No change of line
Mike Macnair responds to Daniel Lazare on BDS, the Israel Jewish working class and the necessity of opposing the witch-hunt
We do not usually reply to polemics in the same issue of the paper, but sometimes it seems necessary. In this case, the issue in question is centrally connected to the ‘anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt, which remains fundamental to the political affairs of the British workers’ movement. This witch-hunt is driven by the demand of the British state core, run out of some part of the security apparat, that the Labour Party should display conspicuous loyalty to the Atlantic alliance. The form of displaying Atlanticist loyalism is to characterise opposition to US Middle East policy as ‘anti-Semitic’ (and therefore ‘racist’).
The principal argument usually offered is ‘whataboutery’: ie, that targeting Israel for opposition to its conduct towards the Palestinians is itself anti-Semitic, because it singles out the Jewish state and not other, equally criminal, states. This concept of ‘new anti-Semitism’ was invented by Israeli Foreign Minster Abba Eban in the early 1970s, and rapidly taken up by the United States and its cheerleaders, though its spread to Europe has been more recent. An additional argument, specifically targeted at the labour movement, is for class solidarity of the British, or American, workers with Israeli Jewish workers.1
The battle of the capitalist state, to restore its control of the Labour Party after the Corbyn episode, is nearly finished, with the revival of Labour’s standing in the polls under securocrat Sir Keir Starmer, giving the Labour right reasons to crow. But it is not quite over, and the capitalist media as well as the Labour right have had a scare and are keen to secure ‘never again’. The witch-hunt, therefore, continues, in the context of a more generally increasing tendency to censorship in the name of preventing ‘harassment’ under the ultra-broad section 26 of the Equality Act 2010.
In this context, while we did not want to refuse to print comrade Lazare’s polemic against the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign - given that his original comment was a mere side-swipe - to print it without contradicting it in the same issue would have the effect of associating ourselves politically with some of the primary tropes of the witch-hunters.
I have undertaken the task of replying, partly because comrade Lazare’s polemic includes a piece of selective quotation from a 2007 article of mine, which he uses to claim that the CPGB has reversed its position on the issue. It is certainly true that we have shifted our position, though I do not think that this amounts to a reversal; this partly reflects the shift in the role of the ‘Palestine question’ in British politics, but it is also possible that my contribution to the 2007 discussion (which was not a party position, but explicitly, in part, a minority position) was, in part, wrong when I wrote it as part of the discussion at that time.2
To left variants of whataboutery and solidarity with Israeli Jewish workers, comrade Lazare adds an objection to boycotts in general as a tactic of the workers’ movement, and the criticisms of BDS made by the Robertsonite Spartacist tendency, Northite World Socialist Web Site and (from different angles) Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. He uses the Robertsonite arguments more extensively - for example, the reference to “the notorious Belgian revisionist, Ernest Mandel …” and other stylistic tics, such as the claim that Moshé Machover publishing in Big Flame, actually not a Maoist, but a ‘libertarian Marxist’ journal, was somehow unprincipled;3 but these can be left on one side for the moment as not central to our political concerns.
The case of Israel is distinct from other instances of tyrannical regimes. Israel is, at one level, unique as a live settler-colonial project which operates an ongoing programme of land seizures in the interests of settlers - this is comrade Machover’s point. Until rather recently, Israel was also unique in that the land seizures programme made Israel a ‘trespasser ab initio’ (like someone who comes into my house lawfully, but then assaults me) in the occupied territories, making 1967 (and the continued occupation and annexations since then) into a war of territorial aggrandisement, in violation of the Nuremberg Principles and UN Charter. Russia’s annexation of Crimea has ended this particular uniqueness.
In a sense more fundamental to the present issue, Israel’s relation to the USA is near-unique. Since the Kennedy administration, the US has pursued a policy of maintaining Israel’s ‘qualitative military edge’ over its neighbours.4 This is radically different from arms sales to third world countries (including Saudi Arabia) by the US and, earlier, the British. The only comparable cases are South Vietnam during the US’s war there, and South Korea (where the US view continues to be that a state of war exists, merely suspended by ceasefires). A consequence is that Israel has been and remains dependent on US resupply of munitions in order to carry on actual sustained large-scale military operations, so that the US can and does dictate cessation of these operations when its own interests call for this.
The result is that the military operations of Israel have to be seen as war operations of the USA, just as much as the military operations of the East India Company had to be seen as British war operations, in spite of the formal separation of the company and the British state. And hence, for US socialists, the issue of the policy of defeatism is posed.
