Defend the Palestinians!

LRP: Apologists for Arab Nationalism

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 796, 31 January 2003.

The gratuitous destruction of dozens of Palestinian shops in the West Bank village of Nazlat Issa by Israeli army bulldozers on January 21 is the latest step in the Sharon government’s drive to eliminate even a semblance of Palestinian national existence. That aim was driven home by the massive Zionist military operation last spring—carried out with a green light from the Israeli rulers’ patrons in Washington—which was marked by the army massacre in the Jenin refugee camp and the devastation of homes, hospitals, schools and water and sewage treatment systems in other West Bank cities and towns. Under cover of the coming U.S.-led war against Iraq, Israel’s rulers could well carry out the genocidal “transfer” program openly advocated by many of Sharon’s political allies, i.e., the forcible expulsion of the Palestinian masses from “Greater Israel.”

As we wrote in a Spartacist League statement in response to the Jenin massacre (WV No. 778, 5 April 2002): “The international working class must urgently rally to the defense of the Palestinian people against the Zionist military terror machine.” Defend the Palestinian people! All Israeli troops, settlers out of the Occupied Territories! All U.S./UN imperialist forces out of the Near East! For a socialist federation of the Near East!

The coming U.S.-led war against Iraq could well ignite renewed explosions of social turmoil in the Arab countries. But if such struggles are to aid the liberation of the Palestinians, the Arab workers, the oppressed women and myriad national and religious minorities, what is required is the forging of internationalist Marxist workers parties implacably opposed to any reliance on the Arab bourgeois regimes or one or another imperialist agency. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is today hounded by the Zionist rulers, imprisoned in the bombed-out remnants of his Ramallah headquarters. But it is precisely the petty-bourgeois nationalist politics of Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that has helped bring the Palestinians to this tragic impasse.

The strategy of “armed struggle” pursued by the PLO in the 1960s and ’70s was never aimed at defeating the overwhelmingly more powerful Zionist state but rather at pressuring the Arab regimes to take up the cause of “Arab unity” against Israel. Instead, the Arab capitalist states moved to bloodily repress Palestinian militants, with Jordan’s King Hussein slaughtering more than 10,000 PLO fighters in the infamous “Black September” massacre in 1970 and tens of thousands more killed later in Lebanon. The PLO’s pursuit of the imperialists culminated in the 1993 Oslo accord, granting Arafat the nominal autonomy of a handful of Palestinian ghettos in the Occupied Territories which were then increasingly sealed off and subjected to starvation blockades by the Zionist occupation forces. In despair, the Palestinians, once among the most cosmopolitan peoples of the Near East, have increasingly turned to Islamic fundamentalists like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, vile anti-Semitic and anti-Christian religious bigots who seek to enslave women and extirpate any manifestation of social progress.

Yet one self-styled Marxist group, the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP), urges Palestinian militants to recycle the petty-bourgeois nationalist politics whose suicidal logic is today manifest. The LRP claims to offer a proletarian perspective, raising the call for a socialist federation of the Near East and declaring: “The road to Palestinian freedom really begins with unchaining the Arab working classes of the region from their bourgeois leaders and opening a revolutionary struggle against their neo-colonial Arab rulers” (Proletarian Revolution, Spring 2002). But everything the LRP stands for is in flat contradiction to these words.

LRP: National Unity vs. Class Unity

Sneeringly dismissing “Spartacist fantasies of an ‘Arab/Hebrew workers’ revolution’,” the LRP rejects out of hand any possibility of winning the Hebrew workers to the cause of socialist revolution. Yet there can be no revolutionary perspective in the Near East without taking into account the proletariat of Israel, the most technologically advanced and militarily powerful country in the region. The Zionist state is armed to the teeth, including with a sizable nuclear arsenal which it would willingly use to irradiate every Arab city if it perceived a threat to its existence. If the Zionist citadel is not cracked from within through workers revolution, all talk of national justice is simply empty rhetoric that does nothing to advance the cause of the Palestinians. But there is no way the Hebrew workers will be won to the need for common class struggle against the Israeli capitalist rulers if their own right to a national existence is threatened.

Moreover, if the working masses of the Arab countries are to be won to the communist program, it is necessary to directly confront the false consciousness that binds them to their oppressors. That means defending the rights of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, the Berbers in Algeria and Morocco, the Copts in Egypt. It means fighting against the horrid oppression of women, symbolized by the veil and purdah (seclusion), that is enforced by Islamic reactionaries as well as by “secular” nationalist regimes. And it means combatting the anti-Semitism propagated by the Arab rulers and Islamists, which is one of the main things poisoning the consciousness of the Arab proletariat.

