Boycotts and working class principle

Mike Macnair outlines the tactics communists ought to adopt in relation to Israel

I put 'Israel academic boycott' in quotes because the resolution did not, in reality, call for an immediate boycott of Israeli academic institutions, but merely for a discussion of whether the union should call for such a boycott. Three other unions - NUJ, Unison and the TGWU section of Unite - have passed stronger resolutions. But the media flak was mainly directed at the UCU, and it is the UCU leadership which has caved in to this pressure by finding an excuse in the form of legal advice.

Opponents of the UCU 'boycott' resolution have been crowing: witness Harry's Place and Engage.1  But if these people genuinely claimed to be supporters of trade unionism, or even democrats, they should be crying, not crowing. If the legal advice is correctly reported on the UCU's web page, it is not merely inconvenient for 'Israel boycott' supporters, but a general attack on the independence of trade unions from the state and on political democracy.

Over the last three weeks comrades Hillel Ticktin, Tony Greenstein and Moshé Machover have contributed to a discussion of the principles of the boycott campaign on these pages. Meanwhile, the latest issue of the social-imperialist Workers' Liberty (the pull-out supplement to the Alliance for Workers' Liberty's paper Solidarity) devotes 12 pages to a polemic against campaigns against the Israeli state and Zionism and in particular the boycott campaign.

The articles of comrades Ticktin and Machover are specifically addressed to the idea of an academic boycott of Israel and to questions this poses. Comrade Greenstein argues more generally for a campaign to boycott Israel as a moral obligation of the left. The AWL's arguments are the reverse: even the slightest concession to Greenstein-style arguments is, for the AWL, a long step on the road to overt anti-semitism.

Tony Greenstein's arguments, and the AWL's, are framed ultimately in the same terms. They both start from what we are against, not from what we are for; and from 'rights', and general moral imperatives, not from real moral choices. As a result, both sides are in a political blind alley.

In this article I will begin with the legal advice and the UCU leadership cave-in, and go from there to boycotts as a tactic of the workers' movement in general, and to the yet more abstract level of the place of moral arguments and 'moralism', in order to return to the concrete and specific case of the campaign for a boycott of Israeli institutions or goods.

UCU legal advice

The UCU web page summarises the legal advice as follows:

"The legal advice makes it clear that making a call to boycott Israeli institutions would run a serious risk of infringing discrimination legislation. The call to boycott is also considered to be outside the aims and objects of the UCU.

"The union has been told that, while UCU is at liberty to debate the pros and cons of Israeli policies, it cannot spend members' resources on seeking to test opinion on something which is in itself unlawful and cannot be implemented."

The advice itself has not been published. UCU members, at least, should have the right to see it. It would then be possible to judge whether it has any real legal value.

Back in 1729, attorney general Philip Yorke and solicitor general Charles Talbot were asked for legal advice by a group of slave traders as to the status of slavery in English law. Their opinion asserted flatly that slavery was a part of English law and that a slave did not cease to be a slave by coming to England. They cited no legal authority whatever for their claims, and, in fact, these claims were flatly inconsistent with legal precedents before the date of the opinion. The Yorke-Talbot opinion was legally worthless: but it made law for 30 years or more before it could be directly challenged. 'Legal advice' can thus be dangerous: and it is all the more dangerous where the reasoning is not disclosed.

The advice as reported on the UCU web page contains three points. The first is that "making a call to boycott Israeli institutions would run a serious risk of infringing discrimination legislation". This is highly questionable. The basis of the call for a boycott is that Israeli institutions discriminate on racial grounds. If it was really unlawful under anti-discrimination legislation to call for a boycott of people or institutions who discriminate on the prohibited grounds, the law in question would be truly defeating its own objects.

