The Trotskyists and Israel/Palestine

Submitted by Anon on 9 February, 2005 - 6:43

As with the statement put out by the Palestinian Trotskyists in 1948 (Solidarity 3/65), the main interest for present-day politics of the article reproduced below — an editorial by Hal Draper from the American weekly Labor Action (24 and 31 May 1948) — lies in the sharp contrast with what passes for Trotskyism today.

Labor Action was the paper of the Workers’ Party, the dissident “other stream” of Trotskyism, which had separated from Trotsky in a dispute about attitudes to Stalinist Russia a few months before he was murdered in August 1940.

Through the 1940s, the Workers' Party, led by Max Shachtman, and the “orthodox Trotskyists” evolved in different directions. By the end of the decade they were poles apart.

The “orthodox Trotskyists” committed themselves to “critical but unconditional” support for the Stalinist states against the US and European capitalist powers. “Unconditional” meant that their support did not depend on the policies pursued by the bureaucratic rulers of those states; it was support for the nationalised economies of those states, which the “orthodox Trotskyists” defined as “degenerated and deformed workers’ states”.

“Critical” meant that they understood that these states were ruled by bureaucratic elites. All the “orthodox Trotskyists” believed in the need for a new working-class revolution in Russia. (They called it a “political revolution”, but, following Trotsky, they understood by that what others would simply have called a revolution). Some of them believed such a revolution was needed in all the Stalinist states, and others, that a political revolution was needed in only some of them.

All the “orthodox Trotskyist” currents were dragged into the orbit of the Russian Stalinist empire, which they refused to call an empire — that is, into one of the two camps which divided the world between them.

The Workers’ Party refused to take sides between the blocs, advocating independent working-class politics, the so-called “Third Camp”.

One of the areas on which the two currents evolved different politics was Palestine, though there were also differences on that among the “orthodox Trotskyists”.

Both the Workers’ Party and the “orthodox Trotskyists” — most importantly, the SWP-USA and the British “orthodox Trotskyists” — raised the demands that the USA and Britain open their doors to let in Jewish refugees. Both currents opposed “Zionism”, the project for a Jewish national homeland, or state, in Palestine. They differed, however, in their attitude to Jewish immigration to Palestine, which was where most of the surviving European Jews, one hundred thousand of whom were for years in Displaced Persons’ camps after the end of the war, wanted to go.

The “orthodox Trotskyist” groups — with the exception of some people in France — fudged the issue of Palestinian immigration by stressing the demand for “opening the doors” of the USA and Britain to the Jewish “DPs”. In fact they had by 1945 come to oppose free Jewish immigration to Palestine. They thus made a sharp departure from the previous Trotskyist attitude.

Whie opposing the Zionists’ programme for Jews in Palestine, and counterposing to it Jewish-Arab working-class unity against the British Empire which ruled Palestine, the Trotskyists had championed the free movement of people, including the right of Jews to go to Palestine if they wanted to. Both of the US Trotskyist currents, during the war, had denounced British action to stop Jewish refugees entering Palestine (they interned those who got through).

But by 1945, the “orthodox Trotskyists” had decided that the most important thing in the Middle East was the “colonial revolution” of the Arab countries against imperialism. They believed that they were in the middle of an unfolding world revolution, of which the “Arab revolution” was an important part. Opposition to Jewish migration to Palestine was, they decided, essential if the Trotskyists were to “integrate” into the “Arab revolution”.

The Palestinian “orthodox” Trotskyist Ygael Gluckstein, known from late 1945 as Tony Cliff, personified the change in “orthodox Trotskyism” on this issue in his own evolution. In 1938-9, under the name “L Rock”, he had argued in the magazine of the US Trotskyists in favour of free Jewish immigration into Palestine (and been denounced for it by the editors of a South African paper, Spark, who were on the point of ceasing to be Trotskyists but already had the Zionophobic politics that would later spread through the Trotskyist movement).

Now he was one of those who argued most vehemently (and most crudely) for the new hostility to Jewish immigration to Palestine.

In contrast to the “orthodox Trotskyists”, the Workers’ Party maintained what had been, around 1940, the common attitude to Jewish immigration to Palestine. When the United Nations voted for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, they continued to oppose partition and the setting up of a Jewish state, but they defended the right of the Palestinian Jews to self-determination, that is, to choose partition and a Jewish state if they wished. Logically, they supported Israel’s right to defend itself against the Arab invasion that greeted the proclamation of the state of Israel.

“To recognise the right of the Jews to self-determination, if it is not merely to be a pious obeisance to a formula, requires socialists also to recognise the right of the Jews to defend their choice of separate national existence against any and all reactionary attempts to deprive them of that right, whether by Arab feudal lords or UN imperialism” (Draper, Labor Action, 24 May 1948).

