Assessing the significance and prospects of revolution

CPGB members, meeting in London on June 25, debated the Arab awakening and Israeli-Jewish national rights. Alex John reports

On behalf of the Provisional Central Committee, comrade John Bridge introduced the theses, ‘The Arab revival and Israel-Palestine’, noting that the situation had changed dramatically since our previous discussions on the Middle East three years ago. Although we had been in the process of drawing up an analysis, our discussions were interrupted by other matters, and no theses had been adopted at that time.

The purpose of our theses is not to display our deep knowledge, said comrade Bridge, nor to set out what the Arab masses ought to do from the safety of our armchairs, but to begin to engage with the Arab left. Indeed our knowledge about what is going on in various Arab countries is very limited. There is a distinct lack of information in the western media about the politics of the opposition movements being courted by the United States and European Union powers in the name of democracy, and we are driven to speculate whether this reflects a reluctance to admit an “inconvenient truth”. While demonising Muslims as extremists at home and as the foreign enemy in the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan and elsewhere, it would be embarrassing to report that the new allies the west is cultivating in its attempt to harness and divert the Arab democracy movement are Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.

The “Arab awakening” over the past six months is a world historic development, marking a further step in the decline of the US imperialist hegemon and in the decline of the capitalist system itself. The US backs Israel, but it also backed the Arab regimes which it now decries. The “elephant in the room”, when they mouth slogans about democracy, human rights and progress, is, of course, Saudi Arabia. For profligacy, corruption and bestiality, the imperialist-backed House of Saud is unrivalled. Imperialist hypocrisy on this score is therefore massive and revealing.

Comrade Bridge emphasised that, while presidents have been driven from office, no Arab state has yet been overturned. Although there has been no successful revolution yet, the movement has widened the democratic space and there is great potential for real political and social change.

Some of the left in Britain have been calling for quick elections and a “workers’ government”, but, while this was realistic in 1917 Russia, it is unrealistic in the Arab world today. We have seen the collapse of the USSR and ‘official communism’, and of the secular Arab nationalism which depended on it. The danger is that elections would reveal the residual strength of the old regimes, the growth of the Islamists and the confusion and disorganisation of the masses. Indeed there are signs that the US is ready to bring the Muslim Brotherhood in from the cold and come to some historic compromise.

The best conditions for the working class are those of permanent revolution. That is, the complete destruction of the old regimes, sweeping away the muck of corruption, bureaucracy and the whole secret state apparatus; the separation of the state, education and the law from religion and a commitment to secularism; an ever expanding democratic space, within which strong trade unions, militias, cooperatives and political parties can be organised. That would result in weak capitalist regimes which are easy to influence and easy to overthrow, as the working class readies itself for power.

Following comrade Bridge’s introduction, comrade James Turley proposed a set of amendments which modified and added to the final theses. He supported the main thrust of the PCC proposals, that Palestinian rights can be achieved through the Arab revolution, not by the Palestinians alone. In the immediate situation, therefore, a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question is as “equally impractical” as a one-state solution, he said.

Comrade Yassamine Mather said that the Muslim Brotherhood were latecomers in Tahrir Square, Cairo, and the democracy movement has already defeated political Islam. Nevertheless the Islamists are involved in negotiations with imperialism for the defeat of the democratic revolution. On Israel/Palestine she said a two-state solution is unrealistic for reasons of geography - because of the “islands of settlement” which permeate the Palestinian areas, and because the present Israeli state would not tolerate a return to 1967 borders. It is also impractical because, although the labour force in Israel is mixed - part Israeli-Jewish, part Palestinian - there is little Palestinian capital. A one-state solution, she said, is not as unrealistic as the theses say, because a third of Israelis now think a one-state solution is possible.

Comrade Mike Macnair favoured comrade Turley’s amendment because it leaves the one-state/two-state question open. He said there is a problem with the general principle of self-determination and “the right to form a state”. If we use Stalin’s 1913 definition, then a state necessarily involves a “contiguous block of territory”. The West Bank is already “bantustanised”, he said, and the right of a people to form a state means the right to control territory, and “therefore to subordinate minorities”.

Comrade Moshé Machover - a visitor - emphasised that the democracy movement is an Arab national movement, pointed out that the current struggles in Syria had been greeted by people on the Jordanian side of the border with slogans calling for Arab unity. As for Al Jazeera, it is running a series of documentaries titled The Arab awakening, a conscious reference to the seminal 1938 book of that name by George Antonius, the first historian of modern Arab nationalism.

