Israel, the CPGB, and the National Question

In their statement on the Arab Spring and the general situation in the greater Middle East, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) makes some common but fundamental mistakes in dealing with Israel and the national question. By the national question we mean the spectrum of political issues dealing with national liberation and resistance movements, the self-determination of peoples, and questions of separatism, irredentism, and the counter-nationalism of states attempting to prevent these. Dealing correctly with the national question has often been the Achilles’ heel of Marxist movements, as the evolving and sometimes confused statements by Marx & Engels on the topic have been of little help, and later ‘authorities’ have disagreed so virulently on the subject. Moreover, nationalism takes many forms and guises and this has added to the inability of many Marxists to conceive of the issue properly. Yet there is no doubt that it is a question of real significance. Although some movements and parties have attempted to deal with it by simply setting the question aside, hoping it would go away, it is clear from the history of the last century that nationalist movements have been immensely powerful in determining both the success and failure of socialist politics. From the failure of internationalism at the outbreak of the First World War to the successes of socialist anti-colonial movements in harnessing nationalist ideas, there is no evading the importance of the issue. Using the CPGB’s statement as an example, we can elucidate some of the relevant considerations and show why the CPGB’s position on the Israel/Palestine conflict is the wrong one, although well-intentioned.

In order to understand this, we must fundamentally analyze what nationalism is about, from the point of view of Marxism, and what this entails for our understanding of nationalist movements as political problems. In his excellent and underappreciated book The National Question, the radical geographer James Blaut eloquently summarized and defended the right way of thinking about nationalism.(1) This consists of a number of important points:
– First, that nationalism first and foremost is about the seizing and controlling of state power. While Marxists have traditionally been skeptical of the state as such, it is clear that without control of the locus of power, no movement whatsoever can do anything. Nationalism is no exception to this. Even in its separatist form, this still implies the creation of a separate state power, which is then controlled by whatever class or alliance of classes and groups has successfully undertaken the separation. Nationalism is not, therefore, merely irrational romanticism, xenophobia, or supra-political in some way (although it can ideologically certainly contain those sentiments).
– Secondly, that because nationalism is a struggle for state power, it is inseparable from the class struggle in its political dimensions. It is not an autonomous force, but it is the form in which certain class struggles appear, just like any other major political struggle is. While many class struggles can be seen as ‘internal’, in Blaut’s terminology, nationalism is this political struggle in its ‘external’ dimensions.
– Thirdly, that since it is not an autonomous force, it is not reducible to nationalist ideology as such (whatever form it takes in any particular case), nor to any other ideological dimension only, including culture. To imply nationalism is inherently related to a struggle between cultures is to fall into idealism, i.e. the notion that in the last instance politics exists in and is fought out in the realm of ideas only. In practice, nationalism may or may not be related to particular cultures or languages. It is the state that is the terrain over which nationalism is fought, not the dominance of one particular culture or language or another. While such arguments over culture and language do exist, they are not identical with nationalism and may be entirely separate from political considerations, or limit themselves to a desire for more cultural autonomy within existing political boundaries and constellations.
– Fourthly, one important and often overlooked dimension of nationalism is the nationalism against other nationalisms. While much attention goes to anti-colonial and anti-imperialist forms of nationalism, and to various separatist movements, the attempts by countries to prevent separation, decolonization, irredentism and so forth are just as much part of nationalism as others; as are attempts at terrorial aggrandizement by greater or lesser powers. Any theory that purports to deal with nationalism must deal with these also.
– Fifthly, it follows from a socialist perspective from this that while all these are nationalisms, not all nationalism is born equal. Whether or not a given nationalist movement or politics is ‘progressive’, whether or not socialists should support it, depends entirely on the characteristics of the given case and cannot be determined by general principles about nationalism as such (whether supportive or dismissive). Nor is it the case that nationalism conceptually can be said to have been progressive in an earlier era and to be regressive now, pace Luxemburg, Hobsbawm, and many contemporary Marxists. This again impermissibly conflates nationalisms of different political content, and ignores that nationalism as a struggle for state power is a form of class struggle, not an autonomous force. Just as one cannot meaningfully say that the state in general was once good and is now bad, or that elections in general were once good and are now bad, without going into the specifics of a given state or a given electoral process, one cannot say this of nationalism as such either. This is necessary if we are to go beyond trivial and shallow analysis of contemporary politics, and beyond dogmatic mistakes.
– Finally, all this implies that the nature of a given case of nationalism must be analyzed from the angles of both the ‘apparent’ nationalism of the active movement and the ‘hidden’ nationalism of any counter-movements on behalf of existing states, if relevant. These must in each case be judged separately by their political content, in the usual terms of what class or classes support it, what the effect of a victory would be, and whether this would be clearly favorable to socialist democracy, unfavorable to it, or neither/both. There can be no shortcuts of the type of ‘all nationalism is to be opposed as bourgeois’ or ‘small state separatism is bad but medium state separatism is good’, and so forth.

