'Militant' economism and the Middle East

The outbreak of the second intifada, the mass struggle against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the rise of Ariel Sharon and his renewed and intensified state terrorism against the Palestinian people, the suicide attacks of Hamas and others against Israeli civilians - all these things pose point-blank the spectre of a barbaric outcome to the deep-going national conflicts of the Middle East. These events have led once again to much hand-wringing among capitalist politicians about how to deal with this thorny question. George Bush's latest initiative will presumably come to nought like the rest. Deeply entrenched imperialist interests are at stake in a region which is a continual source of instability and potentially mayhem due to the uncontrollable nature of the movements and struggles that the blatant injustices perpetrated by Israel repeatedly call into existence. If the ruling classes have enormous problems in coming up with a stable solution for the Middle East quagmire, the left has problems of its own. Of course, socialists have a duty to side with the Palestinians against Israel's state terror - that should go without saying. But mere solidarity is not enough - socialism is at bottom an international movement, with a mission to liberate the whole of humanity from all forms of oppression and exploitation. The instrument of that universal task of liberation being the international working class - the bringer of a new society based on communal control of the means of production and the unification of humanity in common endeavour and fraternity. If the left merely confines itself to going along with the necessarily partial consciousness and aims of particular oppressed populations or even nations, it gives up that revolutionary message in practice. Situations like that in Israel/Palestine are a touchstone of the socialist movement's ability to provide progressive solutions to all the horrendous forms of oppression and semi-barbarism that class society, in all its variations, has created. It has to be said that much of the left fails miserably to provide such a solution in relation to the complexities that are inherent in the Middle East. A classic example of this is the guilty, inverted kind of liberalism that much of the left displays regarding Israel: from the correct observation that the Palestinians are an oppressed people, and therefore the Israeli jews are currently their oppressors in national terms, comes a flat denial that Israelis have any rights as a people. The call for a 'democratic secular Palestine' by the Socialist Workers Party and a number of other left groups is a case in point. With no apparent means of realisation other than a total military defeat of Israel by the neighbouring reactionary Arab states, and at best implicitly (often explicitly!) ruling out the possibility of appealing to any section of Israeli society as an ally of the oppressed, this perspective, insofar as it has influence, only contributes to making those leftists who support it part of the impasse that prevents the development of a struggle for a progressive solution. Sections of the left have tried to formulate positions that go beyond this kind of simple-minded moralism on the national question. Making use of some of the political tools that Marxism developed in dealing with complex national questions in previous generations, particularly with regard to the many nationalities of the former tsarist empire, they attempt to formulate programmatic points to address the complex national questions of our day. Yet it is quite common for these attempts, however well meant, to remain abstract, and to evidence different forms of the same kind of flaws that mar the approach of the rest of the left. In particular, the problem of economism - downplaying the importance of democracy and democratic demands in the here and now as a tool of the working class and the oppressed - is often a weakness that carries over even into such attempts at a class approach to the national question. One strand that has attempted to formulate a real solution to complex national questions using such programmatic tools is the Militant tradition, embodied not only in the Socialist Party/Committee for a Workers' International, but also in the Ted Grant-Alan Woods Socialist Appeal rump. A recent article by Hannah Sell demonstrates both the pluses and the minuses of the SP's approach (The Socialist May 17). Comrade Sell, in many ways correctly, advocates a kind of two-state solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict. In doing so, she makes correct criticisms of the SWP and others: "Many on the British left argue that the only possible solution is one state - a 'secular, democratic Palestine in which jews and Arabs can live together on the basis of freedom and equality' "¦ "The Socialist Workers Party argues that this can only be achieved by 'mobilising the weight of the Arab world' behind the Palestinians. This only emphasises how impossible it would be to convince the jewish working class that such a state would mean 'freedom and equality' for them." Comrade Sell's article also recognises both the reactionary character and manner of the foundation of Israel, and at the same time the fact that that reactionary outcome cannot simply be reversed, as the SWP and its co-thinkers like to imagine: "Genuine Marxists opposed the establishment of the state of Israel, recognising that it was built on the suffering of the Palestinian people, and moreover that it would become a bloody trap for the Israeli jews. However, Israel is now in existence and over time the population have developed a national consciousness. Given this, to deny the Israeli jews the right to their own nation is a violation of the right to self-determination "¦" Absolutely correct. But after this excellent beginning, comrade Sell veers sharply off course. For the SP's two-states position is explicitly formulated as a demand for two socialist states. While it rejects the Arab nationalist project of a enforced unitary state that denies the national rights of Israelis, the SP cannot bring itself to call for the formation of two states in the here and now: in other words, a real solution can only begin to be fought for after the overthrow of capitalism has taken place. Thus comrade Sell writes: "For the Palestinians to achieve victory it is essential that they split the majority jewish working class from Sharon and the Israeli ruling class. This can only be done by supporting the existence of two states - Palestinian and jewish - on a socialist