A Marxist Perspective on the Near East

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 799, 14 March 2003.

We publish below a presentation by comrade Bruce André at a recent conference of the Ligue Trotskyste de France, translated from Le Bolchévik No. 162 (Winter 2002-2003).

Comrades, this discussion raises questions which are fundamental to building a revolutionary party, especially in the Near East. But before dealing with programmatic questions, I want to clarify the difference between three things: the Jewish people, which has existed for centuries quite independently of the state of Israel or even Zionism; the Hebrew-speaking nation located in Palestine; and the Zionist state. I think there has been a tendency to confuse them, especially the latter two, the Hebrew-speaking nation and the Zionist state.

Let’s start with the Jewish people. Our understanding has been framed by Abram Leon, in his book The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation. This book does not exist in Arabic, and I hope that we will one day be able to rectify that failure. Leon was a Belgian Trotskyist, who was murdered by the Nazis at the Auschwitz death camp. He gave a materialist explanation for the continued existence over centuries of the Jewish people in Europe with their own language, culture and religion, and for their brutal oppression under capitalism. Leon explained that the Jews do not constitute a nation, that is, a culturally homogeneous population occupying a given territory with their own national economy. This is the definition of a nation according to Leninist criteria. Rather, Leon said that the Jews played a particular social role in feudal and pre-feudal society as merchants and money-lenders. He called them a “people class.”

It was this particular social role, living in the pores of feudal society, that provides a materialist explanation for the Jews’ continued existence in West and East Europe. With the rise of mercantile capitalism in Europe, the Jews’ special commercial role came to an end. In West Europe, they either assimilated or were pushed to the more economically backward East. There, in East Europe, the crumbling of the feudal order at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries came at a time when capitalism was already decaying. There was widespread unemployment and periodic economic crises. As a result, the Jews were exposed to the hostility of the petty bourgeoisie and peasants, who were also rejected by decaying capitalism.

These petty-bourgeois layers sought to find a place for themselves at the expense of the Jews and launched pogroms, anti-Jewish riots. A wave of refugees fleeing these pogroms arrived in West Europe at a time when capitalism could not absorb them there either, thus creating a similar problem in the West. In France, there were pogroms at the end of the 19th century around the Dreyfus affair. In Algeria too, by the way. In Germany, of course, there was the ultimate pogrom, one of the greatest horrors in human history: the Holocaust. The Nazis used modern capitalist production methods to carry out the systematic, conscious extermination of an entire people. The so-called democratic countries like the United States and Britain closed their doors to desperate Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.

Now, Abram Leon does not deal with the question of Jews in Arab lands. It would be a good thing for our party to study and clarify the differences between the situation of the Jews in Europe and in Arab lands. But one important difference is that the development of capitalism in the Near East and North Africa did not proceed to a point where it provoked the kind of systematic, violent convulsions that took place in Europe. There were attacks against the Jews but not at the same level as in Europe. The condition of Jews in the Arab lands was markedly better than in Christian Europe.

This changed with the rise of Arab nationalism in the mid 20th century. Coming out of WWII, there was a wave of pogroms and terrorist attacks against synagogues and Jewish public places in almost all Arab countries. It reached a paroxysm during the 1948-49 war in Palestine. This triggered—with the active help of the Zionists, of course—a mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries, with most of them going to Israel. At the time of the formation of the state of Israel in 1947-48, there were as many Jews in the Arab countries speaking Arabic as their first language as there were in Israel speaking (or learning) Hebrew. Not surprisingly, the Jews from Arab countries and their descendants, known as Oriental Jews, are typically among the most reactionary and anti-Arab layers of the Israeli population.

Birth of the Zionist State

So, the Jews in Europe—as well as in Arab countries—were not a nation. The Jews living in Palestine before the Holocaust were not a nation, either. In the early 1930s, there were only slightly more than 100,000 Jews in Palestine, and many of them were not Zionists.

So how did a nation get formed out of these people? In Europe, before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Zionism was a tiny sect of petty-bourgeois intellectuals with no influence among the Jewish people. Those Jews in the ghettos of East Europe who were active in politics were primarily either communists or members of the Bund, a Jewish socialist movement close to the Mensheviks. What transformed Zionism into a mass movement was the world-historic defeat of the German working class in 1933 and the rise of Hitler to power. The rise of the Nazis in Germany also laid the basis for the creation of a nation of Hebrew-speaking people in Palestine by causing massive waves of Jewish emigration both before the Holocaust and again after WWII. The Zionists appealed directly to British imperialism, which controlled Palestine militarily, to sponsor a so-called “Jewish homeland.” And the British rulers, anti-Semitic to the core, agreed because they saw it as a way to help divide and conquer in the Near East. There was the Balfour Declaration at the close of World War I in which the British promised the Zionists a homeland in Palestine. Today, of course, it is the U.S. imperialists who are the special patrons of the Zionist state.