Here, with their open talk of self-determination, they were far more clear-cut and explicit, and politically developed, than the Palestinian Trotskyists, though, as we saw (Solidarity 3/65), they too believed that the Palestinian Jews had a right to defend themselves, and they too were political light-years away from the attitudes of today’s would-be Trotskyists.

One of the great strengths of the Workers’ Party was that its press — Labor Action and the magazine New International — published and discussed a number of different positions, and not only their “official” one, as in the Labor Action editorial reprinted here.

Draper starts from a firm grip on the immediate Palestinian realities and the immediate politics. He was for self-determination in general, and for thus the right of the Jews to set up a state and defend it. “While opposing any attempt by the Arab landlord regimes to overthrow the Jewish state and impose their reactionary sway in the whole land...” He coupled that stance with a call for the Jewish workers to fight for socialism.

The idea of equal treatment for Palestinian Arabs in the new Jewish state (and for Jews in what the UN resolution of 1947 intended to be a Palestinian Arab state side by side with Israel) was also an elementary part of the socialist politics of consistent democracy. Not to advocate and fight for that equality would be chauvinist.

Draper saw and recoiled from the tragic logic of the situation, which would work itself out in war and in the displacement of both Jews and Arabs. Three quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs would flee what became Israel, or be driven out. Over half a million Jews would, over the next several years, be driven out of the Arab countries, most of them going to the Jewish state.

He saw the real practical difficulties of dividing Palestine.

But in his “alternative scenario” Draper took off into flights of political fantasy, which in their own more benign way were as far from reality, or any possible reality, as the “orthodox Trotskyists” were in theirs.

His way out was to call on the Jewish nation in Palestine, with the working class at its head, to become the leader in a war of liberation for the Arab peoples too — on Israel to take the messianic role played by revolutionary France in parts of Europe at the end of the 18th century.

While defending the fundamental Leninist attitude that the preservation of existing state, or colonial, borders is for us utterly unimportant, entirely subordinate to the right of peoples to secede and make a state of their own if they want to, nonetheless subscribed to the idea that the unity of Palestine was important, despite the murderous antagonism of the two peoples who inhabited it. And although Palestine, previously part of the Turkish empire’s province of Syria, had existed for less than 30 years as a British administrative unit, Draper called on the Palestinian Jews not to make Israel their national state, but instead to form a binational state.

That was a policy for a different situation, for a period of calm and peaceful readjustment of peoples who had learned to live together, not for the period of the birth of the new state amidst turmoil and an imminent Arab invasion (which Arabs in the territory allotted to the Jews by the UN resolution would naturally enough support). It depended on the Jews, forced to fight for their lives against five Arab armies, not being nationalists.

Draper both was and was not for the Jewish state. There was something wrong, illegitimate, perverse, or demeaning about the Jewish state — about its existence, not just about its actions and policies.

Draper’s ideas amounted to the proposal that Israeli socialist workers should try to persuade a nation to dissolve itself and its state — and that, a nation formed out of the unprecedented persecution that had led many Jews to the reluctant conclusion that they must have a state of their own. In, or in relation, to no other nation did socialists try to persuade it, as an immediate policy, to dissolve. For all other nations they recognised such dissolution as a thing of the distant future, and dismissed the idea that a nation might by propaganda be persuaded to dissolve immediately as utopian nonsense.

Draper was led to his ideas by his messianic vision of the Jews as a vanguard. But those ideas eventually fed into the politics of the “Zionophobes”, the people who would argue that since Israel would not dissolve it deserved to be crushed.

Later, when even the dream of such an Israeli role in the Middle East had gone. Draper would continue to defend the right of Jewish self-determination and self-defence. But the idea of the illegitimacy of Israel would be a link between Draper and the “anti-Zionist left” which demonised Israel and grounded itself in stark denial that Israel, or before Israel the Jewish community in Palestine, had the right to exist, exercise self-determination, or defend itself.

Privately, in the late 1950s, Draper denounced Tony Cliff’s attitude to the Israeli Jews (see Workers’ Liberty 34). But he would also become an important, albeit inconsistent, propagandist outrider in the large army of the “left” Zionophobes, most of whom wanted to destroy Israel and backed the Arab states to do that. Draper shared with them an “ideological” long-term rejection of Israel as a Jewish national state.

Draper, however, remained a consistent democrat. He supported the right of the Jews to defend themselves and never had any truck with the idea that there could be anything progressive in the conquest of the Israeli Jews by the Arab states.