Notice, moreover, that it is claimed the call for a boycott is unlawful. If this were genuinely true, it should affect not only the UCU, and not only trade unions: every individual or group who makes such a call would be liable to proceedings. Anti-discrimination law would then become an engine of a general political censorship. In reality, it is highly unlikely that such an interpretation of anti-discrimination law would be accepted by any court. But if it were accepted it would destroy freedom of political speech.

The second claim is that "the call to boycott is also considered to be outside the aims and objects of the UCU". The plausibility of this claim is also low. UCU's aims include (No2.5) "To oppose actively ... all forms of prejudice and unfair discrimination ...",4 and it is perfectly clear, and not even seriously disputed by anyone, that the Israeli state does indeed carry on "unfair discrimination" both against its own Arab citizens and in its occupation of the West Bank. There may well be a question about the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in this discrimination: but this is a matter of judgment which should affect what sort of campaign is carried on, not whether any campaign at all is consistent with UCU's aims.

More generally, UCU, like all unions, is a voluntary organisation. The right to change and to interpret its rules is therefore ultimately in the membership. The aims themselves could be amended by a congress resolution. The claim to bring in lawyers to assert that this or that policy adopted by a trade union is ultra vires (beyond the powers) is an old chestnut of the employers and their supporters and agents. It is inconsistent with the democratic right of freedom of association.

The third claim is that the union "cannot spend members' resources on seeking to test opinion on something which is in itself unlawful". This is an extension well beyond its existing limits of the ultra vires doctrine. Unions are to be prohibited not merely from taking action which the lawyers interpret as ultra vires or unlawful, but from discussing taking such action. With this doctrine in hand, the employer would be well placed to intervene to prevent even the discussion of resolutions which their lawyers could persuade a judge might lead to action which could infringe this or that bit of legislation.

Now it may be that the UCU officers have inaccurately reported the advice they were given. But if their report is accurate the trade union movement and the workers' movement more generally urgently needs to challenge this advice. The advice as reported has far wider implications than the 'Israel boycott' issue. It is unequivocally in the interests of the employers (and the lawyers) and against the interest of the trade unions.


It is, in fact, true that for the UCU to call for its members to boycott Israeli academic institutions would be unlawful. But it would not be unlawful for the reasons given by the legal advice (as reported). It would be in breach of the Tory anti-union laws, because it would be secondary industrial action. But this might be a less persuasive argument to offer trade unionists against it than claiming it would amount to discrimination ...

Boycotts are nothing new as a trade union tactic. They used to be called 'blacking' scab goods; the word has gone out of use, both because of concerns about racist language and because of the anti-union laws. The action is an elementary form of solidarity beyond the immediate workplace. That is why the Tories made it unlawful. The trade unions need it if they are to defend their members' interests effectively. That, too, is why the Tories made it unlawful.

The tactic has a long history. Captain Charles Boycott, the land agent boycotted by the Irish Land League in 1880, gave his name to the term; but this was not the first case. We have recently been reminded, by the bicentennial of the legal abolition of the slave trade, of an early example: the boycott of slave-grown sugar in the 1780s-90s as part of the campaign against the slave trade.

The boycott of slave-grown sugar illustrates an important point. Captain Boycott was driven out of his job, and refusal to handle scab goods has at times had decisive effects in strikes. But some boycotts have mainly symbolic effects. The boycott of slave-grown sugar did not do serious economic damage to the planters. But it did assist the movement for the abolition of the slave trade; and with it the sense of those slaves who got to know about it that there were people on their side. Symbolic solidarity action and similar 'gesture politics' matter.

The importance of symbolic action helps to explain the heavy media offensive against the UCU decision. Israel is not a major trading partner of the UK, and the UK is not a major supplier of arms to Israel. But the Israeli state represents itself as an outpost of 'western democracy' and European culture in the barbarous/muslim/tyrannical Middle East; one of the minor symbols, for example, is that Israel has from the outset participated in the Eurovision Song Contest. Links between Israeli and 'western' universities are part of that symbolism, and fiercely defended.