Unlike many colonial settlers in history, the Zionists did not seek mainly to exploit Palestinians but rather to displace them and set up a closed economy of exclusively Jewish communities. And in this, through massive influx of Jewish labor and capital from Europe, they were ultimately successful. A major step in that direction occurred during the 1936-39 Arab revolt against British occupation. The Zionists played a key role in putting down the revolt, together with the British, through military terror directed against the Palestinians. By the time of the UN partition of 1947, a Hebrew-speaking nation had already been carved out of Palestine.

The 1947 partition set off a war in which the Zionists conquered what is today the state of Israel and drove out most of its Arab population through mass killings and terror. The Arab regimes intervened, not to defend the Palestinians against Zionist terror but to seize the land that had been allotted to them under the UN partition plan. Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees who sought refuge in the surrounding Arab countries were forced to live in squalid refugee camps. In 1970, the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan launched a massive bloodbath against the Palestinians, with the implicit support of almost all the Arab regimes. This was called Black September. Yet despite the horrendous conditions in which they were forced to live, the Palestinian generation that grew up after 1948 was more highly educated than almost any other people in the Near East, including the Hebrew-speaking people of Israel.

At the time, the Palestinians played a role in the Near East similar in some ways to the Jews in East Europe. Cosmopolitan, politicized and educated, they played a disproportionate role in radical movements, including the Communist parties throughout the Near East. That fact gives a measure of the terrible consequences of Arab nationalism, as many Palestinians today, disillusioned by the total bankruptcy of Arafat’s bourgeois-nationalist program have turned to the backward, anti-woman Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas.

The Palestinian Trotskyists took an essentially correct position on the 1948 war. They opposed the UN partition plan and were for the defeat of both sides through revolutionary working-class struggle. They correctly defended the national rights of the Hebrew-speaking nation to self-determination. As you know from the readings for this discussion, we initially took a position of siding militarily with the forces led by the Zionists because our evaluation of the situation was that the war threatened the very existence of the Hebrew people. We corrected our appreciation of the facts and changed our position, but we did not modify our underlying method. We stated:

“Out of the destruction of European Jewry by Hitler (without whose aid the Zionists would have gone the way of the Shakers and other utopian sects) and at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs, a settler colony was transformed into a nation.

“This Hebrew nation came into existence through force and violence, through the suppression, forced expulsion and genocide of other peoples. Communists must oppose this brutal national oppression. Yet once this historical fact is accomplished, we must certainly recognize that nation’s right to self-determination, unless we prefer the alternative, namely national genocide....

“Marxists could give military support to neither side in the 1948 Palestine war. Our position for proletarian internationalism requires viewing that war from the necessity of revolutionary defeatism on both sides, counterposing to the victory of either side the perspective of united proletarian struggle, which offers the only possibility for the genuine fulfillment of the right of self-determination—through a socialist federation of the Near East.”

— “Birth of the Zionist State,” WV Nos. 33 and 45, 23 November 1973 and 24 May 1974

The Palestinian Trotskyists at the time were also sober about the enormous obstacles to united revolutionary struggle by Arab and Hebrew-speaking workers. The “Draft Theses on the Jewish Question” adopted by the International Secretariat of the Fourth International in 1947 pointed to some important joint strikes by Arab and Jewish workers, such as the big government workers strike in Haifa in 1946 and the oil refinery workers strike in 1947. But they also said:

“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.”

This is a point we have often made. It will take convulsive historical events to cause even a significant fraction of the Hebrew-speaking proletariat to make common cause with their Arab class brothers, but it is historically possible and necessary.

The State Is Not the Same Thing as a Nation

Let’s be clear: When we speak of the Hebrew-speaking nation, this is not the same thing as the Zionist state that was set up following the 1947 UN partition. As I mentioned earlier, for Marxists, a nation is a people with its own language, culture and economy, occupying a given territory. A state is something very different. It is essentially an instrument of power through which a particular class maintains its class rule. It consists centrally of instruments of repression: the army, police, prison system, etc. Our attitude toward these two things is very different. We seek to smash the Zionist state, as we seek to smash all capitalist states, through socialist revolution. We particularly wish to smash the Zionist state because by its very nature it is inherently oppressive not only of the Hebrew-speaking working class but also and above all of the Palestinian people.

