Debate & Discussion: Marxism, not militancy

Submitted by Anon on 10 September, 2003 - 2:00

Sean Matgamna

When I advised Mark Osborn to try rereading the Solidarity editorial on the Middle East "Roadmap", which he criticised, I had in mind that he should reread it for political meaning. It now turns out that Mark's difficulty is with the plain meaning of words.
I understand the words "to use force", or "to use a great deal of force", to mean physical force-between states, military force to overwhelm resistance, or the threat of it to compel compliance. "Use force" is a specific reference to something directly physical. The expression has a simple meaning, and a clear one.

The words "to force" a person or a state to do something, refer to forcing by way of a whole range of possible pressures. In relations between the USA and Israel now and in the foreseeable future, "to force" refers to diplomatic, financial and military pressure-withholding military supplies-as well as to theoretically possible direct physical force.

MO quotes the editorial: "If the Americans do not force the Israeli Government [to accept the 'road map's' commitment to an independent Palestinian state]Â…" He quotes his own words, supposedly paraphrasing what he has just quoted from the editorial: [The US does] "not intend to use a great deal of force against Israel". He also offers a new summary of what the editorial said: [By rejecting his summary, "to use a great deal of force", I have] "stripped out a central part of [my] own argument. Without the expectation of meaningful American pressure (emphasis added) [my] case collapses. If the US won't use serious pressure (emphasis added) against the Israeli government, how can there be [Israeli-Palestinian settlement]".

Even when he writes them out like this, one closely following the other, Mark evidently can't see any difference in the meaning of these expressions. But in fact there is a radical difference. To "use force" is not the same thing as "to force". The idea that the US will in the foreseeable future "use force" against Israel is ridiculous. If the editorial had built anything on this unlikely eventuality, it would be as senseless as Mark's letters are. The editorial did not write of that; MO's summary of the editorial did.

I picked on MO's unconscious misrepresentation of what the editorial said-substituting "use force" for "to force"-because I thought that bit of sloppy confusion epitomised his entire "alternative analysis". There was nothing gratuitous or false-or merely pedantic-about it. You can't have a serious political exchange when one side is that sloppy.

Rude? Certainly impatient and exasperated. The confrontation of conflicting views is an important part of Solidarity. Obstreperous nonsense such as MO's here can only discredit the idea of free debate in the Labour Movement press. If I were an SWP organiser, faced with justifying the repressive and undemocratic regime in Socialist Worker (and in the SWP) I'd demagogically use exchanges like this, provoked by MO, as an illustration of where the other approach leads.

On one point MO is right-it is a question of what we are, "our role". He thinks "our role is not to paint up the democratic possibilities, and downplay the pitfalls (and real intentions of many of the players) in these diplomatic manoeuvres. Our job is not to give Bush the benefit of the doubt [or] to debunk the idiot-SWP type left, but to warn those with illusions in the peace process."

Our job, facing something new, or possibly new, like the "roadmap", is neither to paint it up or paint it down, but first to decipher what it means. Only after that can you decide whether it should be praised, cautiously welcomed, or damned; what would be "illusion" and what a typical "idiot-SWP type" left approach to it.

Of course, nobody approaches a thing like the roadmap with a blank mind. But Mark's idea that you first decide that your "role" is to debunk "illusions", etc., and let that "role" shape what you say, contains in embryo all the vices that have led to such things as the existence of an "idiot-SWP type left"-the idea that you trim your analysis and your politics to what will "build the party"; that in analysing a document you decide to "paint it up" or "paint it down" to ensure that the result will fit the needs of your "role"; that what is true is subordinate to what your "role" or your organisation's needs will find useful, or "will expect" from what it has already said.

That approach is the starting point for such abominations as the SWP's attempt in the Balkans war to lie an "anti-imperialist", anti-war movement into existence by lying about what was happening there (see WL 2/1).

Our business, our "role", our politics is expressed, as is the pro-Palestinian element in our politics, by our programme-the proposal for two states.

The rest is a matter of honestly understanding what is happening, or likely to happen, and honestly reporting it. As someone probably said: Don't paint up, don't paint down, first understand.

Of course errors of subjective bias will inevitably creep in. Error in detail is one thing. To approach something like the roadmap-or rather what is new in the Middle East, the unprecedented level of US involvement, and what that might mean for the Jewish-Arab conflict-with the barrage of a priori objection which Mark, playing his pre-selected role and believing that our politics should be expressed not only in our programme but in the details of the analysis, put in his first letter: that is wrong in principle.

The only thing that can be justly said for MO's point of view against the editorial is that it did not dismiss the roadmap initiative out of hand. It didn't and it shouldn't have. Read the editorial:

"It is certain that when he says he subscribes to 'an independent Palestinian state', Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon does not mean by it what the Palestinians mean. Sharon is manoeuvring with the Americans. The day the Israeli government 'accepted' the roadmapÂ… [it] awarded a contract for the construction of a new settlement.

"Real acceptance of the roadmap proposals would probably require a prior political upheaval in IsraelÂ… [its] preconditionÂ… is the production by this initiative of a credible prospect of peace."

Again: "Â…the roadmap is silent on such questions as Israeli control of Israeli military roads and garrisons that in effect would split up the Palestinian territory into bantustans, though its talk of a 'sovereign, independent, viable' Palestinian state should, in any normal understanding of the words, rule out the bantustan version, which is what Sharon probably [has in mind]."

Again: "Either this is a serious attempt to 'sort out' the Israeli-Palestinian problem, motivated on the USA's interest in stabilising the region. Or it is Bush going through the motions to placate the Europeans, and will soon run out of steam. It is in the USA's interest to find a viable solutionÂ… the Americans may, therefore, be seriousÂ… If they are, they will have to insist with Israel on a settlementÂ… a really 'sovereign, independent and viable Palestinian state' could not be a collection of bantustansÂ…

"Socialists should give no credence or political support to Bush or the 'Quartet' [that is supposed to supervise the roadmap-the EU, Russia and the UN as well as the USA]."

Again: "Â…on paper, the proposals could, if implemented, lead to a Jewish-Palestinian and wider Jewish-Arab settlement.

"Â…Socialists cannot but view this initiative with suspicion and distrust. We cannot trust even the proclaimed good intentions of those who made it and the Quartet that will supervise it. Many important things go without mention, crucially the territory over which the Palestinian government will be sovereignÂ…[in the negotiations over such things] the Palestinians will be the weaker party.

"We should distrust the roadmap and refuse to believe any of its promises until its words lead to consonant deeds. But in the name of what should socialists oppose it? In the name of the sacred right of an oppressed people to liberate themselves by force, including suicide bombs against Israeli civilians, and not by an internationally sponsored agreement?

"In the name of the 'Freedom for Palestine' blazoned on the placards of the Muslim Brotherhood (MAB) and the SWP on the recent anti-war demonstrations?"

Finally: "Once more, we cannot trust Bush and Blair to bring about a two-states solution, or to give to the Palestinians the full measure of justice to which they are entitled.

"But our criticisms of them should be specific criticism of their deeds within their proclaimed general aim of a two-states solution to the Jewish-Palestinian conflict-and, more fundamentally, within the fundamental concern of Marxists socialists, to find ways to unite the Jewish and Arab working classes against their rulers and exploiters."

As I said, Mark is right that it is a question of what we are. In my view, the last thing the working class needs from Solidarity is more of the agitation-driven pseudo-militancy that rots so much of the left. We must deal in honest and sober-minded Marxism, not in mindless "militancy".

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