Strategic lines and tactical slogans

Mike Macnair attempts to locate the CPGB debate on Israel-Palestine within overall Marxist theory

This is a contribution to the CPGB’s discussion of the ‘Israel-Palestine question’ begun by Jack Conrad’s two-part series (November 20 and 27 2008) and interventions in the Weekly Worker by Tony Greenstein (December 11 2008) and Moshé Machover (February 19 2009) and continued at our February 28 aggregate meeting (reported by Peter Manson, March 5) and since then in articles by James Turley (March 5), Stan Keable (March 12) and Yassamine Mather (March 19).

To summarise my particular views on the debated questions, they are as follows.

1. Comrade Conrad’s series is correct to shift the ground to a regional perspective (of the sort argued for years by comrade Machover), as opposed to the focus of the 2002 CPGB theses on two states within the borders of mandate Palestine.

2. Such a regional perspective has two distinct aspects, which comrade Conrad’s series to some extent conflates. The first is that within a world which remains one of nation-states, the reunification of former Ottoman Syria is therefore a democratic demand and one for national self-determination.

The second is that the proletariat needs to overcome the world of nation-states by promoting continental/regional unity, as part of its struggle to overthrow the capitalist class on a world scale. In the context of the Middle East this general approach implies a struggle for some sort of voluntary confederation of the region.

In the recent historical past the idea of unification of the region has been expressed as pan-Arabism, and comrade Conrad presents the idea of a struggle for confederation in terms of a democratic and proletarian pan-Arabism. Pan-Arabism is a form of nationalism, as comrade Mather argues, and one which effectively failed with the failure of the Egypt-Syria United Arab Republic in 1961. It does, nonetheless, have an objective basis both in the limited elements of common history and culture of the (predominantly) Arabic-speaking countries and in the sense that there is an objective need for broader unification of the region than national unification in the strict sense. I am therefore less concerned than comrade Mather is by this aspect of comrade Conrad’s arguments. The need for regional unification is a strategic issue; the use of ‘pan-Arabism’ as a referent for it is tactical.

3. Within this general framework we should defend the view that - as comrade Machover has also argued for many years - the Hebrew-speaking population of Israel is a nation. Hence, that this group should - within the framework of the overthrow of the existing Zionist state and the right of former Ottoman Syria to reunify - be entitled to national political rights. I think that comrade Machover and comrade Mather are correct to use the formula Hebrew rather than Israeli Jewish in this specific context.

4. It is a mistake to suppose either (a) that ‘two states’ proposals will win the backing of large sections of the Israeli masses, thereby leading to a peaceful settlement which ends the oppression of the Palestinians; or (b) that a democratic and proletarian Arab unification will in itself so alter the relation of forces as to enable a settlement which ends the oppression of the Palestinians.

The state of Israel is dependent on the immediate military and financial backing of the USA. This dependence makes it, in practical logistical terms, a ‘garrison state’ or ‘crusader state’. As long as that backing is present, no section of the Israeli Jewish population apart from a small layer of the left is likely to break with the Zionist project in support of a real compromise settlement. At some point this century the hand of the US will inevitably be withdrawn - either because a US government decides that the cost-benefit equation makes Israel no longer useful to US policy in the region, or because US economic decline and crises elsewhere (etc) leave the US with no other option.

If the hand of the USA is simply withdrawn, in the present political relation of forces in the region (dominance of nationalist and islamist politics) the most probable outcome would be disastrous: that (more or less quickly) the masses of the region refuse to accept the continued existence of Israel and put in place nationalist or islamist governments willing to take the losses necessary for Israel to be destroyed by force. Hence, that the Israeli state is drowned in blood, with megadeaths across the region, as Israeli nuclear weapons are used as revenge weapons in the Götterdämmerung phase of its destruction.

Thus, the point of promoting the idea that the Hebrew-speaking population of Israel is a nation, and hence that this group should be given national political rights, is not to propose a means of overthrowing the oppression of the Palestinians. It is to propose a principled alternative to a threatened disaster.

