Debating Israel/Palestine

Submitted by Matthew on 9 November, 2011 - 2:43

On Tuesday 1 November the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty debated Socialist Appeal at the Marxist Discussion Group at Cambridge on “Which way forward for Israel and Palestine?”

Such debates are the sign of a healthy socialist movement and contribute towards the collective sharpening of political ideas. It is a pity that similar debates are not more common on a left often characterised by sectarian sniping and hysteria.

On a superficial level, the positions of the AWL and Socialist Appeal on Israel/Palestine appear quite similar. Both organisations take a class-based approach to the issue and are critical of the politics of boycott on the left. Both stress the need to link up the struggles of Israeli and Palestinian workers and reject the idea that Israelis should be lumped together and branded as uniquely evil.

However, during the course of the debate fundamental differences emerged. John Pickard from Socialist Appeal opened with a lucid description of the oppression facing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and the discrimination suffered by Arabs living in Israel — very little of which we would disagree with.

However, he gave the impression that Palestinian national oppression will dissolve automatically in the course of class-struggle on economic issues. Socialist Appeal has nothing to say about the immediate problems — the lack of a Palestinian state — and offers only one solution: socialism!

As the AWL speaker, Paul Hampton, pointed out, as much as we all want socialism, we need to say more than “‘jam tomorrow”. If national differences could be solved by day-to-day struggles over economic issues, national conflicts such as Northern Ireland would have been settled several times over with strikes over outdoor relief, the postal service and the NHS.

The issue of national self-determination requires democratic demands which deal with the root of the problem and provide a basis on which to unite workers on a political level. Otherwise, national differences risk shattering the movement when the issue of self-determination inevitably arises.

That is why the AWL advocates “two nations, two states” as a basis to unite the Israeli and Palestinian working classes. This demand recognises that the fundamental issue facing the Palestinians is the denial of their right to self-determination. It also recognises the right of Israelis to their own state, which exists and has existed for 63 years. Only on the basis of these mutual rights can workers in both nations be united.

Socialist Appeal’s objection to the AWL was the argument that a Palestinian state under capitalism will not solve the problems of capitalist exploitation. But as Lenin pointed out in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, substituting the issue of economic independence of nations under capitalism for the political question of self-determination “is just as intelligent as if someone, in discussing the programmatic demand for the supremacy of parliament...were to expound the perfectly correct conviction that big capital dominates in a bourgeois country, whatever the regime in it.”

No-one in the AWL argues that political self-determination for Palestinians will be the end of the matter. It will, however, be a qualitative step forward and brings with it the possibility of draining the poison of national oppression and uniting the working-class from a position of relative formal equality.

Socialist Appeal also used Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to argue that “there is no solution under capitalism” because democratic tasks can only be solved if the struggle of the working class immediately leads to socialism.

But Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was based on a concrete examination of the relations between classes in Russia (and later in China). On this basis Trotsky established that the bourgeoisie in those countries could not solve questions of political democracy because they were socially and numerically weak. Notwithstanding the fact that Trotsky said little about the issue of national self-determination in relation to this theory, and that the AWL argues that it is the working class who can solve the Israel/Palestine question, the Socialist Appeal line is “Trotsky frozen”, ignoring his warning that permanent revolution is not a suprahistorical master-key, applicable in all situations.

In response to Paul Hampton’s arguments, John Pickard was left with little option but to mischaracterise the AWL position as one of pessimism regarding the possibilities of socialism. This was rhetorical bluster to disguise the fact that the Socialist Appeal line did not deal comprehensively with the necessity of transitional democratic demands to address the immediate issues facing Palestinian workers.

But the differences between AWL and Socialist Appeal were thrashed out in a serious but comradely fashion, both by the platform speakers and by members of the audience. It is a credit to the organisers of the Cambridge Marxist Discussion Group that such open discussion can take place, and we hope that it will continue well into the future.

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