years that, in a more hazy way, has surfaced in British political debate ever since the financial crisis.

Originally seen as ideologically ambiguous or even incoherent, New Labour is now remembered as a free-spending social democratic government that sought to refurbish Britain’s public realm only to be felled by the economic crash. For Brown, this forms the tragic end to his premiership – his great regret, he tells us, is that he could not persuade voters that an activist response to the crisis was preferable to one driven by public expenditure cuts. But Brown is also clear that, before the crisis, New Labour’s project was to fight against the inequality-generating forces unleashed across the globe by ‘neo-liberalism’ (a word that Brown now uses with far greater liberty than when in office).

Labour of Love explored similar thematic terrain, but as a drama it conveyed more of the contradictions inherent within the particular kind of social democracy practiced by Blair and Brown.

In one notable exchange, set just after Labour’s exit from office in 2011, David Lyons, the Labour MP at the heart of the play, seeks to persuade a Chinese businessman to invest in his Nottinghamshire constituency but is drawn into an uncomfortable discussion of the reasons for the high levels of poverty and unemployment in the area. He notes: ‘we’re particularly vulnerable, with so many jobs in the public sector, to cuts from this new government, it’s the same cycle we went through, areas like this, under the last Tory government, time and time again.’ Later in the same scene, the other main character, Lyons’s constituency agent, Jean Whittaker, offers a more critical assessment of Labour’s achievements in office: ‘All looks good on the outside but it only takes one little tremor to bring the whole thing down.’ When Lyons leaps to Labour’s defence by listing the new investment undertaken in local schools, hospitals and town centres, Whittaker responds: ‘yeah, spending, good, fine, but not the actual difficult work of digging deep down, into the underlying factors woven into the rotten fabric of this unfair, fucking country.’

A cycle of doom?

This dialogue identifies an issue about New Labour that Brown – understandably – avoids engaging with: whether Labour’s agenda could have been designed so as to be less vulnerable to the inevitable subsequent period of Conservative government (and whether doing so would therefore have achieved a more stable and deep-rooted narrowing of inequality). Was the cycle doomed in advance simply to be one of Tory cuts followed by Labour spending followed by more Tory cuts, as the lines given to Lyons suggest?

Put in these terms, this oversimplifies New Labour’s record, because there were obviously important policy innovations undertaken by Labour in office that persist to the present day. Leading examples include the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly; the London Mayor and Greater London Authority; the minimum wage; tax credits; and increased spending on international development.

This is a disparate list, but it shows that the creation of new institutions or spending programmes, if framed and calibrated correctly, can be popular and hard to roll back. Overall, though, it is fair to say that the architects of New Labour gave comparatively little thought to how their policies might endure under any subsequent period of Conservative rule, perhaps because they were overly confident that the arc of history was bending in the direction they favoured: free-trading, liberal and moderately egalitarian. This implied that the Conservatives were unlikely to win office soon, or, if they did, they would find themselves constrained by these seemingly dominant trends in public opinion.

It also reflected New Labour’s pre-financial crisis assumption that Britain’s economic model was working relatively well, leaving the fundamental question of politics to be about how to distribute the resulting tax revenues. It is curious that although leading New Labour figures had been deeply impressed by the capacity of the Conservative Party to win public support during the 1980s they did not follow through the implications of this insight to consider what would happen to their agenda after they left government. The financial crisis dispelled this hubris, delivering salutary lessons about the reversibility of social democratic policy-making, and the need for major reform to the structure of the British economy, that Labour would do well to heed now.

Long lasting change


Although Tony Blair and Gordon Brown received extensive criticism for prioritising electability above principle, this portrayal of them is in fact rather imprecise. Their point was not that their cautious approach was necessary for Labour to win a single election, but rather that it was essential to enable Labour to gain office and hold it for a decade or more, as opposed to the abrupt, short-lived Labour governments of the 1940s and 1960s/70s.

Corbyn’s Labour Party seems much less engaged by this question of the longevity of Labour governments. Instead, the objective appears to be to take office and undertake as much radical reform as possible as quickly as possible. Given current levels of political polarisation, it seems unlikely that any incoming Corbyn government will enjoy a large majority, if it has one at all. This scenario is guaranteed to raise precisely the same problem faced by New Labour but in a more acute form – how to prevent any measures enacted by a Corbyn government being swept away by the inevitable Conservative backlash that will be stoked by the visceral opposition of the press and key economic actors?

For this reason, as Labour formulates its policies for the next election, it will be crucial for the party to focus on what kind of radical policy innovations are likely to be defendable from the Conservatives, even when the Conservatives return to government. A strange moral of the New Labour years is that Labour has yet to take the Conservative Party as seriously as it should.

