Wider solution needed
The SWP is championing a single-state Palestine using mistaken comparisons with apartheid South Africa. When it comes to Israel-Palestine, there is no bourgeois democratic solution, writes Eddie Ford
Zionism and the question of Palestine/Israel has long been a difficult and contentious issue. Historically, most of the far left in Britain has called for the abolition of the present-day Zionist state of Israel and its replacement by a larger Palestine that will be multi-ethnic, secular and allow for religious freedom - though exactly how that would come about largely goes unexplained. You could say that it is summed up by the slogan, ‘From the river to the sea’, that refers geographically to the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea - that is, the historic boundaries of mandate Palestine, as bequeathed by British colonialism.
As a slogan, it was initially popularised by the Palestine Liberation Organisation upon its founding in 1964 as a “main goal of the movement” - but over the decades it has been open to different interpretations and meanings. Something that the Labour MP for Middlesbrough, Andy McDonald, found out to his cost when he was suspended for using these “deeply offensive” words at the huge pro-Palestinian demonstration the other week in London. Presumably on the grounds, as home secretary Suella Braverman would have us believe (and which Sir Keir Starmer goes along with), that the slogan is an “expression of a violent desire to see Israel erased from the world” and thus must be anti-Semitic, as Israel likes to call itself the homeland for all Jewish people.
Anyway, the Socialist Workers Party - taking their cue from the PLO - has long argued for a one-state solution to the Palestine/Israel question. Therefore, ever since the current Israel-Hamas war began, we have been expecting an article to appear in Socialist Worker reaffirming and explaining its position. Well, it finally appeared last week in ‘Single state solution’ by Sophie Squire (November 1). She is a staff writer, so what she says must be taken as an authoritative statement of the SWP’s position.
The problems with her article are immediately apparent: South Africa is presented as the model to emulate. Yes, “winning a single democratic state will be no easy task”, she admits, and “revolutions across the neighbouring countries of the Middle East are needed to dismantle the imperialist backing that Israel relies on for its survival”. Yet “the case of South Africa shows it’s possible to topple an apartheid regime”, going on to argue that “the threat of a revolution forced white South African leaders to dismantle apartheid laws that separated and disenfranchised black South Africans from white ones.”
Firstly, what sort of revolutions in “neighbouring countries”? It is quite conceivable that the Muslim Brotherhood and their like could overthrow the Sisi military regime in Egypt and the Hashemite kingdom in Jordan. But such a revolution would be counterrevolution from day one. And, of course, that would do nothing to put a stop to US backing for Israel. Quite the reverse.
Secondly, apartheid in South Africa was not “toppled”. There was the threat of revolution, yes, in which Angola and Mozambique served as front-line states, where Umkhonto we Sizwe trained and organised attacks into South Africa. Nor does comrade Squire want to mention the role of Cuba in defeating South African forces in Angola or the overall backing provided by the Soviet Union. After its collapse in 1991, the African National Congress and the ‘official’ South African Communist Party agreed to a smooth transition whereby blacks got the vote but capitalism would be left untouched. This was not forced upon the US and its imperialist allies. It is what they wanted … and facilitated. True, some black politicians made their way into the ranks of the capitalist class, not least through corruption, but there can be no doubt that the mass of the population are no better off in material terms than they were under apartheid. South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on the planet.
Most importantly, however, comrade Squire shows no understanding of the Marxist theory of colonialism. She knows the Boer word ‘apartheid’ can be applied to both South Africa and Israel and assumes that therefore they must be alike. They are not.
This shows the advantage of the analysis supplied over many years by comrade Moshé Machover and others who have regularly featured in the pages of the Weekly Worker. True, up to a point, you can go along with the apartheid designation - clearly, the Israeli state is racist and discriminatory. Only the likes of Suella Braverman and Sir Keir Starmer would dispute that. But, going back to the works of Karl Kautsky and before that Karl Marx himself, it is clear that we must distinguish between different types of colonialism.
In Capital volume 1, Marx wrote about three types of colonialism. First there are “plantation colonies for exports only” - giving the example of the West Indies. Secondly, there are colonies “in rich and well populated countries … given over to plunder”, such as Mexico and India. And, thirdly, Marx wrote about colonies “properly so-called” like New England.
Karl Kautsky, the leading thinker of the Second International at the beginning of the 20th century, neglected to mention plantation colonies - he just talked about “exploitation colonies” in places like India and Mexico, and “work colonies”, where the direct producers are settlers themselves (unlike Marx, Kautsky was quite complimentary about work colonies).
