A) We are concerned with rights only for oppressed minorities. Israel is like apartheid South Africa.
B) Your first point is an example of the thoughtlessness and sloppy-mindedness that is typical of so much of the would-be left. Of course, our most active and immediate concern is for those peoples denied rights who are demanding those rights and trying to win them, such as the Palestinians. The question of rights is at its most acute when they are actively resisted and denied. That is not where we differ from the rest of the left.
But think about it for a moment. When we advocate rights for those denied them, do we advocate that the relation between oppressors and oppressed simply be reversed, turned around, stood on its head? That the oppressed and oppressor change places? Take, for instance, the Unionist-British-Irish minority in north-east Ulster. When they were able to, when the London government allowed them to, they ran an oppressive ethnic-sectarian state, with the Catholic Six Counties minority as its victim. The existence of the British-Irish minority in North East Ulster frustrates and denies the conception of "Ireland" cherished by the island's majority. Should they be forced into a united Ireland in which they would be oppressed by the denial of their right to a separate identity?
Do socialists want that? That they should have the place in a united Ireland which the Catholic minority has had in the Six Counties?
And after they have been forced into a united Ireland, their resistance beaten down — then what? Wouldn't Marxists and other consistent democrats then have to champion the rights of the Protestants? As we now champion the rights of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, some of whom, under British rule on the island, were relatively favoured, but now are oppressed?
If not, why not? I assume you will reject the only logical and candid answer: that these "bad" peoples don't have any rights, don't deserve to have any.
And the Israeli Jews? After they had been subjugated in the only way they can be, by conquest, would we champion their rights, their self-determination, against an Arab-ruled regime? Again: if not, and if you are not defining them as a "bad people", undeserving of rights, why not?
The idea that we want to reverse the relations between oppressed and oppressor has nothing in common with Marxism, with socialism, or with democratic working-class politics of any sort. In practice, this idea - and it is widespread; implicit in the naive and "obvious" (one-sided, blinkered) posture of the kitsch-left - means that the ostensible Marxists turn themselves into chauvinists of the presently oppressed. They abandon the internationalism and "compromise-ism" without which no Marxist, socialist, or working-class stance is possible in communal and national conflicts.
They reject Lenin's principle: "We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation, and do not in any way condone strivings for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation".
Militant "anti-imperialism" here immediately turns into its opposite, into chauvinism - into the "imperialism" of the presently oppressed.
In contrast, our “slogan” is for the working classes to unite and fight - for democratic rights for both “sides”, among other things.
A) That is ridiculous. Imperialism is what big powers do. Oppressed nations like the Palestinians cannot become imperialist.
B) No, "imperialism" is not just the great world-bestriding imperialism. Marxists such as Trotsky, Lenin, and the early Communist International defined such pre-1939 states at Poland, Czechoslovakia, or Yugoslavia as imperialist because within them there were oppressed minorities - Ukrainians and Jews in Poland; Slovaks and Sudeten Geermans in Czechoslovakia; Croats, Kosovars, and others in Yugoslavia, even though the dominant group in the Yugoslav state, the Serbs, had recently been an oppressed nation. They were absolutely right to do so.
The Trotskyists of Trotsky's time did not call Stalinist Russia imperialist, for reasons to do with their view that it was still a sort of "degenerated workers' state"; but they did champion the rights of its oppressed minority nations - Ukraine, for example - to independence.
Your contention here is, I suppose, part of the political derangement of the kitsch-left. It is obsessed, so to speak, by "great power imperialism", and lets negativism towards that lead it to negativism towards advanced capitalism, in an entirely non-Marxist way that denies the fundament of Marxist socialism - that in history socialism can only come after and out of advanced capitalist society. It is inclined to see an ethereral evil spirit of "imperialism" almost everywhere. Yet it has little use for the smaller examples of real, "nitty-gritty", "hands-on" imperialism. It is a sort of political long-sightedness.
In the last article I mentioned the effective falling-out-of-use of the basic Marxist attitude that we are not concerned with preserving existing state boundaries when they cut across peoples; that the rights of peoples, not states, are primary for us.
A curiosity here is that the UN and the other Establishment “internationals” hold it as an axiom of their functioning that existing states should be preserved as long as their governments want that. The recent backing for Kosova's independence was a very great exception, coming after a NATO war in 1999 which stopped the Serbian state's genocidal drive against the Kosovar Albanians.
And, guess what? Socialist Worker - under the byline of Alex Callinicos - was there to defend the territorial integrity of the Serbian state and decry the independence of Serbia's old colony, Kosova, on the grounds that it breached "international legality" and "destabilised" . (www.workersliberty.org/swp-neocon).
