Reaching beyond Palestinian Nationalism: Reply to Salim Tamari - Mohammad Ja'far

Mohammad Ja'far's criticism of the idea that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (and Palestinian nationalism more generally) can bring genuine liberation to the Palestinian working class.

Reaching beyond Palestinian Nationalism: Reply to Salim Tarmari - Mohammad Ja'far

Salim Tamari's critique (Khamsin 6) of my article 'The ideological divide in the Palestinian restance movement' (Khamsin 5) is revealing of a very fundamental political divergence between our two points of view. I shall make this the axis of my reply.

Tamari has understood my article as levelling a criticism at the present leadership of the Palestinian resistance movement, arising out of which he regards me as engaged in 'a call for the substitution of a "bourgeois" programme (for a state) by a socialist slogan (for class politics)'. His criticism of my position, viewed in this framework, is then that I am engaged in a sterile ultra-leftist propagandistic exercise: 'For just as the Palestinian state can be a fetish within the Palestinian movement, so can the call for class struggle by the left opposition' (p127). However, while noting that a Palestinian state can be a fetish, he subsequently argues that 'a Palestinian state will provide the necessary prerequisite for the transformation of the essentially national conflict. . . into one in which the conditions for class emancipation can obtain for the first time [my italics - MJ.] . This requires . . . that Palestinians have the opportunity to live in a stable community in which their national culture and physical security can be protected; Le. in a state oftheir own' (p128).

The problem, as Tamari sees it, is that the Palestinians outside the occupied territories are a declassed community who cannot struggle on a class programme which is not that of the Palestinian bourgeoisie until they are 'ingathered', so to speak. Palestinians are therefore 'compelled to seek the social base which establishes the PLO as a viable political force' (p127). Inside the occupied territries and Israel, national oppression submerges 'all forms of class consciousness', forcing the working class even to 'bite the hand that "feeds" it by asking for separation' (p128).

It is interesting to note that Tamari and I appear to agree on at least two fundamental points: first, that the project of the PLO is to establish a Palestinian state whose class character is undoubtedly bourgeois; and therefore, secondly, that politically and programmatically, if not sociologically, the PLO is a bourgeois organisation representing the historic interests of the Palestinian bourgeoisie, whether already in existence as a fragmented class, in formation on the West Bank, or yet-to-be-formed under the auspices of a future Palestinian state. Where we clearly disagree is on our respective evaluations of the significance of such a state, and its effect on the struggle for socialism in the region.

Let us suppose, just for a moment, that Tamari's theory is correct and that the creation of a bourgeos Palestinian state will, by solving the national question, give rise 'for the first time' to conditions necessary for the class emancipation of the Palestinian workers and peasants. It follows then that Palestinian socialists like Tamari would have to postpone their fight for socialism and struggle alongside a barely existing Palestinian bourgeoisie through, or in alliance with, its political organisation - the PLO - for the purpose of establishing the PLO's objective of a Palestinian state. The creation of this state, solving the Palestinian national question, thereby opens up a new historical period in which, for the first time presumably, Palestinian socialists will start to struggle against their own bourgeoisie, who will now not only be constituted economically as the dominant class (which they were not before), but will also wield all the considerable resources of a state apparatus. Following through Tamari's reasoning, then, we can say: this ascendency of the Palestinian bourgeoisie will have been achieved by the efforts of the Palestinian masses and the socialists themselves (who else?), who would then be entitled to struggle for liberation from the formidable creature which they themselves will have helped to bring into being!

In the history of the workers' movement, this analysis of the development of revolution in backward countries is known generally as the two-stage theory; the first stage being that of the democratic bourgeois revolution, and the second of socialism. Tamari's critique assumes and is based on the validity of a two-stage theory, which he then applies concretely to the conditions of Palestinian society.

The analysis underlying my own article rejected this whole conception of the dynamics of revolution in backward countries, and in fact assumed the theory of permanent revolution, which we shall now summarise before returning to the debate.

In the imperialist epoch - that is in the epoch characterised by the export of capital and the formation of an integrated (and not merely interrelated) worldwide capitalist system - the backwardness of all the so-called 'third world' group of countries is structurally prescribed and reproduced by the functioning of the world economy. This is in the very nature of imperialism. It is within such a climate that the bourgeoisies of the backward capitalist countries are not only sustained, but also formed. This stands in complete contrast to the historical formation of the bourgeoisies of the now advanced capitalist countries. Consequently, the perspectives and even prospects for development of the bourgeoisies of the backward countries are inextricably tied up with the fate of the imperialist system. Certainly they may have differences with the imperialist bourgeoisie and will tend to fight for a larger slice of the cake on this or that issue.1 But in the end all such manoeuvres must be understood to be based on a fundamental acceptance of the workings of the imperialist system, for which there is at present no alternative based on capitalism.

