Carrot and stick

James Turley discusses the question of self-determination and the prospects for Arab unity

It became an obvious necessity for the CPGB to tidy up its line on Israel/Palestine as the question of Zionism flowered into a full-scale war between our organisation and the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. It has taken Israel itself to make this an urgent necessity, with its brutal and apparently mindless assault on the Gaza Strip over the Christmas period, and the explosion in pro-Palestinian sentiment in the general population that accompanied it.

The debate so far has hinged on contributions from Moshé Machover (not a CPGB member), mostly in polemic with the AWL’s increasingly unhinged Sean Matgamna; and Jack Conrad, who has produced a two-part series which buttresses the existing ‘two-state’ theses with elements of Moshé’s work. Tony Greenstein (another non-member) wrote a comprehensive polemic in reply to Jack.

The substance of the dispute is the self-determination of nations. Advocates of ‘two states’, whether CPGB, AWL or others, hinge their discourse on the right of nations to self-determination - and in this case on the right of Israel to self-determination. After all, nobody seriously doubts the demand in relation to the Palestinians (though perhaps they should be more careful even here). Others, primarily from the orthodox and ‘Pabloite’ trends of Trotskyism, advocate ‘one state’ in various formulations, arguing that oppressor states have no such rights - but do not dispute the paramount importance of that right to political interventions around imperialism.

Why self-determination?

It is a well-worn position for Marxists - a matter of orthodoxy since Lenin and also supported by key Marxist figures of the Second International - that we defend the right of nations to self-determination. The concrete articulation of that position has taken many forms, some correct and useful, some disastrous.

But the problem with well-worn positions is that the reasons for holding them get completely crusted over and forgotten. Beyond a certain point, we support self-determination because that is what we do, and what we have always done, and it has not been ‘disproved’ by history … so what would be the point in giving it up?

Strategically, the aim of the communist movement is to replace the rule of the bourgeoisie with the rule of the proletariat - the rest, as they say, is commentary. The working class cannot rule on a national basis, all the more so now with the present degree of economic integration and geographic dispersal of supply chains. Support for national self-determination is, and always has been, a matter not of importance in itself, but in relation to the advances it allows in the political power of the working class.

For Lenin, who codified much of this orthodoxy, revolution was on the agenda immediately (it was true, actually, for most of the period that produced these texts, though revolution was not made, as it happens). Since much of the world still languished under semi-feudal relations, either imposed or sustained by imperialist powers, the proletariat remained a minority class worldwide. This made it necessary to get the peasants and petty bourgeoisie behind the workers’ movement. National struggles against imperialism was an ‘in’ - a way of doing that, one that was strategically necessary at the time, at least in the colonial countries.

In today’s world, it is still generally true that the right of nations to self-determination is posed - by the persistence of imperialist relations between states, by predatory wars ... It is not true that raising the demand is always and everywhere correct. It is generally accepted that we do not raise America’s right of self-determination in relation to wars it claims are to circumvent threats to ‘national security’ - nevertheless, it is true that America is able to thrive strictly on the basis of its world hegemony and its oppression of other nations, and to diminish that power is to reduce the USA’s effective capacity for self-determination.

I disagree with comrade Machover on a minor but significant point in his analysis (which is picked up by everyone else), which is that he denies that Zionism is a form of nationalism. In its ‘purest’ form - the idea that all the Jews should constitute themselves a nation separate from gentiles - it is not a nationalism, for the reasons Moshé gives. But we are nevertheless faced with the reality - the ‘fact on the ground’, in Israeli jargon - of a Hebrew nation, the expression of whose self-determination is objectively Zionism. It is an ideology which today focuses national sentiment and displaces it from its real-objective basis (the Hebrew nation) to a fictional organising myth (the Jewish nation).

It is important to realise that nationalism always takes a form. What is German nationalism? The atavistic romantics of the Young Germany movement? The staunchly republican advocates of the ‘one and indivisible’ nation? Great Prussian chauvinists such as Bismarck? Hitler? The answer is all of them.