But what is our attitude toward the Hebrew-speaking nation? Our position on all nations is for their right to self-determination, that is, the right to form independent nation-states. We do not make a distinction on this point between oppressed nations which alone get the right to exist and oppressor nations which, according to some, do not. For us, it is simply a basic democratic right that Marxists recognize for all nations.

Marxist concepts like “class,” “nation,” “state,” etc. have precise definitions, which are based on material reality. We are materialists. The widely held position that Jews in Israel today represent an “occupation” strikes me as based on a kind of moralism—that is, idealism—rather than materialism. It reminds me of the idea, which is widespread on the left, that there are “good” people, that is, the oppressed—one could say the “occupied” people—and “bad” people who are the oppressors and do not even have the right to exist. To speak of an “occupation” seems to me to imply that the programmatic consequence is: “Get rid of them.” It is necessary to return to Marxist categories to avoid ending up in the trap of irredentist nationalism and to open the way to a revolutionary internationalist solution in which all peoples have a right to exist.

Interpenetrated Peoples

At the heart of the problem is the question of interpenetrated peoples. The process that led to the creation of the state of Israel was not unique. On the contrary, we have seen this many times in history. It is the policy of “divide and rule.” The British were past masters at this. They did basically the same thing in Ireland when they divided it between North and South, and in India with a partition between Muslim Pakistan and India containing both Hindus and Muslims. The French did the same thing by splitting Lebanon from Syria.

I strongly suspect that somewhere in London there is a recipe book, probably written by Churchill, and entitled “How to Make a Partition.” Here is the recipe. You take a region where there are two people with a long history of ethnic conflict, and you draw an artificial border according to the following criteria: on one side you have a country with a more or less homogeneous population, composed of the people that is the most numerous. But on the other side of the border, you have a country which is composed of two peoples, one of whom has a slight numerical advantage over the other. In that way, you get a people which lives constantly in fear that the other will one day be in the majority. This recipe works wonders for the imperialists and allows interventions and manipulations at will.

I think the French went to London to read that recipe book. They created this rump state, Lebanon, such that there was a slight majority of Christians, permanently terrified that one day the Muslims would have enough babies to become the majority. What finally happened is that the Palestinians driven out of Jordan by Black September ended up in Lebanon, and that tipped the balance. Lebanon exploded in civil war, which completely destroyed the country.

In Palestine, the partition plan was conceived according to the same recipe, but this time they showed the UN how to do it. They created a totally artificial state of Israel, which included much more than the territories occupied at the time by the Hebrew-speaking nation, drawing the borders in such a way as to have a Palestinian portion which was 100 percent Arab and a state of Israel where the Jews had a slight majority. But the Zionists were cooking according to a different recipe. They drove the Palestinians from the land that had been allotted to the Jews by the partition plan and also from much of the land that had been allotted to the Palestinians. And they populated it all with refugees pouring out of Europe following the Holocaust and with Oriental Jews driven out of the Arab countries with the rise of Arab nationalism.

By the end of this process, the territories occupied by the Hebrew-speaking nation had greatly expanded, and, importantly for the Zionists, they corresponded to the borders of the Zionist state. But, I repeat, these are not one and the same thing. We are for smashing the Zionist state, for the destruction of its army and the seizure of power by the proletariat. But we are not for the destruction of the nation that occupies that territory, with its own culture and its own economy. We defend its right to exist, its democratic right to self-determination, just as we defend these same rights for the Palestinian people.

Virtually all nations were forged through the forced expulsion and, in some cases, genocide of other peoples. It is not unique. Today it is called “ethnic cleansing.” The United States, for example, was forged through the systematic extermination of native peoples. This genocide is still celebrated in films and popular culture. Does that mean that the U.S. today is occupied territory? Turkey is a real “prison house of peoples” for minorities like the Kurds. Does that mean Turks do not have a right to exist? Should all the descendants of the conquistadors be expelled from Latin America?

