'Zionist' AWL in turmoil

Ian Donovan comments on the internal fight in the Alliance for Workers' Liberty: over the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iraq war and the politics of the Middle East in general

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s fortnightly paper Solidarity has over the last couple of months erupted into quite furious public debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iraq war and how the organisation relates to the politics of the Middle East in general.

One thing the AWL is usually noted for, of course, is that, like the CPGB, it publishes significant debates that take place in its own ranks in its public press (though anything that smacks of being soft on the CPGB is reportedly spiked). Despite this, the general culture of the AWL favourably contrasts with the diplomatic silences, secret internecine rows and some disastrous and often pointless splits that too often characterise and mar the left.

The issues being discussed here are extremely serious, and go rather beyond mere differences of tactics, temperament and nuanced analysis that ought to be the fare of a healthy communist organisation. Even though some participants may not themselves fully appreciate it, what is involved here though are questions fundamental to revolutionary politics itself. For the AWL is not a healthy communist organisation, but a rather complex, contradictory political amalgam whose adoption of the practice of freedom of public criticism owes little to any rediscovery of healthy Bolshevik norms of political struggle. Rather it results from a rejection of its one-time orthodox Trotskyism in favour of the politics held by Max Shachtman.

The AWL and its predecessors took from Shachtman not merely some of his correct but inadequately theorised criticisms of orthodox Trotskyism’s metaphysical insistence of the ‘proletarian’ nature of the Stalinised USSR and its later clone states. They also took other aspects of his political legacy, including elements of his later, chronically rightwing political evolution that eventually drew him right into the camp of social democracy, indeed of imperialism itself.

While the AWL have never actually endorsed Shachtman’s support for the 1961 US-inspired Bay of Pigs émigré invasion of Cuba, or his backing for US imperialism in Vietnam (indeed if they had done so they would have passed definitively out of the revolutionary camp), they did embrace a very specific aspect of Shachtman’s politics that points in that direction. That being his softness on, indeed sympathy for, the highly specific form of the Jewish national movement that historically is known as Zionism.

The AWL is a very historically minded organisation. Rightly so, of course, as Marxists are historical materialists and see the critical application of the lessons of past historical events as crucial for winning future victories for our class. A hint of the AWL’s attitude to Shachtman’s view of the Middle East in the war out of which Israel was created, in 1948, and also a hint of the problems of the AWL’s approach today on this question, is shown by the following analysis extracted from an article by Sean Matgamna a few years ago on this very question:

“Trotskyists stated plainly in documents from the 1940s (by Tony Cliff, for example) that anything other than support for the ‘Arab revolution’ against the Jews of Palestine/Israel would make it impossible for them to ‘integrate’ into that ‘sector of the world revolution’. There was dissent. Some French Trotskyists backed the Zionist guerrillas against Britain. The Shachtman group … rejected the vicarious Arab chauvinism of the ‘orthodox Trotskyists’. The Mandel-Pablo core group of ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ came out for rights of Jews within a Middle East federation …

“In the 1940s the ‘orthodox’ Trotskyists were not unabashed in their ‘Arabism’. They did not back the Arabs in the 1948 war. But it was different after the Six-Day War of June 1967 ...” (‘Trotskyism and the Jews’ Workers’ Liberty No31).

Or, as Matgamna approvingly highlighted as another example of such “dissent” in a later, adapted version of the same article, “…the Workers Party of Max Shachtman and Hal Draper critically supported the Jews [ie, the Israeli side in the 1948 war]” (‘Trotsky and the Jewish question and Palestine’, bulletin for SWP’s Marxism 2001).


From such little acorns do mighty oaks of political deviation grow. Matgamna’s evident approval of the “dissent” of the French Trotskyist group that seemingly supported the ‘anti-imperialist’ Haganah and Irgun Zionist militias hardly points to an anti-nationalist, consistently democratic position. Nor does his evident approval of Shachtman’s “dissent”, which again involved not what some would call a ‘third-campist’ position but actually taking sides with Israel against the Arabs. In pursuit of this polemic, Matgamna disingenuously equates the positions of Tony Cliff (hardly an “orthodox Trotskyist” in anyone’s terms) with the mainstream of the Trotskyist movement in the late 1940s. In reality, Cliff’s variety of state capitalist politics represented a small minority - a minority that, in terms of its ‘third camp’ analysis of the USSR question, was in fact closely associated with Shachtman’s current - whatever its then embryonic differences on the Israel/Palestine question.