The theses are “better than anything else on the British left”, he said. But he queried our preference for a “centralised Arab republic” in thesis 23, arguing that a federal republic would be more acceptable to the diverse Arab population currently divided into over 20 states - as he had argued in his article, ‘Breaking the chains of Zionist oppression’ (Weekly Worker February 19 2009). The problem with a “single-state solution” is that it would have to be imposed on the Hebrew, or Israeli Jewish, people, he explained. Before 1974 the Palestine Liberation Organisation aimed for a unitary “secular, democratic state”; but why the adjective “secular”? Surely a democratic state is secular. What they meant was that Jews would have religious rights - but not national rights, not the right of self-determination, so unity would be imposed on them. The democratic principle socialists should uphold, argued comrade Machover, is “equal national rights”.

Comrade Peter Manson (and a number of other comrades) thought this principle “too abstract”. The theses should include an explicit demand for two secular states, he said.

Challenging comrade Macnair’s view on self-determination, comrade Bridge said that, while states almost always contain national minorities, this does not necessarily imply oppression or ethnic cleansing. And in answer to comrade Machover, he insisted that we favour a centralised rather than a federal state, and that the multitude of tiny Gulf states should be “cleared away”.

Comrade Stan Kelsey commented that comrade Macnair had “painted himself into a corner” by arguing that the right to secession necessarily means either ethnic cleansing or the oppression of minorities. The right to self-determination must include the right to form a separate state; but it does not mean we favour separation. We favour unity, so long as it is voluntary. Comrade Kelsey proposed that thesis 28 be amended to uphold the “right of both Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab peoples to their own democratic and secular state”, rather than explicitly aiming for the formation of such states.

However, comrade Machover argued that, in the context of an Arab revolution, while the Israeli Jewish nation would certainly want its own state, the Palestinian Arabs would simply be part of a larger Arab state, along with the rest of the Arab population. ‘Palestine’, he said, was a short-lived imperialist creation after World War I, and had only existed from 1923 to 1947. Comrade Yassamine Mather argued that the PCC’s proposed theses, having established that no solution exists for the Palestinian Arabs without an Arab revolution, and having set the aim of a centralised Arab republic - in which the Palestinian Arabs would not need a separate identity - then took a “step backwards” in thesis 28 by reverting to the aim of “a democratic and secular Palestine”.

Comrade Machover suggested that we should not wait to settle the finer points of our views on the general question of national rights before stating our views on the Arab awakening, and this was accepted by the meeting. Comrade Bridge accepted comrade Turley’s amendments and additions, saying two matters were particularly important: that the CPGB backs the Arab democratic revolution and that we uphold the national rights of the Israeli Jewish nation.

No serious disagreements were evident, and it was agreed that adopting a firm position on the Arab revolution should not be delayed. A series of votes confirmed each detailed amendment to the text, which was then adopted unanimously (see opposite).

Other decisions

The meeting also briefly discussed a number of other matters. National organiser Mark Fisher reported on the technical problems which have delayed the launch of the CPGB’s upgraded website beyond the June 11 aim set by our May 8 aggregate. While the driving force will remain the Weekly Worker, the site’s role as organiser and educator will be augmented by links to a variety of other resources, including videos, political texts and copies of the paper’s forerunner, The Leninist.

The start of our Summer Offensive annual fundraising drive, too, was delayed a week to June 18, in the hope of launching it simultaneously with the new website, but this was not to be. The website is still ‘teething’ but will appear “soon”. Comrade Ben Lewis reported that the initial pledges from individual comrades had nevertheless made a good start towards the £25k target, to be achieved by the final day of Communist University - August 20. Overcoming the Weekly Worker’s present monthly cash shortage is a central issue in this year’s SO. Regular income is down, costs are up. Systematic contacting of Weekly Worker supporters is underway, aiming to raise monthly standing orders by a minimum of £300.

Minor amendments to the text of the CPGB’s revised Draft programme were proposed by the PCC and adopted unanimously. The text arrived at by the January 23 aggregate (‘Programme for the class’ Weekly Worker January 27), through a somewhat complicated process of amendments to amendments, had introduced inconsistencies discovered during proofreading - thankfully prior to publication. As the necessary changes were more than merely grammatical corrections, the PCC decided to submit the amendments to the members’ aggregate.