I say this not merely because revolutionary defeatism was the policy urged by Lenin and Zinoviev in response to 1914, and the policy urged by the Communist International in relation to colonial wars in the 1920 ‘Twenty-one conditions’ and other Comintern texts. In the first place, English bourgeois revolutionaries allied with Scots invaders in 1639-40 and called for and supported a Dutch invasion of England in 1688. American revolutionaries in 1776-83 allied with Britain’s old enemy, France. In both cases the disloyalty to the existing state was essential to revolutionary victory. Secondly, it is clear that August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht’s refusal to vote for war credits in 1870 gave them a decisive edge in projecting a clear opposition to the Kaiser-state - a line which informed the Gotha unification, which remained fundamental to the success of the Social Democratic Party in building a mass working class movement, and which was only shattered in 1914.
This issue is relevant to what may be wrong with my 2007 article, and conversely to what has changed. My judgment in 2007 was that the question of defeatism was not immediately posed in relation to British communists and Israel, because
the strongest moral responsibility of British socialists is to oppose oppression for which the British state is immediately responsible. Right now, that means that opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the British state has a direct hand, is a more immediate priority than opposing the Israeli state, which since the mid-1960s has been a creature of the USA.
The background is that, while the US has funded and armed the Zionist enterprise since the early 1960s, until rather recently the US’s geostrategic orientation allowed Britain and France to continue close relationships with the Arab-speaking countries which emerged from their former colonial territories; and hence to manoeuvre on diplomatic issues in relation to support for Israel, offering public condemnation of Israeli actions of a sort unacceptable in the US. This background ‘Arabism’ was reflected in opposition within the British and French state cores to the 2003 invasion of Iraq - an opposition unsuccessful in Britain but temporarily successful in France. The US responded to this opposition by attacking the autonomy of the European countries on this issue through the ‘International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’ and its spurious definition of anti-Semitism.
My judgment in 2007 was thus that the UK was sufficiently distanced from the US’s Israeli client for it to be possible to pose the issue not as one of whether to support live pro- or anti-war campaigns, but as how to intervene in discussions so as to pose a strategic way forward for the working class in the region. In this context I argued that a targeted boycott, targeted on Israeli operations in the occupied territories, would be tactically preferable to BDS’s general boycott (and a fortiori BDS’s focus on ‘soft targets’).
I may have been wrong in that judgment, because the UK was already moving into the radical subordination to the US’s Israel policy which is now so prominent in British politics; at the same time, it is certainly the case that the present situation is one in which the choice between BDS and its opponents is a choice between the enemies and the supporters of a war effort to which the UK has become a party.
What does revolutionary defeatism require? Not, contrary to the Spartacists, ‘military but not political support’ to your country’s enemy. I have argued at some length on this issue in Revolutionary strategy (2008) Chapter 4, based on Lenin’s arguments, and I will not repeat those arguments here: the essence is that defeatism consists in conducting an anti-war agitation against your own state, which reaches as far as possible into the ranks of the armed forces. We cannot prevent the state from going to war or carrying on war by demonstrations, or strikes, or other measures short of ones which pose the question of power. But a serious and successful anti-war agitation which wins mass support and is carried into the ranks of the armed forces will undermine the fighting capacity of the armed forces and threaten state coherence: this is apparent both in 1917, on the largest possible scale, and in the US anti-Vietnam war movement and its implications in the US army in the late 1960s to early 1970s, which the US escaped by dumping the war.
It should be apparent from what I have already said that comrade Lazare is flatly wrong to claim that there is an abandonment of class politics when comrade Machover argues for BDS winning a battle in progressive public opinion, grassroots support, etc. Comrade Lazare counters that
Socialism does not seek to mobilise the public. To the contrary, it seeks to mobilise the workers and, in the process, draw as sharp a line as possible between them and all other social classes.
This argument is straightforwardly Lassallean (the other classes are ‘one reactionary mass’), not Marxist. The Marxist position - also argued at some length in Lenin’s What is to be done - is that the workers have to organise themselves in a political party, but to attempt to lead the society as a whole. In this context yes, winning a battle for public opinion in support of some working class interest is a task of the workers’ movement - here, the effort to defeat our own imperialist state’s war effort through building a mass anti-war movement.
In this context symbolic forms of action - like boycotts and so on - are entirely valid working class tactics. Effective working class boycotts - ‘secondary industrial action’, formerly called ‘blacking’, though this form of expression would now not be politically correct - is fundamental to solidarity beyond sectional struggles. Symbolic boycotts, and so on, promote the idea of solidarity. The point was the burden of my 2007 article which comrade Lazare quotes out of context.