The mainstream of the Trotskyist movement was at that point led (I would say misled, though not so much on this question) by the US Socialist Workers Party of James P Cannon, along with his then co-thinkers such as Pablo, Mandel, Healy, etc. And the position that the US SWP took on the 1948 war, which led to the formation of the state of Israel on approximately 78% of the territory of the former British mandate of Palestine, was one of opposition to both sides in the conflict between the Haganah/Irgun and Arab League armies that divided Palestine between them.

At the same time though they supported what little independent resistance was possible by the Palestinian inhabitants that were being expelled from their homeland en masse by the founders of Israel. This perspective, as Matgamna is forced to concede, did indeed involve a place for the Zionist-led Jewish communities with rights in a Middle East federation. However, quite correctly at that point, the Trotskyist movement opposed the foundation of a Jewish state, that could only come about through the expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs from their homeland, as Zionist leaders from Ben Gurion and Weizmann to Jabotinsky and Begin had always been fully aware.

For Matgamna, this correct and orthodox Marxist position of no support for wars of conquest by predatory nationalist movements and reactionary bourgeois regimes is defined as being a form of Arabism, though not of course “unabashed” Arabism. These sneaky, covert Arabists only dropped their shyness about their Arabism after 1967. But the conclusion of Matgamna’s ‘historical’ analysis is obvious: that there was no fundamental programmatic difference between the Arabism of the Cliffites, Healyites, Mandelites, etc in 1967 and the opposition to all forms of reactionary nationalism that characterised the position of the mainstream of the Trotskyist movement in 1948. All were for Matgamna forms of ‘Arabism’; from his standpoint the only correct position was Shachtman’s position of ‘critical support’ for Israel. In reality, what had happened was a complete loss of perspective in the intervening years, which led particularly the then dominant Mandelite tendency to tail virtually every radical movement on the face of the planet, irrespective of their absurd pretensions and baseless promises.

Shachtman (and his French co-thinkers) had at least some excuse in terms of the ‘fog of war’ and some degree of ignorance of what was going on - there is some evidence he may have had second thoughts about his 1948 position later, in the 1950s. Irrespective of that, the historical fact that the outcome, and indeed aim, of the Israeli war effort was the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their homeland seems to mean very little to Matgamna even with decades of hindsight. Indeed, 68% of the population of historic Palestine were dispossessed and driven out in the 1948 war - not only an act of vicious ethnic bigotry, but also, one would think, for a tendency that prides itself on its democratism, somewhat undemocratic - after all, what was done was roughly: get rid of the majority, then have an election and call it democratic.

Critical support for the nascent Israel in the 1948 war amounts to critical support for a massive pogrom and violation of democracy, no matter how you dress it up. It requires a large chunk of Matgamna’s considerable skill in historical obfuscation to even begin to make a case to justify it in the usual terms of juggling quotations, citing precedents, etc. Nevertheless this placing of Matgamna’s attitude to the formation of the state of Israel is useful in beginning an evaluation of the debate that has erupted in the AWL over Matgamna’s recent announcement of the organisation’s explicit Zionism, and on questions related to the Middle East in general. In particular, it provides some useful historical background that puts in context Matgamna’s recent trumpeting that the AWL is not merely a “little bit Zionist”, but an out-and-out, proudly “Zionist” organisation.

Matgamna is quite right: the AWL is, in some definable sense, a Zionist organisation (it is also a rather peculiar, hybrid form of revolutionary socialist sect). His definition as to why his organisation is Zionist is however bifurcated: “A Zionist is anyone who believes in a Jewish state as a solution to the age-long ‘gentile question’ which, taking a variety of ideological, political, religious and ‘national liberationist’ forms, has plagued the ‘people without a state’ for 2,000 years. In practice now it means a belief in the right of Israel to exist and defend its existence.

“The overwhelming majority of the people of Britain and Europe are this sort of ‘Zionist’. Not a ‘little bit Zionist’, but Zionist in the fundamental historical sense of the word.”