6. In relation to immediate slogans, I do not think that we should be using ‘two states’. Rather, in the solidarity movement we should be promoting the demand for unconditional Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967.

The rest of this article tries to give reasons for these positions. It is rather more abstract (and less historical) than other comrades’ contributions, because I think that a more abstract approach is helpful to orienting ourselves in the present discussion.


It is fundamental to distinguish between questions of principle, strategy and tactics. This is generally the case in politics. Confusing the issues leads to organising on the basis of agreement on tactics - the common approach of the majority of the far left worldwide. This produces both political opportunism and tailism (because no effort is made to distinguish real issues of principle from tactics) and to endless splits, as every tactical difference is turned into a ‘question of principle’. In reality, principles and strategy limit the appropriate tactics, but do not determine them.

In relation to questions of international politics there is an additional issue at stake. This is that tactics are usually best judged (often unavoidably decided) by the people on the ground. We Brits are entitled to have and express a view about the appropriate tactics of comrades in the Middle East and the same is true in reverse. But bureaucratic centralist ‘oil-slick internationals’ - in which, for example, Paris dictates that Lebanese militants should ‘turn to industry’ or London that Pakistani militants should enter the Pakistan People’s Party - produce results which are at best ludicrous and at worst tragic.

Questions of principle are about our aims. These can be stated in the words of the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier: “That the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race; that the producers can be free only when they are in possession of the means of production (land, factories, ships, banks, credit); that there are only two forms under which the means of production can belong to them: (1) the individual form, which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress; (2) the collective form, the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society.”1

In relation to the ‘Israel-Palestine question’ our aims, stated in this way, imply that we stand for “the emancipation of all human beings without distinction of ... race” - or distinction of nationality. We therefore oppose both the oppression of the Palestinians of the occupied territories, of the refugees and of the Israeli Arabs by the state of Israel and any hypothetical reversal of the poles of oppression by wholly driving out the Israelis.

This is not because driving out the Israelis would be unjust. It would not be. If I or my recent ancestors were concerned in taking land by force and driving out the occupiers, and I continued to hold the land by force (including state force) it is not unjust for the force to be removed and the prior occupiers to regain possession.

After a sufficient period of time has passed, it does become unjust to reverse prior injustices, because it is no longer possible to have a real judgment of the injustice. Thus the descendants of the former Anglo-Saxon occupiers cannot claim as a matter of justice to reverse the land seizures of 1066. For the same reason, the world’s Jews cannot claim as a matter of justice to ‘reverse’ the land seizures and population expulsions carried on by the Roman empire in Palestine.

1947, however, is still within living memory, and as a matter of ordinary private property law the land seizures of that war could justly be reversed.

Opposition to driving out the Israelis is thus not because it would be unjust, or even because it would be impractical (as, for example, it would obviously be impractical to expel the European settlers from the Americas). It is simply because our aims as communists oppose all forms of oppression and discrimination. And in this case, this action would not merely remove the proceeds of crime, but would set up a new standing system of oppression, this time of Hebrew-speakers born and brought up in Israel.


Questions of strategy are about how, in the long term, we propose to get to our aims. Fundamentally, this means - again from the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier - “the revolutionary action of the productive class - or proletariat - organised in a distinct political party; ... pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal ...”

Implicit in this strategy is a point made in the Communist manifesto: “the first step in the workers’ revolution is making the proletariat the ruling class, winning democracy.”2 Democracy here does not mean what the capitalist media means by it, which is timocratic oligarchy and the ‘rule of law’. It means majority rule and that those who govern should be answerable to those who are governed. It means, in other words, the ‘commune state’. In this sense, democracy and the class rule of the working class - which is the majority - are one and the same thing.

Democracy and national questions

This has an important implication for national questions. If democracy means that government should be answerable to the governed, it is indispensable that government should be conducted in the language (and, perhaps, the cultural reference points) of the governed. To be governed in a language not your own is inherently anti-democratic. Democracy therefore implies an individual democratic right to have access to public affairs and public information, and the right to communicate for these purposes, in your mother tongue.

