A reply to Colin Foster by David Merhav
Comrade Colin Foster uses (Solidarity, July 7) a terminology and information that seem to be as if they were taken of some bizarre analyses of the situation in Israel, in particular, and across the world, in general.
I believe that Foster’s evaluation of the Israeli Labour party and the unions stem from misleading or wrong information given to him, certainly based on the bourgeois press. I also think that his general terminology cannot be explained through Marxist methodology but rather through revision of Marxism into strange mixture of post-Marxist or neo-Marxist ideas, whose connection to Karl Marx’s analyses is merely an accidental one.
A few Words on Socialist History in Israel/Palestine
The Israeli labor movement was founded during the first decade of the 20th century by Israeli socialists who were fascinated by the October Revolution in Russia and by those who adhered to the synthesis of Zionism and socialism formed by Jewish Marxist theoreticians like Ber Borochov. It is a must to understand how the labor movement in Israel was built in order to conceive true and fair analysis of its development.
The Histadrut was established in 1920 in order to organize the Jewish workers in Palestine and for providing a political basis of a national Jewish movement that aims at establishing a Jewish state, or a state for the Jews. The Marxists were divided at that time: the minority adopted the anti-Zionist/internationalist stance of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, so it formed in 1919 the Socialist Workers Party. The majority was divided between the revolutionary socialist wings in Hashomer Hatzear movement (later to be known as MAPAM, the United Workers’ Party) and MAPAI (the Eretz Israel’s Workers Party, today the Labor party) that was already ambivalent concerning the ideas of revolutionary Marxism. The SWP, that changed its name to PCP (the Yiddish initials for Palestinishe Komonisthishe Partei, Palestinian Communist Party), propagated for an bi-national trade union, for organizing the Arab workers in the Histadrut, against the nationalistic-discriminative methods of the Zionist movement, which attempted deprive the native Arab laborers of becoming integral elements of the Palestinian market. In the first decade of its existence, the SWP-PCP was internationalist workers’ party (which became member in the Third International), but afterwards was degenerated as most of its leadership adhered to Stalinism and later murdered in Stalin’s death-gulags.
The Histadrut was built as a wing of the Zionist movement; the communists were expelled from its ranks in 1924, and were allowed to return only a year prior to the defeat of the Nazis, in 1944 (due to the contribution made by them for joint front in Palestine against the Nazis and in the service of the Allies who struggled against the vicious Nazi barbarism). Only a decade after the foundation of the State of Israel, Arabs were allowed to be members in the Histadrut. Most of the newly born Israeli market was nationalized and owned by the State and by the Histadrut. The Labor party was the major political party in the State as well as in the Histadrut. Thus, the Histadrut found itself in a very peculiar situation, since it was not only a representative of workers – but also their employer. The big strike of seamen and sailors, which erupted in 1951, was launched for this reason. For decades, the Histadrut could not function as true trade union: it was linked to the state (and, therefore, to the Labor party), and even after the defeat of the Labor in June 1977, the Histadrut continued to cooperate with the State, while being tied to the Labor party. Most of the Labor party membership was formed by Histadrut members, as well as members in the Kibbutzim (which were in a process of genuine, unrecoverable, decay during the 1980s).
The only group that fought for separation of the unions from the State was Matzpen tendency that was an alliance of young charismatic Israelis, anti-Zionists. The group (whose membership was only 30 or 40 comrades) consisted of Trotskyists (affiliated with the Michel Pablo’s International), anarcho-communists, several Maoists and autonomous Marxists (affiliated with the New Left, mostly in France and Britain). They left (or were expelled from) the Communist Party in 1962, and the question “What Is the Histadrut?” stood at the core of the disagreement with the CPI, along questions like the nature of the Soviet regime and the Stalinist states, as well as and the conflict in the Middle East.
Moreover, Matzpen rejected an appeal by the former Militant tendency to enter the Labor party or the Histadrut, since they claimed that it was not a workers’ party at all. They were right all along. Nevertheless, without a true attempt to understand the long path of the Israeli labor movement, without any genuine effort to explore why it was shaped in a very bizarre way, one can easily fall into wrong analyses: Nor the Histadrut neither the Labor was “bourgeois workers’ organizations”. They were degenerated, bureaucratized or deformed ones for the very unique process that shaped their character.
In 1994, Haim Ramon MP, then an active MP of the Labor, formed (together with Amir Peretz MP, today the Histadrut chairperson) a party (its name was New Life) that ran for the leadership of the Histadrut. It won the elections and Labor suffered a hard defeat. Ramon strove to separate the unions from the State through a process of privatization of the Histadrut’s assets, and by legislation of the Law for National Health Insurance – a law that separated the Histadrut from the National Health Service. The Israeli NHS was now fully nationalized under State control. The new Law was a discriminative, pro-capitalist, barbaric and saliently favored the interests of the Israeli bourgeoisie (which enjoined the overwhelming privatization of Israel’s economy by the Labor party, that was the ruling party between mid-1992 to early 1996).
Ramon left the Histadrut for political career and wanted to advance his theory of “the big bang” in Israel’s politics: he wished to see a big block of neo-liberal and ultra-capitalist alliance between young politicians, a block that will form an Israeli Democratic Party (like the one in the United States). Peretz remained to lead the Histadrut and recover it as a true union of workers, though he lacked any unionist agenda. He was fascinated by Ramon’s dreams, but after the Labor’s defeat in 1996, and the second defeat in 2001 (after it won the elections of May 1999), he was pushed by many Labor members, as well as socialist academics, to adopt a militant social-democratic policies.
