An SDS national council meeting, 1963. SDS would grow dramatically, convert dramatically to variants of Maoism, split and disperse dramatically
Book Review: Michael R. Fischbach, The Movement and the Middle East: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Divided the American Left, Stanford, Stanford University Press 2020
It is the conceit of this volume that the history of the American New Left and its residual legacy can be fruitfully reexamined in terms of the divisions that arose in the anti-war movement over the Palestinian (Arab) conflict. According to the author, “the major split in the Left came down to this: how far did left-wing support for revolutionary internationalism and anti-imperialism extend? Did it apply across the board, or was one country, Israel, somehow exempt from scrutiny?”
To reject the class nature of any state, its ruling ideology and leadership or its international alliances is to subject that state to scrutiny. To question the right of one state and one national community alone to exist is a step beyond mere scrutiny. What Al-Fatah and its movement defenders endorsed was a multi-confessional Arab state, not a multinational state. It was an unprecedented call. The Algerian Liberation Front did not demand the destruction of France; the NLF the destruction of the US; nor did the African of West Asian liberation movements advocate the destruction of Portugal or Spain or England. Yes, there was and is an Israeli-exceptionalism, but its an exceptionalism that resides entirely with the “anti-imperialist” left.
This volume is, on its own merits, a marvellously entertaining read, replete with innumerable “aha” moments of blinding enlightenment: of how New Leftists awoke, presumably, from their political stupor to the reality of “Zionist racism,” of “white settler-colonialism,” of an “Arab revolution”, of Israel as a bulwark of reaction and watchdog of American imperialism; where new loyalties were forged and where the extension of “unconditional support” became the acid test of revolutionary principles. All very breathtaking, indeed.
Unfortunately, what this book cannot offer is a useful political analysis. Its historical perspective is too deeply entrenched in the axiomatic assumptions of camp-ist politics and its attendant self-righteous moralism. The vast majority of anti-war demonstrators was non-affiliated and, no doubt, were otherwise liberal or even apolitical in their broader outlook. But the contending activist leaderships and the political organs in which they debated and developed their political perspectives were eventually to become deeply sectarian.
Fischbach divides the “movement” into its revolutionary wing of assorted Stalinists, third period Stalinists, Maoists, Castroites, Trotskyist apologists, Stalinoids and assorted muddle-heads, including its berserker factions (Weather Underground, etc), whose deficiencies arose, according to the author’s sympathetic rendition, from a surfeit of frustrated idealism; and a morally depleted, politically bankrupt wing—the Socialist Party, Young Peoples Socialist League and its successors and splinters (Social Democrats USA, Young Social Democrats and Democratic Socialist organising Committee).
Black Power movements are dealt with separately, but presumably --equally, in the author’s companion volume, Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color.
There was, indeed, a “movement,” but it did not have two wings. What it had was one tiny but determined enemy. And Fischbach gives that enemy the very no holds barred treatment that he otherwise spares even the terrorist wing of the New Left. His treatment is well deserved. But it also requires contextualization to be understood, which is where Fischbach is woefully delinquent.
What he is in no position to comment on, more importantly, is this. The movement, borne as a bright star of hope, ended as an ideological rout for third camp politics. Even beyond the confines of the right drifting Socialist Party, which had had in effect already repudiated its political roots and revolutionary commitments, the political impact of the New Left also culminated in a partial retreat by authentic third camp forces—the Independent Socialist Clubs, later the International Socialists. Their drive to maintain dialogue through positive engagement with the “movement” led it to a backdoor ideological accommodation with bureaucratic collectivist forces, whose victory it ultimately critically endorsed.
First, a little background that Fischbach does not and cannot provide. The American New Left grew, in part, out of the Shachtmanite movement in decay. As the Shachtmanite majority retreated from third camp politics and into coalition with the mainstream trade union and civil rights bureaucracies—thereby entrenching themselves in the Democratic Party, the Students for a Democratic Society and the separatist wing of the civil rights movement, with whom there were shared familial relations, increasingly gravitated out of the Shachtmanite orbit.