These are actually two different propositions: the one does not necessarily follow from the other at all. It is perfectly possible to believe in “the right of Israel to exist and defend its existence” today without believing that “a Jewish state” is “a solution to the age-long ‘gentile question’ …” Matgamna’s assertion that this has “plagued the ‘people without a state’ for 2,000 years” is pure nationalism, the kind of myth that is not unique to Jews at all: similar sentiments could be expressed by pan-Africanists, pan-Arabists, pan-Slavists and so forth. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Marxism. The fact that Matgamna has been driven to openly proclaim this aspect of his politics is a real victory for political clarification on the British left, for it simply means that he has in reality renounced key elements of formal Marxism in favour of nationalism. He has moved from claiming to merely defend the national rights of all peoples to endorsing the national myths and illusions of his own chosen/adopted people.

It is perfectly possible to believe that the foundation of Israel was a reactionary event, a fait accompli that came into existence by means of crimes against another people, while opposing present-day attempts to roll back history and ‘destroy Israel’ by reconquest - something that, given the irreversible historical events that have changed the face of the Middle East since the British colonial rule of 1917-48, could only cause another reactionary injustice, potentially as bad as the first. That position is both militantly anti-Zionist and consistently democratic. As AWLer Bruce Robinson put it in his recent reply to Matgamna on this very question, “Seeing the Zionist project as historically and ideologically flawed is certainly not incompatible with supporting the rights of Israeli Jews to their own state, which has today existed for over 50 years. There are probably many Israelis today who would not consider themselves Zionists in the ideological sense but would oppose a threat to their national rights” (Solidarity October 9).

Earlier in his critique, comrade Robinson remarks that Matgamna/O’Mahony is in a “minority of one” within the AWL on this question. Indeed, it does appear that comrade Matgamna is taking considerable flack from a number of different quarters for various aspects of his politics on the Middle East. He has of course been publicly criticised by comrade Robinson and also by Daniel Randall for his declaration of the AWL’s ‘Zionism’ - comrade Robinson’s citation of Martin Thomas’ previous formulation that the AWL was “a little bit Zionist” in that it defended Israel’s right to exist, as opposed to Matgamna’s more unequivocal formulation, suggests, though nothing has yet been published on this, that Matgamna’s closest collaborator, comrade Thomas, is also at odds with him at some level on this question.


And then there are the criticisms by Mark Osborne, Clive Bradley and Dan Nicholls of Matgamna’s position on the Bush ‘road map’, which has resulted in a to-and-fro exchange, particularly between comrade Osborne and Matgamna, with Martin Thomas backing up Matgamna’s position on this aspect of the Middle East question. Of course earlier there was the scathing criticism by Mark Sandell of the AWL’s record on the Iraq war, which criticised the group’s failure to defend Iraq’s right to self-determination against the US-UK invasion, and expressed the view that the material published in the AWL’s press amounted to failing the “test of war”.

In thrust, the criticisms raised by these comrades are basically correct. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that they are also missing something. Comrade Matgamna certainly appears isolated within his own organisation at this point. Indeed this level of dissent from prominent figures in an organisation of the insubstantial weight of the AWL is an indicator that it is going through a profound political crisis.

Another indicator of crisis, which found public expression earlier, was the hysterical response of Matgamna and his close supporters to external criticism of the AWL’s views on the Middle East, particularly from comrades writing in the Weekly Worker. Vituperative replies were published that in their vulgarity and complete lack of politics resembled the sort of abuse normally seen from the most unsavoury, cultist organisations on the left - Healyites or Sparts - towards those who criticise them.

Normally, nuances of difference can be expected within the framework of virtually every political current you could care to mention. However, when an organisation’s politics on a fundamental question contains within it a crying contradiction, which is always present just below the surface, then disputes that may appear to the participants initially to be about secondary matters can suddenly acquire an explosive character.

The AWL’s politics contain such a fundamental contradiction, particularly on the Israel-Palestine conflict, between its claim to be upholding a policy of consistent democracy and the defence of the rights of both peoples on the one hand, and its political softness towards Zionism on the other hand. The AWL’s healthier elements may protest angrily against Matgamna’s bald and brash statement of what the AWL’s politics really are, but in fact Sean is really just being consistent. His statement of the AWL’s Zionism is consistent, not with the upholding of a position of ‘two states’ (if that were true it would make Yasser Arafat, the late Edward W Said, the CPGB, and a whole host of other opponents of Zionism ‘Zionists’), but rather with certain other positions of the AWL.

