Heading into the camp of the enemy

The Alliance for Workers' Liberty has been embroiled in a heated debate within its own ranks over its attitude to Zionism. Jem Jones has the latest

AWL leader Sean Matgamna has explicitly declared that his organisation should not just be “a little bit Zionist” but an out, loud and proud, fully-fledged Zionist grouping. Not surprisingly this open and unapologetic commitment to such a notorious nationalist ideology has led to criticism and condemnation of Matgamna’s position both from the CPGB and from some of his own comrades as well.

In order to afford comrade Matgamna the opportunity to defend his position, the CPGB held a special seminar on Sunday October 26. Approximately 30 people attended the debate, entitled ‘Zionism - for or against?’, which was opened by comrade Matgamna himself.

He began by stating that he felt that a better title for the debate would have been “Zionism - demon from hell or legitimate national movement?” Already, from his very first sentence, comrade Matgamna was placing himself firmly in the ‘for’ camp, since we were clearly being invited to conclude that Zionism was basically a progressive phenomenon.

For comrade Matgamna nowadays Zionism has an unproblematic meaning. Zionism is simply upholding the right of Israel to exist. That is supposedly why he calls himself a Zionist. Of course, if that were the case, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the CPGB and even sections of Hamas would also be Zionist. Moreover, comrade Matgamna’s division of Zionism into two distinct post-1948 and pre-1948 entities is not only worthy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in wonderland, but conveniently ignores the real history of Zionism, which, like all movement, embodies both change and continuity. What was conceived as a colonial-settler project of the oppressed has in its success transformed itself into a colonial-settler project of the oppressors. Something that has always gone hand in hand with seeking big-power allies - tsarist Russia, Britain, France and now the USA.

According to comrade Matgamna, the British left has “demonised” Zionism. The dominant element of the socialist movement, which the comrade characteristically described as the “pseudo-left”, is inclined to either explicitly or implicitly call for the destruction of Israel. This for comrade Matgamna was clearly evinced on the anti-war demonstrations, where the Socialist Workers Party-led Stop the War Coalition has willingly adopted the slogans of the Muslim Association of Britain (the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). Its call for ‘Freedom for Palestine’ means all things to all people, but what MAB understands by it is the destruction of Israel and its replacement by a theocratic state from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. The SWP, like most of the British left, posits the end of Israel and a single “secular, democratic Palestine” as the solution to the Middle East conflict, as opposed to two nation-states.

Superficially the one-state solution has its attractions. However, in comrade Matgamna’s view, it is “utter nonsense in practice”. The people of Israel would never willingly dismantle their state - no nation in the world has ever done that. What is more, the comrade argued, the Jews were murdered in their millions in the holocaust because they did not have a state (he was subsequently challenged on this point during the debate by John Bridge, who accurately remarked that having a state did not save the Slavs from mass murder at the hands of the Nazis).

As comrade Matgamna quite correctly maintained, the two-state solution, necessitates the “urgent” creation of an independent Palestinian state. Intriguingly at this point, and again later on his opening, comrade Matgamna warned that the chance for this “may go again” - implicitly underlining his ‘critical support’ for George W Bush’s so-called ‘road map for peace’.

Comrade Matgamna argued that the demonisation of Zionism amongst the left derives directly from Stalinism, which, he said, manipulated nationalist movements and artificially prolonged national conflicts for the sole purpose of Soviet foreign policy. He argued that the left perceives Zionism as being akin to “racism or fascism” (resulting in indefensible attempts to deny Jewish organisations a platform).

This was nonsense, declared comrade Matgamna. Zionism was a reaction against the virulent anti-semitism that was rife across Europe. Prominent early Zionists were utopian socialists who saw the creation of a nation-state for their people-religion as being the only salvation from the persecution they faced.

