The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Palestine, Israel and the National Question—and the American Left

Dec 31, 2023

On October 7, Hamas carried out widespread attacks into the parts of Israel bordering on Gaza. Over 1000 people were killed, mostly Israelis, the majority civilians from villages, kibbutzim, or a concert of young people. Others were police or military reservists taken by surprise. Another 240 people were abducted, with most still being held as a stake in negotiations with Israel. Within a few days, Israel began to bombard Gaza, bringing out the many modern machines of war at its disposal, quickly running up a tally of the dead that had gone over 22,000 by the end of December. Almost all those killed in Gaza were civilians, nearly half were children. It is the latest edition of a war between Palestine and Israel that has racked this area of the globe for over 75 years, a war which sometimes simmers, sometime explodes, but has never been completely extinguished. Through all these years, U.S. imperialism has had a direct interest in the wars, paying to keep armaments in Israel’s stockpile, but also to support Israel’s economy and its very existence. Israel has been its chief client state in a very explosive region of the world.

In the U.S., the war in Palestine that resumed on October 7 quickly produced bitter partisan arguments in what, broadly speaking, has been called the “left”: for or against Israel, for or against Palestine, for or against U.S. funding of Israel’s war machine. And this led to a kind of crisis—or at least a mini-crisis—in the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), the largest organization claiming to stand on the left today. Dozens of elected officials from the Democratic Party maintain membership in the DSA. Bernie Sanders, DSA’s best known member, caucuses with the Democrats and is part of their majority in the Senate, even though formally he is an independent. While the majority of DSA members seem to support Palestine, the Democratic Party, of which DSA is supposedly its left or “socialist” wing, is today directly responsible for funding Israel’s war machine.

In an immediate response to the events of October 7, a number of DSA’s local affiliates celebrated the Hamas attacks. The Connecticut chapter, for example, declared: “Yesterday, the Palestinian resistance launched an unprecedented anti-colonial struggle.” Seattle declared: “Liberating colonized land is a real process that requires confrontation by any means necessary.” The NYC chapter organized a demonstration on October 8 in support of the Hamas raid, declaring itself in“solidarity with the Palestinian people and their right to resist.” While the National Committee of DSA was somewhat more prudent—it made its point by omission, calling the events of October 7 a “direct result of Israel’s apartheid regime,” ignoring Hamas’ actions, as well as the deaths resulting from the Hamas attack. Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may have taken a more measured position, denouncing attacks on civilians, no matter who carried them out. But the damage had been done.

Several of the original founding members of DSA cut their ties with the organization, as did other long time members, and at least five, if not more, of the Democratic Party’s elected officials renounced membership in DSA.

The mini-crisis is not so surprising, given the amorphous political views of an organization that criticizes Democratic Party policies, then calls for a vote for Democrats when it comes time for elections. Its roots go back to the Cold War period. With anti-communism rampant, the DSA’s predecessors presented themselves as a “democratic socialist alternative” to communism. Today the DSA prides itself on being a “decentralized,” “multi-tendency” association—it has registered itself with the government as a 501(c)(4) non-profit, i.e., a “social welfare” organization, whose declared aim is to “agitate for reforms that can progressively weaken corporate power, for the benefit of working people.”

Its views on the situation in Palestine/Israel have “evolved” over time, without any explanation of why. In 1969, the founders of DSA’s two predecessors—DSOC and NAM—declared their support for “the social-democratic state of Israel” and for the Labour Party that led Israeli governments for years. Leaders of DSA itself, in its early years (that is, in the 1980s), associated themselves with the “social democratic” Labour Party, and they pointed to the kibbutzim as a modern-day form of social organization that socialists could aspire to.

So how did Israel change from being a “beacon” for socialism and democracy into an “apartheid regime organized around racist oppression of the Palestinians,” which is the way most DSA leaders would characterize Israel today? Was it simply the machinations of the Likud, once it came to power? In fact, DSA doesn’t say.

Like its predecessors, DSA ignored the Zionist aim for years. But the clear meaning of the Zionist project was oppression of the people previously there. In the state established by the Zionists, rights were to be reserved only for Jews. To support Israel meant to accept this. And the Zionists who established their control over Palestine sought backing of the imperialist powers to do that. To support Israel also meant to ignore the role played by imperialism in maintaining Israel’s very existence.