Previous to its merger with the SP, the Workers Party/Independent Socialist League sought to mobilize rank and file pressure within organized labor for a break with the Democratic Party. The independent political apparatus of the AFL-CIO was rightly regarded as a mighty electoral Gulliver, tied down by an institutional arrangement within the Democratic Party whereby the party’s racist Southern wing in alliance with GOP business reaction checked its New Deal/Great Society social-democratic pretensions. The threat of a minority Dixiecrat veto preemptively disarmed the Democrats from acting decisively in all situations where unanimity could not be maintained.
Having capitulated to the labor bureaucracy’s’ viewpoint that a third party would be both futile and diversionary, the Shachtmanites embarked on a realignment strategy to break the minority veto power wielded by the Dixiecrats over the labor-liberal-civil rights coalition.1 This meant an all out assault on the Jim Crow sources of southern white power, as part of an overall strategy to free the Democratic Party from the restraints that that power imposed on “majority rule.”
And the initial successes of the civil rights movement, which the Shachtmanites both encouraged and played an outsized role in, were nothing short of stunning. The civil rights struggle backed by organized labor provoked a series of profoundly dramatic confrontations between the federal government and the southern states that effectively terminated the viability of organized southern racism within the DP. The Dixiecrats were compelled to seek their natural home elsewhere. The racist wing of the DP moved virtually overnight into Republican Party. Its merger with the GOPs traditional business component eviscerated its liberal Rockefeller wing and gave birth to the Goldwater movement, whose reactionary vision was resoundingly repudiated by the American electorate in the 1964 Presidential election.
The Shachtmanites could now see a path to an American social democracy within grasp. Almost, that is. For just a scant four years later, Hubert Humphrey—a stalwart anti-communist liberal with acceptable (to the SP) pro-labor and civil rights credentials--went down to a narrow defeat, a defeat occasioned, in no small part, by the electoral defection of the anti-war movement. To compound that defeat, significant parts of the “movement” encroached in on the DP, displaced and marginalized the labor bureaucracy, and succeeded in provoking a reaction against itself of mass electoral revulsion for its failure to distance itself from the hysterical Yankophobia and self-righteous pro-NLF shenanigans of its most flamboyant and media savvy elements.
The realignment socialists, by this time an abuse of terminology, had not anticipated the rise of another minority force within the Democratic ranks that could replace the Dixiecrats as a veto-enforcing spanner within its machinery, a new social force that could so effectively wield the threat of defection to disrupt and call to heel the labor-civil rights ascendancy within the DP. The mainstream of the SP had prematurely abandoned any responsibility to seriously engage with the anti-war movement when it was still possible under the patronizing belief that “no one” votes on the basis of foreign policy differences.
But the truth is that they no longer shared any basis for meaningful dialogue with the “movement.” The Shachtmanites had by then long adapted to camp-ist, cold war politics. On what basis could they engage with an anti-war movement adrift? The SP passed a slew of compromise Vietnam resolutions that neither the traditional Norman Thomas pacifist wing nor the realignment caucus was satisfied with and which no sober person thought could be presented as a basis for dialogue with serious opponents of American imperialism. Their “Negotiations Now” front, in which the US was seen as a coequal partner was a nonstarter. And for good reason.
The Vietnam conflict was no longer treated primarily as a civil war but rather as a clash between two imperialisms each with its pawns, that dominated and overshadowed its civil war aspect. But one imperialism alone was touted on a lesser-evil basis. The South, the Shachtmanites readily conceded, was led by reactionaries, but reactionaries who were restrained by American administrations from destroying independent trade unions, peasant organisations and nationalists in their midst. For to eliminate them would risk alienating a key base of support for American imperialism—George Meany and the labor forces he presided over. There were no such parallel restraints against Stalinist domination over the North.
