Socialism and the national question
Genuine liberation for Palestinians and Israelis alike must be seen in the context of an Arab and global revolution, argues David Markovich
This article constitutes an attempt to reveal the ideological, political and programmatic roots of the deep crisis facing the Palestinian national movement. However, the author is not satisfied with analysing the current condition of the Palestinians, but outlines a solution based on the needed international change toward world socialist revolution. The analysis proposed here is based on the scientific Marxist theory, which aims to dialectically expose any phenomenon and consequently put forward practical conclusions. I wish to put the Palestinian question in its unique Arab context and at the same time examine it within the international situation, in which the United States plays a pivotal imperialist role.
The article is divided into three sections:
- The first deals with the crisis facing the Palestinian left, represented, among others, in the Democratic and Popular Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine.
- The second section looks at the impact of the imperialist world order and the false ‘solutions’ it has produced.
- The final section seeks to analyse the Palestinian question due to the death of the two-state solution following the Oslo accords and the recent political moves taken by the US administration led by president Trump. This third section proposes a political alternative based on the understanding that the national question in general, and the Palestinian national question in particular, cannot be resolved within the imperialist order.
This document calls for some self-examination and self-criticism with regards to the experience of Israeli and Palestinian militants, who decided to embrace the political framework suggested by the Oslo accords. The process of this self-criticism cannot be carried out without a critique of the traditional loyalty of the Palestinian and Israeli left to the doctrine that carried forward the false claim that it is possible to resolve the national question within the framework of capitalism.
It is quite sad to note that this period is one where the Palestinian left renounced its revolutionary role, neglected the Marxist theory and the Leninist method and, as a result, abandoned any programme for a socialist alternative. The remnants of the Palestinian left do not seek to present a viable socialist alternative, but rather to join the Palestinian Authority that rules the West Bank and to maintain false ‘national unity’ based on principles that took the Palestinian masses to a genuine dead end. This defeatist approach of the Palestinian left brought about its current condition, in which it lacks any mass basis and has no alternative to the Palestinian misleadership led by president Mahmoud Abbas. In providing legitimacy to the Palestinian Authority leaders, whose policies are based on UN resolutions and the politics of the corrupt Arab regimes, the Palestinian left spreads the illusion that it can change the situation in the region through cross-class collaboration with the national bourgeoisie.
However, this article is not just about the call for self-criticism, but rather the need to outline a revolutionary programme for the Palestinian working class; it rejects the claim that revolutionary change is impossible because of American dominance in the world. The dialectical analysis presented here not only points to the fact that revolutionary change is needed, but also places this within the current stage of development of the capitalist mode of production due to its historic contradictions.
As Marxists we can see how economic crises are accompanied by wars that reveal the weaknesses of the new world order in which we live, the imperialist epoch. The order we face, characterised by Lenin as an order of wars and revolutions, points to the fact that the conditions for socialist revolutions across the globe, including Palestine, are fertile. In Palestine, the only way to present any viable alternative to the moribund two-state solution is to carry forward a struggle for socialist revolution led by the Arab and Jewish workers and peasants - a revolution which will be part of an international socialist revolution across the globe.
This document hopes to contribute to the reorganisation of the Palestinian revolutionary left, to the revolutionary regroupment of political forces among the Palestinian masses. Only a revolutionary leadership in Palestine, based on Marxist theory and practice, will be capable of liberating the country from many decades of oppression, colonisation and occupation.
Today, after the collapse of the Palestinian national movement, there is no distinction between the Palestinian proletariat and the bourgeois Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian left is dead, and the internationalist class approach is abandoned. The dominant Fatah party, which is itself moribund, used to preach for a classless ‘national unity’, in which any class division would be harmful. In signing the Oslo accords, the Palestinian leaders abandoned the revolutionary agenda of national liberation and the ‘national unity’ slogan became a mere death-trap.