A) You take refuge in generalities to avoid specifics. Don't you understand? Israel is like apartheid South Africa!
B) Is it? Apartheid South Africa was a rigid system of racial discrimination in which the white minority, as a caste, systematically exploited the labour of black and "coloured" helots. Israel oppresses Arabs in the Occupied Territories, and disadvantages Arabs within its own borders. (In serious part, this is a by-product of the long state of siege by the Arab states of Israel). But the Israeli Jews do not have such a caste relationship with the Arab population either outside or inside the Israeli state. The Jews are the majority. Israel is not built or sustained on the exploitation of Arab labour.
A) The Jews drove out the Arabs in 1948!
B) It's a lot more complicated than that. The plight of the Palestinians does not just arise from what Israel did in 1948.
The UN resolution of November 1947 on the partition of Palestine stipulated two states - one Jewish, one Palestinian. That Palestinian state was destroyed in the war of 1948-9. What happened to the Palestinian territory? Jordan and Egypt seized it (and Israel, a small bit of it).
For the present awful situation in the West Bank to develop, Israel had to take it - but from Jordan, which had annexed it, The point is that the historical fate of the Palestinians was not just a result of Israeli action.
But, for the sake of argument, let us agree to your summary statement. What follows? That the existing Israeli Jewish nation, in 2009, does not have the rights of a nation? That the Israeli working class has no right to a national identity and national rights? That all rights here belong to the Palestinian Arabs, or to the "refugees", that is to the descendants of those who were driven out or fled 60 years ago?
The Palestinian Arabs then were not a formed Palestinian nation; their identity was as "Arabs", largely a common identity with, for instance, the Arabs of Syria. Their descendants' fate has been shaped not only by 1948, and not only by Israel, but also by the refusal of the Arab states, their "champions" against Israel in the UN and at the court of international public opinion, to let them integrate into their "host" states (to allow them to become citizens, or even, in some states, to work). Some of those host states, Lebanon and Jordan, have massacred Palestinians.
The Palestinians have become a distinct nation in large part as a result of their exclusion from the other Arab societies. They have rights. But do they have all the rights in this situation? Does the other nation, the Jews of Israel, have none?
For how many generations and ages hence will the crimes (real, or, many of them, just alleged) of the founders of Israel - and the crimes of the rulers of the Arab states - deprive the descendants of those founders of national "legitimacy", and Israel of the right to exist.
You seem to believe in some sort of political "original sin". According to the theology of Christianity, the sin of Eve and Adam means that every human child is born in a state of sin. Every Israeli Jewish child is born in a state of Original Sin? You believe in "national" original sin!
A)That is just smart-ass evasion! That is what AWL does best!
B) It might be evasion, smart or dumb-ass evasion, if we did not advocate a solution which recognises Palestinian rights - an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. In fact that is the only solution that does not demand the destruction of Israel and therefore push the prospect of relief from oppression for the Palestinians way into the far, far distant future when Israel can be conquered.
If we did not demand that Israel withdraw from the West Bank, if we did not denounce Israeli policy and action towards the Palestinians, if we had not denounced Israeli policy over Gaza this year and Lebanon in 2006, yes, it might be evasion. In fact it isn't, and it never has been, evasion.
Here you use sleight-of-mind on yourself. We reject your policy - conquer and destroy Israel, deny self-determination to the Hebrew nation - and, you say, "therefore" we "evade" the issue" In fact you "evade" the issue. You and your co-thinkers counterpose a vicarious Arab - and, lately, Islamic - chauvinist wiping-out of Israel to the only realisable democratic solution - two states.
It is AWL that faces up to the realities, and the kitsch-left “absolute anti-Zionists” who evade everything and binge on Arab and Islamic chauvinism. You counterpose to “Two States” a fuckwit's "anti-imperialism" that identifies Israel as arch-imperialist, and as the USA's proxy in the area, and makes a political fetish of destroying it!
The truth is that your hostility to Israel has a great deal more strength, verve, and conviction to it than your concern for the Palestinians. There you follow in the tracks of the rulers of the Arab states over the last half-century. But that doesn't make it any less disgusting.
A) We are anti-imperialists!
B) Yes. But just as August Bebel's description of 19th century "anti-capitalist" anti-semitism - "the Jews are the capitalists par excellence"; "rich Jews typify and represent all the rich"; "Jewish capital rules the world" - that it was "the socialism of the fools", hit that particular nail on the head; so too, "the anti-imperialism of idiots" nails your "anti-imperialism" here. And nonetheless you think it unreasonable of AWL to say that the kitsch-left is de facto anti-semitic!