The boycott campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa was also substantially symbolic in its effects. It was only after the black working class in South Africa began to organise a serious trade union movement that international capital finally turned on the apartheid regime and sought a new deal with the ANC to avoid a revolutionary overthrow. But the symbolic campaigning, in many countries, assisted the growth of the mass movement within South Africa.

So we should not repudiate boycotts as a matter of general principle; and we should not repudiate them because they are not always directly effective. The boycott tactic is an essential element in the armoury of the workers' movement. But it is equally important to recognise that it remains a tactic. Tactics need to be subordinate to principled aims, and they need to address concrete situations and possibilities. No particular tactic is mandatory.

The CPGB has opposed general boycotts of whole countries as a tactic. There is a simple reason for this. If we are in favour of a general boycott of a whole country, we should also in general be in favour of imposing this boycott by law: ie, economic sanctions. After all, one of the 'tipping points' in the campaign against apartheid was when the US Congress in 1986 overrode the presidential veto to impose formal economic sanctions on South Africa.

But in fact we know very well what the results of actual economic sanctions are. As in Iraq between 1991 and 2003, as in Zimbabwe since the imposition of sanctions, the effects are primarily on the worker and peasant masses, while members of the targeted regimes can find one or another way to protect their wealth. Sanctions, or an effective general boycott, against Israel would have the same result: the shit dumped on the regime would be passed down the chain to end up affecting mostly the poorest members of society - and probably discrimination would mean that as much as possible of the ensuing unemployment, etc, was dumped on the Israeli Arabs.

Solidarity as a moral claim

Tony Greenstein argues that "Socialists are nothing if not the tribunes of the oppressed. It is the duty of socialists to lead the movement to boycott the Israeli state ..."; and "the boycott of Israel is the least that Palestinians who are starving and workers who are denied even the most basic employment are entitled to expect". Moshé Machover makes the more limited point that "the boycott tactic has the great double merit of being non-violent and a way in which every individual can express a moral commitment" (emphases added). Comrade Greenstein's article as a whole is, indeed, dominated by reasons for us to be angry about Israel's character as a colonial-settler state and its treatment both of the Palestinians of the occupied territories and of Israeli Arabs. The rhetoric, the selection of examples and the tone of anger make a moral claim: we must support the boycott campaign.

The underlying assumption is right. The claim for solidarity is a moral claim. When we say, 'You ought not to scab', we not simply saying, 'It is in your own best long-term interests not to scab'. It is still wrong to scab, even if the individual scabs will be protected and subsidised by capital for life rather than being - like the Nottinghamshire miners - dumped as soon as their usefulness is over. We are saying the same sort of thing as 'You ought not to kill people for fun'.

Moreover, it is not true that - as some Marxists claim - moral arguments are wholly ideological or contingent on the mode of production. As Chris Knight argues in Blood relations (1991), human moral claims on each other - and in particular the moral claim of solidarity - are at the centre of what makes us humans and not chimps.

However, moral claims have practical contexts. For example, if one of my colleagues were to collapse suddenly with a high fever, I ought morally to give such first aid as I can and to call for a doctor. If the event happened 3,000 years ago in Babylon, my moral duty would be to call a priest to cast spells against fever demons; if it happened 200 years ago, any doctor I called would feel it appropriate to 'bleed' the patient in order to reduce the fever. Today, to substitute casting spells or letting blood for appropriate medical treatment is positively immoral. Equally, within modern times, before the effects of asbestos on human health were discovered, the use of asbestos to reduce fire risks was a moral duty; now, to use asbestos where any alternative is available is immoral.

The point for politics is that the question of what is a practical way forward shapes the moral duty of solidarity. Hence to say, as comrade Greenstein says, that "socialists are nothing if not the tribunes of the oppressed" does not immediately imply what he makes follow immediately from it - that "it is the duty of socialists to lead the movement to boycott the Israeli state". To be tribunes of the oppressed means to oppose oppression in all its forms. But the choice of any particular aims and tactics does not follow.

