Patiently explain, don’t denounce

Submitted by AWL on 8 May, 2019 - 10:40 Author: Daniel Randall
psc demo

More debate on the right of return here.

Sean Matgamna's reply to me in Solidarity 504 begins with a bizarre, lurid analogy about a man stalking his partner. The imagery is frankly sexist, the meaning unclear. I think the character of the stalker in the analogy, in denial about his partner's infidelity, is supposed to represent me. I'm not sure who the character of the partner is supposed to be. Reading it, I thought - well, this has started badly, but perhaps it'll improve as it goes on. Sadly, I was largely disappointed.

Maintaining ideological steadfastness and clarity without succumbing to a kind of inchoate, despairing denunciation of one’s opponents is not always easy, especially if one is in an embattled minority, as Workers’ Liberty is within the ranks of the revolutionary left on some issues. Despairing denunciation might serve as catharsis; it will not win us any arguments.

That’s why I take issue with Sean's approach to the debate on the far left about national self-determination in Israel/Palestine, which imagines that simply repeating one’s revulsion, in increasingly horrified terms, with the existing common sense of the far left will be sufficient to persuade those currently conditioned by it to change their minds. It won’t. Patient explanation, and engaging with where people actually are, even when that place is a confused admixture of different ideas, is necessary. And only someone incapable of patient explanation believes that this requires, or equates to, ideological slippage.

Since the debate began there has been flare-up of violence in and near Gaza; the IDF has assaulted the area, and shot protesters on the borders. 25 Palestinians have been killed. Islamist militants have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, killing four Israelis. This is part of the real-world context that any debate on the left about Israel/Palestine must maintain contact with. Against a backdrop of despair, and the apparent remoteness of any immediate progress, revanchist politics have asserted themselves. The demand in Gaza for freer movement, for an end to the blockade and bombardment of the area, has become tied to a generalised demand for “return”. Yahya Sinwar – a leader of Hamas, surely the central, organised political element in pushing the tying together of immediate aspirations with the generalised demand for “return” – describes “return” as “refusing to concede a single inch of the land of Palestine”.

This radical pose may help Hamas shield its own domestic power, recently threatened by social protests against the inequality and authoritarianism characteristic of its rule, behind an impossible, maximalist demand that it knows is unachievable. “Refusing to concede a single inch of the land of Palestine” would require a bloody war to reverse at least the last 71 years of history. Neither support for this, nor support for an absolute “right of return” for all descendants of the 1948 refugees, is compatible with a belief that the two national communities currently living in Israel/Palestine have an equal entitlement to national rights. The prominent Palestinian nationalist Omar Barghouti makes this clear when he says that, were the right of return granted and claimed, "there would be no two-state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine.”

Nor is the policy, as some claim, merely another way of advocating free movement and open borders in Israel/Palestine. Free movement and open borders would afford no special, privileged right of return to anyone; with genuinely free movement, a person, of any national or cultural origin, from Los Angeles or Lagos or Tokyo would have as much right to move to Israel, or a future Palestinian state, as a Palestinian refugee or their descendant.

For consistent democrats, national rights are not something afforded depending on the historical length of one’s connection to a physical territory, but are rather dependent on whether a community has a national character and wishes to self-determine on a national basis. I am as clear about all that now as I was before I wrote my reply to Sean. I am also clear - much clearer, I think, than Sean is - about the content of contemporary left antisemitism, and antisemitism in wider society, including from the far right. I have spent no small amount of time writing and speaking about both, attempting to analyse and understand the dynamics, and develop responses.

Sean accuses me, variously, of "taking the edge off" or "shying away from" confrontation with left antisemitism, or "soften our conflict" with it. He stops short of straightforwardly accusing me of being a left antisemite, but who knows what joys Solidarity 506 will bring? I think my record speaks for itself; other readers of Solidarity can make their own minds up. I am yet to decide if I find Sean's claim, that my advocacy of political education against all forms of antisemitism encountered on the left is "smug", disappointing, wildly off-beam, or merely risible.