Think about it. Within my lifetime six million Jews were massacred - two out of every three Jews in Europe. AWL draws concousions from that about Jewish nationalism (Zionism). We do not indulge in the kitsch-left's peculiar version of “Holocaust denial”, which amounts not to denying that the Holocaust happened, but being hysterically determined to deny it any weight or significance when assessing the history out of which Israel emerged.
A) Of course you are unreasonable. We are not racists. The opposite: we condemn Israel's racist attitude to the Palestinians. And yours too!
B) No - we don't say you are racists. For sure there will be anti-semitic racists who express their racism as fervent "anti-imperialism", but they are not the representative types of the anti-semitism in the kitsch-left.
You are not racist; yet you are, by the logic of your attitudes, anti-semitic. There are many anti-semitisms in history, stretching back long, long before the emergence of 19th and 20th century racism
The hostility of the kitsch-left to any Jew who maintains an instinctive (even if critical) identification with Israel and "Zionism" has parallels with age-old Christian hostility to any Jew who would refuse to be converted.
A) Whatever you say, your confrontationist attitude to the left on this issue is perverse, a form of attention-seeking! Common sense alone would lead you to shut up about it, go with the flow. You enjoy attracting hostility - isn't that it?
B) What is the point of a small group of socialists - essentially, a propaganda group, spreading basic Marxist ideas, explaining the world, trying to develop and teach a coherent independent working-class understanding of events and issues?
Above all it is to discern, define, and tell the truth. We tell the truth as we see it to the working class and the labour movement - and to the ostensible left. Anything else is a waste of time and life.
In a healthy left-wing movement, or in a healthy democratic centralist party - as distinct from the bureaucratic centralism that dominates in, say, the SWP and the SP - the working assumption would be that honest people seeking the same goal, subscribing to the same political tradition, using the same method, can arrive at radically different conclusions, and that therefore progress, clarity, the truth of the situation, can only be established by honest discussion of the issues, free of abuse, demagogy, misrepresentation, heresy-baiting or bullying of the Stalinist or Zinovievite type.
Each point of view would feel an obligation to engage with the others, honestly assess, and only then, if appropriate, in extreme cases, condemn and denounce.
Not the least advantage of that is that the participants would avoid rendering themselves stupid by way of self-righteous self-approbation and moral apoplexy!
You and your co-thinkers relate to the Jewish-Arab conflict as if the Holocaust was not a major factor in creating mass Zionism and the Israeli state; as if the fact of six million Jews being murdered in the four years after the mid-1941 Nazi invasion of Russia were irrelevant. And we, who refuse to go along with you, are the queer ones here?
A) That is one of the main points. AWL is a sterile propaganda group, content just to make propaganda. The SWP, for example, organises people to do things. In that work you have to be guided by what you want to achieve, who you want to influence, whom you must not offend or risk offending.
B) It is far from the truth that AWL is only a “big-ideas”-propounding propaganda group! We do work in trade unions. We take part in, and occasionally initiate, demonstrations, and so on. We have, when such things were possible, organised the Labour left.
The delusion that a small group, the size of the SWP, can change things on a large scale by “agitation”, and therefore that in “agitation” you can say whatever gets the response you want or avoids the response you fear - that agitation is not spun out of propaganda and programme, and limited by those basic ideas - that idea is part of the political distemper of the kitsch left.
Lenin destroyed that approach for any serious Marxists back in 1902, in What Is To Be Done? - and even then he followed in the footsteps of older Marxists such as Plekhanov and Engels.
Trotsky, facing the armed Great Lie that was Stalinism, summed up the rules for socialists here: “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives”.
A) But the scale of Israel's crimes against the Palestinians makes denunciation of Israel a priority.
B) Doesn't it occur to you that there is something decidedly odd and suspect about the kitsch-left's overwhelming focus on Israel and Palestine? I write this on the morning of Monday 12 May 2009. The midnight news last night reported the death of four hundred Tamils, some of them children, at the hands of the Sinhalese army invading Tamil-majority parts of the island of Sri Lanka. Vast numbers have been reported dead in Darfur and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Where is the mass demonstration of British leftists and pacifists to protest against the massacres of Tamils, or of the people of Darfur, and to back the right of the Tamils to a state of their own where they are the majority? Who calls for the destruction of the Sinhalese Sri Lankan state?