Law of return

Such as the endorsement, analysed earlier, of Shachtman’s pro-Israeli position on the 1948 war. Such as the AWL’s opposition to raising the demand for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to what is now Israeli territory. Such as the AWL’s support for the so-called ‘law of return’ that allows Jews who have never seen the territory of Israel in their lives to ‘return’ there, while Palestinian Arabs are barred even though they were born there (or their parents were before being exiled). The AWL’s support for the ‘law of return’, in particular, which is inseparable from its opposition to the right to return of Palestinian refugees, makes the AWL an outright opponent of a secular, democratic Israeli state. For a state that defines the right to residence and citizenship primarily on grounds of ethnicity and religion (the two, in the rare case of the Jews as a people-religion, are closely and symbiotically related), cannot possibly be democratic and secular.

Matgamna, and probably his AWL opponents too, will counter this by pointing to the ‘secular’ manifestations of Zionism, the Labour Zionist tradition, etc. But this secularism is built on sand, is self-contradictory, and is ultimately an oxymoron. A state that is built on an exclusivist, Jewish basis - even though, as in the earlier period of Israel, it is dominated by emancipated, non-clericalist Jews who proclaim the necessity of keeping the synagogue away from political power - nevertheless is fundamentally tied to the communal identity of the Jews as a people, an identity which is inseparable from their aggregate religious identity. A state built on such a basis cannot be genuinely secular, no matter how long and how loudly it proclaims so.

The real test of democracy and secularism is not how Israel treats the ‘non-Jewish Jew’, but whether it accords equal rights and citizenship to those outside the dominant people-religion. In that sense, Israel, despite the formal secularism of its founders, was anti-secular right from its foundation.

The whole debate on the question of the Palestinian ‘bantustan’ between comrades Matgamna and Osborne is illustrative. Matgamna makes a telling point against Osborne on this by citing his original editorial in favour of critical support for Bush’s ‘road map’: “The editorial discussed ‘Bantustanisation’ explicitly in one sense - the segmentation of Palestinian territory by military roads, pockets of Israeli sovereignty, and so on. Mark [Osborne] in his letters uses it in an entirely different sense. A Bantustan is any Palestinian state which falls short of having ‘the same status as Israel’ …

“In the [latter] sense, any Palestinian state will be inferior in size and economic and military weight to Israel and can therefore be dismissed as a ‘Bantustan’. That would be no less true of a Palestinian state on the strict 1967 borders than of one with smaller territory (though, plainly, for a Palestinian state to be radically diminished in size from the 1967 borders would be no small matter).

“This argument is usually used against any two-state proposal, and in favour of the idea of a single ‘democratic secular state’.

“What would Mark consider ‘sufficient’ for a Palestinian state not to be a ‘Bantustan’? Apparently he thinks it depends on how much territory it has. It does not. A Palestinian state in peace could surely make rapid progress. But no miracle will now or soon make it Israel’s equal” (‘Stand back and reconsider’ Solidarity October 9).

The nub of the problem here is that both sides in this debate oppose raising the demand for the right to return of Palestinian refugees, and both support the Israeli ‘law of return’ as safeguarding Israel as an ethnically defined Jewish state. Therefore, within their own framework, they are both right and both wrong. Osborne is right that a truncated and divided Palestinian territory that would have been the likely outcome of the ‘road map’ would have been a ‘Bantustan’. And Matgamna is right in turn that a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967, all other conditions being similar, would be little different. In the absence of the right of return, and thereby the democratisation and secularisation of Israel itself (which of course was never on the agenda either in the Oslo accord or Bush’s even more grotesquely unequal ‘road map’), then all we are talking about is a bigger or smaller patch of land which would have the character of a reservation or glorified prison camp.

The fact is that there is a large Jewish population in the territory of what is now Israel. That population should have the right to self-determination. Today that effectively means a separate state on historically established territory where Jews form a clear majority. However, what is utterly incompatible with democracy and secularism is for that state to exclude or discriminate against minorities on the basis of religion or ethnicity, people who have at least as much connection to that territory. In the event of the right to return being won, it is actually rather unlikely that, while significant national antagonism exists, large numbers of Palestinian Arabs would willingly choose to go and live in Israeli towns and cities which are largely inhabited by Jewish populations they currently regard as hostile to them.

The majority would not do this at the moment (most, in all probability, never will); they should however be fully compensated by a democratic and secular Israel for the injuries that Zionism has inflicted upon them over decades, and be helped to resettle in the Palestinian state if that is what they wish. The likely precondition for any relatively widespread exercise of the ‘right to return’ to Israel would be the dissipation of national antagonisms to the degree that such melding of the populations would no longer be seen as a threat to either side. But that really would be an event subsequent to the resolution of the national question, and would likely be a part of the merging of two states into one - borders having become seen by both sides as anachronistic.