Understanding the ways in which the strain of left antisemitism descending from post-1950s Stalinist anti-Zionism intertwines with the older, "primitive" left antisemitism ("socialism-of-fools" invective against "Jewish bankers", and so on) is not a matter of blurring specifically "left" antisemitism into a more general picture, and therefore blunting sharp criticisms of the specifics, but rather a matter of understanding the interrelationship between two threads of distinctly leftwing antisemitism, one more "primitive" and another more recent, with the latter drawing on the former. The general growth of conspiracy-theorist modes of thinking in left-wing politics is also an important accompanying context.

If Sean wishes to dismiss all this, and continue obstinately and monomaniacally insisting that only the "right of return" policy matters, and that the best way to combat its hegemony is simply to repeat that its advocates are "racist", that is his prerogative. It will not clarify anyone's understanding, nor aid anyone's education, nor change anyone's mind.

It is hardly surprising that a nationalist-revanchist policy is hegemonic amongst a stateless people who, in the territories where they are the majority, are the colonial subjects of an powerful oppressor. Such conditions distort democratic politics. That doesn’t require that we endorse, or censor criticism of, reactionary ideas developed as a response to oppression, but it does require that we understand their origins. It requires, in other words, that we understand the relationship between the objective and the subjective, rather than treating the latter as something that exists entirely abstracted from the former.

To acknowledge that Hamas would be significantly politically undermined if Israel ended the blockade of Gaza, withdrew from the West Bank, and acknowledged a viable Palestinian state which it supported with reparations and aid, is not to “blame” Israel, still less “the Jews”, for the reactionary politics of Hamas, which is an independent force with its own project; it is to understand the fundamental reality that conditions of colonial subjugation and immiseration are a better breeding ground for reactionary ideas than conditions of self-determination and democratic security.

A great many of those who will march on 11 May, on a Palestine Solidarity Campaign demonstration called explicitly in support of the right of return demand, will do so out of a simple, knee-jerk solidarity with the oppressed. Screaming at them that they are racists and cheerleaders for genocide is unlikely to change many minds.

Sean now claims he "didn't say [advocates of the "right of return"] are racists". I quote from his article in Solidarity 497: "The absolute anti-Zionists are racists. That is a word that has lost much of its meaning and become the equivalent of a swear-word, expressing detestation and moral repugnance. It serves to obliterate all distinctions and gradations. Here it is precise, literal."

Given that Sean makes clear that he thinks any species of support for the right of return, however this is subjectively conceived of, puts one in the camp of the "absolute anti-Zionists", Sean's original meaning seems clear to me.

There is an ongoing debate inside the AWL, reflected previously in Solidarity 454 and 455 in articles by Martin Thomas and Carmen Basant, and which Sean has thus far not engaged with, about whether "racism" is an accurate or useful descriptor for the politically-constructed antisemitism of much of the far left. I tend to agree with Martin in thinking that "racism" is not a useful descriptor here.

This debate expresses many of the "distinct and gradations" I referred to in my original article, which Sean's blanket (and now denied) assertion that all supporters of the "right of return" policy entirely erases. To say that it's neither rhetorically useful nor politically accurate to describe supporters of the right of return as "racists" is not to say that the policy is a good or operable one! Sean wields the term precisely in the way he himself denounces, to "express detestation and moral repugnance", rather than to accurately describe, politically educate, or to persuade. Sean says that the subjective intent of different supporters of the right of return don't matter, and that one only needs to address oneself to the objective consequences. If only politics were so simple!

People's minds are rarely changed except by an interlocutor sensitive to their subjective intentions and motivations, rather than one who beats them about the head with the objective logic of a position they may only hold by unchallenged default. Our job is to sharpen political demarcations, to make the young person who rightly feels an instinctive sympathy with the Palestinians question whether they really believe the policy of Hamas, however watered down or refracted through degrees of vicariousness, can bring justice. Proceeding as if there is already a clear and universally-understood binary between support for Hamas and our own policy simply fails to connect with reality.