The self-determination of nations is one means of securing this democratic right. (I mean by ‘nations’ language groups geographically concentrated in a particular territory, and by ‘self-determination’ the right of this territory to secede, if its population so choose.) It is not the only means. The Austro-Marxists Bauer and Renner argued for a multilingual state with national ‘corporations’ handling some aspects of life. Kautsky argued against them that a state must, for military-bureaucratic reasons, maintain a single official language. Lenin, in turn, argued against both the Austro-Marxists’ view and Kautsky’s from the case of Switzerland, already a multilingual country.3

This point is fundamental. Communists defend the position of the self-determination of nations, meaning that we are opposed to one nation holding down another by main force if the other has democratically decided to secede. But we are not advocates of the secession of nations from existing states - in general we are opposed to it. This logically implies - though, outside Lenin’s articles cited above, it is not much noted - that under present global language conditions we are positively for multilingual states.

I said that democracy requires that public business should be conducted “in the language (and, perhaps, the cultural reference points) of the governed”. In this phrase “language” is obvious, but “cultural reference points” less so. This addresses the point that, for example, political (and other) speech makes certain assumptions in British English which would be inappropriate or incomprehensible addressing a group of speakers of US English (or vice versa). The point is essential to understanding that sharing a common language does not in itself make the sharers a single nation in any politically useful sense.4

Perhaps the cultural reference points” because this is a good deal more problematic than language. Among other problems, this relates to the question of religion. I was brought up as a Brit and an Anglican Christian, and as a result such phrases as ‘Turkeys voting for an early Christmas’ and rhetorical shorthand references to ‘Bloody Mary’ make perfect sense to me. Even if I could speak any of the Middle Eastern or sub-continental languages (I do not) the equivalent Muslim or Hindu catch-phrases or historical references would not make sense to me without a great deal of work. Language routinely incorporates historical and religious referents.

This does not imply, however, that communists as fighters for democracy should advocate the right of geographically concentrated religious groups to self-determination (in the sense of a state of their own). Our approach is, on the contrary, for secularism, the separation of church and state. The reason for this is simple and historical. Most existing religions entail the claim of the clerisy to rule. And this claim is simply opposed to political democracy.

‘Israeli Jews’ or ‘Hebrews’?

These points underlie the reasons why I think that it is better in connection with national rights to talk of the ‘Hebrew-speaking population of Israel’ rather than of ‘Israeli Jews’.

In the first place, comrade Machover is undoubtedly correct to say that the world’s Jews do not constitute a nation. This is not merely a matter of absence of geographical concentration, but also of lack of a common language and culture. Outside Israel, Hebrew is a hieratic language like Sanskrit, or like the role of Latin in the pre-Vatican II catholic church. The historical Yiddish-speaking Jews of central and eastern Europe before the holocaust could have been said to be a nation, but for the fact that their imperfect geographical concentration made the idea of a Jewish state on the spot impractical.

But Zionism, unlike the old Bundism, does not claim that the Yiddish-speaking Jews constitute a nation, but that the world’s Jews as such - who are, in reality, a religious group - are a nation and are as such entitled to obtain a territory - or to have the Jewish territory of classical antiquity ‘returned’ to them. This is reflected, as comrade Mather has pointed out in her article, in the actual character of the Israeli state - a state in which the ‘orthodox’ version of Judaism is established (together with a raft of minority religions) with considerably more clericalist-tyrannical effects than the formal establishment of Anglicanism in England or Lutheranism in Denmark.

It is also, and very fundamentally, reflected in the expansionist character of the Israeli state: ‘facts on the ground’ and the settlements in the West Bank. Because the Zionist state founds its claim to legitimacy on being a state for all the Jews in the world conceived as a ‘nation’, it must seek to attract Jewish immigrants and to expand its territory to accommodate more settlers. Palestinian resistance to this expansion and global diplomatic hostility to it has led to a token pull-back of settlements from Gaza, but settlement activity in the West Bank has continued incessantly through all the various diplomatic initiatives. It is foundational to the Israeli state.