Politics of Possibilities
The main force that pushed Peretz toward socialism was the Communist Party and its political front, Hadash; Meretz, the new party which was formed in 1992 as a result of a fusion between MAPAM and the small liberal party Ratz (the Movement for Civil Rights & Peace), favored social-liberalism and considered Toni Blair’s New Labor as a source for regeneration of Israel’s economy which suffered a tremendous decay after the Likud’s victory in 1996.
The economic crises suffered by Israel during the last five years obligated many people in the Israeli to side with Binyamin Netanyahu’s neo-liberal and ultra-capitalist policies, or to choose the socialist alternative. Many decided to adopt democratic socialism as the true alternative to Netanyahu’s austerity policies. Peretz, under a lot of pressure from below, sought to advance a socialist agenda in order to place alternative. He found out the real power of the unions and rejoined the Labor. The fusion between Peretz’s party, One People (with 3 MPs), and the Labor party (with 19 MPs), resulted in a vicious attempt to undermine Peretz through fabricated charges of corruption by his enemies in the party, first and foremost the chauvinist capitalist Ehud Barak, who was Israel’s Prime Minister and stands as a candidate for the party’s chairmanship.
Barak’s efforts to fight against Peretz through ugly means gave rise to the support in Peretz, and placed him (at least in the polls) near the old Labor leader, Shimon Peres (who serves as Ariel Sharon’s deputy) in the struggle for the Labor’s leadership. Peretz’s camp is constituted of workers, trde unionists, socialists in the academia, socialist youth and many activists in NGOs. Yesod, which is an alliance of Israeli socialists within the Labor, sides with Peretz all the way.
Foster is wrong as he does not understand, possibly for lack of information, what happens in the Labor party. The voices against its participation in Ariel Sharon’s capitalist coalition were and are strengthened; Peretz’s camp leads the drive toward an independent Labor party, a courageous opposition against Sharon. The question is when and how should the Labor leave Sharon’s coalition. Is it correct to do so only a month before Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza strip and the evacuation of the settlements? Can anyone imagine the Labor leaving Sharon without a solid majority in the Knesset, while the fascistic Right bring about bloody war against the majority’s will to leave the Occupied Territories and get rid of the nationalistic settlers? Isn’t it the job of socialists to understand when it is OK to ally with any political force in order to struggle against fascism? The situation in Israel is very intense: whoever examines the conduct of the settlers cannot get away from understanding that those people are determined to stay in the Occupied Territories, and pay any price it may cost – including an assassination of Sharon, their spiritual father. No one knows how crazy these people are; their considerable support among many Israelis is a departure point for the left to genuinely understand with whom it should side with.
The question of Sharon’s policies is irrelevant; he is not the enemy. It is true that Sharon and Bush wish to establish a Palestinian State, divided into Bantustans, without any true independence for the Palestinians. This is an issue which should be discussed and certainly bring socialists and peace-seekers liberals to oppose Sharon’s politics. Nevertheless, we should choose between two different possibilities: Sharon or the fascistic settlers. These are the current possibilities, and politics is not about inventing possibilities. For the insane sects, it is. It is no problem to play in the political playground of the Internet or journals published by marginal “revolutionary” groups. It is a very hard and painful to play in the arena of the class struggle. For me, as socialist, it is the only arena to play and fight in. The German Stalinists made their crucial mistake when they regarded the Social Democrats and the rising fascism and two sides of the same phenomena: it was a tragic mistake. Do we wish to fall into this trap? Does anyone thinks that it is not wrong to equate between the rightist Sharon and the fascistic camp led by the settlers?
If Foster wants to be assured that there are guarantees, I can promise him that there are no ones. A political situation is always a concrete one: Israeli socialists are not in a position to stand against any positive political move of Sharon just because his entire politics is rotten. The same goes in regard to Peretz: whoever reads his interviews can easily understand that we speak of a sincere socialist, whose politics is very different from Peres’ politics (see the interview made with Peretz by Eric Lee in Labor Start website). The big capital understood the potential of Peretz to change the face of Israel, and there is a sizeable amount of businessmen who joined him. In the contrary, many socialists, trade unionists, academics, “ordinary” workers, pensioners and Labor members joined him in order to push him to the left. Does comrade Foster suggests that we will leave Peretz only because he did not commit himself to realize communism in our epoch? What is the alternative? Should we build another “pure” socialist organization? Shell we establish another International of Marxist hardliners?
Politics is about possibilities. For socialists, political isolation is not a possibility. Revolutionaries are meant to fight with the working class, not above or without it. A revolution in Israel is a possibility, not of the near future. Whoever sees the history as mere events and not as a process, may carry forward a politics of sad despair and bitter isolation. This was not – and is not – the politics advanced by committed socialists, neither in Israel and nor in other countries.
David Merhav is undergraduate student in the Philosophy Department, University of Haifa, Israel. He is a member of Yesod (the Social Democratic Israel, www.yesod.net) tendency in the Israel’s Labor party. He is also a member of the GW Leibniz Association Israel and the Israeli Association of Aesthetics.