Ben Jackson is Associate Professor of Modern History, University College Oxford

This article will be published in the upcoming issue of The Political Quarterly journal. 

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Is going to university in Britain worth it?

Dennis A. Ahlburg



In his recent article in The Political Quarterly, Alan Ware claimed that for most students, higher education was not worth the cost. However, this view is inconsistent with the available empirical evidence on the value of higher education. It could in fact lead to students rejecting higher education, which would lead to underinvestment in higher education by society as a whole.

For Ware, higher education is a purely positional competition, that is, the only incentive to acquire higher education is to differentiate yourself from others in the labour market. Accordingly, for this article I focus on the private economic returns to higher education, although not because I believe there is no other value in higher education.

The ‘four myths’ of higher education


Ware claims that the four myths that justify higher education are:

1. There is a ‘need’ for all to be more highly educated.
2. Higher-education qualifications result in higher incomes for those who have them.
3. There is a good fit between the skills needed in the labour market and those acquired in Britain's education system.
4. Educational credentials can facilitate social mobility.

Higher education is still valuable

I agree with Ware that ‘not everyone needs a highly academic form of education’. But this does not lead to the conclusion that no one does.

Higher education does result in higher earnings


Blundell, Dearden and Sianesi (2005) report an average return of twenty-seven per cent for those completing higher education relative to anything else. A recent report on graduate earnings released by the Department for Education also found very substantial earnings advantages for graduates. These and similar findings refute Ware's claims that higher education is not needed and does not result in higher earnings.

The return on education is not the same for everyone


I do agree with Ware that the return on higher education is not the same for everyone, because choice of subject and/or university affect future earnings. Graduates from the top twenty-five per cent of universities earn ten to sixteen per cent more than graduates from the bottom fifty per cent of universities. It is also true that average rates of return differ markedly by subject studied. For example, for men, maths and computing, engineering, business and medicine have returns that are from twenty per cent to thirty-five per cent higher than for arts, sciences, and languages. For women, education, medicine, architecture, maths and business have much higher returns than arts, sciences, and languages.

I disagree with Ware that ‘for many there is no graduate premium’. It is true that for some there is no graduate premium, but there is one for most graduates.

Over-education is a misleading term


Ware claims that too many young people are attending university leading to “over-education”. ‘Over-education’, is not a concept that is easily defined. As the number of graduates has increased, more graduates are taking jobs for which their qualifications are not formally required, but in which they are able to make use of their skills. The skills that are acquired at university—cognitive skills, problem solving skills, communication skills—are more likely to prepare students for jobs for which there is strong demand- non-routine cognitive jobs- than the non-university education seemingly favoured by Ware.

The social mobility gap starts earlier than university


With the expansion of university education, one might have expected social mobility, however it is measured, to have increased. This has not happened but it is not correct to blame universities for this failure.

Over time, the correlation between family income and children's higher education has increased so that the expansion in university education has disproportionately aided children from more affluent families. In 1981 six per cent of children from the poorest families had completed a university degree and twenty per cent of children from the richest twenty per cent of families had done so. By the late 1990s the percentages were nine per cent and forty-six per cent. The gaps by social class were not as large, but were still substantial.

As noted above, a significant portion—but probably not all—of this under-representation stems from poorer performance at primary and secondary school, and inadequate advice in preparing for admission to university.

So, it is unlikely that university education is failing to fuel social mobility. Interventions need to begin early in education so that high ability disadvantaged students are identified and assisted in applying to more selective universities.

Addressing the variability of returns


I reject Ware's claim of ‘too much higher education’. University education is an attractive option for many, if not most, secondary school leavers. However, students must be informed of the variability of returns, and so I agree with Ware that students must have information on earnings by subject and university.

If British students similarly lack the skill to make informed decisions about investments in higher education based on the recent data released, then there is an argument for government to do so. This could perhaps be done by ranking courses and universities by earnings (or value-added) and establishing fee bands commensurate with earnings,

I disagree with Ware that for most graduates there is no return on investment in higher education in Britain. Whilst it is not a guarantee of higher earnings for all graduates, a range of information sources can help students make much more informed decisions about attending university, and thus minimise the ‘social waste’ decried by Ware.

Dennis A. Ahlburg is Distinguished Professor of Economics and former President, Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, and Visiting Fellow, Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, New College, University of Oxford.

This article is adapted from a longer piece in The Political Quarterly journal.


Image © Aimee Rivers

Monday, 8 January 2018

Ownership and inequality in the robotic age

Mathew Lawrence

The growing capability of machines has raised the spectre of mass technologically induced unemployment and profound economic disruption. Yet despite the accelerating ability of robots and artificial intelligence, we are not on the cusp of a ‘post-human’ economy.