Zionism set out to assert the supposed ‘national rights’ of a global ‘Jewish nation’, and continues to do so through settlement activity. But it has also created a new nation, that of Hebrew-speakers born and brought up in Israel. It is these people’s common Hebrew language, which is not the language of any of the original settler groups, which marks them out as having a real claim to be a nation - not the Jewish religion some of them profess.

And this takes back to both the original point about democracy and nationality, and my earlier point about communists’ aims including the emancipation “of all human beings without distinction of sex or race”. To expel the Israelis from the land taken in 1947 would be in a strictly legal sense just. But to do so would be anti-emancipatory; because it would involve expelling people born and raised in Israel, speakers of a language not in common use elsewhere. It would be the mere retaliatory making of more refugees. To overthrow the Zionist state (without expelling the Israelis) and also to deny them national rights, the right to be governed in their own language, might similarly be a just act of retaliation for the discriminatory character of the Israeli state. But it would be anti-democratic, just as any systematic state discrimination on national or language grounds is anti-democratic.

Proletarian internationalism

Returning to the core of Marxist strategy, it begins with a struggle for the political independence of the working class. This strategic orientation implies a struggle for the workers’ movement to work out its own policy on international questions, in order to avoid forming merely a tail behind the diplomacy of their own national governments or of the liberal or nationalist elements of the capitalist class and the petty bourgeoisie.

The events of the 1860s, Marx wrote in 1864 in the Inaugural address of the First International, “have taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics; to watch the diplomatic acts of their respective governments; to counteract them, if necessary, by all means in their power; when unable to prevent, to combine in simultaneous denunciations.”5 Engels’ 1866 article, ‘What have the working classes to do with Poland?’, similarly speaks of the restoration (unification and independence) of Poland as the “programme of the foreign policy of the working men of western and central Europe”.6

This is, however, not all. In today’s world, questions of this sort do not only present themselves as questions of the ‘foreign policy of the working class’ and its political independence from the various parties of the capitalists and petty bourgeoisie. They also present themselves as problems of the political unification of the working class as a global class.

This was, of course, the point of the several internationals, beginning already with the First. But it is also the reason why, though communists advocate the principle of self-determination, we oppose secessionist movements, and thus advocate multinational states. Even if immediate global political unity of the working class is not available, we favour the maximum possible practical political unity of the class.

And that means opposing ‘Balkanisation’ by national secessions, and, in projects like the EU, arguing for common action of the working class, not for nationalist retreat. Such left nationalism is inherently also class-collaborationist, however ‘radical’ the left nationalists may make themselves sound. It is this issue which poses the question of regional unity and perhaps that of pan-Arabism.

The point is not that the Arabic-speakers constitute a nation. Their common language and a common preponderant religion does not make them do so. In the case of former Ottoman Syria, as comrade Machover has explained, the Entente imperialists after World War I partitioned an area which had a prior common history and culture. This was anti-democratic (and aimed to set up a French Christian puppet in Lebanon and a British Jewish puppet in Palestine) and analogous to the partitioning of Poland in the 18th century, the reconstruction of the petty German states after 1815, or the partitioning of Italy in the same settlement. This partitioning raises a democratic right of the relevant population to reunify, flowing from precisely the same grounds as self-determination in general.

In contrast, the histories of the Mashriq (east of Egypt, particularly Syria and Iraq), Egypt, and the Maghreb (north Africa) are significantly distinct - considerably more so than, for instance, the histories of England and Ireland or those of the UK and the US. The Mashriq was actually part of the Ottoman empire down to 1914. Egypt and the various states of the Maghreb, though mostly still formally connected to some degree to the Ottoman empire, had already practically become independent of it before they were colonised. We cannot without historical inaccuracy say that the Arabs as a whole were simply partitioned in the interests of the imperialists.

Rather the point is that - as elsewhere - the working class needs to attain the maximum possible political unity. And where - as in the US and Canada, or in much of Latin America, or in the Arabic-speaking countries - there is a common language and some elements of a common political culture that ought to be a basis for facilitating practical united action of the working class.

What has opposed any such development has primarily been the state-nationalism of the various inheritors of the post-colonial armies and bureaucracies, and the ‘official communist’ dogma of ‘national roads to socialism’.