It is useful to point to the revolutionary nature of the Palestinian national bourgeoisie in the very beginning - it was willing to sacrifice in the long march to build Palestinian statehood. However, the objective obstacles it faced, the material advantage of the Zionist project and the bourgeois nature of the Palestinian leadership pushed it to seek allies in the new capitalist order, which was built following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The result was the fact that the Palestinian bourgeoisie abandoned its historic programme and allowed the Palestinian working class to be subordinated to new forms of exploitation. This process took place in a situation where the economy of Gaza and the West Bank were subordinated to Israeli interests.
Let us be clear: the collapse of the Palestinian national project was not a result of the treachery of the Palestinian bourgeoisie; it did not move to the Zionist camp. This collapse was a result of the fact that the minority in Palestine, namely the Palestinian left, did not present an alternative to a leadership that endorsed the Oslo accords. Neither the Popular Front nor the Democratic Front were capable of departing from the national consensus and proposing a class alternative to the politics represented by the Arafat-led Fatah party. In addition, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fact that some of the Arab regimes became reliable allies of US imperialism made it easy for the Palestinian bourgeoisie to betray the national interests of the Palestinian masses.
For the Palestinian left, the class struggle became a minor issue, whereas the struggle against Israel was the common denominator. Thus, the way towards a cross-class coalition was paved and the Palestinian working class began to be dominated by bourgeois ideology at the expense of its independent class-consciousness. In addition, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, left organisations in Palestine renounced the principles of Marxism. Among these principles was the call for the dictatorship of the proletariat: namely the call for the elimination of the bourgeoisie as class and for proletarian rule. The Palestinian left abandoned Marxist ideas and it effectively took over the old national programme abandoned by the capitalist elite, which now sought an alternative which fitted into the new capitalist order in the era of US global hegemony.
This programme is based on the narrow interests of the Palestinian bourgeoisie and is related to the strategic interests of the Zionist state. After the Palestinian bourgeoisie opted for collaboration with Israel and abandoned any Palestinian national struggle, there was no excuse for the Palestinian left to continue seeking to ally with it. The core contradiction in Palestine was now that between the masses and the bourgeoisie.
After the defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War of 1991 the west managed to split the Arab world and win the support of Egypt and Syria, forcing a new political and economic framework on the Middle East countries in order to solve the Arab national question. The principles of this new order were formulated in the Madrid conference of 1992, in which Arab national interests were subordinated to the regional interests of the US, based on exploiting the oil resources of the Middle East and perpetuating Israel’s role as a strategic ally of the imperialist west. The US attempt to subordinate and oppress the masses was aided by the collapse of the Soviet Union, following which the various national movements reached a dead end - neither the Kurds in their struggle against Turkey nor the Palestinians in their opposition to the Israeli occupation could achieve liberation. The Oslo accords, signed in 1993, only confirmed that any attempt to solve the national question within the framework of capitalism will lead to the integration of the leadership of the oppressed nation in the imperialist order. The oppressed peoples found themselves in a trap, having no leadership to lead them toward genuine liberation.
The Palestinian left was forced to deal with this new reality, but had no programme. It wanted Europe and Russia to act as a counterweight to US imperialism. This alternative policy was anachronistic, as the occupation was given international legitimacy - the UN was meaningless in a world situation in which the only important actor was the US. The idea that there is a so-called contradiction between the US and Europe could not serve the Palestinians in their struggle against the Zionist regime. The Balkan war proved that the European countries are loyal partners of the US. Europe welcomed the Oslo accords and up to this very day help finance the Palestinian Authority. There was no wonder, therefore, that the Palestinian left could not convince the Palestinian bourgeoisie to adopt its ‘alternative’.
Thus, the decision of the Palestinian and Arab left to abandon Marxist dialectics led to their inability to understand the new situation and its contradictions. This left was wrong in advancing a politics in which the national question had nothing to do with class conflict. Furthermore, it appears that from the very beginning the Palestinian left was not committed to the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Lenin. Its decision to endorse the Soviet Union had been a tactical one: since the socialist camp was not here any more to help the Palestinians, the commitment of the Palestinian left to the Marxist heritage ended. For this left, the ideas of Marxism do not form a programme, but rather pay lip-service to its past. In fact, it has no programme that can distinguish itself as a secular force from the Islamists.