But the LRP does none of these things. Its article does not so much as mention, much less defend, the rights of non-Arab or non-Muslim minorities or of women in the Arab countries. It accepts the lie propagated by Arab nationalists, Islamic fundamentalists and, indeed, the Zionists that the Hebrew-speaking people as a whole are and will always be wedded to Zionist chauvinism. Instead, the LRP enthuses over nationalist “armed struggle against Israel” (not even acknowledging Israel’s stockpile of nuclear weapons) and seeks only to give such struggle a more “mass” and “militant” rendering. The LRP declares:

“To aid the Palestinians and expose the present illusions in Arafat and the Arab rulers, proletarian revolutionaries demand of them: provide arms to the masses!...

“The street protests in support of the intifada are vital, but they need to be joined by massive general strikes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the other countries of the Middle East demanding arms for the Palestinians.”

This is the height of nationalist cretinism. The LRP calls for a general strike, which poses the question of which class shall rule. But the LRP’s purpose is not to sweep away the neocolonial Arab bourgeoisies but rather to chain proletarian struggle to the yoke of “national unity” with those bourgeoisies. In its headline, the LRP calls “For Arab Workers’ Revolution”—not to smash the Arab capitalist states but “To Smash Israeli/U.S. Terror!”

The Arab regimes that the LRP calls on to aid the Palestinians are themselves responsible for the slaughter of some 50,000 Palestinians between 1967 and 1977. Yet, in pursuit of the treacherous fiction of “united Arab mass struggle,” the LRP cannot even bring itself to denounce the blood-drenched, U.S.-backed Hashemite monarchy for the 1970 massacre in Jordan. Instead they blame the Israelis for “the ‘Black September’ events of 1970 when the Mossad, Israel’s CIA, helped to prop up Jordan’s monarchy against a Palestinian uprising.”

Any socialist worth his salt solidarizes with the Palestinians who defend themselves against the murderous Zionist occupation forces in Gaza and the West Bank—the Israeli army and its fascistic settler auxiliaries. But if the last two years have demonstrated anything, it is that the Palestinians cannot prevail in a purely military confrontation with the Israeli state. And today much of the Palestinian “armed struggle” consists of indiscriminate terrorist attacks against anyone who happens to be in an Israeli shopping mall or disco. Those who perpetrate such criminal acts, deeming every Israeli to be the “enemy,” mirror the chauvinist mindset of the Zionist rulers themselves.

The mass protests in the Arab countries last spring were an expression of solidarity with the besieged Palestinians and a measure of the outrage of the Arab masses against their own rulers. But these demonstrations were shot through with anti-Semitism and largely dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. The LRP barely acknowledges this danger, while noting that some Arab workers have “turned to reactionary clerical leaders, another dead end.”

Marxists seek to shift the axis of struggle from Israeli against Arab to class against class. We stand with Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin, who wrote: “Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism. Be it even of the ‘most just,’ ‘purest,’ most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism” (“Critical Remarks on the National Question,” 1913).

Instead of seeking to win the proletariat to a political perspective of class independence, the LRP enthuses over the need for “unity of all Palestinians in the struggle” and “united Arab mass struggle.” This is a recipe for unity of Arab workers and peasants with the oil sheiks and bonapartist despots, for unity of leftist Palestinian militants with the cutthroat reactionaries of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And it serves the purpose of the Arab rulers, who have long played on the need for unity against the “Zionist entity” in order to deflect the anger of those they oppress toward an external enemy.

Is All of the U.S. “Occupied Territory”?

The LRP explicitly denies the national rights of the Hebrew-speaking people and embraces the call of radical Arab nationalists and Islamists: “All Israel is ‘Occupied Territory’!” In polemicizing against the LRP’s line, we wrote (“Zionist Bloodbath in Jenin,” WV No. 779, 19 April 2002):

“The doctrine that an oppressor nation forfeits its right to self-determination has nothing in common with socialism and democracy; it is the ideology of genocidal irredentism. The Zionist state was created by crushing the national rights of the Palestinians. But securing national justice for the Palestinians does not mean reversing the terms of oppression and denying the democratic rights of the Hebrew-speaking people. Basic to the Leninist position on the national question—the only consistently democratic position—is that all nations have a right to self-determination.”