Israel came out of the divide-and-rule policy of the biggest imperialisms. Israel was their pawn—the British and French first, and then the U.S. It could not have come into being as a functioning nation, with a powerful state apparatus, without imperialist financial and political support. That support obviously had its price, the guarantee that Israel would serve as imperialism’s stand-in, policing a Middle East beset ever since World War I by national struggles of different peoples striving to get rid of colonial control and its effects.

The rights of a people to have their own national existence raises problems that run right up against the drive of the big imperialist powers to control the entire globe—with the Middle East one of their particular aims. It was not movements for reform, like DSA, that found the way to overcome the contradictions that seemed to doom national struggles to the dead end that the current situation in Palestine/Israel tragically illustrates. Rather, it was the revolutionary communist movement that discussed and worked through the problems raised by the desire of peoples to have their own national existence. It was that movement that found the way in practice to merge a national struggle with the only one that had the capacity to carry out revolutionary social change, that is, the struggle by the organized working class to overthrow the bourgeoisie and to establish its own power.

Communists and the National Question

In an imperialist country like Britain, France, and especially the United States, revolutionaries have a duty to mark their solidarity with the victims of the great powers.

But solidarity has never been the only issue, nor can it be the basis of policies that provide a route for the oppressed out of the dead end where colonialism and imperialist domination have dumped them. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky left a wealth of material on the subject of national struggles and nationalism. Lenin and Trotsky, particularly, confronted not only imperialist domination, but also numerous national liberation movements.

Within the Second International, Lenin supported the rights of Poles and Jews oppressed in tsarist Russia. But he also fought against the Polish bourgeois nationalists and the Bund, which wanted to organize only Jewish workers. While recognizing the right of nations, Polish, Jewish or otherwise, to self-determination, Lenin viewed recognition of that right as inseparable from the struggle against the nationalists who claimed to represent the whole people, irrespective of class.

Lenin advocated the victory of Morocco over France, for example, or of India over England, of Persia or China over Russia. But Lenin also defended the class struggle of the proletariat in those colonized or semi-colonial countries against local ruling classes and their political representatives, whether they were sultans, warlords or maharajas.

During the Russian Revolution, the young Soviet power recognized the right of self-determination for peoples in what had been the tsarist empire. But its aim, within the framework of a revolutionary transformation of society, was to federate the different nations. And it fought relentlessly for proletarian power against bourgeois nationalists, including Ukrainian, Polish and Georgian.

At its second congress in 1920, the Third (Communist) International debated the national and colonial questions. Its program included the struggle against colonialism and imperialism. But it clarified that struggle as follows:

“Two movements can be discerned, which are growing further and further apart with every day that passes. One of them is the bourgeois-democratic nationalist movement, which pursues the program of political liberation together with the preservation of capitalist order; the other is the struggle of the propertyless for their liberation from all forms of exploitation.

“The first movement tries to control the second, and has often succeeded to some extent. But the Communist International and its adherent parties must fight against any such control, and the development of the class consciousness of the working masses of the colonies must be directed toward the overthrow of foreign capitalism.

“The most important and necessary task is the creation of Communist organizations of peasants and workers in order to lead them to the revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Republic.” (from “Theses and Additions on National and Colonial Questions”)

The same theses stressed the need to combat “the reactionary and medieval influence of the clergy, ... pan-Islamism, pan-Asianism and similar movements.” Lenin’s text added: “The Communist International must support revolutionary movements in the colonial and backward countries only on condition that the elements of the purest Communist parties—and Communists in fact—are grouped together and trained to understand their particular tasks, i.e., their mission to combat the bourgeois-democratic movement.” Wherever they were in a position to do so, including in India and Palestine, communists created communist parties independent of bourgeois nationalist movements.

During the Chinese revolution (1925–1927), after Lenin had died and Trotsky had been ousted from the leadership of the International, Stalin, Zinoviev and Bukharin pushed the young Chinese Communist Party to support the nationalist Kuomintang party and even to merge with it. The rest of the history is well known: Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang seized power, massacred workers and liquidated the Communist militants who had supported it, before exercising a ferocious dictatorship for over twenty years. Trotsky never ceased to denounce this “tailism.” For the 6th Congress of the International in 1928, from his forced exile, he delivered a sweeping critique of the International’s policy:

“The question of the nature and policy of the bourgeoisie is settled by the whole internal class structure of the nation waging the revolutionary struggle, by the historical epoch in which that struggle develops, by the degree of economic, political and military dependence of the national bourgeoisie upon world imperialism as a whole or a particular section of it, and, this is most important, by the degree of class activity of the native proletariat and by the state of its connections with the international revolutionary movement.

