Class, nation and religion

These forty-one theses on the Arab awakening and Israel-Palestine were agreed by the CPGB membership aggregate in June 2011. Though obviously dated in this or that respect, the broad strategic outline remains all too relevant

1. The Arab awakening has been truly inspiring. People were prepared to die in order to see an end to the military, semi-military and monarchical dictatorships.

2. There are many factors behind the Arab awakening. Increases in food and other commodity prices, falling living standards and growing poverty. However, there is more to the Arab awakening than economics.

3. All classes and strata were swept up in the maelstrom. In other words, there is a movement towards a democratic revolution. That is to be unreservedly welcomed and encouraged. Whatever happens in the short to medium term, US imperialism and imperialism in general have suffered a huge setback. Israel too has been weakened.

4. Obviously no genuinely democratic revolution has really happened anywhere in the Arab world. A few presidents have gone. But in the main it has been the forces of Islamism that have gained the most. There is the danger that a declining US will re-impose imperialist control by reaching an historic compromise with Islamist forces, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood. We have already seen imperialism incorporating the democratic movement in the Arab world. That is what has happened in Libya.

5. Marxists support those who are fighting for a real, thoroughgoing revolution that clears away all the muck of oppression. That means abolishing the secret police, replacing the professional army with a popular militia, closing down the old ruling parties, beginning land redistribution and the formation of co-ops, confiscating corrupt wealth, and putting privatised and nationalised industries under workers’ control.

6. Clearly the working class is not in a position at the moment to take power in any Arab country. Hence the Marx-Engels strategy of making the revolution permanent. Communists do not want to see stable governments, but an ever widening democratic space available to the working class. Specifically that means demanding free speech, ending censorship, winning the right to publish, the right to form trade unions, co‑ops, workers’ defence guards and political parties. Working class parties must not align themselves with any left nationalist, Islamist or liberal coalition or government. Indeed they must constitute themselves as parties of extreme opposition.

7. Only when the workers’ party commands a clear popular majority and can realistically hope to carry out its entire minimum programme should taking part in/forming a government be considered.

8. Besides particular struggles to overthrow this or that leader, this or that regime, there is abundant evidence of the continued existence of an unresolved Arab national question. The mass movement in Tunisia fed into Egypt and the mass movement in Egypt fed into Yemen, etc, etc.

9. There are nearly 300 million Arabs in a contiguous territory that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean, across north Africa, down the Nile to north Sudan, and all the way to the Persian Gulf and up to the Caspian Sea. Though studded with national minorities - Kurds, Assyrians, Turks, Armenians, Berbers, etc - there is a definite Arab or Arabised community. Despite being separated into over 20 different states and divided by religion and religious sect - Sunni, Shi’ite, Alaouite, Ismaili, Druze, Orthodox Christian, Catholic Christian, Maronite, Nestorian, etc - they share a strong bond of pan-Arab consciousness, born not only of a common language, but of a closely related history.

10. Arabs are binational. There are Moroccans, Yemenis, Egyptians, Jordanians, etc. But there is also a wider Arab identity, which has its origins in the Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries. Admittedly the Arabs were politically united for only a short period of time historically: eg, under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates.

11. It was the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, through the combined efforts of Russian tsarism and Anglo-French imperialism, that triggered the birth of modern Arab nationalism. Hence European capitalism helped both to disunite the old Arab nation and to create the conditions for a rebirth.

12. Hopes invested in the Young Turks quickly passed. So did illusions in platonic imperialism. Britain encouraged Arab nationalism against Ottoman Turkey in World War I, only to disappoint and betray. France and Britain greedily carved up the Middle East between themselves. Pleas for a single Arab state in the Mashreq fell on deaf ears. The creation of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq suited the needs of Britain and France, but was a crime as far as Arab nationalists were concerned. It ran completely counter to their aspirations.

13. Inevitably the two imperial robbers generated independence movements. The Balfour declaration (1917) and Zionist colonisation in Palestine fed Arab nationalism too. However, the Saudi and Hashemite royal houses agreed to serve as puppets and, together with their British and French masters, again and again stymied the forces of pan-Arabism.

14. After 1945 and the triumph of US superimperialism, the Arab countries successively gained formal independence. But the Arab world remained Balkanised along the neat lines on the map drawn by the old colonial powers.

15. Oil money brought huge riches for the elites in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, etc. While that allows for a degree of clowning and posturing, the military, political and economic control exercised by the US cannot be hidden. Oil revenue is recycled through the purchase of US and British arms, invested in the money markets of London, New York, Frankfurt, Zurich and Tokyo, or frittered away on palaces, luxury jets, gambling and vanity projects.

16. Hence the situation in the Arab world is broadly analogous to Italy, Poland and Germany in 19th century Europe. The national question remains unresolved.

