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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

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