Take a young marcher on a PSC demo who has barely thought about the politics beyond a rudimentary sympathy for the oppressed on the one hand, and a hardened ideologue shaped by Stalinist anti-Zionism on the other: Sean wants to tell someone in the former category that they’re really, actually, in the latter one, whatever they might themselves “subjectively” believe. Such “persuasion” stands a far greater chance of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy than it does of developing their instincts of solidarity in an internationalist, rather than vicarious-nationalist, direction.

For sure, there is not a simple binary, between unformed instinctive solidarity and fully-workedout Stalinist anti-Zionism, waiting to be politically exposed. All sorts of variations exist, with some people assimilating aspects of Stalinist-influenced absolute anti-Zionism but not others. But we can only hope to move people politically by engaging with the specificities and the full complexity of the “distinctions and gradations”.

Marx’s adage that a national people "that oppresses another forges its own chains” is a useful educational tool here. Applied to Israel/Palestine, this means, in the first instance, that the Israeli Jewish national community will never have peace and security while its state stands as the colonial oppressor of the Palestinians. But it also means that Palestinian national liberation cannot be realised via a framework which denies national rights to Israeli Jews. Patient explanation of the basic principles of consistent democracy, national self-determination, and workers’ unity across national divides can present a concrete alternative to a knee-jerk vicarious nationalism.

Ironically, Sean's approach shares, in an inverted way, some of the same ideological infrastructure of the vicarious-nationalist left. For them, a policy is judged not by whether it stands any chance of advancing Palestinians’ material interests in current conditions, but by how totalising its hostility to Israel is. The Palestinian refugees become a political cipher, and demands that might stand some chance of connecting with immediate conditions – such as the demand that they be given the right to fully and properly integrated into the societies to which they have been scattered, or the demand that Israel offer reparations to the descendants of those driven from their homes in, or prior to, the 1948 war – are eschewed in favour of an impossible maximalism. The flesh-and-blood Palestinians refugees and their descendants disappear in a haze of vicarious-nationalist hostility to Israel.

But in Sean’s schema, too, the real Palestinian refugees, their oppression, and their right to justice and redress vanish behind the vision-obscuring edifice of the rotten common sense of the far left. We are not active in Israel/Palestine; we mainly face the left in our own national context, and exist to renew and transform the left, to scrape off the muck piled by Stalinism on top of the democratic-libertarian, internationalist project of Marxism. But that involves not only a reactive, negativist critique of Stalinist ideas, but a positive statement of their opposite. In this case, that means clearly stating an alternative policy – undoubtedly, given our distance from the issue and, like all the left, lack of connection to any agency capable of attempting to intervene in the situation to bring it about, sketched only in broad terms – for justice for the Palestinian refugees, in order that we might hope to develop in those labour movement activists we can reach an internationalist, rather than vicarious-nationalist, spirit of solidarity.

Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace organisation, has long acknowledged that meaningful reconciliation and peace requires an acknowledgement by Israel of the ethnic cleansing that took in the process of its formation, and serious, material concessions to redress it. Without these, any settlement would leave the Palestinians feeling, yet again, like a defeated party rather than an equal partner in a mutual recognition of rights. Gush Shalom has therefore promoted a peace plan which proposes that: "In order to heal the historical wound and as an act of justice, Israel will allow the return into its territory of an appropriate number of refugees, taking into consideration its national character and keeping a reasonable demographic balance. Both parties through negotiation will determine the number of refugees who will return as well as the criteria and priorities of the allocation of return permits. Returnees will be allowed back under a reasonable annual quota within a time-limit not exceeding 10 years."