The converse of this point is the issue of the Israeli Jewish working class as a ‘labour aristocracy’ (the quote marks indicating the problematic character of the category). The present situation, and that for most of the last century, is that the Israeli working class is a section of the international working class which is committed, for various reasons, to political support for the representatives of US capital and its Israeli client. In relation to actions taken against the Israeli state, this is an issue comparable to serious strike actions, in which it is inevitable and usual that the capitalist class and their state/s will set out to organise large-scale scabbing. The fact that scabs suffer in such strike actions is not an argument against the strike.
That remains true even where the strike is in defence of a policy which communists do not favour - like the defence of piece-work in British Leyland car factories in the 1970s or the struggle of the British print unions in defence of the pre-entry closed shop in the 1980s. Our interest in the class movement is not in the idea of a perfect purified workers’ movement but of the actual warts-and-all movement which very imperfectly points to the possibility of a cooperative future.
I argued in 2007, I think rightly, that we should not premiss our arguments on the impossibility of the overthrow of the Zionist regime without the conversion of the Israeli Jewish working class. If the US loses its global military primacy, or if it loses its strategic interest in Israel as a means of veto control on the Middle East oil taps (because the oil-driven military model is superseded), the Zionist regime will fail. The case is rather that it is preferable from the point of view of working class interests not to have a Götterdämmerung of the Israeli state. But it is almost certainly illusory to suppose that rejecting symbolic forms of action against the Israeli state will promote a break of the Israeli Jewish workers from Zionist-loyalism.
On the contrary, the weakening of the support of the imperialist sponsor (the US and its allies) can potentially cause Israeli Jewish workers to begin to look for alternative ways out. We may compare the case of Ulster loyalism, which has been precipitated into political decay by the British state’s manoeuvres with the ‘peace process’ and is now substantially weaker than it was 40 years ago.
As I said above, comrade Lazare uses, in support of his argument, the criticisms of the BDS campaign made by the Robertsonite Spartacist tendency (now apparently defunct), the Northite World Socialist Web Site, Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein; and he also uses polemical/stylistic ‘tics’ of Spartacist polemics.
What, it seems to me, is common to these very different critics, are forms of US patriotism submerged in other politics. This is transparent in Finkelstein, who has an ‘Israeli lobby’ conception of the US’s support for Israel, not a ‘US interests’ version. Chomsky sees himself as a patriot opposed to imperialism and jingoism.
In the case of the Northites and Robertsonites, what we are concerned with is an American-messianic policy in which the US working class has to lead the world revolution, which is covered by an extreme purity-politics opposition to any form of action against US imperialism which does not comply with very specific ideological pre-commitments. The American-messianic policy is an inheritance from mid-20th century Trotskyist leader James P Cannon, and took utterly grotesque forms in the private utterances of James Robertson.5
In the present case, the adverse effects on the BDS campaign of nationalist ideologies and soft-target policies do not alter the fact that for the US, and in today’s circumstances also for the UK, to pursue a purity-politics argument for rejecting outright support for the BDS campaign is unavoidably in practice to solidarise with the witch-hunters, who deploy closely related arguments.
I use the expression “Israeli Jewish workers” rather than comrade Machover’s “Hebrew workers” because, while “Hebrew workers” poses more clearly the national question, the Israeli Jewish workers include substantial numbers of recent settlers, the extent of whose use of Hebrew is debatable.↩︎
‘Boycotts and working class principle’ Weekly Worker Oct 11 2007. For other articles in that discussion see Hillel Ticktin, ‘Toothless motions and hysterical attacks’, September 20 2007; Tony Greenstein, ‘Solidarity with the oppressed’, September 27 2007; Moshe Machover, ‘Rights and wrongs’, October 4 2007. My article was also a polemic against a number of arguments from the Matgamnaite Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, better-called ‘Atlanticists for Workers’ Liberalism’.↩︎
Does he object to Trotsky in the 1930s publishing in rightwing papers?↩︎
www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/us-foreign-policy-and-israels-qualitative-military-edge-need-common-vision. This dates at least the expression to after the 1967 war; but the decisive steps taken by the Kennedy administration, as part of Cold War policy, are discussed by Vaughn P Shannon, Balancing act: US foreign policy and the Arab-Israeli conflict (Ashgate, 2003; Kindle edition, 2020) chapter 2, text at nn. 45-49.↩︎
Owen Gager, ‘James P. Cannonism’ Spartacist: A Marxist Journal, Vol. 3 No1 1973. www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/swp-us/misc-1/tpd01.htm; CommunisTCadre [sic], What the Spartacist League really stand for (nd - 1977-78) archive.org/details/What-The-Spartacist-League-Really-Stand-For-A-Self-Exposure-By-James-Robertson.↩︎