The Palestinian left has also abandoned the internationalist idea that binds the oppressed with the working class across the globe, especially in the west. This situation is regrettable, at a time when the US is attempting to force upon the international working class an order of social instability and austerity. The Marxist concept of history demonstrates that a global revolutionary change (eg, like those that took place after the first and second world wars) will take place only as a result of the competition and contradictions between the imperialist powers. It is evident that only through revolutionary change, resulting in the defeat of US imperialism, will the oppressed nations will be capable of liberating themselves from their historic serfdom. Thus, whoever tries to separate the national programme from the socialist one will fall into the imperialist trap. In Ireland, Kurdistan and Palestine there is no possibility of ending national oppression without carrying forward the socialist alternative.
It is important to note that historically the alliance with the Arab bourgeoisie was central for Palestinian and Arab Marxists. The 1948 Palestinian Nakba and the defeat of the Arab feudal regimes were the basis for the revolutionary period in the Arab world led by national-bourgeois parties like the Ba’ath in Iraq and the Free Officers movement in Egypt. However, the Arab defeat in 1967 put an end to the hopes of the masses that the national bourgeoisie would liberate them. The roots of the historic period in which we live are in the post-1967 era. Thus, in 1978, Egypt signed a ‘peace’ agreement with Israel under imperialist pressure; in 1980 Iraq launched a war against Iran in the service of the US and the Gulf states; and in 1990 the Arab countries joined the US in its war against Iraq - a move that paved the way for the Madrid conference, whose aim was to get the Arab world to recognise Israel.
The Palestinian left, especially the Democratic Front, sought to reach a national agreement between the national bourgeoisie and the working class. It dreamt of a situation in which the toiling masses would lead the bourgeois class, thus rejecting the essence of Marxism, which is opposed to cross-class collaboration. The Palestinian left ignored the fact that the Palestinian bourgeoisie had proved to be an enemy of the masses; it always preferred its own narrow interest, even if that meant collaborating with the enemies of the Palestinians. The Oslo accords symbolised the end of the illusion about the so-called ‘revolutionary role’ of the Palestinian bourgeoisie, which is committed to collaboration with the Zionist enemy. The Oslo accords exposed the programmatic weakness of the Palestinian left. At first, it called for a boycott of the new Palestinian Authority to force the bourgeois Fatah faction to return to the false ‘national unity’ of the past. But after this tactic was seen as an utter failure, the Palestinian left called for a new ‘national unity’ under the slogan of ‘ignoring Oslo’. Thus, instead of fighting the bourgeoisie, the left wanted to find a common denominator with it. It did not attempt to put itself forward as an alternative leadership to the bourgeoisie.
The strategy of a new ‘national unity with the bourgeoisie’ did not start, however, in the early 1990s. In fact, it started after the heroic Intifada broke out. Instead of taking advantage of the historic situation to win leadership over the masses, the Palestinian left continued to be committed to unity with the Fatah faction that ruled the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. This commitment was not undermined even after the PLO leadership started its negotiations with US imperialism. The corrupt Palestinian bourgeoisie did not hesitate to use the Intifada in order to advance its own interests, hence betraying the working class, as well as the refugees.
The Leninist approach to the national question accepts that the bourgeoisie and its parties will seek to create a false ‘national unity’ in order to win ‘class peace’. The category of ‘nation’ is itself associated with the rise of capitalism and the national movement is naturally linked with the bourgeoisie. National conflicts stem from the imperialist aspiration to subordinate other nations and the traditional perspective of Marxists was that the national question is bound up with the question of proletarian revolution, as the latter can solve the former.
The Palestinian left abandoned this perspective and therefore was crushed after the Oslo accords. These accords were not opposed by the opposition parties within the PLO, which continued to accept the slogan of ‘national unity’. The refusal of the Palestinian opposition to propose an alternative to the politics of the Fatah faction and the fact that it adhered to the ‘national unity’ perspective were the reasons for its collapse.