All of them, meanwhile, had implied or explicit claims about what it meant to be a nation, as well as what it meant to be German specifically. Hitler, to take a well known example, believed in the unity of the German nation - on the condition of the expulsion or extermination of Jews, the extension of Germany’s ‘natural’ territory to the Urals, the racial contiguity of the Aryans with a number of Indo-European cultures, and their ‘natural’ place at the top of the hierarchy of nations. German republicans of the 19th century, meanwhile, saw the unity of the German people as a precondition for radicalised democracy of the sort hinted at but only fleetingly achieved in France after the revolution, and saw it as equal and equivalent to the unity of the French or the Italians, rather than a system of superiority or inferiority to be tested in brutal military struggle. If there is not that broader framework in place, why bother fighting for the unity of Germans, of Italians, of Israeli Jews? The logic of Moshé’s position is that we wait for a ‘pure’ nationalism - to paraphrase Lenin, we will wait forever.

This question is important because it hinges on what we can likely expect Hebrew nationalism to do, what forms it is likely to take - right now, it is clear than Zionism is the dominant form, with a growing sympathy for ‘post-Zionism’, as yet inchoate and based on negation of some parts of Zionist dogma and secularisation of others. It does not (yet) seriously question the basis of the Israeli state, except perhaps negotiating down its legitimate territory, as well as some myth-busting historical scholarship on the 1948 catastrophe by Benny Morris and others.

Can we expect Zionism to continue to hegemonise Hebrew national feeling into the future? The answer is - yes, for as long as the map of the Middle East looks as it does. The Hebrew claim to nationhood necessarily involves a territorial claim, but Israel is a colony. Its population resides in land cleared by expulsions and ethnic cleansing over more than 50 years of its history (to say nothing of the pre-1948 struggle for an Israeli state). Its only territory is one it has seized in living memory from another nation that wants it back.

Talk of ‘rights’ in such a situation is effectively meaningless. Two nations have a perfectly ‘natural’ claim to the same strip of land. Marx tells us in the great chapter of Capital on the working day: “Between equal rights, force decides.”1 After even the most cursory glance at history this should not surprise us at all - force decided between Hitler’s Lebensraum and Polish sovereignty, for one example.

Stalin’s classic definition of a nation (basically dictated to the legendarily unoriginal author by Lenin, and certainly still referred to by Jack Conrad) - “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture”2 - is about as close to a nutshell definition as you could reasonably expect to get, but it should be clear from all of Lenin-Stalin’s common features that we will wait forever not just for a pure nationalism, but for a pure nation. The complexity of any combined articulation of an economy, language, territory and culture (!) would surely produce a strong tendency towards fragmentation in nationalist ideology - a fragmentation in which “force decides”.

Above a certain level, self-determination is zero-sum. The majority of major states in the world are multi-national, from the British union of the English, Scottish and Welsh, to a country like Iran, with Arab and other national minorities uneasily ruled by Persians - and Israel, with its ‘internal colony’, as the Maoists used to put it, of Israeli Arabs. Rather than relying on ‘rules of thumb’ like the right to self-determination, it is necessary to go back to the first question Marxism must ask in any conjuncture: what will advance the cause of the working class?

Democracy and self-determination

At the core of the CPGB’s conception of working class advance (in line with the indications of classical Marxism) is democracy and political freedom. Democracy is a simple principle (regardless of Trotskyist accusations of ‘abstraction’) - the rule of the majority. The bourgeoisie has an interest in promoting it insofar as it needs to establish hegemony over broad masses for its own aims - the deeper it gets into the epoch of its generalised rule, the less of a boon and more of a threat mass political agency is to it. The most basic democratic rights by modern standards - universal suffrage, for example - had in most countries to be extorted from the ruling class by the masses. History has bequeathed democracy to the proletariat.

The pursuit of a democratic solution is the primary theme of Jack Conrad’s articles on the subject3 - he seeks two “democratic and secular” states for the two peoples, Arab and Hebrew. For the British left (in reality, for the left internationally), in common with Islamists, “what Israeli Jews want matters not a jot”. A solution can only be arrived at through an ongoing process. The establishment of a single Palestinian state would simply “reverse the poles of oppression”. It would deny the Hebrews their national rights, and - since the Hebrew population is currently “fanatically nationalistic” - lead to a protracted and bloody war.

Instead of this, we must achieve a solution whereby the Palestinians are given a contiguous territory with the potential to exist more or less unmolested, and Israel is left with the same. The geographical difficulties here are somewhat onerous, as any look at the map will show - there is no ‘easy way’ from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank - but Jack sketches out a possible solution (dare one call it a ‘road map’?) nonetheless. He sees a Palestinian state taking up most of the Negev territory, which is only sparsely populated by Israeli Jews - and those that are there tend to be IDF soldiers.