This brings us back to the CPGB. The relevant parts of their statement, consisting of theses agreed upon by their ‘members’ aggregate’, the CPGB states the following:

24. While communists have no truck with Zionism and condemn the colonial-settler origins of Israel, we recognise that over the last 50 or 60 years a definite Israeli Jewish nation has come into existence. To call for its abolition is unMarxist. Such a programme is either naive utopianism or genocidal. Both are reactionary. The Israeli Jewish nation is historically constituted. The Israeli Jews speak the same language, inhabit the same territory, have the same culture and sense of identity.

25. The Palestinian national movement has been sustained only because of the existence of and its relationship with the wider Arab nation. Solving the Israel-Palestine question requires a combined Arab and proletarian solution. Communism and nationalism are antithetical. Nevertheless we champion the right of all oppressed nations to self-determination. In the conditions of Israel/Palestine that means supporting the right of the Palestinians where they form a clear majority to form their own state. Such a state is only realistic with a working class-led Arab revolution.

26. Communists do not deny the right of the Israeli Jewish nation to self-determination on the basis of some half-baked or perverted reading of classic texts. The right to self-determination is not a Marxist blessing exclusively bestowed upon the oppressed. It is fundamentally a demand for equality. All nations must have the equal right to determine their own fate – as long as that does not involve the oppression of another people. Hence communists recognise that the US, German and French nations have self-determination. Today that is generally unproblematic. However, we desire to see that same elementary right generalised to all peoples.

27. The immediate call for a single Palestinian state, within which the Jewish Israeli nationality is given citizenship and religious, but not national rights, is in present circumstances to perpetuate division. Israeli Jews will not accept such a solution – the whole of the 20th century since 1933 militates against that. There is moreover the distinct danger that the poles of oppression would be reversed if such a programme were ever to be put into practice. In all likelihood it would have to involve military conquest. The call for a single-state solution is therefore impractical – Israel is the strong nation – and, more than that, reactionary, anti-working class and profoundly anti-socialist. Liberation and socialism must come from below. It cannot be imposed from the outside.

28. A two-state solution effectively falls at the same hurdles. We cannot expect the Zionist state, as presently constituted, to concede the territory necessary to create a contiguous, viable Palestinian republic. Without a serious transformation in the regional, and indeed global, relation of forces, any such solution will inevitably leave in place the oppression of Palestinian and Israeli Arabs, and will thus be a mockery of democracy.

29. It is the job of communists to produce the change in regional and global conditions that will make a democratic solution possible. Whether this leaves present-day Israel/Palestine as two states, one state, a federal republic, etc will be dictated largely by the course of the Arab revolution. To this end, our immediate demands must be for: the complete withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders, an end to military interference in the West Bank and the perpetual siege of Gaza, and full democratic and civil rights for all Arabs in Israel.

30. Additionally, for a democratic settlement to be possible, Palestinians must have the right of return – this is a right of habitation decided upon individually, or by family group. It is not a demand for a folk movement of the entire diaspora – which now inhabits not just Jordan, Kuwait, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, etc, but the US and many countries in western Europe too. Communists demand substantial compensation for the Palestinian people as a whole from the state of Israel for the historic injustice that was perpetrated upon them.

31. Only through the process of Arab reunification can we expect the growth of an anti-Zionist ‘enemy within’ the Israeli-Jewish nation and the growth of trust and solidarity between the two peoples and their eventual merger.

32. Equally, the Zionist colonial project and the arbitrary divisions among Arabs are substantially propped up by global imperialism. It is incumbent upon communists in the imperialist countries to force the termination of all military aid to Israel.