Two points which arise from this are also relevant. The first is that there is a great deal of oppression in the world. We are forced to make choices about both our individual and collective priorities. In this context it should be clear that the strongest moral responsibility of British socialists is to oppose oppression for which the British state is immediately responsible. Right now, that means that opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the British state has a direct hand, is a more immediate priority than opposing the Israeli state, which since the mid-1960s has been a creature of the USA.

The second is that to be a 'tribune of the oppressed' means to oppose oppression: it does not mean to do what the oppressed call on us to do. The oppressed as much as anyone else are divided by political choices. For example, the people of Iraq are undoubtedly oppressed by the US and its allied occupiers, including Britain. To oppose this oppression is a clear moral duty of socialists. But that does not imply that we are morally bound to convert to some variety of islam and organise a jihadi bombing campaign. No more does the fact that some Palestinian organisations have issued a call for a general boycott of Israel imply that - without more - we are morally bound to comply. The fact that those who call for the boycott are among the Palestinian left and trade unions, and that a boycott is - as comrade Machover says - a non-violent means by which anyone can take a moral stand - makes the case for a boycott more persuasive; but it does not make it immediately morally mandatory.

A special case?

A large part of comrade Greenstein's case for it being morally mandatory for socialists to lead the campaign for a boycott of Israel is that Israel is a special case: "Like South Africa under apartheid, it is a settler colonial state"; and: "Zionists claim that we are singling Israel out as unique. Indeed we are. It is a country subsidised by imperialism in order to guard over its interests. It is the last major settler colonial state in the world. The Jewish working class is the most chauvinist section of society." Comrade Machover makes a narrower claim: "Since the demise of South African apartheid, Israel is the last remaining active colonial settler state" (emphasis added).

In fact, these features do not make Israel unique. Imperialist subsidy was characteristic of the Iranian monarchy until its demise in 1979, and is found - usually in more obscure forms than in the subsidies to Israel - in the case of a variety of regimes everywhere in the world which the US thinks will help guard its geopolitical interests. The UK, for example, is massively subsidised by exemptions from US financial regulatory rules, which allow London to operate as a sort of 'offshore' centre.

Secondly, the active political dynamics of settler colonisation, given by the contradiction between the colonial settlers and their descendants and the former indigenous population and their descendants, is not unique to Israel. It is found in the political relation to the existing states of Australian aborigines, New Zealand Maoris, North American (US and Canada) 'first nations', Latin American indigenas, and, for that matter, close to home in the Six Counties.

The passage of time alone does not heal the wounds: sections of the Welsh-speaking Welsh still nourished mythical-eschatological prophecies of the recovery of the lands lost to the Sais (Saxons) as late as the 16th century, a thousand years after the Saxon colonisation of England. It was only the incorporation of the Welsh in the British imperial nation and the common spoils of empire that rendered these myths and prophecies merely historical.

Israel is different, though. It is different because the Zionist settler-colonisation project is doomed to fail. As comrade Machover has pointed out before now, mandate Palestine (Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza) is only a fragment of a larger territory with a common language, political history and culture, which was torn apart after World War I to make colonised Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.6  Neighbouring states - Egypt, the states of the Arabian peninsula, Iraq and to a lesser extent Turkey - are also united by bonds of history, religion and culture to the colonised Arab population of Israel-Palestine. This is a very different military-political relation of forces to the relation between the settlers and the largely late stone age technologies and societies found by the settlers in the Americas and Australia and New Zealand, or even to the relation between the settlers backed by the early modern British state and the divided clan society of pre-conquest Ireland.