Instead of exploiting the native masses, the colonists exclude them, drive them off the land, kill them. That was not the case in South Africa. Black labour was vital for the mining industry. Whites tended to be supervisors. This is not the case in Israel. From the start Zionism set itself the aim of establishing a work colony … an ongoing project. Palestinian workers have come into Israel from Gaza and the West Bank. But what Israeli capital has turned to for cheap labour is the far, not near, abroad. Note, during the October 7 Hamas attack, at least 30 Thai nationals, four Filipinos and 10 Nepalis are so far known to have been killed. Overall, there are reportedly more than 100,000 foreign workers in Israel, with the majority working as caregivers, as well as in agriculture and construction. Also, it seems that Israel is seeking out Indian workers to substitute for Palestinian labourers, in response to the recent cancellation of work licences for tens of thousands of Palestinian employees following the Hamas attacks.1 More to the point, being a work colony, the system is designed to discriminate in favour of Jewish labour against Arab labour.
Crucially, as comrade Machover has pointed out, “there are few laws in history”, but one law that you can confidently formulate is that, wherever what Kautsky called “work colonies” have taken place in modern times, “a new settler nation comes into existence” and “this has happened everywhere” - New England, Australia, New Zealand - and, of course, it has happened in Palestine too.2
Whether we like it or not, Israel, founded as it was on a mass act of ethnic cleansing, has since 1948 gone hand in hand with the coming into existence and consolidation of a definite Israeli Jewish nation - Israeli Jews are united in the same economy, speak the same language, inhabit the same territory, have the same culture and sense of identity. You cannot uninvent the historically constituted Israeli Jewish nation (or Hebrew nation), and it would be deeply unMarxist and reactionary to try to abolish it - they would desperately fight you with all means at their disposal and at huge cost in terms of human suffering and lives.
You need to break Israeli workers from Zionism, not get rid of them, which must mean gaining their consent. That can only come about by recognising their national rights - rather than assigned minority ‘religious rights’ for a population about half of whom are atheists or non-believers, which would be a recipe for failure and perpetual division. Remember, even if Palestinians get the right to return, there would roughly be equal numbers of Israeli Jews and Palestinians in Palestine. And, of course, the Palestinians are in no position to force anything on the Israeli Jews. All they can do is resist.
At the moment the Israeli-Jewish nation is a privileged, oppressor, nation. Israel-Jewish workers are not going to swap their position in that nation for mere equality in a putative single-state Palestine (if that were possible). Nor are they going to accept a reversal of the poles of oppression. That is why the perspective of socialism and a regional Arab revolution led by the working class is absolutely essential. There can be no bourgeois democratic solution.
That was not the case in South Africa. The potential revolution was obviously premised on mobilising the black masses, who were the overwhelming majority. Whites were divided between Afrikaans and English speakers and constituted not nations: rather a labour aristocracy. However, though we did not want it, there was a bourgeois democratic solution.
Hence, those comrades who use the word ‘apartheid’ purely to mean discrimination are missing something fundamental if they think the solution to the Palestine/Israel question can be a managed transition under capitalism - which is what the SWP’s Sophie Squires appears to suggest. Though she refers to “revolution” a few times, what is not mentioned once is socialism or the role of the working class - a very significant absence. She seems to think that with enough pressure, enough heroic actions, enough street protests, enough strikes, Israel can be pushed towards a one-state solution.
Sorry, this is delusional - completely naive at best. Then again, it is no less delusional than believing in a two-state solution that Israel will never accept. The US pays lip service to the idea, but it knows full well how Israel will react to any such talk - so when the White House talks about a two-state solution, it is lying. At least Benjamin Netanyahu tends to be more honest along those lines. Those advocating either a one-state or two-state approach suffer from the same illusion that a solution can be found within the Israel-Palestine box.
Of course, what is happening in Israel is that politics is moving in a much more blunt and brutal direction - when it comes to rhetoric. Israel has always been an oppressive, expansionist, racist state since its origins in Labor Zionism, which used to prettify its colonial project by calling it socialism and claiming to spread civilisation to the barbaric Arab world. The revisionist wing of Zionism did not go in for such pretty words, saying quite rightly that the Arab masses will resist colonisation and will therefore have to be crushed - exactly Benjamin Netanyahu’s message when it comes to Gaza.
‘Two impossibilities’ Weekly Worker May 12 2022: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1395/two-impossibilities.↩︎