The Shachtmanites had come full circle. Labor pressure on American imperialism, they argued, constrained capitalism’s most reactionary appetites incubating the latent forces of Vietnamese democracy until such forces could move against their immediate oppressors. This had morphed into a full-blown realpolitik apologia. Any immediate future for third world democracy under cold war conditions hinged on an alliance of expediency between free labor movements here and abroad and American imperial ambitions, which, in contrast to Stalinist imperialism, was compelled to keep democratic forces on life support.
Whatever kernel of truth there was in that distinction, it was transparently obvious that US imperialism’s only interest in keeping these progressive forces alive was propagandistic, to burnish its democratic credentials and contrast them to Stalinism. The American ruling class had no intention of allowing such forces to flourish until powerful enough to challenge and dislodge American power and influence. Stalinophobia had swallowed the Shachtmanites whole.
Those who still kept their heads, the Independent Socialists Clubs, the American Socialist Organising Committee and Student Socialist Union (all soon to coalesce) adhered to the third camp position. They rightly argued, at least initially, that support for the Vietnamese people should not be diverted into support for the Stalinist organisations leading their struggle, as it was clear that such outfits would pose the next obstacle to Vietnamese freedom. They warned against idolizing governments based on forced collectivization that benefitted nobody but their ruling bureaucracies, and on the suppression of strikes and independent trade unions.
They warned the New Left that if the “movement” presented a perspective to the American people that was little more than an apology for the “special difficulties” faced by third world totalitarian bureaucracies, that ideal would be rejected. And it cautioned the American peace movement to make clear its rejection of the Stalinist alternative to American imperialism just as vigorously as it rejected capitalist imperialism. They argued that consistent anti-war militants should only give support to independent movements that offered the possibility of a revolutionary democratic alternative to both capitalist imperialism and Communism.
Were such independent movements to offer a credible alternative to the NLF and Ho Chi Minh, they would need to champion a revolutionary program to wipe out the vestiges of landlordism and privilege with an anti-capitalist program placing them in direct confrontation both with the American and the military and with the Stalinist insurgents. The anti-war movement could best work in support of these beleaguered forces by mobilizing public support for an unconditional withdrawal of American troops on that basis and by making it clear—in stark contrast to The SP’s “Negotiations Now” perspective-- that it similarly refused to recognize the legitimacy of an American role in shaping the future of Vietnam.
This is precisely what the Shachtmanites failed to do. And it was on the basis of their now well-entrenched pro-Washington camp-ism that the late 1960s early 1970s SP and its youth movement, the YPSL—who had never, remarkably, made any serious acquaintance with the WP/ISL’s third camp politics -– predictably approached the Arab-Israeli conflict. Within a decade many of the more ambitious YPSL/Young SD leadership coopted themselves into the neoconservative movement either as full-fledged Republicans or as right-wing Democrats, who retained a residual nostalgia for union rights and welfare state protections by haunting the teachers’ union and the AFL-CIO’s foreign affairs outfits as paid nuisances.
Israel was democratic, had a legal trade union apparatus, a dominant state/Histadrut economic sector, was led by parties affiliated with the Socialist International and was aligned with the “West.” Contrasting these “virtues” with their glaring absence in the Arab world was the alpha and omega of YPSL’s campus work. They were blind to the chauvinist deprivations inflicted on Israel’s Arab and Mizrahi minorities, of the larger issue of Palestinian national rights, of the bureaucratic collectivist nature of Israel’s economy, of the demagogic appeal to Zionism as an ideological tool to enforce class unity within the Jewish sector or of foreseeing how the occupation would give rise to the corruption and decay of Israeli society. Of course, Israel’s ties with American power were hardly seen as an impediment to their “unconditional” support. On the contrary, it argued for a more resolute US posture in resolving the crisis. Less a socialist analysis than canned agitprop, it was, in either case, a disgraceful performance.
Just as the YPSL was celebrating Israeli “socialism,” the ungrateful Israeli public was renouncing this stifling order for its failure to deliver peace or prosperity. The Jewish community was fracturing in two directions: either in favour of free market capitalism or towards an anti-establishment militancy that rejected the received socialist-Zionist and militarist nostrums.