17. The most famous candidate for Arab unifier was Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70). This uncrowned Bonaparte led the Free Officers’ revolution in 1952, which overthrew the pro-British monarchy of Farouk I. Nasser then oversaw a radical agrarian reform programme, nationalised the Suez canal, allied Egypt with the Soviet Union and put his country on the course of state-capitalist development. This went hand in hand with crushing both the Muslim Brotherhood and the working class movement.

18. Nasser called it ‘Arab socialism’. Especially with his success in the 1956 Suez crisis - an Israeli invasion followed by a pre-planned joint French and British intervention and then an unexpected American veto - Nasser’s popularity soared throughout the Arab world. Pro-Nasser Arab socialist parties, groups and conspiracies were sponsored or established themselves. His name became almost synonymous with pan-Arabism.

19. Nasser demanded that natural resources be used for the benefit of all Arabs - hugely popular with those below. Everyone knew he meant oil. Of course, the house of Saud instantly became an implacable enemy. Nonetheless, because of mass pressure the Ba’athist authorities in Syria sought a merger with Egypt. Despite the repression suffered by their co-thinkers in Egypt, the ‘official communists’ and the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood likewise favoured unity.

20. The United Arab Republic was formed on February 1 1958. Nasser was appointed president and Cairo became the capital. Yet the UAR proved fleeting. Syrian capitalists did not gain access to the Egyptian market and Egyptian administrative personnel were painted by Syrian generals, bureaucrats and top politicians as acting like colonial officials. The union ignominiously collapsed in 1961, despite opposition from the Damascus street. However, from then onwards the UAR became a hollow pretence. It united no other country apart from Egypt.

21. The 1967 six-day war with Israel proved to be the final straw for Nasserism. Israel’s blitzkrieg destroyed the air forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan on the ground and by the end of the short-lived hostilities Israel occupied the Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Nasser was humiliated and died soon after a broken man.

22. As for Ba’athism, though it succeeded in spreading from Syria to Iraq, petty bourgeois nationalism ensured that the two Ba’athist states became bitter rivals. Nor did ‘official communism’ - an ideology of aspiring labour dictators - do any better. Under instructions from the Kremlin the ‘official communists’ tailed bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalism. Working class political independence has been sabotaged again and again. So has Arab unity. Eg, the ‘official’ Communist Party opposed the incorporation of Iraq into the UAR. State independence became a kind of totem. One disaster inevitably followed another. Mass parties were reduced to rumps or were liquidated.

23. Evidently, Arab reunification remains a burning, but unfulfilled task. The fact that Nasser’s short-lived UAR saw the light of day is testimony to mass support for Arab unity. What was a potent sentiment from the 1950s and into the 1970s needs to be revived in the 21st century in light of the Arab awakening and given a new democratic and class content.

24. Communists need to take the lead in the fight for pan-Arab unity. This task is inseparable from the struggle for socialist revolution and the formation of mass Marxist parties, first in this or that Arab country and then throughout the Arab world. A Communist Party of Arabia.

25. Marxists ought to advocate the formation of a democratic, centralised Arab republic - the form one can envisage for working class rule. This can only happen if first the working class sweeps away the existing regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq: that is, the most populous of the Arab countries. A revolutionary war might well be necessary to unite the entire Arab world - in particular so that the Arab masses can benefit from the oil wealth of the sparsely populated Arabian peninsula. It would be a just war, a war of liberation.

26. Zionism and the question of Palestine remains a contentious issue on the left. Conventionally, in Britain at least, what passes for the Trotskyite left damns Zionism as almost akin to fascism and calls for the immediate abolition of Israel and its replacement by a single, democratic, secular Palestinian state. At its most perverted, this stance - long since abandoned by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation - blurs into anti-Semitism. Under Gerry Healy the Workers Revolutionary Party’s anti-Zionism served as a politically correct codeword. Meanwhile, the WRP’s colour daily paper Newsline pumped out an endless stream of foul anti-Semitic propaganda and was in truth well rewarded for its efforts. Not in the form of sales to an eager British public ... rather subsidies and handouts worth many tens of thousands of pounds from grateful Middle Eastern regimes.

27. While communists have no truck with Zionism and condemn the colonial-settler origins of Israel, we recognise that since 1948 a definite Israeli Jewish nation has come into existence. To call for its abolition is unMarxist. Such a programme is either naive utopianism or genocidal. Both are reactionary. The Israeli Jewish nation is historically constituted. The Israeli Jews speak the same language, inhabit the same territory, have the same culture and sense of identity.

28. No democratic solution to the Israel-Palestine question can be won without the consent of the Israeli people. Yet, the fact is that despite the courage of a tiny minority of socialists, anti-militarists and refuseniks, the Israeli people have consistently, often overwhelmingly, supported the wars of their rulers irrespective of the atrocities involved. Why? Israel is a colonial settler state and all such states face the fundamental problem of what to do with the people whose land they have stolen.

29. During the wars of 1947-49, 1967 and 1973 well over a million Palestinians fled or were forcibly driven out of what is today Israel and those who remain - constituting some 20% of its population - deeply resent their position as second class citizens. Today there are over four million Palestinian refugees, according to the United Nations. Both the enemy within and without engenders a permanent state of insecurity.

