Say what is, then find your tactics

Submitted by AWL on 15 May, 2019 - 8:49 Author: Sean Matgamna
right of return

More debate on the right of return here.

Daniel, Daniel — what a sloppy mud-pie of a polemic! You mix abuse with evasion, self-admiration, and demagogy! Most of what you have newly written (Solidarity 505) is a senseless rant.

I asked someone if my earlier response to you was too fierce and impatient. He replied that it was out of key with the “sensibilities of the time”. Whatever about the sensibilities of the time, having read your new article I think I’ll manage to forgive myself.

Your second article has not a great deal to do with what we are arguing about, or what I have said about Israel-Palestine, or what I said about your previous arguments. You slop about. You repeat what I commented on without replying to what I said against it. You float what you say in cheap demagogy. You praise your own record of fighting antisemitism. You say things that are common ground as if you can annex them.

I have always — and in many, many articles — distinguished between the antisemitism of the left and racism. I have insisted that the left’s antisemitism is not racist. Plainly you are shocked and disoriented by what I say about the “racist” or “gene-ist” basis of the “Right of Return”. The decisive question is: is it true?

In the last nine months I have expounded my opinion on this in three pieces. One of the reasons for doing that is to test it against the responses of critics. In other areas that might be called “peer group review”. In my reply to your previous piece, I pointed out that you had not even tried to pick holes in the argument. The same is true of your second, longer, polemic.

You do not analyse my reasoning, and point out what is wrong with it. You focus on what you think is the injustice likely to be done to young people with “Right of Return” views. Why do you not pick the argument apart, instead of baulking at the conclusion — that the idea is logically “gene-ist”, “racist” — and identifying yourselves with people for whom you say the argument’s conclusions are unjust, for reasons other than whether they are true or not, because their feelings about Israel and its “barbarism” are justified. You shy away from the conclusion, but in two polemics you do not attempt to demolish the argument. Why am I not entitled to think you don’t because you can’t?

You set yourself up as the champion of the virtuous, innocent believers in the “Right of Return”, and to a large extent of their opinions, and as the advocate of an approach to the broader, non-left public. You counterpose that to my attempt to engage with the left. But we have, for a very long time, produced literature aimed at the broad public about the Jewish-Arab conflict. You must have written some of it. We have a sizeable pamphlet, Two nations, two states, in print for 18 years. It is now in its third edition. We have sold it on the streets, on demonstrations (and on demonstrations on Israel-Palestine), and at meetings.

I put that pamphlet together; I wrote most of it. As I wrote: “We have to say what is. Then, after that, we think of ways of influencing individuals by taking their motives as a starting point”. The discussion did not begin with me trying to insist that we make no effort to talk with people who reject “two states” and instead “beat them over the head”. The discussion began with you attacking me for dissecting the logic of the “Right of Return”.

In your attack, you counterposed (or seemed to) speculation about the different psychologies of different advocates of “two states” to the hard political definition which I said and say was the necessary starting point. I did not reject an approach to different psychologies. You rejected the hard political definition, counterposing to it a desire to accommodate the “innocent” “Right of Returners”. The idea that if we write sharp polemic, then we do not try to appeal to a broad range of opinion, is you reading yourself onto me. I didn’t counterpose the two. You do and did.

You radically misrepresent how things are with the advocates of “Right of Return” when you “excuse” the young people who are right to be indignant at Israel. They do not arrive at “Right of Return” or the destroy-Israel versions of spuriously pro-Palestinian sentiment spontaneously. They are fed those ideas by the kitsch left and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muslim Association of Britain. One of the crimes of the kitsch left is that they poison those young people.

Because our voice is weaker, the young people don’t hear the radical criticisms of those views. Your solution? Don’t confront the ideological poisoners, don’t point out the implications of “Right of Return”. Hide our sharp criticisms (because theirs is a reasonable response to Israeli misdeeds).

Now, in all of the three pieces containing the idea that the “Right of Return” is logically “geneist” or “racist” — with different degrees of emphasis and detail, but in all of them — I have qualified what I’ve written, saying that proportions must be guarded and so on. Certainly I have not used the idea in a jeering or dismissive way. Misrepresenting me as wanting to “scream” at young people backing “Right of Return” that they are “racists” is a way of evading what I actually say. Why should I not take this as evidence that you feel you cannot refute the qualified and limited argument I actually made?

A central fact about the Israel-Palestine conflict is that anti-Israel slogans and feelings are not one and the same thing as pro-Palestinian ones. The most pro-Palestinian are not necessarily the same as the most anti-Israeli. Hostility to Israel, desire for its destruction, making its elimination central, is on the left (and among Arab nationalists and Islamists) not the same question as wanting the best for the Palestinians. It is an autonomous — not entirely separate, but autonomous — political reality, and with a logic of its own. “Right of return”, meaning displacement, is a version of “destroy Israel”. Either you are in denial about that, or you accept or half-accept it.

On the left, anti-Israel feeling has become a cause in itself, perceived as merging with antiimperialism and anti-racism. Much of the agitation around misdeeds which we too condemn is packaged round a basic political message: Israel must be destroyed, not reformed, not changed, but eliminated. “Right of return” is a variant of that. It is the negative anti-Israel stance expressed as the seemingly positive “right of return”. But on every level it is a vicious nonsense.

One of our responsibilities is to portray all this honestly. Israel cannot be judged only by its brutality against the Palestinians and the imbalance in Israeli and Palestinian casualties. No other nation would have a death sentence served on it for “its” brutalities. We counter that by the positive focus on two state, opposition to Israeli control of Gaza, etc.