But if the YPSL was appalling, it was certainly no less so than the pro-Arab/Palestinian movement it confronted. The New Left innocents abroad were all too eager to be beguiled by the Che Guevaras of the Arab world. Meeting, often at great personal risk, with guerilla leaders in Palestinian refugee camps, they uncritically imbibed the entire Arab chauvinist perspective. It never occurred to these audacious truth seekers to ask why Palestinians were still caged in refugee camps, instead of being resettled and granted dual citizenship (of the states they resided in and in the future state of Palestine they hoped to attain). Or to ask, what was the nature of the “Arab revolution” that prioritized the conquest of Israel rather than the overthrow of feudal oil sheikhdoms and the socialization or their resources? Or why they put themselves in the service of Baathist/Nasserite fascists or of their Russian quartermasters? What type of revolutionary solidarity justified the deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians? And above all, why did the “revolutionary movements” fail to raise elementary democratic demands for free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, women’s equality, and the right to organize independent political parties and trade unions? Did they take notice of how Black Arabs were treated, not to mention gays or atheists?
And how was it, one might have asked, that these intrepid truth seekers never sought out the poor and working class Jewish communities of Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq to get their take on living as a communal minority within Arab chauvinist states? (Hint, they would have had to locate them in Israel.)
So much for the white youth contingent. The Black separatist and nationalist movements simply cut to the chase and equated Israel with Nazi Germany. Cartoons and memes lifted from PLO material festooned SNCC and Black Panther newspapers and handbills with Rothschild conspiracies, Jewish puppet masters, holocaust inversion and the full panoply of classic rightwing anti-Semitic memes. All these were met with fawning silence by the “movement.” The present day “anti-imperialist” left has harvested a bumper crop from these seeds. The charge of Israel as an apartheid state engaging in genocide, Zionism as a white supremacist ideology, equating Gaza with the Warsaw ghetto, accusing Israel of responsibility for American police criminality against racial minorities, of trafficking in the harvested organs of helpless Palestinians, in deliberately mutilating Palestinian children are all offshoots with common roots in the 1960s. They are part of the very identity of those who count themselves among the revolutionary left today.
Criticism of Israel, for the millionth time, is not anti-Semitic. But, this is not simply placing Israel under scalpel edged scrutiny. It’s barefaced lying.
And yet when it came to mendacity, the American SWP and its YSA (Young Socialist Alliance) youth group were truly in the vanguard. They marketed Abram Leon’s justifiably obscure history of the Jews wherein the scourge of anti-Semitism was ascribed as payback to the Jews for their penchant for usury. It was a penchant that extended, one might textually surmise, to the miserably poor wretches that constituted the 100,00 victims of the Chmielnicki, Ukraine, pogroms in 1648/9. They even managed to outrage the one-time Trotskyist Nathan Weinstock, author of Zionism: False Messiah, who “explicitly disassociated” himself “from all those pseudo-analyses tending, directly or indirectly, to justify (to call things by their real names), the liquidation of Israel, while implicitly accepting ‘incidentally’ that of the Israelis themselves.”
On campuses across the nation, the YSA promoted itself as the most consistent and stalwart opponent of Israel’s existence. The truth is that the SWP in 1947/8 argued for supporting neither side in the first Arab-Israeli war. They contended, as Hal Draper acerbically pointed out, that the Jews of Palestine have a right to self-determination, but no right to exercise it. How, then, to square the circle? Presciently he concluded, in terms that have contemporary resonance, “The only honest answer would be to deny that the Jews have any right to self-determination in Palestine and to explain why they thus differ from other peoples. The SWP cannot do the latter and so they wisely, if hypocritically, refrain from asserting the former.”
They rectified that geometric deficiency handsomely in the wake of the 1967 war. Israel was now to be branded as an illegitimate state, a colonial settler state, artificially implanted in the Middle East to secure imperial interests. The ragtag refugee communities of pogrom and holocaust survivors from the hitherto unknown country of “Europe” were imperially channeled into the Mideast to protect oil from future revolutionary nationalist insurgencies. Very far-sighted, these clever imperialists.
