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Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion: who gets to read bad books?

Karl Popper singled out Plato’s Republic as the blueprint for all modern totalitarianisms, while many other academics accord that status to Rousseau’s The Social Contract. As it happens, I studied them both in some depth as a student and I have kept the copies.

On the next bookcase sits Seyd Qutb’s Milestones, widely considered the intellectual inspiration for 9/11 and similar atrocities. It certainly does glorify terrorism, and police have reportedly threatened Islamist bookshops with prosecution under s2 of the Terrorism Act 2006 for selling it. On a strict reading of that law, it must technically be an offence to own a copy. I’m guilty.

I’ve got a nice first edition of Stalin’s Problems of Leninism in English translation, as well as a thick paperback of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which I plan to tackle at some point in the next few months.

And of course I have read Herzl’s The Jewish State, a seminal document in the history of Zionism that critics interpret as a supremacist manifesto. Oh, and on the Satan worship front, I once ploughed through Aliester Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice, although I was 17 at the time and going through a phase.

Now I have finally crowned my collection of bad books with a 1923 edition of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, published by the Britons Publishing House, the publishing arm of an early proto-fascist outfit in the UK.

What is noteworthy here is that I procured it from the Morning Star bookstall at the Labour Representation Committee conference on Saturday. A couple of tweets from me to that effect caused considerable comment over the weekend. Let’s just say this is the first time I have ever been retweeted by a Tory MP.

Let me make clear that I do not for one moment suspect the Morning Star of anti-semitism. The Communist Party, from which the newspaper is technically independent but closely tied in political terms, has always had numerous Jewish members, and an honourable track record of fighting fascism, including on the street where necessary.

This was obviously a cock up, pure and simple. But oh dear, what an error of judgement. This is just about the worst book that a socialist publication could prominently display at a socialist event, representing an offensive mistake on a par with making rape porn available at a feminist convention.

Also alarming was the number of leftist activists who could not understand what the fuss was about. Some had never even heard of the Protocols.  This, comrades, is more than just a mildly objectionable vintage racist tract, and I may return to the subject in the days ahead.

But after complaining about the pamphlet and ensuring its withdrawal from sale, I had second thoughts and decided to buy it. As it turns out, the volume is worth considerably more than the quid I handed over.

This has led a Labour PPC and Morning Star sympathiser to accuse me of hypocrisy, so let me set the record straight. I have been keeping an eye out for a copy of PLEZ ever since reading Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide, a study of this origins and subsequent political impact of this notorious tsarist forgery.

As someone who has been reading volumes of political theory across the left-right spectrum for 30 years, and has a postgraduate qualification in this specific area, I can plausibly claim to have academic reason to grubby my hands.

That could be seen as a double standard. What about the gullible? Should they be allowed to access it too? Might they not take it literally? Well, maybe.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong for the left to institute its own right-on Index Librorum Prohibitorum. A number of years back, Socialist Worker demanded that the books of holocaust denier David Irving should be banned from all libraries; that was, to my mind, the wrong call.

Apart from anything else, PLEZ is freely available on the internet. Anyone who wants it is only seconds away from it. My objection to seeing it Saturday was grounded in the staggering inappropriateness of the location in question, not the availability of the text itself.

In 2011, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion should surely be regarded as nothing more than a joke, or at best an historical curio. Instead, we find it enshrined in the Hamas constitution, quoted on Press TV, and widely cited by sundry cranky outfits in Europe and North America.

Some of them are even hanging around the Occupy movement, while not of course representing its mainstream. But at the very least, anti-racists on the left obviously have an educational job of work to do.

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