“A democratic or national liberation movement may offer the bourgeoisie an opportunity to deepen and broaden its possibilities for exploitation. Independent intervention of the proletariat in the revolutionary arena threatens to deprive the bourgeoisie of the possibility to exploit altogether.” (from The Communist International after Lenin)

Trotsky never wavered from this position. As late as May 1940, in the “Manifesto of the Fourth International on Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution,” he wrote:

“The Fourth International does not draw a watertight partition between backward and advanced countries, and between the democratic and socialist revolutions. It combines them and subordinates them to the worldwide struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors. Just as the only genuinely revolutionary force of our era is the international proletariat, so the only genuine program to liquidate all oppression, social and national, is the program of permanent revolution.”

Many of the organizations that claimed adherence to the program Trotsky had established, including the American SWP, abandoned this policy, tailing after nationalist movements in one or more of the poor countries that were well-known in Western left circles. From the Chinese C.P. to Castro’s Cuba to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Algerian NLF—they were presented in their time as “bearers of socialism.” Workers World developed as an organization that grew up inside the SWP, eventually leaving in 1959. Much of its disagreement centered around its founders’ views that China under Mao Zedong offered a near-perfect model of socialism for the poor countries.

The tailing after nationalist organizations not only denies the bourgeois class nature of those forces, it sees them as a replacement for the role that only the working class can play in social transformation, including in the less developed countries. Therein lies the basis of the confusions about Palestine/Israel expressed in seemingly contradictory ways by Workers World and the Socialist Workers Party.

Hamas, the Palestinian National Struggle and Workers World

Workers World called the “October 7 events at the Supernova rave festival ... the latest phase of the heroic intifada (uprising).” And it presented Hamas as playing a “leading role in the armed resistance against the terrorist Zionist state.... Hamas and other liberation forces have never distinguished themselves from the masses.” This led Workers World to say: “The Palestinian people are now on the front lines of the battle for national liberation and worker emancipation worldwide....” (Workers World, November 23).

To say that Hamas “has never distanced itself from the masses” and to call it a “resistance organization” as Workers World does, is to drain all class meaning from those words.

Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) is a miniature state apparatus, which has controlled and run the Gaza Strip since 2007. After winning the 2006 elections against Fatah, which had been discredited by its compromises with the State of Israel, Hamas routed Fatah in a bloody confrontation. For seventeen years, Hamas exercised a dictatorship over the 2.2 million inhabitants of Gaza, resting on its own state apparatus, with an administration, taxes, a militia, prisons, courts and the rest of the repressive niceties that make up the bourgeois state. Establishing itself on the terrain of bourgeois nationalism, Hamas represents a religious and reactionary version of it.

In its early years, Hamas tried to confine women to domestic tasks, impose the hijab and ban smoking in public. At that early point, it had to back down in the face of resistance. Since then, several spontaneous mobilizations have emerged via social networks. In 2019, during the “We-Want-to-Live” movement, thousands of young people demonstrated against taxes and poverty, only to be violently repressed by Hamas. In the spring of 2021, when the youth of the occupied districts of Jerusalem, the West Bank and the refugee camps rose up, Hamas sought to take advantage of the situation to establish itself as the spokesperson for the Palestinians, the only one that Israeli authorities accepted to negotiate with. However, by firing rockets toward Israel, Hamas sought to show that it was, at the same time, the main combative organization. The State of Israel responded by bombing Gaza. That military confrontation did not weaken Hamas, but it put an end to the youthful revolt. Channeling the revolt of young Palestinians toward military confrontation, Hamas in its own way helped to maintain the bourgeois social order and, ultimately, the imperialist order.