In this context the orientation to regional unification is a matter of strategy. The question whether to use the expression ‘pan-Arabism’ to describe this orientation is a matter of tactics. The fact that the left in the region (so far as it survives) is predominantly left nationalist or committed to ‘official communist’ ideas will no doubt make talk of ‘pan-Arabism’ unattractive to them, but this will be true of any sort of regionalist perspective. Is using this history as a referent going to identify regionalism with a particular sort of nationalism? Or is it going to make the reader stop and think, and perhaps constructively consider alternatives to ‘national roads’?

One global line?

The question of proletarian internationalism poses another problem and one which makes this discussion in a sense dangerous for us. Among the Trotskyists there is an idea of proletarian internationalism as meaning that any party or group anywhere is only ‘revolutionary’ if it has a ‘correct line’ on every conflict everywhere in the world. The result is the elaboration of sect positions, which are made into ‘class lines of divide’ on every such conflict.7 There is some slight danger of our discussion taking us down this path.

The ‘common line’ approach has two basic faults. The first is a problem of priorities. The world, as it is, is absolutely full of forms of oppression and struggles against this oppression. The only way out is for the working class to develop common international action to overthrow the capitalist state system and take power itself. It is not to ‘mobilise public opinion’ against each and every instance of oppression.

In this context, giving exactly the same priority to every instance of oppression and of struggle against oppression is to dissipate forces (in fact, very visible among the activist left in Britain). It leads to tailing a section of the capitalist class: that is, the capitalist media, which made an outcry this January about (perfectly real) Israeli terrorism in Gaza, but has soon moved on to an outcry about Zimbabwe, etc.

The second problem is that the imperialist states are characterised both by a consensual division of labour, and by real conflicting interests reflected in diplomatic and other manoeuvres. The consensual division of labour means that - for example - Britain is likely to engage in interventions in former British colonies, as in Sierra Leone in 1999, while France intervened in its former Ivory Coast colony from 2002.

Conflicting interests mean that - for example - in the break-up of Yugoslavia, until the US intervened there was a partial re-run of the diplomatic alignments of pre-World War I, with Germany supporting the Slovenes and Croats, while Britain and France tried to hold a more or less pro-Serb line. Similarly - with some recent exceptions, notably Blair in 2006 - the European imperialist powers have tended to try and take diplomatic distance from the US’s unconditional support for the line of the Israeli state, in order to manoeuvre diplomatically with the Arab states.

As I have argued before, if the British left in the 1930s had - as Trotsky argued - campaigned for British support for Ethiopia in the Italian invasion, they would have been defending British imperialist interests in their Ethiopian client regime against Britain’s Italian imperialist rival.8

Under these conditions the global workers’ movement also needs an effective division of labour. Our principled line and our strategic orientation is for an end to all forms of imperialist wars, domination and oppression. But the primary political responsibility of the British workers’ movement is to oppose the specific wars, domination and oppression for which the British imperialist state is responsible. This is our best contribution to working class political independence from capital and to undermining the international capitalist state system.

In this context, it is important to be clear that, though Israel was originally a British client state, it has not been a British client state since 1947. It became a US client state in the early to mid-1960s and decisively from the 1967 war, when its aggression under the cloak of “pre-emptive self-defence” rendered it for the future immediately dependent on US subsidies and military resupply. The British state, meanwhile, endeavours to manoeuvre between the US and its Israeli client and the Arab states. The ‘war on terror’ has at least partly changed this - witness Blair in 2006 - but not completely: witness both the near fall of Blair as a result of that policy, and the approach of the media to Gaza in January 2009.

The most sharp-edged political questions we face about the role of British imperialism and our primary political responsibilities to fight against this concern Afghanistan, where British troops are presently fighting; Iran, where the British state is one of the US’s most immediate allies in promoting ‘sanctions’ threats of military action; and Zimbabwe, where the British state has been and continues to be promoting ‘sanctions’ for ‘regime change’.

Two states?