basis, as a part of a voluntary confederation of the Middle East with democratic national rights for all minorities. "Under capitalism, any so-called Palestinian state would be at best a new version of the Palestinian Authority. However, the overthrow of the rotten capitalist regimes and the coming to power of democratic socialist governments would create the basis for genuine negotiations between the two peoples. "It would be possible to begin to negotiate a solution to even the most intractable problems. For example, the right of return is ruled out on a capitalist basis, and, even if it were to be somehow implemented under capitalism, it would only be a mirror image of what the jews did to the Palestinians in 1948. "However, a socialist Middle East could provide the full economic and social resources to absorb the millions of Palestinians who would be given the right to return and guarantee increased living standards for the whole population." There is an important partial truth here - that the working class of Israel can only be broken from the chauvinist Zionist exploiters by means of a programme that upholds the rights of all the nations that inhabit the region - including the Israeli jews. But there is also a crippling, self-defeating economism inherent in comrade Sell's whole programmatic and theoretical discourse. This manifests itself in the fatalism that leads comrade Sell to rule out any form of meaningful national state for the Palestinians under capitalism. Comrade Sell omits to explain how the working class on both sides can be won to the programme of socialist revolution which alone can "create the basis" for negotiations over conflicting national claims, it seems. Does comrade Sell seriously expect Israeli and Palestinian workers to unite behind demands for higher wages and better healthcare as the way to put socialism on the agenda? In fact no lasting unity is possible - even around trade union-type demands - unless both groups are won to the idea of defending the other's national rights. Is it possible to win the working class to a programme of socialist revolution without it being broken from reactionary nationalist fear of the other side in the conflict? Or is it, on the contrary, a precondition of winning the working class to socialist consciousness that some sort of political breakthrough takes place regarding overcoming just this kind of ingrained fear and hatred? This is not, despite what some may claim, a tautology akin to 'Which comes first, the chicken or the egg'? On the answer to this question rests a necessarily enormous difference in perspectives. The former perspective is the real political root of the Militant tradition's whole historical attitude to situations of national oppression and national conflict, to its economism and denial of democratic struggles. The view that the precondition for the solution of democratic questions is 'socialism' - conceived purely as an economic system that acts as a cure-all for all contemporary problems - inexorably leads to seeing the fight for democracy as at best a diversion. Logically, it leads to the downplaying of difficult democratic questions in the belief that, if only these can be conjured away, they will be solved as a matter of course after socialism is achieved. In the meantime, a key task is to avoid the working class being 'divided' by questions that are viewed as external to the struggle for socialism, which is viewed almost entirely as economic. Of course, this kind of 'class unity' approach from the Socialist Party is not new. Over the national liberation/communal conflict in Northern Ireland, and indeed the Middle East, it has held these kinds of positions for decades. Particularly in Northern Ireland, the old Militant Tendency's counterposition of abstractly 'socialist' solutions long involved both a correct recognition of some realities that much of the left were reluctant to face, as well as unfortunately a tendency to economism - posing 'bread and butter' struggles as the alternative to the existing national conflict, instead of proposing an active struggle for democratic solutions as the key. This kind of abstract counterposing of economic demands to the national question often led Militant and its successors to lose sight of the progressive content that exists in the programme of the organisations of the oppressed. Thus in Ireland, it dismissed the republican movement as sectarian and communalist, not much better than its loyalist enemies. This meant effectively turning a blind eye to the fact that the northern statelet was defined not merely by its being capitalist and anti-working class - in that respect it was no different from any other - but centrally as a fundamentally anti-democratic, anti-catholic sectarian entity, whose whole tenuous stability depended on gerrymandering to deprive what were in fact powerful local nationalist majorities of any say in government in the province. The failure to recognise this democratic question, and the progressive positions of the republican movement with regard to it, meant that Militant's position was in reality a form of imperialist economism. Thus, while it was correct to reject the simplistic left's tailing of nationalism, and the rejection of all rights for oppressor peoples per se in such situations, Militant's postponement of the struggle for a democratic solution until after the revolution often manifested itself in practice as a passive acceptance of backwardness in the name of 'unity'. Thus it acquired a hardly creditable reputation for conciliation with various unsavoury 'working class' loyalists, and for taking a dive on the question of opposition to the presence of British troops - effectively boycotting anti-imperialist political activity over the Irish question for the entire period of the war. All this is inside-out from the point of view of Marxism - it also in practice undermines the political goals it abstractly sets itself. In particular, it misses the fact that democratic demands, the fight for real advances in the conditions in which the working class wages its struggles, are a key motor force in revolutionising the working class itself. In fact, in the conditions of Israel/Palestine, democratic demands are arguably the key element that makes up a programmatic bridge to socialist consciousness - the experience of workers of both nationalities in fighting for each other's rights in the here and now will be indispensable in making the proletariat a class that is capable of exercising state power - a political class at the head of the struggle for the liberation of humanity. Ian Donovan