Hamas certainly doesn’t trust the Palestinian masses. In its confrontations with Israel, it never sought to create or rely on a mass movement. Rather it tried to stifle all spontaneous revolt. It acts and makes decisions beyond the control of the Palestinian population, especially the poorest. Its methods are not designed to enable those in revolt to become aware of their strength, to organize themselves, nor to engage themselves in a political apprenticeship. It has built up a militia that is not controlled by the workers, that conducts its policies independently of their interests, and only summons them to support it when it faces repression. The attack of October 7 was launched by Hamas’ military leadership without any control or discussion, imposing its consequences on the Gazans, who have since been paying in their flesh for the Israeli army’s bombardments and massacres.

Hamas leaders obviously anticipated Israel’s bloody response. One of its leaders, Khalil al-Hayya, cynically explained the aim of Hamas on October 7: “What could change the equation was a great act. Without a doubt it was known that the reaction to this great act would be big. We needed to tell people that the Palestine issue must remain on the table. Now no one in the region is experiencing calm.” (New York Times, November 9). Hamas’ leaders consider the people of Gaza to be a mass to be maneuvered.

Will Israel’s response, its horrific bombing campaign, prevent Hamas from doing what it wants to do, that is, weld the Palestinians (including those in the West Bank) behind it, and further widen the bloody gulf established by the State of Israel between the two peoples? It’s obvious that Hamas’ leaders don’t think so. Another main Hamas leader, Ghazi Hamad, interviewed by Beirut’s LCBI television, said crassly, “Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it. We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs.” (Washington Post, November 13, 2023.

To say, as Workers World does, that the Palestinians are now on the “front line of the battle for national liberation and worker emancipation worldwide” means to deny any need for the self-activity of the working class. Workers World would have us believe that “workers emancipation” can be delivered to Palestinian workers by Hamas and other nationalist organizations, replacing the need for the workers to organize consciously their own activity.

Israel Is a Refuge for the Jews—Says the Socialist Workers Party

The Socialist Workers Party took a considerably different view of the events in Gaza since October 7. It views the nearly three month bombing campaign by Israel as a “war aimed at defending Israel’s right to exist as a refuge for Jews and preventing the reactionary Islamist outfit from carrying out more massacres of Jews.” And this brought the SWP to reproach the Biden administration for supposedly calling on Israel to limit its military operations: “Washington demands fewer Israeli air strikes and ground assaults, leading to a cease-fire.... Despite Washington’s claim of solidarity with Israel’s fight to crush Hamas, U.S. imperialism’s goal—like its rivals in Berlin, London and Paris—is not to protect Jews or defend Israel, but to defend its own economic, political and military interests. Defense Secretary Austin’s trip to Israel Dec. 18 was aimed at prodding the government to tamp down its war.... Meanwhile, imperialist governments in Canada, France and the U.K.; bourgeois pacifists; and supporters of Hamas around the world are all calling on Israel to shut down efforts to render Hamas incapable of more assaults and agree to a permanent cease-fire.” (The Militant, January 1, 2024). This article is an implicit demand that the U.S. increase military support to Israel, which in fact it did during the last week in December. Right in the midst of the holidays, when no one pays much attention, the Biden administration transferred another 150 million dollars of military equipment and ammunition.

Revolutionaries certainly recognize the right of Israelis, who today constitute a de facto nation living on the territory of Palestine, to have their own national existence. If they thought about the significance of words, they would not support the slogan that has gained a lot of traction in the American left—“From the River to the Sea.” Implicitly it calls for destruction of the state of Israel. This may not be what many of the demonstrators have in mind. But the Palestinian nationalists who put that slogans forward, are calling for that—explicitly.

So it’s important that people wanting to see the rights of all peoples in the Middle East respected recognize the right of Israelis, too, to have their own national existence.

But to pretend, as the SWP continues to do, even as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza continues, that Israel is simply getting rid of Hamas—this is blatantly cynical and contradicted by what is happening on the ground. What Israel has been carrying out in Gaza is violence aimed at terrorizing the Palestinians living there. This is state-organized terrorism, the indiscriminate killing of children, women, older people—people who had been trying to find protection from bombing which has destroyed most of Gaza. Israel’s state terrorism is not aimed at the leadership of Hamas. Israel’s rulers, who even today are engaging in negotiations with some of Hamas’ leaders, know full well that those leaders have safely stowed themselves elsewhere throughout the Middle East, outside of Gaza, many of them in Qatar. What’s being perpetrated in Gaza today is violence aimed directly at the Palestinian masses.