It therefore follows that a number of unsolved tasks in the backward countries, wþose solution is not in principle in conflict with capitalism (like the national question, the .agrarian question, economic backwardness, and lack of democratic rights) and which historically were solved more or less by the bourgeoisies of the advanced countries in the course of their bourgoeis revolutions, can no longer be solved by today's bourgeoisies in the backward capitalist countries. It is not simply a question of these bourgeoisies being incapable of solving these tasks, but even more importantly: they no longer have an interest in solving them, because their very existence and sustenance as a bourgeoisie assumes their non-solution.

Thus it is clear that with imperialism a whole new historical period has opened up, in which either the problems of backwardness are taken up by the workers' movement on the basis of an intention to break with capitalism and their own bourgeoisies, or they will not be solved at all.

Experience of 20th century revolutions has shown that only those societies that underwent a revolutionary process that broke with capitalism, starting with the Russian revolution, were able to solve radically at least some major problems of backwardness. No other so-called 'third world' country has ever done so. Furthermore, every time that a workers' organisation based itself on a two-stage theory and gave its support to its own bourgeoisie, entering bourgeois parties and subordinating its struggle to that of its own bourgeoisie, the workers have been defeated if not outrightly butchered and massacred. The most notorius early historical example is that of the Chinese Communist Party which on Stalin's orders entered the party of the Chinese nationalist bourgeoisie - the Kuomintang - and was cut to pieces by Chiang Kai-shek. If it had not been for a minority on the central committee led by Mao who opposed the move and was able as a result to survive and lead the CCP to make a comeback almost a quarter of a century later, we might never have had a socialist revolution in China. The list of such examples (China, Indonesia, Iraq, Chile. . . ) in more than sixty years of revolution is endless.

The two-stage theory versus the theory of permanent revolution has been a central issue of debate in the workers' movement since 1905 when Trotsky first formulated the latter in his book on the dynamics of ~he Russian revolution, Results and Prospects. Its importance cannot be underestimated, since a completely different set of strategic and tactical options for militants flow out of each theory. Salim Tamari and myself are at root separated by this great divide. The logic of his position is to think that the establishment of a Wèst Bank Palestinian state by the PLO represents a major historical gain for the Palestinian masses that justifies the subservience and even dissolution of the organisations of the Palestinian left (if they existed, which unfortunately they do not) into the organisations of the Palestinian bourgeoisie - the PLO - for a whole historical period. I, on the other hand, think that even assuming such a state can be set up by the PLO in the coming period (a very big assumption indeed!) then it will add just one more backward Arab regime to the list of those that have to be overthrown, and the lot of the ordinary Palestinian worker or peasant will not have improved at all in any qualitative sense.

The removal of direct zionist military rule, taken by itself, will of course be a big step forward for the class struggle from many points of view, and it remains crucially important for Arab and Jewish revolutionaries, both inside and outside Israel, to struggle for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the zionist army from all the occupied territories. However, this is not the same as struggling for an unviable Palestinian state on the West Bank headed by the PLO, which is bound to install a regime at least as obnoxious as those in the other Arab countries. The main point is that even an important gain such as Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank does not constitute in any sense a historical breakthrough which will usher in a whole new period of development of the class struggle. It is a step forward for the Palestinian masses only in the sense in which it represents a weakening of zionism. But that is all. To the extent to which this step forward is identified in the eyes of the masses with the PLO, because a majority of Palestinian militants have either watered down their politics to that of the PLO, or not advanced beyond them, then to that same extent the original gain will be rolled back. Why is this true?

I would put forward the following reasons:

1) The PLO is intrinsically incapable of setting up a regime that is any better than those in the surrounding Arab countries. It is already tied by umbilical cords to these regimes, especially the oil-producing ones and Syria, which are obviously only going to finance a West Bank state that behaves according to norms accepted by the rest of the Arab regimes.

2) The PLO will be only too happy to crush any left opposition it may have on the West Bank either now or in the future, and it is likely that even the very limited democratic rights enjoyed by the West Bank population today, under Israeli occupation, will be taken away.

3) The material standard of living of the Palestinian masses under a PLO regime, cut off from the more advanced Israeli economy, will in all likelihood decline and the Palestinian bourgeoisie will in no way be able to step into the shoes of the Israeli bourgeoisie, notwithstanding all the petrodollars pumped in by the Gulf states.

4) For all the above reasons the combativity of the Palestinian masses and their willingness to struggle for a better future will decline and the organisations of the Palestinian bourgeoisie will correspondingly strengthen. The struggle for a socialist future will consequently have been significantly delayed, contrary to Tamari's projection that it will now be on the agenda.