The result is that in spite of their intention to create a strong state for all the world's Jews, what the Zionists who established the state of Israel have actually created is a modern analogue of the medieval crusader states: a statelet which will last as long as it has military and economic backing from a strong 'western' - ie, imperial - power, and no longer. The state of Israel has existed for just less than 60 years - two thirds as long as the 100-year effective life of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, and a third of the life of the crusader principality of Antioch. In the long historical perspective, the most likely outcome is that the hand of Israel's imperial protectors will be withdrawn, either by defeat or by changes in policy, and that the Israeli state will as a result be destroyed.

But if this is the most likely long-term outcome, that does not mean that it is an outcome which the proletariat as a class and the international workers' movement should seek. In the first place, the Israeli state possesses a substantial nuclear arsenal; and if it remains committed to the political Zionist settler project and goes down in blood and fire, like the crusader states, the bombs will fall across the Middle East. This fact will not prevent it going down in blood and fire. The colonising project has a necessary expansionist dynamic, seen in the settlements in the occupied territories. The longer this project continues, the more likely it is that the exasperated masses of the colonised Arabs will put in place a leadership irrationally willing to take the losses and drown them in Israeli blood.

Secondly, even if this disastrous outcome could be avoided, the simple destruction of the Israeli state by its neighbours would make an enormous mass of refugees: mostly people who were born in Israel and have grown up in that country speaking Hebrew. It should be no part of the struggle for the genuine emancipation of humanity to aim deliberately to make millions of people into homeless refugees in countries which are foreign to them.


Hence, the fact that Israel is a settler colony and a 'crusader state' does not mean that socialists should favour driving the settlers/crusaders out. Our strategic aims have to be the de-Zionisation of the Israeli state - ie, the end of the continuing settler-colonial project of bringing more Jews into Israel and of Israel's role as a regional proxy for the US, and the (if possible) peaceful reunification of the territory torn apart by the imperialists, of which Israel and occupied Palestine is a small part.

Since 2002, the CPGB has used the formula of 'two nations, two states' as a way to approach this issue. From the theses adopted then: "Communists look towards a democratic and secular Israel existing alongside a democratic and secular Palestine."7  In our coverage of the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Weekly Worker shifted slightly towards comrade Machover's long-standing argument that any solution to the problem would have to be regional in scope, since an 'independent Palestinian state' within the borders of mandate Palestine would be merely a fragment of a larger national entity, whose separation from that entity would necessarily subordinate it to Israel.8 

My personal opinion, which is a minority view in CPGB, is that the slogan of 'two states' is unhelpful. This is, first, because the 'two states' slogan can be confused with the imperialists' episodic idea of the creation of a Palestinian micro-state dependent on Israel in the parts of the West Bank where the Israelis have not already put settlements. It is, second, because the general argument that nations have the right to a separate state, which our theses share with the AWL's position, seems to me to be unsound.

Nonetheless, if we are not to advocate making the Israelis into refugees (or worse), what we have to advocate is, on the one side, that the Arab masses should oust the corrupt neo-colonial regimes that rule them and unite; and, on the other side, that the Israeli masses should break with present expansionist course of their state and seek to live at peace with their neighbours. It follows that our immediate aims should be, simply, an end to Israeli aggression (recently against Lebanon and Syria) and full and unconditional Israeli withdrawal to Israel's 1967 borders, including the removal of the settlements, of the 'separation wall' on occupied territory and of Israeli military and naval controls on the borders between the occupied territories and the rest of the world.

To take this as the immediate aim leaves open the question of strategic aims; and it intentionally avoids all questions of 'rights' - whether these are the 'rights' of nations to states, of Palestinian refugees from 1947 to return or of Jews to migrate to Israel. But the actual achievement of this very limited goal would break the momentum of the settler-colonial project. To halt Israeli aggression and expansionism and get rid of the settlements would render the idea of Israel as a state to which all the world's Jews could migrate an obvious nonsense as opposed to being - as it already is - merely nonsense.