Draper’s final position was expressed in the introduction he wrote to a collection of his writings on the Middle East (Zionism, Israel, and the Arabs) shortly before he died in 1990. “The general line being followed by the PLO leadership under Arafat and by the Palestinian movement of rebellion is essentially the line that we advocated amongst both Jewish-Zionist and Arab-nationalist socialists”. From 1988, the PLO had pursued a two-states policy, recognising Israel and attempting to win a Palestinian state alongside it.

Sean Matgamna

War of independence or expansion?

By Hal Draper

The UN, set up with fanfare to bring peace to the world, is again showing that it cannot prevent or halt war even by fifth-rate powers, such as the states of the Middle East — let alone war by the major warmakers who control its deliberations.

Compelled by the falling apart of the British Empire to recognise the independence of Palestine on paper, the UN drew a braided line through that tortured country of mingled nationality, erecting a state-boundary wall between already suspicious and jealous peoples. The Jews were assured of a state of their own — a state completely outfitted with salients, corridors, enclaves and angles sticking into the sides of the surrounding Arab world, with military lines athwart each other and commercial routes interpenetrating. The Jews cheered.

Then Washington ran out on its own partition plan and the Arab leaders in turn were encouraged to proceed with their plans to enforce a Pan-Arab landlordism. When this had already gone virtually to the point of invasion, the White House flipflopped, backtracked and reversed gear again in a precipitous recognition of the new Jewish state of Israel, again encouraging the Jews.

If meanwhile the British line was more consistent, it was consistently directed toward fomenting the Pan-Arab reaction against the partition.

As long as the two people can thus be “sicced” against each other, the shadow of imperialist domination does not leave the scene. This is the end of UN policy.

If there is to be peace at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and if the Jews and Arabs are to live in fraternal unity, no one can look toward the United Nations or to American and British imperialism to bring this about. If there is to be peace, it has to be made by the peoples.

Labor Action has made clear its belief that the partition of Palestine into two non-viable states was not calculated to achieve any real solution of the Palestine question, and cannot. We have reiterated that, before partition, the road to a basic solution lay only in the joint struggle by the socialist workers of the Jewish community together with the oppressed peasant masses of the Arabs to throw off the yoke of their common oppressor — British imperialism based on the two ruling classes, Arab landlords and Zionist capitalists; and such Arab-Jewish cooperation from below could have forged a united Palestine in the fire of anti-imperialist struggle. Now that partition is virtually an accomplished fact, this basic road only takes a different form.

There is a war on—not yet full-scale war as this is written, but not far from it. The socialist working class of the Jewish territory has chosen to follow its Zionist leadership in achieving a separate state. As Marxist socialists — that is, as the only consistent democrats — we believe in and accept the democratic right of all peoples (including the Palestinian Jews) to self-determination, to work out their own destiny as they see fit. We said this even while advising against the exercise of this right to the point of separahon.

The politics from which the Pan-Arab war and threats of invasion flow is perfectly clear — the aim of depriving the Jews precisely of this right to self determination. There is therefore not the slightest iota of common ground between the Arab landlords’ opposition to partition and our own. While we are more firmly than ever of the opinion that the Jews’ choice of separatism was a mistake and a setback for the only long-range solution, we believe that the imposition of “unity” upon Palestine by Abdullah [King of Transjordan, now Jordan] the Mufti [of Jerusalem] or the Arab League would be a reactionary solution even more disastrous in its consequences and a violation of the democratic rights of peoples.

To recognise the right of the Jews to self-determination, if it is not merely to be a pious obeisance to a formula, requires socialists also to recognise the right of the Jews to defend their choice of separate national existence against any and all reactionary attempts to deprive them of that right, whether by Arab feudal lords or UN imperialism. That is why we demanded recognition of Israel by the government, and why our British comrades particularly must demand similar action by the Labour government — as the concretisation of the demand that the imperialists keep out. That is why we demand the lifting of the imperialist embargo on arms to the new Jewish state.

But the defence of Israel’s right of self-determination against a reactionary war of invasion is only one side of the picture. Surely even the Zionist leaders do not believe that the “Palestine question” will be over if only Abdullah stops short of Israel’s borders! On the contrary, it only enters a new stage. On the one hand, the Jews face the possibility of permanent guerrilla warfare, unending “border incidents”, and above all, such permanent national hostility with the Arab world as would make national existence a nightmare of the Jewish splinter state. On the other hand, the unreproved demands by the Irgun and Stern gang for the conquest of all of Palestine raises the same question of future relations. For the socialist working class of Palestine that question is posed in terms of the present struggle as follows:

Are the Jews — socialist workers in their majority — to wage a war of nationalist expansionism, or a revolutionary war for the reunification of Palestine from below against both the Jewish and Arab ruling classes?