The existence of the right to return for refugees is actually a precondition for the real resolution of the national question. There could of course be territorial compensation as a quid pro quo, though there are considerable difficulties involved in achieving that in practice due to the likelihood of the recalcitrance of long-established Israeli populations. Which only underlines even more the importance for progressive and socialist Israelis to fight for the abolition of Israel’s anti-Arab, anti-secular citizenship laws and those barring Palestinian refugees from living in Israel.

It is these kinds of considerations that put the discussions in the AWL within the context of the organisation’s overall politics - the inspiration for which in the last analysis is comrade Matgamna. There is a consistency to the AWL’s politics: they are just as distinctively left Zionist (in a vicarious sense) as the politics of the Socialist Workers Party on the same region are (vicariously) left Arab nationalist.

In formal terms, the AWL may at first sight appear to be closer to consistent democracy - it can countenance two states - whereas the SWP and the objects of its affections among rejectionist Palestinian nationalists want it all for the Arabs. But that is because the AWL is tailing after the nationalism of the oppressor: it wants a more benevolent oppressor who is prepared to offer concessions without breaking from the overall relations involved. The oppressor, having by definition more in the first place, is usually in a position to offer more in the way of concessions than the oppressed, who feel they has nothing to give. That does not change the fact that the relation between oppressor and oppressed is fundamental to communist politics and the emancipatory impulse that is supposed to be an integral part of such politics.

There is something deeply unhealthy about a socialist organisation which adopts elements of the nationalism of the oppressor into its ideology, whether it be in the form of Matgamna’s unabashed Zionism, or the original Martin Thomas formulation that others in the AWL seem to prefer (“a tiny bit Zionist”, as Bruce Robinson quotes; I have cited this as a “little bit Zionist”, but the difference is indeed “tiny”).

For, make no mistake: in the current world situation, Zionism is the nationalism of the oppressor. Even in the 1940s, it is by no means certain how many ordinary Jewish survivors of Nazism embraced Zionism as a conscious ideology, as opposed to simply being funnelled to Palestine as a result of the machinations of Zionist power-politics with the interest of the imperialists in preventing Jewish immigration to Britain and particularly the US. We can surmise that some, maybe many, embraced Zionism as a form of the nationalism of the oppressed, but we cannot safely assume this was a generalised phenomenon.

In Palestine in this period, where the Zionist programme was actually being put into practice, the Zionist colonists were systematically preparing the destruction of the national rights of the Arab people, who simply had to be disposed of for the Zionist programme of a Jewish state in a territory with a massive Arab majority to be feasible.

In the context of British colonial rule, without which the Zionist project would not have prevailed, it is simply undeniable that in Palestine, at the point where its programme was to be implemented, Zionism was already, prior to World War II, acting as the nationalism of the oppressor. It is one thing, therefore, to be affected by the terrible things that were done to European Jewry in the 1930s and 1940s - anyone who is a communist must necessarily be profoundly affected in this way.


But it involves a profound loss of perspective for a communist to close his/her eyes to the fact that enormous suffering has been inflicted on the Arab people of Palestine by the movement that grew to mass influence out of this, and that the ideology that justifies that oppression is called Zionism. Whether one calls oneself “a tiny bit Zionist” or “Zionist” pure and simple does not change matters that much either, though the latter certainly makes things clearer. In a different context, Lenin once wrote: “Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the ‘most just’, ‘purest’, most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism …” (VI Lenin, ‘Critical remarks on the national question’ CW Vol 20, p34).

A truism? In this case, it appears not: the open declaration of adherence to a form of nationalism by a self-proclaimed communist leader suggests that the drawing of programmatic lines against nationalism is not just something that has to be done vis-à-vis the ‘usual suspects’ in this field: third wordlist cheerleaders like the United Secretariat of the Fourth International and the SWP. In the AWL, we have a symmetrically opposite form of accommodation to nationalism, which cries out to be overcome just as much as, if not more than, the political weaknesses and betrayals of those who tail after the nationalism of the oppressed.

Such a proclamation of adherence to a nationalist ideology of an oppressor nation is one of the most peculiar and unsavoury things done by the leader of a communist organisation in a very long time.