First the imperialist powers carved the Arab nations out of the desert with little attention to economic viability, the desires of the people and diverse religious, ethnic and communal/national aspirations. And then they launched Israel to police the entire framework. One anti-imperialist fact combined with one massive crackpot conspiracy. Particularly bizarre given the fact that British officers led the Arab armies in the first Arab-Israeli war and the US imposed on arms embargo on Israel.
Leaving that aside, one might ask, how, according to the SWP, did imperialist-implanted Israel “secure” these interests? By inflicting a resounding military defeat some 20 years later against the Nasserite and the Baathist forces—the would-be Bismarckian consolidators of the pan-“Arab Revolution” in a war that was utterly avoidable and which they themselves largely instigated. It was certainly not the anti-imperialist outcome the Trotskyist cheerleader-fantasists wished for. As they viewed it, the “revolutionary-nationalist” forces trained their military on Israel in the hope of defeating imperialism’s watchdog and rallying the Arab masses for a triumphant march on the citadels of feudal Arab reaction. This was their version of permanent revolution. And, were it not for Soviet perfidy in withholding necessary arms and strategic support, evidencing once again the counterrevolutionary nature of the Stalinism, the Arab revolution might have progressed.
They conceived the Arab-Israeli conflict not as a clash of conflicting national chauvinisms that was exploited by rival imperialist camps, but one of the links in the chain of strategical plans of imperialism against the anti-imperialist (Stalinist aligned) Arab front. Their analysis was as camp-ist as the SP’s, but turned inside out.
The truth resides elsewhere. These “revolutionary regimes” filled the vacuum created by the collapse of the old reactionary monarchies with military and intellectual castes every bit as exploitative and replete with social demagoguery as the regimes they replaced. The popular yearnings for social change and freedom from metropolitan domination were distorted, as they had been in 1948, into adventures against Israel. The tragic truth was that Syria and Egypt were grandstanding, amassing troops on Israel’s border to impress the Arab street while hoping that international pressure would be sufficient to deter Israeli reprisals.
But to no avail as Israel called their bluff. Israel’s leading generals suspected, as they later confessed, that the Arabs militaries were paper tigers, a confession that suggested the June war was less a defensive war, than an opportunistic response to a series of criminally reckless provocations.
Which testifies to the fact that Israel, too, is hardly an innocent beyond reproach. Israel’s stance since 1948, not just since 1967, has been far from merely defensive. Every opening has been exploited to fulfil its ambition for the whole of Palestine as an ideological fulfilment of Zionism, deflectively marketed as a quest for “defensible borders.” It never occurred to Israel’s ideologically blinkered leaderships that defensible borders cannot be attained through annexations. Or that the best borders are the borders that need no defending. And that is only achievable through national reconciliation, rather than by an imposed peace: by an equal application of rights and by actions that appeal, on that basis, directly to the Arab and other Middle Eastern/North African peoples. Such an appeal will necessarily involve a recognition of minority Arab national rights and civic equality in Israel, full Palestinian self-determination in part of their shared homeland, and by land swaps and/or compensation for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
The “movement” that Fischbach celebrates welcomed the Palestinian national awakening. It saw in it an independent, uncorrupted force tied to the “anti-imperialist camp” that, by acting in its own interests, would catalyse the larger cause of pan-Arab nationalism by offering itself as a sacrificial lamb. A program of relentless provocations with Israel, it was believed, would rally the Arab masses to their defence triggered by the mounting toll from Israeli reprisals. It would succeed where the bankrupt and discredited “revolutionary nationalist” regimes flinched.
What they were chartering was not a path to justice for the Palestinians, but an endless cycle of blood and martyrdom. And to this, all the anti-imperialist left could offer was their all-too predictable “unconditional support.” What the Palestinians needed was not sycophants, but comrades. They need a left that tells them the truth. The goal of the Palestinian resistance - a Middle East without Israel, bereft, if not of Jews, then of Hebrew self-determination - will not succeed and is unworthy of success. It was a delusional chauvinist vision then and it remains so today.