Today their struggle is a war of defence in the immediate circumstance. But tomorrow their struggle will inescapably be transformed into one or the other!

Before this question can be answered, the first illusion that needs destroying is the illusion that the splinter state of Israel can “go it alone”. To be sure, given Haganah military victories, Israel can succeed in maintaining its formal independence. But world imperialism — British, American and Russian — will remain on the scene with their fingers in the pie as long as the Balkanisation of the Middle East continues.

The present situation in Palestine, the fruit of partition and the end product of Zionist policy in the country, can only continue to inflame nationalist hostility on both sides.

Even if the Arab legions’ invasion is beaten back, the new state of Israel exists in an impossible economic and political situation. lts leaders will be forced to seek to fortify the stability of the new state in face of an encirclement of hatred and they will look for aid and comfort only towards the imperialists Such will be the inevitable drift of these “practical politicians whose conception of statesmanship will consist of attempts to manoeuvre with the imperialist interests which hold Palestine in a net. And the price of such statesmanship can onLy be their willingness to act as an imperialist outpost in the Middle East for one or the other of the contending forces, hoping for protection and support in exchange.

Behind all this is the sorry fact that Israel cannot exist as a splinter state quivering in the flesh of the Middle East without constant war-skirmishing or imperialist entanglements or both. This is guaranteed both for economic and political reasons.

This is why the only road that can save the Jews from subservience to imperialism or destruction by the Arabs is a course directed toward the reunification of Palestine on a basis which will permit the two peoples to live together in fraternal harmony. Such an outcome is simply impossible on the basis of the present policy of the Israeli leadership. And it is equally impossible as long as the Arab masses are under the unchallenged domination of their semi-feudal dynasties, landlords, effendis and militarists.

The reunification of Palestine and of the two peoples in it can take place only through a struggle from below. The conditions for such a struggle are present as they were before partition — the class struggle within Jewish society, and the grinding exploitation of the Arab peasants by their lords and masters.

We believe that the main (not exclusive, but the main) responsibility for taking the initiative in this direction lies with Jewish workers — precisely because, as the Zionist leaders boast on any occasion, it is the Jews who are the most advanced socially and culturally, because it is they who claim to be socialists, etc.

While opposing any attempt by the Arab landlord regimes to overthrow the Jewish state and impose their reactionary sway on the whole land, it is the duty of real socialists in Israel to fight for a policy, programme and a government of the working people which can bring about such reunification instead of deepening the nationalist gulf.

The key to such a programme is in the first place the policy of the people of Israel toward the Arabs now within their own borders. Israel must demonstrate that they are fighting not against the Arab people but against the Arab dynasts and landlords who are also the oppressors of the Arab people themselves. It must demonstrate that it seeks the alliance of the Arab masses against their own exploiters — an alliance of classes.

It can demonstrate this only by sharply reversing the whole Zionist policy toward the Arab people — accepting them as equals and collaborators in the building up, not of a Jewish state but of a bi-national state. We use the term ‘bi-national’ (which has been used with various senses) to designate merely the aim of a state which is the home of two peoples and comports itself as such, the forms to be worked out in common agreement.

Complete equal rights to the Arabs within the state of Israel: equality, not Jim Crow, in the Jewish-controlled trade unions, the abandonment of the economic nationalism which has reigned in the Jewish community hitherto, the constitutional and de facto guarantee of the Arabs’ fully recognised status as a national people — here are the elementary beginnings of such a programme in Israel which can demonstrate in action the basis for a reunited Palestine.

Only such a government in Israel could seek to stir up the Arab masses of the invading nations against their own oppressors, raising in the first place its sympathy with the demand for land to the Arab fellaheen and the other social interests of the submerged masses of the Arab semi-feudal world.

Such a state, which appears in the Middle East not as the representative of Jewish nationalist chauvinism but of the social aspirations of all the people, Jewish and Arab, could fight for a reunified Palestine—and live.

Such a programme for a revolutionary war against the Arab feudal lords, not a war of nationalist expansion against the Arab people, cannot be expected from the present rightist government of Israel, dominated by the Jewish capitalist class and tailended by the bourgeois labour leaders of the Histadrut, which in the longer run can only stumble from disaster to stalemate to subservience under outside imperialism.

Such a programme demands the fight for a workers’ government in Israel as the vanguard of the future United Socialist States of the Middle East.

Without such a programme all the heroic sacrifices of the Jewish people and all the military victories of the Haganah will not be able to make of Palestine anything but a death trap for the peoples and a happy hunting ground of revived imperialist influence.

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