Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Steve Cohen

David Landau on the life and politics of Steve Cohen, founder of No One Is Illegal, who died 8 March 2009

March 23, 2009
9 min read

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

Critical Trotskyism

Steve was a member of the International Marxist Group (IMG) from 1968 until the end of 1974. He was attracted to this group 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 as racism. He was also impressed by the robust anti-imperialism of the IMG regarding Ireland.

He became disenchanted as he felt it retreated to being more like other groups of the left but despite leaving the IMG, Steve valued 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, some of which were murderously reactionary. 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. Towards the end of his life he became interested in views of Max Shachtman and felt that, despite Shachtman’s disastrous slide to the right, there is much that can be learned from his ideas in the 1940s when he became critical of Trotsky.

Ireland

Steve 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 the ‘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 a recognition that anti-semitism is 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 trenchantly oppose – 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.

From his IMG days onwards Steve championed the rights of the Palestinian people. Steve was more radical than many 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 1980s.

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, unconscious, old anti-semitic notions would emerge. He wrote a pamphlet entitled “That’s funny you don’t look anti-semitic” about anti-semitism on the left in 1983. This infuriated many. Not even the Jewish Socialist Group would publish it although it was eventually published.

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-Zionist, because of the occupation, the racism and so forth of the 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

Through his job at North Manchester Law Centre, Steve soon realised that a key to success was open campaigning and developed a partnership between community campaigs and the legal battle. He was soon involved in a number of high profile campaigns.

Steve researched into the history of immigration controls and rediscovering 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 while at the law centre. He 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.

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 On Is Illegal’ manifesto. This led to the establishment of the 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 in the manifesto and in the last year of his life Steve was concerned to find a way to bring these all under one umbrella.

Disablity – fighting his system and the system

Steve became increasingly ill in the last 14 years and was wracked by pain much of the time. 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 to alert students to the evils of developing controls.

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.

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.

Lotta Continua.

Messages of appreciation can be sent to Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit

By email: Denise McDowell (Director of GMIAU) denise[at]gmiau.org

By post: Remember Steve Cohen, GMIAU, 1 Delaunays Road, Crumpsall Green, Manchester M8 4QS

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya


5