As a group active on the ground in Israel/Palestine, they obviously approach the issue in a greater level of detail than any British socialist group, at a distance, can or even should. And Gush Shalom also says that, as part of this proposed plan, Israel should accept the right of return “in principle”. This, in my view, is meaningless rhetoric, as the right is obviously not conceived of as an absolute. But does Gush Shalom's attempt to grapple - yes, perhaps inadequately - with the "subjective" realities, while acknowledging the material, objective ones, mean they, too, are “shying away from confrontation” with antisemitism?

My point in citing this is not to argue that we, like Gush Shalom, should propose Israel accept the right of return "in principle" but not in practice (although I fully expect Sean to accuse me of doing both in any subsequent reply), nor to say that their scheme is perfect. It is to acknowledge the issue as one that exists in the real world, not only on the plane of the left’s abstract theorising, and to which a healthier left response can only be developed by posing a positive alternative, not merely a negative, despairing critique, to existing left common sense.

Sean says I “retreat up the ladder of generalities from the kitsch-left dog barking at our heels.” In his reply, Sean more or less turns me into a kitsch leftist, implying that any disagreement with his presentation of the issues means ideological slippage and concession to left antisemitism. Perhaps one day, there will be no one left but him, as anyone who wants to approach those under the influence of Stalinist common sense as a persuader, rather than simply a denouncer, is condemned and cast into the enemy camp.

Sean treats the Stalinist-influenced left common sense less as a barking dog and more as a vast creature, swallowing up everything in its path, which can never be swept aside, only pointed at and denounced. Before this all-obscuring behemoth, it is him, not me, who is retreating. I want us to confront toxic ideas with means capable of persuading those influenced by them of other ones.

On 11 May, some thousands of people will attend the PSC’s demonstration – surely more now, as desire to oppose Israel's latest bombardment of Gaza swells the numbers. Workers’ Liberty supporters will be there, as part of a distinct bloc explicitly supporting a two-states settlement, politically differentiated from the politics of the PSC and its implicit identification with Hamas.

What would Sean say to those on the demonstration who were motivated to attend not by any conscious support for pro-Hamas politics, but simply by an immediate instinct of solidarity with the oppressed, were he to find himself in conversation with them? “You do realise, don’t you, that if you are here for any reason other than to support our bloc, that you’re a racist? That you hate the Jews? That you want to drive them into the sea? You may think you’re here to support the Palestinians, but you’re not; not really. You’re a dupe of the PSC. Join our bloc, or go home.”

That would be right, wouldn’t it, Sean? That would be fulfilling our revolutionary duty to tell the truth? And if the person stops listening and walks away after the first sentence… well… that only shows the reader was too addled by left antisemitism to hear these simple facts, and shows how right we were to denounce them?

I hope for better. I think we can explain to people that there is a better political framework for their entirely laudable and necessary instinct of solidarity with the Palestinians than the vicarious-nationalist revanchism on offer from the PSC and its milieu. “Good Bolshevism” means not retreating from that hope into an attitude of despair.


Submitted by Jason Schulman on Wed, 08/05/2019 - 12:45

I'm glad to see that the AWL conducts its debates publicly, unlike most of the "Leninist" left. But I'm sad to see -- repeatedly -- that Sean M.'s style of argument is little different than that of the "kitsch-leftists" he denounces. Does he really expect to convince the not-yet-convinced via vituperation? Dan's "what would you say to someone in a PSC march who isn't pro-Hamas but just instinctively sides with the oppressed, the victims of Israeli colonialism?" question is entirely on the mark.

If the AWL doesn't "confront toxic ideas with means capable of persuading those influenced by them of other ones," as Dan puts it, then it's quite unlikely that the AWL will be able to win over much of the existing left in the UK to a rational Marxism. Trotskyism's constant problem (well, one among many) is the idealist belief that taking Correct Positions will necessarily lead the toiling masses to march under your banner. By now, Sean M. should realize that it just doesn't work that way.

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