As our previous discussion of the political understanding of nationalism will have made clear, the “half-baked or perverted reading of classic texts” the CPGB laments is as much on their side as anywhere else. The CPGB in this analysis makes a number of serious mistakes. Contrary to what it says, communism and nationalism are not antithetical, and the CPGB’s dismissal of nationalism per se is in error. What the CPGB should have done is understand the Israeli/Palestine conflict as a struggle between two nationalisms as the primary and most significant form the class struggle both within and between these nations takes. Whether or not a nation is ‘historically constituted’ does not come into the matter at all. After all, every nation is as much or as little ‘historically constituted’ as another, and there is no shortage of ‘imagined communities’, to use Benedict Anderson’s felicitous phrase, that any given collective of people or their political leadership can invent. To go down the road of recognizing historically legitimate nations and non-legitimate nations, as the CPGB does, is to follow up on influential mistakes made in the past by Marx & Engels in some of their 1848-era writings on nationalism as well as Stalin’s influential tract on the subject. While the present essay does not allow room for going into the history of this concept in Marxism in much detail, it suffices to note that it is hardly the job of Marxists to determine whether nations as historical communities are real or not real, and that this is not a category which belongs to the class struggle. While we may have, perhaps, historical or even aesthetic judgements on the relative merits of particular imaginations of community, these are decidedly of less importance for our political analysis than the more straightforward considerations detailed above. Instead of sitting in judgment on the wanderings of peoples, the CPGB ought to ask more simple questions. Do a significant number of people support this nationalism? If so, what class, and who is favored by their success? What kind of nationalism is it?

It will then quickly become clear that the Israeli nationalism and the Palestinian nationalism are not politically of one kind, and the CPGB’s attitude of ‘a plague o’ both your houses’ is not permissible. Whether or not Israeli Jews share a common language and culture is neither here nor there. (In fact it is questionable itself: modern Hebrew was invented for the purpose of serving Zionist aspirations, and many Arabs in Israel know it as well, while most Jews outside Israel do not). The significance of Israeli nationalism is that it is the nationalism of a settler class in a settler nation seeking to expand both its territorial dominion in lands already inhabited and that it seeks to strengthen its exploitative, neo-colonial hold over the people of that territory. The significance of Palestinian nationalism is that it is the primary form of the resistance against this colonization. As such, Palestinian nationalism is ipso facto progressive in a way Israeli nationalism is not. Israeli nationalism is mainly the political vehicle of the Israeli labor aristocracy and its inward-oriented bourgeoisie; Palestinian nationalism is mainly the vehicle of the Palestinian working class and peasantry (its bourgeoisie is happy with anything as long as ‘law and order’ prevails in the chain stores in Ramallah). Again, here Palestinian nationalism is ipso facto progressive in a way Israeli nationalism is not.

Does this then imply support for the so-called ‘two state solution’? It does not. As the CPGB correctly notes, there is actually no solution in the two state solution, since there is no chance of any independence of Palestine on the margins of Gaza and the West Bank in any practical terms. Its political and economic dependence on and exploitation by Israel as a nation, and more specifically Israel’s labor aristocracy and bourgeoisie, would not be in the least diminished by a token ‘independence’ for these areas insofar as they have not already been settled by Israelis. The situation would be comparable to the Bantustans or ‘thuislanden’ of apartheid South Africa, and would provide no more of a ‘solution’ than those were. Moreover, the formal separation of Palestinian workers in addition to their already generalized physical separation through barriers and checkpoints would only further enable Israeli exploitation of this workforce for its own purposes. The two-state solution is the nationalism of the Palestinian elite, and therefore does not deserve our support.