I agree, of course - and Solidarity said as much - that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians during the Israeli onslaught on the Hamas rulers of Gaza was grotesquely out of scale with Hamas rocket damage to Israel, and outrageous. I agree that there is a very great deal to condemn in Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
Even so, don't you think there is something decidedly odd in the embracing by the would-be left of the most extreme Arab and Islamic chauvinist policies against Israel - that it must be forced to abolish itself, or failing that be wiped out?
Is there anything like that for other national and communal conflicts? Does anyone advocated that the many-millioned Tamil state in south India - or the central Indian state on its behalf - should invade Sri Lanka and subject the Sinhalese there to the rule of the Tamils, who count as the big majority if you bracket Sri Lanka together with adjoining south-eastern India? (And why not do so? For a long time the Sri Lanka Trotskyists advocated unity of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it then was, with India).
Apart from in Northern Ireland, where, in what conflict of nations, communities, septs, do we advocate the equivalent of what the kitsch-left advocates for the Arab-Israeli conflict? Nowhere!
A) How about South Africa?"
B) No proper comparison. But let us look at South Africa. As I have already said, the whites were a distinct, exploitative, ruling caste. That is a truth, and a fundamental truth.
But look at South Africa in the longer perspective. There was a Boer - ex-Dutch - nation in South Africa stretching back to the 17th century. They always exploited some black agricultural labour - slave labour, too. But, over hundreds of years, they developed most, at least, of the characteristics of a nation. They claimed, plausibly, that they were in the area before the Zulus came.
With the development of modern capitalist industry in South Africa, they evolved into a caste on top of a vast helot black and "coloured" population.
We were for the destruction of the rule of South Africa's white caste, for their subordination in politics to the majority. But if the Boers had maintained some heartland areas, where they were the majority and did not depend on exploited black labour - where there was a Boer working class that was not, or not primarily, part of an exploitative caste - would socialists have demanded the extirpation or submergence of that nation? In the name of what would we do that? In the name of some doctrine holding that all Africa, by geo-political principle, was and could only be the territory of black-skinned people?
The ethnic tidying-up of the globe would be no part of our concern, still less part of a socialist programme. There is a Jewish, or better perhaps Hebrew, nation in Israel. It is the overwhelming majority there. There is a Hebrew working class and a Hebrew working-class movement.
There is also a segment of foreign "guest workers" who, as in many developed countries in Europe and America, play an important role doing the less desirable jobs in the economy and society.
Even with the influx of Russian Jews after the collapse of the USSR (1991), native-born Israelis are the majority, some of them the third or fourth generation born there. The big, big majority of those designated Palestinian refugees were not born in post-1948, pre-1967 Israel. As we have seen above, there is a big element of scapegoating in holding Israel alone - and not also the Arab regimes that cynically used them as political pawns - responsible for the plight of the Palestinians.
From what socialist, or seriously democratic, point of view do the Israeli Jews born in Israel have less right there than people born elsewhere in the Middle East? Historical revenge? Some quasi-mystic ethnic rights inhering in the Arabs? A claim that Israel stands on “Islamic” territory?
Of course, the Palestinians have a right to proper, decent lives, and of course resources should be found to facilitate that. Of course a genuine independent Palestinian state should be created, and helped to catch up with Israeli standards of living, and as soon as possible. The Palestinians should have justice.
But beyond that - in any move to deny the Israeli Jews rights as a nation - lies gross injustice to the Jewish nation, and injustice which they will fight to ward off, as any nation would and always will.
The equation of Israel and South Africa does not stand up. It is blatantly untenable if you remove from it the idea that the Hebrew nation can never acquire rights in Palestine, no matter how many generations of them are born in Israel, no matter how much they have transformed the semi-wilderness that was so much of Palestine before Jewish settlement into the present advanced bourgeois-democratic society.
There is, however, a “parallel” between Israel and South Africa that the left would do well to remember. The expanding British empire seized the Cape of South Africa during the Napoleonic wars, and began to put pressure on the Boers.
Starting in 1835, many of the Boers went off inland and founded new states. Eventually British expansion from the Cape caught up with them. The Boer War of 1899-1902 followed.
The Boers fought a heroic guerrilla war. The British, in response, interned large numbers of Boer women and children, “concentrating” them in large camps where many died of fever and dysentery, thus giving the world the phrase “concentration camps”.
Everywhere Britain was disliked. People backed the Boers. So did socialists. There was mass opposition to the war in Britain, including from the Liberals and future Prime Minister Lloyd George.