The question is raised, for Jack as much as anyone else, as to how this is to come about. He argues that the Palestinian national movement is too crippled and outgunned to effectively fight off Zionist oppression itself, but that we should “broaden the strategic front” - a movement across the Arab world would be able to back up a serious redrawing of the map. This position is substantially similar to comrade Machover’s, who also sees Arab agency as crucial.

Nonetheless, it is pretty obvious that Machover absolutely refuses to be drawn on the one-state/two-state argument. The unity of the Arabs behind the Palestinians’ cause is in the interests of a regional solution, whereby the whole system of borders - made specifically to divide and conquer by British imperialism - can be redrawn, and some measure of national unity restored.

This is the key problem with Jack’s position. For all the noise about broadening the strategic front (argued for fairly persuasively, as far as it goes), his standards of democracy remain resolutely chained to mandated Palestine. As such, his position simply does not make much sense. Apparently, we are supposed to believe that a “fanatically nationalistic” Hebrew population is (obviously) not up for sharing a binational state with Palestinian Arabs ... but will be perfectly happy to hand over what looks like half its national territory, including (one assumes from the reference to the IDF) large military garrisons!

In reality, the Israeli population will not be won to any solution in the present state of affairs. The entire basis for its existence is its colonial project, its position as a forward base for and ally of the US. Contrary to Tony Greenstein’s article, it is not ‘racism’ which is at fault - rather, the racism is generated from this objective basis. Were racism to be abolished and Arabs in Israel to have equal rights to Jews, that would threaten Zionism - and thus threaten its objective role in local and global disputes. It cannot be allowed to happen.

If Jack believes that a solution is possible without the effective abolition of this state of affairs, then he should be honest with himself and everyone else - such a solution will have to be forced on the Hebrew population. In reality, it would have to be forced on them were it even to involve limited withdrawal from the West Bank settlements - let alone giving away most of the Negev.

And this is what broadening the strategic front actually amounts to - changing the balance of forces so that it is Israel under threat from the Arabs, rather than the other way round. Israel would not fear the 300 million Arab citizens for their common language or common culture, but their guns. It would be that fear which would force Israel to sue for peace.

Which way forward?

So we are left with two broad approaches to the problem.

The first is a regional upheaval that brings together the general Arab population in militant support of the Palestinian cause. It is, of course, a long-term perspective that will require patient work among the Arab masses - and it will effectively mean bullying the Hebrew population into acquiescence.

The second is patient propaganda agitational work among the Hebrew masses, to combat the corrupting influence of Zionist ideology and build up forces for a democratic settlement. This is, moralistically speaking, the more attractive option ... but it is an extremely long-term perspective, because - as we have seen - the rampant anti-Arab racism and colonial sentiment has an objective basis in the present conditions of Israel’s existence. This is the basic position of the Socialist Party, and the ostensible position of the AWL (although in practical terms they collapse into left Zionism).

In reality, both approaches will have to be engaged in parallel; a combination of ‘carrot’ (the development of, at the very least, a significant-minority ‘fifth column’ among the Hebrew population) and ‘stick’ (a shift in the balance of political-military forces in favour of the Arab masses). The existence of a serious anti-Zionist political movement among Israeli Jews - even if it remains a minority in absolute terms - will act as an important pole of attraction that will defuse the popular resentment of an Arab-friendly solution. We should not be ashamed of overriding, to some extent, the national aspirations of the Israeli Jews - Marxists are not moralists, and we face the very real difficulty that the national feelings of six million-odd people constitute a very real obstacle to the liberation of around 300 million others.

It is also clear that the natural political form for such a twin-track strategy is communism. It is the essence of internationalism to prepare the masses for united offensives across borders - even borders as thorny as those of Israel. The only truly consistent form of internationalism is proletarian internationalism - communism. We have the perspective that will allow unity among the politically divided Arab masses, and that will allow the Israeli workers to begin to overcome their crippling reliance on Zionist chauvinism.


1. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch10.htm
2. ‘Marxism and the national question’ (1913): www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03.htm
3. Weekly Worker November 20, 27 2008.