However, the CPGB is incoherent in its position of also rejecting the one-state solution. According to the CPGB, a one-state solution would lead to a similar oppression of the Jews in Palestine as now of the Palestinians in Israel. But this is an absurdity: it is as if one were to oppose the independence of Kenya or Zimbabwe from colonial rule because this would only lead to a completely equivalent colonial exploitation of the white population of these countries by the black majority! This ignores entirely the political economic and class structure of the nation in question. A unified Palestine for Jews and Arabs both would not suddenly undo the power of path dependence in economic history, and it is not in the least likely that the total control of Jewish citizens of Israel over all its ‘commanding heights’ would immediately cease in favor of total Arab control. The CPGB is of course right that the current Israeli bourgeoisie and labor aristocracy would not be happy with such a solution and would not be likely to accept it – this is exactly what makes it relevant. After all, these groups will not accept any ‘solution’ that is not in their favor, and cannot be expected to do so any more than one expects capitalists to vote for the CPGB. But since when have Marxists ever cared about the consent of the exploiters in ending their exploitation? The CPGB’s support for the right of return is just as ‘considerate’ for the exploiting majority in Israel: Palestinians are to be allowed to return with compensation, but not as a people. What this means is not clear, but references to the diaspora in the West seem to imply that it is to be limited perhaps to those currently in refugee camps, or perhaps even just those who actually lived there in 1947. This puts the CPGB in an odd position indeed: it means that despite the general socialist disapproval of the primacy of nation-states and of restrictions on labor mobility, it is committed to refusing Palestinians not from camps in Lebanon or Jordan entry into Palestine if they desire to migrate there, simply because they belong to the wrong people and their migration would dilute the nature of the state. This is how the dogmatic anti-nationalism of the CPGB actually turns into its opposite!

Finally, a word is needed on the CPGB position of offering pan-Arab socialism as a prerequisite for a resolution to the Israel/Palestine question. The ‘eventual merger’ of Jews and Arabs in Palestine is seen as depending entirely on achieving socialism in a unified Arabia, the CPGB implies. Aside from the somewhat odd conception of a merger of the two peoples, given the CPGB’s concern about the ‘historically constituted’ Jewish Israel, this viewpoint is laudable in the abstract but evades the issues at hand. While of course socialist internationalism means socialists favor an end to the conflicts between individual states and the unification of peoples under a common banner of overcoming class division, pretending that this settles the matter at hand is about as helpful as ‘transhumanism’ is to questions of medical ethics. The CPGB is no doubt right that the oil wealth of the Arabian peninsula is best shared with all people in the area, not just exported by an aristocracy as servile as it is backwards.

Nonetheless, our opposition to the artificial divisions created by colonialism and collaboration should not blind us to their reality. Surely if Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state on the basis of sixty years, so do Iraq and Saudi Arabia, never mind Algeria or Egypt. Democratic revolution against the Arab elites, be they bourgeois nationalists of the Ba’ath Parties or reactionary monarchs and chieftains, will provide an essential support for the overcoming of Israeli colonialism since the peoples of the Middle East will not permit the Palestinian cause to be sold off or betrayed, unlike the current rulers. Neither do they have much mutual hatred and distrust compared to the endless scheming and strategizing of their corrupt governments. But this can be achieved on a basis more realistic in the shorter term than pan-Arab socialism, however laudable: the Arab Spring’s movement towards democratic revolution, supported by various classes and interests but aimed in each nation separately against its established power, needs but to be brought to fruition. This is of course a formidable task of its own, but in any case itself a prerequisite for a meaningful pan-Arabism as desired by the CPGB. But the progressive aspect in the external class struggle, as opposed to merely the internal one, of the Arab Spring and (hopefully) its successors cannot be realized without acknowledging the necessity of distinguishing the Palestinian national cause from the Israeli one.

A programme which seeks to mobilize the Arab peoples towards unity under the banner of socialism but which recognizes the legitimacy of a colonizing settler state ruled along quasi-racial lines in their midst cannot succeed. For the dream of pan-Arab socialism to have any chance at being more than utopian fervor, the CPGB and all other socialists who think as they do must abandon their dogmatic stance on nationalism, and come to understand that not each nationalist movement is alike. Only then can socialists come to coherent and practical positions on the national question, whether it involves Palestine, Puerto Rico, Scotland, or anywhere else.

1) James M. Blaut, The National Question: Decolonising the Theory of Nationalism. (Atlantic Highlands, NJ 1987).


“Secondly, that because nationalism is a struggle for state power, it is inseparable from the class struggle in its political dimensions. It is not an autonomous force, but it is the form in which certain class struggles appear, just like any other major political struggle is.”

Just to be clear, you are an economic determinist that thinks that class determines history in the last instance? I always thought you were against Althusser and reductionism.

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