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
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.
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.
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
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency
Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy
Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.