But let’s be clear about this: the Left Bank and Gaza are today truly occupied territories. These are Palestinian territories which are being seized by the Zionists a little more each day. The settlers are the advance guard of that incursion. We are for stopping this incursion into Palestinian land and for this occupation to stop, even while recognizing that things have proceeded to a point where that is no simple task. There are now a large number of settlers, some 400,000 if we include East Jerusalem. These settlers are highly armed and closely linked with the Israeli army. They live largely in communities that are scattered across Palestinian territory like a string of fortresses. Thus, this is an extension into the Occupied Territories which is artificial and reversible. But that could change, particularly with the approaching war against Iraq. In our press we have warned that the Zionists may seize the opportunity to drive the Palestinians out of the Occupied Territories in a vast terror campaign.

The Example of Yugoslavia and the Russian Revolution

The problem for resolving the Palestinian question is that both peoples lay claim to essentially the same land. To set up an independent capitalist state for either the Palestinian Arabs or the Hebrew-speaking people can only mean denying that right for the other. These are geographically interpenetrated peoples. 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 begin to meet the material needs of all working people. This is not simply a case of wishful thinking. There are historical precedents that demonstrate that this program is realizable.

Look at Tito’s Yugoslavia, a deformed workers state that arose from the victory of the Stalinist-led Partisans against the Nazi occupation in WWII. The Balkans had for centuries been the scene of ethnic bloodshed that makes the Palestinian-Hebrew conflict pale by comparison. The 1912 Balkan Wars, which Trotsky wrote about as a war correspondent, were the occasion for immense forced population transfers throughout the Balkans. The state of Yugoslavia, an artificial creation put together by the imperialists after WWI—mainly by French imperialism, by the way—exploded in ethnic bloodshed almost from the day of its creation.

However, the common experience of driving out the fascists and setting up a collectivized economy put a stop to national violence within Yugoslavia. The ending of pogroms and murderous national conflicts was a historic achievement of the Yugoslav revolution that overthrew capitalism. At the same time, the conservative, nationally limited Stalinist bureaucracy pursued policies, like so-called “market socialism,” that constantly undermined the very gains of the revolution and inspired national conflicts. As capitalist counterrevolution destroyed the Yugoslav deformed workers state, it once again became engulfed in ethnic warfare and forced population transfers.

The other historic example is, of course, the Russian Revolution of 1917. To take just one example: the Caucasus, like the Balkans, had been for centuries a region of inter-ethnic conflicts. The Bolsheviks not only granted nations the right to self-determination, to create independent states in the region, but they developed a whole range of organizational solutions so that even tiny proto-national groupings, sometimes consisting of only a few villages, could have a measure of local autonomy. I once saw a map of the Caucasus in the early years of Bolshevik rule showing all the administrative organs. It was covered with little circles of various sizes. There too, the revolution put a stop to ethnic warfare and essentially took the national question off the agenda. These two examples are dramatic proof of how murderous national conflicts that seem unresolvable under capitalism can be equitably addressed under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Anti-Semitism Binds the Masses to Their Exploiters

Our strategy for the Near East is the seizure of state power by proletarian revolution. That is not going to happen unless the Hebrew-speaking working class is in large part won over or at least neutralized. Think about it for a minute. Israel is by far the most advanced and powerful country in the region. The Zionists have the technology, the arms; they have nuclear weapons. How are you going to make a revolution in the region if you don’t crack the Zionist citadel from within? You have to be realistic about this. And you are definitely not going to win Hebrew-speaking workers if you don’t recognize their right to national existence. In addition, if you don’t have this perspective, you are inevitably going to end up looking to the Arab bourgeoisies. Who else could even pretend to be a useful ally of the Palestinians against the Zionists? The European Union? Or maybe “la belle France” of the Algerian War and of Vigipirate anti-immigrant repression?

To write off the Hebrew-speaking working class as hopelessly reactionary is not fundamentally different from what Third World nationalists say about the working class in all advanced capitalist countries—that they are hopelessly linked to their bourgeoisie because they profit from imperialist exploitation of the Third World. This view of the Hebrew-speaking working class expresses a brand of despair. And it is easy to despair about this situation. There are certainly not many cracks in the Zionist citadel today, even as the Zionist rulers openly copy the methods of the Nazis in the Occupied Territories. The political climate is so right-wing that Sharon, the butcher of Sabra and Shatila, can pass himself off as a “centrist.” This is not a situation that provides many openings for doing something in the immediate sense to relieve the situation of the Palestinians. And that is a special kind of hell for revolutionaries, not to have any openings for intervening effectively. In the Arab countries today, what’s on the rise is not communism but Islamic fundamentalism, and this is a product of despair.