This bears indirectly on the question of the ‘two states’ slogan. The context of the use of this slogan is not (as I have argued above) an immediate struggle against British imperialism. It is rather that there actually exists in British politics a movement for solidarity with the Palestinians. If we were starting from scratch, this solidarity movement would not be the most urgent task of the British workers’ movement in relation to international solidarity or anti-imperialism. But it exists - partly because the historically ‘Arabist’ character of British foreign policy makes Israel a ‘soft target’ in British politics; partly because the old CP built it up after 1967 for reasons of Soviet geopolitics.

In this context, it seems to me that the ‘two states’ slogan is tactical. For the reasons I gave at the outset (the character of Israel as a US dependency and a garrison state) it does not amount to a strategy for ending the oppression of the Palestinians, even if it is located in the context of Arab unity. Rather, the underlying principle the slogan expresses is the idea that communists oppose the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel, but do not favour either expelling the Hebrews from Israel, or denying them national rights.

The question is whether it successfully expresses that principle. The answer, I think, is that it does not. In the first place it sits very awkwardly with the idea of the reunification of former Ottoman Syria, which is equally a democratic demand for national self-determination, as comrade Machover has pointed out. Of course, if the only nation were the Arabs as a whole (which implies a very loose federation) two states within mandate Palestine might fit in.

Second, it is deeply liable to be muddled up with the ‘two states’ policy of US imperialism and of the British government, which is in reality a policy for no more than limited self-government under Israeli military control of some Palestinian cantons, while ‘facts on the ground’ (settlements) continue unabated. It is equally liable to be mixed up with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s idea of ‘two states’ - meaning the ‘right of Israel to exist’ and hence (per Sean Matgamna) the right of Israel to ‘pre-emptive self-defence’.

Third, it does not capture the most fundamental problem with Israel. This is that the Zionist claim that Israel is a state for all the Jews in the world and the accompanying ‘law of return’ condemns Israel to endless, though stop-start, aggression and expansion. The primary symbol of this fact is not the Palestinian lack of a ‘state’. It is the taking of land: the continued occupation of the West Bank and the settlements, and the siege of Gaza.

This means that the right principled line is not ‘two states’ but - directly - the reunification of partitioned Syria, with the Hebrews accorded national rights within this reunification; and this, in turn, in the context of a struggle for regional unity.

The right immediate line for the solidarity movement is neither this strategic line, nor ‘two states’, nor ‘one state’. It is to tackle directly the question of the aggressive dynamic of Zionist colonisation. And the clearest way to approach this is the slogan of immediate, complete and unconditional Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied since 1967.


1. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm
2. The conventional translation is: “… the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” But the German reads: “… der erste Schritt in der Arbeiterrevolution die Erhebung des Proletariats zur herrschenden Klasse, die Erkämpfung der Demokratie ist“ (www.marxists.org/deutsch/archiv/marx-engels/1848/manifest/2-prolkomm.htm); and the French, “… la première étape dans la révolution ouvrière est la constitution du prolétariat en classe dominante, la conquête de la démocratie“ (www.marxists.org/francais/marx/works/1847/00/mfe18470000b.htm). The version in the text is closer to these.
3. Austro-Marxists: O Bauer The question of nationalities and social democracy Minneapolis 2000; K Kautsky, ‘Nationalität und Internationalität’ Die Neue Zeit 1908 (cited from the forthcoming translation by Ben Lewis); VI Lenin, ‘Liberals and democrats on the language question’ (1913) CW Vol 19, p354; ‘Critical remarks on the national question’ (1913) CW Vol 20, p17.
4. Different interpretations of the same point are available from Bauer, Lenin (note 5) and JV Stalin Marxism and the national question chapter 1: www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03.htm#s1
5. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/10/27.htm
6. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1866/03/24.htm I do not mean by this citation to endorse Engels’ profoundly mistaken use in these articles of the Hegelian distinction between the “right of the great national subdivisions of Europe to political independence” and the “numerous small relics of peoples” who, he says, have no such right.
7. More on this in my book Revolutionary strategy London 2008, chapter 9.
8. Revolutionary strategy chapter 5, note 9.