30. Israel lives alongside those it dispossessed in perpetual conflict and war. Understandably, the Israeli population feels under siege and therefore willingly - desperate and maddened - supports, urges on, even the most misjudged acts of Israeli state terrorism in the vain hope of crushing the dispossessed Palestinians and ending the perpetual state of conflict, war and oppression.

31. The Palestinian national movement has been sustained only because of the existence of and its relationship with the wider Arab nation. Solving the Israel-Palestine question requires a combined Arab and proletarian solution. Communism and nationalism are antithetical. Nevertheless we champion the right of all oppressed nations to self-determination. In the conditions of Israel/Palestine that means supporting the right of the Palestinians where they form a clear majority to form their own state. Such a state is only realistic with a working class-led Arab revolution.

32. Communists do not deny the right of the Israeli Jewish nation to self-determination on the basis of some half-baked or perverted reading of classic texts. The right to self-determination is not a Marxist blessing exclusively bestowed upon the oppressed. It is fundamentally a demand for equality. All nations must have the equal right to determine their own fate - as long as that does not involve the oppression of another people. Hence communists recognise that the US, German and French nations have self-determination. Today that is generally unproblematic. However, we desire to see that same elementary right generalised to all peoples.

33. The only realistic and progressive solution to the Israel-Palestine question today must be based on the mutual recognition by both Palestinians and Israelis of each other’s national rights. Of course, it would be an excellent thing if both nations chose to live together in a single, democratic and secular state - why on earth would anyone wish to oppose such a thing? But that possibility does not even occur at the moment to the vast majority of Israelis. Of course, for Islamists and for much of the left in Britain alike, that matters not a jot - the Israeli Jewish nation has no right to exist. Therefore Israeli Jews have no right to determine the kind of state they wish to live under.

34. The immediate call for a single Palestinian state, within which the Jewish Israeli nationality is given citizenship and religious, but not national rights is, in present circumstances, to perpetuate division. Israeli Jews will not accept such a solution - the whole of the 20th century since 1933 militates against that. Israeli Jews would desperately fight with all means at their disposal ... and at huge cost in terms of human suffering and lives.

35. There is, however, the danger that the poles of oppression would be reversed if a single Palestinian state was born as a result of a violent caesarean operation. The Jews would become a dispossessed and oppressed nationality. The whole thing can be prettified by painting the “liberation of Palestine” as being the result of a “socialist revolution” led by the “Arab working class”. Pure deception. When all is said and done, what is being talked about here is the military conquest of Israel rather than a rapprochement between two peoples. Without military conquest, itself a highly unlikely outcome, the immediate call for a single-state solution remains totally impractical. Israel is fanatically nationalistic and militarily very strong - it is fulsomely backed by the US and in terms of its armed forces is ranked by some armchair generals as the fourth or fifth most powerful state on the face of the planet.

36. Does it follow that Israel cannot make peace with the Palestinians? That any Israeli settlement with the Palestinians is bound to be phoney? There can certainly be no democratic settlement on the basis of Israel as a religious state - any more than there can be on the basis of an Islamic Palestine. Yet the Israeli people are a real, living entity and cannot be dismissed, or wished away, just because Israel began as a settler colonial state - albeit of a special type. Settlers did not come mainly from a single home country. They came fleeing from Nazi Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.

37. A two-state solution effectively falls at the same sort of hurdles as the single-state solution. We cannot expect the Zionist state, as presently constituted, to concede the territory necessary to create a contiguous, viable Palestinian republic. Without a serious transformation in the regional, and indeed global, relation of forces, any such solution will inevitably leave in place the oppression of Palestinian and Israeli Arabs, and will thus be a mockery of democracy.

38. It is the job of communists to produce the change in regional and global conditions that will make a democratic solution possible. Whether this leaves present-day Israel/Palestine as two states, one state, a federal republic, etc will be dictated largely by the course of the Arab revolution. To this end, our immediate demands must be: the complete withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders, an end to military interference in the West Bank and the perpetual siege of Gaza, and full democratic and civil rights for all Arabs in Israel.

39. Additionally, for a democratic settlement to be possible, Palestinians must have the right of return. This is a right of habitation decided upon individually, or by family group. It is not a demand for a folk movement of the entire diaspora - which now inhabits not just Jordan, Kuwait, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, etc, but the US and many countries in western Europe too. Communists demand substantial compensation for the Palestinian people as a whole from the state of Israel for the historic injustice that was perpetrated upon them.

40. Only through the process of Arab reunification can we expect the growth of an anti-Zionist ‘enemy within’ the Israeli-Jewish nation and the growth of trust and solidarity between the two peoples and their eventual merger.

41. Equally, the Zionist colonial project and the arbitrary divisions among Arabs are substantially propped up by global imperialism. It is incumbent upon communists in the imperialist countries to force the termination of all military aid to Israel.