In response, the LRP screamed that we are “in a word, Zionists” and insisted that “Leninists unhesitatingly support the rights of the oppressed over the oppressors” (Proletarian Revolution, Spring 2002). Leninists unhesitatingly defend small, dependent nations in a military conflict with imperialist countries. And we unhesitatingly oppose every manifestation of oppression and discrimination—be it national, racial, sexual or religious. But we do not thereby elevate the oppressed to the pantheon of “progressive peoples” who have rights as opposed to “reactionary peoples” who have none. If all of Israel is “occupied territory,” what does that make of the U.S.? The Zionists’ atrocities pale in comparison to the brutality and butchery with which America’s founders and rulers wiped out entire indigenous peoples. Why doesn’t the LRP raise the call “All of the United States is Occupied Territory!”?

The LRP would do well to note what Lenin actually wrote in his 1914 pamphlet, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, where he explained that “the proletariat confines itself, so to speak, to the negative demand for recognition of the right to self-determination, without giving guarantees to any nation, and without undertaking to give anything at the expense of another nation.” This was the policy pursued by Lenin both before and after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that smashed the tsarist prison house of peoples. Lenin’s aim was to take the national question off the agenda in order to bring the class question to the fore. He fought indefatigably against any manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism while defending the rights of all nations to self-determination—i.e., to establish their own states—including under proletarian rule.

Normally, the right of self-determination of an oppressor nation is a moot point. But in cases of geographically interpenetrated peoples—as in Israel/ Palestine, where Palestinian Arabs and Hebrew-speaking Israelis live in and lay claim to the same small sliver of land—under capitalism the exercise of national self-determination by either of the populations will necessarily be at the expense of the other. In such cases, a democratic solution to the national question can only come about through socialist revolution, because only the proletariat in power has an interest in resolving national antagonisms and can lay the material basis for the economic development of all peoples, leading to the establishment of a global communist society.

Look for example at how the Bolsheviks dealt with the Caucasus, a patchwork of nationalities and pre-national groupings which had been riven by interethnic conflicts for centuries, after the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks not only granted the various nations in the region the right to form their own independent states but also developed a range of administrative solutions to allow even tiny ethnic groupings a measure of local autonomy. Thus the workers revolution put a stop to ethnic warfare. Contrast this with the LRP, which offers the Hebrew-speaking people only the following “right” even within the framework of proletarian state power: “Israelis unwilling to live in a Palestinian workers’ state will have the right to leave.”

In an attempt to defend the indefensible, the LRP resorts to lies and distortions. In the latest issue of Proletarian Revolution (Fall 2002), the LRP asserts that we oppose the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Continuing a theme from its earlier article, it also equates the Hebrew-speaking nation with the Zionist state in order to claim that we “defend the preservation of Israel.” Before exposing these lies, it is necessary to first untangle the LRP’s deliberate confusionism. For Marxists, a nation is a people with a common language, culture and political economy; a state is an instrument of organized violence—centrally the army, police and prisons—through which a particular class maintains its rule. The Israeli capitalist state is the enemy not only of the Palestinians but above all of the workers of Israel, Hebrew or Arab. In the very article in WV No. 779 which the LRP attacks, we wrote:

“The national emancipation of the Palestinians—including the right of all refugees and their descendants to return to their homeland—necessarily entails workers revolutions to sweep away the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the bloody Ba’athist bonapartists in Syria, to bring down the capitalist rulers of Lebanon and to shatter the Zionist state, establishing a socialist federation of the Near East.” [emphases added]

Leninism vs. Petty-Bourgeois Leftism

We take our stand with the Palestinian Trotskyists of the 1940s, who fought against all odds to transcend the nationalist conflict and unite Arab and Hebrew workers in common struggle. They opposed the Zionist partition of Palestine and proclaimed at the time of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War: “The only way to peace between the two peoples of this country is turning the guns against the instigators of murder in both camps” (“Against the Stream,” reprinted in Fourth International, May 1948; emphasis in original). At the same time, the Trotskyists were sober about the enormous obstacles to united revolutionary struggle by Arab and Hebrew-speaking workers. The 1947 “Draft Theses on the Jewish Question,” which was adopted by the International Secretariat of the Fourth International in the wake of big strikes by Arab and Jewish government and oil refinery workers, stated:

“At the present stage, large-scale unity between the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine is unrealizable; only on a very limited scale and to the extent that a section of the Jewish workers is employed outside the ‘closed’ Jewish economy, has it been possible for Jewish-Arab strikes such as those of the past year to occur. But this does not mean that such unity is excluded for all time.” [emphasis in original]

More than five decades of Zionist oppression and privation have deeply exacerbated differences between Hebrew and Arab workers, while hardening nationalist antagonisms on both sides. These hatreds have grown particularly acute in the face of more than two years of unremitting Zionist terror.