The crisis of the Palestinian left cannot be fully analysed without understanding the crisis of the entire Palestinian national movement. The two-state solution in Palestine - a solution adopted by the PLO during the mid- and late 1980s - was the expression of the class relations in the world during the years in which the US and the Soviet Union coexisted ‘peacefully’. This ‘solution’ replaced the old programme of one democratic and secular state from the river to the sea - a maximalist approach which did not find support across world politics.
The PLO was ready to enter political negotiations with the Israeli enemy and accepted the idea of dividing Palestine into two states. It did so under imperialist pressure and because the Soviet Union and the socialist camp became weaker. The ascendancy of Gorbachev in 1985 gave emphasis to Soviet weakness vis-à-vis US imperialism: the Soviet Union wanted to ameliorate US anti-Soviet policies and initiated a campaign that stressed the need for world peace and nuclear disarmament. The desire of the Soviet government to appease the imperialist west was reflected in the end of the Soviet support for the oppressed nations. The national liberation movements were forced to adapt themselves to the new international situation.
Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, understood this new situation quite well. In 1988 he accepted the idea of dividing Palestine into two states and decided to put an end to the armed resistance. After the American victory in the 1991 Gulf war, it was clear to Arafat and his co-leaders that the cold war was over and that a new era was nearing. The UN security council lost its position as mediator between the US and the Soviet Union and endorsed the US in its war against Iraq. The Arab League became meaningless in political terms and enabled the US to declare that UN resolutions constituted the basis for the political rights of the Palestinians.
The Oslo accords expressed the new world order, in which the Oval office was the place in which decisions are taken. The US accepted UN resolutions on the Palestinian question, but deprived them of any real content. The Oslo accords became a political reality because they were formulated and shaped according to the new world order. In fact, these accords buried the historic possibility of solving the Zionist-Palestinian conflict by dividing Palestine into two sovereign states; Israel considered the Oslo politics as useful in terms of expanding and strengthening Zionist colonisation. Furthermore, it regarded the occupied Palestinian territories - including Jerusalem and the major settlement blocks - as a basis to form an invalid Palestinian entity, a ‘Bantustan’ with no genuine sovereignty. The new situation that was created due to the Oslo accords was characterised by the fact that the national movement in Palestine had been defeated. Israel, a settler state, had emerged triumphant out of the negotiations with the Arafat-led PLO. During the 2000s, there were Palestinian intellectuals, along with some Israeli ones, who proposed an alternative to the reality shaped by the Oslo accords. They proposed a new binational state, in which there would be political equality between the Israelis and Palestinians. This alternative is quite bizarre, as the Zionist movement has always refused to recognise the national rights of the Palestinians. In addition, it epitomises an historic concession in abandoning the Palestinian right to live in their own state. It would grant them ‘political equality’ without self-determination in a capitalist state to be ruled by the USA’s Zionist agents.
Marxists examine the content of a ‘solution’ rather than its form. Thus, there are honest revolutionaries who endorse the programme of one socialist and democratic Palestinian state, in which full political equality will be bestowed upon all ethnic and religious minorities, including the Jewish population. There are Marxists who support the division of Palestine into two democratic and secular states with socialist content. In both cases, the most important thing is granting the right of self-determination to the two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians, without bringing about a bloody civil war among them.
The possibility of freeing the Palestinians from their national oppression does not depend on the form of the solution - namely one or two states - but rather on its character: full political and democratic rights to the two nations in Palestine, genuine democracy in terms of ending Zionist colonisation and oppression, and the return of Palestinian refugees to their towns and cities. In my eyes, a democratic and secular Israel can exist alongside a democratic and secular Palestine as much as a unified state for the two nations can exist; the question is rather the very nature of this political solution, not its form.
In class terms, the Palestinian problem is bound up with the international struggle to overthrow the capitalist system: namely the prison of the oppressed nations. The fate of the Palestinian working class is associated with the fate of the masses in the developed capitalist countries and in Latin America, Asia and Africa. The fate of Israel, imperialism’s agent in the Middle East, is therefore bound up with the fate of the colonialist bourgeoisie: any change in the status of the latter will influence the former. A true change in Israel, a revolutionary one, will put the country in the camp of the international working class and therefore enable its masses to fully enact their right to self-determination. The question is a class one: two democratic and secular states in Palestine, the direct result of a democratic movement, will enable the Palestinian and Israeli proletariats to emerge victorious out the class struggle. As soon as the national conflict is resolved, the path towards socialism and the unification of the country upon a class basis will be opened up.