This view has a fundamental implication for the boycott campaign. It implies that to be justified and effective, any boycott campaign should be more narrowly targeted than the line adopted in the Palestinian calls and in the current campaign. It should have Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders as a clear aim. It should not be a general boycott of Israel, but should be targeted. And it should not be targeted on support for the state of Israel as such, but on direct complicity in the occupation and the Israeli settlement of the occupied territories.

AWL, rights and 'clean hands'

The AWL has chosen not to call for a clearly targeted boycott, but to join hands with the anti-boycotters. It makes, in substance, two arguments for its position. The first and more fundamental is that there is a right that the state of Israel exist; and that to deny this right involves double standards which are, at the end of the day, anti-semitic. This argument supports the AWL's own 'two states' argument; it also supports its opposition to the Palestinian refugees of 1947-48 having the right to return.

The second argument is that the majority of anti-Zionists are anti-semites; that a boycott campaign would necessarily be anti-semitic; and, therefore, that it is better to be in the camp of the anti-boycotters (in spite of the fact that, as Mark Osborn pointed out in relation to the UCU conference, they are in substance the traditional right wing of the union).

Both arguments are radically unsound. The first is, as I said, the more fundamental. My own opinion (definitely not a CPGB view) is that the idea of the right of nations to self-determination is generally incoherent and anti-democratic. I would certainly not claim that the British (or for that matter, the English, the Welsh or the Scots) have a right to a special apparatus of armed force of their own whose only purpose as a nation-state can be to suppress members of other nationalities within the state. I am for the overthrow of all nation-states without exception. But this raises theoretical and programmatic questions too large for this article.

However, in the context of the 'Israel problem', the language of rights has a more immediately pernicious consequence. The reason for opposing the simple idea that the settlers and their descendants should be driven out is that we oppose making refugees and hence we seek - if possible - a solution which will allow Arabs and Jews to live together in peace. But rights are the opposite of living together in peace. Rights, if they are anything, are entitlements which morally must be respected, and the use of force to ensure them is morally justified. Living together in peace, in contrast, means political measures of persuasion, and some degree of political compromise. Witness King Charles I's insistence on his 'rights', which led to civil war in this country; witness the character of the US debate on abortion, in which the 'right to choice' is set up against the 'right to life'.

Any solution to the Israel problem short of the extermination of the Arabs or driving out the Jews will necessarily involve rights being compromised, because there are perfectly genuine individual rights - essentially the right not to be driven out of your home by armed force - which are in immediate conflict with one another.

The AWL's step down the road of 'the right of Israel to exist' logically implies the 'right of Israel to secure borders' - ie, Israeli expansionism. It has already led inexorably to the AWL taking its analysis of the Ba'athist regime and of the imperialist occupiers' role in Iraq from the Tel Aviv press. Will it lead next to the 'right of Israel to be free from nuclear threat' and hence to support for air strikes on Iran? I think the comrades ought to tell us ...

The second argument is in substance an argument for the left to keep 'clean hands' by avoiding making any proposal which could lead to an 'objective bloc' with the anti-semites. The trouble with this argument is that, just as Gordon Brown stole the Tories' clothes earlier this week, there is nothing to stop the anti-semites (or any other far-right variant) stealing the left's clothes: they have in the past and they will in the future. To become anti-boycotters, in alliance with the direct supporters of Tel Aviv and the British government, for the sake of this fear, is to abandon all independence of political action.

What we need to do is to fight for what is objectively the right way forward. Then, if it happens to be the case that one or another of our enemies is in a temporary 'objective bloc' with us, our aims will be served. In this particular case we should be for action properly targeted against Israeli aggression and occupation of territory beyond its 1967 borders. Simultaneously we should be against not only badly conceived general boycott proposals, but any and all uses of anti-semitic arguments (like the ludicrous idea that the 'Israel lobby' runs US foreign policy). It is a difficult position to take up. But the difficulty is in substance the same as the difficulty we have faced up to with Hands off the People of Iran: both against imperialism and against 'anti-imperialist' reaction.