The fact that the establishment of a PLO regime on the West Bank is a step backward, despite the enormous gain of Israeli withdrawal, immediately poses the question of what are socialists to struggle for in the positive programmatic sense. Tamari, it seems to me, must disagree with my argument that a PLO regime would be as horrible as say the regime in Iraq or Syria. In this case I hope that we can have a discussion centred on this point and I will of course be referring him to pointers like the mafia-like behaviour of the PLO during the Lebanese civil war and the fact that it stands today as probably the most loathed organisation amongst the Lebanese masses (Christian and Moslem alike) who after all have had some experiences of the concrete daily practices of the PLO in the course of the war. A balance sheet of the PLO during the Lebanese civil war has yet to be drawn up, as Tamari himself recognises. One thing is sure however. It will not be in any way flattering to the PLO!

If, on the other hand, Tamari would agree with us that a PLO regime in the West Bank is unlikely to be qualitatively different from other Arab regimes, while still maintaining that nevertheless its establishment is a major historical advance that justifies support of the PLO, then his position as we have said completely disarms the Palestinian masses in face of the dangers that are to come, and acquiesces in, if not actually facilitates, the inevitable repression and smashing up of all opposition that might be struggling for an improvement in the lot of the Palestinian masses, more domocratic rights, etc.

I put it to Tamari that, in contraposition to a PLO regime on the West Bank coexisting with a zionist state in Israel, the programmatic goal of revolutionary socialists should be the creation of a thoroughly new socialist order, the like of which has not even a remote parallel in the Arab world. This is the spirit in which cadres and militants have to be ideologically formed. Their horizons and perspectives must be elevated above the putrid narrow limits of nationalism, because what is at stake is after all the very success of the struggle for a better future. Nationalism for the Palestinians, more than for any other sector of the Arabs, is a completely dead end road. The bright future it projects is a myth.

There are unfortunately no models or blueprints that can be dug up for a new socialist order. Certain things however can be definitively said. It must allow for the Palestinian and Jewish masses of Israel to retain their autonomy for each other if they so desire while at the same time increasing extensively their economic interdependence. It is completely illusory to imagine that a viable advanced economic and social order can be established in Palestine, capable of increasing qualitatively the material, cultural and social welfare of the Palestinian masses, without the active participation of the Jewish proletariat. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that Palestinian militants work with Israeli Jewish militants wherever possible - and without them if necessary - to undermine the legitimacy that zionist institutions hold in the eyes of the Jewish masses. The demand for withdrawal from the occupied territories is a step forward because it tends in that direction. But that is the only positive contribution which the implementation of that demand can generate in the present circumstances. The problem is one of maintaining the unity of the Palestinian masses in the pre-1967 borders of Israel and those in the West Bank, and increasing': not decreasing - the access of Palestinians as a whole to the Israeli economy (examples: encouragement of Palestinian trade union work; struggle for improved social amenities and housing; struggle against discrimination in state institutions, etc.), while simultaneously building bridges to the Jewish proletariat, to deepen and realise their break with zionism. The struggle at this stage should be primarily viewed by Palestinian militants as a political one against all the claptrap of canned struggle' and for the hearts and minds of the Jewish working class and the gradual breakup and erosion of the ideological hegemony exercised by the zionist leadership. This is a tall order. But what makes it necessary is the simple hard fact that it is the only way that a major historical advance in the conditions of the Palestinian masses may be (note: we are not saying will be!) achieved. A PLO regime on the West Bank will not only not achieve this, but the abominations it will perpetrate on its own citizenry will ultimately reinforce the hold of zionism on the Jewish proletariat and therefore in the whole region, thereby nullifying even the initial positive contribution of Israeli withdrawal. This is the deadly harvest of nationalism.

* * *

In conclusion, I wish to make one final remark. There is an uncanny similarity between Tamari's line of reasoning and that of the traditional left theoreticians of zionism like Borochov, who used to argue that Jewish sovereignty over a piece of territory was a necessary precondition for the emancipation of Jewish workers. It is only under this condition, Borochov said. 'the class struggle of the Jewish worker will achieve the necessary political, economic and social impact.2

Tamari is not alone amongst Palestinian intellectuals in formulating, whether consciously or not, these sorts of parrallels with zionist ideology. We draw attention in particular to the important article in the American journal 'Foreign Affairs' (published for State-Department types) by the Palestinian historian R. AI-Khalidi, who explains why a Palestinian West Bank state would be both viable and not a threat to the great powers: because of the stability it would provide. Is there not more than just a little Herzlian overtone to this reasoning, and even to its publications in this manner?

It must surely register as one of history's supreme ironies that a line of intellectual development amongst Palestinians has emerged that projects a future in terms that borrow so heavily the early zionists themselves! Is there not a logic at work here which no doubt arises form the material conditions of the scattered Palestinians, overlaid as this has become since 1967 with a leadership entrenched in the confines of Palestinian nationalism?

  • 1. In the case of the Arab ruling classes and the oil price rises, I have analysed at length the extent to which this phenomenon can develop. See 'The Arab ruling classes in the 1970s' in the present issue.
  • 2. Quoted in the excellent article 'Borochovism' by M. Machover, in A. Bober (ed), The Other Israel, Doubleday, New York 1972, p151.