It is worth noting that in Zionist eyes Palestinian self-determination cannot be tolerated, as it would mean the destruction of Israel. Therefore Zionist colonisation must continue. However, in this new digital era, the crimes of Zionism are exposed to international public opinion and, although there are many pro-Israeli reactionary regimes, it is evident that the global working class understands the Palestinian problem. There is therefore a need for a new Palestinian leadership that will carry forward and revive the struggle for the liberation of Palestine.
Unfortunately, the situation of the Palestinians reflects the general condition of the Arab world. The Arab regimes are corrupt: the ‘Arab spring’ movement did not produce new democratic regimes, and the Arabs are divided because of US policies that wish to bind Arab states to its own interests. There is no doubt that sooner or later another ‘spring’ will come, but the strength of Israel and the weakness of the Arabs will endure as long as the Arab world is not revolutionised by its workers and peasants. The victory of the Arab revolution in whatever form would produce change in Israel too. The prospect of changing Israel’s nature and transforming it into a democratic and secular state on the road to socialism depends on the liberation of the Arab masses and in the formation of democratic and secular regimes across the Middle East.
Having said that, it is hard to define the exact framework in which the Palestinian question will be solved. However, any genuine and just solution must come at the expense of the Zionist state that depends on the colonisation of the Palestinian masses. It is evident that the existence of Israel as a regime dedicated to the Zionist cause contradicts historical justice and any viable solution would see the end of Zionist rule over Palestine, thus paving the way towards a truly democratic settlement of the conflict. At the same time, it is important to stress that the victory of the Palestinian revolution - a working class revolution - depends on the defeat of a Palestinian bourgeoisie that defends its own narrow interests and privileges. This bourgeoisie has accepted the situation in which Palestinian toilers are deprived of their basic human rights. The Palestinian problem is therefore a problem of leadership and programme. It will not be solved unless new revolutionary leadership emerges out of the current crisis.
Although the current international situation will inevitably produce serious confrontation between the masses and the ruling class, the working class lacks the leadership and the programme to secure its victory. There is no prospect for genuine revolutionary change unless the revolutionary subject - namely the working class - is organised and led by its own parties, able to utilise the crisis of capitalism in order to build a new international socialist order. Without such an alternative, there is no possibility of saving humankind from the terrible dangers embodied in the capitalist system. However, it is necessary to insist that the current political parties of the left fail to provide adequate leadership due to their own internal crisis of leadership and programme.
Many political parties which were associated with Moscow during the previous century are actually dead or totally reformist. The social democratic parties defend the capitalist order and suggest nothing in class terms besides capitulation to the bourgeoisie. As for Maoists or Trotskyists, they cannot overcome their past errors. The Maoists were betrayed by China’s policy of accepting the dictates of the capitalist economies, especially that of the US, and learned no lessons from the Soviet past. Meanwhile, the Trotskyists stood for ‘political’ revolution against the Soviet Union, endorsed movements that were hostile to the socialist camp and eventually contributed to the imperialist effort to eliminate the Soviet Union.
The fact that such politics have managed to survive up to this very day vindicates the assessment that they are nothing but remnants of the pre-globalisation epoch, having an outdated programme which leads them to side with leaderships and states that have nothing to do with the interests of the working class. All of them will be eliminated as a result of the current political and social crises.
There is therefore a great need to understand the nature of our epoch in order to adequately perceive the national question, especially in Palestine. Palestine needs a working class party that will unify the Palestinian masses who live there with the refugees who have been expelled by the Zionists over the years. This party will seek to build a secular, socialist and democratic Palestine, in which Christians, Muslims and Jews will be equal, either alongside a socialist, democratic and secular Israel or in the framework of one unified state that grants national and democratic rights to the two nations. The future lies in the hands of the toilers in Israel and Palestine, who must reject their corrupt leaders and open the road towards genuine liberation