We have no illusion that it will be easy to shatter the chauvinist consensus that currently binds the Hebrew proletariat to its capitalist exploiters. In all likelihood, it will take great historic events, like a victorious workers revolution in one of the Arab countries, to inspire Israeli workers on the road of revolutionary struggle against the Zionist bourgeoisie.

When we attacked the LRP for writing off the whole of the Hebrew-speaking working class as a “labor aristocracy,” they admitted to “grains of truth” in our description of class and other social divisions in Israeli society. At the same time, they note that “Israeli workers enjoy a tremendous privilege over Palestinian workers” and that their “elevated standard of living serves to tie large numbers of Israeli workers to supporting the Israeli state.” There is, to use the LRP’s expression, a “grain of truth” in this statement.

But to conclude from this, as does the LRP, that “a majority of Israeli workers can be expected to remain loyal to the continued existence of Israel” is to deny the possibility of making the proletariat conscious of its historic task as the gravedigger of the capitalist system. Israel is no exception to the rule that the interests of capital and labor are irreconcilably counterposed and that the contradictions of capitalism necessarily engender class struggle. In essence, the LRP’s hostility toward the Hebrew workers mirrors the “white skin privilege” line pushed by Third World nationalists and sections of the American New Left in the 1960s and ’70s. They argued that workers in the imperialist countries, and especially white workers in the U.S., had been “bought off” by imperialism and were thus incapable of making a socialist revolution.

From its inception, the LRP has been defined not by a proletarian—i.e., Trotskyist—program but by the prevailing winds of petty-bourgeois radicalism. The LRP is a direct political heir of Max Shachtman, who led a split from the American Trotskyist movement in 1940. Succumbing to anti-Communist hysteria among radical intellectuals over the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact and the Soviet invasion of capitalist Finland and Poland at the outbreak of World War II, Shachtman repudiated the Trotskyist call for unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union. The LRP has throughout its existence followed in Shachtman’s footsteps, joining the imperialists in denouncing the Soviet intervention against CIA-backed Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan in the 1980s and backing Boris Yeltsin in his counterrevolutionary power grab in 1991, which led to the final undoing of the October Revolution.

It was the destruction of the Soviet Union that prepared the way for the current dire situation facing the Palestinians. The Soviet Union provided a counterweight to U.S. imperialism, allowing petty-bourgeois nationalists like the PLO to jockey for support between the U.S. and the USSR. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, this leverage was lost—as well as considerable amounts of financial and military support—and a significantly weakened PLO accepted a sham “autonomy,” effectively policing the Palestinian masses on behalf of the Israeli rulers. The 1993 accord laid the basis for further devastating the economy of the Occupied Territories, sealing off tens of thousands of workers from their jobs in Israel, while leading to a massive expansion of Zionist settlements and the virtual imprisonment of the entire Palestinian population in isolated, besieged ghettos. This is what the “democratic” counterrevolution cheered on by the LRP has meant for the Palestinian people.

A workers revolution in one of the Arab countries, proclaiming the internationalist unity of all the working people, would have an enormous impact on the Hebrew-speaking workers of Israel. But if Arab, Persian and Kurdish workers are to break the chains of exploitation and oppression, they must be broken from all variants of nationalism and won to a relentless struggle to extirpate the influence of the Islamic fundamentalists who now pose as the enemies of Zionism and imperialism. Workers of the Near East have a rich tradition of revolutionary struggle. We look to the legacy of the multinational Iranian proletariat that struggled for power in 1953, of the Arab and Kurdish Iraqi workers who sought to make a socialist revolution five years later. To seize on such opportunities when they arise, and to lead them to victory, requires above all the construction of internationalist workers parties, sections of a reforged Fourth International, in opposition to Zionism, Arab nationalism and all manner of religious fundamentalism.

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