Indeed, in the absence of policy intervention, the most likely outcome of automation is not mass joblessness but spiralling inequality. If we want the machine age to usher in a future of shared plenty instead, we urgently need to reimagine our economic institutions and practices.

The paradox of plenty

Automation risks creating a ‘paradox of plenty’: society is likely to be far richer overall due to the material abundance generated by machines, but for many individuals and communities, technological change could reinforce inequalities of power and reward as the benefits are narrowly shared.

IPPR’s new report on automation argues that, without policy action, rising inequality is likely because the economic dividends of automation are set to disproportionately flow to the owners of technologies and businesses, and the highly skilled, as income shifts from labour to capital and the labour market polarises between high- and low-skilled jobs.

The trend of a rising share of national income going to capital at the expense of labour is likely to be accelerated by automation and digitalisation. For example, the IPPR analysis shows that the total level of wages associated with jobs with the technical potential to be automated is £290bn per annum – one third of the wage total. If automation leads to lower average wages or working hours, or loss of jobs overall, a significant amount of national income could be transferred from labour to capital.

Even if wages do not decline, in recent decades the trend has been for relative rewards to capital to rise more quickly than those to labour. So this implies that the share of national income going to capital would still increase. As capital is narrowly owned, a rising share of national income going to capital will necessarily increase inequality; whoever owns the robots will own an increasing share of national wealth.

Deepmind, Deliveroo, and ‘digital Taylorism’

At the same time, the growing use of AI and robotics is also likely to further polarise the labour market. On average, low wage jobs have five times the technical potential to be automated compared with high paid jobs. Different regions and sectors are also variably susceptible to automation. London has the highest proportion of jobs assessed as more resilient to automation trends; poorer regions have a larger number of jobs with greater technical potential for automation. In other words, it is likely that automation will intensify the UK’s already stark levels of regional inequalities.

Even as increasingly capable and inexpensive machines put downward pressure on middle and low-income jobs, technological change is likely to increase the income and quality of work of highly skilled labour in roles which augment machines. As work is reshaped by automation, we therefore risk becoming an economy of DeepMind and Deliveroo, one where technologies support awe-inspiring advances in our collective intelligence while also enabling an intense and exploitative form of ‘digital Taylorism’ to thrive.

The future is not technologically determined

Taken together, these trends – a rising share of national income flowing to capital, and a polarising labour market ¬– mean automation is likely to unleash a powerful dynamic of divergence. That is, if public action is not taken.

Managed well, automation could create an economy where prosperity is underpinned by justice. If the productivity benefits are realised and fairly shared, the growing use of AI and machines in the economy should enable us all to work better but less, in a more sustainable and materially abundant society.

Crucially, the future is not technologically determined; it will depend on the choices we make. If we want a society of shared plenty, we will need to build the economic institutions that enable us all to share in the gains of technological change. Our report sets out the steps that can help achieve this.

Using automation to raise productivity

First, we should seek a managed acceleration of automation. Given the UK’s poor productivity performance, in too many workplaces it is the absence of robots that is the problem, not their imminent increase. While the top one per cent of firms have seen average productivity growth of around six per cent per year since 2000, one-third of UK companies have seen no rise in productivity at all, in part due to slow rates of technological adoption.

Reaping the potential productivity gains of AI and robotics will consequently require a reorientation of industrial strategy towards the ‘everyday economy’. This means sectors such as retail, hospitality, care, and logistics where many people work, but too often in low pay, low productivity workplaces. We need a focus on accelerating the effective adoption of new technologies in non-frontier firms.

To this end, the more rapid adoption of digital technologies, including automation, should become one of the national ‘missions’ of the Government’s industrial strategy. To support this, a new partnership body, Productivity UK, should be established with the goal of raising firm-level productivity, with a particular focus on the adoption of digital and other technologies throughout the economy, beyond frontier firms.

The ethical use of robotics

Second, we need to accelerate automation on our own terms. The integration of robots into society – and the potential for our eventual eclipse by non-human intelligence – inevitably raises profound moral and ethical questions. As far as possible, these questions should be answered collectively, as a society-wide endeavour. The alternative is a dark prospect: leaving our future to be defined by the digital giants of Silicon Valley, who would monopolise the development and define the use of technologies.

A better solution is for society to proactively develop the legal, ethical, professional and behavioural framework that would govern the development and use of AI and robotics. We therefore propose the establishment of an ‘Authority for the Ethical use of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence’ to provide guidelines and recommend regulatory frameworks for the use and governance of these technologies.