Britain's war was denounced by much of the anti-war “movement” as “a Jewish war” - a war for the interests of “Jewish financiers” and on behalf of Jewish settlers in South Africa. Though it is now half-forgotten, that was a large component of the case against the war made in Britain - and perhaps elsewhere: I don't know - by the anti-war campaign, and it was a big, vigorous, raucous campaign.
The Boer republics had denied equal political rights to new settlers, and that fact was used as an ideological weapon to justify Britain's war. What settlers? “Jews”, said much of the anti-war movement. (Including some leaders of the British Marxist organisation, the SDF, Henry Hyndman and Harry Quelch. Hyndman's use of anti-semitism in anti-war agitation was part of the bill of indictment which the British followers of Daniel De Leon, and James Connolly, who split from the SDF in 1903 to form the Socialist Labour Party, drew up against him. Hyndman was far from being alone in the SDF on that).
Such people as the Liberal J A Hobson, on whose study of imperialism Lenin would draw during World War One, also denounced the war as one for Jewish settlers and for international Jewish finance.
The “Jewish settlers” were the “Israelis” in the war; “international Jewish finance” was the world Jewish (or, today, “Zionist”) conspiracy or quasi-conspiracy; and Britain was what the USA is today, the chief backer of “the Jews”. The campaign against the “Jewish settleers” and Britain was a campaign on behalf of the Boers - who were the foulest anti-black racists.
A) It was wrong to oppose the Boer WAS!
B) No, I don't think it was wrong to oppose the Boer war, any more than deploring the politics of the anti-war movement in 2002-3 made me think it wrong to oppose the invasion of Iraq. But serious socialists try to learn from history - not to relive past errrors, as the “absolute anti-Zionists” now are doing.
At the beginning of the 20th century, those who fulminated against “the Jews” had no inkling that they were feeding a fire that would engulf two-thirds of Europe's Jews. The kitsch left today operates in full knowledge of the Holocaust.
A) Your attitudes on Ireland and on Israel-Palestine are perverse!
B) They are not “perverse”. They are Marxist, Marxist in the sense of Lenin and Trotsky.
In principle, Israel-Palestine and Ireland involve the same question - how do socialists relate to communities or nations which are a minority in their region, whose right to be where they are is questioned, and whose right to assert their own identity is denied?
Nobody uses the expression, but the attitude of the kitsch-left, the attitude we emphatically reject, amounts to the belief that there are "bad peoples" - specifically, Israeli Jews and Northern Ireland Protestant-Unionists. (There are Catholic Unionists and Protestant Irish nationalists, but they are atypical).
Marxism recognises no such thing as a bad people. We look to history to explain both Israel and Northern Ireland Unionists. Where communities and nations exists, we do not say that they must voluntarily abolish themselves, or politically submerge themselves, on pain of being forcibly abolished. They acquire rights by the very fact of existing. Marxist socialists, intent on uniting the working class across the divides, then seek ways of accommodating different rights.
We seek national/communal compromise, and ways for the working classes in those communities and in rival communities to unite, despite the differences, around such "compromises" and mutual recognition of rights.
In all such cases, the only alternative to that approach is advocacy of, or at least support for, the physical conquest of such peoples as the Israeli Jews and the Northern Ireland Protestant-Unionists, a physical conquest that would inevitably involve a large degree of physical destruction.
The seemingly benign versions of the idea that Israel should go out of existence - "secular democratic state", "bi-national state" - all start with the idea that Israel has no real right to exist, was a "mistake", a crime of history and of "the Zionists"; and go on, from condemnation of Israel for not abolishing itself or agreeing to be replaced by an (Arab) “secular-democratic” or “bi-national” state, to support for its conquest by people who would conquer and dismantle it. Or, immediately, to support for people who will “make a start” in clearing out the Jews with homicide-suicide bombers in Israel's buses and cafes.
Marxists such as Lenin have called themselves "consistent democrats". Consistent and honest democrats, as distinct from the inconsistent and dishonest bourgeois democrats. We believe that minorities such as the Jews (and, for example, the Kurds) in the Middle East, and the Protestant-Irish of north-east Ulster have rights - rights trimmed down and attenuated only by practical possibilities. We reject Arab-Islamic, and Catholic-Irish-nationalist, chauvinism just as we reject Israeli-Jewish and Protestant-Unionist chauvinism.
No "practical" difficulties will prove insurmountable to those fundamentally committed to the politics of peaceful coexistence between communities and nationalities, and to working-class unity on the basis of equality of rights.
[This was part of an article outlining the politics of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty.]