Your basic error in your first polemic, as I pointed out, was to conflate the objective question of the meaning and implications of “Right of Return” with how it is understood by its different supporters. As an error in the basic rules of thinking, this is like getting wrong a bit of elementary mental arithmetic: 2+5=1.

In your second polemic, you ignore my criticism. You take the subjective aspect and multiply it in “concrete” examples, most of them senseless. Central to what you say is the belief that the “Right of Return” is reasonable in the perception of young people. You separate yourself from them in words. In fact, however, at one remove, you make yourself, as their champion against the imagined threat of them being unjustly denounced by me as “racists”, a semi-defender of the view you think you reject (the problem of politically-raw young people being shanghaied into positions like “Right of Return” has already been highlighted by, among others, me. For instance, I discuss it in The Left in Disarray).

What are you fighting against here, Daniel? You write a lot of demagogic nonsense to present what I say as intolerable and ineffective abuse of innocent “Right-of-Returners”. In fact, in our real situation, you are arguing against defining “Right of Return” according to its real meaning. I repeat: “We have to say what is. Then, after that, we think of ways of influencing individuals by taking their motives as a starting-point”.

Revolutionary socialists who stand against flaming indignation and thought-numbing enthusiasm, and those who argue with their peers (some of whose feelings and responses they share) that a situation is more complicated than they allow, of course feel their moral pressure. That is on a certain level healthy, and maybe even useful, as pain is useful in telling you that something is wrong somewhere. But when all that is recognised, we have to think things through, deal with ideas, implications, overviews, and not raw feelings. We have to translate issues into rational politics. We have to do that, too, with groups and peoples who are oppressed and whom we support.

Basic here is the question of what AWL is. What is the prime function of a small-ish Marxist group if not honest definitions and efforts to enlighten ourselves and others? What is the point of writing about anything but to tell the truth as you see it? Then you look to honest critics, with their brains switched on properly, to correct you if you make mistakes. Thrashing around in a welter of confused politics is not that: it is the opposite.

I think the core political issue is that you shy away from our conclusion — “two states” — and are pushed into the orbit of those who conclude “destroy Israel”. Either or, Daniel. Either we are right to advocate “two states”, including Israel’s right to exist — this Israel, of which we have so many just criticisms to make. Or the anti-Israel demonologists are. You seem to be pulled in their direction by indignation, justified indignation. But that is political, practical, and moral nonsense. You need to restore political reason to power inside your head.

The remarkable thing is that despite a number of pitches of salesman prospectus, you do not actually spell out your non-sectarian, non-self-righteous alternative. Drawn by the salesman patter, you open the box, and there is nothing there.

Gush Shalom: the foolishness is yours, not mine. We are not in Israel. We do not relate to people who take Israel’s right to exist for granted. The “Right of Return” of Gush Shalom is not the “Right of Return” of the people we encounter on the left. Why would any of us object to a symbolic, or a wide actual, entry of agreed numbers of Palestinians to Israel? We are international socialists, not Israeli nationalists or chauvinists. It is not our business to object, and why for god’s sake would we want to? Whether or not what Gush Shalom proposes makes practical sense; whether in the circumstances calling it “the Right of Return”, when in broad terms that formula delegitimises Israel, makes sense — that is another matter.

The point is, here you are substituting a “harmless” version of the “Right of Return” for the harmful one we have so far been discussing. Again, as with the objective and subjective meanings of “Right of Return”, you muddle separate things together as if they were one. You accuse me of “despair”. I’m the one who wants to fight the “destroy Israel” people, confront them, Daniel! Defining things accurately is part of that. You are the one who looks to an easier future where the moral and political choices we face will be eased. You want to choose the irresponsible duck-out “option”. Oh, we can do it next year — things will be easier then, when there is a big joint Israeli-Palestinian movement for justice to the Palestinians.

In your polemics you solve the problem by pushing them all into the future. “Right of return” can be refuted after the future “development of a substantial movement amongst both Israeli-Jews and Palestinians for a comprehensive policy of equal rights”. Daniel, we have to relate to the world we live in, and which we must assume will exist more or less as it is for a little while longer. “Manana politics” is no politics, or wrong or evasive politics. It is the opposite of Marxist politics.

Lenin nailed that sort of nonsense once and for all with his comment on Karl Kautsky in World War One: “any number of promises to be a Marxist in another epoch, not now, not under present conditions, not in this epoch! Marxism on credit, Marxism in promises, Marxism tomorrow, a petty-bourgeois, opportunist theory — and not only a theory — of blunting contradictions today...”

I think that if we hold our ground we will eventually prevail. Truthful politics will ultimately win the argument. In the old Marxist polemics — in Trotsky for instance — you often find mention of “loyal” and “disloyal” disputants. That means not loyalty to organisations, people, or collections of people, but to honest dealing. You don’t misrepresent your opponent’s positions. You deal honestly with what is said against you and about what is in dispute. You do not evade the substantial issue. You don’t concentrate on what are (or you think are) the weakest arguments against you: you deal with the strongest arguments. You don’t hide facts, ideas, precedents, that are true but might favour your opponent. If you do any of those, you wind up confusing yourself as well as your trusting readers.

You say you almost feared being denounced as “left antisemite” — that I “stop short of straightforwardly accusing [you] of being a left antisemite, but who knows what joys Solidarity 506 may bring?” Who else has any of us unjustly accused of being a left antisemite? The unvoiced thought hovering in the back of what I said was not what you say. It was that you in the piece I replied to (and your new contribution) display the characteristics of a political species much denounced by Trotsky and others: political evasion, inability to form and hold to a clear-cut opinion, inability to separate the objective from the subjective. See for instance Trotsky’s Centrism and the Fourth International (1934).

Daniel, I have known clever but lazy-minded and facile people who drowned in their own superficiality.

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