New models of ownership

Finally, to ensure automation enriches all of society, we need to broaden and democratise capital ownership. Expanding the distribution of capital and pluralising models of ownership would help democratise who has a claim on the economic dividends of automation, both in terms of control and benefit. The IPPR paper sets out a series of strategies to dramatically broaden ownership of capital, from a Citizens’ Wealth Fund to employee ownership trusts to new models of profit sharing. At their heart is a belief that new and pluralistic models of ownership will be needed to ensure automation creates a future of shared economic plenty.

Taken together, these are the first steps towards a new institutional settlement that can better ensure technological change works for the common good.

Mathew Lawrence is a senior research fellow at IPPR and a co-author of their recent report on automation.

Image © Peter Kurdulija

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Review: Revolutionary Yiddishland. A History of Jewish Radicalism, by Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg

Elfi Pallis

This is a fascinating study chronicling the role of radical Jews from Yiddishland (not a country but a huge linguistic region) in the struggle for a better world. It takes us first from Tsarist Russia to Romania, Poland and Hungary, then sheds new light on the anti-fascist fronts in Spain and Vichy France.

By covering over a century of radical activism, the authors convincingly challenge the widespread view of Yiddishland's Jews as meek, pious and unworldly folk, eventually all ‘going like sheep to the slaughter’.

Brossart and Klingberg do so by tracing the active role played by two Jewish-socialist movements, the Jewish Labour Bund and of Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), as well as by Jewish communists. Their book is an ode to the Jews who fought, suffered and often died for economic justice, political equality, the rights of others and, ultimately, to defeat a genocidal foe.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, members of the Bund and of Poalei Zion believed in parliamentary democracy, though Poalei Zion also sought a Jewish state in Palestine. With most of Russia's Jews by the 1880s facing destitution, Jewish mass strikes and demonstrations spread. The Bund, founded in 1887, had 30,000 members eight years later, far more than Lenin's Bolsheviks (8,500 in 1905). In fact the Tsarist authorities regarded Jewish working class organisations as the most dangerous.

Being a Jewish radical took courage. Anti-Semitic thugs would break up protests and soldiers fired on strikers. Agitators were executed, radical writers and their printers exiled to Siberia. Jews could not legally carry weapons, but after the 1905 pogrom in Kishinev (then in Bessarabia, now Moldova) Bundists supplied vulnerable Jewish communities with guns and taught them self-defence. The Bund also fostered workers' education through Yiddish-language libraries, lecture events, book clubs and theatres.

The Bolshevik revolution drew many Bundists into the communist camp, keen to aid Russia's development. Its new government at first set up a well-funded department for Jewish education and culture, but in the 1930s its task was changed to Russification. All Yiddish-based institutions were closed, the Jewish department itself was abolished and its staff sent to Siberia or shot. So were the leading Yiddish-language writers.

Lenin had tolerated separate cultural activity by national groups, but Jews, though a recognised nationality, did not have a national territory (the so-called Jewish Autonomous Oblast created in 1934 in a particularly harsh part of the Russian Far East attracted few of them). The Bund and Poalei Zion were banned as separatists.

Worse came. Stalin's 1930s purges saw the killing of many former Yiddishland activists, then followed the deadly 1949 purges of the country's greatest—and by now fully Russified—Jewish writers, poets, scientists and composers. It is a grim story, well told, and marred only by the authors’ bewildering insistence that, nevertheless, ‘at no moment … did Stalinism practise the kind of racial discrimination and repression that the Nazis had made a precept’.

Jews from Yiddishland also played a disproportionately large but little known role in the Spanish and French fight against fascism, both as rank-and-file volunteers and as leaders.
Each proved a new experience for Jewish radicals. They had long diced with death, but finally were part of wider movements, not fighting alone. The authors, though, rightly stress the devastating emotional cost. Most fighters had not only lost comrades but also their families back home.

Going to Israel was meant to be redemptive. Some Yiddishland radicals indeed happily joined the Israeli Labour party and the military. Others, however, were deeply hurt by Israel's failure to acknowledge their bravery (young Israelis would habitually refer to holocaust survivors as ‘soaps’).

Others again remained internationalists. Shocked by their new homeland's brutally unequal treatment of its Palestinian minority, some joined Israel's Jewish-Arab communist party, only to leave again over Soviet crimes.

There is an encouraging postscript to the fighters’ stories. Quite a few of their children or grandchildren are said by the authors to be active in Israeli anti-occupation campaigns or civil rights. This suggests that the radical, left-wing humanism of the Yiddishlanders lives on.

Elfi Pallis is a journalist, author and former editor of the Israeli Mirror.

This article is adapted from a longer piece in The Political Quarterly journal.

Revolutionary Yiddishland. A History of Jewish Radicalism, by Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg is published by Verso. 304 pp. £16.99.