It is state terrorism, and it is openly supported by U.S. imperialism, which itself over many years used similar state-organized violence to terrorize the different peoples of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Viet Nam, Korea. To pretend, as the SWP does, that the U.S. is not fully supporting Israel is to confuse the rhetoric of U.S. imperialism, when it pretends to be holding Israel back, with actual use of the U.S. might to impose a different policy on Israel. With U.S. money, weapons, military aid, and ammunition continuing to flood in to Israel, the policy Israel is carrying out in Gaza is the U.S. policy.

Of course, imperialism’s goal is not to “protect the Jews,” as the SWP pretends it should be. What does the SWP think imperialism is? A social service agency? No, Israeli policy is fully in keeping with the aims of U.S. imperialism. And the Jewish people, pulled along in the Zionist project, which imperialism supported and funded, have long been used as imperialism’s surrogates in the Middle East, giving the U.S. a key outpost in this strategic region of the world.

If the SWP were to have any real influence in the region, the support it declares to the Israeli government’s war on Gaza would help to drive the Israeli masses back into the arms of the Zionist state. In any case, the SWP turns its back on those Israelis who have long worked to oppose not only this war, but the policies of Israel’s government that led to this war.

A Revolutionary Communist Policy

Israel was founded on the basis of a pro-imperialist Zionist policy, denying Palestinians their rights, driving them off their land by the hundreds of thousands, confining them to camps, turning them into refugees throughout the Middle East. Today, it is crushing them with bombs.

So, yes, revolutionaries want the state of Israel to be destroyed—but in the interests of the peoples in the region, all the peoples—and this requires that the workers fight for power, integrating their struggle with that of the world proletariat to overthrow imperialism.

Communist revolutionaries have always defended the idea of a socialist federation of the peoples of the Middle East, recognizing it as an answer to the current fragmentation of various peoples coming from colonization and its after-effects. This could unite the peoples living today in Israel, in the neighboring states of the former British Mandate (that is, today’s Iraq, Jordan, and the biggest part of Palestine), plus the West Bank and Gaza, and those of the former French Mandate (today’s Syria, Lebanon, and the rest of Palestine).

Successive wars waged by Israel have dispersed Palestinians throughout the region, from Lebanon to Jordan to Syria. In the past, their organized resistance in the Palestinian camps drew them special attention from their class brothers and sisters in the various countries concerned. At the same time this made the various Arab regimes their mortal enemies. Even today, demonstrations in support of the Palestinian people mobilize hundreds of thousands of people in Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Iraq.

Today, a revolutionary communist party if it existed among the Palestinians would take into account the strong national feeling of the working classes, but it would find ways to integrate that desire to revolt against national oppression with the class struggle for the revolutionary transformation of the whole region. In Palestine as elsewhere, the working class and the poor masses have their own interests, which cannot be summed up in the desire to have a national existence. To solve the problems raised by capitalism, including the oppression of various peoples, requires the social change that only the working class can bring about.

Nationalists insist on the unity of the Palestinian people. Communist revolutionaries insist on class contradictions, on what pits the poor Palestinians against the richest among them, and what can unite the poor Palestinians with the proletarians and poor masses of the whole region. Communist revolutionaries want the working classes living in the area of what was once Palestine—Arab, Jewish, etc.—to fight to wrest power from the bourgeoisie and exercise their own class domination.

To equate Hamas with the “legitimate resistance” of an entire people amounts to abdicating all class politics. To support the state of Israel, equating that with a defense of the Israeli people’s right to a national existence—this also amounts to abdicating all class politics in the face of imperialism, which has used Israel as its proxy since the beginning.

Revolutionaries stand shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed in the fight of all the working classes against imperialism and against their own ruling classes.

To note: Lutte Ouvrière, the French Trotskyist organization, recently published an article dealing with some of these same issues, but focused on the positions of two extreme left organizations in France. We have “borrowed” freely from the article because many of the questions circulating in leftist milieus in the two countries are similar. But there are also some notable differences. Otherwise, we would simply have reprinted L.O.’s article. That article, “L’extrême gauche, la question palestinienne et le Hamas,” appears in Lutte de Classe #236, Décembre 2023–Janvier 2024.