But if you go back to the 1940s and ’50s, you had large Communist parties in many Arab countries. Most of these CPs were either formed by, or were based heavily on, minorities in those countries. The various Egyptian communist groups were all formed by Egyptian Jews. The Iraqi CP had Kurds and Jews in its leadership. This is a tradition that we can hark back to. But how are we going to win Arab workers to communism? Only by directly confronting the false consciousness that binds them to their oppressors.

I want to underline the fact that raising the consciousness of the proletariat means a lot more than fighting to defend the workers’ material interests. In What Is To Be Done?, Lenin said that the revolutionary party must be a “tribune of the people,” the defender of all the oppressed, not just the working class. That means defending the rights of the Kurds, the Berbers, the Saharan population, the Copts. It means fighting for free abortion on demand. It means defending the rights of homosexuals against backwardness and religious and moralistic bigotry. And it means fighting anti-Semitism, which is rampant in the Arab countries.

And it is rampant. Usually the word “Zionist” is used instead of “Jew,” but the centuries-old anti-Semitic themes are there: the Jews plotting world domination, the Jews as the embodiment of all evil, and so on. You probably saw reports last month of a TV series in Egypt based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the anti-Semitic forgery cooked up by the Tsarist secret police to incite pogroms. The Protocols are everywhere in the Near East. They have been endorsed and even distributed by Arab leaders, from Nasser to the King of Saudi Arabia. Denying that the Holocaust existed, a theme also borrowed from the European fascists, is now common on campuses and among the Near East intelligentsia. Even the age-old anti-Semitic libel that Jews are killing Christian children to drink their blood is widely repeated by Arab leaders and academics in the Near East.

We insist on this not because we hope to recruit a lot of Jews in Arab countries—there are almost none left. It’s because anti-Semitism propagated by Arab rulers is one of the main things poisoning the class consciousness of Arab workers. Similarly in Poland, we repeatedly published articles against anti-Semitism. In Poland there aren’t many Jews left either. They were all driven out or exterminated. But anti-Semitism was key to the reactionary Polish nationalists of Solidarność who stood at the head of the working class.

The Bolsheviks devoted enormous energies to fighting anti-Semitism and defending the Russian Jews against attacks. Even in that case, the Bolsheviks did not expect to recruit large numbers of Jews, who worked mainly in small factories where they tended to gravitate toward the Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks had their base in the large factories. But this was a litmus test in a country where anti-Jewish pogroms were a prevalent form of state-sponsored oppression.

For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!

As I said, there is a rich tradition of working-class struggle in the Near East. I would like to conclude on the highest point of that tradition, the Iraqi revolution of 1958. That revolution was touched off by the overthrow of the monarchy by left-nationalist officers on Bastille Day 1958. The whole country rose up. As workers staged massive demonstrations in the cities, some numbering a million people, peasants staged insurrections throughout the countryside, killing landlords, seizing the land. The Iraqi CP had the overwhelming support of the multinational Iraqi working class. It also had broad support among other layers of the population, including within the army and even some sections of the officer corps. It is clear that the Iraqi CP could have taken power. The U.S. sent the Marines into Lebanon to be ready for a possible invasion of Iraq. Socialist revolution was on the agenda.

Isaac Deutscher, the historian and biographer of Trotsky, wrote: “Most western observers on the spot agreed that Kassem [the nationalist in power who had the support of the Stalinist Communist Party] could hardly hold his ground against an all-out communist offensive.” But the Moscow Stalinists sold out the revolution in the interests of maintaining “peaceful coexistence” with the U.S. And the Iraqi CP, being a Stalinist party, went along, putting the brakes on the movement. This was the fruit of the Stalinist program of “two-stage revolution.” While riding the crest of the revolutionary wave, the Iraqi CP continued to subordinate itself to the left-nationalist officer Kassem, in a supposedly “anti-imperialist” revolution. Of course the promised second stage of socialist revolution never came. Instead Kassem turned on the Iraqi CP. In 1963, the reactionary, nationalist Ba’ath party, which included Saddam Hussein (who was not yet a national leader), came to power and carried out a bloodbath of thousands of leftist workers using lists supplied by the CIA.

The Iraqi revolution held out enormous historic possibilities for workers of the Near East and for minorities like the Kurds. Imagine, if the Iraqi proletariat had taken power, how it would have changed workers’ consciousness throughout the region. What would the impact have been on the Israeli proletariat? Obviously we can’t tell; it depends on many things. But it is possible that the impact would have been—or will be some day in similar conditions—considerable.

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