Having delineated the remit he had chosen for his opening, he expounded on these themes, detailing the way in which Marxists, and in particular Trotsky, regarded the early Zionists. Trotsky, who was himself a Jew, favoured assimilation, but, comrade Matgamna argued, he recognised that the creation of a state was an idea understandably attractive to a persecuted people, albeit a false paradigm. As a Marxist, Trotsky recognised that the only real solution to the persecution faced by Jews was socialism.

Even so, Marxist contemporaries of the early Zionists viewed them as ideological rivals, not as enemies. Comrade Matgamna argued that hostility towards proponents of Zionism developed solely or mainly as a result of a Stalinist Comintern that allied the communist parties with Arab nationalism in order to oppose British imperialist interests in the Middle East. Accordingly the opposition to Zionism that is evident on the British left is an indication of having failed to break fully from Stalinism.

Interwoven with the development of the left’s response to Zionism, the comrade presented a history of the development of the fledgling state of Israel. He detailed the Zionists’ necessary reliance upon the UK as the dominant power in the region for concessions; the dastardly way in which the British treated the Zionists; and the hostility and aggression directed at the fledgling state by its Arab neighbours.

Historical materialism properly emphasises the role that history plays in informing our understanding of the present. However, comrade Matgamna conflates the results of history with the process of making history. According to his account the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was justified and essentially no different from the formation of other nation states by oppressed peoples. He mentioned in particular Ireland and Poland.

During the subsequent debate a number of contributors, particularly comrades Ian Donovan and Mike Macnair of the CPGB, took issue with comrade Matgamna for the way he used history not to clarify, but rather to justify the unjustifiable. It is correct for communists to defend Israel’s right to exist now that it has become an accomplished historical fact, just as it is correct to defend Palestinian rights. However, that hardly means that the foundation of Israel was justified, and certainly not at the expense of the rights of the majority Arab population.

Comrade Matgamna correctly opposes the vicarious pro-Arab nationalism so prevalent among the ranks of the left in Britain. However, the stance he has taken is merely a mirror image of that incorrect position. As comrade Bridge commented, in the art of polemics it is sometimes useful to cast yourself in an extreme position as a shock tactic aimed at those you are debating with: as he put it, in a room full of anti-semites, one might say, ‘In that case I am a Zionist’. But Sean Matgamna goes far beyond this: he has taken the Zionist ideology to heart.

This was demonstrated by his response, and that of his comrade, Martin “I’m a little bit Zionist” Thomas, to the slogan demanding that Palestinian refugees ought to be able to resettle in Israel. Communists should support the free movement of peoples and both comrades back this in the abstract. But in this specific case, they bizarrely insist that allowing a right of return would mean the destruction of Israel - which of course renders their ‘commitment’ to free movement worthless. While they support the right of Jews to migrate to Israel, they refuse to back the same right for those Palestinians who might wish to move back to the territory from which they or their parents were expelled. In taking this perverse stand they deviate from the programme of communism.

Comrade Al Richardson of Revolutionary History seemed to suggest that any communist attempt at resolving the national question was futile: it meant we “identify with the bourgeois state”. However, as Phil Kent of the CPGB commented, people are killing each other in Israel-Palestine; what really would be futile would be moralistically to proclaim to the Israelis and Palestinians that they are all brothers and sisters and, instead of worrying about such matters as national rights, they should get on with the job of overthrowing the bourgeoisie. Progress can only be made when, as Mark Fischer observed, the Israelis - particularly the Israeli working class - are won to champion the national rights of the Palestinians and the Palestinians do the same for the Israelis.

Over the course of recent months the AWL have created a number of shibboleths which are designed to distinguish them from the rest of the left. They have ruled out even episodic cooperation with MAB, virtually joined the witch-hunt against George Galloway, declared that the defeat of Saddam Hussein was the best outcome in the Iraq war and refused to call for the withdrawal of US-UK forces. Now comrade Matgamna has declared himself a Zionist.

The direction is worrying but clear - the AWL is being led in the direction of first camp politics.